Buddhism and Shinto are the two most practiced religions in Japan, with 80,000 Shinto shrines and 75,000 Buddhist temples across the country. Shinto is associated with the worship of kami, deities associated with natural phenomena, while Buddhism is associated with the teachings of the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama. Read on to learn how the two religions coexist and shape the lives of Japanese.
When traveling in Japan, you can tell if a place of worship is a temple or shrine by its name alone – A temple usually ends with the suffix tera, dera, or ji (All of those words mean “temple"), while a shrine ends with the suffix jinja (deity’s sanctuary), taisha (great sanctuary), or myōjin (enlightened deity). As for visual indicators, the red torii gate lets you know you are about to enter a shrine, while a large and intricate mon gate lets you know you are entering a temple.
The impressive entrance to Tōdaiji Temple in Nara. Built in 743, this temple was the epicenter of Buddhism in the region and closely tied to the imperial court. It hosts an impressive bronze Buddhist statue that is visited by travelers from all over the world. Image via Adobe.
Itsukushima Shrine in Hiroshima was built around 593 and is dedicated to the Shinto deity Susano-o no Mikoto, the god of sea and storms. Image via Adobe.
Introducing Buddhism and Shinto to Japan
Buddhism was introduced to Japan via China in 6th century during Japan’s Asuka period. During Japan’s Nara period (710-794), Buddhism was established as a state religion, and continued to influence Japanese art and literature in the Heian period (794-1185). One of the schools of Buddhism that was introduced via China is Zen Buddhism. It was introduced to Japan by monks Eisai and Dogen during the Kamakura period (1185-1333). Zen Buddhism is one of the most famous schools of Buddhism worldwide and known for putting a strong emphasis on meditation. Zen flourished during the Ashikaga Period (1336-1573), when it was used to shape the warrior code for samurai, and informed the aesthetics of Japanese traditional arts such as tea ceremony, and flower arrangement.
A cup of matcha being prepared. The teachings of Japanese tea ceremony are influenced by Zen Buddhism. Image via Adobe.
At the same time, the worship of natural elements and kami associated with Shinto has been practiced since Japan’s prehistory. An early recorded example of Shinto practices is the construction of kofun or keyhole-shaped burial mounds to worship deities during what is known as the Kofun period (250-538). In Japan’s Heian period (794-1185), imperial court texts such as the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki in the 8th century were commissioned by Emperor Jimmu, Empress Jito, and Empress Gemmei respectively, to emphasize the divine nature of the imperial line, strengthening their authority. According to the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki, the imperial family is believed to be the descendants of the sun goddess Amaterasu, one of the most revered deities in Shinto.
Mozu-Furuichi Kofungun, Ancient Tumulus Clusters in Osaka, offer a stunning look into the ancient Shinto practice of creating a keyhole-shaped burial mound to worship deities. Image via Adobe.
Did you know that Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines were not strictly separated in Japan until the 19th century? Shinto and Buddhism were syncretized during the Kamakura and Muromachi periods (1185-1573). The term shinbutsu shūgō refers to the intertwining of Shinto and Buddhist beliefs and practices. Shinto and Buddhism were not mutually exclusive for hundreds of years, and Shinto deities and buddhas could coexist in shared spaces. Some deities in Shinto are considered to be equivalent to certain buddhas. For example, Shinto’s god of war Hachiman and Buddhist warrior deity Bishamonten are both enshrined at Usa Shrine in Oita Prefecture.
Under the Meiji government (1868 – 1912), Shinto and Buddhism were officially separated in a policy known as shinbutsu bunri, and Shinto was instated as Japan’s national religion (kokka shintō) to support Japan’s central administration, with the Emperor of Japan believed to be descended from the sun goddess Amaterasu. Following the second world war and the official separation of state and religion, the current Japanese constitution states that no religious organization shall receive any privileges from the State or exercise political authority. That said, there continues to be imperial ceremonies, national holidays associated with Shinto, and state visits by government officials to Shinto shrines.
Shinto and Buddhism in Everyday Life
Visiting Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples is a common activity even by Japanese who do not necessarily consider themselves religious. Whether it be for life events such as weddings, and childbirth, or holidays such as New Year’s and the Obon festival to honor one’s ancestors, many Japanese make multiple visits to a Shinto shrine or Buddhist temple throughout the year. It's important to note that Shinto does not have a fixed set of doctrines or a centralized religious authority, and practices and beliefs can vary among different communities and individuals.
Many families have what is known as a kamidana (神棚), or miniature Shinto shrine in their homes to honor kami. The shrine often features offerings of fruit, rice, and beverages. Kamidana are often decorated with zigzag paper streamers known as shide (紙垂/四手), twisted rope known as shimenawa (標縄/注連縄/七五三縄), a small mirror, and a talisman called an ofuda (御札), the latter believed to contain the essence of the enshrined kami. Ofuda are renewed annually at shrines.
There is also a Buddhist home altar known as a butsudan (仏壇), at which family members can pray to Buddha, light candles, and leave offerings of food. Butsudan are often accompanied by Buddha statues and bells. When a loved one has passed away, familes often place a framed photograph of the deceased at a butsudan and decorate the photograph with a red stamp called inai (印相) which is believed to give blessings.
While incense is used for both kamidana and butsudan, it tends to be used to purify the space for the kami, while incense at a butsudan is used to purify the space for the deceased, guiding them on their journey through the afterlife. Another difference is where they are placed - kamidana tend to be elevated, while butsudan are at eye level. Many Japanese homes contain both Shinto kamidana and Buddhist butsudan.
Amulets (o-mamori) and talismans can be purchased at Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. They are affixed on everything from children’s backpacks to employee briefcases to attract good luck, romance, health, and even protection from bicycle accidents and success at university entrance examinations. When visiting a Shinto shrine, you can also ask the local miko (priestess) or kannushi (priest) for the official seal of the shrine (goshuin), either on its own or stamped in your own notebook known as a goshuincho, as proof of your visit. Ambitious travelers can even try the Shikoku Pilgrimage, a religious practice originating from the Heian period (794 – 1185), which involves visiting 88 temples and shrines across Japan in a 1,200-kilometer journey.
This kind of amulet is commonly sold at Shinto shrines. This cute daruma-style amulet says 合格 (“to pass an examination”) and is used as a good luck charm for test takers hoping to enter the university of their choice. Image via Adobe.
A trip to Japan isn’t complete without a visit to a Shinto shrine or Buddhist temple. Many institutions have pamphlets available in foreign languages, and even retiree volunteer guides who can explain the shrine or temple’s history and significance from a local’s perspective. We highly recommend you check out the nearest shrine or temple on your next visit to Japan!
Have you ever visited a Shinto shrine or Buddhist temple? What are your recommendations? Let us know below!