Religion in Postwar Japan
Finding the Way Home
Combination of various images representing postwar religion in Japan
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Emperor Hirohito with General Macarthur
The Aftermath of the War
Hirohito delivering his surrender speechAugust 1945 was, for Japan, a catastrophic month: the atom-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and then, on the 15th, Japan’s surrender. ... Japan was demilitarized, and the postwar constitution forbade the government to maintain armed forces or engage in war, the first (and thus far only) major state so to do. ... Links between Shinto and the government were abolished under SCAP. Ownership of shrine property, and the appointment of priests reverted to the local community as represented by elected shrine trustees, rather as though Shinto shrines were congregational churches. Many shrines, and also Buddhist temples and monasteries, lost considerable revenue in the land reforms, but they soon learned to make it up through American-style pledges, fund drives, and money-making enterprises. ... [T]he emperor was induced to issue a declaration, on New Year’s Day, 1946, renouncing his alleged divinity (in which, as a scientific-minded man — his avocation was marine biology — he perhaps never believed anyway): his celebrated “Declaration of Humanity.” The erstwhile high priest of Shinto continued to perform the rituals of his office at the palace shrines, but these were now technically considered personal rather than state acts of worship. (IJR, 232-4)
walking through the endless torii gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine
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Painting of the "east" and "west" building for the Daijosai (first thanksgiving ritual for a new emperor)
The Continuity of Tradition
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)
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Photo of a traditional Japanese village
I. Homelands of the Heart
kokoro no furusato
The 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. ...

As we have seen in Chapter 1, Anna Toshimaro has argued that the reason the Japanese, though they may take part in many apparently religious activities and may even profess a spiritual sensibility, do not like to call themselves or these practices religious is because, in their view, that would commit them to a particular teaching — while for them all these are just something “natural,” part of being Japanese, even just part of being human or of nature itself. Practices from the first shrine visit to a Buddhist funeral are to them “natural religion,” not religion in the revealed sense they think occurs in certain sects, or in certain other countries. “Natural religion” seems most comfortable, and what is more natural than a “homeland of the heart” and its sacred cycles? (IJR, 239-41)

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National Geographic photo of people climbing Mt. Fuji
II. Admiration for Spiritual Achievement
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 Fuji 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. ...
Map showing the Shikoku Pilgrimage
According to Ian Reader, traditional pilgrimages to more explicitly religious sites, such as the circuit of the eight-eight temples on Shikoko associated with the founder of Shingon, Kobo Daishi, are only becoming more popular. ... Other group ventures are much more strenuous, and far more mark ordeal and initiation in the classic sense. Karin Muller describes joining a party of contemporary yamabushi, practitioners of Shugendo, for a hiwatari, or fire-walking rite, in the countryside. ...

To be sure, Shugendo ostensibly is no longer a major part of Japanese life and religion, to the extent it was before its Meiji suppression. ... Yet like comparable Tendai “marathon monks,” the way of the mountain ascetic reflects the significant “ordeal” strand of Japanese spirituality, also found somewhat more moderately in temple-pilgrimage, sacred mountaineering, zazen retreats, and much else still in the picture today. (IJR, 241-4)
Photo of a "marathon monk" doing Tendai Buddhism's Kaihogyo
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Kamidana with ofuda (talismans)
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)
Tsubaki Grand Shrine ema (wooden plaque for making wishes)
Leaving omikuji (fortune) at a temple or shrine
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Rows of Jizo statues for Mizuko Kuyo (fetus memorial service)
Mizuko Kuyo
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.
Click for scene from movie on Jizo bosatsu's origin story
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.
Jizo statue with red apron and bib with the particulars of deceased fetus or child
Jizo saving children from demons at the Sanzu River
Jizo amulet
Click for video of SAi no Kawara on Sado Island (possible location where Jizo saved children)
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.

However, some women and local temples in Japan have themselves organized 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)
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Click for video of priests ringing the bell at Chion-in temple at midnight on New Year's Eve 2014
Japanese New Year
Paper-wrapped fuda talisman (for the home)[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 Eve, 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)
Japanese shrine selling protective amulets, etc. on New Year's eve
Feiler comments, “As one of the few occasions in the year when work stops and families spend time together, the New Year festival brings out some of the latent religious traditions that still color Japanese life.” From the religious studies point of view, this observation is important. The fact that Oshogatsu is the most important annual holiday in Japan, going on for several days while virtually everything else stops, tells us what is really significant in the Japanese festival calendar. It is sacred time appearing the way it does in what Mircea Eliade called cosmic religion. That is, the religious year is centered around the turn of the seasons, rather than (like Passover or Christmas, at least in theory) historical commemorations (the Exodus or the birth of Jesus). In cosmic religion, New Year is the most important event each year, because ritually New Year’s Eve is like a return to the chaos before creation, and then New Year’s Day is a “re-creation” or fresh start that begins the world anew. Between old and new, a “crack” opens in time, and the order of the world is broken sufficiently to let in ancestral spirits together with a few mysterious visitors from somewhere else, like ghosts. (IJR, 248)
Cartoon image of a family in front of a Shinto torii
People dressed as Namahage (ogrelike beings) for the Namahage festival
“The namahage will not hurt you if you are good” (IJR, 48)
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Woman engaged in the Japanese tea ceremony
IV. The Sacred in the Ordinary
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)
DVD cover for Jiro Dreams of Sushi
piece of sushi

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So, in the end are the Japanese “religious” ...
and if so, does this change how we should think about religion?