The two main religions in Japan are Shinto, the native religion based around nature and multiple gods, and Buddhism, imported from India through Korea and China.
The native religion of Japan is Shinto, and the word ‘Shinto’ means ‘way of the gods’. There are many kami (gods) and they often take the form of things close to life and nature such as trees, mountains, rivers, wind, rain, and fertility. People also become kami after they die and are worshipped as ancestral gods by their relatives.
In Shinto, people are believed to be essentially good. Therefore, the evil people do is caused by evil spirits. As a result, the purpose of most Shinto rituals is to keep away evil spirits by prayer, purification, and offerings to the kami.
Shinto is deeply rooted in the history of the Japanese. During the Meiji Period (1868-1912), Shinto was officially recognized as state religion but after World War II the state and the Shinto religion were officially separated.
Visiting a Shinto Shrine (jinja)
Shinto shrines are the homes of kami and therefore places 0f worship. Shrines are visited during special yearly events such as ‘oshogatsu’ (New Year’s holiday) and festivals. People also visit shrines to pay respect to kami and pray for good fortune.
Throughout the year there are countless festivals held all over Japan to celebrate such events as the coming farming season, the harvest or important local historical events. Some festivals are small, local festivals while others are huge and attract people from all over Japan.
How should you behave when visiting a shrine?
Not much different than visiting a church or cathedral, visitors are expected to behave respectfully and to dress appropriately. Near the shrines entrance you will find a purification fountain. Pick up the ladle lying over the small well, fill it with the water provided, and rinse both hands. Then transfer some water into your cupped hand, rinse your mouth and spit the water beside the fountain. You are not supposed to drink the water directly from the ladle. Many people however only wash their hands or simple do not perform this purification ritual.
At the offering hall, throw a coin (any amount will do) into the offering box, bow deeply twice, clap your hands twice, bow deeply once more and pray for a few seconds. If there is some type of gong, use it before praying in order to ‘wake up’ the gods.
Visitors are usually allowed to take pictures at shrines, but watch for signs banning photography. Sacred objects representing the kami are stored in the inner chamber of the shrine where they cannot be seen except on very special occasions.
In the 6th Century, Buddhism made its way into Japan through Korea and China. Unlike Shintoism, Buddhism has a founder, Gautama Siddhartha, and the religion is based his teachings. At first, there were some conflicts between Buddhism and Shintoism, but eventually the followers of both religions learned to live together in relative harmony.
Throughout history Buddhism gained political influence; during the 8th Century, it was this influence that prompted the move of Japan‘s capital from Nara to Kyoto (to escape the overbearing Buddhist political influence in the former capital.)
The first branch of Buddhism introduced to Japan was Mahayana Buddhism but this was soon followed by other sects of Buddhism from China such as the Tendai sect (805 AD), the Shingon sect (806 AD) and the Zen sect (1195 AD). Other popular sects like Jodo (1175 AD), Jodo-Shinshu (1224 AD) and Nichiren (1253) developed in Japan as well.
Today in Japan about 90 million people consider themselves Buddhist but religion does not strongly affect people’s everyday life, except on certain occasions like funerals.
Visiting a Buddhist Temple (otera)
As with Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples are places of worship and visitors should behave respectfully and dress appropriately. Every town in Japan has a temple. Some cities like Kyoto have thousands of temples.
Visitors can show their respect at the temple by throwing a coin (any amount will do) into the offering box in front of the main hall and then quietly saying a short prayer. When entering temple buildings, as a sign of respect you may be required to take off your shoes. Leave your shores on the shelves at the entrance or take them with your in plastic bags provided by some temples.
At some temples, visitors burn incense in large burners. The smoke from the incense burners is believed to have healing power or to make you more intelligent.
Temple shops display sacred Buddhist objects which you can purchase. Photography is usually permitted on the temple grounds. It is not allowed indoors at some temples.