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. MadBad

    please let people believe or not believe in whatever .....it is their choice..please do not judge, please do not condemn....there is no superior religion or belief....just religion or belief, if it helps you personally fine....take it and run, don't dis others who do not believe..let's all respect each others beliefs instead of this ego trip of Budha vs. Jesus, vs.Koran..vs..whatever....please...you would not go down the street absuing anyone would you....then why hide behind here to vent your silliness....

    March 15, 2011 at 9:08 am |
    • SurelyUjest

      Agreed, and it could from a societal perspective be argued that religions that required postive action from the believers in the face of tragedy is actually better for society in general.

      March 15, 2011 at 9:52 am |
    • Michael

      “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.”

      As a former Buddhist monk and current teacher of Buddhism for the last 26 years – i feel compelled to reject Assistant Professor Jimmy Yu's understanding of Buddhism. we do not believe in collective karma nor do we see calamities as signs of an approaching apocalypse. This is so far from what we believe that i have to believe that this is either a misquote of that this Assistant Professor needs to be relieved from teaching Buddhism. This is very basic and elementary understanding.

      We do believe that each person sees what they see as a result of their past conditioned responses – and that is the suffering/stress that they experience. It is also the case that each person can be free of that conditioning and at any moment the suffering we experience can be mindfully transformed by paying attention to this conditioned process. This is known as awakening. Welcome to Buddhism Assistant Professor Yu. Feel free to contact me at http://www.meditationsarasota.com

      March 15, 2011 at 10:18 am |
    • John

      While I am Christian I do believe in what you are saying. It is everyones right to believe or not to believe. We need to respect the spiritual nature of mankind which will always be there no matter what those radical athieits say. By the way, the radical atheists also have a right to believe as they do, i just wish they would feel the same instead of bashing everyone else.

      March 15, 2011 at 10:22 am |
  2. summerseale

    Look at all the religious nuts crawling out of the woodwork, trying to bring us "the good news"....

    March 15, 2011 at 9:04 am |
  3. Eduardo

    I believe in Jesus, he is the only way, the truth and the life, him or her who does not know Jesus, will someday know him, and they will marvel from his glory, it will be the most mind blowing spectacle in human history and all will bow down to him, evil and good, he came to save the world and he came to save you also from man's lies and abominations. Jesus is the God of Abraham, the God/Father of the living, all of those who live in lies are not the sons of Abraham, just dust under God's foot, why? because if you dont repent and ask for the Lord's forgiveness then you will indeed perish forever, keep up with the aliens, the lies, the governments, the petroleum prices, the food, the water, the cancer victims, the dead as you worries, at the end, none of that will be important, because God will wipe away all tears, yes the one and only King of the Universe will descend from heaven and clean for your face to receive glory and become a God like him, in his image and his beauty.

    March 15, 2011 at 8:09 am |
    • stubbycat

      You say you "believe" in Jesus, but do you comprehend his consciousness, his Mind? He lived to his full spiritual capacity and manifested perfect Love. He acknowledged that Love was his God and denied repeatedly that he was GOD. But he always pointed mankind to Supreme Being and away from the beliefs that seem to limit God's image and likeness to the chains of matter. Jesus said that there is a spiritual knowledge to be obtained which he taught was "the kingdom of GOD" which mortals are to seek and find foremost. This excellent master of Mind dominated the flesh. Are Christians doing this? Some are, many are not. The wellness of this world depends upon the heavenliness we find within ourselves now. This was the Healer's principle.

      March 15, 2011 at 9:30 am |
  4. skorky

    Um, I think Shintoism is QUITE a bit older than "the 15th century." Its earliest text dates to back to the 7th or 8th century, and that's jjust a codification of basic tenants. The actual religion goes back to prehistoric times.

    March 15, 2011 at 8:07 am |
    • skorky

      oh, almost forgot...jesus, god, evolution, blah blah blah. There, my CNN post is now complete.

      March 15, 2011 at 8:08 am |
  5. Virve

    Those who accepted and believed Jesus Christ a Son of God, as our Lord and Savior. God the Father Gives us the right to become children of God through Jesus. John 1:12

    March 15, 2011 at 7:50 am |
  6. Robinson

    Truth–> , i want you to know, the site you have enlisted is an islam site whereby they have harden their heart to know the truth, therefore so shall it be, haven't you see, it is forbiden for a muslim to read the bible, they re always against it, bcos their imman have made it to be so. they see the bible as some omen, therefore they will always write against christ... accept ur faith, let we who re following the teaching of our christ also accept our faith, at the end will determine who is right.

