TOKYO: Almost weekly Momo Nomura makes time to visit Shinto shrines. She performs the prescribed rituals — cleansing her hands, ringing a bell, bowing and clapping. But her main purpose is getting a Goshuin, a stamp with elegant calligraphy that shrines provide for a fee to certify the visit.
She loves the stamps, which she began collecting during the pandemic. One with blue hydrangeas got her started.
“Because of the Goshuin, shrines have become closer to me, but I don’t consider this a religious activity,” Nomura said after getting her stamp and taking selfies at Sakura Jingu, a western Tokyo shrine established in 1882 as a minority Shinto sect focused on traditional values.
Nomura, who posts about her hobby on social media as Goshuin Girl, says she enjoys the stamp designs, and shrine visits allow a moment of reflection and a change of pace from her busy life as a graphic designer and entrepreneur. Differences of religious sects are not an issue, she says.
“It’s a mindfulness kind of thing for me,” Nomura said.
“I don’t consider myself religious.”
About 70% of people in Japan have similar nonreligious feelings, according to surveys. Their responses reflect a long history of pragmatism about traditional religions, which often serve more as connections to family and community than as theological guides, as in the West.
Nomura, who graduated from a Christian university in Tokyo, says her parents also are not religious. Still, she vaguely remembers going to shrines with her family as a girl for Shichi-Go-San ceremonies, where parents pray for health and prosperity for their children. She also visited a shrine dedicated to the god of education before college exams.
On a recent weekend at Onoterusaki Jinja, a 9th century Tokyo shrine that is part of a broader Shinto history, people came and went, some praying or just sitting on benches. Masami Takeda brought her 6-year-old grandson, and they picked up a stamp with autumn leaves.
“I never think I visit religious sites,” Takeda says. “But I now pray for my grandson’s health.”
Japan’s unique relationship to faith is on full display during the final week of the year: People celebrate Christmas with an exchange of presents, ring Buddhist temple bells on New Year’s Eve, and hours later go to Shinto shrines to celebrate the New Year. During other seasons, Japanese flock to Buddhist Bon dances and Shinto-related festivals involving “mikoshi,” or portable shrines.
“In Japan, faith is not considered an important element of religion, unlike Christianity or Islam, in which understanding of the Bible or the Quran is necessary and the theology serves as a guidepost for daily life,” says Ryosuke Okamoto, a religion professor at Hokkaido University.
Historically, Buddhism arrived in Japan in the 6th century and took root. From around 1640, as part of a push to ban Christianity, temples kept family registries of people in the neighborhood, creating a tradition of ancestor worship still observed today.
A majority of Japanese return to their hometowns during August’s Bon holiday week to spend time with relatives and visit ancestors’ graves. Most funerals in Japan are held in a Buddhist style.
Japan’s Indigenous religion of Shinto is largely rooted in animism, which believes there are thousands of “kami,” or spirits, inhabiting nature. It’s closely linked to the country’s imperial family.
Around 1870, Japan made Shinto the state religion and used imperial worship to fan ultra-nationalism and support for World War II, which was fought in the name of the emperor. Japan’s U.S.-drafted postwar constitution ensures freedom of religion and the separation of religion and state, though the conservative government today still places great importance on imperial worshiping.
“Younger people tend to have an even more pragmatic view and less interest in principles linked to religion,” Okamoto said.
According to Cultural Affairs Agency statistics for 2022, the number of Japanese with links to Shinto, Buddhism, Christianity or other religions totaled 180 million, which exceeds Japan’s population of 126 million. This suggests that most people follow both Shinto and Buddhism. Christians account for about 1% of that total.
Many Japanese are especially cautious about new religions, an impact of the 1995 deadly sarin attack led by the Aum Shinrikyo cult that shocked the nation and ruined the image of new religious sects.
Allegations of fraudulent business practices by the Unification Church and its decades-long political ties with the Japanese governing party surfaced in the investigations of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s assassination last year, adding to the public’s weariness about nontraditional religion.
The alleged assassin told police he killed Abe because of the politician’s links to the Unification Church — which the murder suspect hated because his mother’s large donations to the group bankrupted his family.
According to a survey of Japanese by the Niwano Peace Foundation in 2019, most respondents said they haven’t participated in any religious activities in recent years, and more than 70% said they don’t have any faith. However, positive feelings about shrines and temples increased over the past 20 years, presumably because of a growing interest in spiritual tours and stamp collections, the survey shows.
The popularity of Goshuin stamps and visits to spiritual spots like shrines and temples is not a show of faith, experts say, but instead suggests people feel an affinity for the traditions without a need to be deeply involved. Some compare the stamp collecting to a blessed version of baseball cards.
Onoterusaki priest Karin Kodashima says the stamps are increasingly popular, allowing visitors to “tie a connection with gods.” The stamps can also be an introduction to Shinto, she says during her break from preparation for an upcoming autumn festival which features rituals, lectures and court music.
For many people, shrines offer a chance for reflection, even if it’s not a religious experience. Kodashima says, “I believe shrines will continue to be part of people’s daily lives and serve as a place of tranquility and peace.”
Some Buddhist temples, including Tsukiji Hongwanji and Komyoji in Tokyo, are seeking to reach younger people and have opened cafes, yoga and meditation classes, as well as talk sessions and concerts.
A Komyoji monk, Yuken Kihara, serves his homemade desserts, tea and coffee every Wednesday at Open Terrace café on a temple balcony, available to anyone with reservations.
“I hope to provide a space for people to drop by and relax,” Kihara said.
“Japanese people are seen as secular, but I think it’s a value that you cannot answer just by yes or no.”
As Japan’s population increasingly ages, with family values becoming more diverse and younger generations moving to cities, small shrines and temples in rural Japan struggle to survive, with many on the verge of closing.
In an attempt to connect the struggling shrines and temples with potential visitors interested in history, architecture or the stamps, a young entrepreneur established an online information site. There are about 160,000 temples and shrines in Japan, according to government statistics.
“Hotokami,” a word combining Hotoke (Buddha) and Kami (God), was launched by Ryo Yoshida in 2016 after he organized tours to historic sites for three years.
The online service now has 1.2 million monthly users, and has collaborated with train operators, including those in Yokohama and Osaka, as well as shrines in the area, to organize trips to collect stamps.
Yoshida says he personally feels a connection to both Buddhism and Shintoism. Every morning for 10 minutes he listens to a YouTube program by a monk based at a temple in Kamakura. As far as his family’s religion, he notes a Buddhist temple next to his grandfather’s home in Shiga prefecture.
Yoshida says, “I like both Shinto’s appreciation of nature and ancestors, and Buddhist values of how to live a better life.” But he adds, “If you ask me whether I have faith, I’m not sure.”