If I had to sum up the five things Japan is most famous for it would be 1) the contrast between ancient and modern, 2) cherry tree blossoms, 3) the freshest sushi and seafood in the world, 4) rich cultural traditions, and 5) speedy trains.
Now, many of those can fit neatly into nearly any stereotype of Japan you could imagine but, needless to say, these things are what standout foremost as main staples of Japanese culture.
Perhaps a lesser known element of what makes Japan uniquely Japanese is the extremely high rate of syncretism which exists in Japanese culture. Syncretism is the mixing, or partial mixing, of beliefs, practices, an ideologies–some of which may even be contradictory in nature.
If you are a fan of Japanese anime (animation) or video games you will be familiar with the extreme nature of the synchretism which runs throughout Japanese culture and thought.
Anime series like Neon Genesis Evangelion,
a popular mecha-robot, philosophical themed series, combined a lot of Judeo-Christian imagery, theology, and concepts into the story line. Popular games like the classic Super Mario Bros.
combine all sorts of bizarre elements, including a chubby Italian plumber in red and blue overalls, a magic mushroom kingdom, magical blocks with transformative items, magic bean stalks, magic tanuki
raccoon suits with flying abilities, drain pipe warps with giant man-eating plants to foil your epic jumps, chain-comps, under water firepower, a pet dinosaur to help you on your journey, a princess in distress, and a dragon–which give the gamer a unique experience.
Syncretism is about mixing and matching, re-arranging concepts, ideas, traditions, into new formations.
This syncretism is prevalent nearly everywhere in Japanese society, and it is also prevalent in Japanese religious attitudes and practices. About the religious situation in Japan, Wikipedia sates:
Japan enjoys full religious freedom based on Article 20 of its Constitution. Upper estimates suggest that 84–96 percent of the Japanese population subscribe to Buddhism or Shinto, including a large number of followers of a syncretism of both religions. However, these estimates are based on people affiliated with a temple, rather than the number of true believers. Other studies have suggested that only 30 percent of the population identify themselves as belonging to a religion. According to Edwin Reischauer and Marius Jansen, some 70–80% of the Japanese regularly tell pollsters they do not consider themselves believers in any religion.
Although Japan is roughly 80% secular, many of the approximately three thousand year old religious traditions and practices are still observed, which is why many Japanese will claim they are Shinto or Buddhist even thought they may not know anything about those particular religions aside from the related cultural holidays which they have observed since they were children.
Over time, these traditional Japanese religious practices have melded together into one of Japanese observance. Instead of a particular religious observance superseding Japanese culture, such as with the well-known example of Buddhism, these foreign elements have become incorporated into Japanese culture and have become a kind of Japanese observance. Japanese thus view these assimilated religious rituals as part of their national identity even if these religious elements didn’t originate in Japan, and/or even if they as a people aren’t particularly religious.
Another thing to note is that the religious beliefs and rituals in Japan have frequently grown entangled, often times fusing together as do two trees which grow into one.
One of the peculiar things I noticed when I first came to Japan was that every year, during hatsumode (the first shrine visit of the year) or obon (the Japanese Buddhist observance of death) when Japanese people take time out of their busy schedules to visit the ossuaries and grave sites of their deceased loved ones, they will place a white sheet of rice paper over the Shinto shrine, usually in the kitchen above the mantle in their homes, so that it will not be in direct view of the Buddhist shrine or alter, usually situated in the living room area in a hide-away closet.
The reason for this is because, due to roughly a two-thousand year history of having the two religions living domestically side by side, they have developed competing gods of death. If the two gods were to see each other all chaos would break loose, or at least that’s the feeling I get from why they do it.
So the veil of paper over the Shinto shrine is to ensure a lasting peace between Shintoism and Buddhism. But such a belief could only arise if the Shinto gods and Buddhist gods all played together on the same playing field, rather than as separate religions. That is to say, there is enough syncretism to ensure that specific religious observances were developed especially to take into consideration both religious points of view since there was a mingling between the two.
