Shinto: Ancient Japanese Religion

Shinto: Ancient Japanese Religion

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Practiced by nearly 80% of the population, Shinto is the largest religion in Japan. This video explains the religious practices of Shinto and its ancient roots.

Shinto : The Ancient Religion of Japan

Origins.—The Japanese are in the main a continental race. Their language and physical characteristics show conclusively that they come from Northern Asia, and geographical considerations indicate that Korea must have been their point of embarkation. Indeed a desultory emigration from Korea to Japan continued into historical times. When we say Northern Asia we exclude China. The racial affinity of the Japanese to the Chinese, of which we hear so often, really amounts to very little. It is not closer than that which unites the most distantly related members of the Indo-European family of nations. The Japanese themselves have no traditions of their origin, and it is now impossible to say what form of religion was professed by the earliest immigrants. No inference can be drawn from the circumstance that Sun-worship is common to them with many North-Asiatic races. The Sun is, or has been, worshipped almost everywhere. There is distinct evidence of a Korean element in Shinto, but, with the little that we know of the old native religion of that country, anything like a complete comparison is impossible. Some have recognised a resemblance between Shinto and the old state religion of China, and it is true that both consist largely of Nature-worship. But the two cults differ widely. The Japanese do not recognise Tien (Heaven), the chief Nature-deity of the Chinese, nor have they anything to correspond to their Shangti—a more personal ruler of the universe. The Sun is masculine in China, feminine in Japan. The Sun-goddess takes precedence of the Earth-god in Japan, while in China Heaven and Earth rank above the Sun and Moon. Some Chinese traits are to be found in the old Shinto documents, but they are of later origin, and are readily distinguishable from the native element. A few similarities exist between Shinto and the religion of the Ainus of Yezo, a savage race which once occupied the main island of Japan. But it is reasonable to suppose that in this case the less civilised nation has borrowed from its more civilised neighbour and conqueror rather than vice versa. It is significant that the Ainu words for God, prayer, and offering, are taken from the Japanese. If the Malay or Polynesian element, which some have recognised in the Japanese race, has any existence, it has left no trace in religion. Such coincidences as may be noted between Shinto and oceanic religions, myths and practices are attributable to the like action of common causes rather than to inter-communication. The old Shinto owes little to any outside source. It is, on the whole, an independent development of Japanese thought.

Sources of Information.—The Japanese had no writing until the introduction of Chinese learning from Korea early in the fifth century of our era, and the first books which have come down to us date from the beginning of the eighth. One of these, called the Kojiki (712) is said to have been taken down from the lips of a man whose memory was well stored with the old myths and traditions of his country. He was perhaps one of the guild of ‘reciters,’ whose business it was to recite ‘ancient words’ at the ceremony which corresponds to our coronation. The Kojiki is a repertory of the old myths and legends, and, in the latter part, of the ancient history of Japan. The Nihongi, a work of similar scope, though based more on an existing written literature, was produced a few years later (720). It quotes numerous variants of the religious myths current at this time. There are voluminous and most learned commentaries on these two works written by Motoöri and Hirata in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. For the ritual of Shinto our chief source of information is the Yengishiki, a compilation made early in the tenth century.

Core Beliefs

At the heart of Shinto ideology is the concept of the Kami, commonly defined as, ‘gods’ or ‘deities’. Heavenly deities, most notably the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami, are primarily treated as Kami, but the wider scope of the concept also recognises objects of reverence to be acknowledged as objects of worship such as illustrious ancestors, forces of nature, animals, and even rocks. [6] The Kami are seen as beings who exhibit qualities of harmony and cooperation and who assist people in accomplishing their objectives. [7] Thus, Shintoists seek and worship the respective Kami who are particular to their needs and wishes.

Shinto beliefs and rituals are founded mainly upon creation myths surrounding the birth and development of the sacred Japanese Islands. It is said that Izanagi and Izanami (Heaven and Earth) were a pair who gave birth to the Japanese Islands and various deities. The sun goddess Amaterasu was produced from the left eye of Izanagi and the moon god Tsuki Yomi from his right. [8] The principles of progress and a harmonious life were understood through the actions of such Kami and, having perceived the existence of a life-force, ancient ancestors of the Japanese developed a sense of the functioning and blessings of the Kami. As such, they were deemed individually endowed with divinity and the ability to respond to prayer. [9] Since these ancient times, offerings are presented to the Kami at Shinto shrines all throughout Japan and religious vows are taken in order to secure some natural benefit, or to give thanks for something already received. [10]

Ancient World History

Shinto is the religious structure that provides definition and a framework in which the practitioner can navigate the worship of specific kami. Shintoism is also believed to encompass the indigenous animistic beliefs of the Japanese and was an attempt to formalize different types of beliefs into a cohesive structure.

