Japanese religion

May 11, 2009

Japanese Religion

I had a very interesting talk with a missionary by the name of Dan recently. I visited him in Osaka, and I’m thinking of working with him after my time here in rural Kagawa is done. We stayed up late one night talking about Japanese religious beliefs, and I’m going to try to record here what he told me. I don’t yet agree with everything he said, but I also don’t know enough to disagree, because I’ve only been here a short time.

Shin-average Japanese

Before I get into what Dan spoke of, let me write for you a brief summary of some things about Japan that every missionary knows. If you walk up to a Japanese and say “what religion are you?” he will give you a weird look because you’re a foreigner. Then he’ll give you a weird look for asking, because, duh, all Japanese are Buddhist. Then he’ll respond by saying that he’s Buddhist. What he means is that he’s Japanese, therefore Buddhist. He knows nothing about Buddhist teachings and does not attend any kind of regular Buddhist gathering. He probably does some Buddhist rituals two or three times a year and will have a Buddhist funeral.

However, this average Japanese man (Let’s call him “Kimura Shin”) also prays at Shinto shines a few times a year and maybe had a Shinto wedding. He may also have had a “Christian” wedding, but that’s a cultural topic for another essay. Anyways, Shinto is a native religion to Japan that is animistic (meaning that spirits in nature are a big part of it). It has virtually no teachings of any kind. It is just a series of rituals like praying at the shrine. About 90-95% (that was Dan’s statistic) of all Japanese go to a Shinto shrine within a week of New Years to do their little incense/clapping/prayer thing. During the summer Obon holiday (more of a Buddhist flair), about 80-85% (Dan, again) will go to their hometown and pray to their deceased ancestor. Many Japanese have a Butsudon in their home, which is a shrine to an ancestor.

Through the years, Shinto and Buddhism have become so similar in Japan that often Japanese will get confused which is which. You often will run into Japanese who are fairly unfamiliar with the word “Shinto,” because generally it’s called something like “the religion you do at shrines,” versus the temple-religion, which is Buddhism. Shinto is so amorphous and so deeply ingrained in the Japanese psyche that many barely even know the word for it. It’s just that religious thing you do. This also has a lot to do with the fact that most Japanese, at a practical level, are very non-religious.

Now, every once and a while you’ll run into an exception to the average “Buddhist/Shinto” Japanese. Sokka Gakkai International, SGI, is a big one. It’s a relatively new religion sometimes called a cult. It’s extremely evangelistic, and most Japanese are pretty weirded-out by SGIs. They’re like the Jehovah’s Witnesses of Japanese Buddhism. Speaking of which, you also might run into Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons here, and they wouldn’t say they’re Buddhist, and you also might run into a communist or atheist, which also would not claim to be Buddhist. And if you’re really lucky, you might run into a real, born-again Christian, but she might say she’s a Buddhist out of fear. It’s OK; God’s working on her heart. However, for the most part, Joe-average Japanese (or rather, Shin-average Japanese) will say he’s a Buddhist but really mean he’s a “normal Japanese.”

A Little Deeper

That basic stuff is pretty obvious and probably few people who know the culture would disagree with most of what I’ve just said. Well, except for the parts that I’ve just gotten wrong because of my inexperience. Anyways, let me get into some stuff that might be slightly less agreed upon, though probably still in the “pretty-obvious” category.

You decide to go a little deeper with Kimura-san. You talk about why he believes his mixture of Buddhism and Shinto. He doesn’t really know why. He’s never actually thought that deeply about it. But he’s Japanese, so that’s his religion. He’s never thought about what happens after death (at least, that he’s willing to admit), and he’s never really reasoned through his religion, probably because it doesn’t affect his life in the day-to-day. There’s no dietary restrictions, no moral codes, nothing that he really follows as a “Buddhist.” He spends most of his time at work every day, so he doesn’t have much drive to think about those kinds of deep questions. In a sense, he doesn’t care, because it doesn’t matter in his company life, family life, or any other practical way. But Kimura-san, don’t you care about truth? Not particularly.

Kimura-san tells you about how no one in Japan really believes in the Shinto shrines or anything about Buddhism. Well, there are a few people throughout Japan who do, but probably not more than a percent or two of the population. He goes on to tell you that it’s all just a part of the Japanese culture, that it’s all custom, and no one really believes it. Sometimes, even the priests don’t believe it; that’s just their job.

