How Japan's religions confront tragedy
A religious statue in a tsunami-devastated area in Natori city, along the coast.
March 14th, 2011
04:43 PM ET

How Japan's religions confront tragedy

By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor

Proud of their secular society, most Japanese aren't religious in the way Americans are: They tend not to identify with a single tradition nor study religious texts.

"The average Japanese person doesn’t consciously turn to Buddhism until there’s a funeral,” says Brian Bocking, an expert in Japanese religions at Ireland’s University College Cork.

When there is a funeral, though, Japanese religious engagement tends to be pretty intense.

“A very large number of Japanese people believe that what they do for their ancestors after death matters, which might not be what we expect from a secular society,” says Bocking. “There’s widespread belief in the presence of ancestors’ spirits.”

In the days and weeks ahead, huge numbers of Japanese will be turning to their country’s religious traditions as they mourn the thousands of dead and try to muster the strength and resources to rebuild amid the massive destruction wrought by last Friday's 9.0 magnitude earthquake and resulting tsunami.

For most Japanese, religion is more complex than adhering to the country’s ancient Buddhist tradition. They blend Buddhist beliefs and customs with the country’s ancient Shinto tradition, which was formalized around the 15th century.

“Japanese are not religious in the way that people in North America are religious,” says John Nelson, chair of theology and religious studies at the University of San Francisco. “They’ll move back and forth between two or more religious traditions, seeing them as tools that are appropriate for certain situations.”

“For things connected to life-affirming events, they’ll turn to Shinto-style rituals or understandings,” Nelson says. “But in connection to tragedy or suffering, it’s Buddhism.”

There are many schools of Japanese Buddhism, each with its own teachings about suffering and what happens after death.

“There are many Buddhist explanations of why calamities happen: from collective karma to seeing calamities as signs of apocalypse,” says Jimmy Yu, an assistant professor of Buddhism and Chinese religions at Florida State University. “And perhaps all of them are irrelevant to what needs to be done.”

Indeed, where Christianity, Judaism or Islam are often preoccupied with causes of disaster - the questions of why God would allow an earthquake, for example - Eastern traditions like Buddhism and Shinto focus on behavior in reaction to tragedy.

“It’s very important in Japanese life to react in a positive way, to be persistent and to clean up in the face of adversity, and their religions would emphasize that,” says University College Cork’s Bocking. “They’ll say we have to develop a powerful, even joyful attitude in the face of adversity.”

Japan’s major religious groups are still developing responses to the disaster, but experts say the impulse toward maintaining a positive outlook will likely translate into calls for Japanese to help friends and neighbors clean up and rebuild.

At the same time, Japan’s Buddhist priests will be preoccupied with rituals surrounding death and burial. Japanese Buddhism is often called funeral Buddhism because of its concern with such rituals.

Despite the Japanese penchant for blending their religious traditions - even with Western traditions like Catholicism - the overwhelming majority are buried according to Buddhist custom: cremation and interment in a family plot.

With many bodies swept away in the tsunami, many Japanese will have to come to terms with having to forego that ritual.

After burial, Japanese typically continue to practice rituals around caring for the spirits of the deceased. Most Japanese keep Buddhist altars in their homes, Nelson says, using them to pay tribute to dead ancestors.

“In the days ahead, you’ll see people praying, with hands folded, for the spirits of those killed,” he says. “It goes back to a really early understanding of human spirits and rituals designed to control those spirits, which can take 49 days or, depending on the type of Buddhism, could go on for up to seven years.”

One popular school of Japanese Buddhism, called Amida - or Pure Land - believes in a paradise that spirits of the dead can enter with help from living relatives.

Despite what is likely to be a mass embrace of Buddhist rituals after the earthquake, there may also be some grievances expressed over those traditions.

Many young Japanese have left Buddhism, accusing priests of profiting from grief because of their paid roles in burials. Critics say the priests spend money from funerals on temples without playing a broader role in society.

