It is said that a Japanese person is born Shinto, marries Christian and dies Buddhist, but really it's an oversimplification.
As a social experiment, find a personals site where Japanese can select their religion from a list. You’ll see that a great deal select “agnostic.”
On top of this – Confucianism, a form of Chinese ethical humanism more so than a religion -- serves as the basis for the rules of the road.
Buddhism and Confucianism don’t really weigh in on the question of God. In fact, Japan is believed to have one of the highest numbers of atheists in the world, according to one study, at least 65%, in comparison to 3-6% in the U.S.
But Japanese atheists are a breed unto their own -- for example, they still observe cultural customs such as "omamori" – clapping their hands at the shrine at New Year's, and paying honor to the dead during "obon." According to an NHK study, about 90% of all Japanese observe the custom of visiting ancestral graves, 75% have either a Buddhist or Shinto altar in their homes and 90% of all Japanese visit shrines on New Year’s Day.
Of note: 1% of all Japanese are Christian and Japan has had seven Christian prime ministers (three Catholic, and four Protestant, among them, Yukio Hatoyama’s grandfather and Taro Aso).
There’s even a small town in the north of Japan where the locals believe that the real Jesus is buried. According to legend, Christ arrived in Japan at the age of 21 and learned Japanese before returning to Judea 12 years later to engage in his mission. His place on the cross was taken by his brother, whereupon he returned to Japan, fell in love with a local girl named Miyuko and lived happily ever after with his family until dying at the age of 106.
Upon learning that many Japanese consider themselves both Buddhist and Shinto, the first question many Westerners ask is, “How is it possible?”
And upon learning that so many are atheists, many ask, “Then how is it possible that the Japanese are so well-mannered and crime is so low?”
The answer lies in two views of human nature.
One can be summed up by the Biblical verse, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
It is the Jew of the Bible who proclaimed, “Here oh Israel, the lord is our God, the Lord is one,” and the 10 commandments which forbade the worship of other Gods. In Judeo-Christian belief, we find the birth of a monopolistic religion where idolatry and the worship of the wrong god is seen as a grave sin.
Further, according to scripture, man was placed in the Garden of Eden but forbidden from partaking of the tree of knowledge. Man sinned in partaking the apple; he was ousted from the garden, blessed with knowledge, but as a result, forever in need of redemption. He who is redeemed, goes to heaven. He who is not or sins is punished. The world is a dichotomy between Sin and Salvation, and Heaven and Hell, the choice of two paths -- these paths being judged at the gates of heaven where some Christians still believe they are greeted by Saint Peter and a choir of white winged angels.
Buddhist and Shinto belief are quite different
Death is a journey which leads to rebirth. Funeral rites are aimed at preparing the individuals for the journey. In Shintoism, there is also the concept of "kami" -- individuals being enshrined as spirits. In the process, one’s ancestors can offer hope and protection in times of need. As for death, given that the person has left one life and begun a new one, there is no need for salvation. For this reason, fear of eternal judgment is not a guiding factor in the behavior of most Japanese.
Then what is?
The answer lies in Confucianism.
Confucianism concerns itself with man’s relationship with the world around him, man’s relationship with others, with family and man’s relationship with nature. Understanding one’s behavior and its effect upon others allows the individual to lead a happy and moral life.
Today, in Japanese schools, according to the Ministry of Education guidelines, students receive about one hour a week of “moral education” over the course of their first nine years of study. Lessons cover 76 topics divided into four categories regarding self, relationship to others, relationship to nature and relationship to group and society, and include lessons covering a wide array of themes such as courtesy, consideration, friendship, modesty, contribution to society, respect for other cultures and more. For the lessons, teachers pick a few related values and integrate them into a wide variety of projects and activities
In recent years, some foreign educators have begun to study the system to look into the ways it might be adapted outside Japan. At the same time, some people argue that the curriculum has failed.
Parents have told me, “The truth is, all schools are interested in is preparing students for tests and exams – that’s all. Everything else is secondary.”
In contrast, I spoke to a manners teacher and observed her teaching adult students more traditional manners such as the proper way to walk, bow and serve tea. I asked her if these are manners that most Japanese learn at home and she said "that it was once stuff they would, but now, parents don’t have time to teach them, and they’re not learning them at school."
And so the question arises. What values do schools need to teach to resolve some of the many social problems facing Japan today, transmit its culture, and allow for modern children who are happy and healthy individuals? And what can we in the West learn from this secular approach to moral education?© Japan Today