Several characteristics of Buddhism that are distinctly Japanese can be observed. First, Japanese Buddhism tends to emphasise the importance of human institutions. While Indian and, in some measure, Chinese Buddhism tended to be reclusive, Japanese Buddhism has emphasised practical morality and its accompanying work ethic. Buddhism in Japan has been involved at every level of the compound, hierarchical society, stressing the importance of human relations, family morals, and reverence for ancestors. It has also tended to compromise with nationalistic tendencies in the name of chingo kokka (鎮護国家, "national peace through religious discipline"). In keeping with the inclination among Japanese to revere a charismatic person, worship of the founders of various sects is widespread. Each faction or school tends toward exclusivity, putting an undue emphasis on the master-disciple lineage.

Japanese Buddhism tends to be nonrationalistic. The Japanese generally do not favour rationalistic speculation, and in religion, too, they have failed to develop a grand doctrinal system. They are inclined to respond more intuitively and emotionally to the salvific message of Buddhism. Preferring simple symbolic representation, they have been drawn to such invocations as Namu Amida Butsu ("I place my faith in Amida Buddha") or Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō ("I place my faith in the Lotus Sutra of the Good Law").

Another characteristic is the tendency to accept things as they are. Japanese Buddhists seek to understand the absolute (Buddha) through adherence to the phenomenal world. The result is an inclination to equate the world or the individual self with the ultimate. Consequently, the Japanese have generally shown religious tolerance, but at the same time lack a willingness to confront issues. Again, spiritual discipline and monastic rules tended not to be reinforced but allowed to lapse and deteriorate.

Finally, there has been a remarkable openness toward accommodation with ancient shamanistic practices, and more notably, with the native cult of Shintō. Buddhism very early arrived at an understanding and coexistence with Shintoism. Even today, the Japanese see no contradiction in being a Buddhist and Shintoist at the same time. Although Buddhist temples (寺 tera) and Shintō shrines (神社 jinja), as well as their respective priests, are strictly differentiated, few devotees pronounce themselves adherents of one religion to the exclusion of the other. Indeed, it is common for most Japanese to have a Shintō wedding and a Buddhist funeral.


  • Nussbaum, Louis-Frédéric, Japan Encyclopedia, Harvard University Press 2005
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