Japanese Religions

April 16, 2009

by Takafumi Miyauchi

Japanese Religions: The Fusion of Shinto and Buddhism

An Interview at Sekizan Zen’in (赤山禅院)

By Takafumi Miyauchi

Have you ever wondered what religion Japanese people believe in? Many Japanese may say that they are atheists. However, this answer would not be accurate. Religion in Japan is actually quite diverse. The Agency for Cultural Affairs came out with a report in 2006 that showed more than 100 million people believe in Shinto, which is the Japanese indigenous religion, and that 90 million said they were Buddhist. Also, approximately 2.5 million are Christian and 10 million belong to other religions. According to this report then, the Japanese population is more than 210 million, but the actual number is about 128 million. This means most Japanese believe in more than one religion at the same time. This may look very strange to those who are monotheists, like Christians and Muslims. This article will look into the mystery of the coexistence of Japanese majority religions, Shinto and Buddhism, by recounting a story of a priest at Sekizan Zen’in.


First of all, I would like to begin with a short introduction of Shinto. Shinto is the Japanese indigenous religion. The form of this religion is animism and Shintoists believe that spirits are in every object in the universe. Shinto’s history is deep and it had existed before the end of the 6th century, when the Japanese started to call it “shinto” or the “way of kami (Shinto god)”. There are not strict commandments in Shinto, and thus some people are not aware of the existence of the religion, but matsuri (Shinto festival) take place everywhere in Japan around shrines. One example is Gion Matsuri, which started as an offering to the gods to ask them to end a plague in Kyoto. People go to shrines for celebrations, to pray for health and success, and wish for good luck.

Learn more about Shinto: http://jinja.jp/ (Japanese and English)


Buddhism was brought to Japan in the 5th century via China and played an important role in Japanese culture and politics from the 6th century onwards. After that, Buddhism developed more through trade with China. History gave birth to many schools. In Classical literature before the Edo period (1603 – 1867) there are many stories of people becoming monks in order to escape from the grim realities of life. The influence of Buddhism on people’s lives is relatively moderate these days. One major Buddhist occasion is that of the funeral ceremony, and the subsequent tending to an altar for the deceased that is placed in the family’s home. Most Japanese also celebrate the holiday Bon in the middle of August, visiting their ancestors’ graves. They also enjoy Bon dance at around this time, which originated as a service for the dead.Learn more about Buddhism: http://www.tcat.ne.jp/~eden/Hst/dic/buddhism.html (Japanese)

Sekizan Zen’in

Sekizan Zen’in is located in Sakyo ward of Kyoto city at the foot of Mount Hiei. It is a part of Enryaku Temple, which is famous for having been burnt down in 1571 by Oda Nobunaga, one of the most notable daimyo in Japanese history. The establishment of Sekizan Zen’in was in 888, and it was dedicated to Taisan Fukun, or Sekizan Daimyoujin, who belongs to the family of one of the Defenders of the Dharma in the Buddhism faith. From the Imperial Palace, the temple is situated to the northeast, the direction which is believed to be the gateway of evil, therefore this temple is also worshipped as a guardian of the city. A sacred monkey in a cage oversees the grounds from the top of a building.

Access: Eizan Railway, Shuugakuin Rikyuu or city buses to Shuugakuin Michi (service number 5, 31 and 65) and then a 20-minutes walk

Opening hours: 9:00 – 16:30

More information:


Interview with a Priest

Based on the basic information I had collected, I conducted an interview with a priest at Sekizan Zen’in to find out deeper facts about Japanese religions. It took approximately 40 minutes by bus from Shijo-Karasuma. The outskirts of Kyoto are quiet with lots of green, and there I found the entrance of Sekizan Zen’in. The big gate in the picture on the left is called a torii, and is a characteristic entry gate to any Shinto shrine. It separates the sacred shrine from the profane world. In the picture on the right, the second gate looks rather like that of a Buddhist temple. Stone lanterns called tourou can be seen in both pictures, even though they were originally adopted along with Buddhism.The priest warmly welcomed me as I entered the temple. Sitting in front of the haiden, the sanctuary, I could see the fusion of Shinto and Buddhism more clearly by finding two different types of buildings standing within the small grounds: the sanctuary with a Buddhist altar and the sacred monkey atop, and the Jizou-dou, which is dedicated to the Buddhist god Fudou Myouou.It seems confusing to see two different religions enshrined in one place, but it is also interesting. The priest said Buddhism was absorbed by Shinto soon after it landed in Japan; many Buddhist gods were brought into Japan and worshipped in both temples and shrines while some were identified with Japanese indigenous gods because they shared similar characteristics. Not only that, Taoist gods were also worshipped in some places (the Japanese star festival, Tanabata, is derived from Taoism as well). It is actually very normal to see these religions mixed together in Japan. There used to be many places in which Shinto and Buddhism were mixed together like they are in Sekizan Zen’in. It is not too much to say that Japanese Buddhism is a religion which is unique to Japan.Next, we may wonder what makes the Japanese able to adopt countless number of gods. The biggest factor is the nature of Shinto and Buddhism. Unlike Christianity and Islam, Shinto and Buddhism are polytheistic religions. Besides, the idea of “yaoyorozu no kami (millions of gods)” within the animist Shinto faith allows anyone to worship any “god,” regardless of where they originated. However, Shinto and Buddhism were forced to be separate by the policy of the Emperor, who sought the strength of the national power in the Meiji period, a movement that lasted until 1873. Even though the connection between Shinto and Buddhism remains strong and stable, mixed shrines and temples are much less common today.

