Basic Japanese religious beliefs

Communicating the gospel among Japanese means engaging with their religious beliefs and worldview. We want to touch their hearts and meet their needs while contextualizing the gospel for Japanese soil. How do we go about doing this?

Scene  One: A group of women gather for a craft class in Ishinomaki, a city affected by the triple disaster in 2011. Their immediate community experienced over 400 deaths. The discussion turns to their fear of using certain roads at night due to concern for ghosts (yūrei) in the area.

Scene Two: A longtime Japanese friend visits your home for dinner. In the entrance he takes out a case containing Buddhist prayer beads and fastens them to his wrist. He points to them to remind you of his devotion.

Exactly what is going on here? If these scenes are typical of Japanese religious beliefs, then how do we sow the gospel in Japanese soil?

Religion in Japan “is a variegated tapestry created by the interweaving of at least five major strands: Shinto, Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism and folk religion.”1 As Japanese continue to move away from organized religion, they resist secularization and continue to demonstrate spirituality as evident by their religious behavior.2

Communicating the gospel in Japan will be more effective if we progress from a framework that understands this religious belief system.

Religion in Japan is unstructured

Much of Japanese religion is a mix of formal religious concepts and animistic beliefs. Japanese are more likely to follow the traditions of the local neighborhood shrines and their immediate family. Their attention is often on immanent beings of this world, especially their local guardian deities.

In many ways, traditional religion in Japan resists any definition or analysis (logical or systematic). Asking Japanese people to explain the origins of their beliefs is often fruitless as they honestly do not know. Japanese do not have neat and tidy books of systematic theology. If interviewed, those women from Ishinomaki would no doubt present us with several different solutions to these “wandering spirits.”

Religion in Japan is unstructured and defies analysis because it borrows heavily from other religions and combines values that are contrary to common logic. While Christianity has been accused of being too logical for the Japanese, the logic of their Japanese religion is that it meets their needs and is effective rather than appearing unified and rational.

Religion in Japan is adaptive

Many Japanese will be married in a Shinto ceremony and have their funeral at a Buddhist temple. Mixing and borrowing from other religious traditions is commonplace. There is a common stream of Japanese traditions, but practices vary considerably between locations in Japan, each adapted from that common stream.

As Christians we want to understand the context of Japan. So, while holding to a high view of Scripture, we adapt the forms, content, and practice of Christian beliefs in the Japanese setting. However, because of the adaptive nature of Japanese religion there is a constant danger of syncretism or the compromise of gospel truth.

Scene Three: Two Christian believers from a prominent church are observed discussing in detail their shared Chinese horoscope sign as key influencers of their behavior and life direction.

So we need to practice critical contextualization that interprets both Scripture and the context; as “good contextualization draws on scripture as its primary source but recognizes the significant role that context will play in shaping theology and practice.”3 We must provide deep answers for Japanese Christians while avoiding compromise, otherwise they will profess faith but still hold on to previous religious practices and become syncretistic.

Religion in Japan is pragmatic

Folk beliefs attempt to answer many questions of life such as: meaning in this life, the problem of death, well-being in this life, the problem of misfortunes, knowledge to decide, the problem of the unknown, righteousness and justice, and the problem of evil and injustice.4

Religion serves Japanese people in difficult times. The old phrase kurushii toki no kamidanomi (turning to a god in time of trouble) is nearly synonymous with a definition of Japanese religion. The practical benefits of religion are “primarily material or physical gains such as good health, healing, success, or . . .  personal advancement in one’s life path, . . .  and freedom from problems.”5 This pragmatic value is especially true for the youth of Japan who use religion for immediate, concrete problems.

The beliefs about ghosts from those women from Ishinomaki imply very practical concerns. People who have died “bad deaths” become nameless spirits (muenbotoke).6 If these do not have proper rites performed on their behalf, they could become vengeful spirits (goryō) and seek vengeance on the living.

In sharing the gospel with Japanese, we must not merely share the promise of heaven after death and neglect the worldly benefits of belief in Christ. We must also be aware of the danger of erring in the other direction—like in prosperity theology—and promise an easy life without suffering. We should challenge ourselves to think about why Christian religion in Japan is often viewed as impractical, intellectual, and stiff.

Religion in Japan centers on ancestor practices

The most commonly practiced aspect of Japanese religion is the veneration of ancestors. These popular practices are conducted at home in front of the Buddhist altar (butsudan) or the Shinto god shelf (kamidana), in shrines and temples, at gravesites, and even at schools and in the work place.

These religious beliefs and practices are the very center of their religion and the glue that binds the Japanese to each other and to previous generations. So, a son who recently experienced the death of his mother would wear prayer beads as he believes this would continue his relationship with his mother after death.

Towards providing Christian answers

Faced with the nature of religion in Japan there are some concrete practices for us:

Pray fervently. We are in the midst of spiritual warfare where Satan is blinding the eyes of unbelievers (2 Cor. 4:4). We need to pray for wisdom and for God to open our eyes like Elisha’s servant (2 Kings 6:17) to see spiritual answers.

Listen and observe well. When a Japanese person says, “I went to a palm reader because I want to get married,” we need to listen and determine their heart needs and understand their core beliefs.

Read and study. We need to read both the Scriptures and materials on Japanese beliefs. We need to be able to discuss with Japanese their ghost stories, prayer beads, and other religious practices. They need to hear from us the scriptural worldview that addresses their underlying needs and encompasses a wealth of answers for life’s questions.

Seek Christian answers. We should not accept simplistic answers or mere proof texting but “do theology” with the Japanese context in mind. Answers can be sought by humbly listening to the whole church, seeking Japanese believers for their insight, and extending caution from potential error.

To share the gospel, meet heartfelt needs, and answer the longings of Japanese people, we need to look past their religious behavior to their values, beliefs, and worldview. Understanding this religious context is difficult and makes sowing Christ’s gospel in this context extremely challenging. But then we have been assured that we will “take captive every thought” (2 Cor. 10:5 NIV) leading to truly indigenous belief in Christ himself.

Edited excerpt from Mehn’s upcoming book: Sowing the Gospel in Japanese Soil: Understanding Japanese Religious Beliefs.

1. H. Byron Earhart, Religion in Japan: Unity and Diversity (Boston MA: Wadsworth, 2014), 2.

2. David C. Lewis, Religion in Japanese Daily Life (New York, NY: Routledge, 2018), 28-29.

3. Craig Ott and Steven J. Strauss, Encountering Theology of Mission: Biblical Foundations, Historical Development, and Contemporary Issues (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010), 283-284.

4. Paul G. Hiebert, R. Daniel Shaw and Tite Tiénou, Understanding Folk Religion: A Christian Response to Popular Beliefs and Practices (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1999), 74ff.

5. Ian Reader and George J. Tanabe Jr., Practically Religious: Worldly Benefits and the Common Religion of Japan (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1998), 2.

6. David C. Lewis, The Unseen Face of Japan 2nd ed. (Gloucester, UK: Wide Margin, 2013), 1.

Photo of o-mikuji by Flickr user Wally Gobetz

John Wm. Mehn from Chicago has served in Japan with Converge since 1985 in church planting and leadership development. He has a DMin in Missiology from Trinity International University.

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