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Japanese Buddhism is hard to define

Today most Japanese do not regard themselves as religious, but most follow cultural practices that originate with Buddhism and Shinto. Japanese Buddhism focusses largely on keeping the traditions of one’s ancestors. For many Japanese people their active involvement in Buddhism only involves following traditions such as daily honouring their ancestors at the family shrine (a majority of homes have one of these) and participating in funerals when family members die. Usually most of the regular work relating to these traditions is done by one member who represents the family, often the oldest brother or his wife.

When I talked with Japanese friends and missionary colleagues in Japan about Buddhism, it quickly became obvious that while Buddhism is a major religion in Japan, most Japanese people can’t articulate exactly what they believe. I learned that the influences on their worldview come not just from Buddhism, but also from Confucianism and Shintoism, and teasing out the difference between these three is nearly impossible.

However, learning a little about the influence of Buddhism on Japan is helpful as we think about how to pray for this land.

The traditional date for the introduction of Buddhism to Japan from the mainland is 552 AD.When it arrived, Shintoism and animism were already ingrained in Japan, but “Buddhism tends to gather indigenous religions under its broad umbrella. Thus, it dominates and integrates local belief structures, but does not dislodge nor destroy them” (from here).

Buddhism, as an organized religion, was promoted by the Japanese authorities to stamp out Christianity during the Edo period of national seclusion (1639-1854). Families were forced to register with the local temple to prove that they had no affiliation with Christianity. To be a patriotic Japanese person became inherently linked with being Buddhist. To be a Christian was a betrayal of the nation, a crime that was punishable by death. The majority of the uneducated masses meekly complied with the rules to stay out of trouble.

This passage from Daughters of the Samurai (a well-researched historical novel by Janice P. Nimura, 2015) illustrates how restrictive Japanese society was when its borders were opened in the 19thcentury:

‘Our historians bid us to obey the maxims, to follow in the footsteps of our ancestors, to change nothing in them,’ a senior official in Edo told Henry Heusken, secretary to the new American consulate. ‘If you do this, you will prosper, if you change anything, you will fall into decay. This is so strong that if your ancestors bid you to go by a roundabout way to go to a certain spot, even though you discover a route which goes directly there, you may not follow it. You must always follow the path of your ancestors.’

Almost a century and a half later, Japan enjoys full religious freedom, but there are still many traces of this adherence to the ways of the ancestors amongst the Japanese. Active involvement in Buddhism has waxed and waned over the centuries, but even today, there is a strong sense that to be Japanese is to participate in Buddhist traditions.

Though few even understand what Buddhism teaches, Buddhist thought backed up by Confucian philosophy and Shinto animism, permeates the psyche of most Japanese whether they are conscious of it or not.

By an OMF missionary

  1. Dale Saunders, Buddhism in Japan(Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1964), 91.

Will you pray for Japan?

  • Pray that Japanese people searching for meaning or fulfillment would find hope in Christ.
  • Pray for Japanese Christians, that they would have great discernment in living their lives in a land permeated by a worldview so influenced by Buddhism.
  • Pray for missionaries, that they would know how best to present the gospel to those they come in contact with.

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