On the surface, the religious makeup of Japan is relatively simple. Buddhism and Shinto dominate; tiny communities of other faiths exist here and there. The reality is more complicated. For one thing, at least until the Meiji Restoration, the boundary between Buddhism and Shinto was, at best, blurry. In many locales, the two creeds merged into a syncretic cult, at times with shamanistic influences — think of Shugendo, with its mountain-worship and mummified monks.

In the late 18th century, a new type of divinity was added to the lot: Yonaoshi gods, “world-renewing” deities with the power to improve the material life of a community. The first person to achieve that status was Sano Masakoto (1757-84), a samurai who killed the scion of a corrupt and powerful Edo (now Tokyo) family. When the news broke, the city’s rabble was thrown into a tizzy, but even better tidings lay ahead: After Masakoto was forced by the authorities to disembowel himself, the price of rice almost immediately dropped. Few believed this was a mere coincidence and so Masakoto was declared a yonaoshi god for saving “the oppressed from their predicament.”

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