An Overview of Shintoism and Buddhism in Japan – Differences and History

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Temples and shrines are undoubtedly among the most popular tourist attractions in Japan especially for foreign tourists. Besides often being beautiful structures, shrines and temples are both considered as symbolic spots that allow you to learn the cultural and religious aspects of the country while appreciating the sacred atmosphere and historical structures. Many people, however, often get confused as they seem similar even though each of them represent two totally different religions: Shintoism and Buddhism. Shintoism and Buddhism are the two main religion in Japan, that co-exist peacefully these days. In this article, we help you understand the differences and similarities between Shintoism and Buddhism and distinguish temples from shrines in Japan.

Asakusa shrine

1. What is Shintoism?

Shintoism is a religious faith that is indigenous to Japan. The origin remains unclear, but it has a long history and originated naturally through an ancient lifestyle strongly related to nature. Ancient people had a close relationship with nature as they relied on it heavily in several aspects of their daily lives, for example hunting for food. It later developed as an ethnic religion that regards everything in nature as a God, including the sun, moon, mountains, sea, fire, and so on. This attribution of a living soul to plants, inanimate objects, and natural phenomena is called animism. Shinto can be translated as ‘the way of gods’ and mainly worships the gods that can be seen in natural phenomenon and everything around us. Shinto tradition states that there are over eight million gods (kami’s) and there is no singular main god.

Kyoto Yasaka Shrine

2. Shintoism and shrines

There is a range of rituals that have been carried out over centuries in Shintoism. Shrines are the religious sites where people come pray. They also house the gods and that why people come there to show their respect to the deities of Shintoism. After passing through the Torii gates, the iconic gates usually painted in red standing at the entrance of shrines, you find yourself in the sacred area, close to the deities. At the entrance of shrines you can often find statues of foxes, they are generally considered as messengers of the God.

Visiting a shrine is not only for those who believe in Shintoism, however. Shrines are open to everyone regardless of religious beliefs and an increasing number of people visit shrines for several purposes such as sightseeing or Hatsumode praying for a great new year on New Year’s Day. In most cases, you don’t need to pay the admission to enter the shrine grounds and they are opened 24 hours. 

Itsukushima Shrine Miyajima Island. Hiroshima

3. Buddhism in Japan

Buddhism was brought to Japan in the 6th century (552 according to the official record in Nihon Shoki), coming originally from India. At first, Buddhism wasn’t accepted widely as many people at that time worshiped Shintoism already and were skeptical towards the new religion from outside Japan. It led to a conflict between wealthy and powerful nobles such as Mononobe family who was against the spread of Buddhism, and Soga family a strong proponent of Buddhism.

The situation changed drastically after the emperor Suiko, who had a strong belief in Buddhism, officially enthroned in 592. After that, Buddhism started to have a huge influence on the development of the whole society with the strong support of emperor and other authorities. It resulted in spreading around the country with countless numbers of temples built everywhere. 

4. Buddhism and temples

A temple is where the statue of Buddha, considered to embody the presence of the Buddha, is stored. Buddha refers to a founder of Buddhism, and often cited as a God in Buddhism relevant to the Christ in Christianity. A temple is also used as a residence and training center for monks aiming to reach enlightenment through years of hard training.

Asakusa Sensoji Temple

5. Differences between Shintoism and Buddhism

In the history of Japan, Buddhism and Shintoism were closely knit together, and there are rituals where forms of Shinto and Buddhism are both mixed. Hence, it can be difficult to recognize the differences between the two. But, even though Buddhism and Shintoism are coexisting peacefully, there are many differences between them. Here is a simple list of differences between Shintoism and Buddhism in Japan that help you recognize shrines from temples and understand the two beliefs better.

ShintoismBuddhism
God 8 million deitiesBuddha
PurposeAnimism, wish for family and local communityProtection of the nation, go to heaven after death
Ritual SiteShrinesTemples
CanonN/ASutra
OriginJapanIndia
TrainingN/AStrict training to attain enlightenment

6. Differences between shrines and temples

There are about 80,000 Shinto shrines and 75,000 Buddhist temples all over Japan and there are several differences between the two places of worship in terms their appearance, how to pray and some other unique features.

A shrine is also known as jinja in Japanese and a symbol for Shintoism. The easiest way to recognise a shrine it the iconic red Torii gate that marks the transition from the mundane to the sacred world. In addition, you can see two lion or dog shaped statues at the entrance of the shrine known as Komainu. These statues are said to scare off the evil spirits.

