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. mehmet

    There is nothing that makes impossible the gathering of resurrection, and much that necessitates it. The glorious and eternal Lordship, the almighty and all embracing Sovereignty of the One Who gives life and death to this vast and wondrous earth as if it were a mere animal; Who has made of this earth a pleasing cradle, a fine ship, for man and the animals; Who has made of the sun a lamp furnishing light and heat to the hostelry of the world; Who has made of the planets vehicles for the conveyance of his angels-the Lordship and Sovereignty of such a One cannot rest upon and be restricted to the transitory, impermanent, unstable, insignificant, changeable, un-lasting, deficient and imperfect affairs of this world. He must therefore have another realm, one worthy of Him, permanent, stable, immutable, and glorious. Indeed, He does have another kingdom, and it is for the sake of this that He causes us to labor, and to this that He summons us…

    March 15, 2011 at 2:54 am |
    • Rabbi Greene

      Its a fairy tale, get over it...

      March 15, 2011 at 3:42 am |
  2. Robinson

    I want the muslim man to know this, and that is, whatever perception they have about Jesus, we the Christan have in our faith that he is our Saviour... Therefore what i want them to know is, they should not forget that, he is the only one whom, DEATH could not hold in the grave. The Only Empty Grave in this whole wide world, mohammed is still lying down the earth, but Jesus isnt, he has arose on the third day, therefore this made him omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscience. Death could not hold him. Great difference between Jesus and mohammed.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:54 am |
    • TRUTH

      With all due respect, please visit this website and read for yourself....the grave of Jesus is not an empty one...he was a human being and died a natural death.


      March 15, 2011 at 3:18 am |
  3. Angel

    Seek the Truth while you are still alive since you are on a ONE WAY trip which will end up either in Heaven or in Hell.
    In mystery, God has chosen his own people who will keep seeking the Truth and do His commandments until perfection.
    Shall It Be Written, Shall It Be Done.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:53 am |
  4. mehmet

    “Prepare yourselves. You will go to another and permanent realm, a realm that will make this one seem like a dungeon. You will go to the seat of our king’s rule, and receive his compassion and bounty, if you heed and obey this edict. If you rebel and disobey it, you will be cast into awesome dungeons.”

    March 15, 2011 at 2:52 am |
  5. Tumbleweed

    Death is not the end of the souls journey and our human bodies all die at some point or another in various ways. There are many different beliefs as to what happens to the soul after the body dies and no-one can prove or disprove the other except with what is written in the various scriptures or with what is observed in science with the limited instruments we have invented. Perhaps it's beyond our comprehensions and we just need faith.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:50 am |
    • Maybe

      "Perhaps it's beyond our comprehensions and we just need faith."

      Perhaps we just need to accept that we don't know (yet)... there is no shame in that. And certainly not the shame that sits on religion's head.

      March 15, 2011 at 2:54 am |
    • DAVE

      tumbleweed faith without works is dead

      April 1, 2011 at 11:38 am |
  6. Belief_Matrices

    Religion is not moral. People are moral. The problem is that religion has been depriving people of the ability to understand why. Morality is a concept that develops over time in a person's life as that person's brain develops until it stops developing in the mid 20s. In the meantime, a "structure" has to be put in place to keep the still-developing brain from acting impulsively and without consideration of consequences to others. That's where religion has come into play.

    However, in most cases, people whose brains have outgrown the training wheels of religion continue to rely on religion to create a perceived structure for their decisions. Thus, it inhibits full utilization of the mind's ability to define morals in its own interpretation.

    And that's what it boils down to: A matter of interpretation. The underlying message of all religions is simply a philosophical approach to defining human wisdom and compassion. The problem begins when interpretation becomes literal and thus breeds intolerance. That is, rather than drawing from the meaning of supposed events that are hailed by religion as being true and real, people tend to believe that without those specific events, the underlying moral meaning of religious philosophy cannot be fully understood. This, of course, gives birth to intolerance.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:39 am |
    • TeV-

      Hmm. So explain how it works for non-religious people.
      What you call morals is just a subjectively shaped value system used by humans. Without religion, there is still "moral" development. Religion goes too far and warps a person's ability to perceive reality and keep illusion separate, leading to schizophrenia and possible psychosis. The "morals" can become psychotic, like with sui-cide bombers. Yet they thought that what they were doing was "right" and "moral" according to their religion-based "morals".

