How The Japanese Do Religion

December 31, 2013
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So what religion are the Japanese? If you said “Buddhist”, you’d be partly right. “Zen Buddhist” might get you extra points.  Say “Shinto”, and that’s a smart answer – underneath all the Buddhism in Japan is an undercurrent of the older, fascinating Shinto religion.

Japanase religionSay “Atheist”, though, and you might be closer to the truth. Each new generation of Japanese kids are less religious than the one before, same as in the Western world.  Where the Japanese differ is that, even if they don’t believe, they won’t tell you. In order to avoid the embarrassing conversation with their religious friends, explaining that they don’t believe in any god, most Japanese people have a way of going through the motions – going to Buddhist temples with their friends, for weddings, and every New Year – and stepping up to pray like everyone else. In practice, this means that an entire group of friends who don’t believe in any gods at all are all telling each other that they do, all going to the temple together, and none of them particularly feeling the need to do it.

Does this seem strange to you? Well, the Japanese are nothing if not practical about it. “I don’t believe in any gods,” one friend secretly confided in me, “but I don’t know that they’re NOT real, either. So why not go? I can pray for what I want anyway, and who knows? Maybe the gods are real and I’ll get what I want.”

Because of this, the way that people pray, and the things they pray for, has shifted. I was raised as a Christian, with the belief that you shouldn’t pray for yourself unless you really need to – much more Christian to pray to help someone else, whether it’s someone you know, or someone suffering from war, famine or devastation in another country. While I’m not a practicing Christian anymore, I still see this kind of trained empathy as a positive aspect – teaching people to be compassionate towards others can only be a good thing.

But the trend in prayers in Japan is totally different: “I want a new car.” “I want a promotion.” “I want a Nintendo 3DS.” Japan is one of the centers of modern capitalism, and I admit I found it a bit disturbing to see how much it affects people’s religion. Prayers for real, tangible, material gain are the standard. Because, hey, if it works, I get a car. And then I’ll believe.

Perhaps this grew out of the Japanese way of praying. While you pray in a different way at Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, at both, your prayer should always be preceded by throwing a coin into a collection box – an offering to the gods. If you’re going to give money away to a god you don’t believe in, why not ask for more money back?

How seriously people take these possession prayers, I don’t know, and I think it would be hard to find out – the thing with the Japanese is, maybe they’re praying for personal or selfless things too, and they choose not to admit it to others.

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