Religious Japan

What does Japan get right? A lot. I mean, I’m a Japanophile, so I would say that. But it’s true, and one thing I’ve noted as being ideal is the Japanese treatment of religion, and the role that religion plays in Japanese life.

This is not a deep analysis of the history of religion in Japan, or a breakdown of the dominant religious beliefs, it’s simply an observation of daily life.

There are countries which are theological tyrannies, and by contrast there are those in which religion is being recast as a singularly villainous influence, to be endlessly mocked, and purged, and both types of society are missing the point.

The former are misaligned more egregiously, for sure. They’re certainly more immediately perilous for their citizens. But the latter is a slow-burner, collapsing itself gradually as it throws out both baby and bathwater.

Somewhere in the middle, as with all things, there is a centre path, and Japan appears to have hit upon it.

The major religions in Japan are Buddhism and Shinto, the native belief system. You will find temples (Buddhist) and shrines (Shinto) everywhere you go, sometimes on neighbouring plots, and sometimes even combined.

It’s not so uncommon that I encounter Christians here, and there is no shortage of churches, in Tokyo at least, but Christianity has only a minor influence. Other religions are present in very small numbers.

Nicolai-do
Nicolai-do. Russian Orthodox near Tokyo’s Ochanomizu Station.

What is striking, though, is a kind of picking and choosing from Buddhism, Shinto, and, to a lesser extent, Christianity.

After a baby is born, they are taken to the Shinto shrine for a ceremonial blessing. There are further rites at ages three, five, and seven (depending on whether it’s a boy or a girl).

People will visit shrines to pray, often for very specific things. Perhaps to pass a university entrance exam, or to find a good job.

Traditionally, when one gets married, the ceremony takes place in a Shinto shrine. This option is still popular, but gets a run for its money from Christian style ceremonies. I say Christian style because they are usually in a fabricated approximation of a chapel, so I’m not sure to what extent they actually are Christian, but nonetheless, they go through the motions.

Christmas is celebrated. By shopping mainly, it’s true, but the churches light up for midnight mass. And then it’s swiftly back to Shinto for the new year, as pine branches and paper twists–Shinto decorations–go up to mark the occasion.

If you live near a Buddhist temple, then at midnight on New Year’s Eve you will hear its bell ring. But when I lived across the road from a major shrine, I fell asleep in the early hours of New Year’s Day to traditional Japanese music coming amplified from its grounds, and woke in the morning to the same music still playing.

Koho_Shoda-No_Series-Temple_Bell-00042771-101214-F12
Koho Shoda. Temple Bell.

It’s customary to visit a shrine at the beginning of January. Or is it a temple? Some people told me it doesn’t matter, either is fine.

And at the far end of your coil, when someone dies, they will be given a Buddhist funeral, with their remains placed in a Buddhist cemetery.

This mixing and matching is indicative of a peaceful co-existence between religious systems.

To get back to the concept of balance, what I see in Japan around religion is that elusive conservative ideal: to preserve and revere what is good, and pay less attention to that which proves cumbersome.

And so religion is present and sacred. The temple is hushed and austere. The shrine hosts festivals and celebrations, and is at times more playful, but will be bowed to and respected, and turned to humbly and hopefully for favour or protection.

Customs and rites are observed. Life is marked out.

But at the same time, there is no sense of imposition. There are no threats. You can talk about religion if you like, but no-one will force you to. You can say that you believe, or that you don’t, and no-one will mind.

Crucially, you can make jokes about it all, and that’s ok too. But what’s interesting is that the jokes won’t spill over into cruelty or bitterness or passive aggression, because there is no need for them to do so. After all, it would be strange to feel cruel, bitter or aggressive toward something that does you no harm. Something you can opt in to or out of. Something that, if you do turn your attention to it, feels distinctly necessary, even as it excludes any necessity to be hailed as such.

I’m not sure everyone would agree, but I sense a mystical edge to religious thought in Japan, and mysticism can both make and take a joke. In fact, delve into the mystic, and you might start finding every aspect of existence hilarious.

One thing I can’t imagine taking hold here is the variety of atheism that clashes stridently with Christianity in Britain. It would seem anachronistic, overly-serious, off course.

It would be an unbalancing of the scales, when they are currently, almost without effort, so well positioned.

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