      March 15, 2011 at 2:54 am |
  7. SL ROX

    this is awesome but we are not surprise with this,,this is kinda normal thing with Load Buddha.
    this is big change disgrace to Buddhism...lol we dont care

    we will say only what...................Namo Buddhaya !!! that is it

    March 15, 2011 at 2:27 am |
    • a convinced atheist buddhist

      Wrong, wrong,

      we say "amidha buddha"

      lol, 😉

      March 15, 2011 at 9:14 am |
  8. Truth

    Mark 12
    30 And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment.

    31 And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.

    AMOS 9
    5 And the Lord GOD of hosts is He that toucheth the land, and it shall melt, and all that dwell therein shall mourn: and it shall rise up wholly like a flood; and shall be drowned, as by the flood of Egypt.

    6 It is He that buildeth His stories in the heaven, and hath founded His troop in the earth; He that calleth for the waters of the sea, and poureth them out upon the face of the earth: The LORD is His name.

    2 Chron 7
    14 If my people, which are called by My name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.

    15 Now mine eyes shall be open, and mine ears attent unto the prayer that is made in this place.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:24 am |
  9. jj

    In the beginning God created everything good and beautiful until sin entered into the mind of Lucifer ( Satan). Satan deceived many people and made people believed that God is unmerciful and unloving God. He made earth his domain and caused all miseries and hardships to all mankind...But time will come that God will punished him and all his wicked followers...and Satan will banish from the face of the earth...Jesus and all who are faithful will inherit this new earth, no sin will enter again into the mind and this earth will become a heaven and paradise forever. Amen.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:16 am |
  10. superpaul3000

    People still have religion? In 2011? Really?

    March 15, 2011 at 2:12 am |
  11. Hany Mursy

    Thanks to Allah my God, I'm a Muslim

    March 15, 2011 at 2:11 am |
  12. tcchew

    This is Karma

    March 15, 2011 at 2:07 am |
  13. Burnabas KZ

    These earthquakes and strange waves are mentioned in the Bible (Matt 24, Luke 21) and will be signs of the coming of the last day when Jesus Christ will come back again. These prophecies will have to fullfil as it was spoken by Jesus himself. The purpose of signs/prophecies and fulfiling these are for warning human to stop sinning and come back to God because God love his creation. My love goes to all victims and pray that God will comfort them for their loss.
    In Christ's love,

    March 15, 2011 at 2:04 am |
    • GiantSphincterOfDoom

      (farting noise)

      March 15, 2011 at 2:34 am |
    • Candoor

      All kinds of abuses have been thrown at Jesus. He has also been spitted on. A crown of thorns was pushed into His skull and nails driven into his palms and feet. So what you do is disrespectful, but nothing compared to what has already been done to Him.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:04 am |
    • Oblate

      Empty platltudes, but I guess you mean well. Your hands could be doing something worthwhile, like fapping.
      "the devil finds work for idle hands". That's just you all over.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:11 am |
  14. Islam

    Hey My Fellow Christians . Can i ask you a simple three questions
    1 – Do You believe that jesus i god almighty? if its yes
    2- Do You belive that jesus is died ? if it's Yes
    3- Do You believe that god can die ?
    We Muslims Believe Jesus is one of mights messenger from god . he spread a love and forgiveness through the world , we love him and respect him as a messenger .

    March 15, 2011 at 2:02 am |
    • Akhtar Hakimi

      U r right!

      March 15, 2011 at 2:21 am |
    • Lewis

      Dear Mr. Islam,

      I know you do respect Jesus as a prophet but do you know he died and rose again, this you missed out and this power only God has.

      March 15, 2011 at 2:27 am |
    • TeV-

      How strange that some Muslims will say Jesus was a prophet and then scorn everything about his followers because they are not Muslim. Yet their own "prophet" is worshipped as a god. Dueling banjo-gods, anyone?

