Religions in Japan and Religious Symbols in Japan


What is Shintoism? Worshipping nature and worshiping the ancestors. Japan’s own religion that started with Emperor Gimmu in BC 600s. Everything has a spirit and humans have a good nature. Evil spirits should be kept away by praying and giving offerings to the higher level spirits. The most important deity is the Sun-god Amaterasu.

Important values: Ritual purity, sincerity, animism (mountains, rivers have spirits, people become spirits, words have spirits), presence (no life after death), the imperial family is sacred, nature should be preserved and worshipped, people with grudge become evil spirits, festivals are important, festivals are must for social harmony and good harvest

Shrine: Shinto Shrines are called Jinja, Taisha, or Jingu. Shinto shrines tend to have elevated basements X shaped roofs. The most famous Shinto Shrine is Ise Jingu located in the Mie Prefecture housing more than 100 shrines in it. There are about 81,000 Shrines in Japan and about 650 of them are in Kyoto. There are about 30,000 Inari shrines in Japan but Fushimi Inari Taisha is the largest Inari shrine.
Shimenawa: Rice Straws and mulberry papers. These thick ropes are put around something purified or something sacred or something that houses a deity (e.g. a tree). The rope represents the straw the sun god Amaterasu hid. The white zig zag papers usually have 3 , 5, or 7 strips and represent the offerings for the deities.
Temizuya: Water basin for the purification ritual. Purification is the most important aspect of Shintoism. The purification ritual 1- Pour water to your left hand 2- Pour water to your right hand 3- Pour water to your left hand and cleans your mouth with that water. 4- Tilt the scoop 90 degrees and let the remaining water clean the scoop.
Tori gates: Tori gates separate the secular world and the sacred world. When entering and leaving under the torii gate, one should bow and not occupy the middle point. The middle is reserved for the deity to walk. Torii gates are always the red/vermillion color which keeps evil spirits away and which represents the “purified.” Sometimes there are torii gates but no shrine (e.g. in a lake) that torii gate is for the deity that is inside the lake.
Koma Inu: Protective lion dogs. These two dogs are the guardians of the shrines. One of them has an open mouth and the other one has a closed mouth which represents the beginning and end. In the Fushimi Inari shrine, there are foxes instead of dogs.
Kazaridaru: Sake barrels. Rice wine breweries or wealthy people donate these barrels which weigh around 30 liters and cost around 1000 USD. On certain occasions, weddings and celebrations, these barrels are broken and people drink sake from the square-shaped wooden cups. The ones displayed in shrines tend to be used empty ones.
Tomoe: The 3 commas represent the earth, the sky, and human. Often displayed on the roof tiles of shrines or taiko drums. They also represent the Shinto gods.

Orange color lanterns: Different from stone lanterns, the orange color lanterns tend to be found mostly at shrines, not temples. Fox statues: Foxes are messengers of gods. Fox statues are often found in Shinto shrines sometimes holding scrolls, keys, gems, and rice straws in their mouth. They wear a red bib to keep evil spirits away.
Rope with a bell: When making a wish, one pulls the rope to call the attention of the gods. In Buddhist temples there is a relatively thinner rope and the gong bell, a quieter bell compared to the Shinto bell. The ritual: 1- Throw the coin into the box (as much as you’d like but throwing 5 yen is believed to be good to bring good relationships because 5 yen (go-en) is the same word in Japanese with a good relationship.) 2- Ring the bell a few times 3- Bow twice (90 degrees) 4- Clap twice 5- Remember your wish and thank gods (in your mind) 6- Bow once
Open stage: Ceremonial noh dance and kagura dance are performed in Shinto shrines.
Honden and Haiden: Main hall and offering hall exist in Shrines. The main hall usually houses the deity enshrined. Offering hall is the area where people make wishes.
Kannushi: Shinto priests. Shinto priests are less commonly seen compared to Buddhist monks. They usually wear a tall black hat (Heian style) and sometimes carry the sakaki tree leaves.
Miko: Maidens serving the shrine. Young girls with a vermillion color skirt and white dress. They were originally considered to be shamans who can communicate with deities. Nowadays they do the sacred cleansing, ceremonial dance, etc.
Altar: A.k.a. Kamidana enshrines a Shinto god Kami. Ofuda, papers displaying the names of deities, are usually received from a local shrine and put inside the altar. Deities inside must be offered rice, water, salt, and sake, regularly. Shrines and kamidana, must face the east (direction of the rising sun).
Raijin and Fujin. The God of thunder and the god of wind exist in both shrines and temples. The concept is similar to the mythical Greek wind and thunder gods.
Omamori: These are small portable amulets that can be purchased at shrines or temples. Omamori means “protection” in Japanese.
Omikuji: These are white papers in the form of amulets that may have good fortune and bad fortune written on them. One picks without seeing the fortune. If it is good fortune it should be kept in the bag, if it is bad fortune it should be tied to a tree to let the bad fortune go away. Nowadays both good and bad fortune papers are tied to the tree in the shrine.
Ema Wooden Plates: Wish plates sold at shrines. People donate money to buy them and then write their wishes on them. Then they leave the wooden plates on the designated wall at a shrine.


What is Buddhism: Awakening by following the teachings of Buddha. Everyone can become a Buddha. The world is suffering and people suffer in different lives. Cessation of suffering leads to enlightenment. Human greed is the root of all evils. Don’t eat meat and don’t drink alcohol, believe in Karma and Reincarnation. Arrived to Japan from China in 538. Refrain from the 5 precepts (harming living things, stealing, etc.). 5 main sects: Tendai, Shingon (e.g. Mt Koya), Jodo, Zen, and Nichiren.

