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 Religions in Japan 3

 I believe that the cultural background we grow up in, the place where we were born and the language we speak; all have an influence upon each human being. For example, I was born and raised in Japan and was exposed to the Japanese language and culture. I believe that these aspects make me different from Canadian people and any other nationalities. All those born in Canada have been influenced by Canadian culture, language, and geography, whereas I am influenced by Japanese culture, language, and geography. This can be supported by my personal experiences.

 While Canadian students tend to be encouraged to question or discuss any issues, Japanese students are not encouraged to do so, but instead are suppose to memorize historical facts and issues. For example, during my education in Japan, I had to memorize word for word what the texts said. I was not asked to questions what I read in each text because the teachers encouraged us to memorize what was written and the exam formats were designed to illustrate how much information students had have memorized. As I demonstrated above, I believe that these different attributes effect how people think differently.

Making use of my Japanese background, I will discuss the differences of interpretation of Japanese religion amongst Japanese authors and Western authors. I have chosen three issues to explore further, which includes the interpretation of the origin of religion in Japan, the year that Japan became organized society, whether it was before the introduction of Buddhism or after, and the relationship between Japanese nationalism and imperialism.

I have chosen these issues to focus on because amongst them I found the most conflicts of interpretation. In addition, I have been always interested in examining these three issues since I was in Japan, but I did not have an opportunity to do so. I believe that discussing these issues is important because I am a Japanese person; I can compare the different ways of interpretation of religion in Japan between Western authors and Japanese authors, not only from the books, but also with my personal experiences as a Japanese person. In addition, I can choose the texts that are written in Japanese and English to help illustrate the different ways of interpretations of the religion in Japan.

To compare the Japanese religion focusing on three issues between Japanese authors and Western authors effectively, I will use introductory textbooks of Japanese religion that contain the same topics for comparison. I have chosen the text, Japanese Religion: Unity and Diversity, written by Dr.Earhart as a main source that represents a Western author’s point of view.  My reason for using Dr. Earhart is because he is a well-known scholar in field of religion in Japan and I found that he has a wide variety of knowledge regarding such things as Japanese people, the history and the culture. This can be supported by the fact that he was asked to write an introductory textbook by Frederick J. Streng, who is an editor for Japanese Religion: Unity and Diversity.  Also, according to the Web of Science- citation database, Dr. Earhart books are cited twelve times by different authors. The year for these citations is ranging from 1969 to the present. I am interested in how religion in Japan began and how Dr. Earhart interprets the origin of religion in Japan. Dr. Earhart believes that there is no single origin of religion in Japan as well as other religions. According to Dr. Earhart, he said, “Most scholars today think that any/all religious traditions are complex mixtures developing out of multiple sources. In the last century or two, Western scholars in particular tried to develop theories to account for religion out of a single source, such as ancestor worship, nature worship, animism etc.”

Some of Dr.Earhart questions were also concerned with the origin of religion in Japan. Dr.Earhart questioned the notion of what were the earliest forms of Japanese religion and how were they related to economic, social, and political developments in early Japan. Dr. Earhart is also concerned with how Shinto and Buddhism are related to the earliest Japanese religious traditions (Earhart, 256).

I chose the first issue in regards to Dr. Earhart’s understanding of the origin of religion in Japan because his interpretation and the Japanese author’s clearly conflicts. For example, Japanese textbooks state that, “People believe that there are sprits in the rivers, mountains, trees and glass and those spirits have a power to control the nature and give problems to human beings” (Gendaisyakaini Okeru Ningen to Bunka, 20). Another example is, “Animism is the beginning of the religion in Japan” (Hamajima, 20). I have learned that fact while I was in school in Japan.

However, Dr Earhart says that:

The initial Western Scholarship on Japanese religion

was confused in asking whether the origin of Japanese

religion was ancestor worship or nature worship;

there was also the confused controversy as to

whether ancestor worship was truly indigenous

to Japan or was a Chinese importation.

But there is no single origin of Japanese

                      religion (Earhart, 25).


As I demonstrated above, what Dr. Earhart says and Japanese author says are different. It is very important to examine why their opinions conflict. Also the kind of sources that authors use to explain how and why they develop the different ways of interpretating the origin of religion in Japan.

My second issue is regarding to when Japan became an organized society and weather it was before the introduction of Buddhism in Japan or after. According to a Japanese textbook, in 239 AD, the Queen of Yamataikoku named Himiko, organized the community, which is now known as Kyushu in Japan. Although there were other small communities, Yamataikoku was the most advanced organized society. Himiko was deemed Shaman, who could make contact with the spirits (Shinsyou Nihonshi, 23). This historical and archeological fact can be supported by three Chinese records which lead us to believe that by the third century A.D., there were a number of tribal principalities in the Japanese archipelago and that there was a female shamanic ruler, Himiko which in Japanese means the sun daughter or sun princess who reigned over one of the principalities in Yamatai (Kitagawa, 99, Kitagawa, 6).

Himiko’s existence is important because it shows us that there was a Queen who organized the community around 239 AD. before the introduction of Buddhism in Japan. However, according to Dr. Earhart, he believes that it was “645 AD, Taikano kaishin, is the first time that Japan had an organized community”.

Dr. Earhart notes in his book that:

For many centuries the religious traditions and

practice within the Japanese islands were loosely

organized around family lines, with no central

organization, without even a common name.

Gradually the imperial family and its tradition

came to be considered supreme over all other

families, but still no name was given to the

 larger or smaller traditions. Not until Buddhism

 and advanced Chinese culture entered Japan

(about the middle of the sixth century) was

 there any need to distinguish the old traditional

 practice from any contrasting cults (Earhart, 30).


