Shinto and Buddhism: The 1000 word version

A beginner’s guide to Japan’s two major religions.

By Berin McKenzie

So. Japanese religion in 1000 words or less? I can do better than that. I can do it in four. “Wonderfully simple. Brilliantly complex.” How’s that?

The religious landscape in Japan today is dominated by Shinto and Buddhism, as it has been for over 1000 years. The fact that these two religions have managed to exist side by side is testament not only to the similarities inherent within them, such as ancestor worship, but also to the conscious efforts on both sides to co-exist – the identification of Shinto deities as manifestations of various Buddha for example. It also serves to underscore the syncretic nature of the Japanese themselves.

The Japanese stand accused of being religiously promiscuous, in that there is no seeming conflict of interest in identifying with two or more religions. This may seem incongruous to those of monotheistic faiths such as Christianity or Islam, however it serves to highlight the different pattern of religious observance in Japan.

The following will be a brief outline of the two main faiths in modern day Japan. As with any writings on religion, it is not to be taken as gospel (see what I did there?) rather serving as a sketch of a hint of a whisper of a sliver of a draft of a superficial outline of an attempt at a tiny overview of a topic that is inherently of the Human Condition and one which starts to shed some light on the complexities of modern Japanese society.

So this is (blasphemously briefly) how it works:


Shinto (神道) is the indigenous religion to these isles. Commonly referred to as the “national religion,” it is in fact no such thing. The decree separating church and state by the Occupation Forces following WWII ended government control of Shinto, a situation that had really only existed since it was seized upon by nationalist forces during the Meiji Restoration in 1868.

Shinto lacks any central holy text and the closest to a Bible or Koran it can muster is the Kojiki, or “Record of Ancient Matters” written in 712CE*. The Kojiki brought together existing myths and legends to describe the mythological origins of the Japanese race in order to establish an indigenous counter to the newly arrived Buddhist faith. By the time of its introduction to Japan in the 5th Century CE, Buddhism was already a “world religion” and brought with it not only highly developed systems of belief and observance but whole new architectural and artistic styles. This forced the hand of Japan’s existing, though disparate, belief systems and resulted in the creation and indeed the very definition of Shinto. In addition Shinto, as a “native” religion, helped cement the Yamato clan, tentative new rulers of a fragmented but unifying country, as central to the “Japanese” identity. Shinto is often referred to as animistic in that the belief system in part dictates that all natural objects are imbued with kami. These kami are not “gods” per se (although this is almost invariably how the word is translated); rather they are objects or phenomena of nature such as trees, mountains or rivers that inspire awe or are seen as out of the ordinary. It is important to note that these kami are not seen as omnipotent beings beyond this realm, but rather a very real part of this plane. The kamidana (deity shelf ) seen in many Japanese homes acts as a means to make offerings to these kami.

Although there is a lack of theology inherent in Shinto, many practitioners follow an almost Confucian outlook on life. Humans are for the main part seen to be inherently good, with evil acts being ascribed to evil spirits. Purification through prayer and ritual is therefore a large part of the religious process.

Today, Shinto may be more easily thought of as a centralized, ingrained system of rather organic beliefs as opposed to an “observed” religion. Many of the rituals associated with it are so deeply ingrained in Japanese culture that they are simply seen as part of “being Japanese” rather than adherence to any particular creed.


Buddhism (仏教, bukkyou), said to have been founded in India in the 5th Century BCE**, arrived in Japan via China and Korea. Initially it was adopted by the upper classes and from there disseminated down through society. Since its introduction, domestic Buddhism has divided into various sects, each with their own beliefs in regard to the attainment of enlightenment.

Particular to East Asia is the “populist” Mahayana branch of Buddhism, and the main paths represented in Japan are the Zen, Pure Land (the biggest) and Nichiren schools. The Nichiren school is particular to Japan and was founded by a Japanese monk of that name in the 13th Century CE.

Nichiren Buddhism maintains that enlightenment is available to all, and through the teachings of the Lotus Sutra, its central tenet, teaches that it is the one true way to enlightenment; a stand that puts it at odds with other branches of the religion. The Nichiren school has had a large impact on Japanese society and politics, particularly with the rise of the so-called “New Religions” which have developed since the mid-late 19th Century CE. These include for example, the Soka Gakkai movement, which is behind the New Komeito political party which enjoys a majority coalition arrangement with the LDP.


Other new religions, many of which sprang up following the end of WWII as well as since the bursting of the Japanese “bubble” economy in the late 1980s, have direct origins that are often more difficult to trace. Many of them, in no small part thanks to the 1995 Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system by the Aum Shinrikyo cult, are regarded with a certain amount of suspicion.

1000 words isn’t much is it? Believe me when I say that there are terabytes of information regarding religion in Japan available online and more importantly there are 130-odd million people in your general vicinity that can help to guide you through the intricacies of belief in this country. It is a fascinating topic that is inherently alive and evolving and one which contributes in no small part to the identity and indeed direction of modern Japan. Get on in there.

* CE: Common Era – The PC “AD”
** BCE: Before the Common Era – The PC “BC”