The word kami is the collective term used to describe the representation of what can be referred to as beings (or deities) found within such things as mountains and rivers. Deceased persons are sometimes able to become kami however, this is a rare occurrence.

The written characters that make the word Shinto consist of two kanji, the first being shin (meaning "god" but also translated as "kami") and the second being tao (meaning "path"). The literal translation means "way of the gods". It is believed that the Yamato imperial court systematically deployed kami worship as a religious system during the third century c.e.

Shinto is widely recognized as an essentially Japanese religious system, having come into existence during the animistic Jomon Period (12,000 to 400 b.c.e.) and practiced by rural rice-cultivating peoples from the Yayoi Period (400 b.c.e. to 300 c.e.).

Before the Meiji Restoration in 1868, which saw Shinto becoming the sanctioned religion, there were three distinct forms of Shinto, or more appropriately, kami worship: These were Rural, Shrine, and Imperial Shinto. Before the intervention of the imperial state kami worship was, at best, disorganized and highly individualistic. From the fifth century c.e. Shinto practices amalgamated with Mahayana Buddhist and Confucian theology.

Shinto’s amalgamation with Buddhism and the ritualistic nature of Buddhist practices contributed to its remarkable integration into all levels of society, from the imperial family to the rural population. It is believed that the naming of the religion occurred as a way of distinguishing it from Buddhism and Confucianism.

Rural kami worship was often referred to as folk Shinto. In order to ensure prosperous crops and a harmonious village life kami would be worshipped through rituals designed to appeal to or appease the deities.

Each region in Japan was thought to have different rituals concerning the kami in their area, and each ritual was defined by the type of kami worshipped (such as rice cultivation and fish farming), hence different regions in Japan would have had entirely different and diverse systems of worship.

As agricultural developments increased and society underwent social and political change, ritual was increasingly employed to ensure a balance between the deities (kami) and the people. As society modernized so did the need for a codified structure of religion and religious practices.

Shrine Shinto and imperial Shinto are similar in that they were dependent upon kami worship as ritual. During the beginnings of the imperial state an official network of shrines was established, and through imperial decrees and ritualized (and state-controlled) prayers (norito) the kami system was formalized.

Chinese influences and concepts of deities during the Yamato court, such as ama-tsu-kami (heavenly deities), also contributed to the continual construction of Shintoism. The majority of information obtained from primary sources concerning Shinto comes from those written during the Yamato court era.

The construction of ritsuryo law (Japanese imperial law) focused particularly on shrine rituals that meant that many indigenous rituals or practices had not been written down. Imperial Shinto practices are more likely to have survived in historical record, as imperial households commissioned such records.

One such practice is the continual use of clerical titles denoting Shinto priests and practitioners in relation to their duties at various shrines. The highest-ranking priest or priestess in Japan is referred to as Saishu and is affiliated with the Grand Shrine of Ise.

A member of the imperial family most often holds this position. The lowest-ranking Shinto priest is the Toya, a part-time layperson chosen from village members to enter the shine for a specific amount of time.

Women were originally allowed to hold ceremonial positions within Shinto however, as the religion underwent a metamorphosis from a rural-based practice to an imperial one they were increasingly relegated to positions that entailed less power, as assistants to the male members of the priesthood.

The oldest known texts in which Shinto practices appear is the 712 c.e. Kojiki (Record of ancient matters) and the 720 c.e. Nihongi (Chronicles of Japan). Both texts make mention of the belief that two kami (Izanami and Izanagi) created Japan.

Izanami gives birth to a kami of fire but dies in the process and resides in a place called Yomi no Kuni (Land of Darkness). Izanagi is shocked to witness Izanami in such a place and returns to the living, stopping on the way to wash himself of his visit to Yomi no Kuni.

The stories indicate an early belief in death as a pollution of the living and are thought to have guided the creation and formulation of other Shinto practices. The chronicles also legitimized the rule of Emperor Mimakiiri-hiko by ascribing him the name hatsu-kuni-shirasu sumera-mikoto (First Emperor to Rule the Realm).

