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. Highline

    pray the spirit of god calls you and you answer

    March 15, 2011 at 10:17 am |
    • x

      I don't accept calls with the Caller ID blocked, sorry.

      March 15, 2011 at 10:20 am |
    • Ykcyc

      It seems the line is busy for these poor people, just as it was for a 1/4 million backin 2004. You can toot your horn all you want, but I can tell you right now with fair amount of certainty, that there is another one coming. Another earthquake, another tsunami. People can not escape death no matter how much we try. Best case scenario, we can postpone it for a bit. No one would believe all these fairy tails, if there was not a payday promise at the end. Any attempt to do something, in order to get somthing back is doomed to become a disapointment.

      March 15, 2011 at 11:27 am |
    • X is a troll

      Fail troll is fail.

      March 15, 2011 at 11:34 am |
    • X is a troll is a troll

      "Fail troll is fail."

      March 15, 2011 at 11:42 am |
  2. luhz

    every person in this world knows that their is a god, its inside every person heart, that how god craeted us..Alo't of us are just in denial , but one day we will have to give account to him our creator..I rather believe in him now, then on that day that we die and face him.

    March 15, 2011 at 10:15 am |
    • x

      Every person in the world, if they are honest with themselves, knows that there is no god. The vast majority of people are in denial and claim to believe in the unbelievable.

      March 15, 2011 at 10:18 am |
  3. Jim Massey

    If god existed, he killed so many millions in all the natural disasters. Don't forget that natural disaters are not man made.

    Don't forget no religions kill more inocents people than Christian.

    Don't tell me your god is only god and I won't tell you that your god is not real.

    Put your energy to help these poor people. I did my part with having your god to tell me to.

    March 15, 2011 at 10:14 am |
    • neoritter

      I'm glad God told you to help people out! Keep on trucking! :]

      March 15, 2011 at 10:23 am |
    • Josh

      Jim Massey –

      With all the people in this world telling God to stay out of their lives, is it possible that maybe He is giving them what they asked for? New Orleans, as you like to bring up constantly, was one of the most decadent places in the US before Katrina. Why push God out of your life and culture, then ask where he is when something bad happens?

      Furthemore, why is it that God gets all the blame, but none of the Glory? Earthquake, tsunami, hurricane...? God did it. Mom survives breast cancer, child miraculously recovers from deadly brain tumor...? It was just the way the cards played out. At least be consistent with your argument.

      March 15, 2011 at 10:43 am |
    • Nonimus

      Are you saying there were no faithful people in New Orleans? Or did God just not think there were enough? Where's Lot when you need him, huh?
      The preferred approach is to give neither blame nor credit to some supernatural being when all evidence points to these events being semi-random acts of nature. (semi-random in that there are obvious related factors like location, climate, etc. but the event was not directed by an intelligence.)
      And, from my perspective, it seems to be that God gets all the praise and none of the blame. Many believers "praise Jesus" when something good happens, but are just "siinners" or didn't have enough faith, when things go wrong. Peter (?) on the water, "Why do you doubt?". A plane crashes and 1 child survives... it a miracle! But the death of the other 200 was just God's will who works in mysterious ways and He must have a higher purpose in mind.

      March 15, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
    • Josh

      Nominus –

      I was simply pointing out the error in his comment. He claims there is no God, yet blames God for all the wrong in this world. If you're going to blame Him, you've got to credit Him as well.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
  4. dilibau

    all u people are sick. there is a tragedy and all u are talking about is my g-od is better then your g-od. my religion is better then yours. i`m christian but from what i see the christians are those who blame others

    March 15, 2011 at 10:08 am |
  5. x


    March 15, 2011 at 10:08 am |
  6. Sudi

    Religions as such doesn't exist. What exist in the name of Religion are mere mis-interpretations. Chiristianity is a mis-interpretation of Christ. Hinduism is a mis-interpretation of Krishna. Buddhism is a mis-interpretation of Buddha. Islam is a mis-interpretation of Mohammed. A purely religious person cannot believe in anything. Belief is so cheap. The religious experience is so vast that it can't confined to these so called religious prisons. At the most one can do is to become Silent. There lies the real message of all the awakened one. Come on people.. Life is a mystery. It includes you and me and this whole existence. Can't we just live??

