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Religion with benefits

Are Japanese people 'religious'? Almost 50% (49.4%, to be precise) of people in Japan say they have 'no religion' (無宗教). But this doesn't mean quite what it seems. It indicates that they don't see themselves as belonging to a particular group or sect (of Buddhism, or Shintō, or a Christian church, for example), not that they don't identify with any religion or its practices. In fact, around 70% of the Japanese population say in surveys that they are Buddhist, and around the same percentage say that they identify with Shintō.

But what does this identification / affiliation actually mean?

It doesn't usually mean that Japanese people subscribe to (or even know about) Buddhist or Shintō teachings. It relates to religious practice. Most Japanese people visit (Shintō) shrines and (Buddhist) temples, and they pray to the gods/buddhas/boddhisatvas who are enshrined and worshipped in such places.

But again, we might ask the question why? If the typical Japanese person knows very little about the doctrines of these religions, what exactly are they after?

In a word, the answer is 現世利益 (genze riyaku). This can be translated as 'this-world benefits'. It means things like: success in life and business, safe delivery of a baby, protection from traffic accidents, attractive romantic partners, passing examinations, healing from sickness, and getting into top universities.

If you visit a shrine or temple in Japan, you'll typically find many written prayers on wooden votive plaques (known as ema) asking for just these sorts of things. You can pay/give money to the shrines or temples to (supposedly) increase your chances of getting these benefits.

Japanese people don't necessarily believe -- on a logical, rational level -- that there is a direct correlation between their prayers and gifts (on the one hand) and the benefits they hope to receive (on the other). But on a visceral and emotional level, this link is usually very real. And there is also an element of 'insurance' attached to this kind of practice: I had better ask the gods, just in case!

Yesterday I looked at a personal finance magazine published by the Nikkei Shimbun. (This is rather like the Financial Times in Japan -- a serious read!) Alongside all the investment and pension advice, and the typical share-listings, it was interesting to find this full-page advertisement inside.

The advert is for a shrine in central Tokyo. It says -- among other things -- 'A God-spot for our times', 'For these days of economic uncertainty...', 'For just 500 yen, you can buy a popular charm that will protect you in your business, your work, or your exams.'

This is a good illustration of the Japanese approach to religion. It comes with benefits. It's been described as 'slot-machine religion': you put something in, and you expect to get something out in return. If it doesn't 'work' -- in tangible, this-world terms -- what's the point?

For a long time, I've found Japanese religion fascinating. In a previous life, I was even accepted on a masters course in Japanese religions which I had hoped might lead on to PhD study.

As a missionary in Japan, sharing Christ's gospel, it's important for me to understand the Japanese approach to religion. It helps me see why the gospel doesn't often sound like good news to Japanese people, at least at first. Jesus doesn't appear to offer them very much in the way of 'this-world benefits'. And he doesn't operate like a slot-machine. He works on a principle of grace, to which we cannot contribute. This is humbling and even offensive when we first hear it. Jesus is a Person, who demands total allegiance, and the rejection of all 'competitors', whatever 'benefits' they may claim to supply.

How can we missionaries communicate Christ in this context? Only with much help from heaven, and the message that this life is not all there is, but that even this life is richer by far in Jesus Christ: 'He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?' (Romans 8:32)

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