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. Mostafa

    In deed, situations like this raise many questions on what are we doing in this life, why we are here, when are we going to die, thank God for being safe, etc....
    Some situations in our life can change our thinking 180 degrees.
    It is time for all humanity to think on these signs.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:56 am |
    • Proinvestor

      Tis is really tragic ! Ones religion is sacret......


      March 15, 2011 at 4:54 am |
    • Phil

      Plain, simple and well said!

      March 15, 2011 at 5:10 am |
    • Adam S Mehdi

      I truly agree with your thought and I believe that Allah The most Gracious and Merciful, his mercy be upon those people who lost their life in this tragedy give rest of the people the strength to come up once again. We should and always remember that All mighty power should be challenged and live accordingly by our deeds.One thing we have to understand that we can’t tame the Nature and Nature always takes when and where it require.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:19 am |
    • Adam S Mehdi

      Apologise its Typo mistake:-
      All mighty power shouldn’t be challenged and live accordingly by our deeds.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:25 am |
    • Sampath Bandara

      The lord Buddha never wanted any our blind ignorant praise. he totaly rejected blind faith. (Please Read Budddhist Texts.) He wanted to show us who is the buddha really. explained many ways to realize buddha without blind faith.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:28 am |
    • Eray

      Mostafa is right. We should think everyday, ask questions "Why".
      The earth, the space, animals, plants, human..There must be a very strong and just one creator. So
      look for the ways to thank and pray him. By this way if you believe the life after death, you will be safe there.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:31 am |
  2. DNICE


    March 15, 2011 at 3:55 am |
  3. Goodobserver

    God created mankind or human created god ???

    i realise this during prayer in my church, we close our eyes and hold hands to sing our prayer and worship. The priest keep saying imagine god surround us etc. Suddenly one question pop up in my mind, hey is this how we as human collectively created god right inside our minds. Our thoughts are so directed that the picture of god in human figure is so vivid.

    I think more about it, and would like to share my thoughts. in the past, mankind come out with polytheism, for everyday matter, there is associated god. God of war, love, thunder, sea, earth, bla bla. It was so true in their mind of that time. Even worship and sacrifices with human's life are made.

    Now science and knowlegde is more advanced. Thunder is just another nature phenomena, not god angry etc. But there is still domain beyond reach of our current knowlegde which we say and refer it to god. our god now is monotheism god though. Will future generation think we are silly as we think our ancestor was silly. i bet so.

    I have since concluded mankind invented god through our ignorance perception. feel free to comment.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:55 am |
    • Turn to god... it is time....

      My friend... I learnt you are/were a christian.... then I can explain this to u easily.... If u read Genesis, creation of the world... u'll see this very clearly.... God is real and he is eternal.. He was there before the world was made... Your thinking pattern is what has happend with the advancement of the technology.. God prohibitted Adam & Eve not to eat from the tree of knowladge.... Did u ever think y this is.... this is the point we died to our divinity and we became ordinary humans as we are today.... Humans were gready for the knowladge from the begining and they wanted to be like God as satan tempted Eve... This is the down fall of us... We are trying to understand God from our thinking i.e. The Creation is attemting to understand & to be like the creator!!! Can u see the mistake we are doing... Man is destroying man from our own advancement of scientifical finding... From this desastor it is very evidant that our knowladge is NOT in anyway able to do this ever... And u my friend is with the one true living God and u are only blessed to know him.. Satan is always trying in all the sublet ways to tempt the followers of the God almighty..... U know and feel the truth in yr heart when u pray quaitly..... listen to God ...to his tru voice.... we do not have to ask things from him always...for it is written that out father in heaven knows very well what are Needs are NOT Wants.... Want's our onw desires to live in this world ...but need are all what we require to finishe our mission in this world and return back to him where we originally came from.....

      March 15, 2011 at 7:27 am |
    • Anthony

      Science doesn't explain away God. Yes, we've found out scientific explanations for thunder etc., but that still doesn't mean there is no god. We've merely found out... why there is thunder.

      To us, science is just a way of explaining God's work, His creations, his designs, so that us humans can understand it.