    March 15, 2011 at 10:06 am |
    • neoritter

      *Looks up definition for "religion" and "belief" *

      Yep you're crazy...

      March 15, 2011 at 10:21 am |
    • Atlanta

      neoritter.. Who has written the dictionary?.. God ?? he he

      March 15, 2011 at 10:35 am |
    • neoritter

      Well if you're making me copy down the definition...actually yes. "God" was in one of the definitions.
      According to Merriam-Webster:
      religion (n) 1 : the service and worship of God or the supernatural. 2 : devotion to a religious faith. 3 : a personal set or inst-itutionalized system of beliefs, att-itudes, and practices. 4 : a cause, principle, or belief held to with faith or ardor.

      March 15, 2011 at 10:45 am |
  7. PRISM1234

    If you want to respond to some-one's post, make a point to say to whom. CNN's blogs are so screwed up, that unless you do , it's not clear to which post you're responding!

    March 15, 2011 at 10:01 am |
  8. PARAN


    March 15, 2011 at 10:01 am |
  9. Name*Chedar

    Amitabha pure land is self cultivation. The merits assisted by the relatives via the ritual of Buddhist priest does not guarantee a dead relative to enter the "Pureland"

    March 15, 2011 at 10:01 am |
  10. blu-ant

    religion is the reason why we have wars today, along with so much hatered. but i guess "god" wanted this?

    March 15, 2011 at 9:59 am |
  11. Jess


    March 15, 2011 at 9:55 am |
  12. ALL


    March 15, 2011 at 9:52 am |
  13. KidCanada

    This is kinda ironic!
    The brightest star in the sky is Sirius, which align with the three stars of Orion's belt that are called today what they were called thousands of years ago, the Three Kings. On December 22 the sun stops moving south and sits in a transition period for 3 days and on December 25th the sun moves 1 degree north, foreshadowing longer days, the rebirth of the crops, saving us from the dark predator filled night. On December 22th the sun is directly in front of the constellation called the Crux or Cross. So it is true the sun died on the cross only to be resurrected 3 days later, and the 3 kings follow the brightest star in the sky to find the birth of the son. God's son! With his crown of thorns or sun rays, walking on water.
    If you honestly believe this is a person you have serious issues, especially when you take into account the numerous plagiarisms in the bible, such things like the Epic of Gilgamesh and the 10 commandments, the more you learn, to more you see lies everywhere! Seek the truth and the truth will set you free!

    March 15, 2011 at 9:44 am |
    • neoritter

      I'm going to tell you a secret. Don't tell anyone because it's REALLY important. But the Catholic Church picked Dec. 25th because of the symbolism of that date.

      As for "plagiarisms." A claim can not be proven false by trying to discredit it. Whether it was plagiarised or not has not bearing on it's truth.

      March 15, 2011 at 10:20 am |
    • Nobody Special

      Amen, brotha!

      March 15, 2011 at 10:23 am |
    • Josh

      If you read the bible you would know that it wasn't 3 kings that visited Jesus, but 3 Magi. Zeitgeist has been debunked over and over again. Educate yourself.

      March 15, 2011 at 10:24 am |
    • neoritter

      Ah Zeitgeist. Such a hilarious movie.

      ** Look at this zodiac chart! See the two perpendicular lines going through it? See how there's a circle around the intersecting point? Now let me crop the image so that it looks like a Celtic Cross! ZOMG!!! It's a Celtic Cross!!! Astrology and Christianity are linked!! ZOMG!!!!1!!!1!!!! **

      March 15, 2011 at 10:31 am |
  14. freeindeed

    All you God haters,,do you have a guilty concience?TURN to Jesus,he will freely pardon you and renew your wicked mind

    March 15, 2011 at 9:44 am |
    • John

      We need to respect each person's right to believe as the wish. Radical atheists do no get that. Some atheists are respectful of others by the way.

      March 15, 2011 at 10:25 am |
  15. a convinced atheist buddhist

    I love your point of view and thought "hey, this guy is halfway."

