Japanese religions and superstitions explained

Why is noshi (a flattened dried strip of sea snail flesh) considered a good thing to offer the gods?

Why is sekihan (red bean-studded rice) used for good luck and celebrations?

The religious reason is that red is the colour of good luck and celebrations, and the practical reason is that the beans and the salt in it means that it keeps longer and therefore can be taken away at the end of a wedding etc and eaten up to a few days later, unlike cooked white rice.

Why do they knit red bibs for Jizo and other Buddhist statues?

Red is a lucky colour and if you believe the Japanese mukashi banashi (fairytale) the hats and cloaks are to protect them from the cold, but why bibs?? Could it be connected to how Jizo is used to represent the souls of dead babies??

Why is the summer festival of the dead holiday called “honorable tray”?

In Japanese it is “Obon”- お盆, the same kanji as bonsai- 盆栽- tray growing, but can’t imagine what the connection could be

Why is Kannon (the Buddhist goddess of mercy that Canon is named after) male in some countries but female in others like Japan?

 “he is generally with so tender an expression on his face that, in the Japanese imagination, he has undergone a sex change” Alan Booth, The Roads to Sata pg 45

Why does the Thousand-Handed Kannon only have 40 hands?

 “the argument [is] that each hand has the power to save twenty-five souls” Alan Booth, The Roads to Sata pg 45

Why did Christianity take hold in Korea but not Japan?

According to Shutting Out the Sun,factors in Korea included Christianity as resistance to Japanese rule, easier ability to do good works in a country that was “far more squalid and unhygenic than feudal Japan” (pg 246), literacy campaigns that emphasized hangul over Chinese characters,and humanitarian relief by American churches after the Korean War. I would also add being taken over by the Japanese discrediting the old ways and stopping them creating an alternative national ideology like the Meiji Japan emphasis on State Shinto and a divine Emperor.

Why do you get 4 and a half tatami mat sized rooms, but not 4 mat sized rooms?

Avoiding the unlucky number 4

Why do the Japanese eat soba when they move house (hikoshi soba)?

The practical reason is that it is quick and easy to prepare. In the New Year, the long soba noodles stand for long life, but I can’t see the connection here.

Why are the Koreans the only ones to switch to metal chopsticks?

Don’t know-lack of trees in Korea? In Japan, metal chopsticks are used to break the skull after cremation, which might put them off.

Why is a mirror a Shinto religious symbol?

It seems to be a very ancient thing that comes from China, but not sure what the original reason was

Why is the word for Buddha (仏様 hotoke sama) and ghost/ spirit (hotoke) the same?

Why do the Japanese never carry around rosaries like some other Buddhists, and some Christians and Muslims?

In Japan, the only religious things you can do without drawing attention (the worst thing that could happen) are the ones everyone does, otherwise outwards shows of religiousness are very much frowned upon. People can get away with crucifix necklaces because most people wear them just as fashion items.

Why are you not supposed to blow out joss sticks?


Why do most Japanese young people not even know which type of Buddhism their family follows?

The question only comes up when someone dies. Apparently families sitting around trying to remember “Which one are we? Zen?” are quite common. I can’t imaginethe same thing in the UK – “We’re Catholic, aren’t we?” “Really? I could’ve sworn we were Church of the Latter Day Saints”

Why is Japanese Zen better known than Chinese Zen?

Why are most Japanese cremated?

I thought it was a religious thing, but apparently until the Taisho era burial was more common

Why are Japanese hearses so golden?

In all societies a funeral is an uneasy balance between solemnity and a desire to show how rich and respected the deceased and his family are with conspicuous expenditure. On the hearse, the showing off wealth won. 

Why are the Japanese convinced all begging monks are fakes?

 Why does one lion dog at the entrance to a shrine have its mouth open and the other closed?

Why is a daruma doll only a head?

It is based on the story of a Buddha (Dharma) who meditated so long his arms and legs fell off.

Why are daruma dolls so popular with politicians?

Why do you have to paint eyes on a daruma?

Why are statues of Jizo most likely to have knitted shawls and hats on them?

Jizo is the protector of children, so they often represent lost babies or fetuses.  