“The earthquake is an opportunity for Buddhist priests to step up and show they are still relevant,” says Nelson. “Young people just aren’t buying it anymore.”

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Asia • Buddhism • Japan • Shintoism

soundoff (899 Responses)
  1. UNITY

    Wordl is getting devastated, humanity still continue to worship IDOLS, statues, rocks, trees, humans (like son of god, mother of god) & thousands of DEAD humans( so called saints) . God is ONE. He begets NOT, Nor was begotten. There is none comparable to HIM !

    March 14, 2011 at 8:10 pm |
    • mike


      March 14, 2011 at 8:47 pm |
    • saved

      The only time most people call on the lord is when disaster strikes,and in times when he does not hear . Oh wicked generation when will they hear and believe.

      March 14, 2011 at 9:35 pm |
  2. T-party

    earth has suffered millions of quakes throughout the billions of years of its existence. I feel bad for the folks in Ja-pan. I hope they slowly recover from this horrible natural tragedy.

    March 14, 2011 at 8:05 pm |
  3. Orion8

    About 10 years ago, The Onion had a great piece about god being diagnosed as bi-polar. One day he's blessing the little children, the next he's wiping out a trailer park with a tornado. It was one of the best takes on the whole god scene I've ever read. You can probably still pull it up through their archive.

    March 14, 2011 at 7:46 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      I'm a fan of the "Intelligent Falling" article.

      March 15, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
  4. Me

    The important thing to understand is that acts of nature are not acts of God. God established the parameters and variables of our Universe so that life would be possible. This does not mean that God intends for natural disasters to occur. This was a well-written article, and I have always admired the Buddhist mindset.

    March 14, 2011 at 7:42 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      The important thing to understand is that there are no gods – even just one!

      The Ja-panese are a highly developed and very capable society. They need our assistance. They DO NOT need "our" (western, abrahamic) religion.

      Please donate money via richarddawkins.net.

      March 14, 2011 at 8:03 pm |
  5. RevRoss

    God is a jealous God. Serve the true living God. Jesus is the way.

    March 14, 2011 at 7:42 pm |
    • Picklejuice

      you sound like a robot...maybe you should fly over there and actually do something to help rather than preaching fire and brimstone which achieves nothing

      March 14, 2011 at 9:38 pm |
    • tallulah13

      There's only one god
      He is the sun god
      Ra! Ra! Ra!

      ( An royal response from the Pharaoh Akhenaten)

      March 14, 2011 at 10:18 pm |
  6. Francis1

    As an American Christian, I don't get it: How can a non-religious society (a tiny percent of people under 50 believe in a deity that influences day-to-day life) be one of the safest, most civil societies on earth? I am beginning to question my belief that we need God to create such as society.

    March 14, 2011 at 7:24 pm |
    • kerenzie

      Thank you for saying this.

      March 14, 2011 at 7:42 pm |
    • Me

      God prefers good behavior over religiosity. Religion doesn't "make people good".

      March 14, 2011 at 7:50 pm |
    • Another Atheist

      @Fancis1, there was actually a study last year which looked at various societies and the level of religiosity along with crime rates, etc., and the conclusion was that religiosity is actually bad for society. I'll see if I can find a link. (Assuming we can post links here?)

      March 14, 2011 at 8:09 pm |
    • Another Atheist

      Francis1, here is a link to an article about such a study. It is from 2005, so either it is a different study or I just read it last year. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article571206.ece

      March 14, 2011 at 8:23 pm |
    • Mao

      Why was my comment awaiting moderation? It was all positive with no swearing or content problems?
      Oh well. Such is automated moderation.
      The idea of a better society is based on community. Religion teaches community, commercialism teaches individuality. That's the problem. What I think is also interesting is the civility in the midst of a crisis as opposed to the theorized mass panic and looting.

