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. Bino

    It is all about your Karma.Everything happens for a reason .Do good people ! Life is not about comparing relegions,it is helping people and loving them.

    March 16, 2011 at 1:09 am |
    • Sharon

      Yes, I agree! Life is about karma. But being a good person is not just about being kind to other people. It is about being kind and respectful to all living things – other people, animals and the environment. We are all part of nature, so why can't we be treat it with respect and kindness?

      March 16, 2011 at 2:11 am |
    • Satya Ranjan Sarkar

      I am also share with Bino, All love is expansion, all selfishness is contraction.Love is therefore the only law of life. He who loves lives, he who is selfish is dying. Therefore Love for Love"s sake , because it is law of life, just as you breath to live.

      March 16, 2011 at 5:32 am |
    • Daniel

      Your karma just ran over my dogma. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). Want to know God? Read the Bible.

      March 16, 2011 at 11:55 am |
    • Ngawang Namdrol

      I think this is a good chance to think of your life's meaning and what is the benifit of religion when the disaster comes.

      March 16, 2011 at 11:57 am |
    • Kelly


      Your karma just ran over my dogma. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). Want to know God? Read the Bible.

      Hey, Daniel,

      I completely agree with you! Jesus is the ONLY WAY, the TRUTH, and the LIFE!

      March 16, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
    • Guy

      Well Daniel and co., your short discourses is the very reason why I don't want to have anything to do with your belief... I'm very happy with the way I'm following, thank you (But I guess you only are right. The others don't know anything of course. So if you're right, you can tell people what to do I guess ? And if people don't agree, why not start a little war ?)

      Earthquake is just one of the most normal thing on earth, like trees groing, wind blowing and waves crashing... The earth lives and it is its life, beyound anybody's wrath, good or evil. It's just Life... Building a nuclear powerplant however, is human responsability, and humanbeings will have to deal with it.

      March 16, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
    • Chuck

      Wow Daniel you da man!

      I assume your IQ must be in the three hundreds

      March 17, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
    • Chuck

      I can guarantee one thing here!

      There will be no Buddhist that says 'Buddhism' is THE one, is THE religion, is THE truth, is THE way of life...

      Those who say that one religion or the other is THE ONE... how many religions have you read about? how many religions have you studied about?

      March 17, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
    • Ray

      Religion is meant to show how to be good person and it is up to individual to accept consequences if not followed . Natural disaster is related to science and geography ,nothing to do with karma. No human can see effect of karma except by God 's eyes. God does not interfere with human fate generally. Peoples fight for religions but his God does not say 'thanks for support'. We must study religions with open and fair minds. Ancient religions like Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism and Confusionism are major religions worth studying. Christianity and Islam are new age religions which share same basic principles like Buddhism , though differ in practices.The world is not expected to end in 2012 as most peoples think , but peoples will suffer more deeply and more difficult to survive. The world turn chaos is just a sign of ending darhma period ..

      March 18, 2011 at 1:08 am |
  2. Anthony

    And here's something else to think about: if we were all just merely cells and DNA's and amino acids and enzymes than have come together (by chance) to a perfect array, then we should be able to revive a dead body.

    March 16, 2011 at 12:12 am |
    • nsk

      We are able to revive dead bodies at times... It's called modern medicine.

      March 16, 2011 at 12:44 am |
    • Anthony

      Oh? Only at times?

      If we were created by chance from floating molecules (that by chance formed the very first amino acids, which by chance etc.... started the whole chain of chemicals that eventually evolved into humans WITH LIFE and CONSCIOUSNESS), then we should be able to make life from perfectly arrayed molecules, such as a piece of steak..... or even better, a dead human body (that is physically intact, even). 🙂

      March 16, 2011 at 2:52 am |
    • Anthony

      I mean, life isn't just a bunch of meat (and genes, and DNA and enzymes and amino acids....).

      March 16, 2011 at 2:54 am |
    • Evolved DNA

      Anthony..it is possible that at some time we will be able to.. who knows.. modern medicine works wonders to day that only 100 years ago would have been classed as a miracle. And think of this.. the atoms in your body are as old as the universe billions of years old in fact, and could have been part of an alien plant, tree, animal or other person eons ago... fantastic isn't it.