This mingling of the two main religions of Japan can also be seen in the basic architecture of their places of worship and religious ceremony. On the Wiki article for Shinto shrines
, it informs us that
Shrines weren’t of course completely immune to change, and in fact show various influences, particularly that of Buddhism, a cultural import which provided much of Shinto architecture’s vocabulary. Therōmon (楼門 tower gate),[note 5] the haiden, the kairō (回廊 corridor), the tōrō, or stone lantern, and the komainu, or lion dogs, (see below for an explanation of these terms) are all elements borrowed from Buddhism.
So Japan can be viewed as a giant syncretic melting pot of sorts. And this seems to be especially true with regard to Japan’s religious beliefs and practices. It is often jokingly said that Japanese are born Shinto, get married as Christians, and die as Buddhists. It’s because of the religious syncretism of Japanese culture going on behind the scenes which makes such a joke so revealing about a highly fascinating aspect of Japanese life.
I often see Mormon missionaries peddling their religion (literally peddling–around–trying to sell Japanese their religion) all over Japan, and upon seeing a foreign face they often stop to have a chat.
Most of the time I ask them about what sorts of culture shocks they have experienced while in Japan, as this makes for interesting conversation, but they usually start to plug away their religion after a brief exchange and that’s when I politely wish them luck and go on my way.
The thing is, for anyone who has spent time in Japan, introducing a new religion is practically impossible. At least, introducing a religious set of beliefs and practices and hoping that they get adopted is futile. The reason is simply that Japanese syncretism will take those religious beliefs, practices, and ideas only to dismantle, rearrange, and incorporate them in often bizarre ways–and fit them to suit their unique Japanese world view.
Perhaps one of the most obvious examples of this is the adoption of Christian styled wedding services. All across Japan you can see full scale replicas of famous European cathedrals, like St. Valentine’s Cathedral, and you would think that with all these churches all over Japan that Japan had a large Christian demographic, but you’d be wrong.
There is nothing particularly Christian about these churches except that a bride, wearing a white dress, will frequently get married in one. And even then, the wedding service istelf, toted as a traditional Western wedding repeat with an English speaking pastor or priest (English speaking!), aren’t all that Christian. Even the English speaking pastor or priest turns out to be a paid actor half of the time. As for the service, it looks Western in terms of aesthetics, but everything else is Japanese. The guests still get seated the Japanese way, with your boss and co-workers up front and your family members all the way in the back corner. And the food is often times seafood, so none of that kosher business. And there are no prayers to be said or blessings to be bestowed, but that could be a good thing depending on your point of view.
So syncretism goes a long way, I think, in stripping religion of its notion of the sacred, by taking what is sacred and slamming it into the giant ball of clay with everything else and then mashing it up and reforming it into something entirely new–with some familiar elements, if any at all.
Although I don’t have hard data to confirm that syncretism contributes to Japan’s high rate of secularism, I would presume that it plays a large roll in maintaining Japan’s overall secularism.
I say this, in part, because when there is no dominant religion, things tend to get assimilated into the culture, and then the culture takes these elements into itself and does what it wants with them regardless of their original context.
As such, the religious practices and traditions of newer religions, like Christianity or even Mormonism, play a minor role in how Japanese people think about these religions as religions. In reality, they are relatively unimportant to the Japanese, who already have ancient religions which are as much of their cultural identity as karaoke, cherry blossoms, samurai, and sumo wrestling. If the Japanese are to adopt any religious beliefs and practices, it will be within the context of the Japanese mindset, and then, only according to how those foreign beliefs or practices can be incorporated as part of the Japanese identity.
In fact, foreign religious beliefs typically get shaped to Japanese sensibilities for specifically Japanese usages, and only fragments of their core meaning will survive the transition, and then, they will often take on a whole new meaning in the process. I think an apt analogy would be to consider that instead of Christian missionaries bringing the Evangelion
to the Japanese people and converting them to Christianity, what happens is the Christian beliefs get run through the factory of Japanese syncretism and what comes out is Neon Genesis Evangelion
At least, this is the process as such. But such syncretism can be seen in everyday customs and practices. I’ll use a real world example which I am sure many who know Japanese culture well will be familiar with.