      March 16, 2011 at 3:01 am |
  4. Enrique

    Just yesterday i wrote at approx. 5:30pm pacific time(la) in response to one of these comments that touched. My comment showed up but i guess for only a few minutes after I guess when a CNN editor determines if my comments are good or harsh. I do not know the reason. BUt if a CNN editor is reading this comment so far I ask that you keep my comments up for a few hours if not a few days. I have seen some comments here that are Stil Here. Let me end this comment and I will continue with a next posted comment.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:49 am |
  5. Mickwoof

    In the Non-Abrahamic faiths, especially in the East, in a disaster, you pick up, clean up, move on with grace and dignity, honoring those who came before you, and building the future. Hard to imagine that Buddhists will be having discussions blaming sin or a vengeful Middle-Eastern desert Diety or other such nonsense for what what the earth has been doing for millions, if not billions of years. Please note: The reason Indonesia is Muslim now is because of Krakatoa. Islamic missionaries went and told them God was punishing them for not knowing Mohammed.
    Want to help? Put your preaching blaming books in a drawer, pick up a shovel or broom, and go help these people dig out & clean up.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:46 am |
    • FuzzyIce

      That's it, Mickwoof. And if one can't go with tools to help them, find a honest agency, like Red-Cross and make a cash donation. There are lots of ways our donations will help them to cope with the devastation. Just remember, we share the same world and we should unite to help each other instead of trying to find what god is better.

      March 15, 2011 at 2:16 pm |

    look this articles ,Thanx

    March 15, 2011 at 3:43 am |
  7. tarayrolly@yahoo.com

    Proverbs 10:27

    The fear of the LORD prolongeth days: but the years of the wicked shall be shortened.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:41 am |
    • Chicky Girl

      Oh yes, the days of the wicked shall indeed be shortened! Take Lazar Kaganovitch, just for starters.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:57 am |
  8. Wiseman

    i would think whether god exist or not exist is not important. what is important is how the thought and belief of god existence/inexistence impact ur life. If having god in ur mind make u stronger and happier in ur life. u r good, keep follow this path. On the other hand, if u believe god is simply bs idea created by mankind silly conception, and hence you rely urself, grow ur inner strength to live ur life happily, u r also good and keep this path.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:41 am |
  9. Nabi


    March 15, 2011 at 3:41 am |
  10. mohamed

    Christianity doesn't exist in this planet untill cursfiction, so ther was a true religion before Christianity and there is a God...yes, You are right Islam

    March 15, 2011 at 3:40 am |
    • Jack

      You are right....If jesus was not kiiled then no CHRISTIANITY

      March 15, 2011 at 3:43 am |
    • Angel

      Islam religion was invented by the prophet Mohammad who lived 600 years after Lord Jesus and most of Qor'an's contents duplicates the Bible.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:59 am |
    • Xtian

      Do you know the History? or Have read any Holy Books?
      GOD is one present all the time.
      In old Testament days God gave rules to follow but man didn't follow, later God wanted to bring back he made him offer sacrificial of lamp, goat etc But still man just did all this for name sake and he still was sinning again his heart was not pure.
      Hence GOD has do help mankind, not by magic but by sacrificing himself for the sin, JESUS is God's Son (GOD is one in three form Father , Son, Holy spirit ) like water can be (Water, Vapor,Ice) He was there before the world was created and back in 2000 years and now and forever.
      So the question is not how old your religion is . In fact Christianity is not a religion it is a way of life pure in heart and leaving with God presence. I live in Middle east I know how people follow the rules but are extremely bad in their heart.
      So repent and accept Jesus as your Saviour and be saved.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:23 am |
    • Paul

      Buddhism, the Hindu religion, Christianity, and Judaism easily pre-date Islam. The truth of religion does not depend upon the date of its founding. If it does, Islam appeared later in human history than most other major religions.

      March 15, 2011 at 7:29 pm |
  11. TheWay

    i would think whether god exist or not exist is not important. what is important is how the thought and belief of god existence/inexistence impact ur life. If having god in ur mind make u stronger and happier in ur life. u r good, keep follow this path. On the other hand, if u believe god is simply bs idea created by mankind silly conception, and hence you rely urself, grow ur inner strength to live ur life happily, u r also good and keep this path.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:39 am |
    • "Truth" says Jesus is the only way

      There is no real happiness outside of Jesus. Everything is temporary, and can be taken away with a snap of a finger, and that is a fact! Jesus is the Truth, the way and the life.

      March 15, 2011 at 6:53 pm |
  12. human and god love

    Any one care to explain why god let this disaster happen? If you are the loving father of your children, will you do nothing and let your children suffer. I know many human father still love their kid and wont abandon their kid despite their kid being a bad guy. I would say such human father love > than god love, who only love those fear them. what a silly and childish god.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:37 am |
    • Turn to god... it is time....