Why is a yuki daruma (a snow man) a different shape to a daruma?

The yuki daruma is more similar to the original story of the arms and legs of the meditating saint falling off. I guess the wooden version also lost the body to make it easier to manufacture.

Why do so few Japanese people have a Buddhist wedding?

Why does no one have a Shinto funeral?

Shinto not only has no philosophy on what happens to you when you die (something surprisingly common in ancient religions), but dead bodies are also unwelcome in shinto shrines due to the emphasis on ritual purity.

Why is shinto a seperate religion with it hardly differs from the (unnamed) animist beliefs that exist within and alongside Buddhism in places like Korea and Thailand?

I’m guessing it’s something to do within the Emperor’s founding myth predating the arrival of Buddhism

Why do Japanese Buddhist priests not beg?

Perhaps like the first Catholic priests in the 16th century they found that a vow of poverty meant that the ruling classes lumped them in with the burakumin (eta) untouchable class and so wouldn’t take them seriously. Going door to door to beg also would have been impractical during the early years of Buddhism, as it started as a religion only of the ruling classes
Why are there so many more Buddhist priests/monks than nuns?

From the early days of Buddhism in India, nuns were not taken as seriously as monks, as it was assumed they needed to be reborn as a man before they could reach enlightenment.

Why do some people have their cars blessed?

Why do you occassionally see people offering random passersby to read their palms?

They are recruiting for cults

Why are the villians in the Japanese TV programme Trick almost always cult/religious leaders? Don’t religious groups protest?

Why are the Japanese so reluctant to give money to people collecting for charities in the street?

There is a belief that most of them are actually collecting for cults. This may also be why some organisations use ranks of kids with in uniforms on official days to make damn sure you know it’s the real deal.

Why did Christianity make it in Korea but not Japan, despite being (re) introduced at around the same time?

Why did ying yang and other Tao concepts not have a big influence in Japan, despite them borrowing lots of other Chinese concepts?

It was well known, but not officially sponsored as it didn’t have the appeal for the ruling classes of warrior-like self discipline (Zen) or obeying your superiors (Confucianism)

Why do the Japanese show priests so little respect?

Unlike India, where priests are at the top of the class system, Japanese priests stand outside the class system and since Heian times have come from all sections of society. They also have always had even worse reputations for being self serving money seekers than in most countries possibly because Japanese monks, unlike buddhists in most countries, can marry and pass their money onto their families. The fact that most Japanese continue to follow two religions at the same time may also possibly means that they do not rely on either one completely and so reduces the status of both.

Why do Japanese Buddhist priests marry?


When most old wooden houses are being knocked down, how come there are still so many traditional temples in every area?

Modern architecture temples and shrines have been tried, but don’t seem to be too popular- perhaps because a church without tradition still has the scripture but a shrine without tradition has nothing. Priests can afford the expensive upkeep of a wooden building as they pay no inheritance tax (very high in Japan).

Why do you never hear Buddhist chanting in Japan?

For most Japanese, Buddhist chanting is associated only with funerals. There is a story in one of the Robert Whiting books about an American Buddhist baseball player in Japan who was shocked to be asked to stop chanting Amidabutsu before matches because it depressed all the Japanese players.

Why are there no Shinto funerals?

Shinto has no concept of what happens to you after you die. Also, having a dead body in a shrine goes against the ideas of ritual purity which are central to Shinto.

Why do the vast majority of Japanese say they are unreligious, despite praying at shrines etc?

It could partly be misunderstanding the question as meaning “Are you really interested in religion?”, which has a connection to cults. and the state Shinto of WWII

Why is there no begging in Japan, despite the Buddhist custom of monks begging and the large number of homeless people?

Not sure. If you do see what looks like a Buddhist priest standing outside touristy places like Ryogoku sumo stadium Japanese people assume they are fakes because they know how well off the average Buddhist priest is. The way the homeless make sure they look clean and their “homes” look nice and are far from the crowds suggests they might be too ashamed to beg. Alternatively, maybe the authorities just stamped it out at one point and it never came back.

Why do you never see the stone lanterns in shrines lit?

