By Steven Ericson (Steven On The Move)
According to the Government of Japan’s Agency for Culture Affairs 2018 study on religion, 69% of Japanese people practice Shinto, 66.7% practice Buddhism, 1.5% practice Christianity, and 6.2% practice other religions. No, that’s not a typo – the total exceeds 100% because many people in Japan practice Buddhism and Shinto. Additionally, 80% of the population follows Shinto rituals to varying degrees. Unlike the West where religious affiliation is typically connected to a conversion or a profession of faith, Shinto and Buddhism have no such requirement. In Japan, the religions have a long, intertwined history, so, much of the populace follows Shinto and Buddhist traditions.
Brief introduction to Shinto
The origins of Shinto are unclear, as there is no foundational figure nor singular holy text. Elements of Shinto can be traced to the Yayoi Period (300 BC – 300 AD), although scholars debate if those practices can be called Shinto. However, the two texts that helped codify Shinto practices were not published until the 8th century.
Religious scholars debate about how to classify Shinto because it includes ancestor worship, nature worship, and various rituals and practices. Shinto translates into English meaning “the way of the kami,” which are the gods, spirits, and holy powers revered within the religion. Kami can be the ancient deities that created the earth, venerated leaders like Emperor Meiji, or ancestors who are worshipped at home.
Brief introduction to Buddhism
Buddhism originates in the teachings of Indian prince Siddhartha Gautama in ancient India (circa 5th century BC). The religion’s key tenets, known as the Four Noble Truths, focus on overcoming suffering caused by desire, a static self, and ignorance about reality. The two major branches of Buddhism are Theravada, which dominates Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka, and Vajrayana, which is found throughout East Asia.
Buddhism arrived in Japan in the 6th century from Korea. The Baekje king in Korea sent the Japanese emperor a picture of Buddha, who eventually accepted the religion in 587. Several sects were established in Nara, the imperial capital. When the capital moved to Heian (now Kyoto) in 794, more Chinese missionaries arrived to further spread Buddhist teachings. More forms of Buddhism arrived during the Kamakura period (1185-1333), including the popular Zen Buddhism.
Relationship between Buddhism and Shinto
Shortly after the arrival and acceptance of Buddhism in Japan, people sought to reconcile the differing belief systems. The assimilation of Shinto kami into Buddhist practice is known as shinbutsu-shūgō, which translates to “syncretism of kami and buddhas.” During this period, Buddhist temples were built next to Shinto shrines, which gave rise to the current landscape. The blending of these beliefs remained in place until 1868, when the Meiji Restoration led to the establishment of “State Shinto.”
The Kami and Buddhism Separation Order of 1868 legally separated Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples within Japan. During this period, the national government used influence over shrines to promote worship of the emperor as a divine being and to create nationalistic sentiment among the population. The government also sought to diminish the importance of Buddhism, which was viewed as an outside influence that corrupted Japan’s purity, by promoting Shinto practices. Despite the government’s support of Shinto during the Meiji Restoration and afterward, it was never declared the state religion.
In 1945, U.S.-occupying authorities issued the Shinto Directive, which banned government support of shrines and promoted other actions designed to reduce Shinto’s influence. Currently, Shinto and Buddhism enjoy a symbiotic relationship, as people typically participate in Shinto weddings but seek Buddhist funeral rites.
The differences between temples and shrines
Although temples and shrines coexist within the landscape, there are differences between the two structures. First, temples are connected to Buddhism and shrines to Shinto. Secondly, entrances to shrines typically have a large, but simple torii (gate) that is often bright red while temples have a more substantial gate called a mon. Third, temples have guardians called niō, who are muscular and imposing figures, while shrine guardians tend to be dogs (komainu) or foxes (in the case of shrines to Inari), but may be other animals like the white snakes in Iwakuni.
Typically, there are no dress codes to visit temples or shrines, but people are encouraged to dress modestly and converse quietly. Photography is usually permitted at both sites, except inside buildings. Posted signs alert visitors if photography is forbidden in certain areas.
Essentials of visiting a shrine
When walking to the shrine, visitors should walk to the left or right and never in the middle. The middle of the pathway is reserved for the kami. At the purification fountain, visitors should take a ladle with their right hand, pour water over their left, switch hands and pour water over their right, and then cup water in their left hand, rinse their mouth and spit out the water beside the fountain. People should not return any of the water to the fountain or drink directly from the ladle.
At the hall, people toss a coin into the offering box, bow twice, clap twice, bow and silently say a prayer before concluding with a single bow and clapping their hands once. Visitors can also draw an omikuji (fortune), which predicts that person’s luck for the coming year. If it is good, you should keep it with you, but if it predicts a bad year you should tie it a designated place at the shrine.
Essentials of visiting a temple
Some temples like Sensō-ji in Tokyo have large incense burners. Visitors may purchase a large bundle, light them, let them burn for a few seconds, and then extinguish the flame by fanning them with their hands. If you choose to visit the main hall, you should toss a coin into the offering box, bow, and silently say a prayer.
Some temples allow visitors, often for a nominal fee. People may be asked to take off their shoes when walking in buildings. You should place them in the wooden lockers or a plastic bag provided at the temple.