Japanese Religions

Recently, someone made a comment on one of my posts that they were interested in the Orient.  I replied to them that the name of my blog is because I am living in Korea, but that I have lived in eight countries, and actually have a lot more to write than just about Korea even though I write a lot about Korea.  Since they are interested in the Orient and probably several other people are too, I thought I would talk about Japan a bit since that is somewhere I studied at the university and taught at a language school for a while. I also have  Japanese son in law.  I actually thought some time next year, I might visit Japan again because I visit Japan occasionally, and I thought I would do some Japanese blogs then, but since people are expressing interest in the Orient in general, I decided to do some bogs on Japan.  I have been blogging a lot about Christmas lately because Christmas is coming, and I will continue, but this is the first one I will do about Japan.  Just what are the Japanese religions, and what are the basic ideas in them?

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A Buddhist temple

The two main religions in Japan are Shintoism and Buddhism. However, even though the people practice them, they don’t believe them.  They practice them because they are Japanese religions.  They go about the motions of both. They don’t choose.  They dress up in kimonos on New Years and go to the Buddhist temple. They go to the Shinto shrine, pull the chord and summon the gods.  They write prayers on little white papers and tie them on the trees all around the Shinto shrine. They have weddings at the Shinto shrines.  They have basic concepts and ways of thinking handed down from Shintoism and Buddhism in their culture, but they don’t believe in these religions.  They believe in being Japanese.  If it is Japanese, they will do it.

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In each home, there is a god shelf.  The god shelf will have someone’s picture there.  It will also have a place to put rice and tea each day for the person in the picture.  The person is probably a deceased Grandparent or a deceased parent.  If they consider their prayers to that person Buddhist, they will clap their hands loudly three times before they pray to them everyday.  If they want to say a Shinto prayer, they will not clap.  If they don’t pray or put rice and tea there, they think that something bad will happen because they are not taking care of their ancestor, and the ancestor is angry.  They mix the religions so much, it is amazing.  I met a girl in chapel at school once who told me she was a Christian.  She invited me to her home.  I saw a god shelf in her home, and she prayed in front of the god shelf.  I said to her, “I thought you were a Christian.”  She said, “My father was a Christian. I practice Christianity to honor my father.”  Come to find out, her father was a Mormon, but she had no idea about his religion and was attending the church of Christ which is very far from Mormon, but she was trying to honor her deceased father.


Japanese religions really believe in whatever is natural.

Shintoism was actually the original Japanese religion.  When Buddhism came, they didn’t want it.  They sent the Buddhist missionaries away and told them to leave Japan. However, on their way out of Japan, there is a story I vaguely remember.  There was a large golden statue of Buddha they were carrying with them.  They accidentally dropped it into a river.  It was so big, and it just lodged itself in the river, and no one could get it out.  The Japanese took this as a sign that Buddhism was supposed to stay in Japan, and it has been there ever since.

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Osaka castle is where the samurai lived who united all of Japan and then went into Korea trying to unite it also to Japan, but they were unable to conquer Korea.


The code of Bushido that the Samurais practiced actually comes from the Japanese religions.  They were tough guys.  Shintoism and Buddhism teach you to stay as close to nature as possible, and the samurais took it to the hilt.  They didn’t use heaters in winter.  They sat on the floor. The samurais slept on straw, etc. This idea of trying to stay close to nature has continued in Japan and become part of the culture.  The Japanese still sleep on the floor, and they still use straw mats. Their beds are called futons which are big thick mattresses with big thick comforters on top. Not all their rooms have straw mats, but they sleep in the rooms that have straw mats.  The mats on the floors in those rooms are called tatami mats.  The Japanese sleep much more comfortably than the Koreans because the Koreans sleep right down on a concrete floor with linoleum on top of it, but with the straw tatami mats and the futons, the Japanese sleep comfortably. There are richer people in Japan now a days who put those futons up on beds.

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As far as the heat, the Japanese have heaters.  They are not all as tough at the Samurai were, but the idea of no heat still exists in Japan.  They don’t use central heating. They use space heaters and all kinds of other interesting heaters.  They have heaters attached to the bottom of their tables.  They put a big thick blanket over the table, and then put a table topper on the blanket. When you sit at the table, you put your legs under the table, and your lap is warm.  Some tables just sit on the tatami mat floors, and you sit on a zabuton, a big cushion, next to the table with your legs under the big comforter.  However, some tables have a big hole under the table where you can dangle your legs, and in the middle of that hole, there is a heater.  These tables also have a big comforter.  In the winter, the Samurai wore big huge quilted kimonos in winter, and the people still wear these as house coats in the house in winter.

The other heaters the Japanese developed so they didn’t have to break the idea of no central heat was that they attached heaters to their toilets.  They put heating coils inside the toilet seats.  Initially, they always had the squat toilets where they didn’t need a toilet seat, but in the last thirty years or so, those toilets are all being slowly replace in both Japan and Korea and they are opting out for the toilets you sit on like in the west.  However, the Japanese added heating coils to the seats of many of their toilets to make them warmer, and the Koreans also do it to their more expensive toilets.