      March 15, 2011 at 2:32 am |
    • Candoor

      Jesus is a God who can identify with human pain and weaknesses because He, the God who created the Universe, and all that is, came down to the earth He created to bring us back to Him. When we worship anyone or thing else, we come under the power of the enemy, the evil one who has the power to destroy. So why does he have the power to destroy? And how can we come under the protection of Almighty God? Find out. It is important enough to do that. Do not remain in ignorance and bigotry. God bless you.

      March 15, 2011 at 2:59 am |
  15. commonman01

    why do the "comments" always end up with a discussion about God ???? And then to top it off they are just full of mostly personal opinons... albeit someones view of who God might be or some scientific based view pointed at no God.

    This article has given one mans view of a whole culture of people. in which he states there are Budist schools to treach about life after death. Budah as a living man new nothing about life after death ... so how could he teach anything about it ?

    March 15, 2011 at 1:52 am |
    • HotAirAce

      You seem to dismiss conversations and statements about god and then go on to, at least partially, dismiss budhhism? Seems to me that you are doing the same thing you accuse others of doing. Did I miss something?

      March 15, 2011 at 2:03 am |
    • TeV-

      @HotAirAce – I think you missed something. He was asking for information about that Buddha fellow. If he believed in re-incarnation, how could he have known such a thing for a fact when he had not yet died? Maybe he was just wondering out loud and his "student worshippers" took it as "gospel"...? Is this not a possibility that we might address?

      March 15, 2011 at 2:29 am |
  16. Colin

    Someone once said, "There's only one thing you need to remember about the 'Golden Rule:' – It's Your move." top that one.

    March 15, 2011 at 1:50 am |
  17. theoldadam

    The whole of creation is broken, including ourselves. One has come that we might have new life, and one Day, He will usher in a New Kingdom where these tragedies will not happen any longer.

    March 15, 2011 at 1:49 am |
  18. ace

    What do you guys readers have in mind when somebody told you "There is no justice or injustice in GOD's love". I was speechless when some uber-smart girl told me years ago. Disaster like this makes me wonder if she is still hold such view point.

    March 15, 2011 at 1:48 am |
    • commonman01

      The foundation of God's throne is justice and righteousness ..... according to Him anyway.

      March 15, 2011 at 1:55 am |
    • DAVE

      hi ace read deuteronomy 32:39, psalms 14:1,psalms 53:1, revelation 21:8.

      April 1, 2011 at 11:33 am |
  19. i don't know

    if religion is gone there will be no fights, but sadly no more holidays.

    March 15, 2011 at 1:48 am |
    • ace

      There will be tons of fights with or without religion.
      Humans are **** by nature. We 'll sure could find a way to kill each other

      March 15, 2011 at 1:54 am |
    • SayinItLikeItIs

      Religion is what keeps the poor from killing the rich.

      March 15, 2011 at 2:28 am |
    • Giant Sphincter Of Doom

      I have something for everyone! Line up everybody! No, over there, by the large open pit next to that bulldozer.

      March 15, 2011 at 2:38 am |
  20. i don't know

    which one came first chicken or egg?

    March 15, 2011 at 1:42 am |
    • Q

      Eggs came before chickens. They're right there in the fossil record...

      March 15, 2011 at 1:43 am |
    • Ashleigh McShee

      The rooster.

      March 15, 2011 at 1:45 am |
    • Peace2All

      @i don't know

      Hey there -i don't know...

      I was amused as I seem to remember somewhere in the book of genesis in the bible, somehow solving that one...I think it was the chicken, or 'birds of the air' or some such mythology.

      But, in fact @ Q is correct in his assertion.



      March 15, 2011 at 1:46 am |
    • sergio

      I think religion is not somenthing to try to understand if you reporter are too far of the real purpose of budhism and misticism, nature is nature and we are just machines

      March 15, 2011 at 2:51 am |
    • DAVE

      if egg came first, who we will be lay the egg to become a chicken nonsense if egg came first. The first came out was Chicken in the creation of God. Now This is my question is baby came first before it's parents?

      April 1, 2011 at 11:28 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.