Important Values: Transience, impermanence, selflessness, harmony, balance in the universe, the law of karma, enlightenment is possible when alive, striving for mental strength, suffering is natural and a must.

Temple (Tera, -Ji): Buddhist temples are called tera and most of the time the name ends with -ji (KinkaJI, GinkakuJI, RyoanJI, etc.) Buddhist temples tend to have big roofs (more than 60% of the building) and gold plated objects on a black background. 5 elements should be observed in a temple: fire, air, water, earth, wisdom. There are 77,000 temples in Japan and 1600 of them are in Kyoto.
Pagoda (to): Pagodas represent the stupa where the Buddha’s ashes were kept. They usually have 3 or 5 stages. In Japan pictures of deities are placed on different floors. The Horyuji temple's pagoda is considered to be one of the oldest wooden structures in the world. There used to be thousands of pagodas in Japan but most of them were destroyed by fires or earthquakes.
Incense burner (Jokoro): Burning incense is a typical Buddhist tradition. Buddhist temples have a jokoro and people believe if the smoke touches the body it would heal the body.
Buddha Statue: Buddhist temples have many Buddha statues (Garutama Buddha) though many people tend to confuse Buddha with Daitoku or Boddhisatwa. The giant Buddha statues are called Daibutsu, The ones in Nara and Kanagawa are to be taller than 10 meters.
Boddhisatwa & Deities: Boddhisatwa is a person who is about to become a Buddha but chooses to remain as a human being to suffer for humanity. Many temples have a few Bodhisatwa statues and also Buddhist deities besides a Gautama Buddha statue. Sanjusan Gendo has many different statues of deities.
Jizo statue: Jizo is a boddhisatwa who is a protector of travelers and protector of little kids. Jizo often wears red bibs and red hats believed to be safe and keep the evil spirits away.
Wisdom Kings: The statues of five heavenly kings are often found in Buddhist temples. The most common one is Fudo Myoo (Acala) who holds a sword in one hand (wisdom cutting through the ignorance) and the rope in another (to catch demons).
Mandala Scrolls: Mandala means universe and mandala scrolls are the charts that show the relationship between various Boddhisatwas and deities.
Manji sign: The Buddhist temple symbol. This sign represents the balance of opposite powers in life as well as good luck and health. Usually, the direction of the lines is different from the typical Swastika sign.
Cemeteries (haka): Since traditionally the funerals tend to take place in temples, most cemeteries tend to be inside or near Buddhist temples.
Agyo & Ungyo: Protective demons at the gate (Agyo (mouth open), Ungyo (mouth closed): These are also called NIO protectors. The open mouth and closed mouth represent life and death or the beginning and end.
Bonsho: Buddhist bell. Temples have these bells to tell the time or to call the priests for the prayer. Sometimes it was used in the battles to communicate. On the new year's day, the bell is rung 108 times to rid of the 108 big sins in Buddhism. The dots on the bell also represent big sins.
Buddhist monks (Obo-san, Bouzu): Buddhist monks usually wear a black outfit with a bamboo hat and only eat vegetarian food (mostly rice, pickles, and miso soup). He lives a very simple life and he does not show emotions. The bamboo hat covers his face because he must be selfless (I am not important, I am nobody).
Rock Gardens (Karesansui): Gardens that are built to represent the universe (ripples*waves, big stones: islands, small stones: mountains and hills, green moss: forest, etc.) usually found at the temples, not shrines. Most rock gardens were built during the Muromachi period. During the late Edo and Meiji periods, green gardens were most common. Colored banners (Goshikimaku): The 5-color flag that symbolizes the 5 wisdom of Buddha
Altar: Butsudan: Mostly in the shape of a cabinet which is supposed to be a house of Buddha and the house of the spirits of those who deceased. People burn candlesticks on the cabinet or offer rice or tea. They tend to be in the colors of black and gold.
Raijin and Fujin: The God of thunder and the god of wind exist in both shrines and temples. The concept is similar to the mythical Greek wind and thunder gods.
7 Lucky Gods (Shichi Fukujin): These gods are derived from Hinduism and then spread to China and Japan. They can be found both  Ebisu (God of fishermen and farmers), Daikokuten (god of commerce), Bishamonten (god of war and god of authority), Benzaiten (God of beauty and music), Fukurokuju (god of wisdom), Jurojin (god of longevity), Hotei (guardian of children).
Omikuji amulets: These are white papers that may have good fortune and bad fortune written on them. One picks without seeing the fortune. If it is good fortune it should be kept in the bag, if it is bad fortune it should be tied to a tree to let the bad fortune go away. Nowadays both good and bad fortune papers are tied to trees or wires in shrines and temples.
Omamori amulets: These are small portable amulets that can be purchased at shrines or temples. Omamori means “protection” in Japanese.
***The Shinto and Buddhist beliefs are different from monotheistic religions, they are more like philosophies rather than religions. That’s why they can coexist, that is why most Japanese are both Buddhists and Shintoists and that is why about 50% of marriages in Japan takes place in a Christian Church and that's why many temples have shrine features and many shrines look like temples. Traditionally, when a Japanese baby is born, the ceremony is almost always in a Shinto shrine and when a Japanese person dies, the ceremony is almost always in a Buddhist temple. Most temples and Shrines were built together or next to each other up until the Meiji period. During the Meiji period, temples and shrines were separated and Buddhism was temporarily banned in order to promote the national identity as Buddhism came from overseas. Haibutsuku Kishaku (the attempt to suppress Buddhism in Japan by destroying Buddhist temples between 1868 ~ 1874) did not reach its goal and eventually, Buddhism was treated respectfully again. However, thousands of Buddhist temples disappeared mostly in the southern Satsuma region. Some say this was political as Buddhist temples strongly supported the Tokugawa shogunate and they were naturally against the new imperial government.