Religions of Japan

From Academic Kids

Most Japanese people profess to not believe in any one particular religion. Many people, especially those in younger generations, claim to feel that the religions in Japan are part of the traditional culture. They point to the role that enforced Shinto played in World War II, and more recently to the terrorist attacks of Aum Shinrikyo. However, Shinto and Buddhist teachings are deeply entangled in Japanese everyday life, though the Japanese people themselves may not be aware of it. Generally speaking, it can be difficult for westerners to disentangle "real" Japanese religion from everyday superstition and rituals; most Japanese people do not often give the distinction much thought.

One of the main characteristics of Japanese religiosity is its tendency towards syncretism. The same person may have a wedding at a Christian church and go to a funeral at a Buddhist temple. A Japanese schoolboy might well pray at a Shinto shrine to receive a chocolate for St. Valentine's Day, a Christian holiday. Japanese streets are decorated on Tanabata, Obon, Halloween and Christmas.


Traditional religions

The colossal statue of Vairocana at Todaiji in Nara
The colossal statue of Vairocana at Todaiji in Nara
Missing image
Iwashimizu Hachiman Shinto Shrine, Kyoto Prefecture

While it has been the backbone of the Japanese culture from the ancient times, from the 16th to the 19th century Shintoism flourished, eventually seeking unity under a symbolic imperial rule. Adopted by the leaders of the Meiji Restoration as a "pure" Japanese religion, it received state support, was isolated from Buddhism and radicalized to spur patriotic and nationalistic feelings in the buildup towards World War II. During the war, it was distorted by the military government to focus on emperor-worship and the divine origins of the Japanese people, spreading the belief that emperor Hirohito was a direct descendent of the goddess Amaterasu. Religious fervour contributed to the irrational actions of Japan in the war, motivating kamikaze pilots and leading some government officials to believe that their country was divinely ordained for victory. It should be noted that World War II-era Shinto bears little resemblance to the peaceful and undogmatic form it takes today.

Following World War II, state support was discontinued and the Emperor publicly disavowed divinity. Today Shintoism has reverted to a more peripheral role in the life of the Japanese people. The numerous shrines are visited regularly by local believers and, if they are historically famous or known for natural beauty, by many sightseers. Many marriages are held in the shrines, and children are brought after birth and on certain anniversary dates; special shrine days are celebrated for specific occasions, and numerous festivals are held throughout the year, often drawing huge crowds at the larger shrines. Many homes have "god shelves", where offerings can be made to Shinto deities.

Buddhism first came to Japan in the 6th century and for the next 10 centuries exerted profound influence on its intellectual, artistic, social, and political life. Most funerals are conducted by Buddhist priests, and burial grounds attached to temples are used by both faiths and other faiths not limited to Christianty and Islam are also allowed there.

Confucianism arrived with the first great wave of Chinese influence into Japan between the 6th and 9th centuries. Overshadowed by Buddhism, it survived as an organized philosophy into the late 19th century and remains today as an important influence on Japanese thought and values but is very rarely practised as a religion.

Christianity, first introduced into Japan in 1549, was virtually stamped out a century later survivng only in the secluded area around Nagasaki; it was reintroduced in the late 1800s and has spread slowly. Today it has 1.4 million adherents, which includes a high percentage of important persons in education and public affairs. Several Universities were started by Christians and there is even a Christian university called "International Christian University" established in 1949. Some Japanese confuse Judaism and Christianity, or consider Judaism to be part of Christianity, as the Christians had gotten to Japan first and were better known by the Japanese.

Judaism, meanwhile, is mainly a gaikokujin religion, practiced by Americans and Europeans in two synagogues and several US military bases in Japan. (The USA has been responsible for much of the defense of Japan since the USA defeated Japan in World War II.) The synagogues are in Tokyo and Kobe, and there are about 600 non-military Jews residing in all Japan. [1] (

Islam has been slowly growing as people comes to contact with it through people from Islamic nations or by learning about it through various ways. It is a very small group probably not even in the thousands and have a limited or no social influence yet and unlikely to in the foreseeable future. While believers may be frowned upon at first, generally, their need to pray and observe certain teachings are not hampered and unlikely to turn into a problem.


