Today many religions are practiced in Japan, but most Japanese follow a meld of Shintoism and Buddhism. Although religion does not play a major role in the everyday life of the average Japanese, they do have customs and rituals that are observed on special occasions like birthdays, weddings, funerals, and religious holidays.
The exact origins of Shintoism are still unknown. Archaeological evidence suggests some form of it was being practiced by the Yayoi people (400 B.C. – 250 A.D.). The Yayoi lived in clans called uji. Each uji had a leader who served as both the war-chief and spiritual leader. Each clan was associated with a single god, or kami. Kami represented objects in nature and wondrous aspects of the world. There were kami representing mountains, rivers, storms, and even rocks. When a clan defeated another clan in war they would assimilate the defeated clan’s kami into their existing religion. In this way the Yayoi slowly built a complex hierarchy of kami.
After its arrival from China and Korea in 538 A.D., Buddhism spread rapidly throughout Japan. Many people were reluctant to accept Buddhism at that time because of nationalism and xenophobism. After the defeat of the Mononobe clan in 587 A.D., who were opponents of Buddhism, the religion spread unimpeded. Almost two centuries later, under Emperor Shomu’s order, the temple of Todai-ji was built at Nara in 752. It is the largest wooden structure in the world housing a fifteen-meter high gilt-bronze statue of the Cosmic Buddha, later to be known as The Great Sun Buddha, or Dainichi Nyorai in Japanese. The Dainichi Nyorai was associated with Amaterasu, the Shinto Sun Goddess. With the identification of the Dainichi Nyorai with a Shinto kami so began the syncretism of Shintoism and Buddhism. Today, The evidence of this syncretism can be seen throughout Japan.
Many Japanese festivals, or matsuri, originated from early Shinto rituals. These festivals often symbolize hope for abundant rice production or spiritual health of the community. The festivals are often done inside a Shinto Shrine, or display some form or image of a Shrine. Many of these festivals can stretch for over several days. These usually include processions that bear an image of the local Kami through crowded streets to the sound of drums and flutes. The festivities vary with different locals, but they all have similar features: energy, noise, food, and exultation. This is an opportunity members of the local community to celebrate a joyful occasion together.
One of the more well-known festivals in Japan is the Bon Festival, also known as O-bon, an event that marks the annual visitation of departed ancestors to the surviving members of their family. This festival is characterized by visits to Buddhist temples and the decoration of alters of the departed. Days before the festival, ancestral graves are cleaned by family members in preparation for the return of the souls of the deceased. Many people also take this opportunity to return to their native towns to be with their families and visit local temples to pray and give offerings.
Understanding the relationship between Buddhism and Shintoism can be confusing for foreigners. A common saying in Japan is, “We live as Shintoists, but die as Buddhists.”