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Western eyes blind to spirituality in Japan

Historic shifts have left population practicing elements of many different faiths

by Hiroshi Matsubara

First of two parts

Mitsuru Ichinohe, a 53-year-old minister at Aisen Church in Tokyo, felt deep sadness when he saw the reaction of the Japanese public to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.

News photoPeople pray for health and happiness on New Year’s Day, 2001, at Meiji Jingu Shrine in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo.

While he felt that many people across the world offered prayers for the victims, it appeared as though the Japanese knew neither how to pray or whether they should pray for the victims or for world peace.

“The idea that they could offer help to the victims through praying never seemed to have come up in the mind of the Japanese,” said the Presbyterian minister, whose church is in Chiyoda Ward.

To his Christian eyes, people in Japan seem to have forgotten how to pray for the general good, including for world peace. Possibly, he said, this is because they have long avoided closely examining their own religious beliefs.

Ichinohe, a former cram and prep school teacher, converted to Christianity in 1998 after a series of hardships, including his father’s death and losing his jobs.

The forms of assistance discussed in Japan for survivors of the terrorist attacks were basically materialistic, he said, which helped the country unconditionally support the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan.

“It seems Japanese have associated themselves with traditional religions without understanding the definition of God, the relationship between God and people and specific disciplines and moral standards accompanied by religious faiths,” he said.

“Without having such systematic thoughts in connection with one’s religion, what they call ‘religious faith’ is only expressed by superficial practices, and people only make a wish when they are in trouble.”

According to a 2000 survey by the Yomiuri Shimbun, 76.6 percent of the Japanese polled said they do not believe in a specific religion. The first of similar surveys by the major newspaper in 1952 showed that 64.7 percent of respondents said they believed in a specific religion.

The survey also showed that only 30.7 percent of the 1,928 respondents said they believe that religion plays an important role in their pursuit of happiness.

Japan is widely considered a highly secular nation, and this reputation appears to have arrived in tandem with its postwar economic-oriented image.

A tool of the state

Hiromi Shimada, a religious scholar, said these surveys reflect public distrust in Japan’s traditional religions of Shinto and Buddhism, which jointly claim nearly 95 percent of the country’s population as followers.

Shimada noted that the religions long ago lost their appeal as institutions of spirituality.

“Traditional religions here had secularized themselves to secure their places in society, and political authorities used them as tools to consolidate their rule,” the former professor at Japan Women’s University said.

In fact, under the Tokugawa shogunate, during the Edo Period (1600-1868), every household had to register at a local Buddhist temple, which functioned as a shogunate outpost.

The policy was first aimed at eradicating Christianity, which was showing signs of spreading in the early 17th century.

Throughout the Edo Period, temples continued to play administrative roles, including keeping records of births and deaths.

After the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the new government of Emperor Meiji wanted the country to feel as though it was returning to the legendary Age of the Gods — a period believed to date back more than 2,500 years — and Shinto became the state religion.

Unlike other religions that have a defined deity and a specific doctrine for daily life, Shinto largely comprises myths of the origin of the country and various rituals developed over the course of history.

The myths imply that emperors were direct descendants of ancient gods. State Shinto, whose doctrines were taught in schools, reinforced Japanese nationalism and the nation’s imperialistic nature and military buildup until the end of World War II.

“Traditional religions have functioned as tools for political authorities to maintain social order,” Shimada said. “This left some people with grave nihilism or distrust in existing religious groups. They became indifferent and unable to identify themselves with a specific denomination of Buddhism or Shinto.”

But Shimada emphasized that such sentiments do not necessarily mean Japanese are unreligious or disrespectful of religions.

The Yomiuri survey showed that 52.7 percent of respondents wished they could turn to God or Buddha for help.

Some 74.3 percent said they usually visit their families’ graves to offer prayers for their ancestors during the summer Bon holidays and on other occasions, while 49.5 percent said they regularly pray in front of Buddhist or Shinto alters at home.

Fashionable weddings

Today, the most popular religious event of the year comes on New Year’s Day, when 70 percent of the population visits a shrine to offer “saisen,” monetary donations, and pray for good fortune throughout the new year.

But many of the same people visit a temple on New Year’s Eve to allow the temple’s bell — which is sounded 108 times — dispel the 108 human desires and passions that Buddhists believe plague the lives of humans. While there, they also offer donations to the temple.

