Here’s a holiday story for you. A major department store in Japan once put out an elaborate Christmas display featuring a smiling Santa Claus nailed to a cross. Whether this tale is true or not, it does show what might be called the religious flexibility of the Japanese.
Not only do many Japanese celebrate Christmas and other Christian holidays such as Valentines Day, they also take part in Shinto holidays and have Shinto weddings. At the same time, the majority also claims Buddhism as a religious preference.
[xmas]Then, to further confuse us poor Westerners, a majority do not describe themselves as religious.
How can all this be resolved?
Only about one percent of Japanese are Christians. The Japanese version of Christmas is a secularized, commercial version of our Christmas. Not that our holiday season isn’t a commercial wasteland too, but most Japanese don’t even bother paying homage to the Christian God. They eat cake. Yes, on the way home from work Christmas Eve, salaried men will purchase a Christmas cake and bring it home for the family. The parents then give presents to their children.
Another feature of the Japanese celebration of Christmas is the romantic aspect. Young lovers will go out Christmas Eve to a lavish dinner and spend the night in an expensive hotel together. A scantily-clad elf might lead you up to your room, which is often decorated with a Christmas tree or other holiday decoration.
But commercialism is not the only thing the Japanese believe. A majority also are Buddhist. Angie Nakano, a Buddhist, feels that part of the reason Buddhism is different is because it’s not a God-centered religion.
“We are supposed to show respect for the Buddha, for our ancestors, our families, ourselves, basically, to everyone as much as is reasonable, but we are not spending all our spiritual time trying to impress some external power who will judge us and deem us worthy of heaven or condemn us to hell,” she said. “The power to attain enlightenment is within each of us, and the only ones we can fail are ourselves.”
Buddhism could be considered an agnostic religion. When asked about the existence of God, the Buddha refused to answer. When asked again, he emphasized the importance of personal enlightenment. But that doesn’t mean it is a meaningless religion. It offers a moral framework for people to in, and try to better their lives by.
Part of this moral framework includes the universal Golden Rule, present in all of the world’s major religions, “Hurt not others in ways yourself would find hurtful.” The Five Precepts and Eightfold Path provide the basic rules for attaining enlightenment. These include basic rules such as, “you should not harm any living thing” and “don’t steal.”
It’s probably because of the agnostic aspect of Buddhism that it made it able to meld with Shintoism, the ancient Japanese religion rooted in nature worship. But while many Japanese consider themselves Shinto, like Buddhism it does not play an overt role in their daily life. They visit Shinto shrines during special events such as New Year, weddings, or a newborn baby’s first visit to the shrine.
The personal nature of Buddhism is also another factor in the often playful and light nature of Japanese religion. Some Buddhist temples in Japan sell hand puppets of Buddha.
“The whole Buddha story behind the religion also makes it a very personal religion,” Nakano added. “It’s the story of this guy’s life, and how he went through various human experiences and in the end figured it all out…”

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