      March 16, 2011 at 8:02 pm |
  3. Anthony

    For proof about Jesus, read "The Case for Christ", by Lee Strobel.

    For proof of the existence of heaven, read "90 Minutes in Heaven" by Don Piper.

    I was once an atheist too.

    March 16, 2011 at 12:09 am |
  4. aleppo1091

    from the mouth of babes... Grandma shared the Noah story with my then 5 year old step daughter. She asked me, "Is it real or pretend?" I explained that Grandma, but not everyone, believed it. She thought for a few minutes & said, "If it's true, he's a really really REALLY bad god." 12 years later she's a well adjusted, moral agnostic teen. I'm proud of her independence from her earliest days.

    March 15, 2011 at 10:29 pm |
  5. liankhawla

    East or West, worshipping oneself or money does not help in times of tragedy.

    March 15, 2011 at 9:51 pm |
  6. devoted reader

    It is from the Bible that man has learned cruelty, rapine and murder; for the belief of a cruel God makes a cruel man.
    -Thomas Paine

    March 15, 2011 at 9:42 pm |
    • revalmac

      @devoted reader: Thomas Paine had a limited view of humankind. Going back over human history we have found plenty of reasons to enact cruelty on one another. This last century – Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin and many others inflicted great suffering and didn't do it in the name of any "god"

      March 15, 2011 at 11:41 pm |
  7. 808mbp

    Nothing frightens me more than reading what religious nuts write on CNN, wow, there aren't enough mental hospitals for them all....

    March 15, 2011 at 9:08 pm |
  8. 808mbp

    Buddhism is not a religion, there are versions that have added things that have nothing to do with Buddhism. I am seriously scared of Christians and Muslims, talk about a mental affliction....

    March 15, 2011 at 8:58 pm |
  9. Teck

    There is no god!!! Why we have to go to hell if we don't pray to god??? If you do good deed, do you need some things in return?This same apply to what you call "GOD"

    March 15, 2011 at 8:47 pm |
  10. Muneef

    Al-Anaam 06:
    In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful
    Praise be to Allah, Who hath created the heavens and the earth, and hath appointed darkness and light. Yet those who disbelieve ascribe rivals unto their Lord. (1) He it is Who hath created you from clay, and hath decreed a term for you. A term is fixed with Him. Yet still ye doubt! (2) He is Allah in the heavens and in the earth. He knoweth both your secret and your utterance, and He knoweth what ye earn. (3) Never came there unto them a revelation of the revelations of Allah but they did turn away from it. (4) And they denied the truth when it came unto them. But there will come unto them the tidings of that which they used to deride. (5).

    Had we sent down unto thee (Muhammad) (actual) writing upon parchment, so that they could feel it with their hands, those who disbelieve would have said: This is naught else than mere magic. (7) They say: Why hath not an angel been sent down unto him? If We sent down an angel, then the matter would be judged; no further time would be allowed them (for reflection). (8) Had we appointed him an angel (Our messenger), We assuredly had made him (as) a man (that he might speak to men); and (thus) obscured for them (the truth) they (now) obscure. (9) Messengers (of Allah) have been derided before thee, but that whereat they scoffed surrounded such of them as did deride. (10) Say (unto the disbelievers): Travel in the land, and see the nature of the consequence for the rejecters! (11) Say: Unto whom belongeth whatsoever is in the heavens and the earth? Say: Unto Allah. He hath prescribed for Himself mercy, that He may bring you all together to the Day of Resurrection whereof there is no doubt. Those who ruin their souls will not believe. (12).

    Those unto whom We gave the Scripture recognise (this revelation) as they recognise their sons. Those who ruin their own souls will not believe. (20) Who doth greater wrong than he who inventeth a lie against Allah or denieth His revelations? Lo! the wrongdoers will not be successful. (21).

