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Religious confusion in Japan

When you think of Buddhism, what do you think of? It probably depends on which part of the world you are in or from and even which country or region. To get a better understanding of Japanese people’s thoughts about religion, I have been asking my friends and acquaintances in Japan, “What is Buddhism?”

At the English Language café where I help, students have to introduce themselves by including something about their country and religion. The other day three Japanese students introduced themselves:

One said, “I don’t have a religion.”

And the second, “My home is bukkyo (a Buddhist household)”. I asked her what that meant. She said, “I go to the temple at New Year and maybe when I want to pray for something, such as success in study.”

The third student said, “My household is Shinto.”

I asked them about the difference between Shinto and Buddhism. They proceeded to debate amongst themselves, with one talking uncertainly about washing yourself before entering the temple, whilst the other one corrected her saying that you wash at the shrine, not the temple. Between them they did not seem to be able to fully agree on what was done at a Buddhist temple and what was done at a Shinto shrine.

The short exchange above reflects quite a few of the answers I received from those I asked. Most said that Japanese people do not really have a religion, but if they did, their family would be a Shinto household or Buddhist household, or sometimes even both. However, sometimes they would mention one and it would turn out that they actually meant the other.

I’ve discovered that it can be easy to confuse the two because you sometimes see a building labelled as a temple and yet behind the sign is a simple gate with two vertical pillars connected on top by two horizontal bars—a Shinto gate (tori).

One reason for this confusion dates back to a time when Buddhism and Shintoism were combined, as I discovered during a recent visit to Nikko. The Nikko national park hosts one of Japan’s world heritages sites containing a Buddhist temple and two shrines within 50.8 hectares. All three used to be united, combining Buddhism and Shintoism, until after 1868 when the new government issued a Separation Order in which all institutions had to belong either to Shintoism or Buddhism.

Whatever the reason, it is clear is that many Japanese do not think of themselves as religious. Even when they do say that they are either from a Shinto or Buddhist household, they are not really certain of exactly what Buddhism (or Shintoism) is and have often not really thought about it. Rather they seem to just do the rituals accordingly because it is their family custom.

If they have not thought much about their own beliefs, how much harder it is when introducing the Christian gospel to them!

But it is good for us to consider whether there are things that we also do as a tradition or custom but are not aware of the origin or reason for it. May we all reflect on these things and truly question what their true meaning is and hence be guided to search for and find the true meaning of life—true life that is found only in Christ.

By Margaret, an OMF missionary

Will you pray for Japan?

  • Pray that missionaries would have wisdom in introducing the gospel to Japanese people.
  • Pray that we would be humble in considering our own traditions and customs.
  • Pray that Japanese and missionary alike would be guided towards Christ in whom is found the true meaning of life.

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