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. kof

    i once had a friend who said,I DONT BELIEVE IN GOD.THANK GOD

    March 15, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
  2. carlos ramos santiago

    Como es Dios? El es un espiritu, un ser muy superior a nosotros, y ningun ser humano lo ha visto jamas(Juan 1:18;4:24). Ahora bien, podemos saber como es Dios al examinar su creacion. Por ejemplo, la gran variedad de frutas y floresque ha dice~nado nos revela que es muy inteligente y que nos ama. Y la inmensidad del universo nos demuestra que tiene muchisimo poder.( Lea Romanos 1:20.) Otra manera de conocer a Dios es leyendo la biblia. Esta nos ense~na la bondad con que trata a las personas, que cosas le agradan y cuales no, y la forma en que recciona ante diversas situaciones. (Lea Salmos 103:7-10.)

    March 15, 2011 at 3:14 pm |
  3. morgan

    There is no God. There is no truth. There is no awakening or enlightenment. There is only what there is. Use it wisely and it will give to that which you need.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
  4. Linda

    This is such a timely, informative article for me! I was wondering how Buddhism responds to tragedy. Those who believe in a God or in several Gods respond with prayer for the victims' souls and the victims' families and help for the survivors.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
  5. Andy

    Once again, like every other time america talks about a religion that isnt christianity, Christian fundamentals, and i strees Mentals, have to say why they are wrong or going to hell or how they are evil for not believing in the 1 "true" god.

    Have fun feeling superior Christians, im american... Sadly in the land of the free, religious superiority reigns. and those who aren in that religion are bombarded with pointless threats and useless scriptures.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
  6. Dynan3

    True Buddhist practice is an internal search of discovery that is reflected in one's daily life. The Truth that is spoken of is the undeniable truth of Experience. Touching that 'hot' stove caused a burn. That experience isn't forgotten because nothing can remove it's actuality. No 'God' is needed. Natural law is experienced directly. It isn't a Belief in the illusory nature of things. Heck, quantum physicists can prove nothing is actually HERE. (Check out: Elegany Universe or the Tao of Physics) This does not, however, preclude the possible existence of more highly developed consciousnesses that some might consider gods.

    Don't judge the system of self-inquiry by what the hypocritical non-adherents do or don't do. No one can adequately judge the effects or results of meditation (on which Buddha based his teachings [NOT religion]) until they experience it themselves. What Buddha taught was a system of self-inquiry that leads to Liberation...not a system of judgemental belief.

    Some old addages that seem appropriate (though not necessarily Buddhist):
    Know Thyself.
    The Truth shall set you free.
    It is futility to blame someone else for what happens to you.
    Wheel of Karma (action/reaction – You won't try to end your suffering until you know you ARE suffering and have suffered enough)

    March 15, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
    • Dynan3


      March 15, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
  7. CMS

    The religion of the same folks who destroyed Nanking and bombed Pearl Harbor. Howeveer, if one does believe in Karma, maybe this is its manifestation.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
  8. thanaif

    Time to ask the media reflection how not to prejudice on faith of religion.

    March 15, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
  9. Gamaliel klingshak

    God wel see to thier pilage

    March 15, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
  10. Still haven't figured it out yet....

    With all this supposed knowledge from both sides none of us have yet to figure why this happened. Signs of the end times – Jesus told his followers don't concern themselves with when the end was coming but to focus on doing good while they were here. Why does God allow this? Because He can. It's His planet so He can do with it what He pleases. Do you ask why the CEO of your company pays himself the most? No, because he's the BOSS and he can do as he wishes. The fact is why concern ourselves with the 'why' and not focus on the 'what'? The 'what' is people need our help regardless of a difference in beliefs.

    March 15, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
  11. SeanNJ

    @Reality Check: You realize of course that 70 million years is only 1.56% of the currently accepted 4.5 billion, right?

    And you're complaining that something that took 4.5 billion years hasn't been recreated in the last 300-350 years, especially since supersti.tious beliefs crippled scientific discovery for the better part of man's existence, and it's only been the last 80-100 years that we've able to even inadequately approximate the energies and forces involved in a laboratory setting? SERIOUSLY?

