Buddhism 102: Japan & Its Religious Mix

(The author of this article is an Inter Varsity staff worker with a focused ministry among international students. She earned a Masters degree with a thesis on Japanese culture).

Japanese culture formed from a number of spiritual and secular sources. These have all melded together into a unified worldview that is seen more as ritualistic, experiential, and political rather than spiritual or faith-based. A Japanese spiritual worldview will be a combination of these factors. There is a saying that a Japanese person is “born Shinto and dies Buddhist”

The first source is Henothiesm. This is a belief in one god above others – generally as a god for a specific tribe or particular group of people. It is similar to the spiritual thinking of the early Old Testament Jews. Japanese people have always viewed themselves as separate from others, giving more emphasis to gods that specifically work for them.

Shintoism also influences the culture. It is the basic political-religion tradition that is so closely tied to the political identity that it was declared not to be a religion in the early 1900s. (This meant that religious restrictions during WWII didn’t apply to Shintoism and many Christians saw visits to Shinto shrines as patriotism.) Shintoism teaches that Japan was created as a supreme nation, the Japanese people as a divine race, and the emperor as a direct descendant of the creator god. It also leads to superstitions such as which direction to sleep, when to buy something, where to live, etc.

Buddhism is the primary religion of Japan, but it is always followed in conjunction with Shintoism. Buddhism functions as a religion, an aesthetic stimulus, and a code of ethics. It does not have a god, heaven, or paradise as we would understand it. Buddhism says there is a supernatural force or power beyond us and the ultimate goal is to detach ourselves from all pleasure or aspects of our world. In doing so, you would cease to exist as a separate entity in the after-life. This leads to detachment being highly valued.

Taoism and Confucionsim have affected ethics and education. Confucionism and Buddhism combined lead to a strong obligatory society, and contribute to a culture of obligation and acting with the “right” behavior. This causes harmony to be highly valued as well.

Even though all of these religions strongly affect the worldview of the Japanese people, most Japanese will claim to be atheists. There is a common feeling that any religion is dangerous because it causes one to think irrationally. Japanese people like religious events and the “feeling” one gets from religion but do not want to join an organized religion. Many have a “try it and see” attitude – they will participate, but if they don’t experience the results they seek they will drop out.

Japanese people are able to accept and adopt behavior or attitudes that we as Americans would see as incongruent. The following statistics demonstrate this worldview toward the spiritual:

  • 33% affirm any religious belief at all
  • 70% say religious feelings are important
  • 76% have some kind of shrine at home (usually Shinto plus ancestor)
  • 50-60% have a strong interest in the supernatural
  • 92% at Tokyo U. (in the late 80’s) said they wouldn’t join an organized religion

To summarize the Japanese worldview, the following chart may be helpful:





Undefined force

Separate from his creation


Not personal

Transcendent only in boundaries, but physical form (Ps 139)


Different from humans only in degree

Has emotions as seen in humans eg love (John 3:16, Deut 7:8, 2 Chron 2:11) and anger (Num 32:10, Is 5:25)


Complete emptiness

Complete fullness

Fallen man

Man is naturally good

Man was originally created in God’s image but since the fall, all persons are evil and imperfect by nature (Gen 1-3, Rom 3:2)


Worldly attachments are bad



The ideal is to empty oneself of selfish desires



Japanese word for “sin” is the same word as “crime” – very few Japanese commit “crimes”

Sin is a ‘crime of the heart’ (1 Sam 16:7, Matt 5-6, Is 64:6)



Sin is rebellion against God – refusing to accept our position beneath our primary superior (Rom 3:2)


If a wrong has been done, restitution must be made

There is no way for us to make restitution to God


If restitution isn’t possible, then endless shame must be borne by the individuals as well as the family

Forgiveness is offered to us because of God’s mercy through Christ’s sacrifice


It is a virtue to continue on in spite of being wronged, but not to forgive (harmony)

Forgiveness restores us to the same relationship as before the wrong



Since God is our primary superior, we should imitate mercy (Eph 2:1, Matt 6:15, 1 John 1:19, Jer 31:34)

Individual Decision/Responsibility

The large group or family is always most important

God is the creator of all persons, we are his family


One should not stray from the thinking of the group or do anything to harm the group

Jesus died for his people – he made the ultimate sacrifice for his people (John 12:24-26, Rom 5:6-8)

Exclusive God or Religion

There are many paths up the same mountain

God himself told us not to have any other paths (Ex 20, Is 45:6/18/22, John 14:6)


There is resentment against being forced to make a commitment

When in emergency situations, one really does have an exclusive faith (Matt 6:24)

Many Japanese students are single-minded and value hard work. They strive for the best (job, school, performance etc.) as success reflects on the whole group (family, company, etc.). Often a “Japanese society” develops within schools. It’s an informal group, but can exercise pressure on all attending. As a whole they are proud but taught to feel shame as an individual – shame controls societal behavior.

Japanese culture is both proprietary and obligatory, as well as highly hierarchical. Their language reflects this, for example, some words are only usable by women. Verb endings also show hierarchy, changing depending on whom you speak to. “San” comes after most names as a sign of respect, but “chan” comes after someone younger than the speaker. All of these examples point to the desire to avoid confrontation. Many verbs have a tentative form for another person and a definitive form that can only be used for oneself.

College age students are the only people in Japan who are permitted to “take it easy”. (Before college they are studying twelve hours a day to enter, after college they are working twelve hours a day.) This means many of them don’t want to think about difficult things and will be more receptive to the gospel when it accompanies an enjoyable activity. Older students are more serious and more single-minded; they will be less likely to involve themselves in distracting activities. This makes ministry to their wives incredibly strategic – the husbands will become interested in the gospel when their wives talk about what they’re learning.