    And this is a blessed Scripture which We have revealed, confirming that which (was revealed) before it, that thou mayst warn the Mother of Villages and those around her. Those who believe in the Hereafter believe herein, and they are careful of their worship. (92) Who is guilty of more wrong than he who forgeth a lie against Allah, or saith: I am inspired, when he is not inspired in aught; and who saith: I will reveal the like of that which Allah hath revealed? If thou couldst see, when the wrong-doers reach the pangs of death and the angels stretch their hands out saying: Deliver up your souls. This day ye are awarded doom of degradation for that ye spake concerning Allah other than the truth, and scorned His portents. (93) Now have ye come unto Us solitary as We did create you at the first, and ye have left behind you all that We bestowed upon you, and We behold not with you those your intercessors, of whom ye claimed that they possessed a share in you. Now is the bond between you severed, and that which ye presumed hath failed you. (94).

    Perfected is the Word of thy Lord in truth and justice. There is naught that can change His words. He is the Hearer, the Knower. (115) If thou obeyedst most of those on earth they would mislead thee far from Allah's way. They follow naught but an opinion, and they do but guess. (116) Lo! thy Lord, He knoweth best who erreth from His way; and He knoweth best (who are) the rightly guided. (117).

    And whomsoever it is Allah's will to guide, He expandeth his bosom unto the Surrender, and whomsoever it is His Will to send astray, He maketh his bosom close and narrow as if he were engaged in sheer ascent. Thus Allah layeth ignominy upon those who believe not. (125) This is the path of thy Lord, a straight path. We have detailed Our revelations for a people who take heed. (126).

    March 15, 2011 at 8:32 pm |
    • Muneef

      What is religion and the story behind it;

      Al-Anaam sura 06:
      In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful
      Say: Come, I will recite unto you that which your Lord hath forbidden to you: that ye ascribe no thing as partner unto Him and that ye do good to parents, and that ye slay not your children because of penury – We provide for you and for them – and that ye draw not nigh to lewd things whether open or concealed. And that ye slay not the life which Allah hath made sacred, save in the course of justice. This He hath command you, in order that ye may discern. (151) And approach not the wealth of the orphan save with that which is better, till he reach maturity. Give full measure and full weight, in justice. We task not any soul beyond its scope. And if ye give your word, do justice thereunto, even though it be (against) a kinsman; and fulfil the covenant of Allah. This He commandeth you that haply ye may remember. (152) And (He commandeth you, saying): This is My straight path, so follow it. Follow not other ways, lest ye be parted from His way. This hath He ordained for you, that ye may ward off (evil). (153) Again, We gave the Scripture unto Moses, complete for him who would do good, an explanation of all things, a guidance and a mercy, that they might believe in the meeting with their Lord. (154) And this is a blessed Scripture which We have revealed. So follow it and ward off (evil), that ye may find mercy. (155) Lest ye should say: The Scripture was revealed only to two sects before us, and we in sooth were unaware of what they read; (156) Or lest ye should say: If the Scripture had been revealed unto us, we surely had been better guided than are they. Now hath there come unto you a clear proof from your Lord, a guidance and mercy; and who doeth greater wrong than he who denieth the revelations of Allah, and turneth away from them? We award unto those who turn away from Our revelations an evil doom because of their aversion. (157) Wait they, indeed, for nothing less than that the angels should come unto them, or thy Lord should come, or there should come one of the portents from thy Lord? In the day when one of the portents from thy Lord cometh, its belief availeth naught a soul which theretofore believed not, nor in its belief earned good (by works). Say: Wait ye! Lo! We (too) are waiting. (158) Lo! As for those who sunder their religion and become schismatics, no concern at all hast thou with them. Their case will go to Allah, Who then will tell them what they used to do. (159) Whoso bringeth a good deed will receive tenfold the like thereof, while whoso bringeth an ill-deed will be awarded but the like thereof; and they will not be wronged. (160) Say: Lo! As for me, my Lord hath guided me unto a straight path, a right religion, the community of Abraham, the upright, who was no idolater. (161) Say: Lo! my worship and my sacrifice and my living and my dying are for Allah, Lord of the Worlds. (162) He hath no partner. This am I commanded, and I am first of those who surrender (unto Him). (163) Say: Shall I seek another than Allah for Lord, when He is Lord of all things? Each soul earneth only on its own account, nor doth any laden bear another's load. Then unto your Lord is your return and He will tell you that wherein ye differed. (164) He it is Who hath placed you as viceroys of the earth and hath exalted some of you in rank above others, that He may try you by (the test of) that which He hath given you. Lo! Thy Lord is swift in prosecution, and Lo! He verily is Forgiving, Merciful. (165).