The emperor initiated a state-sponsored adoption of kami worship that included all members of the royal family and the elite ruling members of society. Before this, kami worship lay in the hands of the local rulers and was based more upon shamanistic principles then ritualized worship.

Kami were, and still are, found in prominent and often strategic locations throughout Japan. The original underlying foundation of Shinto is the worship of kami to ensure prosperity, health, and an abundance of food and supplies.

The Yamato court focused on the Mount Miwa kami called Omononushi, which appeared in the form of a snake and was the subject of agricultural ritual. The area was fertile and consistently provided sustenance for the population, thus the kami was considered powerful.

Strategic sites such as the opening of a sea route also had important kami associated with them, such as Sumiyoshi, the kami of Naniwazu (Osaka). However, while kami tied to the environment were viewed as important, the Yamato court also worshipped kami spirits found in ritual objects and objects such as ceremonial weapons.

This type of worship became centralized in court life as it pointed toward the power of the court and enabled the transference of power through an object (for example, kami spirits embodied within a ceremonial sword) that was readily visible.

Shinto became a structured religious system by the systematic integration of kami worship into early imperial Japanese law and society. It is an indigenous religion that has also absorbed Buddhist and some Confucian rituals and philosophies.

Shintoism is notoriously difficult to define, especially in light of the fact that the rituals associated with the religion were often fluid in their approach and highly interchangeable depending on the circumstances of offering.

Shinto: Ancient Japanese Religion - History

This section has scriptures of the Shinto religion, as well as other texts that relate to the spirituality of Japan, which combines Shinto, Buddhism, Confucianism, Animism and other themes. There is also a collection of Ainu Texts.

Shinto Scripture

The Kojiki
Basil Hall Chamberlain , tr. [ 1919 ]
The full annotated version of one of the two Japanese national epics.

The Kojiki
Basil Hall Chamberlain , tr. [ 1919 ]
An abridged version of the Chamberlain translation.

The Nihongi (excerpts), translated by W.G. Ashton [ 1896 ]
Nihongi Part 1
Nihongi Part 2
Nihongi Part 3
Nihongi Part 4

Kogoshui: Gleanings from Ancient Stories
translated by Genchi Katō and Hikoshirō Hoshino [ 1926 ]. Legendary Shinto tales from a primary source

Japanese Culture, Spirituality and Folklore

The Shundai Zatsuwa (A Japanese Philosopher)
By Kyuso ( Muro Naokiyo ), translated by George William Knox [ 1892 ]
An account of Japanese Neo-Confucian thought.

Gleanings In Buddha-Fields
by Lafcadio Hearn [ 1897 ].
In Ghostly Japan
by Lafcadio Hearn [ 1899 ].
by Lafcadio Hearn [ 1904 ].
Japan, An Attempt At Interpretation
by Lafcadio Hearn [ 1904 ]
One of Hearn's last books, this substantial volume is a highly readable history of Shinto in Japan , and its interaction with Buddhism and Christianity highly recommended for outsiders who want to understand the Japanese sprit and culture.

/> The Ideals of the East
by Kakuzo Okakura [ 1904 ]
The evolution of Japanese art and its relationship to Buddhism.
/> The Book of Tea
by Kakuzo Okakura [ 1906 ]
The aesthetics of the Japanese Tea Ceremony, and its connection to the Japanese world-view as a whole.

Genji Monogatari
by Lady Murasaki Shikibu tr. by Suematsu Kencho [ 1900 ]
The first English translation of the classic tale of 10th century Japanese courtly love.

Bushido, The Soul of Japan
by Inazo Nitobe [ 1905 ].
This short and very readable book describes the code of honor of the Samurai and Japanese feudalism , which is essential to understanding many aspects of Japanese society and history.

A Hundred Verses from Old Japan
(the Hyakunin-isshu ), translated by William N. Porter [ 1909 ]
A wonderful thousand-year-old collection of Tanka poetry.

Shinran and His Work: Studies in Shinshu Theology
by Arthur Lloyd [ 1910 ]
A Christian scholar explores Shinshu Buddhism. Includes text and translation of the Shoshinge of Shinran Shonen, with extended commentary.

The Creed of Half Japan
by Arthur Lloyd [ 1911 ]
A comprehensive history of Mahayana Buddhism, particularly in Japan, and possible ties to Gnosticism and early Christianity. Includes two translated texts from the Nichiren school.