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Shoes are not allowed in the house in Japan.

The Japanese also have electric heaters on the walls.  In the summer, they are used as air conditioners, and in the winter, you can change them into heaters just by pressing a button. However, since hot air rises, this still keeps the floors cold.  They Japanese don’t wear shoes in the house, so they must wear the house shoes or they would all get frost bite in the winter on their feet.  I actually heard about an American missionary’s wife who went from house to house changing her shoes and ended up getting frost bite on her heels, so she began carrying big fluffy American house shoes with her everywhere that covered her whole foot.

When I was teaching at the language school, once a week for a while, I was sent out to teach English to children in a room attached to the back of a toy store.  It was warm enough in the room, but sometimes, they had me giving cooking lessons, and if we wanted to wash anything, the water was in a sink outside in the court yard.  It was cold outside, and the water in the faucet was cold too.  Running in and out to get cold water, changing my shoes back and forth, and not really putting a coat on each time because I was busy and knew I was coming right back in was downright cold!  The idea of staying as close to nature sometimes is just hard, but it is part of the Japanese culture.

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The fat guy statues you buy in America are not Buddha. They are Buddha’s followers. He had disciples just like Jesus did, and they were those fat guy statues you buy you think are so interesting.  This is actually what Buddha looked like.


When Buddhism came to Japan, they brought ideology too.  In Buddhism, the people are expected to go with the flow. I heard a Japanese teacher trying to explain to an Australian teacher who was sitting next to me how it works.  She said it is like a big board with lots of ruts in it that connect and go in all different directions.  She said if you pour water onto one side of the board and tip it, the water could go anywhere. The water has no resistance. It just goes where gravity takes it.  If you are Buddhist, you just go with the flow. You flow into the places that are easiest.  You don’t fight against anything or anyone.  If it seems the easiest way to go, you go that way.

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Buddha was originally from India.


I also read some literature on Buddhism about Nirvana.  I have also visited with a Buddhist priest here in Korea and read several Word Religions books and Buddhist and Hindu scriptures. Buddhism actually originally came from India. Buddha was a prince from India who was a Hindu priest.  He was so serious about his faith that he gave up being a prince and traveled around like a pauper. He believed in doing no harm.  He believed, as the Japanese teacher was trying to describe, you just don’t fight anyone or anything that happens to you.  Some of the Hindu priests have gone so far that they strain their water to try to get as many microbes out so they wouldn’t hurt anything.  Reaching Nirvana is like becoming one with Brahman in the Hindu religion.  You live several life times.  If you are good enough in one life time, you will come back as a higher form of life or in a higher station of life in the next life. If you are bad in this life, you will come back in the next life to a lower station in life or a lower form of life. You may even come back as one of those microbes, so I am sure that is why those Hindu priests began straining the water. They didn’t want to eat a relative who had come back in another form of life.  The highest form of life and highest station in life is considered to be the priests. If you are a really good priest, then you are finished in the next life with coming back again and again.  If you are a Hindu, you will become one with Brahma or one with the universe. If you are a Buddhist, you will reach Nirvana.

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One of the Hindu and Buddhist principles that has started to influence the whole world is recycling.  We all recognize that recycling is a good idea.  The American Indians always recognized that it was their job to take care of the earth.  In Christianity, people recognize that God put man on the earth as care takers.  In Japan, once a week, in my neighborhood there was a little type of shed that was unlocked, and you were expected to save all your recyclables and put them them in there once a week to be picked up by the city.  Here in Korea, everyone also recycles.  It isn’t mandatory, but if you are a good citizen, you do it.  My son in law saves up all the cardboard boxes, plastic milk jugs, plastic coke bottles, etc.  Once a week, he wakes up early in the morning and takes it all out front of the apartment building where all the recyclables in the building are organized and big trucks are sent from the city to pick them up. No one pays for them to do it. They just do it.  In America, I owned a recycling business for a while, but it made money. Americans don’t volunteer to do it for free.  People brought us empty soda pop cans, beer cans, scrap copper, etc., and we weighed it, payed them for it, and then when our semi truck got full, we took all the stuff and sold it to a larger company for a profit.  If you read earlier in my blogs, I followed my son in law downstairs one morning when he went to do the recycling to show everyone how recycling is done in Korea.

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These religions sound good, but there are some major differences between them and Christianity.  To begin with, in Hinduism, when a girl child is born because they know her life will be hard, they cry because she is a girl, but in Christianity, the birth of a child is always a joyous thing.  We welcome and love all children.  In Buddhism and Hinduism, they have reincarnation, and we are supposed to come back again and again until we can be good enough to become one with the universe.

