December 23rd is a national public holiday here for the Emperor’s birthday, so we habitually have our family Christmas dinner on that day. My family, my sister-in-law and nephew get together at Grandma’s apartment which is only a few minutes’ walk north of here and have a big dinner not terribly unlike Christmas dinner in Guelph. Breads, salads, cakes, cookies, meat, drinks. It features roast chicken bought from a local baker since turkeys are unknown here except on American military bases, and in any event Japanese homes don’t have ovens large enough to cook a bird the size of a turkey.
Religion in Japan is a very commercial thing. It’s supposed to have imminent function or material relevance, like Jesus’ followers always asking for miracles to prove his authenticity. So religion here is a nominal thing whose rituals people observe throughout the year. Buddhism and Shintoism are the main religions. Buddhism of course was an import through ancient Korean and Chinese influences. Shintoism, which is an animist religion worshipping multiple gods - the gods of the wind, mountains, rivers, land, etc. - is the native religion. Most Japanese are simultaneously Buddhists and Shintoists. That kind of confuses Westerners who tend to see the matter of religious affiliation as exclusive. Japanese don’t have a problem following two different religions at once. Traditionally the Emperor plays a big and ceremonial role in Shinto. Up until 1945 the emperor was considered a living god, and some right wing conservatives would like to see those days return. There are Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines everywhere, not always attended by a resident priest. About 1.5% of the population is Christian, and there are about 100,000 Muslims in the country, most of them Indonesian or Malaysian immigrants drawn here for work, but some Japanese converts. There is a Japanese Presbyterian church just a stone’s throw from my apartment that I sometimes go to. And there is a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall that I know about a few subway stops away, near Ogikubo Station. Japan’s greatest concentration of Christians is on the island of Kyushu around the city of Nagasaki, the city of atomic bomb infamy. Nagasaki is the traditional focus of Japanese Christianity because that’s where Europeans first arrived. Europeans came north to Japan from The Philippines and so the first Japanese expression for “foreigners” meant “barbarians from the south.”
Japan has a large population, so the 1.5% of Japanese who are Christians number well over half the membership of the United Church of Canada, the largest protestant denomination there. Figures like that ought to remind us that most Christians in the world today do not live in traditionally Western countries. Most Christians today live in Africa and Asia. Depending on the source, the Christian population of contemporary China ranges from 20 million to over 200 million - greater than the entire church-going population of the United States and, if the upper figure is correct, equal to ⅔ the entire American population.
Buddhism is fractured into dozens of “sects.” “Sect” sounds bad in English, but it’s the only way the Japanese understand the notion of “denomination” and that is how it is translated in English. So in Japanese the various Christian denominations are described with the same word meaning “sect.” Believers in various sects are invariably described as “followers,” which once again doesn’t sound very good in English. But it highlights the Japanese view of religion as a cosmetic ritual ceremony more than a profoundly deep, existential commitment to a way of life. A lot of people wear Buddhist prayer beads around their wrists as a bracelet. It’s more like a good luck thing, like some American adults carrying a rabbit’s foot key chain, rather than a religious devotion thing. You can buy them at dollar stores / 100-yen shops. I have a handsome set of Buddhist prayer beads right here on my computer desk. Not a bracelet, but a larger hand-held set.
Buddhism dominates the Japanese funeral, while Shinto dominates weddings. Shinto is overwhelmingly concerned with ritual cleanliness, so although there are Shinto funerals it trends to shy away from funerals.
One interesting thing you see scattered throughout the country in the city and in the countryside is tiny, tiny Shinto shrines - like a couple meters wide and a couple meters tall - sporting “jizo” statuettes and marked by the swastika - either a carving of a swastika or a cloth banner with swastika designs on it. But it’s not the inverse Nazi swastika, it’s the original swastika, the one that appears as a religious symbol throughout Asia. The Nazis took the religious symbol and reversed it as their political party symbol. As a Canadian it still feels strange to me to walk around Tokyo and occasionally seeing swastikas, but I know it doesn’t mean the same to Asians as it does to contemporary Westerners.
“Jizo,” by the way, are little stone statuettes whose pedigree is a little hazy, but it is commonly thought that they are erected in the memory of dead babies, especially aborted babies. I sometimes see people stop and pray at such shrines, and the statuettes are often clothed and are accompanied by offerings of incense, flowers and small origami cranes.
New Year’s is the biggest holiday of the year - like Thanksgiving, Christmas and the 4th of July all rolled into one - and it is dominated by the Shinto religion. Called “hatsumode,” or “first-going-to-the-shrine-of-the-new-year,” the population flocks to neighbourhood Shinto shrines to pray for good fortune in the new year, to return their old good luck talismans for destruction by fire, and to buy new good luck charms for the new year. The idea of luck features prominently in Asian religion, which strikes many Westerners as a kind of cheap abomination. People can buy different kinds of good luck charms for different reasons: study, pregnancy, money, traffic safety, marriage, health, entrance exams, or everything all rolled into one. Good luck charms for the home, for the business, for the pocket, or wallet, or school bag. I regularly buy a good luck charm, called an “omamori,” for health, and tie it to the shoulder strap of my bag.