    March 15, 2011 at 7:45 am |
  7. 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.

    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 7:25 am |
    • Shantha Liyanage

      If there is no Athma (spirit) as per the Buddha's Anathma Wada isn't it contradictory to make alms giving to the dead? How would you explain the relationship between 'Hethupala Wadaya' and the existence of all living beings.From where and how did these Athma come in the beginning? Hasn't there got to be a cause?Shouldn't that first cause (Hethuwa) exist? Why start from the middle?The functions of the organs of the human body (even considering those in the head alone) is enough reason for one to search for the cause.Further when considering the rate of increase of population of all living beings- from where did the new spirits come. Is it from the animal kingdom?Animals kill for their sustenance hence they never can attain a human existence. So why not search for the truth? Hethu pathanam wishwasaya and hethu rahitha Bakthiya are like black and white.Buddha asked every body to search for the truth. Didn't he ?

      March 15, 2011 at 8:23 am |
    • Sampath Bandara

      We See the things as we see. Collected many views, Logics.
      But Buddha Says
      "As I said, Kalamas: 'Don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, "This contemplative is our teacher." (Buddha to kalama)

      March 16, 2011 at 1:22 am |
    • Shantha Liyanage

      Yes of- course I think I finally understand what it says according to you- THAT IS – WITHOUT reports, legends, traditions, scripture, logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by thought, ACCEPT NOTHING ELSE- BUT WHAT I HAVE FOUND AS THE TRUTH. I wonder are we Robots or puppets? As I have noted before regarding hethurahitha Bakthiya ,that of- course cannot be challenged.

      March 16, 2011 at 9:41 am |
    • Sampath Bandara

      Just Logic can't be solved all things. Yes of course we want to be faithness followers at first. Ultimately we have to get in to practice. Then feel it.Touch it.Realize it.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:42 am |
    • Shantha Liyanage

      According to you to become faithful followers there need not be solid facts. Mentally ill mostly see only what they think. They fail to think about what they see. But thinking of what you see, leads to true knowledge and thus faith without seen facts is like eating with your eyes closed. You do not know what you are eating. If there is no logical thinking there always exists confusion and fear.

      I thought Buddha directed people to find out even whether what he preached is truth or not. For the latter thinking, meditation, comparison and so many other efforts which you yourself have mentioned (to be discarded as per Buddha’s order) in your first answer are required. All this culminates in logical thinking. How could people do that if logical thinking is put into the junk box? I wish to give you the following for your contemplation.

      1) Who or what had set this law of karma in motion?
      2) Who judged these beings' actions and sentenced them to another life of pain?
      3) Why were beings punished for actions they would be unable to remember?
      4) Was desire always a bad thing? Wasn't the desire for enlightenment still desire?
      5) If so, how could one ever attain enlightenment?
      Logical thinking…….. No Need? Then it’s…. blind faith. During the cold war people were brain washed to believe that the state is God? That was also a faith. There were so many faithful. So people must be on guard not to be brain washed.

      March 23, 2011 at 2:31 am |
  8. arun

    Love All
    Serve All
    No Religion,Caste,region barrier for Human kindness
    By Saibaba

    March 15, 2011 at 6:59 am |
  9. wish

    “Whether one believes in a religion or not, and whether one believes in rebirth or not, there isn't anyone who doesn't appreciate kindness and compassion.”

    March 15, 2011 at 6:50 am |
    • mjs

      Except in Africa...people do not understand compassion and kindness...they see it as a weakness.

      March 15, 2011 at 7:16 am |
  10. arun

    They prosper long who walk His way
    Who has the senses signed away.
    His feet, whose likeness none can find,
    Alone can ease the anxious mind.
    Who swims the sea of vice is he
    Who clasps the feet of Virtue's sea.
    Like senses stale that head is vain
    Which bows not to Eight-Virtued Divine.
    The sea of births they alone swim
    Who clench His feet and cleave to Him.

    By Valluvar – Worlds common Living ethics not bound by time and religion

    March 15, 2011 at 6:49 am |
  11. wish

    “If you have fear of some pain or suffering, you should examine whether there is anything you can do about it. If you can, there is no need to worry about it; if you cannot do anything, then there is also no need to worry.”