    Are you really that daft, man? I understand your handle now, because you're desperately in need of one.

    March 15, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
  12. mrgup2

    OK, lets depend on MAN to explain how this happened? Tectonic plates, seismic graphs, blah, blah, blah! Not HOW this happened but WHY this happened?

    If you think that God is supposed to keep this world all perfect and lubby-dubby, then how are we supposed to make that all-important decision of whether or not we believe in him?

    Thats the whole point!!! To God, we are NOTHING if we dont recognize him. Why would he even worry about those that do not acknowledge his existence. Tragedy allows us to recognize his power...and realize it could all be gone in a second.

    But you put all your faith on the ever-correcting theories of science. If so, then thats why you sound so hopeless on this board...because you HAVE NO hope! It shows!!!

    March 15, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      The most preposterous notion that H. sapiens has ever dreamed up is that the Lord God of Creation, Shaper and Ruler of all the Universes, wants the saccharine adoration of His creatures, can be swayed by their prayers, and becomes petulant if He does not receive this flattery. Yet this absurd fantasy, without a shred of evidence to bolster it, pays all the expenses of the oldest, largest, and least productive industry in all history.

      March 15, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
    • sand

      you seem to serve a very petty God.

      March 15, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
    • ObammaAlabamaSlamma

      I think Garth Ennis put it best when he painted God as a "being dangerously set on being adored".

      March 15, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
    • omi

      Quite wrong actually. God loves those who know him and those who do not. He inherently loves everyone.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
  13. racnem

    Matthew Ch. 24 explains earthquakes. We are living in the end times. Armagedden will be followed by God's Kingdom. That is when all the ills will be gone. Satan will be abyssed and we will finally live in true peace and security, forever, on earth.

    March 15, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
    • sand

      i find it funny that whenever calamities happen, people point to the end of the world. worse things have happened in the past, e.g. the black death, and probably worse calamities will happen, but it will not mean the end of the world or Armageddon. so just grab your shovel, thank the almighty you are alive, and help a neighbor clean up after the mess.

      March 15, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
    • Rick

      If earthquakes are a sign of the "end times", it has been coming forever, no?

      March 15, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Reminds me of the Imam who blamed the earthquake in Haiti on the "immodest" behaviour of western women.

      I thought that before the earthquakes, the first sign of Armageddon would be a great swarm of tiara wearing locusts with a man's face, a woman's hair, the mouth of a lion and the tail of a scorpion whose sting causes five month of agony.
      It is in the book of Revelations after all...

      March 15, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
    • omi

      It also says that no one knows when it will come and to not listen to people who say they do. Soooo...guess you're wrong.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:44 pm |
    • Chitown Jason

      Remember that one letter the apostle Paul wrote? There was a church way back in his day that claimed the end times were here because bad things were happening...seems like some of us only see what they want to. History repeats itself...

      March 15, 2011 at 5:47 pm |
  14. Greg

    What kills me about the posters is here we are arguing beliefs/truth/preferences etc but how much of this is changing what just happened? I am a Christian and I can argue with the best of them but the one thing Christianity teaches that cannot be refuted is relationship. Relationship with God and man. Too many of you have all the answers but are doing nothing to help this situation. This is not the time to argue but to offer help.

    March 15, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
    • Grace

      Agreed. Beautiful... God bless you!
      I wish I had more means to help.

      March 15, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
    • omi

      Exactly. True Christianity is not about preaching at people, telling them God will smite them, blah blah blah all that does is create hateful rants. True Christianity is comprised of people who do not tear others down, no matter what their beliefs, but instead work to help those who most need it, fight for the oppressed, hungry, and suffering, and all with no thought about their own benefit. That is what we are called to do.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:42 pm |
  15. Jessica

    The truth is their lack of faith in the one true God is the problem. If people know so much why can't they save themselves? Why do they trust in men or money only to be let down when disaster strikes? Does calamity start with the ungodly or the unfaithful? No it does not but at least in death I know I have victory. Laugh, mock and go down the path of destruction there is a day of judgment coming and on that day there will be no second chances. God bless you with a heart that can receive the gospel message of Jesus Christ to heal and save you before it is too late.

    March 15, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
    • Rick

      Jessica: Free men don't need to be saved.

