Japanese Religion: 10000 BCE–Present

0189-09-01 00:00:00


According to the Weizhi, Himiko, a third century ruler of Wa, brought stability to the land. She appears to have had good relations with China, as evidenced by the exchange of tributes and gifts. She was succeeded upon her death by another young female ruler. (Kidder 16-17)

0297-09-01 00:00:00


A Chinese ethnography of Japan. The text covers geography, climate, natural resources, diet, social customs, superstitions, and rituals. In addition, the document chronicles interactions between Japan and China, especially during the reign of Himiko. (Kidder 14-17)

0700-09-01 00:00:00

Jingi cult

Collectively, myths and practices that served to legitimize the new centralized state. Myths, including the Kojiki and Nihon shoki, absorbed local deities and stories to provide the court with heavenly origins. Rituals took place at nearly 3000 official shrines, aimed to ensure material safety and prosperity, and were also ideologically linked to the centralized imperial power. (Teeuwen and Breen)

0712-09-01 00:00:00


A collection of myths, including the creation of the Japanese islands and origins stories for deities, natural phenomena, and some social customs. According to Ambros, it, with the Nihon shoki, is considered a foundational text for Shintō, though they were expressly written for the seventh century imperial court (22). Particularly important are the deities Izanagi, Izanami, Amaterasu (sun deity), and Susanowo (storms). The first two are the prototypical husband and wife (Ambros 26). The worldview presented seems to value ritual and purity and consequences for violations of both (precept 9/19).

0720-09-01 00:00:00

Nihon shoki

Another collection of early myths. Though the stories are similar to those in the Kojiki, Ambros points out that some small but important details differ. For example, the Nihon shoki stories of Izanagi and Izanami allude to Chinese yin/yang ideas of "complementary relationship[s]" between males and females (Ambros 27). It may also suggest a philosophy of a "natural order" in the world (precept 9/19).

0750-10-01 00:00:00


Spiteful spirits, belief in which dates at least to the Nara period (10/7/19 lecture). They arise from unnatural or mysterious deaths and are thought to be responsible for natural disasters, other deaths, and other catastrophes. Generally, people who were powerful in life leave the most powerful onryō. (Plutschow 133-4)

0774-11-01 00:00:00


Also known as Kōbō Daishi, lit. "great teacher who spread the dharma." After wandering for seven years as an ascetic monk, he was appointed as an official emissary to China and developed esoteric Buddhism in Japan. Recognized as the most important Japanese Buddhist monk in history, he's said by followers to be not dead but waiting in a state of eternal meditation. (11/4/19 lecture)

0780-11-01 00:00:00

En no Gyōja

Also known as E no Ozuno, a legendary figure with some grounding in history, dated to the late Nara/early Heian periods (and mentioned in the Nihon ryōi-ki). He is traditionally seen as the founder of Shugendō. He lived in the mountains (and is especially associated with Kinpusen) and is said to have had powers over spirits and demons. (Blair 24–25)

0790-11-01 00:00:00


A Buddhist sect founded by the monk Saichō. Centered at Enryaku-ji Temple on Mt. Hiei, which was later destroyed during the Warring States Period (pictured), the sect was one of the most wealthy and influential. Other Buddhist traditions grew out of Tendai. (10/23/19 lecture)

0794-11-01 00:00:00

Heian Period

A historical period beginning with the founding of the capital at Heian (later Kyoto). The city is notable for its organized, grid-style layout, suggestive of centralized authority and planning. According the Blair, the city is also notable for its enclosure on three sides by mountains and Buddhist mountain practices gained wider acceptance during this period (Blair 29–35).

0800-09-01 00:00:00


The six courses of Buddhism, imported to Japan from China and Korea (LaFleur 28). The classes include gods (kami), humans, titans (asuras), animals, hungry ghosts, and creatures of hell. Individuals may be born and reborn in any of the six courses depending on their actions in their previous life.

0800-09-01 00:00:00

Nihon ryōi-ki

A text by the monk Kyōkai that includes miraculous tales and strange anecdotes. Kyōkai, writing at a time when Buddhism wasn't widespread in Japan, framed these strange events as manifestations of the Buddhist cosmology (LaFleur 30). Many of the stories include transmigrations between the Six Courses. Kyōkai also attempted to assimilate Buddhism with earlier Japanese religion, including Shinto (LaFleur 41).

