Japan is a bit more complicated. Seventy percent are Buddhists (began around 500 BC). When you add the numbers following Shinto (started around 500 AD), you will surpass the 127 million population, but that is because most consider both to be important. While Buddhism came from India, Shinto is indigenous, is the official national religion, and its priests are state officials. Shinto handles daily life. There are virtually no Shinto cemeteries, for Buddhism is responsible for death. They have long co-existed.
[However, in another survey, the results were surprising: 36% Buddhist, 11% Shinto, 11% Christian and NO RELIGION at 52%. The total is more than 100% because of the above explanation. This survey provides a totally different, but, almost surely, more accurate picture of religion in Japan today.]
Siddhartha Gautama, a Hindu, attained enlightenment and became known as Buddha, “the Awakened One.” He extolled of the Four Noble Truths, all dealing with suffering. His definition of anatta, which, you will recall, supposedly assuaged my fear of death, did not incorporate an eternal soul, for the purpose of life is to ultimately escape by attaining Nirvana, a state at which you become extinct, which sounds awfully close to eternal gloom to me.
As terminal and awful as this might be to some, Buddhism actually portrays a gray ending, because most never get there. There are the interminable reincarnations, a clear afterlife, but, I remember in my early youth asking a Buddhist priest how many people he knew had ascended to Nirvana. Yes, there was Buddha, himself, but he was hard pressed to come up with another name.
This was my “aha, there is no Santa Claus,” point of my life, with respect to a Supreme Deity. First of all, if only one person made it, what were my chances? Then, too, maybe this is all made up, anyway. In any case, an earlier section identified at least 30 buddhas, those that attained enlightenment, which remains an awfully small number considering the billions of Buddhists who ever lived.
More recently, I’ve asked several Buddhist priests, “tell me about the afterlife,” and most of the responses approximate, “it’s what you believe.” I think there is a tendency to provide the fear story to children—be good, or you will return as a cockroach—but to adults, the safer and more readily acceptable message is put in the abstract. So why do most Japanese not believe in an afterlife? My sense is that they have grown up, like me. The bottom line, though, is that Buddhists do not believe in the existence of a God who created the universe, although, depending on sect, there are deities. Further, there is reincarnation and karma, so the door remains open to an afterlife.
One final issue refers to the Yasukuni Shrine, a Shinto memorial to Japan’s war dead, a bitter subject to China and South Korea. Yasukuni means nation at peace. It was established in 1868 and is the sanctuary (there are no real bodies here) for 2.5 million killed as servicemen, 2.1 million from World War II. The problem is that 14 WWII war criminals are registered here, and the Japanese Prime Minister annually honors them all in a publicized visit. The gripe about this call is that China and South Korea are insulted that the head of state is worshipping these convicts. The problem is that, in Japan, there is an attitude of: “We Japanese will never back down to that kind of Chinese and Korean pressure.” One simple solution would be to just announce the symbolic move of those 14 controversial souls to another place of rest.
But perhaps this will become only history, for Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, just weeks before the elections last year that resulted in he becoming prime minister, remarked that he would not visit the Yasukuni Shrine. He felt that this would improve relations with China. The last visit of the shrine by an Emperor was 1978.