Japanese students generally struggle with English, so formal English classes or offering to tutor or correct papers is an effective outreach. Discussions of American culture and how Christianity has and does affect our culture is also of great interest. Students may be interested in tours of any interesting spots and they are usually eager to spend holidays with Americans.

Communicate the gospel through unconditional love – they respond best because of the obligatory culture. Some Japanese converts have stated that the love of Christ was what won them, as it is radically different to know a God of love and not just a God of judgment. Many Japanese are without hope. They may not express this since they are not encouraged to nurture their spiritual side in Japan, but if one can get them to a point of examining their own beliefs, hope, love, and complete forgiveness will meet their spiritual felt needs. Finally, even though our worlds are so different, there are some points of contact that the Bible makes that can specifically speak to Japanese.

Some of these are:

  • Shame vs. guilt (shame worldview is found Gen 3 and Lev. - “unclean”)
  • Compare original sin to family shame
  • Compare Son of God to authority of the son of the emperor
  • Sin means you can’t look at the Father in the face
  • Compare Jesus to hari kari to remove shame from the family
  • Compare Jesus to cherry blossoms (died in prime or strength - not from weakness)
  • God’s family and adoption into the family
  • Jesus = light (Buddhists seek enlightenment)
  • Love vs. obligation
  • The Biblical instructions for marriage

Mini (but important) Steps Toward Total Commitment

  • Engages in dialogue with Christians about the Bible or Christian topics
  • Expresses own non-religious or non-Christian belief
  • Willing to consider Christian viewpoint
  • Believes God created the world
  • Believes God created mankind in His image - different than the rest of creation
  • Believes God is aware of an in control of allthings
  • Believes there is only one true God in the world
  • Believes all people have sinful hearts from birth
  • Believes all sin must and will be punished by God
  • Believes Jesus was truly God and truly man
  • Believes Jesus had the power to work miracles
  • Believes Jesus came back to life from being dead
  • All stories in the Bible are true
  • The Bible is from God
  • Can pray to God ( in English or own in first language)
  • Eager to tell others what they know about Jesus and the Bible
  • Believes Jesus is the only way

Discipleship Needs of Japanese Christians

  • Encouragement
  • To know why not to be “unequally-yoked”
  • Understanding of a Biblical marriage and what that would look like in Japan
  • Understand that men and women are created in God’s image
  • Understand the Biblical view of work (and study)
  • To see the blessings and affirmation God has for single Christians
  • Understand Lordship of Christ (above all others)
  • Importance of world evangelism
  • Personal inductive Bible study skills
  • Importance of lay ministry
  • Understand incarnational vs. syncretism
  • Truly understand and accept both confession and acceptance of forgiveness

Biblical Worldview Concepts and Japanese Worldview - Comparison and Contrasts

Mark 2:21-22; Matthew 9:16-17; Luke 5:36-39

Many concepts deep within the basic Japanese concepts are very different than what the Bible teaches and therefore just as one cannot put new wine in an old wineskin or a new patch on old cloth, Biblical teachings must often replace one’s worldview rather than put new concepts on top of the old traditional Japanese worldview.

Grace -

Romans 5:17 - Salvation is a gift from God.
A true gift is different than an obligation and does not need to be repaid or reciprocated.

Ephesians 2:8-10 - This gift of grace is given to us in order to free us up to do the good works for which God created us.
A feeling of obligation keeps us in bondage so we are not free to do the good works.

Micah 6:8 - What God wants for us is to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with Him.

Prayer -

In prayer, we are talking directly to God.

Matthew 6:9-13; Luke 11:2-4

God is our Good Father. We are asking for God to do His Will on earth (not our responsibility to be perfect).

John 14:13-14 and16:23-24 -
We ask in the name of Jesus - our oldest brother - the King. Power is not in our prayers - power is in the One we are talking to and asking. Ultimately it is a mystery how our prayers relate to the sovereignty of God.

Meditation -

Joshua 1:8- We meditate on the Book of the Law or God’s Word. We strive for a deeper understanding of God and His Word. We strive for a deeper connection with God not detachment. We empty our hearts and mind of ourselves only to be filled by the Holy Spirit (not to remain empty).

Submission to Authority -

Ephesians 5:19-6:9 - We must submit to each other based on our position in the church or family. Jesus submitted to authority as a child, in the synagogues, to God the Father, etc. Paul submitted to authority of elders in Acts 15, to Roman authorities, etc.

Ephesians 6:19-20 - We need to pray for our pastors and elders. Pastors, husbands, teachers have not wisdom on their own - only what is given by God for their position.

Galatians 3:26 - 4:7 - We are all equal heirs of God. We are adopted children. We all have different gifts and responsibilities within the church and family.

Honoring Elders and Ancestors -

Yahweh is the “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”. - Ancestors are very important to God’s promises.

John 19:25-27– Jesus from the cross fulfilled his responsibility of Mary’s oldest son and provided John as her son.

Ruth 1– Ruth stayed with and cared for her mother-in-law.

1 Samuel 23-31– Jonathan and Saul - Jonathan did not go along with his father when Saul was acting against God’s will but never rejected his father and ultimately stayed with him and died with him. We must always follow God first.

Luke 16:19-31 -If our ancestors know more truth about God after death, they would want us to know and follow the truth.

Children of God or Child of the King

Ephesians 1:4,5 and Galatians3 - We are God’s adopted heirs.

John 14:17,18 - Jesus sends us his Holy Spirit. We never have the sole responsibility for anything we do.

Power of the Cross -

John 3:13-15 - The cross is a symbol of life and God’s power just as looking up to the snake in the dessert. The cross itself doesn’t have power - only a reminder of the power over death and evil because of the resurrection. We are not to have any idols - only reminders.

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