Why did I choose this title?
My long term
in Japan alongside studying
led to my curiosity about Japanese religion. I realised that
and been passionate about the
culture for so long I did not know much about this subject area.
I was under the impression that few modern Japanese are religious, so
as to whether this was true.
Once I discovered that Japan is
in that traditionally citizens
follow two religions, one of which (Shinto) is not found anywhere else in
the world, I became very
to explore the relevance of religion in
Japanese culture. I was especially motivated when I discovered just
how different their religion is compared with western religion.
Why did I choose this title?
During the summer I went on a trip to Japan for four weeks to study.
Throughout my stay I was able to experience
atmosphere in Japan. There are many beautiful shrines and temples which
are well respected and looked after. I even visited them with Japanese
friends who taught me shrine etiquette.
But I noticed that the number of people who are actively religious seemed
quite low. I saw many elderly frequent the shrines but
The young people I made friends with often said that as a child they would
often pray at shrines but since growing this has changed.
I also noticed that despite the fact that many aspects of culture in Japan
come from religion, such as festivals, they are treated more like
than religious celebrations.
1. My extended project aims to explore the impact of
religion on Japanese culture today by exploring its
involvement in key aspects of cultural history and
2. I aimed to provide direction to my project by focusing
on a select number of cultural aspects.
3. For each aspect of culture I aimed to explore the
connotations, links and involvement with religion in as
much depth and detail as possible and link this to their
respective role in the formation of society today.
My original title stated ‘To what extent is religion
relevant in Japan?’ which was extensively broad
and concerned a vast range of topics which could
be discussed. I felt that taking on such a general
question would be too much to take on, so I
decided to slightly alter the title to ‘To what extent
is religion relevant in Japanese culture?’ which is
Initially I planned to tackle four main topics: Imperial
Family, Samurai, Matsuri and Japanese Virtues. After
planning each section I realised that in order to discuss
each topic area in depth I would not be able to stay within
the word limit and therefore have to brush over each topic
too briefly. I decided to incorporate the content of
‘Japanese Virtues’ into the other topic areas since they are
so closely connected. For example Japanese Virtues such
as duty, perseverance and loyalty which are embedded in
Japanese psychology have clear routes in the Samurai
ethical code of Bushido. And the Japanese fussiness over
hygiene and cleanliness have strong routes in Shinto and
When I began to investigate my subject I discovered some
Shintoism, a nature based religion, has no God and no sacred
texts. It is inherently Japanese and full of mythology. Shinto
teaches that there are ‘kami’ (Gods or spirits) which inhabit this
Earth in the form of concepts and ideas such as a kami of the
mountain. Believers establish shrines in every settlement to
thank the kami for the use of their land, and provide offerings.
In the 6th century Buddhism was introduced from the mainland,
and since then it has worked in harmony with Shintoism, even
complementing it. Japanese citizens normally class themselves
as both Shinto and Buddhist.
Christians have been persecuted in Japan for a very long
time by the clan leaders and feudal lords and foreigners
were expelled during the isolation period.
Until the Meiji restoration where a government was
established, Japan was ruled by different clans with their
clan leaders (Shoguns) at the top. Feudal lords (Daimyo)
ruled different areas of Japan and the samurai were
aristocratic warriors who served them. The emperor was
the figurehead of Japan but the real power lay in the
Japanese culture is highly different from Western. They are a
community based culture who honour their families and groups
and adjust their behaviour depending on somebody else’s
status. In the West people are brought up to be self-sufficient,
self assertive and independent – to have their voice heard above
a crowd. This is not the case in Japan, citizens can not disrupt
the harmony of their community.
Japanese religion does not really dictate rules and objective
laws. It focuses more on peace, duty, loyalty, harmony,
cleanliness and hard work in order to formulate a peaceful and
efficient community. It is group-oriented unlike Christianity which
is focused on the individual and expects followers to obey God
above their family.
Key FindiNgS: ImperiaL
In Shinto mythology the Imperial family is seen to be of direct descent
from Amaterasu Omikami – the great sun goddess. The Emperor is
also seen as an arahitogami – a living god. It’s said that the great
deities Izanagi and Izanami gave birth to Japan but the Japanese
people were warring with each other so their daughter Amaterasu
Omikami sent her grandson Ninigi to become the first emperor and
In Feudal Japan, although the shoguns held the real power they were
descended from royalty and often strategically married into royal family.
Key FindiNgS: ImperiaL
Prince Shotoku, emperor during the Yamato Period (300538) was hugely inspired by the Buddhist and Confucian
ways of China and they became the underlining principles
of his government. He was a huge promoter of Buddhism in
Japan before it was popularised and founded many of the
first Buddhist temples.
Another influential emperor was Emperor Shomu who ruled
in the Nara Period (710-794) who named Buddhist clergy
as guardians of the state.
Key FindiNgS: SamuRai
In 660 BC Jimmu Tenno became head of a confederation of
warlike clans and was known as ‘The Divine Warrior’. His
samurai descendants also believed they were divine.
In the Kamakura Period(1185-1333) all real political power went
to the Samurai. The Kamakura military leadership particularly
welcomed the Zen sect. They supported the activities of Zen
monks and sponsored the establishment of many Zen
temples. Its emphasis on discipline, self-reliant effort and
focusing the mind was particularly appealing to the samurai.
Key FindiNgS: SamuRai
The pure land concept of impermanence (life is short) was especially
relevant to Samurai of whom many die young. Pure Land monks taught
that followers would be able to escape nirvana and enter paradise after
death. Two of the most prominent monks, Honen and Ippen, were of
samurai descent themselves. Monks would often accompany samurai
into battle to guide and pray to them.
The underlying Samurai ethical doctrine and code of conduct is
Bushido (born from the Way of the Horse and Bow) . It has strong
Shinto origins and was adopted as the ruling moral code for Shinto.
Bushido is comprised of seven virtues: Morality(義), Courage(勇),
Benevolence,(仁) Respect(仁), Honesty(誠), Honor(名誉) and Loyalty(
忠義) which are embedded in society today.
Key FindiNgS: FeStivalS
While festivals based on nature and life such as setsubun (coming of
the seasons) and shichi-go-san are Shinto based while festivals based
on ancestral worship and death are dealt with by Buddhism such as
obon week. Citizens pray at shrines and temples for good luck. Shinto
festivals are unique in that they are the only time when kami leave the
Families are meant to come together and it is tradition that one prays at
three different shrines or temples for luck in the coming year. On the
day of the new year the Emperor performs the Shinto shihohai rite
where he prays for the wellbeing of the nation.