      March 15, 2011 at 11:59 am |
    • Mao

      @Another Atheist
      I'd be curious as to the reason why this would be true. I mean, religions teach good will towards others, don't murder, steal, etc. and yet teaching these things contribute to them actually happening? And if God doesn't exist then he doesn't effect us to do evil so that rules God out. So it should go deeper as to discover what it is exactly about religion or a type of religion that causes an increase in crime. Also, how would it compare to the turn of the last century when American was even more Christianized?
      The article says, "According to the study, belief in and worship of God are not only unnecessary for a healthy society but MAY actually contribute to social problems." (emphasis mine). And it adds the may for good reason because it's not conclusive nor an exhaustive study. What it does say conclusively is that US should obey Jesus' teaching in Matthew 7:5 "first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye."
      But then again... would that be bad because it's religious?

      March 15, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
  7. pchow2ca

    Buddhism was originally not designed for funeral. Buddha was not a God, all he said was that people are here to learn a lesson and if the lesson is not learn, they will reborn to learn the lesson again until they understand the answer. It is only once a person understand the necessary information about life that he/she will escape suffering.
    When someone ask Buddha why he won't save his father from a prison, the above was his answer. This proof that he was never claim to be a God. Buddhism does not prevent the followers to learn about other people's culture, as matter of fact, it encourage people to learn as knowledge is the key for one to escape suffering.

    March 14, 2011 at 7:19 pm |
  8. sylv

    I guess there is no "Seek and Ye shall find", hence no looting.

    March 14, 2011 at 7:06 pm |
    • Ben Golds

      TheTruth72 – You are incorrect in everything you believe in. Jesus wants nothing to do with you. You are a fool.

      March 14, 2011 at 7:29 pm |
  9. Mary

    This is hardly the time to argue about religion or the lack of it...

    March 14, 2011 at 7:05 pm |
    • TheTruth72

      I strongly disagree, this may be the best time to talk about it. Repent for your sins and ask God for forgiveness. Accept Jesus into your life. Otherwise, judgement will come down.

      March 14, 2011 at 7:09 pm |
    • Bhush

      The truth: You seem to forget about other religions. They are equally valid, despite your childish interpretation of the Gospel of John.

      March 14, 2011 at 8:04 pm |
    • @TheTruth72

      I have accepted Jesus into my life. He works at the taco truck by my office. I receive his holy taco sustenance and repent $2.25 for each. Praise Jesus.

      Oh, and "judgment" has been rendered by the all powerful Noah Webster – we drop the "e" in the word, unless of course, you get to go to the front of the "queue" on judgment day. Then, by all means governor.

      March 14, 2011 at 9:01 pm |
  10. Shae

    What does it matter what they believe? As long as they find comfort and guidance in such a dark time. My heart goes out to them.

    March 14, 2011 at 7:03 pm |
    • TheTruth72

      If you've seen hell, then you would care about what others believe.

      March 14, 2011 at 7:07 pm |
    • @TheTruth72

      You've seen Hell? What does it look like? Pitchforks? Brimstone? Non-stop Celine Dion over the loudspeakers?

      March 14, 2011 at 8:51 pm |
  11. Cleveland Jim

    @sillyone, then so is self-righteous dribble. What are you doing besides reading about it? Besides reading our comments? Do you expect us to pat eachother on the back and make a human chain or something? I've donated money but besides that theres not much I can do from here.

    March 14, 2011 at 7:01 pm |
    • sillyone

      This "self-righteous dribble"...you talking about me or you?

      March 14, 2011 at 7:26 pm |
  12. Sean

    My dad is a Buddhist.... most Buddhists don't go to their text like Christians... maybe the writer of this article should..... read a little bit about other religions.

    March 14, 2011 at 6:59 pm |
  13. sillyone

    Religious debates during a time like this is absolutely pointless and unnecessary.

