Despite alleged secularization — the supposed lack of interest in, knowledge about, or practice of religion by a very large part of the population, and the quixotic insistence of many Japanese that Japanese religion is dead, or even that Japan has no religion — to all appearance the country remains the “land of the gods and buddhas.” Shrines and temples large and small are visible everywhere, and well attended, especially at major festivals and New Year, displaying rites and customs that did not change dramatically in 1945 or since. ... Traditional Shinto offerings and Buddhist rites are quite unreformed, and though the New Religions may offer new mixes of old ingredients, and at least in the case of Nichiren groups new emphases, the fundamental Japanese shamanistic/chanting/offering platform remains intact. ... Four factors obtain that, in the Japanese context, tend to support religious traditionalism. ... (IJR, 238-9)
The Continuity of Tradition
kokoro no furusato
kokoro no furusato theme, as used by such writers as Kino Kazuyoshi and as it resonates in common parlance, suggests the idealized peace and harmony of a traditional village, with thatched-roof houses and bright green ricefields nestled around ancient shrine and temple. ... Traditional religion is an important part of the kokoro no furusato mystique. For this reason matsuri and visits to family shrines in the old home town continue to draw. It is one reason, too, why “mainstream” Japanese religion remains so unchanged. It is as though amidst so much change — Japan’s rapid modernization and urbanization, plus the traumatic war, defeat, occupation, and rebuilding — it is important that one area of life remains stable, providing a link with the past and with eternal Japanese values. ...
Being part of a group is also essential, at least in Japan, to the achievement of something profoundly individual as well — initiation through ordeal. Whether it is “religious” or not, the ascent of a mountain like Fuku traditionally regarded as sacred, and paying nominal respects to shrines along the way up, remains extremely popular. As many as 400,000 people climb Mount Fuji each year, most during the two-month climbing season, July and August. ...
zazen retreats, and much else still in the picture today. (IJR, 241-4)
III. Symbols & Forms
Concrete Actions vs. Abstract Beliefs
The demand for concrete, established forms and symbols in religious interaction supports religious traditionalism. In Japan, religion is something done, not just thought, seen, or believed. Its “doing” is by means of specific objects or gestures that bear religious meaning, and nothing else. ... While it would be misleading to suggest that Japanese religion has no ideas or beliefs, it is also true that getting away from thought alone is what it’s all about. Religious activity is completed and, as it were, authenticated through a definite object: getting a taima or omamori, a charm or amulet, from a shrine or temple; writing one’s prayer on an ofuda, or slip of paper, and posting it at the shrine or temple. (IJR, 244)
Fetus Memorial Service
An instructive example of concreteness in Japanese religion is mizuko kuyo, the memorial service for a mizuko (literally, “water child”), a miscarried or aborted fetus, mentioned earlier in connection with Jizo [cf. IJR, 43-5], the protector of children who is generally invoked in these rites. Although details differ in different temples and Buddhist schools, generally the kuyo involves the usual Buddhist funeral service on behalf of the departed, with prayers and sutras chanted to insure a good transition and rebirth.
But there is more. Often the mother will have an opportunity to address the mizuko directly, apologizing for the deed, explaining why it was necessary, and wishing it a better situation in its next birth. There will be a naming ceremony for the deceased unborn child. Typically the purchase of a statue of Jizo, poignantly presented with a red bib, and often toys and other objects reminiscent of childhood, assures his protection. At certain temples emphasizing mizuko kuyo services, the woman may be led through more elaborate practices, such as blessing a doll or wooden ofuda which represents the miscarried or aborted infant; this she takes home, bathes, dresses, and pretends to feed as though a real child, until she feels emotionally able to release it back to Jizo’s care and to the other world in preparation for rebirth — which, it is hoped, when appropriate will be to the same mother.
Mizuko kuyo has been very controversial, both in Japan and among Western observers. This way of handling abortions spiritually is recognized to be neither quite “pro-life” nor “pro-choice” as the issues have been defined in the “culture wars” of Europe and America. It respects the emotional and spiritual burden having an abortion places on a woman, recognizes that the mizuko is a real person, yet also suggests ways of viewing abortions religiously short of regarding it as murder, but rather as a process in the ongoing flow of life. Some critics both in Japan and elsewhere have alleged that temples specializing in mizuko kuyo cynically exploit women under emotional stress, charging high fees for their services; others say that the experience is profoundly therapeutic.
mizuko kuyo services when needed, avoiding the excessive fuss and fees of well-known mizuko kuyo temples. In any case, the employment of a definite ritual, and definite objects such as a Jizo image, red bibs, and perhaps a mizuko-substitute, brings home the Japanese gravitation toward the tangible and concrete in spiritual interactions, suggesting how it can help in a very difficult situation. (IJR, 244-6)
[T]he four days of the New Year holiday (December 31-January 3) are relatively quiet, thoughtful, family occasions. If possible families return to their furusato or home town, and make visits to shrines and temples during the season. Houses are cleaned, symbolizing a new start, and entrances are decorated with ornaments of pine (symbol of ongoing life), bamboo, and plum trees. On New Year’s Eve, soba (buckwheat noodles), also said to symbolize longevity, are traditionally served. Shrines and temples are thronged; several million people may visit the most popular, the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, during the holidays. Properly, one visits temples on New Year’s Even, to leave behind the old; one goes to shrines on New Year’s Day to pray for the future. At temples, the bell is solemnly rung 108 times, representing the 108 Buddhist evil attachments to be cast off, just before the New Year commences at midnight. Although the crowds at these places of worship will be immense, and the sites thick with stalls selling snacks and amulets (it is customary to purchase a shrine or temple taima or omamori to place in one’s home for protection during the coming year), they are usually orderly. (IJR, 247)
The Japanese belief, reflected as we have seen in art and poetry, that the ultimate is to be found in the ordinary, also supports religious traditionalism in a subtle way: by putting emphasis in a different place than on religious innovation. In practice, this emphasis is associated with traditional arts, especially those Zen-related, such as Chado, the “Way of Tea,” Kado, the “Way of Flower Arrangement,” and the like. Thus, in drinking tea, one is just drinking tea, savoring the flavor and the beauty of the cup, not thinking of anything else — yet lacking nothing. Like traditional religion, these traditional arts continue to find a place in contemporary Japanese life, and for much the same reasons. (IJR, 249)
So, in the end are the Japanese “religious” ...
and if so, what can we learn from Japanese religion?