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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. john

    I have been living in Tokyo for the past 6 years.
    One of the great things about his place is that they are not religious. If it was I would not like it here.

    March 14, 2011 at 11:58 pm |
    • Zakria Samuel

      John you need Christ not religion.

      March 15, 2011 at 1:00 am |
    • HotAirAce

      John, while I have not been in Ja-pan for more than a couple of weeks at a time, I have visited Ja-pan just about every year since 1989, and I agree with you. Noone needs religions, a god, or jc – they're help the same heap of BS!

      March 15, 2011 at 1:23 am |
    • HotAirAce

      John, while I have not been in Ja-pan for more than a couple of weeks at a time, I have visited Ja-pan just about every year since 1989, and I agree with you. Noone needs religions, a god, or jc – they're all the same heap of BS!

      March 15, 2011 at 1:24 am |
    • 33scottie33

      @HotAirAce – You must still believe the earth is flat.

      I hope you read that copy of the Bible before you threw it away. Seems like you listened to others interpretations and threw it away without reading it completely.

      March 15, 2011 at 2:03 am |
    • DAVE

      THIS IS FOR HOTAIRACE YOUR NAME DESCRIBE FOR WHAT YOU ARE,.. READ THIS.. PSALMS 14:1 AND PSALMS 53:1

      TO GOD BE THE GLORY. THANKS BE TO GOD.. FOR HIS UNSPEAKABLE WORDS

      April 1, 2011 at 5:00 am |
    • DAVE

      TO JOHN THIS IS FOR YOU.. REVELATIONS 21:8.. YOUR PLACE IS HOT LIKE HOTAIRACE...

      TO GOD BE THE GLORY. THANKS BE TO GOD FOR HIS UNSPEAKABLE GIFT.

      April 1, 2011 at 5:09 am |
  2. believer

    The idea is not which religion is right but how they use religion to get through a tragity, so instead of debating which belief is right debate on how well it can rally people to fight a tragity

    March 14, 2011 at 11:48 pm |
  3. Addy

    We are one body! If our little finger hurts, we won't cut it but try to heal it – so with our sufferening brothers and sisters whether they suffer through tsunami or through wars, let's help them! Let's not quarrel so much about religion and faith; if we continue to ponder through our minds, we tend to disagree with each other, but if we look deeply into our inner being, then we will become channels of hope to each other!

    March 14, 2011 at 11:39 pm |
  4. Hector Silva

    keep on kneeling to the invisible

    March 14, 2011 at 11:34 pm |
  5. Tanzeela Afzal

    :/

    March 14, 2011 at 11:32 pm |
    • deter

      well said :/

      March 14, 2011 at 11:35 pm |
  6. native hebrew

    Cassandra, you great Hebraist: "Did you know Agnostic means ignorant in Hebrew...just sayin'..". Yeah. And, as a native Hebrew speaker, I am just sayin' that the is no word for agnostic in Hebrew. The closest word to agnostic is "kofer" which is somebody who knows about the laws/God but does not adhere to them. "Ignorant" in Hebrew is "boor" or "boor ve-am ha'aretz" – such as, for example, a pseudo Hebraist who is clueless about the Hebrew language and hopes others don't notice ...

    March 14, 2011 at 11:31 pm |
    • CR

      does your name mean 'moron' in Hebrew, cause you're acting like one.

      March 14, 2011 at 11:34 pm |
  7. Rosaline

    Please everyone help them. Don't blame each other believes and religions please. It doesn't matter whether you believe in God or not. He sustains all his creatures atheists and believers alike.

    Human being are members of a whole,
    In creation of one essence and soul.
    If one member is afflicted with pain,
    Other members uneasy will remain.
    If you've no sympathy for human pain,
    The name of human you cannot retain!
    - Saadi

    March 14, 2011 at 11:27 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      You were doing fine until your wrote "He sustains all his creatures atheists and believers alike." There is no "He!" You were making a great argument then you stick in an untruth that you expect all to believe!!

      But I do encourge all to help with the relief efforts and to donate via richarddawkins.net.