A temple, or tera in Japanese, a the place of worship for Buddhism. A temple will also have a temple gate, that is often much more complicated than the Torii gates of shrines. Another feature of a temple is the five storied pagoda, also known as stupa. Nio statues, displaying muscular guardians to scare of the bad spirits, will welcome you to the temple together with a large incense burner called Jokoro and several other statues. Sometimes, you also find a cemetary next to the temple.

7. How to pay a visit & pray at shrines and temples

Before you visit shrines and temples in Japan, it is wise to learn the basics manners of praying at both places of worship shrines. It helps you behave appropriately without getting confused or embarrassment.

How to pray at shrines

  1. Throw a coin into a wooden box (generally 10 or 5 yen)  
  2. Ring the bell
  3. Bow deeply twice
  4. Clap your hands twice
  5. Pray & make a wish and bow deeply again

Before praying at the main shrine, make sure to purify yourself at the water bassin known as Chōzuya or Temizuya. Note however, that these can also be found at temples and are not an strict indicator of a shrine.

Beginner's Guide to the Japanese Shrine - How to Pray and More!
When you visit a shrine in Japan, you want to avoid any trouble by doing something wrong. Learning the basic rules and manners beforehand helps you get rid of your worries. Here are some useful tips and some things you should know when you visit a shrine!
How to use the water basin
  1. Take the Hishaku ladle and scoop some water.
  2. Pour water with your right hand over your left.
  3. Pour water with your left hand over your right.
  4. Pour water into your left hand and use it to rinse your mouth.
  5. Pour water over your left hand. Then turn the dipper upright so that the remaining water rinses the handle and place it back.
Hakone temizu

How to pray at temples

  1. Throw a coin into a wooden box (generally 10 or 5 yen) 
  2. Ring the bell hanging
  3. Put your palms together silently and bow deeply
  4. Pray and make a wish
  5. Bow deeply again

Never clap your hands at temples as it is considered rude. The reason you clap your hands at shinto is to call for the kami, but because Buddha is already present, you there is no need to call for Buddha. Just put your hands together in front of your body and pray silently instead. Purification at a temple is often done by covering yourself in the incense smoke from the Jokoro. It is widely believed that incense smoke has a healing effect.

Asakusa Sensoji temple Jokoro

7. How they can be mixed in the daily lives of Japanese?

Since the arrival of Buddhism in Japan during the 6th century, there was a reconstruction between the two different religions which encouraged to merge together and create a new religious system. This is called Shinbutsu-Shugo, which regarded them as a single belief system. According to Shinbutsu-Shugo beliefs, temples and shrines were sometimes built on the same premises, For example in Asakusa, Tokyo, where right next to the famous Sensoji Shrine you can find Nishinomiya Inari shrine accompanied by a Torii gate.

Shrine-temples were known as called jingu-ji and the fusion of Buddhism and Shintoism continued until the Meiji Period, when the Meiji government declared the formal separation of the two religions. However, the two religions still influence each other and practiced side by side peacefully.

hatsumode new year

For example, hatsumode, one of the biggest annual events that originates in Japan. Hatsumode is the first visit of the year to shrines or temples to make a wish for the new year. You might have heard that Hatsumode is only for shrines, but Japanese people actually visit temples as well, and there is no big difference! They are both considered as a sacred place and an ideal spot to wish for the good fortunes for the new year regardless of personal religious background.

It is often said that Japanese people are born Shinto and that they die Buddhist and many happy rituals are regarded as shinto rituals, whereas sad occasions are seen as Buddhist rituals. For example, weddings are mostly celebrated at shrines whereas funerals generally are held at temples.

Japan Wonder Travel Tours

If you want to learn more about the shrines and temples and visit some of the most popular places of Shinto and Buddhism, or just generally need some help to organize your trip to Japan, let us know! We offer several private tours including a local guide, both online and offline. We would be delighted to help you make your trip to Japan a safe, comfortable, and unforgettable one.

1. [Virtual Tour] Tokyo Highlights
The virtual tour where to you discover the highlights of Tokyo via Zoom!

2. Kyoto Private Full Day Walking Tour
Explore the ancient capital of Japan full of historic spots such as beautiful temples and shrines. Our local guide will take you the best places and explain you everything you want to know.

Shintoism and Buddhism play a significant role in the present day of Japan in several aspects. Many people, observe both Shintoism and Buddhism and subsequently visit both shrines and temples in their life, albeit for different occasions. You might not easily spot the existence of Shintoism and Buddhism at first sight, as religious beliefs are usually not shown clearly in public. But both Buddha and the 8 million Shinto deities are highly respected and the two beliefs co-exist peacefully together in the society. If you get a chance to visit both shrines and temples during your time in Japan, remember what you learn today and compare the differences between them!

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