Buddhist Psalms
by S. Yamabe and L. Adams Beck [ 1921 ]
A key Pure Land text, by the founder of the most popular form of Buddhism in Japan.

Japanese Fairy Tales
Second Series . By Teresa Peirce Williston , Illustrated by Sanchi Ogawa [ 1911 ]

Principal Teachings of the True Sect of Pure Land
by Yejitsu Okusa [ 1915 ]
The history and practice of Pure Land Buddhism in Japan.

Ancient Tales and Folk-lore of Japan
by Richard Gordon Smith [ 1918 ]
An anthology of Japanese 'Magical Realist' legends and folklore.

The Nō Plays of Japan
by Arthur Waley [ 1921 ].
Translations of a selection of Nō dramas , which have deep connections with Japanese Buddhism, Shinto, and Japanese folklore.

The Story of Gio
from the Heike Monogatari, retold by Ridgely Torrence [ 1935 ]

Japanese Haiku
translated by Peter Beilenson [ 1955 ]
A collection of 220 Japanese Haiku.

Ainu Texts
Ainu resources at sacred-texts.

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Important shrines:

  • Atsuta Shrine, Nagoya, a shrine to the Imperial sword Kusanagi
  • Chichibu Shrine, Saitama Prefecture, dedicated to Omoikane and Amenominakanushi Okami
  • Heian Jingū, Kyoto, dedicated to Emperor Kammu and Emperor Kōmei
  • Hikawa Shrine, Ōmiya-ku, Saitama
  • Hokkaido Shrine, Sapporo, Hokkaido
  • The Ise Jingu, Ise, Mie, dedicated to Amaterasu Omikami, also called Jingu
  • The Gassan Hongu, Yamagata, dedicated to Tsukuyomi Okami
  • Itsukushima Shrine, Hiroshima Prefecture, a World Heritage Site and one of the National Treasures of Japan
  • Iwashimizu Shrine, Yawata, Kyoto
  • Izumo Taisha, Izumo
  • Kasuga Shrine, Nara
  • Katori Shrine, Chiba Prefecture, dedicated to Futsunushi
  • Kumano Shrines, Wakayama Prefecture
  • Meiji Shrine, Tokyo, the shrine of Emperor Meiji
  • Nikkō Tōshō-gū, Nikkō, Tochigi Prefecture
  • Ōsaki Hachiman Shrine, Miyagi Prefecture
  • Sendai Tōshō-gū, Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture
  • Shiogama Shrine, Miyagi Prefecture
  • Three Palace Sanctuaries, Kōkyo Imperial Palace, Tokyo
  • Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine, Kamakura, Kanagawa
  • Usa Hachiman Shrine, Ōita Prefecture, dedicated to Hachimanno-Mikoto
  • Yasukuni Shrine (Tokyo), a shrine dedicated to Japan's war dead.



Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine in Kyoto (JREF Media Gallery)

Shinto ceremony at Atsuta Shrine in Nagoya (JREF Media Gallery)

Atsuta Shrine (熱田神宮) in Nagoya Shinto ceremony on the National Foundation Day.

At the end of the 19th century, Shinto was reconstructed under Emperor Meiji. Meiji was declared a direct descendant of the gods therefore all subsequent emperors were also considered manifest gods. The Japanese believed this gave them the inherent power to rule not only Japan but all the world. With the rise of the Japanese empire in the 19th century, state Shinto came into effect, making Shinto the official religion of Japan, and making the emperor commander-in-chief of the military, with the power to appoint generals, admirals and prime ministers. Schoolchildren bowed every morning before a photograph of the emperor, and were taught that he and all emperors were descended from the gods. In the 1930s, the Japanese believed Emperor Hirohito to be a god, superior to all others and worthy of unquestioning obedience -- a toxic combination with World War II looming.

After the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan surrendered officially in September 1945. In the wake of Japan’s defeat, three documents would change the course of history, dismantling Shinto as state religion: The Directive for the Disestablishment of State Shinto (1945), The Imperial Rescript Renouncing Divinity (1946) and the Post-War Constitution (1947). The Directive for the Disestablishment of State Shinto vowed to “prevent recurrence of the perversion of Shinto theory and beliefs into militaristic and ultra-nationalistic propaganda designed to delude the Japanese people and lead them into wars of aggression.” The Post-War Constitution’s Article 9 states "the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes." After World War II, religion and state would be separate, and Japan would have no military power.

