Q: What are the basic aspects of the different religions in Japan, and how does religion apply to the lives of Japanese nowadays?
A： This is a complex question with a complex answer. To begin, the major religions in Japan are Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan, and Buddhism, which came to Japan via Korea from China and originally India. Both have a variety of sects and schools that have evolved over the centuries. There are also small populations of people practicing Christianity and other Judeo-Christian religions, Hindu, and other indigenous belief systems such as the Ryukyuan religion in Okinawa. In general, religion in Japan consists of interwoven religious and cultural practices. Shinto and Buddhism exist side by side, and many Japanese practice both. Japanese religious practices, such as visiting shrines (Shinto) or temples (Buddhist), are sometimes viewed as cultural rather than religious, and incorporating practices from other religions, such as holding marriages in churches (a secular practice, known as “white wedding”), is not seen as contradictory or problematic.
Shinto practices are often associated with life cycle events such as births, birthdays or marriage. Shinto is an animistic belief system deeply rooted in nature, purification and the worship of worldly kami (spirits living in people, animals, and nature), with little concern for dogma or the afterlife. In contrast, Buddhist practices are often connected with the afterlife, such as funerals and death day anniversaries. Buddhism in Japan, having a long history that reaches back not only through time but through the many countries and cultures it passed through on its way from India to Japan, has a more complex system of gods, deities, texts and doctrine. Zen Buddhism, a school of Mahayana Buddhism known for its practice of zazen meditation, is said to have originated in China with the Indian monk Bodhidharma (Daruma), a significant figure in Japanese culture, art and philosophy, both religious and secular.
Both Buddhist-based holidays and Shinto-based matsuri (festivals) have become largely secular in nature. Each region and community has its own set of matsuri which follow local traditions. The two main holidays of the year are New Year’s Day, a Shinto celebration, and Obon, a Buddhist festival honoring the annual return of the ancestors to their families. During the New Year’s holiday, families gather together, and events include the first shrine visit of the year, hatsumode, and the preparation of special foods, osechi. During Obon, in mid-August or July, also a time for the family to gather together, family Buddhist altars are cleaned and set up with bon, spirit altars, to welcome back the ancestors, and events include dancing and prayer offerings at Buddhist temples.
The pockets of Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Hinduism in Japan today are largely made up of people who have come to Japan in recent centuries. Although Christianity, brought to Japan by missionaries in the 16th century, was prohibited in the early 17th century and the missionaries banished from the country, small communities of Christian Japanese, known as Kirishitan, managed to survive secretly for centuries, and reemerged during the Meiji era, when new laws regarding religious freedom came into effect. Hinduism came to Japan mainly through Indian textile merchants in the mid-19th century following the opening of Japan’s ports, as did Judaism through Jewish merchants. The majority of Muslims came during the 20th century.
In the past century or so a number of new religions (collectively referred to as New Religions) have cropped up； however, these remain largely in the minority.