While in Western culture the virgin bride’s white wedding dress is a sign of virtue and chastity, in Japan it gets transformed to simply an aesthetic element and has little more meaning to it other than it looks particularly Western, and so is desired by young Japanese couples who want to have an exotic wedding, since white wedding dresses are exotic in Japan! That is to say, they aren’t kimonos and they have an entirely different appeal here.
Reflecting back on my time in Japan, I have come to see that the syncretism of Japanese culture unexpectedly played a large role in my own loss of religious faith.
Although I was unaware of how it was influencing me at the time, when I saw how my sacred beliefs kept being misapplied, malformed, and misunderstood it became clear that the underlying importance wasn’t what the initial belief may have been about or what the content necessarily contained, but how one could take that and make an unfamiliar religious ritual meaningful to them.
Of course, from my fundamentalist view at the time it rubbed me the wrong way–it seemed overly unorthodox if not dangerously heretical to my pious worldview.
When I got married here in Japan, I was still a believing Christian. I took measures to ensure that the we got a qualified Christian reverend to marry us, and that we had an authentic Christian wedding alongside a Japanese Shinto wedding, just to be right with God. After all, at the time, I felt a Shinto wedding by itself wouldn’t be recognized in the eyes of the Christian God, and a Christian style wedding wouldn’t be recognized in God’s eyes either if it wasn’t authentic, and at the time, as a devout believer, I didn’t want to be living a lie–pretending I was married when my union wasn’t recognized by God as a “holy” union.
I was literally worried, as irrational as it seems now, that if I consummated my marriage on my wedding night that it might be a “sin” if I wasn’t truly married in the eyes of God. Basically, I was worried that sleeping with my wife might be considered pre-marital sex if our union wasn’t sanctioned by God and according to the tenets of my faith.
So I made sure it was fully authentic, just to be on the safe side, and my concerns abated.
Yet this initial discomfort of recognizing that the Christian wedding wasn’t a true, or authentic, Christian wedding is one of the things that challenged me to think through why it was this way and what it all meant in the grander scheme of things.
Indeed, it challenged me to think about my beliefs more closely, and it forced me to consider alternative contexts for placing those beliefs in. It basically was a naturalistic version of what the atheist thinker John W. Loftus has coined as the Outsider Test for Faith. Literally, I had to step out of my own cultural confines and think about my beliefs as an outsider, as a Japanese (walk a mile in the other person’s shoes, so to speak), so that I could understand how to correct what I viewed then as a misapplication of Christian beliefs, customs and practices for the wedding ceremony where those beliefs, customs and practices took on a new form and meaning.
This was, of course, the first step toward a gradual crawl toward atheism, because although I didn’t realize it at the time, the challenge to account for Japanese syncretism and to make sense of two different yet overlapping worldviews forced me to work twice as hard to justify my religious beliefs and practices, to make sure they continued to have meaning, but the end process was that I finally realized that–they didn’t have any inherent meaning apart from the meaning imbued by me.
The only meaning my religious beliefs, customs and practices had was what I brought to them.
After realizing this important lesson, it was far easier for me to accept Japanese syncretism and the often strange consequences of picking and choosing what one liked from the proverbial nabemono
pot, a popular dish in Japan filled with literally everything and anything you could desire.
So, to make a short answer long, I think without the unique challenges I faced when I came to Japan, without having met my Japanese wife, without having had to re-examine my own beliefs, without having to account for various differences in our beliefs, customs, and practices I wouldn’t have been put into the position to find a context to place them in that would be compatible with two different worldviews simultaneously, and I very well may have remained a believing Christian.*
I am so lucky then, that I came to Japan! It helped me grow in ways I could never have even imagined. It helped me to see the world through a fresh lens. I gained a new perspective, and in the process, part of me became assimilated by Japanese culture and I will be the first to admit I am better off for it.
*Just a quick side note: Although I think I would have remained a Christian for a longer time if I hadn’t come to Japan, I do, however, think that there were other mitigating factors that would have triggered my gradual crawl toward atheism as well. In my mind though, it was the unique challenges Japanese culture posed to me that hastened my transition from pious minded believer to secular minded atheist.