In Christianity, we are encouraged to be good, but there is forgiveness.  We can be forgiven for the bad things we do and our slate can be wiped clean. We don’t have to climb that ladder alone.  When we have a hard time, Jesus will pick us up and carry us.  In Christianity, we live once, and if our hearts are clean and in the right place, and we have done our best to do the things God wants us to do, then at the end, we can go to Heaven.  The Bible is our guide book, and it tells us what God wants from us in a very plain mode.  If we don’t listen to God, we don’t come back as a bug to try again and get smashed when someone steps on us in Christianity, but we go to live with the devil, the prince of lies, the one who loves evil.  In Christianity, we have a savior who was killed for doing the right thing, but he was stronger than death, and he came back to life after three days, then 40 days later, a group of people saw Jesus ascend into Heaven at the Mount of Olives.  Even history books attest to this.  When Buddha died, he died.  No one has seen him since.  When Mohammed died, he died, No one has seen him since.  Since Jesus raised from the death, that means he has the power to do so, and if we stay stay close to him, he can help us do the same thing.

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As far as Christianity is concerned, it came to Japan a long time ago, but it couldn’t stay.  The problem was that the Portuguese Catholic priests were welcomed into Japan. They got into influential positions in Japan. The people liked them, and they liked Christianity.  However the Portuguese government took advantage of the situation.  The Portuguese government was using these Catholic priests as spies.  They secretly planned on taking over Japan. Japan figured it out and threw all the Portuguese priests out of Japan.  They made war on Christianity.  They put up signs all over Japan saying, “If you see a Christian, kill him!”  There was mass persecution of Christians.  They tied Christians to crosses and put them out in the waves in the ocean waiting for the waves to come and drown them.  They tied the Christians upside down and hung them over a pit of dung slowly lowering them into the pit of dung.  They would say, “Give up Christianity, or you will be buried in the dung.”  They would tell the Christians, “Give Christianity up, or we will kill your children.”  This persecution put a big mark on the Japanese people.  Many in Japan began to hate Christians and Christianity.  They became hardened against it.  Finally, they let the missionaries back in, and there are some churches in Japan now, but they are few and far between.

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In Shintoism, the first Japanese religion, every tree and rock is a god.  The Japanese believed they were descended from the gods. They believed their emperor was a god.  Shintoism taught them they were destined to take over the world.  They bothered all the countries around them always making war on them. They ruled Korea for a long time and made the Koreans hate them, and some of the older people in Korea still remember that time and have a bad attitude toward the Japanese.  When Japan entered Word War 2, they did it thinking it was time for them to take over the world. When the Kamikaze pilots plowed into American air craft carriers killing themselves and everyone on the air craft carrier, they didn’t mind because they thought they were going to be just fine because they were descended from gods and destined to rule the world.  However, they lost World War 2.  When America felt forced to drop big bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese came to a big, necessary conclusion at a terrible, terrible price.  The emperor was not a god, and the were not descended from the gods destined to take over the world.  Everyone regrets Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but they were necessary for the Japanese to understand and change.  The nature of the Japanese people changed after World War 2 because now they know they will not rule the world.  They know they are not descended from gods, and the emperor is not a god.  They have Shinto shrines. They pray at the Shinto shrines, but they don’t believe it.  They do it because it is Japanese, and they believe in Japan and love Japan.

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Buddhism is still in Japan, but most of them don’t believe in it either. Most of them are like atheists.  However, there are small groups that have sprung up in some places in Japan of Buddhists  who have been influenced by Christianity.  They like the idea that the Christians get together every week, read their Bibles, discuss their problems, and try to help one another and do better.  These new Buddhists want to practice Japanese religions, so they keep to Buddhism, but they get together once a week like Christians do.  They have a group meeting where they discuss their problems and get help and encouragement from one another.  They do it because it is now considered Japanese, not because they believe it, but in these groups, some may.

Something that many in the west don’t quite understand about people in the east, Japan and Korea both are Confucius. The society is built on the Confucius model.  Confucianism is not a religion, but a philosophy.  The people in these countries are good children their whole lives because of the Confucius ideology.  They listen to their parents and do what their parents tell them to do. They listen to the older brothers and sisters. They listen to the older students in their schools. They listen to their teachers.  If their parents are of a certain religion, whether they believe that religion or not, they will not stray, but do what their parents did.  If they go to another religion, in Japan, it causes a lot of trouble, and the parents and older brothers and sisters may never talk to them again.  Honoring the older ones, honoring the ancestors, that is what they believe in.  In Japan, they honor the Japanese ways.

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The entrance to a tatami room. They count the size of these room on how many tatami mats are on the floor. You never wear house shoes in tatami rooms to protect the straw in the mats.  You can also see a short table with a zabuton (a cushion) next to it to sit on.


My Japanese son in law is a Christian, but he had a hard time becoming a Christian because he was the first in his family to become a Christian.  He heard and knew it was good, but really struggled because he didn’t want to turn against his family, but he finally figured out that they wouldn’t disown him and accepted Christianity, but before that happened, he was my student and came to my office and talked to me about it a lot. I could see tears in his eyes because he wanted Christianity, but he loved his family.  When they relented, it was one of the best things that ever happened to him.  My Korean son in law was luckier because his dad is a Korean preacher, and he admired his dad and wanted to be just like him.  He doesn’t preach like his dad, but he really believes in what his dad does.

I hope this helps you understand the Japanese society a little bit better.  If you want more articles on Japan, I will write them.

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