      March 15, 2011 at 8:34 pm |
  11. JAMnorth45

    Concerning the point of "why God would allow an earthquake" as posited in this article is totally irrelevant with respect to any God you may fancy or choose to believe in. The simple explanation is the result of tectonic plate movement for a rocky planet like the Earth.

    March 15, 2011 at 8:31 pm |
  12. cc

    i am an athesist but i respect other people's beliefs as long as they don't shove it down my throat, constantly tell me that they pray for me, tell me i need to be saved and tell me i have no moral values. my best friend is religious and she respects me and i respect her....

    March 15, 2011 at 8:16 pm |
  13. SeunObatuyi

    In a lab in 1953 Stanley Miller succeeded in producin amino acids (the buildin blocks of protein) However scientists found out that for a cell to survive, 3 things must work together: DNA, RNA and proteins. RNA is required to make proteins, yet proteins are involved in production of RNA. Wats the math probab. of 1 protein formin from chance? calculated as 1 in 1000,000,000,000,000. If it took the intelligence of Miller to "randomise" amino acids into existence, what would it have taken for the universe?

    March 15, 2011 at 8:06 pm |
  14. Geraard

    JPopNC said: "God doesn't necessarily "send" these out to destroy people, the majority of these type events are simply natural changes in the earth, result of ongoing decay brought about by the original sin of man (Adam). "

    Blasphemy! This is obviously the sixth seal. When the moon and the stars go dark soon you'll be repenting your crime against God!

    "The sixth seal was opened and there was a great earthquake (a shake up in what the world believed). The sun, stars and moon (light/truth sources of what was being believed and taught) were darkened and dimmed by the real Truth (Jesus Christ) fulfilling the plan of salvation, with His death and resurrection. Isaiah 13:10, For the stars of heaven and the constellations thereof shall not give their light: the sun shall be darkened in his going forth, and the moon shall not cause her light to shine."


    March 15, 2011 at 7:09 pm |
  15. Nike

    Maybe an act of a certain kami out of a pantheon of kamis, instead of "God." It is recorded in the Kojiki and through Noritos that kamis get pretty wild and are unpredictable at times.

    Note: Kami does not necessarily mean "god," but can also mean spirits and awe/power inspiring elements of nature. They can be neither good nor evil, much like the common man but with magical abilities and human emotions.

    March 15, 2011 at 6:39 pm |
  16. Nike

    Namu Amida Butsu! Namu Amida Butsu! Namu Amida Butsu! Namu Amida Butsu! Namu Amida Butsu! Namu Amida Butsu! Namu Amida Butsu! Namu Amida Butsu! Namu Amida Butsu! Namu Amida Butsu! Namu Amida Butsu! Namu Amida Butsu! Namu Amida Butsu! Namu Amida Butsu! Namu Amida Butsu! Namu Amida Butsu! Namu Amida Butsu! Namu Amida Butsu! Namu Amida Butsu! Namu Amida Butsu! Namu Amida Butsu! Namu Amida Butsu! Namu Amida Butsu! Namu Amida Butsu! Namu Amida Butsu!

    March 15, 2011 at 6:33 pm |
  17. JTB

    Jeez, these christians get all freaky anytime there is an article about another religion... Pretty defensive lot....

    March 15, 2011 at 6:01 pm |
  18. PRISM1234

    Since CNN blogs are so messed up, unless you put the name of poster whose post you are addressing, no one will know which post you are responding to!

    P.S I wrote similar suggestion earlier today, but can't find the post. Maybe they removed it, because they were offended...LOL!

    March 15, 2011 at 5:20 pm |
  19. Observer

    This terrible tragedy just points out once again that we are all temporary passengers on this rock and need to get rid of discrimination because of religion. We need to all practice the concept of the Golden Rule which predated Christianity.

    March 15, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
    • Observer


      Who are you to tell people not to practice the Golden Rule? "Take ur random morality somewhere else".

      March 15, 2011 at 7:40 pm |
  20. johngeisler

    Most of the things that happen are acts of nature or acts of man ,all of you should read aliitle more of buddisum before make such jugdements and hate,an see the enlightement of the budda and his life >eye see you

    March 15, 2011 at 4:01 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.