I asked what effects Shinto and Buddhism have had on each other by coexisting in Japan throughout these periods. The priest never showed any concern about the fusion. “It is good to have more variety of objects to worship,” he said. Also he posed a question to me: “What is having faith, or what do you do by believing in gods?” His answer is that having faith is an action to address one’s weakness.People seek the help of gods because they have fear inside. On the other hand, Shinto and Buddhism have developed in a positive way in terms of teachings as well. The books pictured here are of Shinto (left) and Buddhist (right) chants. Norito, or Shinto prayer was created with the influence of Buddhism. As well as prayers, other teachings were written down in books, like the one shown to me by the priest. Norito tell stories of gods based on Japanese mythology and the lessons are not strict; they give us basic ethics of what we should or should not do.Finally, the priest told me the way Japanese should be: “The form of faith is not important, so we do not have to separate Shinto and Buddhism. What we do is to pray to gods and become relieved from pains and anxieties. Also Shinto and Buddhism have their own roles in our lives: Shinto reflects how we appreciate nature and Buddhism shows us the wisdom of how to live. We depend on kami when we suffer and we depend on Amida (Amitābha, the Buddha) when we die.” He was calm as he explained the fusion of Shinto and Buddhism.

Promenade in the Precincts

After finishing the interview with the priest, I set out on a promenade of the precincts of Sekizan Zen’in. I went around to the back of the haiden. The place was actually surrounded by a mountain forest and was greener than in the front. The green will be colored red in autumn. The temple was quiet with few visitors, as it is distant from the city center. There are some more shrines other than the haiden and Jizou-dou, as well as a pond and little steps which add to the ambience of Japanese composure.

(Left) Three little doggies are kept on the precincts. The priest was walking them freely after the interview. The third one was relaxing in another place, close to the main shrine.(Right) The honden, the main shrine and shounen-ju, the rosary-shaped gate. We chant a Buddhist saying upon entering the gate. This is the place for Taisan Fukun, another name for Sekizan Daimyoujin, and it is written on the paper lanterns. Even though many of the gods are Buddhist, most of the buildings take the shape of shrines.

(Left) Statues of juuroku rakan, the sixteen arhats. They are practitioners who had achieved the goals of ascetic trainings in ancient Indian Buddhism.(Right) Hukurokuju is regarded as a member of Shichifukujin, the Seven Lucky Gods in Japan. He is the god of happiness, wealth and longevity, and was adopted from Chinese Taoist belief. The overhanging bell at the front, a characteristic of Shinto shrines, is used to get the attention of the god enshrined inside, but they can be seen in many temples as well.

(Left) Benzaiten, or the Hindu goddess Sarasvatī, is enshrined here. She is another member of the Seven Lucky Gods and governs treasures.

(Right) Komainu, guardian lion-dogs, are often presented at the entrance of shrines in a pair. It is more common to see them in shrines, but their origin was India. They were brought from China in the ancient period when Buddhism was introduced to Japan.Upon listening to the story of the priest, and looking through the shrines on the precincts, the fusion of Shinto and Buddhism could be clearly seen. I was personally surprised to hear how strongly these two religions are connected to each other, but now it is not hard to believe that they were almost one compounded religion that developed uniquely in Japan. The priest gave me a lecture that was full of enlightenment. This is how we are and how we should be. We learn to appreciate nature from Shinto while we learn how to live our life from Buddhism. The stance of worshipping every respectable object is what we naturally have, so we have built shrines and temples everywhere on many scales (tiny shrines and temples can be seen on some streets). To wander in those places calms me: in other words, these places give me peace, and that is the way the Japanese have faith in gods.

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