      My friend.... Jesus is the only son of the creator... the god the father... He let his son die on a cross for the sins of the world... that sounds pretty crazy I'm afarid from what you think... that's the love of the our God and do not try to think what God thinks.. How can we (the creation) think of the mind of the creator (God) You can never understand him from our human minds coz he is devine. These are the signs for repentance all over the world coz we indulge our bodies in all the things in this world and they feel in the end the life is empty. Chek if u bother in the net of all the most influential people of the world how their lives have ended up..... most of them have died depresed...u know y... They thought like you and thought that there is no God.... If you can sit before u go to sleep (if u do not get drunk to fall asleep) the meaning of the life and everything of this world.... u'll understand what I say... When u realize the truth my friend...it may be too late... But we have tried to live our lives the way we think is right we are messed up and then we blame GOD... is that fair may friend???? just think...

      March 15, 2011 at 6:56 am |
    • Paul

      The God of the Bible is concerned mainly about being praised by humans. He admits many times that He is "a jealous God." Nothing is more abhorred by the God of the Old Testament, at least, than the worship of other gods. David was both an adulterer and a murderer, but God loved him far more than He loved Solomon. Solomon's sin was the pursuit of "strange" women (meaning foreign women) and the building of temples for their gods. Murder is not good, but following false gods is disastrous.

      March 15, 2011 at 7:11 pm |
    • DAVE


      April 1, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
  13. Zizin

    Theravada buddhism (the most orthrodox form, 2500 years old) will help them.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:36 am |
    • Turn to god... it is time....

      Buddism is a good phylosophy.... I agree with u but... Where do u turn to when u need a God?.... U can only rely on a living God and no one who is dead can hear u pray and help u... have u ever thought about this ....... We all need a God to run to when we are totally down and broken hearted.... How would u do this my friend... just think.....

      March 15, 2011 at 7:02 am |
  14. sanji

    i feel sorry for these people who face such a disaster. and i feel sooo sorry about these idiots who comment over here. some people want to say this done by Cristian god some says Muslim god.i see some one try to explain Buddhism too...you guys need to study much more about religion, history,politics, philosophy,world, nature,human races and animals trees what ever around you guys. then you make comment. don't make just bla blaaa. yesterday i got bus on time. last month i uneble to get bus at time becaurse it was snawing. so you guys saying this done by cristian or mulim god u guys so pathatic....

    March 15, 2011 at 3:35 am |
  15. sanji

    i feel sorry for these people who face such a disaster. and i feel sooo sorry about these idiots who comment over here. some people want to say this done by Cristian god some says Muslim god.i see some one try to explain Buddhism too...you guys need to study much more about religion, history,politics, philosophy,world, nature,human races and animals trees what ever around you guys. then you make comment. don't make just bla blaaa. yesterday i got bus on time. last month i uneble to get bus at time becaurse it was snawing. so you guys saying this done by cristian or mulim god u guys so pathatic....

    March 15, 2011 at 3:31 am |
    • DAVE


      April 1, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
  16. Teo

    Nature is will of the creator. It's heart breaking when dear's life is taken. Religion...those who walked shall have peace but those who talk will keep on searching...

    March 15, 2011 at 3:19 am |
  17. TriumPatriot

    Two hands at work accomplishes much more than a million hands clasped in prayer.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:14 am |
    • evedyahu

      PRAYER is the mission/work of the Church!

      March 15, 2011 at 3:26 am |
    • DAVE


      April 1, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
  18. Malanga


    March 15, 2011 at 3:09 am |
  19. Turn to god... it is time....

    It showed how fragile even the most advanced technology could be in the face of the Nature which I belive the general rule of God in the world..... For people who do not belive in an almighty god... the responce is always from the the law of the nature with cause and effect... This is never a punishment from god but a chance to turn to god which unfortunatly us humans always do only when we are shaken and woken up from our own dreamy worlds we live in as individuals... If we turn to him only we are open to his supernatural ways and blessings..... We must use this devastation to turn to him..... it is time

    March 15, 2011 at 3:06 am |
    • Oblate

      You try to coerce people into doing what you want – instead of convincing them with reason and common sense.

      Maybe it worked on you, but you don't have to drag other people down with you.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:16 am |
    • Paul

      Just spend a little time actually reading the Bible. The God that is described makes a point of telling people like Joshua that they must entirely destroy towns – men, women, children, infants, and animals. Is this the loving God you worship?

      March 15, 2011 at 7:05 pm |
    • DAVE


      April 1, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
  20. BANJO


    March 15, 2011 at 3:01 am |
    • Oblate

      Thanks, that would be great. My will is that you stop believing everything other people say. If you don't start acting like a responsible adult and questioning what others are trying to coerce you into doing, you will likely suffer my wrath if I ever hear about it. Grrr.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:13 am |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15
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.