    March 14, 2011 at 6:57 pm |
    • The voice of truth

      only if there is no God, but if there is we must examine the heart of God in the midst of tragedy. There are words spoken of by God "In this life you will have trials and tribulations, but fear not for I have overcome the world." These are the words of Christ. When we see things like this happen our souls cry out, we want justice. And justice has been served, God himself has overcome the crimes of the world by allowing His son to take the punishment for us all. He has died for all pain and suffering for all time. We see so much death and so much pain in the world, but this death isn't the real one, eternal separation from God is the real death and it looks so much worse than what we see now. Because in that situation there is no hope, there is no salvation and there is no rescue. Know the truth, know that God loves you, so much so that He put His only Son to death for you, and He seeks to be in relationship with you (His child)

      March 14, 2011 at 7:16 pm |
    • tallulah13

      sillyone, you are not at all silly. You are correct.

      March 14, 2011 at 10:08 pm |
  14. Ashir

    Shinto does not "date back to the 15th century." It is much MUCH older than that.

    March 14, 2011 at 6:55 pm |
  15. thes33k3r

    So they worship their ancestors. It may seem exotic to most of us in the West...but it is still an unsupported belief in unfalsifiable claims....just as silly as believing in the Cosmic Jewish Zombie or that an angel visited a man in a cave in the desert and gave him a book that was authored by the Creator of the Universe.

    March 14, 2011 at 6:55 pm |
  16. Cleveland Jim

    lol @ "athiest fundamentalist clique" I guess I am one of those. Without god man would finally be accountable. Life would be more precious if everyone wasn't relying on the afterlife....

    March 14, 2011 at 6:54 pm |
  17. apassionategesture

    "For I shall move among them, and shall comfort them, even in the midst of the great quaking of the Earth. For these things have come to pass that I might be glorified and my people might see their true salvation lies in the Almighty, thus saith the Lord of Hosts."

    March 14, 2011 at 6:49 pm |
    • Iamwhoam


      March 14, 2011 at 6:54 pm |
    • TheTruth72

      @apassionategesture.........Exactly what needed to be said here. Love it! People need to wake up and start seeing the light. More of these huge earthquakes are coming and America is not going to escape from it.

      March 14, 2011 at 7:04 pm |
    • David G.

      I might be glorified and my people might see their true salvation lies in the Almighty, though I do nothing to assist them, comfort them, or tend to their lost of family and children, I am the Lord of hosts and you better not forget that cuz I've got a wicked temper and would gladly smite you for uttering a word in vain, but I'll let mass murders eviscerate children and do nothing. So sayith Me. The almighty creator of the universe who needs constant praise lest I develop a complex.

      March 14, 2011 at 7:05 pm |
    • TheTruth72

      What you are doing is blaspheme. And apparently you haven't read the Bible or done research to know what your talking about. I'm serious, go do research with an open mind, and you will find that everything you have said is blaspheme.

      "His ways are higher than our ways."

      March 14, 2011 at 7:13 pm |
    • BuzzMann

      "For these things have come to pass that I might be glorified".....So you are saying that all this bad,horrible stuff happening is to make people come to god and glorify him?

      March 14, 2011 at 7:29 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Earthquakes happen all the time, all over the planet. They have happened for millions of years. The only thing that has changed is now we have the ability to see footage of it almost instantly. An earthquake is not a judgment from god; it is the motion of a planet that is constantly changing.

      March 14, 2011 at 10:05 pm |
  18. Jers

    Second HZD. And moreover, if religion is defined as dogmatic belief in something that cannot be empirically verified, then atheism is also a religion, with all the positives and negatives that implies.

    March 14, 2011 at 6:47 pm |
    • someoneelse

      Wrong. Atheism is the absence of a belief and does not attempt to prove anything doesn't exist. There are some out there that don't follow this and try to prove a negative (impossible), but most Atheists just don't believe in anything. Atheism just refuses to accept that something exists without proof, and anything it disproves (i.e. the easily disproven bible) is just that. Trying to turn it into a religion is a last ditch effort of the ignorant.