They are symbolic and not meant to be used as real lanterns.


  1. obsidian said,

    March 28, 2008 at 1:26 am

    “Why is a mirror a Shinto religious symbol?
    It seems to be a very ancient thing that comes from China, but not sure what the original reason was”

    The sun goddess Amaterasu hid in a cave and a sacred mirror was used to lure her out. http://www.japan-zone.com/omnibus/shinto.shtml

  2. alexcase said,

    March 28, 2008 at 11:05 pm

    Thanks, I’d never put those two things together before. I still wonder what the real historical reasons could be- as I said, the early Japanese ones in the National Museum in Ueno look just like Chinese ones. Did they come over with the (Korean) Japanese royal family?

  3. Alayne said,

    June 20, 2008 at 5:59 pm

    I can explain the komainu dogs – apparently, the male dog has his mouth open as he is inhaling, representing life; and the female dog exhales, representing death. Other interpretations are that the open mouth of one and the closed one of the other represent “om” from the sacred Buddhist chant.

    As for Christianity, it was brought by the Portuguese, but never had as much of an impact in Japan because it purported to be the only faith, and the Japanese had happily practised Buddhism (espousing the afterlife was to strive for and material life was bad) and Shinto (death was pollution, it was living and being pure that mattered) at the same time without any feelings of hypocrisy. The historical term for Japanese Christians was kirishitan, Roman Catholicism imported by the Portuguese which had some converts. On the eve of the battle of Sekigahara, fifteen daimyo were baptised, and others were also converted, though this may be put down to making nice with the foreigners for guns and saltpetre they could use effectively against their rivals, as foreign weapons gave them an edge. The war between Japan and Korea in 1592 provided the opportunity for missionaries in Japan to go to Korea to spread the gospel. The Tokugawa bakufu, however, persecuted the kirishitan extensively, and Toyotomi Hideyoshi banned Catholicism in 1587. The Edo Period also saw a policy of banning Christianity, and the persecution of converts.

    Even now, Christianity isn’t so popular in Japan.

    As for joss sticks – incense is supposed to be purifying, or is given as a sacrificial offering. But blowing on it puts a fair bit of spit on the incense, which could be considered to make it unclean, or put energies on it that you don’t want; hence a policy of shaking them to put them out when lit. This was co-opted by Neopaganism regarding their use of incense.

    Shinto isn’t strictly a religion, either – it is more a collection of beliefs, traditions and rituals drawing upon many sources to protect the people from evil influences and safeguarding ritual purity.

  4. higanbana said,

    June 15, 2009 at 2:36 am

    Why is the summer festival of the dead holiday called “honorable tray”?

    On the first O-bon after somebody of the family has died, lots of incest sticks are stuck into a ash or sand filled tray and burnt there. I could imagine that the festival’s name comes from that custom.

  5. crella said,

    June 22, 2009 at 12:29 pm

    Re:noodles- ‘Soba’ as a play on words, meaning ‘near’…more common than eating soba when moving, they used to give packs of them to the neighbors as a gesture of friendship ‘we’ve moved near you’ ‘Soba ni hikkoshi shitekimashita’.

  6. alexcase said,

    June 24, 2009 at 11:20 am

    All great stuff guys. Kicking myself for not guessing the soba one. Are there no end to Japanese good luck puns of food words???

  7. Amelie May said,

    March 19, 2011 at 7:48 pm

    –Why are the Japanese convinced all begging monks are fakes?

    Perhaps it’s something to do with the Japanese dislike of begging? I’m led to believe that charity isn’t exactly a well-looked-upon thing there and most people would prefer not to accept it unless they really need it.

    @higanbana: I think you mean ‘incense sticks’. I imagine that ‘incest sticks’ would be something quite different.

  8. letsi said,

    January 19, 2012 at 6:45 pm

    A little late to the game, just want to correct the myth that Kannon is depicted as a goddess in some places due to him having girly looks…

    The Lotus Sūtra (Skt. Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra) describes Avalokiteśvara (Kannon) as a bodhisattva who can take the form of any type of male or female, adult or child, human or non-human being, in order to teach the Dharma to sentient beings.