      March 15, 2011 at 1:20 am |
  8. Mr Henry

    Buddha's teaching is everywhere. Today it is raining. This is Buddha's teaching. People think their own way or their own religious understanding is Buddha's way, without knowing what they are hearing, or what they are doing, or where they are. Religion is not any particular teaching. Religion is everywhere. We have to understand our teaching in this way. We should forget all about some particular teaching; we should not ask which is good or bad. There should not be any particular teaching. Teaching is in each moment, in every existence. That is the true teaching.
    - Shunryu Suzuki-Roshi from Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind

    So don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today. (Matthew 6:34)

    Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets. (Matthew 7:12)

    Do you love your creator? Love your fellow-beings first.

    Those who are merciful have mercy shown them by the Compassionate One, if you show mercy to those who are in the earth, He Who is in heaven will show mercy to you.

    –The Prophet

    March 14, 2011 at 11:27 pm |
    • a convinced atheist buddhist

      thanks Mr Henry

      this is what I've understood reading the 'holly' books.

      and I became a convinced atheist buddhist

      March 15, 2011 at 8:22 am |
  9. deter

    How come whenever there is an artical that mentions a religion everyone comments on why they don't believe in it or why they think it is fake?

    This is a big problem in America: respect others for what they believe.

    March 14, 2011 at 11:23 pm |
    • CR

      Whoa, deter, you're asking people to be mature and respectful. The days of that happening are long gone. Especially where religion, or lack thereof, is concerned.

      March 14, 2011 at 11:33 pm |
    • deter

      Its allways the time to be respectful, you just have to choose to be.

      March 14, 2011 at 11:34 pm |
  10. Sheila George

    Mankind are too cruel in God's eyes. He do not tolerate anymore. We should not be too proud till you forget who are your creator. The Lord is our Rock, Fortress and Deliverer in whom we should take refuge. The earth trembled and quaked and the foundation of the mountain shook, they trembled because He was angry. Mankind, turn away from your cruelty and confess yourself. The Nature is fighting back, the earth is full of innocent's blood, crying to Him. WE NEED TO HUMBLE OURSELVES!!!

    March 14, 2011 at 11:19 pm |
    • deter

      Its not like God will kill us all... Just focus on yourself and do not judge others. You are being a hypocrite

      March 14, 2011 at 11:32 pm |
  11. Meg

    As a Christian, I don't agree that we "are often preoccupied with causes of disaster – the questions of why God would allow an earthquake, for example". Instead, we turn to God for comfort and the strength to be carried through our struggles. I would call that "focus on behavior in reaction to tragedy".

    March 14, 2011 at 11:02 pm |
    • Devout

      If everything was hapy, then we would have no reason to go to God! God allows this sort of thing to happen so we can get closer to Him.

      March 14, 2011 at 11:15 pm |
    • rebrep

      I'm glad you said posted that. I was thinking the same thing.

      March 14, 2011 at 11:28 pm |
  12. Cassandra

    Mark 13:7-8

    When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains.

    Jesus is coming soon. Are YOU ready?

    March 14, 2011 at 11:01 pm |
    • deter

      Wars and famine are not old to this world. Do not worry about this. When it is time, everyone on Earth will know.

      March 14, 2011 at 11:29 pm |
  13. There Are No Gods!

    We are talking about REAL life and death situations where people are dying because of earthly events and the best thing you people can ask about is religious fables? In this situation religion plays no real part. You can say you are praying for people in this region or for loved ones but that is doing nothing in this very real situation. This article should not even exist here, I find it insulting to not only the people struggling in these tough times, but insulting to real world intelligence that knows that simpleminded mysticism or religion plays absolutely NO part in this or any other event on this planet. Period. Grow up people, there are no gods, and jesus is a lie.

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

      It is a pitty that you BELIEVE that God doesn't IS and EXISTS. It is your lack of INTUITION and EXPERIENCE, that makes you believe so. But, my friend, you just do not know.

      March 14, 2011 at 11:01 pm |
    • There Are No Gods!

      It is a pity that you spend your time believing in god and the lie that is jesus when instead you should spend your time believing in humans, that is all we have. . . us. There are no gods, jesus is a lie. Religion was made up by men and you are sitting right in the middle of the pile of bs willingly. Sad for you.