      March 14, 2011 at 6:56 pm |
    • Evolved DNA

      Religions have gathering places, dogma to follow, they have "group think" or you can be ejected or ostracized .. I have no idea what other atheists subscribe to, or how they think.. all I can be sure of is that they reject the supernatural without proof.. that's it.. Saying we are a religion is simply not true.. plus, if we were than we can get the same tax free status that you have courtesy of society.!!!!

      March 14, 2011 at 7:25 pm |
    • horace.kindler@gmail.com

      @someoneelse – Are you really so obtuse that you can't understand Jers' point? Atheists not believing in anything is the same as atheists believing in nothing. And if you think the statement that "Atheism just refuses to accept that something exists without proof" has any logical validity, you need to take a course in Philosophy 101.

      March 14, 2011 at 7:31 pm |
    • horace.kindler@gmail.com

      @evolved DNA – Apparently not evolved enough to discern the flaws in your analogy. By the terms of your own definition, atheism most certainly falls under the rubric of a religion. It has its designated meetings and gathering places in numerous conferences and seminars sponsored around the country. It espouses a cosmological dogma based on a set of commonly held assumptions. It "preaches" and insists on the truth of its beliefs. It even could be accused of proselytism in trying to convert others to its point of view.

      March 14, 2011 at 7:45 pm |
    • Another Atheist

      To horace.kindler@gmail.com: you say that "not believing in anything" is the same thing as "believing in nothing". This is untrue, but it is also true that the poster to whom you replied likely misstated what he or she meant to say. The ONLY thing all atheists have in common is a lack of belief in deities (gods, goddesses, God...). Certainly not all atheists are nihilists. Many atheists "believe" in many things. Myself, I "believe" in my son's ability to grow into a decent, ethical, responsible, adult. But, of course, my "belief" is based on my observation and knowledge of him these 15 years. I believe that it is important to nurture compassion, encourage education, strive toward kindness and civility, be responsible for my own words and actions. Is that really "believing in nothing"?

      I have long wondered what it is that theists (usually Christians) hope to accomplish by labelling atheism as "religion". Even if it was a religion, that would in no way mean that atheists believe in YOUR God which is generally what irks the theist. If not believing in something is a religion, then my not believing in leprechauns must also be a religion, and your own (presumed) lack of belief in banshees must be a religion, and so on and so forth.

      March 14, 2011 at 7:55 pm |
    • gupsphoo

      If atheism is a religion, then not believing in tooth fairies is also a religion.

      March 14, 2011 at 7:58 pm |
    • someoneelse

      @horace, see gupsphoo's comment. You just aren't bright enough to understand.

      March 14, 2011 at 8:06 pm |
    • Evolved DNA

      horace.kindler@gmail.com So any group that has a gathering then by your as-sertion, is a religion.. accountants, bankers, Oil men, Car dealers..? Zoo keepers....?

      March 14, 2011 at 8:40 pm |
    • Ohmybuddha

      i am a nonbeliever not an atheist, because I was a buddhist.

      March 14, 2011 at 8:48 pm |
    • neoritter

      According to Merriam-Webster:
      religion (n) 1 : the service and worship of God or the supernatural. 2 : devotion to a religious faith. 3 : a personal set or inst-itutionalized system of beliefs, att-itudes, and practices. 4 : a cause, principle, or belief held to with faith or ardor.

      1. a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.
      2. a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects
      3. the body of persons adhering to a particular set of beliefs and practices
      4. the life or state of a monk, nun, etc.
      5. the practice of religious beliefs; ritual observance of faith.
      6. something one believes in and follows devotedly; a point or matter of ethics or conscience

      I'm sorry atheists the dictionary says you're wrong.

      March 15, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
    • neoritter

      BTW – I should point out that I'm agnostic. Just in case you guys want to label me in a way that cushions your egos. Atheism and theism are the same. Neither can prove their claims. Both sides can show a lack of logic and reason in their arguments (difference between atheists and theists is that atheists are coached better). Both have large numbers of utter morons regurgitating what their (insert favorite advocate) thinks without understanding it themselves. And both sides have many people that like to shove their beliefs in other people's faces (atheists tend to do it more though, any mention of a religious subject can set a slew of atheists off).

