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When it comes to religion, Japan is a diverse country where you can find a variety of religious beliefs that vary from region to region. From Shinto to some of the world’s largest religions that came to Japan from other countries, many religious beliefs coexist in harmony on this island nation.
Throughout history, these religions have had a significant influence on the way people think, live, and make decisions in their lives. What are the major or minor religions in Japan? How are they different and what percentage of the Japanese population believes in them? Here are some of the different religions in Japan!
Shinto (神道), is the oldest continuous religion originating in Japan. There are various theories among historians about the first appearance of Shinto in Japanese history. Some believe that the history of Shinto dates back to the Jomon Period, which spans from 13,000 B.C. C. until 300 a.
Back then, the ancient Japanese believed in the existence of gods in everything from living things to nature, including forests, rivers, and oceans. This religious belief is called “animism,” which is deeply associated with the fundamental tenets of Shinto.
Unlike other major religions that have a key central figure, such as Jesus Christ in Christianity and Muhammad in Islam, Shinto has no particular deity to worship.
In Shinto, it is believed that there are more than 8 million gods that appear in all facets of daily life. Shinto also has no consistent written scriptures or doctrines, like the Bible in Christianity or the Qur’an in Islam.
Shinto practitioners in Japan are estimated to make up around 80% of the total population. This means that Shinto has around 80 million followers across Japan, making it one of the largest religious beliefs in the country, along with Buddhism.
The most common way for the Japanese to practice Shinto is to visit Shinto shrines to pray to the gods on special occasions such as festivals and New Year’s Day. On the other hand, many Japanese do not consider themselves religious and have a flexible attitude towards different types of religious beliefs. Let’s discover other types of religious beliefs in Japan and find out why the Japanese call themselves “non-religious.”
Buddhism has been an integral part of Japanese culture and society since ancient times. It was imported from China around the 6th century via the Korean peninsula. At first, there were political conflicts between powerful clans that were concerned about the influence of Buddhism in Japanese society. Some people accepted and supported Buddhism as a new religious faith, while others strongly opposed it.
However, after political disputes were put aside, Buddhism immediately began to spread throughout the country, along with the establishment of Buddhist temples. It was during the Heian period (794 – 1192) that Buddhism officially became the national religion of Japan.
Today, Buddhism would represent approximately 67% of the Japanese population. This means that many people practice both Shinto and Buddhism. From Buddhist home altars to Buddhist-style funerals, we can easily find the influence of Buddhism in daily life.
Over the centuries, Buddhism has also mixed with Shinto in various aspects. It is called “Shinbutsu-Shugo” (神仏習合), the fusion of Shintoism and Buddhism. Even today, many Japanese unconsciously practice these two religious beliefs.
An example is “Hatsumode” (初詣), the first shrine/temple visit of the year. Shrines are the center of Shinto, while temples are the holiest place for worship in Buddhism. Both sites are considered sacred by the Japanese, and followers of both religions will frequent them.
The introduction of Christianity in Japan took place in 1549 with the arrival of a Catholic missionary known as “Francis de Xavier”. Originally from Spain, he was sent to Japan to spread the Christian faith throughout the country.
He landed on Tanegashima (種子島), a small island inhabited by Kagoshima Prefecture, and began his missionary activities in the Kyushu region. Some locals, especially around Nagasaki Prefecture, became devout Christians and supported his missionary work.
However, during the Edo period (1603 -1868), the Tokugawa shogunate strictly prohibited Christianity because they feared that its influence would undermine the authority of the emperor. It was during the Meiji period (1868 – 1912) that Christianity was officially legalized by the new government and people were finally allowed to freely follow their religious faith.
Surprisingly, only 1-1.5% of the Japanese population is said to be Christian. Despite the small number of adherents, there are countless beautiful churches and cathedrals throughout Japan. Many people, especially young couples, have started to prefer to hold their wedding ceremonies in Western-style churches instead of Shinto shrines, regardless of their religious beliefs. Some Christian architectures also retain historical values and are often visited by tourists from all over the world as popular tourist attractions.
4. Other religions in Japan
In addition to the widely practiced religions, there are other religions that people believe in in Japan. These religions are said to make up only 6% of Japan’s population, yet they still wield a powerful influence across the country with the support of their adherents.
Islam is the second largest religion in the world, with approximately 1.8 billion followers worldwide. It is estimated that more than 200,000 people belong to Islam in Japan. This number has doubled in the last ten years and continues to rise each year. The majority of Muslims in Japan are made up of immigrants from other countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and Turkey.
The Bahá’í Faith is originally derived from Shi’a Islam and is one of the two largest branches of Islam. This religious faith originated and developed in Persia in the 19th century, which today is part of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The teachings of the Bahá’ís were brought to Japan by two American adherents in 1909. Today, there are Bahá’í communities throughout Japan and they regularly hold formal prayer meetings.
Hinduism is the third largest religion in the world and is believed to have more than 9 billion followers worldwide. That being said, Hinduism is considered a minority religion in Japan, with a small following mainly from India or Nepal. Both Hinduism and Buddhism originated in India and therefore have some similarities in common.
Judaism has around 2,000 followers in Japan, and most of them come mainly from Israel. The first Jews appeared around the 15th and 16th centuries and settled in Kobe and Nagasaki, which were officially approved by the government as foreign colonies. These towns played an important role as the center of Jewish communities before World War II. There is currently a Jewish community center in the Hiroo area of Tokyo and other locations around the city of Kobe in Hyōgo Prefecture.
Since many Japanese consider themselves non-religious, it can be difficult for foreign tourists to understand the importance of religions in their lives. The Japanese flexibly and naturally incorporate elements of multiple religions into their daily lives and peacefully practice the teachings of each religion. The religious diversity in Japan also means that there is always a comfortable community for everyone to join, regardless of their religious background or nationality. Whether you believe in one of the major or minor religions, you will never feel alone in Japan!
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