A Mixed Tradition: Japan’s Unique Spiritual and Religious Practices

Collin Derrig, Guest Columnist

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Last spring, I studied abroad in Japan at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka. While there, I immersed myself in Japanese culture and religious tradition, which included taking the class “Religion in Japan” and participating in Japanese spiritual tradition.

Osaka was an excellent place to do this as it is located in the Kansai region, which is home to the important religious cities of Kyoto, Nara and Ise. Through these experiences, I was able to compare Japanese spiritual beliefs with the three Abrahamic faiths.

People in the United States have long held an interest in Japanese culture, evidenced by pop culture phenomena like “The Karate Kid” and “Power Rangers” in the ’80s and ’90s, and the growing popularity of anime and manga, which are Japanese cartoons and comics.

This interest extends beyond the reach of mass media and into the realm of spirituality. Japanese spiritual practices are becoming more accessible all over the United States. In fact, Cleveland has its own “za-zen” club, which is the method of Zen Buddhist meditation.

Japan’s two primary religions are Shinto and Buddhism. Shinto, the native faith of Japan, is an animist tradition that developed on the islands over thousands of years.

Animist faiths believe that any part of the natural world can have a spirit of some kind. These natural spirits or deities are called “kamii.” While anything can be a kamii, historical figures, animals and natural wonders like Mount Fuji are usually the subjects of worship.

Buddhism, Japan’s other leading faith, spread from Korea approximately 1,400 years ago. Japanese Buddhism is divided into different sects that follow their own unique traditions and practices, such as Tendai, Shingon, Jodo Shinshu and Zen.

These different schools of thought were adapted by different groups of the population, as the Tendai and Shingon were followed by the nobility, Jodo Shinshu by the common people and Zen by the warrior class.

In modern Japan, these religious sects still exist, but their practices are no longer defined by societal status and more by interests or beliefs.

Japanese spiritual principles are also increasingly prevalent in American media. Marie Kondo is a rising superstar in the home decor and self-care world, and her practices are informed by her background in Japanese Buddhism.

While her Netflix show seems completely secular at first glance, it has roots in Japan’s rich spiritual tradition of Shinto animism combined with Buddhism.

In fact, very few people in modern Japan are practitioners of a specific sect of Buddhism or followers of pure Shinto. Instead, people casually incorporate elements from a number of different religious traditions into their daily lives.

There is even a common joke that says, “In Japan you are born Shinto, marry Christian and die Buddhist.”

Despite this mixing of tradition with outside influence, traditional religious practices still thrive. Shinto and Buddhist practices are a significant part of everyday life, as many individuals casually participate in religious ceremonies and visit religious sites.

The Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam honor an eternal, all-powerful diety, but Japanese tradition reveres the exact opposite. Great stone churches and mosques are centers of religious practice for the Abrahamic Faiths. In Japan, stone religious structures are the exception.

The majority of Japanese temples and shrines are simple wooden structures, even in large cities where they lie at the feet of skyscrapers.

This material difference embodies one of the major themes in Japanese spirituality: impermanence. In Japanese it is called “Mono no Aware,” which loosely translates to “the pathos of things.”

An exact translation is difficult, but it names the beauty found in the loss of things that are beautiful. Beauty is closely associated with this idea, which can be seen every year as the sun rises and the air warms.

The cherry blossoms, known as sakura, are also representative of the impermanence of beauty, as they are symbols of celebration but are visible for less than two weeks each year.

Families and friends all go out and observe “hanami,” which translates to “flower viewing” or watching.

People enjoy the fleeting beauty that comes with a new spring by picnicking under the blossoms with loved ones.

Traditional festivals, such as hanami, bring people together and display the communal aspect of spirituality in Japan, but this exists alongside a personal aspect. Prayer at a shrine or during a pilgrimage is often done alone or with a small group.

These prayers are dedicated to a specific kamii or bosatsu and centered around one specific theme.

If offerings to a specific deity are successful, people will return to give thanks or continue asking for petitions. If the offering proves unsuccessful, they may try a different shrine or deity that addresses the same issue.

This style of prayer most closely relates to the Roman Catholic teaching of patron saints, as specific saints are associated with certain themes.

For example, St. Francis of Assisi is the patron saint of animals, so people would pray to St. Francis for intervention if they have a sick pet.

However, patron saints in the Catholic tradition are fundamentally different from Japanese deities because patron saints simply act as mediators between man and God while Japanese deities are taking the direct action.

The above is just a small sample of Japanese spirituality and religion and explains only some basic practical and historical elements.

I hope that I was able to share with you at least a little about a unique and beautiful tradition far from our own.