      March 14, 2011 at 11:05 pm |
    • Cassandra

      I feel sorry for you. To have only hope in mankind is ludricous and doesn't make sense. To have hope in a loving God who loves and cares for you...now that's real. I'm going to pray for you....

      March 14, 2011 at 11:08 pm |
    • Sheila George

      Heaven & Hell are REAL! I feel sorry for you as you are still living in daze. Wake up, time is too close for the One and Only one to come. Wake up!!!!

      March 14, 2011 at 11:25 pm |
    • myklds

      Most (if not all)Atheists claims that "they don't claim absolute truth" but some (if not most) proved otherwise. Likewise of their claims on intelligence.

      There are No Gods..Maybe you're right but please don't your unbelief down to believers throath and you the name callings, you are not insulting the "fairy tale" believers but such a disgrace for True intelligent Atheist.

      March 15, 2011 at 12:13 am |
    • myklds

      Most (if not all)Atheists claims that "they don't claim absolute truth" but some (if not most) proved otherwise. Likewise of their claims on intelligence.

      There are No Gods..Maybe you're right (of course you can be wrong) but please don't shove your unbelief down to the believers throath and you must quit the name callings, you are not insulting the "fairy tale" believers but also you become a disgrace for civil and "TRUE" intelligent Atheists.

      March 15, 2011 at 12:57 am |
  14. slw_99

    The posters pushing Christian mythology in "response" to this article have obviously not read or understood it. Buddhism is a religion without a deity. It has between 500 million and 1 billion followers. There is no evidence or fact that can de-monstrate that their myths are inferior to Judeo-Christian myths. Nevertheless, notions of karma and ancestral spirits are myths, and say more about the human need for understanding than they do about reality. The Ja-panese will deal with this terrible trag-edy in their own way (that's the point of the article) regardless of what Westerners believe.

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

      You have clearly stated the sad truth here. How tragic it is that they will deal with this "their own way". I can't imagine living through something like this, and having no knowledge or desire to have knowledge of Jesus Christ.

      March 14, 2011 at 11:45 pm |
  15. DRIZZLE

    Since this CNN Belief Blog, I guess we can talk about religion. Many, if get to read the Bible, even though not considering Christianity their religion, may at least regard Jesus as wise, moral and loving. But he also gave teachings and spoke some very severe words about certain things and people. Below is how he answered the questions posted to him: WHEN will the end of the world come? Are there any SIGNS that can be seen before his second coming and the end of the world? (Based on the book of Matthew, chapter 24)
    1) Concerning the timing: "no one knows the day or hour when these things will happen ..... Only the Father knows."
    2) Concerning the signs: "many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah.’ They will deceive many. And you will hear of WARS and threats of WARS, but don’t panic. Yes, these things must take place, but the end won’t follow immediately. Nation will go to war against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be FAMINES and EARTHQUAKES in many parts of the world. But all this is only the first of the birth pains, with more to come ....................
    Are we getting close according to the many signs we have seen considering not just the frequencies but also the magnitude of the disasters?? Are we (both Christians and non-Christians) ready to face Christ when he comes back to judge and to rule?

    March 14, 2011 at 10:54 pm |
    • deter

      We shall never know until it is time.

      March 14, 2011 at 11:29 pm |
    • Mikey

      Why would I as a non-Christian be ready to face Christ???

      March 15, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
  16. Jarod Billingslea

    Good article. This reminds me of baptist priests though. How the priests are stealing money from the church and lying about being alleged of robbery. Great article. I thought this was only in America, but I guess it's in every country (?).

    March 14, 2011 at 10:37 pm |
    • Frederica

      Baptists never call their ministers priests.

