Japanese people are terrible at being religious. Shintoism allows Japanese people to be religious whenever and only when they need supernatural help.

In this  episode, show host Kyota Ko explains the meaning and cultural background behind the proverb 困った時の神頼み “Turning to God in times of trouble”. Great listen for students looking for an interesting essay topic.

Hello world! You are listening to the Metro-classic Japanese. My name is Kyota Ko. This morning on the train I was doing a little reading about how rituals and festivities in Japan were done 200 to 400 years ago, during a time called the Edo Period. It was a very important time period where much of the Japanese culture we see now was cultivated.   

And reading this book, I just confirmed yet again that most of us Japanese people were just terrible at being religious – not just now, but from several centuries ago. And there is a perfect proverb that sums up how bad we are at being religious. It goes 困った時の神頼み which I would translate to: Turning to God in times of trouble.

It’s a proverb that ridicules unreligious people who kneel to God and plead for mercy whenever and only when they get in trouble. But this is more like standard practice for most of us Japanese people. I’m guilty of it too. I prayed to God in hopes of passing my tennis team tryout back in high school without having visited a single shrine that year. 

Japanese people are terrible at being “religious”

So many Japanese people are terrible at being religious. Let me show you why I say that with confidence by taking a look at the dictionary definition of the term “religious.”

So the Merriam-Webster online dictionary says here that “religious” means: relating to or manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity. Yeah, see, this is something we definitely do not do: devote our faith in an ultimate reality. We are faithful to whatever ultimate reality that’s convenient to believe in at that moment. 

I’ve covered a similar topic before in another podcast with the title “So are Japanese people atheists or what? They’re actually not.” So my point there was that most Japanese people don’t think they believe in any religion, but they are in fact practitioners of the Shinto religion. They’re Shinto in the sense that they accept any god or any faith, because a big premise of Shintoism is that there is an infinite number of gods and spirits. There can be a god of this mountain or that mountain. There can even be a god of toilets. 

Gods are worshiped on-demand

Japanese gods are worshiped on-demand

And because there are so many gods out there, being devoted to a single god is just not a popular life choice. So there are thousands of Shinto shrines in Japan, and each one enshrines at least one god. 

Now because there are thousands of them, gods need to market themselves well in order to gain worshipers. 

Some gods would promote themselves that “if you pray at our shrines, your chances of passing your school entrance exam will increase.” Another group of gods say “if you pray here, you’ll find a boyfriend.” Shrines are like specialty stores of fortune. 

Some big shrines like the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto enshrine several gods in different structures within their premises. Fushimi Inari is a mountain full of gods and each god gives you a different kind of luck if you pray in front of them, so it’s like a one-stop department store of fortune.

So Japanese people would choose which god to pray for depending on their circumstances. If it’s exam season, they go pray to the nearest god of education. If they feel lonely after a breakup, they go pray to the nearest god of love. Or if they run into a god of love during their trip to another part of the country, they’ll say “Oh hey there’s a god of love over there. Let me go give a quick pray because I haven’t been in a relationship in a while.” It helps for gods to be located conveniently if they want to make it big. 

It sounds terrible, but whenever we visit a shrine for the first time, the first question we ask in our minds is “So what’s this god good for?” 

I just did a quick Google search to see if there was a curation website that lists shrines by the type of fortune they grant, and yeah, there was a website that listed shrines across the country like a catalogue. 

Their categories in order of popularity are: luck in finance, luck in business, luck in love, luck in education, luck in health, luck in childbirth, luck in avoiding misfortunes, luck in safety of your family. We can see Japanese people’s priorities here. So yeah, it must be really tough being a Shinto god. 

So the proverb “Turning to God in times of trouble” refers to these not-very-religious people, like me, who’d in times of trouble, be like “God! Whichever god’s listening – Please! I want this job so badly. Please let me pass the interview. Please let me pass the interview. I’ll be a better person tomorrow! I’ll be nice to kids! I’ll brush my teeth more properly in the morning!” 

