The majority of Japanese, these days, are not deeply religious. Most, if pressed, might identify as Shinto or Buddhist or both.
Shinto has been in Japan for as long as the Japanese. It is an animist religion, has no founder, no holy book, no place for conversion. It values certain virtues (conforming to the way) and recognises divine spirits, kami, that may reside in animals, trees, mountains, streams. And surely, in a land so prone to earthquakes, landslides, avalanches and tsunami an offering or two to placate the forces of nature could not go astray.
Buddhism arrived in the 6th century AD. Although much richer in intellectual tradition it also stresses the importance of living in the appropriate way. It doesn’t come with an all powerful god that must be obeyed. Since it came to Japan via China it also came with a goodly overlay of Confucianism.
It made for an easy mix and match style of religion which was embraced by the governments of the day. Indeed, a quick rewrite of the descent of the imperial family history and government and religion are melded, obedience to government is obedience to the will of the gods. The rule of the state was referred to as matsurigoto, a word very close to that for religious ritual – matsuri – that was used to refer to both government and worship.
It was during this period of integration in 7th and 8th centuries that the the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu, gained greater prominence and was proclaimed the ancestor of the emperors. The first emperor, you will recall, was named Jimmu, a Buddhist name that would not have been current back in the time of his rule.
The religious calendar was an important part of political practise, observance of appropriate ritual ensured that the kami looked after the people, and that the people obeyed the government. Places of worship were all embracing with regards to Shinto and Buddhism and the kami could be regarded as transformations of the Buddha.
This cosy relationship of religion and state got a bit of a shake when the Christian missionaries arrived. The new religion wasn’t a comfortable fit with the old and was soon outlawed. Buddhism was promoted by the government and gained greater authority for a while.
The Meiji restoration (1868) brought back the emperor and of course his divine descent. The pendulum swung back to Shinto. The government set about separating the two religions, Buddhism was sent back to its temples and Shinto ruled in its shrines.
This is a shrine in Izumi …
Beyond the torii gate, draped with the plaited rope (shimenawa) and strips of white paper in the form of lightning bolts (shime), is the shrine. On the right before that is the fountain (temizuya) …
and the view from there of the shrine partially obscured by abandoned (mis)fortunes.
The Japanese are likely to celebrate the birth of a baby or get married with a ceremony at a Shinto Shrine. Other times they may make a brief observance at the threshold, no need to go in and endure a two hour mass.
When it comes time to depart this earthly realm it is likely to be via the Buddhist Temple. This one is also in Izumi …
and has this beautiful garden. The blossom is already on the trees. It’s mid February – the season is well ahead of the calendar this year.