Japanese - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. There are more than 200,000 religious organizations in Japan, the majority of them either Shintō; or Buddhist in orientation. Since neither of these religions is exclusive, a situation of religious pluralism has existed for more than ten centuries and today most of the population claims to be both Shintoist and Buddhist, with about 1 percent being Christian. Shintō is the indigenous animistic religion of Japan. Known as the "way of the kami (deities)," it is both a household and a local-community religion. The doctrine is largely unwritten, religious statuary is uncommon, and Shintō shrines are simple but elegant wooden structures usually situated in a sacred grove of trees, entry to which is gained through an archway known as a tōri. The divine origin of the imperial family is one of the basic tenets of Shintō; after the Meiji Restoration and particularly during World War II, Shintō came to be regarded as a state religion with the emperor as its head and was intimately associated with nationalism. State Shinto was abolished under the postwar constitution, but as a community religion it does still play a very important role in many aspects of Japanese ceremonial and symbolic life, in particular with childhood ceremonies and weddings.

Buddhism was introduced to Japan from India via China and Korea in the middle of the sixth century. By the eighth century it was adopted as the state religion, but practitioners still turned to China as the source of authority. From the ninth century Buddhism spread throughout the population in Japan and gradually took on a distinctive Japanese form associated particularly with the Pure Land, Nichiren, and Zen sects. From the seventeenth century, for more than 250 years, Buddhism enjoyed political patronage under the Tokugawa shogunate, but with the restoration of the emperor and the establishment of state-supported Shinto in the second half of the nineteenth century, there was a movement to disestablish Buddhism. In the postwar years, most of the population has become essentially secular, and Buddhist priests are contacted almost exclusively for funerals and memorial services. The tourist industry is now a major source of support for the better-known temples and shrines.

Neither Confucianism nor Taoism constitutes a separate religion in Japan, but these traditions have contributed deeply to Japanese life and have influenced both Shintō and Buddhism. Confucianism, largely in the form known as Neo-Confucianism, provided the foundation for ethical relationships in both government and daily life, particularly from the seventeenth century onward. Although no longer officially sanctioned, its tenets continue to influence daily life. Religious Taoism, like Confucianism, was imported from China to Japan and actively supported from the sixth century. It has had a long-lasting influence on popular religious beliefs, particularly in connection with sacred mountains, firewalking, and purification rituals of all kinds. All of these religious traditions have contributed to a greater or lesser degree to the following features that characterize Japanese religious principles: a veneration for ancestors; a belief in religious continuity of the family, living and dead; a close tie between the nation and religion; pluralism in religious beliefs; a free exchange of ideas among religious systems; and religious practice centered on the use of prayer, meditation, amulets, and purification rites.

Religious Practitioners. Any male may train for the priesthood, but in smaller temples and shrines the position of head priest is often passed on from father to son or adopted son. Celibacy is not required, and the wives of priests often receive some formal training and participate in the running of the temple. Larger temples take in acolytes who, after years of discipline, may be assigned to subsidiary temples. Buddhist priests are often very accomplished at traditional arts, in particular calligraphy. In Shintō shrines young women, often daughters of priests and supposedly virgins, assist with many shrine activities.

Ceremonies. Religious activities at a Shintō shrine reflect the seasonal changes and are associated particularly with the planting and harvesting of rice. These celebrations are still held in many shrines, together with important purification ceremonies at the New Year and midyear to wash away both physical and spiritual pollution. The major festival days are the New Year's festival, on the first day of the first month, the girls' festival on the third day of the third month, the boys' festival on the fifth day of the fifth month, the star festival on the seventh day of the seventh month, and the chrysanthemum festival on the ninth day of the ninth month. These festivals are celebrated both in the home and at shrines. A newborn child is usually dedicated to the service of a deity at a shrine on his or her first trip out of the house, and at ages 3, 5, and 7 children are again presented at the shrine dressed in traditional clothes. Marriage is also associated with the Shintō shrine, but most people, although they often use traditional dress replete with Shintō-derived symbolism, have secular marriages. Public ceremonies at Buddhist temples are less frequent, the most important being the annual bon ceremony, in which the dead are believed to return for a short while to earth, after which they must be returned safely to the other world. Some temples occasionally hold healing ceremonies, conduct tea ceremonies, or participate in setsubun, a purification ceremony to welcome spring.

