The one true God

As a staunch anti-theist I can’t help but have a grudging respect for the Japanese attitude towards religion, which essentially boils down to “yeah, sure, whatever you want, go for it”
Probably because Japan’s own religion Shinto has no dogma, their willingness to adopt and adapt other religions is a big part of the culture. Within one family you can have a Christian wedding, Shinto celebrations and a Buddhist funeral; the choice of which religion to use for what is solely based on personal preference or the fashion of the moment. Someone may like the pomp of a Christian wedding, well, then have one. Someone may feel obliged to follow the Shinto wedding ceremony, well, go right ahead.

Although there are no official Christian holidays, like Easter or Christmas, there is a mix of Shinto and Buddhist holidays and ceremonies throughout the year. Christmas had been adopted but is fairly different; no presents, no trees in the house even though they will be everywhere in decorations in shops and streets, no official days off, price hikes in restaurants. Some pagan festivals have also been adapted, like Halloween. It’s a real mixed melting pot and it means very little.

Even though, as everybody knows, Jesus escaped crucifixion, made his way east, and ended up in Japan where he married and had three daughters and is buried here in Aomori, in Shingo (I kid you not!) Christianity has, apart from a church here and there, very little influence in Japan with supposedly less than 1% of the people following its teachings. Possibly because Japan already has a sense of social obligation and guilt built into their subconscious, the threat of eternal damnation and other fiery fairy stories didn’t really make an impact. Besides, I can’t think of a more effective depiction of Hell than the train during my morning commute, something Dante seems to have overlooked; and seeing as most people can cope with that in one form or another the threat of painful eterniy is, in a sense, an act of purest sisyphusicity, so to speak.

Religion in daily life, though, doesn’t seem to have much more effect than the occasional visit to the local temple for the New Year, which is an ordeal in itself. For the first few days of January one is supposed to visit the local temple, throw some money to the gods and pray for good fortune. I was once told by a monk that the gods are fairly selfish and it’s best to pray first and then throw the money to ensure they’ll keep paying attention to your wants and wishes. That’s not something you’ll ever hear he pope say, is it? Indivisibility is a good thing, so throw coins with holes in (5 or 50 yen – five yen, pronounced “go en” is a homophone for the word for “karma”).. At the temple you also bring back last year’s arrow and pick up this year’s one; an enma showing the animal of the year, according to Chinese zodiac, to be put in the hallway of your home. Don’t forget to light some incense and waft the smoke over your head (for increased intelligence), chest (for health or wallet (what do you think?). All in all it’s more ceremony than belief.

The scariest aspect of religion in Japan is the presence and apparent success of cults. Aum Shinrikyo, for example, is still around, and though they promised they have changed since the underground gas attacks and the police are keeping a close watch on them I really don’t feel safe with these freaks around. And occasionally on television there will be a news report about some new cult, and we are treated to images of people in white jump suits and face masks who cover all the windows in their portacabins and vans with newspapers. Some cults even run hotels, although the average foreigner is quite safe of brainwashing; a language barrier is there to protect you.

Of course the one True Religion is that of Celebrity. The lucky person who is flavour of the month can expect many followers to copy their fashions and hairstyle and make pilgrimages to the important places of their lives, as well as stand in line for hours to welcome them at the airport. Whether it is soccer star (sic.) Beckham (“Be-chan”), Korean actor Yong-sama (note the honorific!) or the Japanese winner of any recent event (football, K1, ice skating, Miss Universe, etc.) the celebrity of the moment will have constant TV coverage and his or face plastered on calendars, key chains, television specials and plastic crap.
These Gods are far from immortal, though, and are soon replaced with the next new thing. There are some tenacious hangers on, like the horrendously vapid, dog-faced, plastically “enhanced” Kano sisters (pictured left) who assert themselves onto the scene despite their lack of a distinguishable talent or the populace’s subconscious wish to just ignore them.

So, in summary, the religious foreigner in Japan will probably find a welcome place to practice his little traditions. No one will persecute you for it, and maybe a lot of people will even be curious and ask you to teach them a little. Don’t expect to be a missionary though; people are busy enough without having to worry about appeasing some Creator. For the non-religious you’ll find a peaceful life too. Nobody will assert their religion upon you and in my time in Japan only once did a Jehovah’s Witness dare disturb me at the door, but she was quickly scared away by my foreignness and temporary Japanese amnesia. It also makes participating in ceremonies do-able; you won’t have to feel hypocritical for joining in when you don’t believe, it really doesn’t mean that much; but it’s worth it occasionally, the temples are beautiful.


  1. Great read, as usual !
    And great blog.

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  3. The first person to come to my door aside from my girlfriend after I moved into my previous apartment was a Jehovah's witness.


  4. Unlucky!! Did you do the "no speako Nihongo" trick? Works for sales people too, but not, sadly, the NHK man.