If you know anything about Japanese culture, by which I mean the real Japan, not the electronics, anime, and shrines, but the hearts of the people, then you’ve heard of the separation between the inside and the outside. In Japan, it is not only accepted that your inner heart and outer self are different, but that’s how it should be. If you’re a mature adult, then you won’t let things like what you really think get in the way of social harmony. Social harmony is what’s important. It must be preserved at all costs. That is what it is to be Japanese. In a business meeting, even if you are totally opposed to a decision, you will agree in the end to preserve face. You’ll keep feeling opposed on the inside, but the important thing is that the outer harmony is preserved, whether or not it is a reflection of people’s inner feelings. Welcome to the complexity of Japanese culture and why most Westerners (like me) don’t understand it.

Enter the religious arena. In Japan, you’re supposed to follow the Japanese religious rituals, so you do. Even though your heart is not in them, even though you don’t believe in them, to be Japanese, you practice the religious rituals every now and again: praying (which takes about 15 seconds), burning incense, putting a pricey family alter to your dead parents in your house… you don’t believe any of it, but you do it. That’s what religion is like in Japan, and everyone knows it, but they love their culture, so they keep it going.

Truth and Practice

From here on out, I’m recapping my conversation with Dan, so I’m not sure how true some of this is and I’m not educated enough to agree or disagree with it.

Internal disbelief with external ritual seems to be the heart of Japanese religion. This, of course, presents problems to Christians. Let’s make up a Christian. We’ll call her Yamashita Mikiko (it’s gotta be a woman, because most Christians are in Japan). If she goes to her uncle Yamashita’s Buddhist funeral and does not pray to her dead uncle like everyone else at the funeral is doing, she will disrupt the social harmony. Why not just bow her head and look like she’s praying (or better yet, pray to God, even though she’s facing her uncle’s ashes) so as to preserve the social harmony? After all, the nail that sticks up gets pounded down. Her other options are to greatly disrespect the whole family by not going at all or to greatly disrespect the family by going and not praying to the uncle. Since no one believes it, why not look like she’s praying? They’ll know that it’s not because she believes in such a thing. She’s just being Japanese and doing something that she doesn’t believe inside.

Christianity is presented as truth claims that have some bearing on our daily lives (Jesus died for you; love one another). However, that is in an entirely different realm of thought from rituals. Praying to her uncle’s ashes to preserve social harmony has nothing to do with if Mikiko-san really believes in Jesus or not. Her heart isn’t in the pagan ritual, and she doesn’t believe it, so she thinks it’s OK. It’s because the holism of Christianity hasn’t gripped her. It hasn’t gripped her that she really has to give up these old rituals, that it’s a sin to pray to the ancestors, even if everyone else is doing it, even if in her heart she is addressing God and not the dead.

It’s hard being a Christian in Japan. It’s hard being one of the few people in the culture who actually respects their faith enough to even consider disrupting the harmony over it. You look like a freak, because what religion could possibly be worth more than the fabric of society?

I learned that there are two major groups of dissenters against Shinto and Buddhism, especially in the government. These two groups don’t pray at shrines. Neither of them are Christians. They are SGIs (that newish religion I mentioned) and communists. When Christians are more likely to pray to idols than communists, revival is needed.

The intertwining of Japanese society and the shrine

So, Dan was in a room full of Japanese and asked them to start naming religions. Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, communism… but even though there were many people in the room, not one named Shinto. Not one! Why?

Why is Shinto not a religion? Well, according to those Japanese, instead of a religion, Shinto is “a way of pleasing the gods.” What? Isn’t that what a religion is? Apparently, not in the Japanese mindset. A religion has more to do with rules and with human interactions (hence why communism is a religion). Shinto doesn’t really cover either. Mostly, it’s just a set of rituals.

Let’s talk about some more of these rituals. Dan has done a lot of research on the subject, so he had some great info for me. Apparently, they sell charms at shrines. It’s how they make their money. They have charms for every life occasion: births, graduations, entrance exams, you name it, they probably have it. And if they don’t, they’ll make it for you… for a price. Speaking of price, not only do they have a wide variety of charms, they have them in various potencies. You can get your college entrance exam charm for $10, $50, $100, or even ask for a private blessing from the priest (inquire for details). You can get your car excorcized to make sure you don’t get engine trouble or have an accident (maybe a private blessing is worth the investment on that one). Apparently, the “safe-birth” charm is a popular one. Imagine being taken to the shrine with your pregnant wife and mother-in-law to buy a safe-birth charm. Are you really going to skimp and get the $10 one with her mother sitting right next to you?

