Shinto and Buddhist teachings are deeply entangled in Japanese everyday life, though the Japanese people themselves may not be aware of it. Generally speaking, it can be difficult for outsiders to disentangle "real" Japanese religion from everyday superstition and rituals; most Japanese people do not often give the distinction much thought. One of the main characteristics of Japanese religion is its tendency towards syncretism. The same person may have a wedding at a Christian church and have a funeral at a Buddhist temple. Japanese streets are decorated on Tanabata, Obon and Christmas.
Shintoism is one of Japan's largest religions and is the native religion. It originated in and is almost exclusive to Japan. Shintō originated in prehistoric times, as a religion with respect for nature and in particular certain sacred sites. These sites may have originally been used to worship the sun, rock formations, trees, and even sounds. Since each of these things was associated with a deity this resulted in a complex polytheistic religion. The deities in Shintō are known as kami, and Shinto, itself, means the way of the gods. Worship of Shinto is done at shrines. Especially important is the act of purification before visiting these shrines.
Shinto began to fall out of fashion after the arrival of Buddhism, but soon, Shinto and Buddhism began to be practiced as one religion. On sites of Shintō shrines, Buddhist temples were built, and people began to adhere to both.
Before 1868 there were three main forms of Shinto: Shrine Shinto, the most popular type; Folk (or Popular) Shinto, practiced by the peasants; and Imperial Household Shinto, practiced by the imperial family.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, people began to form independent Shinto sects, which were very radical and some even monotheistic, such as Tenrikyo. These were soon known as the Shinto Sects, or the New Religions.
After the Meiji Revolution in 1868, Shinto and Buddhism were forcefully separated. The Emperor Meiji made Shintō the official religion, creating a form of Shinto known as State Shinto, which merged Shrine, Folk, and Imperial Household Shinto together. Sect Shinto was seen as radical and separated from State Shintō. Under Meiji, Japan became a moderate theocracy, with shrines being controlled by the government. Shinto soon became a reason for Japanese nationalism. After Japan took over Korea and Taiwan, State Shinto became the official religion of those countries as well.
During World War II, the government forced every subject, regardless of his or her adherence or belief, to practice State Shinto and admit that the Emperor was divine. Religions were strongly controlled by the government and those against Imperial cult, notably Oomoto and Soka Gakkai, were persecuted.
When the Americans occupied Japan in 1945 the shrines were taken away from the government, and State Shinto was abolished. Shrine, Folk, and Imperial Shinto became separated. Sect Shinto distanced itself from mainstream Shinto.
Buddhism first arrived to Japan in the sixth century, from the Southern part of Korean peninsula kingdom of Baekje, where the Baekje king sent the Japanese emperor a picture of the Buddha and some sutras. Japanese aristocrats built many Buddhist statues and temples in the capital at Nara, and then at the later capital of Heian (now Kyoto).
Buddhism is divided into three forms, the more orthodox and impersonal Theravada Buddhism, which is prevalent in India and Southeast Asia, and the more personal Mahayana Buddhism, which spread to North India, China, Tibet, and from there went to Korea, where it came to Japan. The third is Vajrayana Buddhism. From the beginning, the largest form of Buddhism in Japan was the Mahayana school. According to the Agency of Cultural Affairs, 91 million persons identify themselves as Buddhist.
In the capital of Nara, six Buddhist sects were created. These six are today quite small and called together "Nara Buddhism". Some were Theravada influenced. When the capital moved to Heian, more forms of Buddhism arrived from China. The two survivors of that day are Shingon, an esoteric form of Buddhism similar to Tibet's Vajrayana (or Tantric) Buddhism, and Tendai, a monastic conservative form known better by its Chinese name of Tiantai. These Buddhist forms converted many Japanese, and temples were built all over Heian.
When the shogunate took power in the 1100s, and the administrative capital moved to Kamakura, new forms of Buddhism arrived. The most popular was Zen, known in China as Chan. Zen Buddhism was completely different, and it was the most popular type of Mahayana Buddhism of the time period. Zen split up into two different forms, Rinzai and Soto.
