A Sense of the Divine

  • Peter Barakan


    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Matt Alt


    Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.

  • Daiko Matsuyama

    Main guest

    Daiko Matsuyama is the deputy head priest at Taizo-in, a temple within Myoshin-ji, the head temple complex of Rinzai Zen Buddhism in Kyoto. As part of his work, he shares a wide range of information on Buddhism in Japan with Japanese and foreigners alike. Matsuyama introduces Zen to the world through various activities such as hands-on experience tours as well as numerous lectures for foreign correspondents and embassy staff. Matsuyama encourages inter-faith dialogue with religious practitioners and leaders around the globe. In 2011, he traveled to the Vatican and met with the Pope as a representative of Zen Buddhism. In 2014, he spoke with the 14th Dalai Lama on behalf of young Japanese people of religion. Matsuyama facilitates events that transcend religious boundaries around the world.


October 2, 2018

A Sense of the Divine

*You will leave the NHK website.

Visit Japan, and practically everywhere you go, you’ll see signs of religious life—shrines, temples, statues, markers and more. Japan is home to several spiritual traditions, in fact. The primary two are Shinto, indigenous to Japan, and Buddhism, imported from greater Asia some 1,500 years ago. Many Japanese people regularly visit Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples throughout the year—but if you ask them their religion, there’s a good chance the answer will be non-committal at best.

There’s a seeming contradiction here: a nation of people who visit sacred sites for reflection and prayer, but consider themselves largely unreligious. On this edition of Japanology Plus, we dig into what defines a sense of the divine in Japan—and whether that seeming contradiction is really so strange after all.

The program explores aspects of both indigenous Shinto and imported Buddhism. We learn that in Shinto there are many spirits, known as kami, that can be everything from mythological figures to real-life historical ones to features of the natural world, like waterfalls, rocks, trees...you name it.

One kami many Japanophiles will likely recognize by name is Amaterasu. The kami of the sun, Amaterasu is enshrined at Ise Jingu, one of Shinto's most important sites and a place we’ve covered previously on Japanology Plus.


Host Peter Barakan prepares to discover Japan's sense of the divine.


This unusually round boulder discovered recently in Nagano is considered a kami.

Amaterasu's origin story goes something like this: deities Izanagi and Izanami together created the islands of Japan, then descended to live on the islands. Izanami later died in childbirth, and Izanagi descended to the underworld to try to bring her back. Returning from the underworld, Izanagi purified himself in a river, and out of his left eye sprung Amaterasu. Another kami that emerged from Izanagi at the same time (out of his nose, in fact) was Amaterasu's brother Susanowo, whose unruly actions caused Amaterasu to shut herself in a cave—but that’s a story for another time.

Shinto's origins go so far back in history that much can only be speculated on. We have a clearer sense, however, of how Buddhism came to Japan: specifically, in the 6th century, via a diplomatic mission from Korea, which is said to have brought along an image of the Buddha and Buddhist texts. Later, in the 7th century, some Japanese would visit China during its Tang dynasty, learning more about Buddhism, among other things (the grid pattern of Kyoto's streets, for example, is said to be modeled after Chang'an, the Tang capital).

On the program, expert guest Daiko Matsuyama notes that Japanese people draw their ethics and morality from a variety of sources, regardless of the "packaging" those concepts come in. Another important Chinese import, and another influence on Japanese ethics and morality, came in the form of Confucianism. Though not a spiritual force in the same sense as Shinto or Buddhism, Confucianism's ideas about filial piety, group responsibility and more have been adapted into Japanese thinking.


Confused about whether you're at a shrine or temple? If you see a torii gate like this, it's a Shinto shrine.

Speaking of foreign imports: near the beginning of the program, we see a couple being married in a Christian church and colorful Christmas celebrations. Does this mean Christianity has also become a major spiritual force in Japan? Well, not exactly. Christianity was introduced to Japan via Jesuits in the 16th century, but was banned under Japan's second great unifier, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. These days, different surveys peg the percentage of Japanese who are Christians at somewhere between one and a little over two percent. But according to one study, since the 1990s most couples are getting married using Christian, not Shinto, ceremonies—and debate rages about whether this constitutes actual acceptance of Christian beliefs or is simply a matter of fashion.

At the very least, Japan’s happy adoption of some aspects of Christianity (if only, perhaps, on a superficial level) proves the point expert guest Matsuyama makes at the end of the program: there seems to be a Japanese preference for things that are vague or fuzzy. A definitive belief that one religion is the only way to go seems antithetic to a country full of myriad contradictions—contradictions that help make it so endlessly fascinating.


Japan's temples and shrines are welcoming to people of all stripes, so definitely seek them out if you're ever in Japan!

*You will leave the NHK website.