    Plucked from Wikipedia, cited source from ^ Tsugunari, Kubo (tr). Yuyama, Akira (tr). The Lotus Sutra. 2007. pp. 311-312

  9. Michael said,

    January 23, 2012 at 4:51 am

    Something I’ve wondered for a while now: If an eta became a priest, would that classless state constitute an improvement?

  10. alexcase said,

    January 23, 2012 at 7:06 am

    That’s a damn good question, and one that might partly explain the general contempt for priests in Japan

  11. Rin73 said,

    December 29, 2015 at 12:05 am

    Why do you have to paint eyes on a daruma?

    Traditionally, the daruma has been a symbol of not giving up. 七転び八起き (“fall seven times, get up eight times”), as you can see when you try to knock down the daruma doll, it gets back up again. So daruma has come to be associated with working hard to achieve a goal. You paint one eye when you start a specific goal, and the daruma reminds you not to give up on that goal. When you reach the goal, you posting the other eye.

    Politicians often will buy a large daruma doll and paint one eye at the beginning of their campaign. When a politician wins the position they were campaigning for, they paint the other eye as part of their victory celebration, to show that they achieved their goal. I’m not sure what happens to the daruma dolls of the politicians that lose, though… Perhaps they serve as a reminder to work harder in the next race…

    • alexcase said,

      December 29, 2015 at 10:38 am

      That still leaves the question of why specifically they paint eyes, though I suppose Daruma-san has few other features available to paint two of…

  12. Higanbana said,

    December 30, 2015 at 1:59 pm

    Why do Japanese Buddhist priests marry?

    It totally depends on the sect whether they consider celibate or for that matter being a vegetarian or shaving the head etc. a pre-condition to fully embrace the duty of being a priest or not. Friends of mine, a married couple, are both certified priests of the sect 浄土真宗 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J%C5%8Ddo_Shinsh%C5%AB ) which allows them to enjoy marriage with kids with no whatsoever limitations in regard to food, alcohol, fashion (except for ceremonies) or life style.

  13. alexcase said,

    December 30, 2015 at 8:42 pm

    That’s true, but it doesn’t really answer the question. In fact, if they are also allowed to do all that (plus have as many possessions as they like), they are even more clearly not following Buddha’s precepts on being a monk/ priest. So, why did Japan in particular so commonly allow Buddhist priests who don’t follow what the Buddha said about being a priest?

  14. Higanbana said,

    January 3, 2016 at 10:08 am

    Why doesn’t it answer the question?

    First of all the question in regard to Japanese monks is totally misleading. Depending on the sect they may or may not marry. So if anything, it should be “Why may SOME Japanese monks marry?”

    Furthermore where did Buddha state that a monk has to shave its head and refrain from all possessions? As far as I know, he only asked for the moderate way. And the definition of moderation depended on the personal view of the founders of a certain sect. It’s exactly like in Christianity. At a point the Church decided to throw out all other versions of ministers / priests and stated that priests must be celibate men. Then Luther and Calvin came and declared that that was never demanded by Jesus and got marriage and women ministers accepted. Try think of the founder of e.g. 浄土真宗 als a Luther of Japan.

  15. alexcase said,

    January 4, 2016 at 8:26 pm

    The Luther comparison is interesting, hadn’t thought of it that way before. I’m not sure how well it stands up though – according to the history of Buddhism that I read, the rules of being a monk/ priest are the things that we are most certain that Buddha himself actually decided (given that everything is in doubt, as he never wrote a single word down). He did of course suggest “The Middle Way”, but only in comparison to some really crazy Indian holy men of the time.

    Anyway, I’m also getting away from the question, which is why it is Japan which has the most married Buddhist priests of any country (by far, I believe). As you say, it has to do with the rules of the sect, so there are two possible explanations
    – The sects which allow marriage were popular for other reasons, and married priests just happened to come along with it
    – Allowing married priests was something that made those sects particularly popular in Japan, so there was something about Japanese society of the time that made married priests particularly suit them

    I’d guess that it is a combination of both factors, but not sure what it might have been that made the Japanese particularly go for those sects with married priests.

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