      This does not mean there aren't decent, intelligent, and well meaning people on each side. People who should find it in their common interest to keep the state secular and flowing in common sense. But those people are a more often than not, a silent majority.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
    • k

      The traditional meaning of Atheism is: God does not exist. This original definition means that atheism is a viewpoint or position. However, if you say the new termm of atheism: absence of belief in God...That's becomes a description of somebody's psychological state, accroding to the Christian Apologetic William Lane Craig.So does it make sense to call a baby atheist?

      March 31, 2011 at 5:52 pm |
  19. jimmynog

    This should be an excellent demonstration that religions are worthless and they can safely leave them behind and become strong, independent thinkers and doers, who don't grovel before imaginary gods.

    March 14, 2011 at 6:37 pm |
    • HZD

      Ah, another "independent thinker" who has found a home among the vocal atheist fundamentalist clique and who can't help shouting his opinion in a vain attempt to convert the world via a CNN news article comment.

      I'll let you know when I see some real critical thinking, which usually involves some semblance of seeing both the good and the bad in something, rather than reducing everything down to black and white categorical statements that can be shot back and forth across the internet with all the precision of a bulldozer serving tea.

      March 14, 2011 at 6:43 pm |
    • Magic


      "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." –Confucius

      I sincerely doubt that any independent thinker has the delusion that his comments on a news article will change the world in one fell swoop. Atheists, agnostics and other non-believers have generally been shunned from from society for sharing their views and their information which conflicts with long-held religious beliefs. This is one very small avenue to open the possibilities of conversation.

      March 14, 2011 at 7:01 pm |
    • Cab305

      "who don't grovel before imaginary gods"

      DId you not read the article? Western religions tend to be the groveling kind. Too bad you opinion is based on such little information.

      P.S. I'm not religious, but if you can't see how it helps some people cope and get by, you are just a sad human being.

      Good luck with your empty life.

      March 14, 2011 at 7:15 pm |
    • mat

      jimmy, sometimes, people mix up the religion and it gets contaminated. If you actually read the sutras, you'd know that the Buddha was atheistic and only spoke about matters of religion to religious people...so that they could understand what he was trying to teach them. He did not care about their beliefs, he only cared that they achieved peace of mind and liberation from their suffering. A man may like eggs and milk and such things keep him healthy. Another may like raw vegetables and may not be able to digest dairy foods. It would be foolish if either one claimed that the other was eating the wrong things.

      So it is in the case of religions and belief systems. You for example find comfort in Atheism. Yet another may find comfort in Theism. So be it.

      March 14, 2011 at 7:33 pm |
    • Douglas

      @HZD, isn't the phrase "atheist fundamentalist" a bit of an oxymoron? Let me answer that for you: It is.

      March 14, 2011 at 7:57 pm |
  20. Nonimus

    Good article. Informative. Unbiased, I think. Thank you.

    March 14, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
    • Mao

      I agree. I think the sentence about Christianity and Judaism focusing on the cause rather than the reaction is based more on society (like how many atheists ask Christians "if God is good, why does evil exist") but that's such a small part in an article that calls out for religious relevance. That's something that is crying out for in North America and apparently around the world in other religions.

      March 14, 2011 at 7:53 pm |
    • Thor Head

      I, too, am impressed with this article, but the author is making assumptions about some things. Well-written, at least.

      March 14, 2011 at 10:56 pm |
    • Ykcyc

      I can tell you right now with fair amount of certainty, that there is another one coming. Another earthquake, another tsunami. People can not escape death no matter how much we try. Best case scenario, we can postpone it for a bit. No one would believe all these fairy tails, if there was not a payday (salvation / cheat death) promise at the end. Any attempt (pretend) to do something, in order to get somthing back is doomed to become a disapointment.

      March 15, 2011 at 11:45 am |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.