0800-11-01 00:00:00


Lit., "way to cultivate powers," dating to the Heian period. A set of practices, said to have been founded by En no Gyōja, involving mountain asceticism, divination, firewalking, prayer, exorcism, and other rituals. Blacker's account of a Shugendō mountain ascent depicts symbolic journeys through the ten realms of transmigration. Shugendō was banned in 1872 as part of a Meiji campaign against superstition. Adherents are known as yamabushi. (11/4/19 lecture)

0845-10-01 00:00:00

Sugawara no Michizane

Poet and government minister, exiled by Emperor Daigo. After his death in exile, a number of inexplicable mishaps and deaths plagued the capital and imperial court. Eventually, Michizane's restless spirit was identified as the culprit. To appease his spirit, he was enshrined and posthumously promoted to Prime Minister. (Plutschow 140-1)

1000-11-01 00:00:00


Meditation on the attributes of the Buddha, including a recitation of the Buddha's name (here dated to the life of Genshin, whose nembutsu ritual we read). Nembutsu is considered a crucial act in the moments before death in Pure Land Buddhism. The reflection on the Buddha's name is believed to erase bad karma and allow one to be reborn in the Pure Land. (Genshin, trans. Dobbins)

1000-11-01 00:00:00

Amida Buddha

Japanese rendering of the Sanskrit Amitābha (date?). A prominent Buddha said to reside in a Pure Land of supreme bliss, a land with no suffering. Amida is portrayed as particularly beneficent, working to bring all beings to the Pure Land. Birth in Amida's Pure Land may be achieved by nembutsu before death and does not necessarily require other, stricter Buddhist practices. (Dobbins)

1150-10-01 00:00:00

Original Enlightenment Thought

A Tendai Buddhist doctrine (dated by Stone's location of the Contemplation of Suchness in the twelfth century) asserting that all beings are "enlightened by their very nature, that is 'originally'" (Stone 199). Although beings, sentient and non-sentient, are enlightened inherently, they must still consciously identity themselves with "suchness" in order to achieve Buddhahood. Failing to do so causes one to fall into the "Hell without Respite" (Stone 206).

1200-10-01 00:00:00

Three Gates of Power (kenmon)

Comprises courtiers, warriors, and temples/shrines. Together, these were three of the largest sources of influence, wealth, and land ownership in the early medieval period. The Three Gates emerged following the decline of imperial power during the Heian period. (9/25/19 lecture notes)

1200-10-01 00:00:00


A Japanese monk, founder of the Sōtō school of Buddhism. Dōgen traveled to China before returning to Japan and establishing temples. He is known for his teaching of "just sitting," which is considered not merely a path to enlightenment but enlightenment itself. (10/23/19 lecture)

1240-10-01 00:00:00

Instructions for the Cook

A famous manual by Dōgen, giving instructions for cooking in a monastery. Dōgen envisions cooking as a form of ritual requiring one's full attention and mindfulness. He emphasizes waste minimization and equal effort when preparing both plain and fancy dishes (Dōgen, trans. Foulk).

1435-10-01 00:00:00

Yoshida Kanetomo

The head of a powerful family of diviners and priests and the originator of one-and-only Shintō. He was buried in the Shinryūsha, part of the Mt. Yoshida complex, in which his spirit was preserved as a kami (the first human to be held as a kami after his death) (Teeuwen and Breen 83-85). He and his descendants were also at the center of the bureaucracy that managed state-sponsored Shintō (Teeuwen and Breen 88-92).

1476-10-01 00:00:00

One-and-only Shintō

A systematized form of Shintō introduced and promoted by Yoshida Kanetomo and his descendants (dated here from Kanetomo's Shintō taii text). One-and-only Shintō reversed the honji-suijaku model by placing the kami, not Buddhism, at the beginning of creation and the center of a new cosmology. One-and-only Shintō was subsumed by the state bureaucracy under the management of the Yoshida family, which licensed shrines and priests (Teeuwen and Breen 84-92).

1549-11-01 00:00:00

Francis Xavier

A Jesuit priest and missionary. Francis Xavier built churches and converted Christians in Goa, India, before going to present-day Malaysia. In 1549, he was brought to Japan by one of his converts, thus beginning the so-called "Christian Century" (1549-1644). (11/18/19 lecture)

1600-10-01 00:00:00

Edo/Tokugawa Period

An era named for the center of government at Edo (present-day Tokyo). The Edo period was noted for peacefulness and limited exchange with foreign countries (such as the Dutch, pictured). The nativist movement, seeking to restore "original" Japanese language, culture, and religion, occurred during the Edo period. (10/2/19 lecture notes)

1614-11-01 00:00:00


Likenesses of Jesus of Nazareth or the Virgin Mary. Fumie were one of the tools used during the official persecution of Christianity to root out Japanese Christians. Japanese officials ordered suspected Christians to tread on fumie to prove their renunciation of Christian beliefs. (11/18/19 lecture)

1614-11-01 00:00:00

Temple Certification System

A policy requiring citizens to annually present themselves for inspection at a Buddhist temple. Those who failed to do so were suspected as Christians. The system had the side effect of strengthening the danka parishioner system, which provided revenue to temples. (11/18/19 lecture)

1614-11-01 00:00:00

Kakure Kirishitan

Lit., hidden Christians. After the official banning of Christianity, Japanese Christians went underground, preserving their beliefs and rituals in secret. The adapted forms of some Hidden Christians' rituals continue to exist to this day. (11/18/19 lecture)