      If you are victorious in death, what is keeping you on this evil earth?

      March 15, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
    • Greg

      Rick – free men don't need to be saved? What do you define as free?

      March 15, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
    • Rick

      Greg: In this case, I would define freedom as not being under the impression that ANY man knows the mind of God. Not me, not you. not bronze age sheep herders, etc

      March 15, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
    • omi

      So people who are Christians are immune to hardship, Jessica? That's rather naive. Sounds like the sort of opinion that would come from someone who is leading a very comfortable life. Let's take a look at underground Christians in places like Somalia and Afghanistan who are oppressed (sometimes even killed) for their faith.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
  16. Oladotun

    I pray that God help u out. I remember the Bible says, "though man remains unfaithful, but our God remains faithful." I believe that what has been prophesied 2 occur b4 the end will surely come to pass no matter what d case may be. And this part of d endtime occurence, so it is better to take God seriously than ever before.

    March 15, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
  17. Noz

    "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"

    Hunh? Not my experience with Catholic Christianity, or of many Islamic or Jewish people I know who know their faith. I have NEVER known my faith to dwell on reasons for events, in fact, just the opposite. I have found it a tremendous enabler for acceptance and growth through adversity. I don't know where you get this opinion. There may be radicals in any of the aforementioned religions, but I know few that actually teach a "cause and effect" from natural disaster.

    March 15, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
  18. Jenny

    Great article as people are interested to talk about that. Now! it is time to think whether God can help for all of us. May be this time he is sleeping.. for example, Professional robot creator has to know the best control for his his robot after he created it. What about God?

    March 15, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
  19. Dano

    Wow. Some of you out there terrify me. How is it that you have so quickly forgotten how it came to be that you even live in a country where you have the rights and freedoms to sit on front of your PC and express your opinion. Everything that is good in Canada and the US ALL comes from the blessings of God. Canada and the US are places that only exist and are successful because they are fundamentally based on the word if God. Yet you think you've "outgrown" God and became more highly educated that you've become 'smarter' than Christianity. Tell you what. Why don't you look for a new place to live that doesn't believe in God and see how you like it. There's a couple of famous songs out there called the US AND CANADIAN NATIONAL ANTHEMS that have a few lines in them that say "God keep our land...." and "In God is our trust" (full version of US anthem).
    Ever hear the saying "in God we trust" ?? or "one nation under God"???
    Maybe you think all of us who believe are fools. And maybe you also believe our founding fathers were fools. And maybe you even think that your own ancestors were fools to come to this land that ONLY EXISTS because of God! Maybe you should do something about it like say – move to a non God fearing and God loving land! Be sure to write and tell us how it's going for you. Good luck with that!

    March 15, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
    • Observer

      You might want to read some history before you comment in the future. "In God We Trust" had NOTHING to do with our founding forefathers. It wasn't put on money until Civil War times. "Under God" WAS NOT PART of the Pledge of Allegiance when written. It was added in the 1950's.

      March 15, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
    • Rebecca Hernandez

      *claps hands* Very well said........however, if America continues in this direction......we will lose our freedoms........=(

      March 15, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
    • kauppily

      Uhh, ever heard of a little thing called the Treaty of Tripoli? We were NEVER supposed to be a Christian nation and we are not one today.

      March 15, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
    • Rick

      Dano: PLACES don't believe or disbelieve, PEOPLE do. As far as the Founding Fathers, several of them were Deists, not Theists

      March 15, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
    • Nonimus

      The Star-spangled Banner, with "in God we trust," was written in 1814 and didn't become the national anthem until the 1930s and as others mentioned "Under God" didn't show up officially until the 1950s.
      So how is the US "fundamentally based on the word if God?"
      Especially since the first amendment seems to directly contradict the first commandment.

      March 15, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
    • Eric G.

      @Observer: How dare you degrade the blog with your use of FACTS and HISTORICAL ACCURACY!!!!! Besides, I am sure Dano had some important Tea Party stuff going on today.

      My new favorite slogan.....


      March 15, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      @Eric G
      When the Rapture comes and the True Christians are transported bodily to heaven, I'm sure the world will miss both of them.