Shinto: Ancient Japanese Religion - History

Hemp has an important function in the mythology of Shinto, the "Way of the Gods", as the ancient indigenous religion of Japan is known. Hemp was used to purify, to drive out evil (exorcism). Hemp seeds were used in Shinto marriage ceremonies. In some ceremonies hemp leaves were burnt as an "invitation to the spirits". (Moore) Even today there are shinto ceremonies at major shrines such as Ise Jingu in Mie prefecture and other shrines that involve the burning of taima (marijuana).

Hempen bell rope

Hempen rope, fibre and paper in oldest shrine in Saitama

Hempen paper and raw fibre

Hemp fibre attached to a wooden stick called a gohei is used in Shinto cleansing ceremonies, such as Shichigosan. Hemp ropes and hemp paper are often seen as decorations in shrines as they are believed to keep away evil.

At Japanese weddings so called Shishimai dragon dances are sometimes performed. The thick white "hair" of these dragons is hemp fibre, and so is the "hair" of fox masks and other costumes worn at o-matsuri (festivals). The heavy carts pulled trough villages in o-matsuri are pulled on hemp ropes.

Believers in Shinto sought the protection of a certain group of gods, the Sahe no Kami: "Travellers prayed to them before setting out on a journey and made a little offering of hemp leaves and rice to each one they passed." (Moore) We are not surprised that rice was a standard travel fare, but this passage tells us that medieval Japanese used to travel carrying hemp leaves, nowadays called marijuana. If travellers were to practice their religion this way today they could face as much as 5 years in prison.

2. Liberation from Occupation!
From an interview with Pon (Yamada Kaiya)

3. Ise Shrine (ise jingu) in Mie prefecture
This is the main shrine of the the Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess. Since the Japanese emperors claim to be her descendants it is also the main shrine of Japanese Imperial family.

Five times a year so called "taima" (marijuana) ceremonies are conducted at the shrine:

4. Religions Of Japan
by George Foot Moore (1913)

Shinto priests carrying cannabis plants in the mountains of Gunma prefecture (1990)

To ward off ills caused by demons, especially the demons of disease, the ancient Japanese sought the protection of a particular group of gods, the Sahe no Kami, or "preventive deities", who are invoked in an old liturgical text to defend the worshippers against the "hostile and savage beings of the root country," such as the "hags of Hades" who pursued Izanagi.

These deities were represented by phalli, often of gigantic size, which were set up along highways and especially at cross-roads to bar the passage against malignant beings who sought to pass. In the liturgy referred to, one of these gods is called "No Thoroughfare" (Kunado, or Funado), the name of the staff which Izanagi threw down to prevent his pursuing spouse from breaking out from Hades into the world above two others are the prince and princess of the eight cross-roads. They had no temples, and were worshipped at the end of the sixth and twelfth months - the time of the semiannual lustration - and on occasion at other times, for example, on the outbreak of a pestilence.

The phallic form of the end post of a balustrade or a bridge has a similar meaning it keeps evil influence from passing. The apotropaic virtue of this symbol - a virtue which it has in many other countries, notably among the ancient Greeks - is due to the association of virility with manly strength, power to overcome invisible foes as well as visible, and to protect those in need of help. Standing as they did on the roadside and at cross-roads, these gods became the protectors of the wayfarers travellers prayed to them before setting out on a journey and made a little offering of hemp leaves and rice to each one they passed.

These gods had nothing to do, so far as the evidence shows, with fertility or the reproductive functions no peculiar rites were observed in their worship, and however objectionable to the taste of a more refined age, the cult was in no sense immoral or conducive to immorality. In modern times, out of regard to the prejudices of Europeans who connected obscene notions with them, they have been generally removed from the roads, remaining only in out-of-the-way corners of the empire.

From the 13th to the 15th of July an All-Souls feast is kept, at which time it is believed that the souls are permitted to return to their kindred and be entertained by them. A staging of bamboo canes is erected in one of the rooms of the house, on which food and lanterns are placed for the spirits, and a Buddhist priest reads a mass before them.

On the first evening fires of hemp leaves are lighted before the entrance of the house, and incense strewed on the coals, as an invitation to the spirits. At the end of the three days the food that has been set out for the spirits is wrapped up in mats and thrown into a river. Dances of a peculiar kind are a conspicuous feature of the celebration, which is evidently an old Japanese custom the Buddhist elements are adscititious.

