Religion in Japan

Hirakata, Osaka | Fall, 2005 | 20 years old

It’s really quite interesting to look at Japan’s various religious structures. For that matter, it’s actually rather interesting to take a step back and take a quick look at Japan’s religions. In a nutshell, the two major religious influences upon the average Japanese life are Shinto, an indigenous animistic spirituality (not really an organized religion, per se, but rather a general set of beliefs about spirits inhabiting nearly everything), and Buddhism (which arrived via China and Korea, where it picked up all sorts of fun stuff, like deities and hierarchy). Both have influenced each other to some extent, but on the whole the average Japanese person sort of vaguely believes in both in much the same way the average British person is sort of vaguely Protestant Christian.

In fact, much like England, Japan has a large collection of impressive and imposing religious structures, mostly Buddhist temples and pagodas. It is perhaps a bit unfortunate that, much like Europe’s stately cathedrals, the largest of Japan’s remaining temples, such as Kyoto’s Touji, are viewed even by the natives almost exclusively as novelties: somewhere you go to take photos, look at some giant statues in an enormous hall for a little while, take some more pictures perhaps, and then grab a souvenir with a religious meaning attached to it that will be used mainly to adorn a cell phone or dashboard. Once in a while, someone will come and quietly go about their spiritual business on their own, but most of the Japanese people at the larger temples are apparently there primarily to feed the pigeons or because it’s big and pretty.

On the whole, it’s a little disheartening even for someone as un-religious as I am. It’s even more disheartening to realize that, much of the time, at the larger, older temples, laypeople aren’t even allowed into or around certain buildings most of the time, and given that the way that one worships at a Buddhist temple or pagoda is by circumambulating (or walking in a circle around it), it seems akin to a church with no doors. Your average Japanese person has about as much personal attachment to such a structure as your average American has to the Liberty Bell: it’s probably important, but life would certainly go on without it.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I saw the much smaller temples in Kyoto. Now, my surprise wasn’t at the presence of such a thing, except at first: Japan, as far as I have been able to determine, has literally no zoning laws, which explains a lot of things one sees in this country. Rather, my surprise was at the differences that were almost immediately apparent. Touji and Byoudou-in (the temple on the ten-yen coin) feel more like museums than anything. Beautiful museums, but museums nonetheless.

The nameless little temple in Kyoto’s shopping district on Sanjou (“3rd Avenue,” more or less) gave an overwhelming and instant impression of being far more “lived in.” Outside was a little fountain to wash your hands and mouth at, as well as a stone pillar dedicating the temple. Additionally, you could purchase your fortune for a hundred yen from a simple vending machine. There were also other little shrines, such as one to Jizo, the Buddhist deity who protects those condemned to Hell, but popularly associated with dead children (who are condemned for the grief they cause their parents). Jizo’s shrine itself was a touchingly simple affair: a bibbed monk statue with a candle and a collection of small toys and candies being offered to the spirits of the deceased children that Jizo is sworn to protect.

Inside the comparatively modest, yet still impressive temple, the monks in attendance were drumming and burning incense and, though these things were important to them, they certainly had no qualms about outsiders standing by the entrance and watching and, in the case of the Japanese observers, taking pictures. Afterward, they put everything away and walked to the back, all the while chatting casually with each other. There was of course a small shop inside the temple, as always, where you could buy small charms and such to bring you good luck.

What struck me most, however, aside from how casual all involved seemed to be about their religion, was the outside of the building itself. Much like the Jizo shrine, the significant impacts came from the quietly understated evidence of others’ lives and what is important to people. The outside of the building, at least the front wall, was practically covered with fans and small wooden signs with people’s hopes and dreams written on them in black marker in the belief that, as the writing fades over time, the gods will hear their prayers.

One implores the gods to help make it to the Kansai tournament again this year, though what the tournament is in is never established. Quite a few people want to be good at ballet, piano, or violin, and one wants to be better at expressing him-/herself. The interesting thing is that the fans and signs are almost invariably semi-anonymous, with a pseudonym or the date occasionally written in the bottom corner. There was one, though, that had a message we can all relate to, and I will remember it for the rest of my life:

“One more chance, please. I want to do it right next time.”

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