China and Japan are two of the great oriental cultures. The people of these nations have a rich heritage that carries back for many centuries of development in every area of cultural life. One of the central tenets of any culture is its religious heritage. This heritage determines how the people of a nation view reality, truth, and life. What are the key religions of China and Japan and how have they affected the lives of the people who live in these countries?
The people of any culture are continually seeking answers to important questions about life. Religion is a set of commonly held beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe. A system of religion enables a group of individuals to make sense of the world around them and to determine a course of life that best enables these people to find joy, purpose, and meaning in all that they do. Religion enables those who hold to the particular belief system to escape their mundane existence and find a way to order the many events that fall outside of their control.
China contains a diversity of religious systems originating both within its borders and without.
Those that have their beginnings within China are Confucianism and Taoism. Confucianism is less a system of religious thought than an approach to creating an ordered society and a way in which to properly govern that group of people. The philosopher Confucius developed an approach to life that could be taught to the common people to enable them to live properly within a particular area within which they were being governed. It contains a system of ethics that is designed to enable the people who hold to it to live together in a way that is best for all. By living according to the principles laid down by Confucius, people believe they will be successful in life. Taoism has its primary purpose in enabling the adherent to follow the proper path of life. Everything in the universe has a particular path, and an individual lives best when he or she orders a lifestyle in accordance with the way of the universe.
Buddhism in China
In addition to religious systems formed within, China has also imported belief systems from outside its borders. Buddhism began with the teachings of the Buddha in India and eventually made its way to China. While Buddhism comes in a variety of forms, at its center is the desire to become at one with the universe. The goal of the Buddhist is to become disassociated from personal desires in order to become integrated into the whole of the universe. Life consists of a series of cycles through which a person is able to shed those desires which prevent enlightenment.
Ultimate enlightenment is the shedding of all these personal desires and complete sublimation to the purpose of the universe. Unlike Buddhism, Christianity and Islam are both monotheistic religions introduced to China by missionaries of these particular faiths. Followers of Islam seek purpose and meaning in life and beyond through obedience to the supreme God, Allah, as given through his prophet Mohammed. Christians follow the teachings of Jesus, the Son of God, who brought meaning and purpose in life and beyond through his life, death, and resurrection. These monotheistic religions teach that there is one God who created all things and who determines the eternal existence of all people on Earth.
Similarly as regards China, religion in Japan has long been intimately connected with government, order and the state. Shinto is that belief system that has long been considered the national faith of the Japanese people. Shinto is considered to be the way set down by the gods who rule over Japanese culture and provide meaning, order, and purpose. The adherents of this religious system generally see it as part of being Japanese and involve themselves in its practices as they see fit. Unlike such belief systems as Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, a Japanese individual does not convert to Shinto but incorporates Shinto as deemed necessary into his or her life. The development of the Shinto religious system has its origin in the beginnings of the Japanese people and its core developed around the worship of nature and creation. Over time, the cult of the emperor incorporated Shinto and the patriotic Japanese citizen practiced Shinto as a sign of devotion to the emperor as a god. The power of the emperor has waned since the Second World War, and thus Shinto has become less a part of the life of most Japanese people.
Often Buddhist practices created order to the devotion of Shinto.
Buddhism was imported from India and became closely tied to Shinto. Various forms of Buddhism emerged as counterpoints to the traditional role of Shinto in Japanese society. The spiritual practices and transcendent beliefs involved in Buddhism provided another option for those who were limited to the secular beliefs of Shinto. The teaching that enlightenment could be attained by the individual was a unique element in a society that practiced Shinto in its corporate structure. While Japanese society is secular by nature, Buddhism added an element of personal spiritual attainment that ties in well with the average hardworking, dedicated Japanese citizen striving to be successful and to maintain honor in Japanese society.
Three monotheistic religions in Japan
While Japanese culture is generally closed to outside interference, Buddhism is not the only religious belief that was imported. The three monotheistic religions, Christianity, Islam and Judaism, all have a presence in Japan and bring with them a belief in one all-powerful God in contrast to emperor worship and a belief in many gods that have traditionally been fundamental to Japanese religious thought. Other eastern religious thought systems such as Hinduism, Jainism, and Taoism have some Japanese adherents, but in general, religion plays a minor role in the life of the Japanese citizen. Japanese religion tends toward the practical and the focus of life for most Japanese people is more on success in work and family rather than in religion.
China and Japan are both ancient societies with complex traditions that go back many, many centuries. Religion is closely tied to the state, and many in these countries see the purpose of religion as creating an ordered society. The religious systems of China and Japan are a combination of indigenous systems and systems imported from other places. Much of the religious development of these countries is a part of the communal nature that is central to Eastern life. Chinese and Japanese religious devotees live together to create a better society in which all people can live fulfilled lives.