RELIGION; Native roots and foreign influence
Japan Fact Sheet

The history of religion in Japan is a long process of mutual influence between religious traditions. In contrast to Europe, where Christianity overwhelmed local pagan traditions, the indigenous religion Shinto has continued as a part of the lives of the people from the earliest days of an organized Japanese state up to modern times.

When Buddhism was introduced to Japan in the 6th century, Shinto and Buddhist beliefs began to interact. This is the defining characteristic of Japanese religion. The most striking example of this interaction is the theory of honji suijaku, in which Shinto kami were seen as the incarnations of Buddhist deities.

Confucianism and Taoism are two other roles in Japanese society over a period of more than 1,000 years. Confucian precepts had a major influence on Japanese ethical and political philosophy in the formative period of the Japanese state (the 6th to 9th centuries), and again in the Edo period (1603–1868). Harder to trace than that of Confucianism, the influence of religious Taoism in Japan can be found in the use of the Chinese calendar and in popular beliefs such as those concerning fortune-telling and auspicious directions.


The word Shinto, which is often translated as “the way of the gods,” is written with two Chinese characters. The first character, which is pronounced kami when used alone, means “god,” “deity,” or “divine power,” and the second character means “way” or “path.” With the introduction of the paddy-field system during the Yayoi period (300 BC–AD 300), the agricultural rituals and festivals that later became part of Shinto began to develop.

Although the word kami can be used to refer to a single god, it is also used as the collective term for the myriad gods which have been the central objects of worship in Japan from as far back as the Yayoi period. The kami are part of all aspects of life and manifest themselves in various forms. There are nature kami that reside in sacred stones, trees, mountains, and other natural phenomena. There are clan kami, called ujigami, which were originally the tutelary deities of specific clans, often being the deified ancestor of the clan. There is the ta no kami, or god of the rice paddies, who is worshipped at rice-planting and harvest festivals. And there are ikigami, who are living human deities. The kami that most resemble gods in the Western sense are the heavenly divinities who reside on the Takamagahara (High Celestial Plain). They are led by Amaterasu Omikami, the goddess worshipped at the Ise Shrine, the central shrine of Shinto.

Partly in response to the arrival of highly structured Buddhist doctrines in Japan in the 6th century, pervasive but previously unorganized native beliefs and rituals were gradually systematized as Shinto. The desire to put the legitimacy of the imperial lineage on a firm mythological and religious foundation led to the compilation of the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters) and the Nihon shoki (Chronicles of Japan), in 712 and 720, respectively. In tracing the imperial line back to the mythical age of the gods, these books tell how the kami Izanagi and Izanami produced the Japanese islands and the central gods Amaterasu Omikami (sun goddess), Tsukuyomi no Mikoto (moon god), and Susanoo no Mikoto (god of storms). The great-great-grandson of Amaterasu Omikami is said to be Emperor Jimmu, the legendary first sovereign of Japan.

The absence of official sacred scriptures in Shinto reflects the religion’s lack of moral commandments. Instead, Shinto emphasizes ritual purity and cleanliness in one’s dealings with the kami.

New Religions

The most conspicuous development in religion in Japan in the 20th century was the spread of a number of new religions. The teachings of these new religions draw on a wide range of previous traditions, including aspects of Shinto, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, folk religion, and shamanism. The founders of new religions are often revered as living deities (ikigami).

One of the attractions of the new religions is said to be the sense of community they give to people who lack the mental and spiritual support historically provided by the extended family, the local community, and the traditional religions.

The dangerous aspects of the strong control that some new religions exercise over their adherents has come under greater scrutiny since the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in March 1995. Killing 12 people and injuring more than a thousand, the attack was carried out by the religious cult Aum Shinrikyo.


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