The two main religions in Japan are Shintoism and Buddhism. Christianity is also practiced by a small portion of the population, and other religions are also present in smaller numbers. After Japan’s defeat in World War II, Emperor Hirohito renounced the divine character attributed to royalty by Shintoism, and the country’s new postwar constitution now upholds religious freedom for all Japanese citizens. According to the recent survey on percentages of religions in Japan, while many people say that their religions are Buddhism, high percentage of people think they are non-religious.
After several generations of deities born from the Cosmos itself, the last couple, Izanagi and Izanami, who played the role of creation in the Shinto tradition, finally emerged. The word Shinto, which can be translated to English as “the way of the gods”. When Shinto is written in Japanese, it consists of two ideograms. The first ideogram, which is also pronounced as kami, means god, deity, or divine power, and the second character means way or road.
Although the word, kami can be used to refer to a single god, it can also be used collectively to designate a group of gods. The kami are part of all life forms and manifest themselves in various forms. There are kami in nature that reside in sacred rocks, falls, rivers, trees, mountains, and in other natural phenomena. The absence of sacred writings in Shintoism reflects the lack of religious moral commandments, but emphasizes purity in ritual and the purification of those who practice it.
Buddhism, bukkyou in Japanese, was introduced to Japan via Korean Peninsular in the 6th century, when the king of Paekche sent a statue of the Buddha and copies of the suras to the emperor of Japan at that time. Buddhism spread quickly among people of the upper classes. Prince Shotoku (574-622), who gave imperial support to temple construction and is considered the founder of Buddhism in Japan.
In the early Meiji Era (1868-1912), this system collapsed through waves of anti-Buddhist movement that was spurred by the Meiji government who wished to remove the influence of Buddhism from Shinto shrines and they made Shintoism the official religion of Japan. In response to this and the changing social environment of the modern era, Buddhism initiated to strive to redefine its role in Japan.
Christianity, called kirisuto kyou in Japanese, was first introduced to Japan in the 16th century when the famous Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier arrived in Kagoshima. The Jesuit missionary’s activities were centered in the area of Kyushu. The Jesuits’ efforts were treated benevolently at first, however under the Tokugawa Shogunate government, Christianity was banned and the missionaries expelled from Japan.
After Japan abandoned the isolation policy, the foreign missionaries returned to the country in 1859. During this period more than 30,000 Christians openly declared themselves; they belonged to groups that met for clandestine meetings during more than 200 years of persecution. The growth of nationalism and the promotion of Shinto temple membership as a patriotic duty made the 20th century difficult for Christians. Despite the growing popularity of Christian-style wedding ceremonies, Christianity in Japan is still considered by many Japanese as a “foreign” religion.