1858-09-01 00:00:00

Inoue Enryo

A Buddhist philosopher who tried to assimilate Buddhism with modern conceptions of "religion." To do so, he eliminated formerly standard elements of Buddhism, including demons, magic, and an ad hoc list of "superstitions." He limited the scope of Buddhism from a practice influential in this world to a purely intellectual, personal pursuit of the absolute. (Josephson)

1868-09-01 00:00:00

Meiji Restoration

The reinstatement of imperial rule in Japan. As a way to build national unity under imperial rule, Shinto shrines came under state control and "functioned as a form of Confucian-inspired ancestor worship" by which "a community was created that celebrated a shared past" (Teeuwen and Breen 32). The new government carefully delineated Shinto from Buddhism saw unified, nationwide Shinto practice as a defense against western imperialism (Teeuwen and Breen 31).

1868-10-01 00:00:00

Shinbutsu bunri

The separation of Buddhas and kami by edict. Under this policy, Buddhist references and symbols were methodically scrubbed from shrines and deities. Buddhist monks and priests were also stripped of their posts. (10/2/19 lecture)

1868-12-01 00:00:00

New Religions

New religious traditions that appeared beginning in the late Edo period. They began in rural areas and often were led by charismatic leaders purporting to be possessed by kami. "New new religions," including Aum Shinrikyō, emerged beginning in the 1970s, with an emphasis on psychic powers and generic spirituality. (12/2/19 lecture)

1870-10-01 00:00:00


The translation of "religion" into Japanese, literally meaning "teaching of a sect." The term stems from the external imposition of the category of religion, which didn't exist in Japan until the nineteenth century. The difficulties in creating the proper term for "religion" are emblematic of the problems that arise when one attempts to define or demarcate religion or religious practices. (9/11/19 lecture)

1879-10-01 00:00:00

Yasukuni Shrine

A shrine for Japan's war dead, renamed (from Tokyo Shōkonsha) in 1879. It remains controversial to this day, most notably for the enshrinement of war criminals from World War II and for the visits paid to it by Japanese officials. Breen argues it glosses over unpleasant truths of Japan's war effort by glorifying the military service of Japan's colonial subjects who were coerced into fighting, the needless deaths of civilians, and the miserable deaths of many Japanese troops (172-4).

1955-12-01 00:00:00

Asahara Shōkō

Founder and leader of Aum Shinrikyō. Disillusioned with Japanese funerary Buddhism, modern science, and consumerism, Asahara started a small yoga group in 1984 that eventually became known as Aum Shinrikyō. He was treated a divine, Buddha-like figure by adherents. In 2018, he was executed for his role in the 1995 subway attack. (12/2/19 lecture)

1970-10-01 00:00:00

Mizuko kuyō

Memorial rites for "water children," or fetuses. The practice, offered mainly at Buddhist temples, grew in popularity beginning in the 1970s and is marketed as a way for mothers of aborted fetuses to protect themselves from vengeful spirits or to save the fetus's spirit from suffering. Critics argue it exploits women for money by guilt-tripping or shaming them for failing to meet a primary social responsibility, mothering. (Underwood)

1995-03-20 00:00:00

Aum Shinrikyō Subway Attack

A sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway, killing twelve and injuring hundreds more. The attack led to enhanced government oversight of religious entities, including a revision of the Religious Corporations Law. The attack also prompted debate over whether religion contributed positively to the public good. (Hardacre 511)

1996-11-01 00:00:00

Eternal Memorial Graves

A new burial system in a Japanese Buddhist temple (here dated to the founding of Tōchōji's En no Kai society). The graves allow those who have no descendants or who don't wish to be buried in their family grave to find meaning and solace. At Tōchōji (pictured), the eternal memorial graves are very popular and bring in lots of revenue for the temple, though that same popularity has led to charges of commercialization from parishioners. (Rowe)

2000-10-01 00:00:00

Petto kuyō

Pet funeral rituals, which have become increasingly popular since the mid 1990s. The rituals, which allow owners to demonstrate their devotion to their pets, illustrate the persistent influence of Buddhist beliefs about transmigration after death. However, pet funerals have been criticized as exploitative ploys promoted by temples to drive revenue. (Ambros)

2011-03-11 00:00:00

3/11 Disaster

Earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster that killed tens of thousands of people. Japan and its people are still working to recover and rebuild. According to McLaughlin, religious organizations contributed significant amounts of aid and disaster relief but received relatively little credit from the media or public (5).

2011-12-01 00:00:00

Clinical Religionists

A term used by McLaughlin to describe Buddhist clergy trained to provide counseling and pastoral care. McLaughlin cites Taniyama Yōzō as the leader of this growing movement, which became especially important in the wake of the 3/11 disaster. The clinical religionists are distinguished by attention to "scientific inquiry, not sectarian tradition" as the foundation for their chaplaincy work (66).

Japanese Religion: 10000 BCE–Present

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