    "In fact Christianity is not a religion it is a way of life pure in heart and leaving (?living in) with God presence."

    and then he blew it.
    "So repent and accept Jesus as your Saviour and be saved."

    by the way I loved the metafoor "Water, vapor, ice" hadn't heard this before.

    thanks Xtian I like your way of believe.

    March 15, 2011 at 9:43 am |
  16. brad

    I not sure that "If God loves us, why do bad things happen to good people?" is an appropriate question. If God expressed Himself to humanity, He would do it humanly. He apparently did this by becoming human. But to be human is to suffer the human condition. God did this also, even to the point of saying from the cross "Why have You abandoned me?" We want God to show His love by making our lives easy. God shows His love by living our sufferings, too. God can touch nothing without it becoming holy. Because God "touched" our human sufferings, those sufferings become holy.

    March 15, 2011 at 9:38 am |
    • Pelouts

      Nature Owns us , if you fu** with nature, she will fu** you, thats a fact.

      March 15, 2011 at 10:06 am |
    • Atlanta

      These are mere stories. Jesus's teaching is not centered around the cross. But Christians (and other religions tooo) want to have a bunch of hillarious stories to support their beliefs. Why can't we humans simply Live? Hey.. Life is a gift from God!

      March 15, 2011 at 10:26 am |
    • brad


      If you think the cross "stories" are hilarious, you must really be enjoying the earthquake.

      March 15, 2011 at 10:59 am |
  17. moe smith

    only the self-righteous believe that *their* religion is "the one true religion" and those people need nothing more than a bullet to the head so that they may meet their God sooner than later. No need or room on this Earth for such self-absorbed wastes of human flesh.

    March 15, 2011 at 9:35 am |
    • Floyd

      No room for your vitriol and hate. What a terrible thing to say.

      March 15, 2011 at 9:58 am |
    • neoritter

      So will you be doing the honors for yourself or should get someone for you?

      March 15, 2011 at 10:10 am |
    • moe smith

      no vitrol or hate here. I am simply intolerant of intolerance. It's the ultimate paradox. Don't like it? wah. Can't get over it? wah.

      The world today needs to wake up and smell the real. That's the biggest issue... people can't leave others alone. They have to push their beliefs onto others rather than let others decide for themselves what is right. Christianity is tantamount to The Borg. You will be assimilated! The whole, "Conform or Die" mentality still remains today as it was centuries ago... only today, they just brow beat you until you either give in or they go to the gov't and protest claiming unfair practices, instead of running you through with a sword.

      March 15, 2011 at 10:25 am |
  18. Nalin

    No arguments… every thing happening because of “thanhaya jaayati sookoo-thanhaya jaayati bhayan”..

    March 15, 2011 at 9:27 am |
  19. estherrr

    There is only One G-d and He in evth. in every little spark of creation!

    March 15, 2011 at 9:20 am |
    • luhz


      March 15, 2011 at 9:54 am |
    • Jim Massey

      There is only one god but he is not your god. So, what happened in New Orleans means that God wanted to kill 1000's of Christians. War and mass murders were commited in the name of your god than any other gods. Wake up.

      Your god was a smart person who figured out that the only way an out of wedlock person can advance is to claim to be the saviour.

      Don't forget that David Koresh was a saviour to many peoples too. What is the different between him and your saviour.

      March 15, 2011 at 10:04 am |
  20. estherrr

    There is only one G-d and in evth. in the world there is G-d's hand. I think we should believe in it looking at what's happening around,,,,,,,,,

    March 15, 2011 at 9:18 am |
    • Jim Massey

      There is only one god but he is not your god. So, what happened in New Orleans means that God wanted to kill 1000's of Christian. War and mass murders were commited in the name of your god than any other gods. Wake up.

      March 15, 2011 at 9:58 am |
    • neoritter

      Ayn Rand is calling Massey.

      March 15, 2011 at 10:26 am |
    • FatSean

      Is that the GOD YAHWEH who ordered the Hebrews to commit genocide on the Canaanites so that the land of the Canaanites could be taken?

      March 15, 2011 at 10:35 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.