Japan is a nation rich in culture, one that is constantly developing yet which has nonetheless succeeded at remaining true to its origins. Shaped by a tumultuous history of war and natural disasters, the country was not always the bustling technological metropolis it is today. Although at first glance, modern day Japan seems to bear little resemblance to its past self, it has still been able to preserve its fascinating traditions and history. For this reason, when walking through Tokyo’s bustling streets, you will no doubt stumble upon shrines and temples dedicated to worship.
Those who have been lucky enough to experience what Japan has to offer know that there are a myriad different ways Japanese people celebrate their traditional values. A good example of how religions or faiths are celebrated by the Japanese are the festivals or matsuri (祭り) in Japanese. Matsuri are public festivals which are celebrated all over the country and usually take place over a few days. They can range from the celebration of the Sakura flower to that of children, from the remembrance of one’s ancestors to the reverence of ancient Japanese warriors. Many international tourists flock to Japan in order to attend these spectacular displays of culture. They not only provide an opportunity to try an incredible array of seasonal Japanese food and admire enchanting displays, but also highlight the spectacular originality of Japanese traditions. Matsuri usually occur around a Shinto shrine or jinja (神社), as it is the main place of worship (Ashkenazi, 1993). However, another faith holds a prominent position in Japan and shapes its many traditions – Buddhism.
The Syncretic combination of Shintoism and Buddhism
“We live as Shintoists, but die as Buddhists”
Some might think that Japan is a monotheistic nation due to its strong association with Shinto, which originates and is only practiced in Japan, but it is quite the opposite: many Japanese people practice both Shintoism and Buddhism (Matsunami, 2004).
Simply put, Shinto, originating in the late 6th century AD and as such the oldest surviving Japanese religion, is animistic in nature. This means that Shinto subscribers believe every single object, from people to rocks, contains a kind of soul or spirit (kami 神). When a particular natural object is said to have kami, it is often marked with a strip of white paper or the Shimenawa (標), a braided straw rope that is tied around the object and used for ritual purification. In Shintoism, there are no scriptures, no leader, no central profession of faith, nor even a concept of the afterlife. It is a religion where one does not need to join or be a member, but simply exists for everyone.
“In Japanese culture, there is a belief that God is everywhere – in mountains, trees, rocks, even in our sympathy for robots or Hello Kitty toys” – Ryuichi Sakamoto
Buddhism, though only introduced to Japan in the sixth century BCE., is the second largest religion practiced in Japan after Shintoism. Unlike Shintoism, Buddhism does not acknowledge a god or higher being but instead is centred on many scripts, a caste that studies the ancient scriptures, and lessons from the Buddha, a spiritual leader, philosopher, and teacher, which must be learned and followed.
Despite their differences, over the course of history Shintoism and Buddhism have become so intertwined that it is almost impossible to know where one begins and the other ends. For example, in most Japanese homes a Buddhist and Shinto shrine sit side by side, protecting the house and family. Syncretic combinations of both religions, known as Shinbutsu-shūgō (神仏習合), are common in Japan and illustrate the duality of religious faiths present in the country, molded and shaped by its past. This combination of religious beliefs and faith is visible when it comes to practicing religion in Japan. Many Buddhist temples (寺) are attached to local Shinto Shrines (神社) or vice versa, where Japanese people see no inconsistency in worshiping both the Buddha and Shinto kami. Another interesting by-product of this amalgamation is that many deities in the Buddhist pantheon have taken on the identities of the Shinto kami. The resulting syncretic deity can be honored through both Shinto and Buddhism lenses, thereby bringing both religions closer together.
Both Shinto and Buddhism play an equally prominent part in Japanese society and culture. Instead of causing conflict by highlighting their incompatibility, both complement each other even though they are inherently different (Larsen, 2018). This is mainly because Buddhism has many adaptable qualities which enable its coexistence with Shinto. Indeed, many Japanese simply see the Buddha as kami, while others consider that kami could also achieve transcendence and enlightenment (Larsen, 2018). At its core, this fusion works because in Japan, unlike in Western religions and faiths, religion is rarely preached but is instead treated as a common moral code, a way of living; in this sense it becomes almost indistinguishable from Japanese social and cultural values, allowing for greater fluidity and thus cohesion. Japanese people have been able to alternate between both, or combine them - without conflict. For example, many Japanese people will organize a Shinto wedding ceremony but a Buddhist funeral.
Hinamatsuri and Obon: The festival of girls and the festival of souls
As mentioned previously, Japanese matsuri are prime examples of the syncretism of Shinto and Buddhism, as they showcase the different yet complementary ways in which Shintoism and Buddhism are practiced. For example, Hinamatsuri (雛祭り) is a popular Shinto holiday celebrated every year on March the 3rd. It translates to ‘doll festival’, but is more commonly known as ‘girls’ day’. During this celebration, schools, malls, and homes are set up to display platforms covered in a red-carpet material, adorned with Hinaningyo (雛人形), typically sets of 15 ornamental dolls dressed in the traditional court dress of the Heian period (Bhagat, 2019). The celebration revolves around celebrating women and praying for their continued health and happiness. While Hinamatsuri is a purely Shinto celebration, the matsuri Obon (お盆) or Bon (盆) , on the other hand, is a Buddhist festival which nevertheless incorporates Shinto elements, testifying to the syncretic coexistence of these two religions in Japan. It takes place over the course of several days, and involves commemorating, honoring, and remembering the dead or more precisely, one's ancestors. This matsuri, influenced by the introduction of Buddhism, incorporates native ancestor worship which is homologous to the Buddhist Yulanpen Festival, originating from India. To celebrate this spiritual practice, paper lanterns called Chochin (提灯) are hung to guide the spirits with incredible firework displays called hanabi (花火大会), along with the impressive Obon dances called bon odori (盆踊り) (Vila, 2021). This Buddhist festival still bears the influence of Shinto practices. Indeed each year at the Kurumazaki Shrine, in Kyoto, a Shinto-style light show is performed to celebrate Obon.
Although the Hinamatsuri and Obon matsuri are inherently different in what they celebrate and the religious denomination they officially belong to, the fact that the majority of Japanese people participate in both practices and can incorporate elements of one into the other showcase the flexibility with which Shinto and Buddhist beliefs coexist.
The word ‘matsuri’ exists to denote religious festivals in general, but does not distinguish linguistically between a Shinto and Buddhist festival, confirming the inherent syncretism of these two religions and spiritual practices. Over the centuries, Japan has successfully sustained the harmonious coexistence of two belief systems. Its unique ability to intertwine Shintoism and Buddhism while still preserving the core concepts and values of both is testament to the creativity and adaptivity of its people.
Upcoming Japanese Matsuri 2021
For those of you lucky enough reside in or be traveling to Japan, here are some matsuri to look out for in the upcoming months:
August 12-15: Awa Odori (Shikoku)
August 13-15: Hokkai Bon Odori (Sapporo)
August 16: Kyoto Gozan Okuribi, aka Daimonji Festival (Kyoto)
October 5: Katsushika Noryo Fireworks Festival (Tokyo)
October 9-10: Takayama Fall Festival (Takayama)
October 22: Kurama Fire Festival (Kyoto)
October 22: Jidai Matsuri (Kyoto)
October 23: Sumidagawa Fireworks Festival (Tokyo)
November 9 and 21: Asakusa Torinoichi Fair (Tokyo)
December 2-3: Chichibu Yomatsuri (Saitama)
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