Japanese Buddhism invented a great way for raising money, a genius idea. It’s almost as good as indulgences. They’re called “death names.” When you die, the priest gives you a death name. The more money you pay (or maybe the relatives pay?), the better name you get, and it’s supposed to help you out in the next life. Do you really want to skimp and get the death name “Smells funny” when for another $1,000 you can get the name “Eternally blessed?”

Shrines and temples also do some great fund raising when they want a new building. Like American universities (and sometimes churches), they’ll put your name on the building if you give enough money. They have these big stone slabs with names out front for those who donate. Some temples list the amount you donated, and some don’t, but since they did their advertising, with prices, in the whole neighborhood (for instance, six-foot slab costs $5,000), everyone knows how much you gave either way. And so will everyone in the neighborhood for the next century. What a great scheme! Even beats death names! No wonder all the buildings at Cal Poly SLO (my old Alma Mater) are named after people.

Sometimes, you will even see the city council name on these buildings. Wait, isn’t there a separation of church and state in the post-war Japanese constitution? Of course, but as long as no one sues, the city council will illegally donate to shrines and temples to their heart’s content. Many don’t get caught. After all, all Japanese are Buddhists, so why would anyone sue? In addition, they have these neighborhood associations. You won’t get formally evicted if you don’t pay the dues, but all your neighbors will hate you, and there are other consequences. For all intents and purposes, you have to pay these dues. However, often, a part of this money goes to support the local shrine. In other words, you have to pay money to support your local shine in some areas. In America, I think that separation of church and state has gone overboard, but in Japan, we need it a bit more.

Dan’s idea

So, here’s where I get to Dan’s idea. I still don’t know what I think about this. Over the course of his life, Shin will end up paying a lot of money to shrines and temples in various ways. Some, like charms and blessings, he will pay completely voluntarily (as opposed to neighborhood fees). So, if Shin is going to pay $1,000 to get his business blessed by the local shrine on opening day, does he believe in Shinto? He will deny it. It’s just a part of the culture. However, $1,000 is a lot of money.

In Japan, the inside and the outside are different. What I’ve always thought is that the outside is an observance of the rituals, while the inside is disbelief. However, what Dan thinks is that the outside is an observance of the rituals while saying that you disbelieve. Inside, at a deep level, Japanese believe in some fashion in their religions. In other words, Japanese are rational and well-educated people, so saying that you disbelieve is just another part of the accepted outside. However, the inside is that people believe, and they’re never allowed to talk to anyone about that (that’s how inner feelings work in Japan). No matter how well-educated they are, they cannot escape the spiritual reality and bondage of their old religious systems in their hearts, whatever the outside says. Why else would you pay so much money to these religious institutions?

Now, when I say that they believe in these religions, Shinto and Buddhism, I don’t mean it in the same way as Westerners believe in a religion. Shinto has no real teachings and few truth claims. “Jesus rose from the dead” is a truth claim in Christianity. Shinto has none like that. Implicit and unspoken in its system are a few truth claims, like, “There really is a god in this rock, and he has the power for your good or harm.” However, no one tries to rationally determine if there is really a god in the rock. They just do the rituals. So when I speak of belief in Japanese religions, it’s not a conscious, truth-oriented belief. It’s more of a superstition: without rationally considering it, people believe that the gods or the ancestors really can do something.

I don’t know what is true about this, if Japanese really believe or not at a deep, unspoken level. That’s the nature of something unspoken.

Blame it all on Kukai

I really want to do some more research on this, but Dan blames everything on Kukai, also known as Kobo-Daishi, a very famous Buddhist teacher who lived 774-835 AD. This guy was born just down the road from me in Zentsuji (45 minutes by car). During those years, Buddhism and Shinto were in conflict because they were logically incompatible. So, Kukai came up with a solution: throw out logic. He came up with the idea that they both belong to “different realms of truth,” so, even if they are contradictory, they just seem that way, but it all works out in the end. Thus began post-modern thought in Japan, before the rest of the world even made it to modernism. In the end, the Buddhists got to control the sad occasions (like funerals), and the Shinto priests got to control the happy occasions (like weddings).

