Curiously, the phenomenon of “religion” in Japan still confounds scholars, practitioners, and the public – inside and outside Japan – who continue to accept the stubborn assumption that the Japanese, in the together are “areligious”. It is easy to find articles, blogs and videos in which the Japanese confess that they are “mushūkyō(“Areligious”).* This statement is often followed by the comment that people who have just confessed to being “Areligious” have a “Buddha altar” (butsudan) at home, observe “religious” holidays such as the “New Year” (oshogatsu) and “Obon”, the mid-summer festival during which the return of the dead to their hometown for a few days is celebrated, and chant “religious” texts such as the Heart Sutra (Hannya shingyō) or recite “religious” evocations, such as the nembutsu“Namu amida butsu.”
This apparent paradox is well summed up by a survey conducted by the Pew Foundation which indicates: that 72% [of the Japanese] have no religious faith, 68.8% follow no religion, 70.4% of the total population identify as Shintō and 60.8% as Buddhist. **Scholars of religion as well as anyone familiar with this subject know that the problem lies in the definition of “religion”, and in particular in the use of the Japanese translation for “religion”, “shūkyō.”*** “Shūkyōliterally means “school/sect teaching” and points to an orthodoxy emphasizing “correct faith”, while a visit to a Buddhist temple or Shintō shrine seems to reveal a focus on “correct practice”. (orthopraxy). More importantly, for many Japanese people, the term “shūkyōseems to imply “religion as presumably lived in the United States.”
I am currently in Japan, having entered the country after a long hiatus of two years due to COVID-19. On June 18 and 19, I attended a conference in Matsumoto City, Nagano Prefecture. On the way back to my university in Sendai, I stopped one night in Nagano City to visit the famous Zenkō-ji. What I saw at Zenkō-ji would have made anyone who seriously believes that “Japanese are religious” stop and rethink their premise. The temple was packed with people waiting up to two hours in line just to touch a wooden pillar called “ekobashira.” Those present at the event engaged in multiple devotional practices and participated in, dare I say it, “religious” rituals. I have included some links in the bibliography that have printed photos from the event.**** I have to say it was quite an experience.
Like most Buddhist temples in Japan, Zenkō-ji has a main image (Honzon). Zenk-ōji enshrines the secret Amida Buddha Triad consisting of Amida Buddha in the center, Bodhisattva Kannon (Ch: Guanyin) to Amida’s left, and Bodhisattva Seishi (Set: Mahāsthāmaprāpta) to his right. The triad expresses that the liberation symbolized by Amida synthesizes the wisdom indicated by Seishi and the compassion embodied by Kannon. Although this image is not publicly available, it is immensely famous. Once every six years – according to the Japanese counting method and due to COVID-19 it was seven years this time), the image is revealed in a celebration called gokaicho. Every six or seven years, a pillar is erected for two months to introduce the secret Amida to the public and to display the innermost core of the temple, and in some sense, the city of Nagano, in symbolic form.
This tension between unveiling and hiding, the two reciprocal aspects of Truth according to Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), constitutes a central feature of religious practice in Japan. Shintō shrines are notorious for not displaying images of the divine (kami). The foxes of the so-called “fox sanctuaries” are only protective deities, the kami is mostly Inari, which is why their Japanese name is “Inari Jinja”. The consecrated kami is symbolized by a “divine body” (shintai), usually a mirror, or simply through the closed doors of the “main hall” (honest). The use of a mirror to symbolize the divine, of course, calls for interesting discussions. But today I just want to point out that the practice of hiding and concealing the main deity is also common in the case of Shintō shrines. The divine core is hidden and only revealed symbolically.
The motif of concealment and disclosure is found elsewhere in Buddhism in Japan. For example, one of the rituals conducted at Zenkō-ji involves walking under Amida’s secret golden triad through a tunnel in darkness entering the “inner sanctuary” (naijin). Instead of bringing the “main image” to light, even if it is in symbolic form, this practice involves immersing the practitioner in the darkness of the inner sanctum. A final example of this trope of concealment and disclosure is the Midsummer Festival (obon), when the Japanese celebrate the temporary return of the deceased to his hometown. Although many Japanese people probably don’t to believe in the true return of the spirits of the underworld (yomi), the presence of those who preceded us is lived symbolically in a celebration (matsuri) which combines Shintō and Buddhist aspects.
And that’s why I think these kinds of practices are inherently religious. Besides the fact that Shintō and Buddhism in Japan meet most if not all of the criteria for “religion”, whether sociological, anthropological, psychological and philosophical, whether practitioners identify themselves as “religious” or “areligious”, this tension between what-is-hidden and what-is-revealed constitutes the core of the religious project. Medieval Christian theologians, notably Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), clearly stated that the divine nature can only be articulated symbolically or by silence, the so-called “negative theology” (via negative). The dao of jing opens with the famous line “The Dao that can be said is not the Eternal Dao – the name that can be named is not the Eternal Name.” Dōgen, to return to Japan, said that our embodiment of “Buddhas and ancestors” (shobutsu shoso) constitutes “expression-and-non-expression” (dōtoku-fudōtoku). In a certain sense, religion is the attempt to ritually, symbolically and collectively embody that which is hidden and beyond our comprehension. The practices described above exemplify this project of revealing-what-is-hidden as well as any other tradition.
* This Japanese man Yuta. January 3, 2018. “What Japanese People Think About Religion.” (Youtube)
** Noriko Iwai. October 11, 2017. “Measuring Religion in Japan: ISM, NHK, and JGS.” Pew Research Center: https://www.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/7/2017/11/Religion20171117.pdf
*** Jason Ananda Josephson Storm. 2012. The Invention of Religion in Japan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
****”Matsushirochō ekōbashira.” Matsushiro. Shinshū Matsushiro Kankōkyōkai: https://www.matsushiro-kankou.com/special/gokaicho/