      March 14, 2011 at 10:54 pm |
  17. mursal

    God says in the Quran “And We sent not the signs except to warn” [al-Israa’ 17:59] “We will show them Our Signs in the universe, and in their own selves, until it becomes manifest to them that this (the Qur’aan) is the truth. Is it not sufficient in regard to your Lord that He is a Witness over all things?” [Fussilat 41:53] “Say: ‘He has power to send torment on you from above or from under your feet, or to cover you with confusion in party strife, and make you to taste the violence of one another.’” [al-An’aam 6:65]

    March 14, 2011 at 10:35 pm |
    • Chris Burns

      Earthquakes are natural occurrences that have been happening since before man existed. Stop trying to make it fit with your mindless desert myth!

      March 14, 2011 at 11:10 pm |
    • ali

      Someone claims Earthquake is natural disaster..So who are the Creator of the disaster?nature??who create the nature??

      March 14, 2011 at 11:50 pm |
    • Frank

      Didn't mohamed say mountains were built by allah to prevent earthquakes? Well, every child knows this is not true, showing the koran and islam are nothing but a fraud. Case closed.

      March 14, 2011 at 11:54 pm |
    • Michael

      Who created the Creator? Really, that argument was debunked a few hundred years ago by Kant.

      March 14, 2011 at 11:57 pm |
    • ali

      @Frank, actually is not Muhammad P.U.H said, This is the words of God..Did u read the Quran with the interpretation correctly..please read and study correctly b4 saying that..the mountain is the peg of the earth..its function to stabilize the earth..but in the quran also said the earthquake also occured...but God knows best and He can do anything..he allow the earthquake occurred, we as mankind did not know the aim of that, we only can take precaution not to disobey the God's rule..

      March 15, 2011 at 3:57 am |
  18. rebrep

    I pray for them to have peace, comfort, and restoration. And I'll make a monetary donation – we shouldn't depend on governments to do everything.

    March 14, 2011 at 10:29 pm |
  19. oved

    Amazing how articles on various world religions always get hijacked by over-jealous fundamentalist xtians. Why not get back on topic here?

    March 14, 2011 at 10:21 pm |
  20. ron

    I can't wait to hear who Pat Robertson and Westboro Baptist Church blame for this tragedy.

    March 14, 2011 at 10:16 pm |
    • Chris Burns

      I was waiting to hear what the muslim clerics had to say about it. I suspect it was caused by scantly dressed women...

      March 14, 2011 at 11:06 pm |
    • Larry

      People, This is a tragedy. For once have mercy on the people that are hurt by this.
      One day it may happen to you, how would like it if your tragedy became humor for someone else?

      March 14, 2011 at 11:26 pm |
    • deter

      I'm so annoyed:

      Whenever an artical mentions a religion, everyone comments on why they think it is fake. So tipical, when will America learn respect?

      March 14, 2011 at 11:27 pm |
    • TOINKS

      I AM AMAZE WHEN I READ THE BIBLE, WHY? BECAUSE YOU CAN DETERMINE THE TRUE CHRISTIAN AND THE FAKE CHRISTIAN, YOU CAN DISTINGUISH THE TRUE EVANGELIST AND THE FAKE EVANGELIST, YOU CAN DETERMINE THE ANTI CHRIST AND CHRISTIAN, QUESTION HOW CAN YOU DISTINGUISH THE TRUE CHRISTIAN? A SHORT ANSWER. THERE DRESS CODE, THERE HAIR AND ETC.. AND MOST OF ALL IF YOU ASK THEM ABOUT GOD THEY WILL GIVE YOU VERSES TO READ. NON CHRISTIAN HAVE NO VERSES TO STATE. TRUE CHRISTIANS THEY DID NOT TELL YOU ABOUT THEMSELVES BUT THEY TELL YOU ABOUT GOD BY GIVING YOU BIBLE VERSES WHY? BECAUSE THEY ARE AFRAID OF TELLING SOMEONE ABOUT WHAT THEY KNOW ABOUT THEMESELVE ONLY THE WORD OF GOD THEY TELL YOU BY GIVING YOU VERSES OF THE BIBLE SO THAT YOU CAN READ IT. CONCLUSION IN THE MISTERY OF TRUE CHRISTIAN..THEY ARE BIBLE READERS AND GOD FEARING. TO GOD BE THE GLORY. THANKS BE TO GOD.

      April 1, 2011 at 4:53 am |
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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.

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