As we can see, there are different ways of interpreting of the naming of Japan as an organized society, before the introduction of Buddhism. For Japanese authors, they named Yamataikoku (239 AD) as an organized community, whereas Dr.Earhart named Taikano Kaishin (645 AD) as an organized community.

To examine this dispute is important because it shows us the different ways of interpretation of the word “organized community”. For example, according to Dr. Earhart, organized community means the society, which has an organized government system. Examples of an organized government system can be Jyuu nanajyouno kenhou, which is the seventeen rules of social rules, and Ikai sei, which are the 30 statuses that people were given from the government. On the other hand, for Japanese authors, meaning of the word “organized community “ does not necessarily include huge governmental change or rules that gave different status levels to people. As I demonstrated above, the different translation of the words can affect how Dr. Earhart and Japanese authors think differently.

The final issue that I propose to examine is the relationship between Japanese nationalism and imperialism. This topic seems to be the most controversial even amongst Japanese people. I will discuss the different ways of elucidating them and examine what kind of sources Dr. Earhart and Japanese authors use to assist their theories.

I have chosen this issue as my final topic because since I was studying in Japan, I have been very interested in examining this issue. However, I was not encouraged to do so, but now I can discuss this without worrying about being criticized about speaking out examining emperor by saying something I should not. Especially since my father is a policeman, I am not supposed to criticize the emperor in public. Although there are books criticizing the emperor, it seems to me that it is still not considered an appropriate thing to do. Japanese people still tend to not be able to criticize the emperor in Japan and it seems to me that the expression of freedom is still limited by the Japanese Education Ministry. For example, there is not a lot of information about the fact that Japanese soldiers have killed so many people in an inhumanly way, especially during the War with China and Korea. I know that there are people who claim that we should educate people with the textbooks including good and bad thing that Japanese people experienced. Sometimes, I hear that some of the Japanese history textbooks are not accepted from the Japanese Education Ministry because they contain some controversial issues including criticizing the Japanese government or the emperor.

Dr. Earhart and Japanese authors interpret the relationship between nationalism and imperialism differently and it can show us that their opinions are influenced by the sources that the authors used and their translation of them.

Dr. Earhart notes that:


 Even today in the United States there remains a

 popular conception that the cause of the war was

 Shinto. According to this view, because Shinto

 commanded worship of an emperor-God,

 Japanese soldiers were bound to follow the

 emperor’s command to extend the Japanese

 empire into foreign lands. However, this exaggeration

            is more representation of American wartime wears

 than of the actual situation in Japan (Earhart, 156).


I do not think that it is an exaggeration. I have heard the story of the emperor being an equal to God. My grandparents in Japan believe that those who have fought in a War for an emperor are like those who fight for God. I think it is true that we ought to believe that the emperor is our God because of the explanations that the emperor as descendent of the Sun Goddess from the Shinto story. I also believe that the Japanese people have a strong collective consciousness that has helped to create the notion of the emperor being equal to God. For example, everyone did what was expected of him or her and if you did not do what was expected, you become segregated from society and treated as if you did not exist. With the belief that the emperor is God, people were inclined to die for God. Totukoutai and Himeyurino tou are two examples of people who committed suicide and give their life to protect the Japanese emperor (Gendaisyakaini Okeru Ningen to Bunka, 202).            

Unfortunately, I do not have a Japanese introductory textbook at the moment, and cannot demonstrate how these three issues are presented differently from Dr. Earhart’s book in this paper. I will have the text when I go back to Japan and then I will add it to this paper. When I analyze the Japanese introductory textbook, I will use the same method that is to examine each issues and find out what the Japanese authors say, which source they use and how they interpret them.

I intend to compare how and why the Japanese authors and Dr. Earhart interpret the three issues that I discussed earlier differently. It seems to me that there are three reasons why the differences happen. First, the important point or focusing point that Dr. Earhart and Japanese authors have, are different. For example, Dr. Earhart believes that the relationship between the Chinese influences and the Japanese religion is essential, so he wrote based upon his own beliefs and it is important. This is why Dr. Earhart interpret the word organized society as the one which has the organized government systems such as Jyuu nanajyouno kenhou which is the seven teen rules of social rules and Ikai sei which is the 30 status that people were given from the government.

Secondly, the previous knowledge of the students can affect the way that authors write. For example, comparing to Japanese students and American students, Japanese students have learned about Japanese culture, the history and the religion throughout their education. On the other hand, I think that most American students are new to the Japanese culture, history

and religion because of lack of exposure. Therefore, Japanese authors write an introductory textbook assuming that they have good previous understanding of the knowledge about Japan. On the other hand, as Dr. Earhart said, he explains basic knowledge of religion in Japan as well as culture in his book. In addition, Dr. Earhart mentioned that to avoid students becoming confused, he is not explicating a lot about the issue of Japanese ingenuous people that are the Ainu and Okinawa people, when he discuss the prehistoric religion in Japan. 

Finally, the interpretation can affect the meaning of the sources. Dr. Earhart uses many books written by Japanese authors that have been translated into English. He or other western interpreters translate some of books that Dr. Earhart uses.  Translating words is very difficult. For example, the word Iikaeru in Japanese can have different meaning and it is very hard to translate in English. Iikaeru can be meant to say the same thing again or to say a different thing again. In another context, it can be said as Ii kaeru which means that, “ No, I am going home”, or it can also mean, “ Good frog”. Like English, even though it is the same word, some of the Japanese words can have very different meanings and in order to translate these words, the person must have good understanding of Japanese language.

Even though we discuss the same topics, there are different ways of interpretations and opinions. I believe that it is because every one of us has our own unique individual experiences including culture, language, and geography. If we could find out how other people’s experiences have affected them, in regards to how they interpret Japanese history, culture and religion, I believe that we can understand Japanese religion more and from a different prospective.