Japanese culture has long held a fascination for the people of the west. Situated to the east of the Asian continent, its name arrived to us through a convolution of etymology, coming to us through the Portuguese and Dutch traders of the Age of Sail, who learnt of it as they peddled their wares in the port of Malacca.
The Malays there acquired the word from the Chinese, where it denoted “sunrise,” or literally “the origin of the sun.” These are the characters that are used to represent Japan to this day and the reason it is known as the Land of the Rising Sun.
With a history as twisting and maze-like as the route it took to arrive into English, there is much that many people in the West remain in the dark regarding this country of the sunrise, so let us shed a little light on the pre-dawn shadows by looking at a domain that has held sway over the human heart for time immemorial: religion.
From Distant India through China: the Teachings of Gautama
If Western societies can said to be Christian and those of the Middle East and equatorial Asia Muslim, then the casual observer might look at the solemn, austere temples of Japan, name it “Buddhist,” and call it a day. However, religion is rich in categories and variety: just as Christianity has its Catholics and Protestants, and Islam its Sunnis and Shiites, so does Buddhism have its own divisions.
The Buddhists of Japan differ as much from the students of the Dalai Lama or the orange-robed monks of Thailand as a practitioner of Santeria might from an Anglican taking tea and cakes with the local deacon. In contrast with Theravada (“School of the Elders”) Buddhism, popular in Southeast Asia, the Japanese primarily practice Mahayana (“Great Vehicle”) Buddhism.
[table],Mahayana (Japan China etc.),Theravada (Burma Thailand etc.)
Vegetarianism,Highly encouraged,Not required
The Buddha,Many,Only one (Siddhartha Gautama)
Purpose of Enlightenment,The liberation of all thinking beings,Self-liberation (only you can liberate yourself)
Rituals,Elaborate and varying hugely between sects,Not emphasized
Between Death and Rebirth,Various stages and realms,Not detailed
The opulence and complexity of Mahayana Buddhism, particularly the sect-heavy version practiced in Japan, have contributed to Japan’s rich and diverse assortment of temples. A well-informed viewer will be able to identify not only the associated sect of a temple by looking at the details of its architecture but also the sect of a monk or nun by looking at their vestment and accessories.
On a note, though the way to address a Japanese Buddhist monk varies not only by denomination but also by the monk’s position, a presiding monk, also known as an abbot in English, will be perfectly happy if you call him “jushoku-san.”
The Land of Eight Million Gods
To complicate things further, even if we take into consideration the specific flavor of Buddhism found in Japan, we face another uniquely Japanese element in the form of Shinto (The Gods’-Way). Shinto is the original animistic belief system of Japan, in which all of life was revered as sacred and nature was seen to be all but brimming over with gods. If you’ve watched Studio Ghibli’s “Spirited Away,” you can appreciate what an incredible host of deities are present in Shinto.
Because of this, the word “kami,” which means “god,” doesn’t carry the same impact in Japanese as it might in English, and is best thought of as a small “g” god, often of spiritual significance between a guardian spirit and a Greek god of yore. One phrase in Japanese, “yaoyorozu no kami,” literally means “the eight million gods,” though the number is used less literally and more figuratively, meaning simply “a great many.”
- The gods of myth: the creator deities Izanagi (He-who-Invites) and Izanami (She-who-Invites), the sun goddess Amaterasu (Shining-in-Heaven), the moon god Tsukiyomi (Moon-Reader)
- The Seven Gods of Good Fortune: Hotei (the fat, jolly happy monk), Jurojin and Fukuroku (grey-bearded gods of long life, the latter with a bald, domed head), Benzaiten (the lone goddess), Daikokuten (with his famous hammer), Bishamonten (fierce, red-faced warrior), and Ebisu (the only completely Japanese of the seven, a god of fishing)
- Embodiments of abstract nature: Ryujin, (a water dragon god), Fuujin, (god of wind, who carries the storm in a sack on his back), Raijin (partner to Fuujin, who beats out the thunder on his drums)
Various spirits, demons, monsters, ghosts, and apparitions might also be considered kami in the loosest sense of the word, as they are supernatural beings whose actions inspire awe.
For much of its history, Japan was called the “kami no kuni,” or land of the gods, with the emperor at the center and innumerable deities throughout the land, invisible to the eye but residing in places of power. The Japanese emperor himself was considered a living god by the Japanese people, during both periods when the imperial household held real power and periods they were little more than figureheads.
Emperors give their name to the era in which they rule, and Hirohito, known posthumously as Showa in Japan, was no exception. However, Hirohito was required to disavow his divinity as part of the Japanese surrender, and the imperial family now simply stands as symbols of Japan, though some rabble-rousing ultra-right wing parties cry out to have the emperor returned to his place among the gods.
A Uniquely-Japanese Blend
Shinto and Buddhism could hardly have existed together for countless centuries without coming into contact, and for most of the time that the two have shared a country they have been practiced together syncretically. Come the Meiji era in the 1800s, modernist government proclamations declared that the two were to be separated, but even in the modern era there are grounds that house both temples and shrines, and the line between where a Buddha ends and a Shinto kami begins may not be as clear as the bureaucrats of the 19th century may have wished.
The Japanese are not seen as a religious people, nor do they consider themselves so, as polls have found the consistently ranking highest in the world for atheism. However, the blend of Shinto and Buddhism that characterized the Japan spirit permeates the everyday down its very roots: from talismans bought at shrines and offerings at street-side stone buddhas to the grand spectacle of a Shinto wedding and somber procession of a Buddhist funeral. Religion and spirituality are so tightly and closely interwoven into the fabric of Japanese culture that the lines disappear, leaving us with a seamless, and harmonious, whole.