The ramifications for today are that Japanese are raised in a system of double-think. They can look at two contradictory truth claims and hold them both at the same time and be quite all right. 2+2=5 is no problem for Japanese if it’s a religious concept. This makes the spread of the Christian gospel really hard, because Christianity is based on truth and historicity (that Jesus REALLY DID live and rise from the dead). When it’s relegated to this realm of religious thought that doesn’t need to be true in the same way as, say, whether or not Nobunaga Oda unified Japan, it makes it hard for anyone to come to Christ. And when they do, it’s hard for them to make sacrifices to follow Him. Social harmony is far more important than truth here. So, even if everyone hates one another, you put on a happy face and act like you don’t so that your business can rise to the top of the corporate ladder. Or so that the neighbors don’t know how dysfunctional your family is.

I think this whole inner-outer dynamic is one reason for the high suicide rate in Japan: people just weren’t meant to be different on the inside and outside and bear that struggle all their lives with no one to open up to. Japanese people are very patient, but sometimes they explode. If you’ve been annoying or offending someone for a while and don’t pick up on their subtle hints to change, they may explode in anger, yell at you for half an hour, then completely sever their relationship with you. They may also just end the relationship without saying a word. Since foreigners don’t know how to pick up social cues in Japan, this is especially dangerous for us. They stop returning your calls, never want to meet up again, and suddenly, mysteriously, drop out of your life. That’s because they aren’t supposed to talk about problems, just hold them in. Like dry ice in a bottle, the inner cannot be held in forever. This dynamic is beautiful on one hand (the patience), but dangerous on the other (the non-handling of conflict).


I believe that Dan is onto something with all this, and I want to research it more. However, an important question as I ponder this is: What bearing does this have on the missionary?

First, we must understand the Japanese culture well. Many missionaries get so worked up in ministry that they have trouble really understanding the heart of Japan. We must be learners, even after we have been here for a couple decades. There is always something more to understand about Japan. And even though it can be tempting to write off the study of Japanese religions as pointless (since no one believes them), they have affected and colored the social fabric of Japan to such a degree that we must understand them in their daily practice. This is probably different than the books about them and their actual teachings.

Second, we need to powerfully teach the whole counsel of the scriptures. Japanese believers need to know how abhorrent idol worship is to God, whether or not they “really believe” in the idols. I think that this is a motivator to teach expositionally through books of the Bible, because the forbidding of idol worship is in so many places in the Bible, that teaching through the Bible will keep us from dodging that subject, if we do it well.

Third, we must teach people to follow Jesus with all their hearts, not just to believe in Him. Following is in some ways simpler and definitely harder, especially to the Japanese. In this way, Christ can repair the Japanese wound of the separation of the inner and outer. Christianity should bring these two together to produce a holistic healing.

My thoughts about this are still preliminary, and I’m unsure about a lot of what Dan said. I really want my Japanese to get better so that I can go to shrines and see and understand these rituals for myself to research the truth. However, these are my thoughts, at least for now.

By | 2013-12-03T23:16:36+00:00 May 25th, 2009|Uncategorized|4 Comments


  1. Alex Robinson May 28, 2009 at 12:30 am

    I really appreciated this post. Though I already had an understanding about these things, I never really took it as far as dan did. Naturally, being here steadily for only eight months now, I am far too inexperienced as well to say whether it is all true or not. But it makes alot of sense. Conviction underneath doubt underneath external action. I understood the layers of the Japanese, but I didn’t imagine that there could be a layer deeper.

    Hmmm… I need to think about this a bit more. My time is usually quite full with ministry and learning the language as quickly as possible. But I fully agree that Japan cannot be a casual ministry. It is a lifetime of learning and patiently, loveingly ministering to the complex and intricate nature of the Japanese heart. I thank you for writing this. Please continue to write. Rarely do I have the opportunity to truly exchange words about the ministry here.

    God bless you in your time with Him and His ministry through you.

  2. fobwithsars June 3, 2009 at 1:32 am

    ganbatte kudasai.

  3. Danielle June 3, 2009 at 4:07 am

    LOVED this post, Joey! Super interesting, thanks for sharing. I was nodding a lot during the first two sections, I remember those things from being there 🙂

  4. Joshua June 6, 2009 at 12:27 pm

    Thanks for the very informative post – makes a whole lot of sense to me.

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