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Japanese Perspective on Religious Freedom PDF Print E-mail

Hiroi Takase
Takushoku University

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Tokyo, Japan May 23-25, 1998

So far we have seen a global perspective on religious freedom issues. I would like to focus upon the issues in this country. As you are aware, Japan is very tolerant with respect to religion. This tolerance toward religion is indeed apropos when we consider the issue of freedom of religion.

Japan boasts the population with the longest life span in the world. Yet in this long life, many Japanese do not ask themselves, what is religion or what is faith. Many Japanese live their long life without any opportunity of asking these basic questions, and then they pass away.

Of course, if you walk across Japan, in different parts of this country you will see many priests conducting rituals and many religious festivals. Also, when people lose family members, they continue to offer memorial services for the dead for many years. The population of Japan is 130 million, yet 220 million people are listed as practicing religion one way or another. This is because many people have more than one faith or religion. They belong to more than one congregation.

On the surface it looks as if there is an active religious life in this country, yet many Japanese do not really profess belonging to any specific religion. They live according to general religious principles and are not really prepared to devote their life to a certain faith. There are a few exceptions, such as the followers of the Soka Gakkai religious sect.

What lies at the root of the religious awareness of the Japanese is a very special religious feeling toward the dead. The dead are not limited to grandparents but extend to all their ancestors. They continue to pay special respect to those who died centuries ago. This is really the traditional feeling of many Japanese. Professor Maruyama of Kyoto University once said that this feeling of the Japanese is like an icicle in the mind. It dates back to the primitive time or is the underlying reason that we can only find in the bottom layer of our psyche. Such religious feeling still prevails in the highly modernized Japanese society of today. Based upon this feeling, we try to do things to console the souls of the dead. That is why we engage in various religious rituals.

How can the dead and the living be united? This is an issue for day-to-day life for many Japanese. In Buddhism, we have the Pure Land sect, which preaches that the living and the dead must be united to live a life in this world. Many Japanese cite a Sutra that implies that there is a Buddha, or god, in the pure land where the dead are heading. Once the dead person reaches paradise, then that person is transformed into a Buddha and has an enlightened existence.

Everybody wants to be born again in this Pure Land, or paradise. That is where they can join the souls of their grandparents. When they are thus united they will become a god or deity, but not in the sense of God in Christianity or Islam. It is a completely different concept. The religious feeling shared by the Japanese also has the implication that we must live a happy life in this world. We must make use of the merits of religion so there will be some real benefits as we live in this world.

The concept of a holy land is foreign to Japanese. Scholars can explain the difference between the sacred, the holy, and the secular but not many common citizens in this country can do this. But there is a concept of contamination, or polluted things. If something is polluted, you can erase the contamination.

There is no absolute distinction between the pure and the polluted, and the underlying feeling is a strong sense of realism. Because of this realistic view of the world, the Japanese understand and practice religion. Buddhism, Confucianism, and Christianity were all were brought to Japan and transformed in accordance with shared basic notions prevailing in Japan. I doubt whether Japanese Buddhism could be a universal religion, because Buddhism has been highly Japanized. For instance, we have a memorial service for the dead, a practice prohibited by the originator of Buddhism. But for the Japanese, Buddhism cannot be separated from the practice of performing rituals for the dead.

Confucianism is a religion, yet the Japanese people do not see it that way. As it is understood and practiced in Japan, Confucianism is a study of the principles of life as to how we should live. It is not considered rituals that pay respect to deities. From a long time ago, we had the indigenous religion of Shintoism (translated as a way of god) that reflects shamanistic elements very strongly. Shamanism is the basis of Shintoism, into which Buddhism was introduced from abroad.

Esoteric, mantra-based Buddhism was brought to Japan and spread different rituals, such as holy fire, prayer, and a kind of witchcraft, which are very much like cult rituals. These are deeply embedded in Japanese life. From a long time ago the Japanese people have looked for healing and long life from religion. Also, people turned to religion to protect them from evils and for the protection of their country. Buddhism served, or was used, for these purposes for centuries. The public cherished such practices. Japanese people go to Buddhist temples, they sit and listen to the Buddhist sutra chanted by the priest. Sutras are pronounced in a Chinese manner, so people do not understand when they listen. Yet the meaning doesn’t matter. The rhythms produced by the chanting of the sutra produce ecstasy in those sitting in front of the priest. This is true for the typical Japanese citizen, and the majority responds in this manner.

Hannya Shinkyo is a very popular sutra in Japan that ends with a special phrase believed to have strong power. Many people believe that magic can be accomplished by reciting this particular phrase. In Kamakura, many religious leaders taught the people not to blindly follow such shamanistic practice. They told people to open their eyes to the simplicity of people, to have a strong sense of faith, and to pray for the Buddha. Later, in the 16th and 17th centuries, such teachings were transformed. The feudal Tokugawa government was established, and religion, especially Buddhism, was told to be the religion of the family, a religion for the community. The close knitting of the community could be realized with Buddhism as the medium.

Thus, in Japan, in a very unique way a religious/spiritual culture was fostered. Without considering that particular culture, we cannot discuss religion and the Japanese. One thing we cannot ignore is that Buddhism was imported in 538. Ever since, Buddhism in Japan has been considered the religion to secure the authority of the imperial family and protect the country. For instance, in the case of the Pure Land sect, though it was a religion for the public, it was also closely related to national authority and the imperial family.

The famous religious leaders during Heian and Kamakura back in the 9th or 10th centuries advocated Buddhism for protecting the country. What kind of religious activities were necessary to protect Japan? For instance, Shakamuni strongly mentioned that the country and the king were like thieves, so the Buddhist should not respect the country and authority. But Japan did not import that idea. The close relationship between religion and the country was even more emphasized after the Meiji restoration.

In Japan, the country or nation was equivalent to the imperial family. Because religion in Japan was always considered as the religion for the imperial family, separation of the imperial family and its religion was impossible. Therefore, according to the Max Weber, the country acted as a policing nation. Given the close relationship between religion and the emperor, other forms of religion were all persecuted, including Omotokyo, Christianity, and others. In fact, all those religions were persecuted according to laws such as the lese majesty law and the Public Order Act.

All other forms of religions were expelled from the public arena. Not only were other sects abolished but discussion of religion itself was strictly banned. Under the new constitution, as a kind of backlash, an extreme exclusion of religion was implemented in education and public authority. Yet Japanese people still maintain their primitive religious feelings and, without strongly professing a certain religion, they broadly and very loosely believe in a variety of religions.

For instance, Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, as well as other political leaders, shared the concept that religion and politics are incompatible. This idea of Mr. Kato, the secretary of the LDP, is shared by a vast majority of the people.

Freedom of religion becomes important when you profess a certain religion. This kind of consciousness does not exist in the vast majority of Japanese. Most die without professing a certain religion. In other words, we have to start by learning the very basics, what is meant by believing in religion.

Political leaders are trying to exclude religion from all aspects of public authority and administration. We need to help these leaders understand how unique we are in terms of religious belief. Without that enlightenment, it is difficult for Japanese people to consider freedom of religion, which is a very serious question that we have to consider.