If you’re a current subscriber, log in below. If you would like to subscribe, please click the subscribe tab above.
Username and Password Help
TOKYO (AP) — Almost weekly Momo Nomura makes time to visit Shinto shrines. She performs the prescribed rituals — cleansing her hands, ringing a bell, bowing and clapping. But her main purpose is getting a Goshuin, a stamp with elegant calligraphy that shrines provide for a fee to certify the visit.
She loves the stamps, which she began collecting during the pandemic. One with blue hydrangeas got her started.
“Because of the Goshuin, shrines have become closer to me, but I don’t consider this a religious activity,” Nomura said after getting her stamp and taking selfies at Sakura Jingu, a western Tokyo shrine established in 1882 as a minority Shinto sect focused on traditional values.
Nomura, who posts about her hobby on social media as Goshuin Girl, says she enjoys the stamp designs, and shrine visits allow a moment of reflection and a change of pace from her busy life as a graphic designer and entrepreneur. Differences of religious sects are not an issue, she says.
“It’s a mindfulness kind of thing for me,” Nomura said. “I don’t consider myself religious.”
About 70% of people in Japan have similar nonreligious feelings, according to surveys. Their responses reflect a long history of pragmatism about traditional religions, which often serve more as connections to family and community than as theological guides, as in the West.
Nomura, who graduated from a Christian university in Tokyo, says her parents also are not religious. Still, she vaguely remembers going to shrines with her family as a girl for Shichi-Go-San ceremonies, where parents pray for health and prosperity for their children. She also visited a shrine dedicated to the god of education before college exams.
On a recent weekend at Onoterusaki Jinja, a 9th century Tokyo shrine that is part of a broader Shinto history, people came and went, some praying or just sitting on benches. Masami Takeda brought her 6-year-old grandson, and they picked up a stamp with autumn leaves. “I never think I visit religious sites,” Takeda says. “But I now pray for my grandson’s health.”
Japan’s unique relationship to faith is on full display during the final week of the year: People celebrate Christmas with an exchange of presents, ring Buddhist temple bells on New Year’s Eve, and hours later go to Shinto shrines to celebrate the New Year. During other seasons, Japanese flock to Buddhist Bon dances and Shinto-related festivals involving “mikoshi,” or portable shrines.
“In Japan, faith is not considered an important element of religion, unlike Christianity or Islam, in which understanding of the Bible or the Quran is necessary and the theology serves as a guidepost for daily life,” says Ryosuke Okamoto, a religion professor at Hokkaido University.
Historically, Buddhism arrived in Japan in the 6th century and took root. From around 1640, as part of a push to ban Christianity, temples kept family registries of people in the neighborhood, creating a tradition of ancestor worship still observed today. A majority of Japanese return to their hometowns during August’s Bon holiday week to spend time with relatives and visit ancestors’ graves. Most funerals in Japan are held in a Buddhist style.
Japan’s Indigenous religion of Shinto is largely rooted in animism, which believes there are thousands of “kami,” or spirits, inhabiting nature. It’s closely linked to the country’s imperial family: Around 1870, Japan made Shinto the state religion and used imperial worship to fan ultra-nationalism and support for World War II, which was fought in the name of the emperor. Japan’s U.S.-drafted postwar constitution ensures freedom of religion and the separation of religion and state, though the conservative government today still places great importance on imperial worshipping.
“Younger people tend to have an even more pragmatic view and less interest in principles linked to religion,” Okamoto said.
According to Cultural Affairs Agency statistics for 2022, the number of Japanese with links to Shinto, Buddhism, Christianity or other religions totaled 180 million, which exceeds Japan’s population of 126 million.