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Main religions in Japan. Shugendo, Tenrikyo and Ryukyuan religion

23.05.2018 Author: Psychologist Pavel Khoroshutin

Japanese religions are represented by two main directions: Buddhism and Shinto.

Most believers in Japan consider themselves adherents of both faiths at the same time (religious syncretism). Buddhists and Shintoists make up 84-96% of the Japanese population. This number is formed based on the number of followers associated with a particular temple. Most of them are believers in the syncretism of both religions.

Main religions in Japan

Shinto is the traditional Japanese religion. It is based on the deification of natural phenomena. Christianity is also preached in Japan (only 2.04% of the population). The largest Christian association operates there—the Catholic Central Council. Among the Christians, there are adherents of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostalism, as well as parishioners of the United Church of Christ in Japan.

The national Japanese religions were influenced by Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism, which led to the formation of mixed religious movements. In particular, are the Shugendo, Tenrikyo and Ryukyuan religions.


Shugendo (lit. from Japanese: the “Way of Trial and Practice”) is a doctrine based on syncretism, which includes the ancient Japanese practices of mountain worship (Kannabi Shinko), as well as elements of Shamanism, Animism, Asceticism, Ommyodo (traditional Japanese occult teachings), mystical Taoism and tantric Buddhist spells.

Practitioners of the doctrine are called:

  • Shugenja (“People of Trial and Practice”)
  • Keja (“Having Accumulated Power”)
  • Syugyoshya (“Ascetics”)
  • Yamabushi (“Mountain Prostrator”)

The semi-mythical Japanese saint En no Gyōja, also known as En no Ozunu and En no Ubasoku was the founder of Shugendo. The Longer Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra is the most significant religious text for the followers of its teachings. Adherants read it daily during the liturgy in one of the branches of the Shugendo (Tozan-ha), although sometimes they read the Heart Sutra instead.

Practices, religious centers and places of pilgrimage

Followers of Shugendo believe that enlightenment can be achieved through the building of physical fortitude. Within the teaching, they practice:

  • hermitage
  • fasting
  • meditation
  • pronunciation of spells
  • recitation (reading aloud) of sutras
  • sitting or standing under a cold waterfall

For Shugenja, the mountains are sacred places. Before going there, worshippers perform Nyuzan (“entering the mountain”) or Sampai Tozan (“visiting the sacred mountain”).

Practice and pilgrimage centres are located on Mount Omine in Ominesan-ji Temple, as well as Mount Hakusan, Deva Sanzan, Takao. To prove their pilgrimage, Shugenja pilgrims place road poles made of stone or wood (hide) along the mountain paths.

Shugendo movements

Shugendo movements

Even in the Middle Ages, at the stage of formation of the Shugendo religion, two movements were formed within it: Honzan-ha (Tendai) and Tozan-ha (Shingon).

The main centre of Honzan-ha until the Edo period was in the Shogo-in Temple. Currently, this temple is the centre of the independent Shugendo Honzan Shugen-shu movement. En no Gyojia is considered to be the founder of Shugendo in Honzan-ha, and the monk Joyo—its restorer.

The school has about thirty-three places of pilgrimage, according to the number of incarnations of the bodhisattva Kannon—the key hero of the Lotus Sutra. Not far from these places are the Katsuragi Mountains, which have twenty-eight places of pilgrimage—the number of chapters of the Lotus Sutra. The area surrounding the Yoshino and Omine mountains is considered one of the holiest places of the sect.

The main centres of Tozan-ha are located in the temples of Kofuku-ji in Nara and Daigo-ji in Kyoto. Independent Daigo-ji became the main temple of the Shingon-shyu Daigo-ha sect.

Unlike the supporters of Honzan-ha, the followers of Tozan-ha revere the monk Shobo as the restorer of Shugendo. He is also considered the founder of their central temple. Supporters of the movement formed thirty-six holy places for pilgrimage in the area of Mount Yoshino, Omine and Kimpu.


Tenrikyo (from Japanese: the “Teaching of Tenri”) is a monotheistic new religious trend that arose in the 19th century under the leadership of the female Japanese healer Nakayama Miki. The teachings are based on Shinto and Buddhist beliefs. It was recognized by the Japanese government in 1908.

Tenrikyo was founded on 12 December 1838 by Nakayama Miki who was a peasant from the provincial area of Yamato. As the legend goes, she was descended upon by the revelation of the god-father Tenri O-no-mikoto, who ordered her to found a new religion. In 1908, the status of the Tenrikyo as an independent religious community was legally formalized.

The teaching is based on the idea of realizing a peaceful and happy life on Earth through mutual assistance, service and prayers to the deity Tenri O-no-mikoto – who helps to save the world. Tenrikyo followers do not dispute the existence of other Japanese Gods and Buddhas. They revere Tenri O-no-mikoto as the father god (Oyagami), and the founder of the movement Nakayama Miki—as the mother figure (Oyasama).

Tenrikyo is headquartered in the city of Tenri, Nara Prefecture, Japan. The number of adherents has exceeded two million people, one and a half million of them live in Japan.

Ryukyuan religion

The Japanese Ryukyuan religion is the belief system of the indigenous population of the Ryukyu Islands in Japan. It is characterized as paganism with the cult of ancestors. Adherents of the Ryukyuan religion embrace respect for the living and the dead, as well as the gods and spirits of nature. The religious practices of the Ryukyus were influenced by Chinese religions (Taoism, Confucianism, folk beliefs), Buddhism, Shinto and, in part, Christianity.

In temples or sacred places called utaki (“Sacred Mountain”), parishioners worship gods and their ancestors. The Ryukyus visit utaki which are groves, forests, pillars and mountain peaks.

Japan is a country with a unique environment and cultural history. In the mountains, where many trees and plants grow, followers of different religions of Japanese civilization come into contact with the deities through the forces of nature. Every inhabitant of the Land of the Rising Sun has the right to follow any teaching, without the need to profess the national Japanese religion.