And just a week before New Year’s Eve, many people celebrate Christmas and exchange gifts.

One week Christian, the next Buddhist and a day later Shintoist. To some, it appears as though these ancient celebrations have become nothing more than events on the calendar — and that temples and shrines use the holidays as occasions to collect money.

The trend for Japanese to think of religion as something of a facade can also be seen in the large numbers of young couples who get married in churches — even though they are not Christian.

According to a survey by Xeksi, a wedding information magazine, 70.2 percent of the 400 married couples responding to a survey held Christian-style weddings last year. Another 17.8 percent obeyed Shinto rituals, 11.1 percent did away with religious ceremonies completely and none were married at Buddhist temples.

The increasing dominance of Christian-style weddings has been conspicuous in a country where Christians account for just 0.8 percent of the population. Christian churches numbered 6,500 in 1998 nationwide, far less than the 80,000 shrines and 75,000 Buddhist temples.

Xeksi began its survey in 1994; that first one showed that 56.6 percent of the 400 couples who responded held Christian-style ceremonies, some 36.6 percent clung to Shinto traditions and 1.4 percent came together in the Buddhist manner.

“The trend (of couples opting for Christian-style weddings) began in the 1980s, when celebrities in Japan began doing so,” said Chihiro Oshima, chief editor of the magazine. “It is purely a fashion statement based mainly on brides’ fascination with Western-style weddings.”

In July, Katsuki Ito, a 26-year-old architecture intern from Tokyo, and his wife, Mami, joined the hundreds of thousands of couples in Japan who have promised each other a lifetime commitment in front of the Holy Cross.

“I didn’t have any desire to have a ceremony of any kind, but my wife had a strong wish to wear a white wedding dress, make a promise at a chapel and all that,” he said. “To me, the wedding wasn’t anything religious.”

Changing with the times

This mixing of religious rites is somewhat traditional in Japan.

As early as the Nara Period (710-794), Shinto and Buddhism began incorporating their doctrines in order to coexist.

Despite the Meiji government’s policy of separating Shinto and Buddhism, to reinforce the Shinto-based divinity of the emperor, it is still common to see shrines with temples in their compounds and vice versa.

Toshimaro Ama, a professor of history of Japanese thought at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo, does not believe that the people’s unwillingness to adhere to a specific religion, or what could be seen as unprincipled attitudes in engaging in a variety of apparent religious practices, symbolizes disrespect for religion or the spiritual world.

He figured the characteristics of indigenous faiths cannot be explained from the viewpoint of Western religions, such as Christianity and Islam, which were founded by specific individuals and have written doctrines and rigid organizational structures similar to those of corporations.

“Religious faiths in Japan more likely stemmed naturally from people’s interest in the spiritual world and nature, and have unconsciously been inherited through the generations by incorporating the essence of various religious and other thoughts,” he said. “But it should not be concluded that such religious faiths are merely superstitious or that they lack any deeper thoughts.”

As an example of an unconscious association with an essence of Buddhism, Ama pointed out a common Japanese view that human relationships — indeed all social connections — are based on “en,” a concept similar to destiny, which is beyond human control. In Buddhism, en refers to indirect and imperceptible causes that bring about all consequences — including those that bind human relationships.

But Ama nonetheless believes that the country’s religious faiths are suffering due to Japan’s drastic modernization and postwar fracturing of local communities.

He said that partly due to feudal policies, past religious faiths functioned to maintain social unity and the order of local communities or households.

“What we see today are only remnants of past religious traditions, such as the shrine visit on New Year’s Day and Buddhist-style funerals,” he said. “And the general public, as well as intellectuals and priests here, have gradually lost their deeper understanding of religious faiths and practices, which are important parts of Japanese culture.”

He added that this tendency was reinforced with the reintroduction in the 19th Century of Western religions and the Western definition of religion, which led people to regard their indigenous faith as something less sophisticated.

Ama said the diminishing respect for traditional religions left people with anxiety or a sense of loss of tradition and identity.

He believes that tendency has indirectly contributed to Japan’s postwar economic success.

“I think that Japanese have increasingly and actively engaged in the pursuit of material success to partly fill the deepening void,” he said.