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. Hakkinell

    enough of this! why won't God heal amputees? google it out.

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

      he does heal amputees .Go to http://www.emmanueltv.com .Watch the life TV and you see even more than amputees

      March 15, 2011 at 6:00 am |
    • Hakkinell


      I can't find a video that a priest heals a amputee.

      and when i search it, most of the links says he's fake.

      March 15, 2011 at 7:54 am |
    • summerseale

      @Edward If God heals amputees, why don't his healers work full time in hospitals? Why did we have to develop medicine to help ourselves? Or does his special woo only work for you "special" people who he thinks are super kewl while he lets the rest of us die or something? But then, I don't see too many of you "special" people being uber supermen or anything either.

      I guess your little fantasy is just that: a damn lie.

      March 15, 2011 at 8:52 am |
    • Shantha Liyanage

      It's not by God's grace that these power full works are done these days. That is why there is a problem. Refer to Mathew7:21-23. For the Lord to reject the claims, there has to be some one else giving the power, to do those power full works. It has to be none other than the powerful Satan and his angels. Healing the sick in these days comes from the deceiver and the father of the lie the Satan.

      March 20, 2011 at 1:19 am |
  2. Markezz

    Oh there is a God alright. However he is not responsible for the deaths of all that die in "natural disasters.
    This is predominantly due to man insisting in,building, on or near historically known danger zones, fault lines in
    close proximity to volcanoes etc. Dnice do you really believe a deity powerful enough to create our universe would
    have a problem bringing down a pyramid if he so desired?

    March 15, 2011 at 5:14 am |
  3. jimmy


    March 15, 2011 at 5:11 am |
  4. Mark

    Oh there is a God alright, however he does not cause earthquakes, volcanoes or tsunamis.
    These are not "Acts of God". Most people who suffer as a result of these things.
    Live pre-dominantly along or within the path of same. God does not desire that men parish,rather they come to know him.

    March 15, 2011 at 5:00 am |
  5. Pavithra

    I'd like to point out that when tsunami hit Sri Lanka on boxing day 2004, still further buddha statues survived it. The same is evident in your blog's picture. I invite you to visit following link to see images of Sri Lanka's tsunami – buddha statues


    March 15, 2011 at 5:00 am |

    anyone who doesn't believe in God, I can assure you that you will face a scary death at your last terminal. It always happens. Atheist murdered, atheist found dead in a sewage, atheist hit and run by a car and then covered by banana leaves on the street, atheist found dead after a month and already full of flies and worms.. and finally buried in an animal graveyard. yeeeaaks !! etc... hold my words. it works!

    March 15, 2011 at 4:58 am |
  7. Moorey

    The Earthquakes

    March 15, 2011 at 4:31 am |
  8. Mary Le

    I believe, anyone who does not believe in God father and Jesus, after he is dead, there is no place for him to go; His soul will be homeless, wandering around the earth, to stay somewhere,or in someone house. We call them Gosh! I have a proof to say that is truth. So, I want to tell everyone that if you do not worship God, God Father, Jesus Christ, and Holy Spirit, you will regret after you pass this life.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:29 am |
    • go

      So we got billions of homeless ghosts in this world, because they do not believe in Jesus? When you die, it will be just like sleeping, did you feel homeless when you were sleeping?

      March 15, 2011 at 7:04 am |
  9. Massimo

    Nam Mioho Renghe Kio for all the dead and the survivors

    March 15, 2011 at 4:28 am |
  10. marcoro

    Be gentle.
    Love your neighbor.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:14 am |
  11. Anteneh

    Everybody must know and believe that there is all mighty God,He is creator of all things and He can do what He want in human affairs and their life. Therefore you should know that this kind of mater it may help to everybody to believed by GOD.
    And the responce is all people are His creation, but only those who come to Him by faith in His son Jesus Christ, and are through Him becomes into God , only those are His children 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.You have to stir yourself double times to believe and accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior it waring for everybody !!!

    March 15, 2011 at 4:11 am |
    • Namo

      You mean Jesus creates sinful business for mankind to suffer. In this manner why believe in Jesus – that's suck!

      March 15, 2011 at 4:17 am |
  12. wakeup


    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 4:11 am |
    • arun

      Love is God, God lives in us

      March 15, 2011 at 7:05 am |
  13. chris

    alex from romania is an un-educated albanian

    March 15, 2011 at 4:04 am |
  14. chris

    history is also a waste of time

    March 15, 2011 at 4:03 am |
  15. chris

    christianity is wrong, how can we be right when our boss(jesus) is king of the jews

    Paul(Saul) was the real inspiration behind christianity

    March 15, 2011 at 4:02 am |
  16. chris

    stop believing in anything and soon you realise that we are better off resoecting each others equality

    March 15, 2011 at 3:59 am |
  17. alex from romania

    budha is a shet invented the jaapan people

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

      You truly are a Christian from Romania?

      March 15, 2011 at 4:19 am |
  18. chris

    god is a three letter word , nothing he does or say has helped anyone but believing in religion has just caused us misery and suffering

    March 15, 2011 at 3:58 am |
  19. Leonardo

    Theravada Buddhism 500 B.C. the oldest Buddism makes people strong. Not strong to fight or do wars but to handle suffer and Pain and take fear of death being peacful. Other religion could learn a lot from Theravada Buddhism!

    March 15, 2011 at 3:58 am |
  20. chris

    religion is a waste of time , so is politics, its all lies and all to do with money , how fake are the evangelists , how rich are the catholica, how decieving is judism and how stupid is islam, likewise budhism is not a religion ,

    March 15, 2011 at 3:57 am |
    • A-k

      if u don't believe on religion thats' your problem don't make fun of the religions ..

      March 15, 2011 at 4:40 am |
    • Sampath Bandara

      Buddhism ! not just a religion. it is not limit to faith , views, logic, It is a practice way. there is no any hidden things. open to all. you can touch it feel it. realize it, yourself.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:26 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.