Praying in Japan – part 1

They say that the Japanese are born as Shinto; they become Christians when they marry and Buddhists when they die. Why? When they are born and throughout childhood Japanese children generally follow Shinto rites then, when they marry, the majority prefers the Christian style ceremony and then, when they die, they choose Buddhist rites for funerals since in Shinto religion death is considered impure.

All this makes it a little hard to tell the religion of the Japanese. Surely the official religion is the Shinto religion, choice made during the Meiji Restoration, but in Japan there are many syncretic cults, meaning a mix between two or more cults. It is very common to enter a Japanese house and find both the altar dedicated to the Shinto deity and the Buddhist altar dedicated to ancestors.

Shrine dedicated to Inari, goddess of harvest

Christianity was introduced in Japan in the 16th century by Portuguese monks but the Meiji government was very hostile to the expansion of this religion which then failed to take root. Today there are many chapels for weddings but it is more a matter of fashion or taste rather than religion and actually the majority is not even a real church. If we exclude Christianity we can say that the prevalent religions in Japan are Shintoism and Buddhism declined in various streams and cults. These religions have given us architectural and artistic masterpieces to admire with the mouth wide open in amazement.

The fortune of Buddhism in Japan is closely linked to changes in the government of the country.

Kinkakuji, the golden temple – Kyoto

Buddhism was introduced from China and Korea in the sixth century. The Japanese Prince Shotoku adopted Buddhism as the State religion and included his choice in the Constitution of the reign. The Buddhist religion has had great influence on the history of Japan, at some point the importance of this religion and its temples had grown so much that each person was requested to register in one of the temples, a kind of census. During the Meiji Restoration (1800 – 1912), Buddhism was pushed in the background in favor of the indigenous religion of Japan, Shinto. Until that time temples and Shinto shrines coexisted in harmony, temples were often founded on land belonging to Shinto shrines and vice versa shrines were founded on land belonging to Buddhist temples, this until an act of the Meiji Government ordered the temples and shrines to declare officially if they were Buddhist or Shinto. This is why some structures that were originally shrines became temples and vice versa temples became shrines.

Todaiji – Nara

After assimilation in Japan, Buddhism developed into five main currents over time, Tendai, Shingon, Pure Land, Zen and Nichiren. Most of the temples belong to one of these currents that you can usually identify looking at the style of the Buddha statue that stands in the temple and the statues that surround it usually depicting the founders of the temple. Two temples do not belong to any of the five currents, Todai-ji and Shitennō-ji.

How do you tell a Buddhist Temple?

There is no doubt that the presence of a Buddha statue clarifies any doubt but there are also other symbols and characteristics to look at. First of all the name, if the name ends with the kanji 寺 that is read “dera” or “ji” then it is a temple, 寺 is in fact the kanji of “temple”.

Sensoji – Asakusa, Tokyo

To enter the temple it necessary to pass through its gates and it is sometimes necessary to cross more than one gate to get to the main pavilion which houses the statue of Buddha and the relics. Buddhist temples also have a pavilion dedicated to prayers and a large bell. This bell is rung 108 times during the celebrations for the New Year. Another symbol of the temples are the pagodas, they can have three or five floors, inside there are usually ancient scrolls of prayers and relics, finally a Buddhist temple can also include a cemetery.

Five storied pagoda – Nara

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