Arts. Prehistoric artifacts, such as the haniwa figures found in the tombs of the Yamato rulers of early Japan, are often thought to represent a purity and simplicity of design that has remained characteristic of Japanese art until the present day. Art of the early historical period is dominated by Buddhist statuary, which reveals a mastery of both woodwork and metalwork. During the Heian period a distinctive style of literature and art associated with the court was developed, including long, horizontally rolled narrative scrolls and a stylized form of painting that made use of brilliant color and a formalized perspective. The mid-fourteenth to the mid-sixteenth centuries are considered to have been the formative period for all the major Japanese art forms that survive to the present time, including ink painting and calligraphy, the Nō drama, ceramics, landscape gardening, flower arranging, the tea ceremony, and architecture that makes extensive use of natural wood and subordinates the building to its natural surroundings. The Tokugawa period was characterized by the emergence of literature and art forms associated with the newly emerging urban classes, which flourished side by side with earlier forms of religious and ruling-class artistic expression. Extensive use was made of the wood-block print by urban residents of feudal Japan as a medium for portraying daily life at that time. Since the middle of the nineteenth century Japanese art has come under the influence of both Europe and North America. Traditional art forms still flourish and change in a society that today produces some of the most sophisticated and innovative art, photography, architecture, and design in the world.

Literature and poetry (of which the haiku and the tanka are perhaps the most famous forms) have both flourished throughout Japanese history. The Kabuki theater, for popular consumption, in which the performers are all male, first appeared in the Tokugawa period, as did Bunraku, the puppet theater. The modern Japanese novel took form in the middle of the last century and is particularly well known for its introspection and exploration of the concept of self, together with a sensitivity to minute details.

Medicine. Japan has a complex, pluralistic medical system that is dominated today by a technologically sophisticated biomedicine. The earliest references to healing are recorded in the chronicles of mythological and early historical times. Shamanistic practices were present from at least A.D. 400 together with the use of medicinal-plant materials. Two theories of disease causation were dominant at this time: contact with polluting agents, such as blood and corpses; and possession by spirits. The secular, literate Chinese medical tradition was first brought to Japan in the sixth century by Buddhist priests. Grounded in the philosophical concepts of yin and yang, in which a harmonious relationship between the microcosm of the human body and the macrocosm of society and the universe is central, this system, known in Japan as kanpo, makes use of herbal material together with acupuncture, moxibustion, and massage as therapeutic techniques. It remained dominant until shortly after the restoration of the emperor in 1867, at which time European medicine was adopted as the official medical system.

The Japanese government established a national health-insurance system in 1961, becoming the first Asian country to do so. Today, Japan has a well-supplied, reasonably efficient modern health-care system. Nevertheless, healing practices conducted by religious practitioners, both Shintoists and Buddhists, remain prevalent, and there has been an extensive revival of kanpo. The practice of herbal medicine is limited today to qualified physicians, and acupuncturists and other traditional practitioners must be licensed; some of these practitioners work within the national insurance system. Many ordinary physicians make use of herbal medicines in addition to synthetic drugs.

Death and Afterlife. In Japan death is believed to take place when the spirit is separated irrevocably from the body. Between life and death is an interim stage of forty-nine days in which the spirit lingers in this world until finally it is settled peacefully in the realm of the dead. Annual memorial services must be held for the dead and it is not until the thirty-third or fiftieth year after death that the spirit loses its individual identity and is fused with the spirits of the ancestors. Most Japanese do not adhere closely to this tradition today, but they still retain some sensitivity to these ideas. Yearly Buddhist observances in August at the bon festival for the souls of the dead continue to remind people of the links between the living and the dead, and of the possibility of spirits of the dead returning to earth. There is also a widely shared Buddhist-derived belief that one can attain a form of eternity or enlightenment while still in this world through the realization of one's full potential on earth. This tradition is associated particularly with the martial arts, the tea ceremony, and other forms of traditional arts and crafts, as well as with meditation.

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