      March 15, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
    • name required


      March 15, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
    • MandatoryFun

      @Dano: The Founders were unclear on religion, but what IS clear is that the FIRST AMENDMENT GUARANTEES MY RIGHT TO PRACTICE PAGANISM. Just as it guarantees your right to practice Christianity. "In God We Trust" appeared on COIN currency in 1864 and on PAPER currency in 1957. Refresh my history, but wasn't the US officially a country in 1775?

      March 15, 2011 at 3:14 pm |
    • omi

      the US and Canada are founded upon freedom of religion. Mentions of God do not necessarily point only to the Christian God. You're making a huge contradiction when you talk about the freedoms we have here and also saying "if you aren't a Christian then get out." The US is built on a foundation of tolerance and freedom, not religion. Theocracies lead to corruption of the religion- just look at the medieval Catholic church, and at much of the Middle East right now. We should be welcoming different opinions, not telling them to leave. Where's the Christian love in that?

      March 15, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
    • Chitown Jason

      Sigh...Dano, please stop posting. You discredit Christians by posting historically incorrect statements. We can all agree that the existence or non-existence of God is faith-based, so both we and atheists have the right to our choices in beliefs, but you sound (are) a fool when you post things that aren't true, and are verifiably untrue.

      Remember what the Proverb says "slow to speak"? That applies to keyboards and typing too...

      March 15, 2011 at 5:43 pm |
    • PRISM1234

      @ observer

      "In God We Trust" had NOTHING to do with our founding forefathers. It wasn't put on money until Civil War times. "Under God" WAS NOT PART of the Pledge of Allegiance when written. It was added in the 1950's.

      You gave your self a wrong name.... You don't observe very well! Because even though the "in God we trust" was not put on money or was not part of the pledge of allegiance, it was written on those people hearts. They never shyed away from proclaiming their trust in God . Don't
      tell me different, I know how to read, and I KNOW what I'm talking about! It's too bad that you and your ilk are willing even to lie to yourself to protect your own age-ndas! It's no wonder this country is spiraling downwards at the speed of gravity. Wanna have it your way? Wait till He , the God of the founding fathers gives this country of rebellious people over to their own devises, till it rots and colapses from within! No ter-rorist needed to come in. We've got the enemy already here!

      March 16, 2011 at 12:25 am |
  20. Just Say No to WASPs

    Buddhism = truth. Christianity = belief. Belief =/= truth. Living out of a book is pathetic.

    March 15, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
    • Greg

      Where exactly is the truth? You cannot just post nonsense with no explanation. There is truth that Jesus Christ was born, lived, died and was raised on this earth. Where is the proof of Buddha?

      March 15, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
    • Rick

      "There is truth that Jesus Christ was born, lived, died and was raised on this earth"

      TRUTH? Perhaps a more plausible explanation is that this being raised form the dead was already a story within other cultures before Jesus was born.

      March 15, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
    • nsk

      @ Greg. Buddha has been in history. Any basic high school textbook states that Siddhartha(aka Buddha) was born, lived and died. He lived in India. I think what Just Say No to wasps meant Buddha vs God. No one denies Jesus' existence. He was a real being like Buddha. Just the existence of God is questionable to others.

      March 15, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
    • Greg

      @ Rick – talking about it and doing it are two different things. The bible and history point to Jesus.

      March 15, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
    • Greg

      @ nsk – thanks but I wasn't trying to discredit Buddha. My point was merely in the diety of Christ. To me that is truth and since there is proof of birth, life, death and resurrection and also prophecy beforehand that He was coming, there is no refuting His diety.

      March 15, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
    • Rick

      Greg: Really? The bible doesn't comment on other traditions, so they must be incorrect?

      March 15, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
    • Eric G.

      @Greg: Please provide the verifiable evidence to support your statement of Jesus' birth, life, death and, most importantly, resurection as fact. You cannot use references to prove a hypothesis without verification.

      If you can provide verifiable evidence, you will be a very famous person. I await your verifiable evidence with breathless anticipation.

      March 15, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
    • nsk

      @ Greg I was just answering your question, "where is the proof of Buddha?". Maybe I misunderstood you, but that sounded like discredit to me.

      March 15, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
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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.