Another form of Buddhism arrived in the Kamakura period, known as Jodo-kyo or Pure Land Buddhism. Pure Land Buddhism emphasizes the role of Amida Buddha or the Buddha of the Western Paradise. This school promises that reciting the phrase "Namo Amida Butsu" upon death will result in a person being removed by Amida to the "Western Paradise" or "Pure Land" and from then on to Nirvana. Jodo-kyo attracted the merchant and farmer classes. But after Honen, Jodo-kyo's head missionary in Japan, died, the form split up. Jodo-shu were followers of Honen who said that saying the Nembutsu (an abbreviation for Namo Amida Butsu) many many times would save someone. The more liberal form started by Shinran known as Jodo Shinshu says that saying the phrase once with a pure heart will save you. It has also dropped monasticism.
A more radical form of Buddhism was Nichiren Buddhism, created by the monk Nichiren, which praised the Lotus Sutra. Nichiren's teaching was often revolutionary, and the shogun distrusted him, especially when he said that the Mongols were to invade Japan. When the shogun heard this, he exiled Nichiren, but it soon became true. Nichiren Buddhism is the second largest form, and split off into Nichiren-shu, Nichiren Sho-shu, a more radical form, and Soka Gakkai, a controversial Nichiren denomination, whose political wing forms the conservative New Komeito Party, Japan's third largest political party.
Today, many Japanese adhere to Nishi Honganji-ha Buddhism, a conservative form of Jodo Shin-shu. It was formed in 1580, after Honganji, a form of Jodo Shin-shu, split up into two forms - Nishi and Higashi.
The largest new religion is Soka Gakkai, a Buddhist sect, founded in 1930. The New Komeito Party is of this faith. It is both in national and local assemblies and has a huge influence on politics as it is a part of the coalition government at the Diet. Because the Constitution requires separation of church and state the party's connections with the religion is often criticized.
Many of these new religions actually arose as part of Shintō, and some still have Shinto in their teachings. Some, not all, of the new religions are also known as Sect Shinto, such as Tenrikyo.
Other new religions include:
Japanese Funerals are usually performed by Buddhist priests, and Buddhist rites are also common on death day anniversaries of deceased family members. Some Japanese do not perform ancestral ceremonies at all, and some do so rather mechanically and awkwardly. But there have also been changes in these practices, such as more personal and private ceremonies and women honoring their own as well as their husbands' ancestors, that make them more meaningful to contemporary participants.
There are two categories of holidays in Japan: matsuri (festivals), which are largely of Shinto origin and relate to the cultivation of rice and the spiritual well-being of the local community, and nenjyuu gyouji (annual events), mainly of Chinese or Buddhist origin. The matsuri were supplemented during the Heian period with more festivals added and were organized into a formal calendar. In addition to the complementary nature of the different holidays, there were later accretions during the feudal period. Very few matsuri or nencho gyo are national holidays, but they are included in the national calendar of annual events. Most matsuri are local events that follow local traditions, and vary from place to place.
Most holidays are secular in nature, but the two most significant for the majority of Japanese--New Year's Day for Shinto believers and Obon (also called Bon Festival) for Buddhists, which marks the end of the ancestors' annual visit to their earthly home-- involve visits to Shintō shrines or Buddhist temples. The New Year's holiday (January 1-3) is marked by the practice of numerous customs and the consumption of special foods. These customs include time for getting together with family and friends, for special television programming, and for visiting Shintō shrines to pray for family blessings in the coming year. Dressing in a kimono, hanging out special decorations, eating noodles on New Year's Eve to show continuity into the new year, and playing a poetry card game are among the more "traditional" practices. During Obon season, in mid-August (or mid-July depending on the locale), bon (spirit altars) are set up in front of Buddhist family altars, which, along with ancestral graves, are cleaned in anticipation of the return of the spirits. As with the New Year's holiday, people living away from their family homes return for visits with relatives. Celebrations include folk dancing and prayers at the Buddhist temple as well as family rituals in the home.
Many Japanese also participate, at least as spectators, in one of the many local matsuri celebrated throughout the country. Matsuri may be sponsored by schools, towns, or other groups but are most often associated with Shintō shrines.
Historically, there was no distinction between a scientific and a religious worldview. In early Japanese history, the ruling class was responsible for performing propitiatory rituals, which later came to be identified as Shinto, and for the introduction and support of Buddhism. Later, religious organization was used by regimes for political purposes, as when the Tokugawa government required each family to be registered as a member of a Buddhist temple for purposes of social control. In the late nineteenth century, rightists created State Shinto, requiring that each family belong to a shrine parish and that the concepts of emperor worship and a national Japanese "family" be taught in the schools.