At this season the graves are decorated, and frequent visits are paid by the kinsfolk. For those who have no relatives living a mass is said in all the temples for "the hungry devils."

During the sumo ritual of dôyo-iri a yokozuna, the highest ranking sumo wrestler, will ritually cleanse the dôyo (sumo ring) to exorcise evil, wearing a hemp rope weighing several kg around his belly.

The choice of material is no coincidence. The reason for it is hemp's association with purity, with driving out evil spirits. One such hemp belt was presented by Japanese prime minister Obuchi to French President Chirac, a sumo fan and, ironically, a staunch supporter of marijuana prohibition.

6. Hemp in other religions

The Koran prohibits Muslims from drinking wine but it does not specifically mention any other intoxicants. While some Muslim liberals say that what the prophet really objected to was drunkenness, i.e. excessive drinking, other, very conservative scholars claim that the prohibition encompasses various kinds of substances, from opium to coffee. Hemp was prohibited in Egypt on that basis, and so was coffee in the Ottoman Turkish empire (see A Chronology of Psychoactive Substance Use). In 1925 the Egyptian government asked England to support adding Indian hemp to an international list of substances to be controlled. The Egyptian government was opposed to alcohol too, but that was not made illegal in Western countries. Opposition to cannabis on religious grounds in Islamic countries has essentially been based on narrow-minded dogma that seeks to regulate all private pleasure in the name of religion.

Many Islamic societies were tolerant of cannabis until international politics forced them to copy western prohibition laws. In Morocco cannabis became illegal in 1960 because the government was bribed through large payments from foreign governments. The new law hasn't stopped the cultivation, it has simply allowed the government and its officials to accepts bribes from both sides. Cannabis from Morrocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Persia (Iran), Afghanistan and India was widely used in the Muslim world. Soldiers of Napoleon Bonaparte brought back hashish from a war in Egypt to 19th century France. The Mogul emperors of India who left us the beautiful Taj Mahal were cannabis smokers too.

Cannabis is still widely grown and used in Islamic countries, from the "kif" plantations of the Rif mountains in Morrocco to the jungles of Aceh in Indonesia. Even draconic laws at certain times and in certain countries have not been able to stamp out the custom.

Hinduism: There is so much to be said about Cannabis in Indian religion that we recommend studying the corresponding chapter of the Report of the Indian Hemp Drugs Comission, published by the British government when India was one of its colonies:

There are no prohibitions against cannabis stated in the Bible, the holy book of Christians. According to the Book of Genesis which describes the creation of the earth, God created all plants, which would include cannabis. It states specifically that God gave humans "all plants bearing seeds" for their use.

It is said that the Mexican word "marijuana" has a Christian origin. "Maria" (Mary) and "Juan" (John) are the names of the mother and of one disciple of Iesus. When he was crucified they were the only people not to desert him. I think the idea behind this is that marijuana has often been used by poor and disadvantaged people to make tolerable what is otherwise hard to bear. In many countries marijuana was a drug of the poor (e.g. Jamaica, South Africa, Egypt, USA before 1960s) while rich people drank alcohol. Rich and powerful people have always been suspicious of poor people and their habits.

Rastafarianism is a biblical religion originating from Jamaica and the Caribbean. It was popularized across the world by reggae musicians, including Bob Marley (1945-1981). Cannabis was introduced into Jamaica by Asian Indian plantation workers brought there to work the sugar plantations after the end of slavery. Marijuana is still known by it's Indian name "ganja" in Jamaica. Rastafarians consider smoking marijuana a sacrament, like eating bread and drinking wine is during mass in Christianity. As Rastafarianism has been more accepted into the mainstream of Jamaican culture and has gained respect, the push for legalisation of ganja in Jamaica has grown in strength.

A 1975 study by Rubin and Comitas, "Ganja in Jamaica" found no demonstratable negative effects of cannabis use in Jamaica. Users were socially well integrated, productive and healthy.

How Japan's religions confront tragedy

Proud of their secular society, most Japanese aren't religious in the way Americans are: They tend not to identify with a single tradition nor study religious texts.

"The average Japanese person doesn’t consciously turn to Buddhism until there’s a funeral,” says Brian Bocking, an expert in Japanese religions at Ireland’s University College Cork.