See, Shintoism doesn’t even have a doctrine so you get to choose your own good deeds. And then later we forget about the oaths we made. I read somewhere that Shintoism is often considered questionable to be consideredv  a religion, and I totally agree. That’s a very reasonable argument since most of us Japanese people don’t completely identify ourselves as Shinto. If you ask if a Japanese person is Shinto, I think the most common response you’d get will be “Ah yeah, maybe.” Or “Ah yeah, sometimes.”

Religions are readily leveraged and consumed

Shopping street leading to Sensoji Temple in Asakusa

Anyway, gods in Japan have not only been suppliers of fortune, but also suppliers of convenient excuses for people to enjoy themselves.

Nowadays not many Japanese people make frequent visits to shrines or temples especially in the city, but during the Edo Period, people visited gods more often, probably at a rate we go out to do some shopping on weekends. 

And it’s not only because Japanese people used to be more religious than we are now. There is a more rational reason. 

If you go visit a major temple such as Sensoji Temple in Asakusa or Shinshoji Temple in Narita-san, you’ll see that there is a long shopping street leading to the temple with small, traditional looking food and souvenir shops set up on both sides of the street. Buddhist temples were major pilgrim attractions and merchants capitalized on the temples’ ability to bring people. That may sound terrible from the perspective of other major religions. That’s like making money off of God’s popularity. 

 I’m bringing up Buddhist temples here as an example because in Japan, Buddhist gods are also considered some of the many gods in the Shinto belief. 

And by the way, there are supposed to be no gods in the original Buddhism, but in Japanese Buddhism it’s as if there are. When Buddhism was imported into Japan from China, Japanese people couldn’t really understand the concept of an enlightened person, so preachers kinda gave up on them and probably told them at one point “OK, if it makes it easier for you to understand, sure, yes, God is a slightly similar concept.” And then Japanese people were like “Oh so Buddha is a God! Now we get it, OK!” And hence forth Buddha has been thought to be something like a god, here in Japan.

So anyway, going back to where we were. So for people living in the city, paying a visit to a local temple or shrine used to be the go-to excuse for them to leave home to go out to enjoy themselves. 

There was always something to do in the house back then because unlike today, people didn’t have laundry machines, cooking took a lot of time, and everyone had to work to make the household better financially. So as a member of a family, or more like a member of a team, husbands and wives didn’t feel absolutely comfortable saying “I’m going to go hang out in town.” 

But when they phrased it like “I’m going to go pray at the local shrine” it felt like they were still doing something for the family, not slacking off. 

So they would go out by themselves or with their kids and stop by food vendors and souvenir shops, and watch street performers, and then actually go to the shrine or temple they said they were going to. There, they would offer a prayer like “Please let my family live in peace again this week.” 

And sometimes they would buy a lucky charm sold at that shrine or temple as a souvenir for the family members who stayed at home. These charms are called “Omamori” in Japanese. And that lucky charm kinda served like proof that the person actually went out to go pray at the local shrine or temple. People were able to take a break from their busy lives without causing any hard feelings in the family. 

And by the way, through selling the lucky charms the temple or shrine got money to maintain themselves. Maintenance costs  an arm and leg because those structures are mostly made of wood and rebuilding them requires special construction skills. Selling goods at these holy places is an important part of the ecosystem.

A give and take relationship

So gods in Japan have played roles that are helpful for people in living life, and also just like any other religion, people’s mental well-being owed a lot to the gods. It’s not that Japanese people have been making a conscious effort to exploit gods for their profits. There has always been a give and take relationship between Japanese people and Japanese gods. 

Turning to God in times of trouble, I guess, is OK because Japanese gods also need people to help them maintain their own well-being. Gods and humans are not considered equals in Japan, but we do have a business partner-like relationship.

That’s it for today. Thank you for listening to the Metro-classic Japanese. Please check out my Instagram for daily photos and paintings brought to you from Japan. The Instagram account is called themetroclassic. それでは、またお会いしましょう。