Missing image
The Nachi Shrine is an ancient site of Shinto worship.

Shintoism is one of Japan's largest religions and is the native religion. It originated in and is almost exclusive to Japan. Shintoism originated in prehistoric times, as a religion with respect for nature and in particular certain sacred sites. These sites may have originally been used to worship the sun, rock formations, trees, and even sounds. Since each of these things was associated with a deity this resulted in a complex polytheistic religion. The deities in Shintoism are known as Kami-sama and Shinto itself means 'the way of the Kami'. Worship of Shinto is done at shrines. Especially important is the act of purification before visiting these shrines.

Shinto has an indigenous religion has no holy book, no founder, and no canon. The Nihongi and Kojiki, however, contain a record of Japanese Mythology.

Shinto began to fall out of fashion after the arrival of Buddhism, but soon, Shinto and Buddhism began to be practised as one religion. On sites of Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples were built, and people began to adhere to both.

Before 1868, there were three main forms of Shinto: Shrine Shinto, the most popular type; Folk (or Popular) Shinto, practised by the peasants; and Imperial Household Shinto, practiced by the imperial family.

But soon, in the 18th and 19th centuries, people began to form independent Shinto sects, which were very radical and some even monotheistic, such as Tenrikyo. These were soon known as the Shinto Sects, or the New Religions.

After the Meiji Revolution in 1868, Shinto and Buddhism were forcefully separated. The Emperor Meiji made Shintoism the official religion, creating a form of Shinto known as State Shinto, which merged Shrine, Folk, and Imperial Household Shinto together. Sect Shinto was seen as radical and separated from Shintoism. Under Meiji, Japan became a moderate theocracy, with shrines being controlled by the government. Shinto soon became a reason for Japanese nationalism. After Japan took over Korea and Taiwan, State Shintoism became the official religion of those countries as well.

During World War II, State Shinto was the only legal religion, and Christians and radical Buddhists were persecuted, as well as Sect Shintoists. However, many people were still adherents of both State Shinto and Buddhism.

When the Americans occupied Japan in 1945, the shrines were taken away from the government, and State Shinto was abolished. Shrine, Folk, and Imperial Shinto became separated. The Sect Shinto distanced itself from mainstream Shinto.

Today, most Japanese adhere to Shrine Shinto, and also to Buddhism.

Japanese Buddhism

The Toshodaiji was an early Buddhist temple in Nara.
The Toshodaiji was an early Buddhist temple in Nara.

Buddhism first arrived to Japan in the sixth century, from the South Korean kingdom of Baekje, where the Korean emperor sent the Japanese emperor a picture of the Buddha and some sutras. Koreans from the kingdom built many Buddhist statues and temples in the capital at Nara, and then at the later capital of Heian (now Kyoto).

Buddhism is divided into two forms, the more orthodox and impersonal Theravada Buddhism, which is prevalent in India and Southeast Asia, and the more personal Mahayana Buddhism, which spread to North India, China, Tibet, and from there went to Korea, where it came to Japan. From the beginning, the largest form of Buddhism in Japan was the Mahayana school.

In the capital of Nara, six Buddhist sects were created. These six are today terribly small and called together "Nara Buddhism". Some were Theravada influenced. These Buddhist schools did terribly well, but when the capital moved to Heian, more forms of Buddhism arrived from China. The two survivors of that day are Shingon, an esoteric form of Buddhism similar to Tibet's Vajrayana (or Tantric) Buddhism, and Tendai, a monastic conservative form known better by its Chinese name of Tiantai. These Buddhist forms converted many Japanese, and temples were built all over Heian. Most Japanese at this time too adhered to both Shinto and Buddhism.

When the shogunate took power in the 1100's, and the administrative capital moved to Kamakura, new forms of Buddhism arrived. The most popular was Zen, known in China as Chan and in Korea as Seon. Zen Buddhism was completely different, and it was the most popular type of Mahayana Buddhism of the time period. Zen split up into two different forms, Rinzai and Soto. Rinzai Zen is the more popular of the two today. Zen Buddhism is today the fourth largest type of Buddhism, but the most popular among Westerners.