When there is a funeral, though, Japanese religious engagement tends to be pretty intense.

“A very large number of Japanese people believe that what they do for their ancestors after death matters, which might not be what we expect from a secular society,” says Bocking. “There’s widespread belief in the presence of ancestors’ spirits.”

In the days and weeks ahead, huge numbers of Japanese will be turning to their country’s religious traditions as they mourn the thousands of dead and try to muster the strength and resources to rebuild amid the massive destruction wrought by last Friday's 9.0 magnitude earthquake and resulting tsunami.

For most Japanese, religion is more complex than adhering to the country’s ancient Buddhist tradition. They blend Buddhist beliefs and customs with the country’s ancient Shinto tradition, which was formalized around the 15th century.

“Japanese are not religious in the way that people in North America are religious,” says John Nelson, chair of theology and religious studies at the University of San Francisco. “They’ll move back and forth between two or more religious traditions, seeing them as tools that are appropriate for certain situations.”

“For things connected to life-affirming events, they’ll turn to Shinto-style rituals or understandings,” Nelson says. “But in connection to tragedy or suffering, it’s Buddhism.”

There are many schools of Japanese Buddhism, each with its own teachings about suffering and what happens after death.

“There are many Buddhist explanations of why calamities happen: from collective karma to seeing calamities as signs of apocalypse,” says Jimmy Yu, an assistant professor of Buddhism and Chinese religions at Florida State University. “And perhaps all of them are irrelevant to what needs to be done.”

Indeed, where Christianity, Judaism or Islam are often preoccupied with causes of disaster - the questions of why God would allow an earthquake, for example - Eastern traditions like Buddhism and Shinto focus on behavior in reaction to tragedy.

“It’s very important in Japanese life to react in a positive way, to be persistent and to clean up in the face of adversity, and their religions would emphasize that,” says University College Cork’s Bocking. “They’ll say we have to develop a powerful, even joyful attitude in the face of adversity.”

Japan’s major religious groups are still developing responses to the disaster, but experts say the impulse toward maintaining a positive outlook will likely translate into calls for Japanese to help friends and neighbors clean up and rebuild.

At the same time, Japan’s Buddhist priests will be preoccupied with rituals surrounding death and burial. Japanese Buddhism is often called funeral Buddhism because of its concern with such rituals.

Despite the Japanese penchant for blending their religious traditions - even with Western traditions like Catholicism - the overwhelming majority are buried according to Buddhist custom: cremation and interment in a family plot.

With many bodies swept away in the tsunami, many Japanese will have to come to terms with having to forego that ritual.

After burial, Japanese typically continue to practice rituals around caring for the spirits of the deceased. Most Japanese keep Buddhist altars in their homes, Nelson says, using them to pay tribute to dead ancestors.

“In the days ahead, you’ll see people praying, with hands folded, for the spirits of those killed,” he says. “It goes back to a really early understanding of human spirits and rituals designed to control those spirits, which can take 49 days or, depending on the type of Buddhism, could go on for up to seven years.”

One popular school of Japanese Buddhism, called Amida - or Pure Land - believes in a paradise that spirits of the dead can enter with help from living relatives.

Despite what is likely to be a mass embrace of Buddhist rituals after the earthquake, there may also be some grievances expressed over those traditions.

Many young Japanese have left Buddhism, accusing priests of profiting from grief because of their paid roles in burials. Critics say the priests spend money from funerals on temples without playing a broader role in society.

“The earthquake is an opportunity for Buddhist priests to step up and show they are still relevant,” says Nelson. “Young people just aren’t buying it anymore.”

Other Religions


Japan's first contacts with the West in the 16th and 17th centuries were with either traders or missionaries. The first form of Christianity which arrived was Roman Catholicism, spread by Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch missionaries, usually Jesuits. Thousands of Japanese converted from Shinto/Buddhism to Catholic Christianity.

On August 15th, 1549, Francisco Xavier (a Catholic Saint), Cosme de Tores (a Jesuit priest), and Father John Fernandez arrived in Kagoshima from Spain with hopes to bring Christianity and Catholicism to Japan. On September 29th, Xavier visited Shimazu Takahisa, the daimyo of Kagoshima, asking for permission to build the first Catholic mission in Japan. The daimyo agreed in hopes of producing a trade relationship with Europe. During his stay in Japan, Xavier ordered all missionaries to study the Japanese language and an early form of Romaji was developed as a result. He also succeeded in baptizing and fully converting 100 people to Catholicism - a surprising feat, seeing that he spoke very little Japanese.

