Religion and Culture in Modern Japan
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Religion and Culture in Modern Japan
Due to the younger generation of Japan’s increasing apathy towards religion, Japan’s rich culture, identity, and national pride is in jeopardy. This can be concluded by reviewing the connection between religion and culture through Japanese history, and comparing it to the state of the two in modern Japan. By fading away from traditional religion and culture, Japan will continue to adopt western culture and form a new, blended culture, as it has in the past.
Japan’s cultural history has always had close ties to religion. From China and Korea came Buddhism, which to Japan brought not only new religion, but also new culture, “it provided a well-developed body of doctrine, art, magic and medicine, music and ritual.” (Schirokauer, 15) Buddhist ideas, such as karma, impermanence, and simplicity were extremely influential in forming the contents and aesthetic ideals of Japanese poetry and art in general. Buddhist art, paintings and sculpture, as well as its architecture helped shape Japanese arts and architecture in general. However, Japanese culture is unique from that of China’s and Korea’s. This comes in part from a mixed religious atmosphere.
Another significant religion in Japanese history, Shinto, has also had a great influence on Japanese culture, especially in performing arts. The two most famous forms of Japanese theatre today, Noh and Kabuki, derive from Shinto rituals. (KEJ 4:90; 6:23-24; 7:131) Since ancient times, dances and songs performed at shrines served as means to evoke deities and pacify them. Kabuki was first performed in the capital Kyoto in 1603 by a female dance troupe from Izumo shrine, one of the most important old centers of deity worship in Japan. (McFarland, 16) Japanese literature derives mainly from Shinto and Buddhist sources. Collections of Buddhist tales and hagiographies helped to get Japanese prose literature started. Not only art, but also daily life in Japan reflects religious traditions.
Japan’s older, folk religions have stories with characters that have developed into cultural icons. These beings introduce speech and manners; establish social differences between male and female; and institute the laws of the society; and make economic life possible for humans. In short, a culture hero makes the world inhabitable and safe for mankind, introduces cultural goods and instructs in the “arts of civilization.”(Long 175) The old religious folk stories known by so many Japanese imply that culture is of divine origin and bears a religious character. It is religion that “creates”, or “produces” culture. Recently however, belief in, and practice of older traditions has waned.
The end of WWII was harmful to the foundation of religious belief for much of Japan. The Japanese empire in Asia collapsed, planting the seed of doubt of their gods. The emperor, who was up until then thought of as deity, denied his god-ship and submitted to western powers to reform the country. Also, five years ago Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori apologized for inferring Japan was formed by, or run by gods,
“…the expression “kami no kuni” [the land of deities] was not made in reference to any specific religion, but rather was meant to express the fact that in the course of history, the Japanese have seen in Nature – in the mountains, rivers and seas of their local communities – beings above and beyond humankind. That is what I meant to express, and in no way did I make the remarks to the effect that the Emperor is divine. Indeed, that would be absolutely contrary to my own personal beliefs.”(Mori)
The sentiment expressed by the emperor is the same that is prevalent in most of the modern Japan. A website describing Japanese customs states, “Statistics show that few Japanese are deeply devoted to a specific religion and that, in fact, many profess to have no interest at all. When asked, ‘Do you have some religion?’ 65% of the people said ‘I’m not religious’.”(Yamazaki, 2) This is in agreement with what an American wrote of her experiences in Japan, “Watching the Japanese, I eventually found myself using the term ‘practical religion’ when thinking about their spiritual practices. By that I meant a set of practices or rituals that the Japanese would engage in whenever it was convenient.” (Scranton, 6) Though fading religious practice is trend found throughout the world, it is happening very rapidly in Japan. And while rejecting older, outdated ideas doesn’t upset culture very much, ignoring the rest of the traditions held by prominent religions can disrupt