Another form of Buddhism arrived in the Kamakura era, known as Jodo-kyo or Pure Land Buddhism. Pure Land Buddhism emphasizes the role of Amida Buddha or the Buddha of the Western Paradise. This school promises that reciting the phrase "Namo Amida Butsu" upon death will result in a person being removed by Amida to the "Western Paradise" or "Pure Land" and from then on to Nirvana . Jodo-kyo attracted the merchant and farmer classes. But after Honen, Jodo-kyo's head missionary in Japan, died, the form split up. Jodo-shu were followers of Honen who said that saying the Nembutsu (an abbreviation for Namo Amida Butsu) many many times would save someone. The more liberal form started by Shinran known as Jodo Shinshu says that saying the phrase once with a pure heart will save you. It has also dropped monastism. Jodo Shinshu is the largest form today.

A more radical form of Buddhism was Nichiren Buddhism, which praised the Lotus Sutra, created by Nichiren, a monk. Nichiren's teaching was often revolutionary, and the shogun distrusted him, especially when he said that the Mongols were to invade Japan. When the shogun heard this, he exiled Nichiren, but it soon became true. Nichiren Buddhism is the second largest form, and split off into Nichiren-shu, Nichiren Sho-shu, a more radical form, and Soka Gakkai, a very radical Nichiren denomination, whose political wing forms the conservative yet buddhist New Komeito Party, Japan's third largest political party.

Shinto and Buddhism were inseperable, and forms of Shinto and Buddhism were formed where the two were merged together. But in 1868, after the Meiji Restoration, Buddhism and Shintoism were separated, but many Japanese still adhered to both.

Today, most Japanese adhere to Nishi Hongwanji-ha Buddhism, a conservative form of Jodo Shin-shu, which was formed in 1580, after Hongwanji, a form of Jodo Shin-shu, split up into two forms - Nishi and Higashi. But most also adhere to other forms, such as Higashi, Zen, Nichiren, and other forms, as well as in Shinto.

Other Religions


Japan's first contacts with the West in the 16th and 17th centuries were with either traders or missionaries. The first form of Christianity which arrived was Roman Catholicism, spread by Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch missionaries, usually Jesuits. Thousands of Japanese converted from Shinto/Buddhism to Catholic Christianity.

On August 15th, 1549, Francisco Xavier (a Catholic Saint), Cosme de Tores (a Jesuit priest), and Father John Fernandez arrived in Kagoshima from Spain with hopes to bring Christianity and Catholicism to Japan. On September 29th, Xavier visited Shimazu Takahisa, the daimyo of Kagoshima, asking for permission to build the first Catholic mission in Japan. The daimyo agreed in hopes of producing a trade relationship with Europe. During his stay in Japan, Xavier ordered all missionaries to study the Japanese language and an early form of Romaji was developed as a result. He also succeeded in baptizing and fully converting 100 people to Catholicism - a surprising feat, seeing that he spoke very little Japanese.

The shogunate and imperial government at first supported the Christian movement and the missionaries, thinking that they would reduce the power of the powerful Buddhist monks, but soon the shogunate saw what the Spanish did in the Philippines and what other colonial powers did elsewhere, such as convert the population and then take power. Christianity threatened to destabilize and overthrow their government until the 17th century, when Christianity was banned and those who refused to abandon their new faith were brutally killed, like Paul Miki. The shogun defeated the Christian daimyos at the battle of Satsuma. European missionaries who did not leave the country were also killed, and they are known to the Catholic Church as martyrs. Many Christians fled to Europe or the Spanish Philippines. Suspected Christians were forced to burn crosses and tread on fumie, something considered sacrilegious for a real Christian. In the next four centuries, Japan remained in a state of complete isolation from the outside world. Dutch traders were limited to the island of Dejima, were forbidden to proselitize and were forced to tread on Christian images. In secluded areas, the hidden Christians (kakure kirishitan) continued to practice a corrupted Catholicism, actually a cult of their Christian ancestors with misremembered Latin and Portuguese prayers. When Meiji modernization allowed freedom of religion, several of these hidden Christians turned to Roman Catholicism while others maintained their traditions.