The shogunate and imperial government at first supported the Christian movement and the missionaries, thinking that they would reduce the power of the powerful Buddhist monks, but soon the shogunate saw what the Spanish did in the Philippines and what other colonial powers did elsewhere, such as convert the population and then take power. Christianity threatened to destabilize and overthrow their government until the 17th century, when Christianity was banned and those who refused to abandon their new faith were brutally killed, like Paul Miki. The shogun defeated the Christian daimyos at the battle of Satsuma. European missionaries who did not leave the country were also killed, and they are known to the Catholic Church as martyrs. Many Christians fled to Europe or the Spanish Philippines. Suspected Christians were forced to burn crosses and tread on fumie, something considered sacrilegious for a real Christian. In the next four centuries, Japan remained in a state of complete isolation from the outside world. Dutch traders were limited to the island of Dejima, were forbidden to proselitize and were forced to tread on Christian images. In secluded areas, the hidden Christians (kakure kirishitan) continued to practice a corrupted Catholicism, actually a cult of their Christian ancestors with misremembered Latin and Portuguese prayers. When Meiji modernization allowed freedom of religion, several of these hidden Christians turned to Roman Catholicism while others maintained their traditions.

With the 19th century Meiji Restoration, missionaries were able to return. State Shinto was made the official religion, but Christianity was allowed. In addition to Roman Catholicism being allowed back in, Protestantism and Russian Orthodoxy (from Sakhalin) also came. Protestant missionaries from Britain, other European countries, and especially the United States succeeded in making many conversions.

Denominations included Methodists, Episcopalians/Anglicans, Lutherans, Baptists, Roman Catholics, Russian Orthodox, and even Mormons and Unitarians. The most popular denomination was the Congregationalist Church, under the name Kyōdan (United Church of Christ).

When the military took power in 1931, Christians of all stripes were forced to merge into the United Church of Christ. During World War II, Christians were persecuted due to their perceived association with the American enemy, leading many to flee the country.

In 1945, free religion was allowed. All the former denominations were revived, as was the independent United Church of Christ.

Today, Christianity is adhered to by a million people, or less than 1% of the population. Most people adhere to Shinto and Buddhism. But in the Japanese Diaspora, mostly in America, there are many Japanese Christians. Most Japanese Christians in the United States belong to the United Methodist Church, and other Protestant denominations (and Catholic and Orthodox too). Some churches in America take an active missionary role in converting Japanese in Japan, and America, but even in America, 97% of Japanese Americans adhere to Shinto and Buddhism.

In Japan today, most Christians are Protestant, and most belong to the United Church of Christ, followed by Catholics, and then other Protestant denominations.

Though Japanese Christians make up a small fraction of the population, they tend to be visible beyond their numbers. Its practitioners tend to be more devoted and proselytizing than other religions, and they attract sympathy among many young Japanese who view Western culture in a positive light. Furthermore, Christian organizations tend to give large amounts to charity, and have founded some important educational institutions such as the International Christian University, Kwansei Gakuin University and the Jesuit Sophia University.

Famous Christians

The writer Shusaku Endo was a Catholic and the Finn-born MP Tsurunen Marutei is a Lutheran missionary. Toyohiko Kagawa was a well-known writer and social reformer.

New Religions

Beyond the three traditional religions, many Japanese today are turning to a great variety of popular religious movements normally lumped together under the name "New Religions". These religions draw on the concept of Shinto, Buddhism, and folk superstition and have developed in part to meet the social needs of elements of the population. The officially recognized new religions number in the hundreds, and total membership is reportedly in the tens of millions.

The biggest new religion is Soka Gakkai, a Buddhist sect, founded in 1930. The New Komeito Party party is of this faith. It is both in national and local assemblies and has a huge influence on politics as it is a part of the coalition government at the Diet. Because the Constitution requires separation of religion and state the religion's connection with politics is often criticized.

Many of these new religions actually arose as part of Shintoism, and some still have Shinto in their teachings. Some, not all, of the new religions are also known as Sect Shinto, such as Tenrikyo.

They do not make up much of the population, however. Most people follow Shinto and Buddhism, and these new religions make up a little more than Christianity.

Watch the video: 3 Things to know about Shintoism and Buddhism


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