    March 15, 2011 at 6:48 am |
  12. wish

    “I believe all suffering is caused by ignorance. People inflict pain on others in the selfish pursuit of their happiness or satisfaction. Yet true happiness comes from a sense of peace and contentment, which in turn must be achieved through the cultiv”

    March 15, 2011 at 6:47 am |
  13. arun

    God's praise who tell, are free from right
    And wrong, the twins of dreaming night.

    March 15, 2011 at 6:45 am |
  14. arun

    Who hold His feet who likes nor loathes
    Are free from woes of human births.

    March 15, 2011 at 6:45 am |
  15. arun

    Long they live on earth who gain
    The feet of God in florid brain.

    March 15, 2011 at 6:41 am |
  16. arun

    Soul never perishes, it is immortal. The good and bad deeds reflect on our life, the soul enters different bodies based on our karmic effect. Newton's third law underlines the importance of action and reaction. Birth is like a big ocean. God's help is sought to swim across this ocean. When He helps to sever the worldly attachments – birth stops and then soul reaches the abode of GOD – this is called 'nirvikalpa samadhi'. To reach such an elevated level requires renunciation of egoism and selfishness, which are in-born with everybody. As Sri Ramana Maharshi says – the "I" should be killed. Sri Manickavachagar states humbly submits his Namaskarams to His feet, appreciates His glories since He is severing the birth and preventing us from re-birth.

    March 15, 2011 at 6:36 am |
    • Shantha Liyanage

      Sir Isacc Newton was talking only with reference to tangible objects. He was a very strong Christian who never believed in any other except God as explained in the Bible. Please do not insult him by trying to apply his laws for your intangible spirits and karmas. For further information go to http://www.adherents.com/people/pn/Isaac_Newton.html

      March 19, 2011 at 10:39 pm |
  17. russell

    Do not believe to those things that you have seen and bow down on it...but believed to the one who made those things that you have seen..God bless...Jesus is the only way...He Himself declares that He is the only way, the truth and the life...no one comes to the Father (God) except through Him (Jesus)...stop believing those who die...Jesus died and He rose again..and brings life to all who believed. Without Jesus we are nothing...Please Believed and you will saved....Halleluhuyah !!!

    March 15, 2011 at 6:21 am |
  18. arshia

    When we come across a shoe lace or a pin we realise some human have made this and the purpose of it.We know the purpose of a smallest thing say a shoe lace or say a pin .we are so busy in the affairs of this life that we have no time to know the purpose of the creation of earth and in particular the humanheing.Anything cannot come to exsist on its own or a big bang cannot create everything so orderly so perfectly. when we learn to appreciate the so perfect creation of this earth and human being then we can to the step of WHO created them and WHY???

    March 15, 2011 at 5:50 am |
    • nip

      wait you think the world is perfect. we are perfect? no we arent. we die of diseases and infections, half of kids die at birth in some countries. its modern day science that makes us seem perfect. most of this world is inhabitable without technology..without it the average life expectancy would be in the 20's. without technology we would be even more screwed. a great proportion of christian reverends believe in evolution. well the ones that have an education that is

      March 15, 2011 at 7:45 am |
    • John Richardson

      @arshia Oh, the ever incoherent argument from recognized purpose. Familiar artifacts do have known functions. But unfamiliar artifacts often spark serious debate as to function and sometimes there is a dispute as to whether an item (eg a chipped stone) is a finished artifact that can be said to have one or more functions, a discarded, unfinished artifact that may have been discarded precisely because it was deemed useless or indeed a simple happenstance of nature that wasn't made with anything in mind at all. And that leads to the second, deeper rub. We recognize artifacts as having functions (even if merely decorative) precisely because they see them as not being made by the mindless forces of nature. But the creationists want us to obliterate the very distinction between artifact made for a purpose versus happenstance of nature and view all of creation as there for some intended purpose! It doesn't get any more incoherent than that!

      March 15, 2011 at 8:36 am |
  19. ProphecyFulfilled

    Revelation 9:19-21 (Amplified Bible)

    March 15, 2011 at 5:49 am |

    turn away from man made God, and follow the everlasting God who is alfar and omega , stop deciveing yourself by saying no God , do you creat yourself? can you creat a ordinarily small rat than eat and feed like human being ?
    whosoever beleive thier no God we be perish and never rise to live enternal life again ........

    March 15, 2011 at 5:35 am |
    • go

      if God created us, then who create alien?

      March 15, 2011 at 6:44 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.