Japanese culture is dominated by two major Religions; Shinto the ancient spiritual tradition of the native people, and Buddhism, the salvational religion founded by Gautama Siddhartha Sakyamuni of India. The Chinese philosophy of Confucianism and the Chinese religion of Taoism have also influenced Japanese culture and religious thought. From the West came Christianity, which has managed to gain a small following over the last 450 years.
The word Shinto means "the way of the gods". Shinto has similarities to European pagan beliefs such as Wicca and the pantheons of the ancient world. It also has certain parallels with sections of Hinduism. Japanese followers of Shinto venerate spirits and gods dwelling in places of natural beauty. This includes mountains, rivers, trees, waterfalls, rock formations etc. Secondly, they venerate the clan spirits which are made up of deified ancestors. Thirdly, they hold in high regard the spirits of the celestial realm (the Takamagahara). Lastly, abstract forces of a creative nature are also venerated.
Central to the Shinto religion is the creation myth that the gods Izanagi and Izanami created the sun goddess, moon god and the god of storms, as well as the Japanese islands. Part of the system of belief holds that the great-great-grandson of the sun goddess (Amaterasu Omikami) became the legendary first emperor of Japan - Emperor Jimmu.
Thereafter, the imperial line was considered to be divine until 1945 when the USA forced the Emperor to renounce his divinity. Shinto is an expression of the divine which envelopes and penetrates the physical world in its many guises and aspects.
It also acts as a national unifying mythos for Japan. It has no well-organised priestly structure, no single founder and no scriptures.
The introduction of Buddhism into Japan had a profound effect upon the Shinto religion, helping to clarify and organise it. As with Hinduism - the religion of India - there was virtually no conflict when Buddhism entered the country.
Hindus hold Buddha to be a manifestation of Shiva along with Rama and Krishna. Followers of Shinto similarly hold Buddha to be a Kami (deity). Shinto and Buddhism go hand in hand, with Shinto priests performing birth and wedding rituals, and Buddhist priests performing funeral services for the same families. Both religions are non-confrontational.
Religious beliefs are not dogmatic. They include a belief in a celestial realm and a dark, deathly realm. Followers are encouraged to think of the good of the group, to love nature, to maintain high physical cleanliness and to honour their ancestors.
Shinto also stresses morality of action and thought.
Shinto also stresses morality of action and thought and is a religion which is learned majorly through experience of the various rituals orally transmitted from parents to children within the family. It is traditional for the family to live together, including after the marriage of the children.
Such a strong family unity forms the bedrock of the society and has been preserved through the clannish nature of Shinto. As Western ideas of individualism begin to seep into Japanese culture, Shinto will certainly face its greatest challenge in the decades ahead, and could be the most vital factor in the preservation of Japanese culture.
Although Buddhism originated in India, it later lost ground to a Hindu resurgence. All the while, missionaries had carried the word of the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-Fold Path into China and South East Asia. The religion was founded by Prince Gautama Siddhartha Sakyamuni. The word "Buddha" means "Awakened one".
Through study, observation and meditation, the Buddha discovered the reasons for the continuous suffering of life and death, and developed a path that would lead one away from the endless circle of rebirth in the illusion of reality to a higher state of existence.
Japan's first known contact with Buddhism was through King Paekche of Korea, who sent a statue and sacred texts to the Emperor of Japan in the 6th century. Shortly after, Prince Shotoku of Japan was instrumental in firmly establishing Buddhism in Japan with the construction of the first temples.
By the 8th century, it had already become an official state religion. In the last two centuries, Buddhism received less support, while Shinto was being promoted by those with nationalistic intent. Since the end of the Second World War, Buddhism has been making strong efforts to recover its position.
Jesuit Missionary Francis Xavier brought Christianity to Japan in 1549. By 1614 there was conflict between the Christians and the local government. Fearful of foreign influence becoming powerful, the government banned Christianity and forced the European missionaries to leave the country. Christians were persecuted, pressured to change religion, even crucified.
As in Rome, they went underground and survived until the government lifted the ban in 1873, at which time there were 30,000 within the religion. Their respite was short, for during the rise of imperialism and nationalism from the start of the 20th century, Christianity was once again suppressed. After the Second World War, the new constitution guaranteed freedom of religion. Since then, the various Christian churches have grown to around 2 - 3 million worshippers. Astonishingly, the various Protestant denominations and Catholic clergy work closely together and have generally good relations.
Taoism Tao means "the way". This ancient Chinese religion focusses on the primal spiritual force from which all spiritual life originates. It emphasises true wisdom, through which comes true self-knowledge and a oneness with the universe and life itself. Certainly the most famous text was that written by Lao-tzu, called the "Tao te Ching", and familiar to many Westerners is the concept of Yin and Yang.
Meditation is the primary vehicle of self-development. While Taoism is found in its pure form in Japan, its greatest influence has been its blending with and modification of Shinto and Buddhism.
When one understands the extremely positive and flexible nature of each religion and the patient, co-operative nature of the Japanese mentality, it is easy to see why these three threads of wisdom can be woven together so harmoniously.
Named after the Chinese Scholar Confucius, this is a philosophy and system of Ethics based on reason and logic, which became a national standard and institution in China.
It stresses respect for others and acting for the benefit of all. Naturally, it was imported into Japan and many aspects of it were incorporated within Shinto.