Missing image
Russian Orthodox church in Hakodate

With the 19th century Meiji Restoration, missionaries were able to return. State Shinto was made the official religion, but Christianity was allowed. In addition to Roman Catholicism being allowed back in, Protestantism and Russian Orthodoxy (from Sakhalin) also came. Protestant missionaries from Britain, other European countries, and especially the United States succeeded in making many conversions.

Denominations included Methodists, Episcopalians/Anglicans, Lutherans, Baptists, Roman Catholics, Russian Orthodox, and even Mormons and Unitarians. The most popular denomination was the Congregationalist Church, under the name Kyōdan (United Church of Christ).

When the military took power in 1931, Christians of all stripes were forced to merge into the United Church of Christ. During World War II, Christians were persecuted due to their perceived association with the American enemy, leading many to flee the country.

In 1945, free religion was allowed. All the former denominations were revived, as was the independent United Church of Christ.

Today, Christianity is adhered to by a million people, or less than 1% of the population. Most people adhere to Shinto and Buddhism. But in the Japanese Diaspora, mostly in America, there are many Japanese Christians. Most Japanese Christians in the United States belong to the United Methodist Church, and other Protestant denominations (and Catholic and Orthodox too). Some churches in America take an active missionary role in converting Japanese in Japan, and America, but even in America, 97% of Japanese Americans adhere to Shinto and Buddhism.

In Japan today, most Christians are Protestant, and most belong to the United Church of Christ, followed by Catholics, and then other Protestant denominations.

Though Japanese Christians make up a small fraction of the population, they tend to be visible beyond their numbers. Its practitioners tend to be more devoted and proselytizing than other religions, and they attract sympathy among many young Japanese who view Western culture in a positive light. Furthermore, Christian organizations tend to give large amounts to charity, and have founded some important educational institutions such as the International Christian University, Kwansei Gakuin University and the Jesuit Sophia University.

Famous Christians

The writer Shusaku Endo was a Catholic and the Finn-born MP Tsurunen Marutei is a Lutheran missionary. Toyohiko Kagawa was a well-known writer and social reformer.

New Religions

Beyond the three traditional religions, many Japanese today are turning to a great variety of popular religious movements normally lumped together under the name "New Religions". These religions draw on the concept of Shinto, Buddhism, and folk superstition and have developed in part to meet the social needs of elements of the population. The officially recognized new religions number in the hundreds, and total membership is reportedly in the tens of millions.

The biggest new religion is Soka Gakkai, a Buddhist sect, founded in 1930. The New Komeito Party party is of this faith. It is both in national and local assemblies and has a huge influence on politics as it is a part of the coalition government at the Diet. Because the Constitution requires separation of religion and state the religion's connection with politics is often criticized.

Many of these new religions actually arose as part of Shintoism, and some still have Shinto in their teachings. Some, not all, of the new religions are also known as Sect Shinto, such as Tenrikyo.

They do not make up much of the population, however. Most people follow Shinto and Buddhism, and these new religions make up a little more than Christianity.

Other new religions include:

See also: Shinshukyode:Japanische Religion es:Religiones del Japón fr:Religion japonaise


Academic Kids Menu

  • Art and Cultures
    • Art (
    • Architecture (
    • Cultures (
    • Music (
    • Musical Instruments (
  • Biographies (
  • Clipart (
  • Geography (
    • Countries of the World (
    • Maps (
    • Flags (
    • Continents (
  • History (
    • Ancient Civilizations (
    • Industrial Revolution (
    • Middle Ages (
    • Prehistory (
    • Renaissance (
    • Timelines (
    • United States (
    • Wars (
    • World History (
  • Human Body (
  • Mathematics (
  • Reference (
  • Science (
    • Animals (
    • Aviation (
    • Dinosaurs (
    • Earth (
    • Inventions (
    • Physical Science (
    • Plants (
    • Scientists (
  • Social Studies (
    • Anthropology (
    • Economics (
    • Government (
    • Religion (
    • Holidays (
  • Space and Astronomy
    • Solar System (
    • Planets (
  • Sports (
  • Timelines (
  • Weather (
  • US States (


  • Home Page (
  • Contact Us (

  • Clip Art (
Personal tools