Folk religions are generally seen by scholars as collections of “amorphous traditions, customs, practices, and superstitions” (Reader 2006: 65). Folk religions stands apart from other religions also in the fact that there usually is not a doctrinal focus that binds them together, and rules and traditions are often regional.
Folk religions are particularly common in rural areas of Japan. But the few that have an influence in urban settings help shape the beliefs the people of Japan have towards Shinto, Buddhism, and New Religions. Scholars have studied folk religions in hopes of finding a main thread that runs through them all, but each "religion" seems to have ties only to the area in which it originated. Just as in Shinto, many folk religion practices are about the attainment of genze riyaku(this-worldly goods). Originally practiced by a dominantly agrarian society, practitioners could be looking for fertility, a good harvest, protection from disease, etc. They would look for these benefits from the kami. Kami such as Tenjin, Hachiman, and Jizō were often incorporated from other religions (especially Shinto and Buddhism) and added to the local, or folk, traditions.
Folk religious practice also encompasses the yearly cycle of observances and matsuri such as shōgatsu (New Years), hina matsuri (Dolls Day in February), and obon. An almanac is often used to determine how fortuitous or foreboding certain days are. Also shichi-go-san and other rites of passage can be placed under the umbrella of folk religions. It is worth noting that the rites of passage and the rites for the dead mirror each other. Seven days after birth a baby is named and seven days after death a posthumous name (kaimyo) is given. Other parallels include the observance of birthdays and death days and the cleansing of the kegare associated with both birth and death. Folk religions can also include practices such as divining, omen reading, and other assorted majinai (charms, magic, or curses).
The study of folk religion has gone through several important changes in the past century. Folk religion used to be dismissed as the cultural practices of rural peoples and was not included with more historically influential traditions such as Buddhism, and Shinto, but it was realized that this discrimination was due to the “concepts of high and low” (Reader 2006: 66) and that such oversight and misjudgment did not have a place in academia. The other major change was moving from the use of the term minkan shinkō to minzoku shūkyō. The term minkan shinkō, which was typically translated as either folk or popular religion, actually literally translates to "faith of the (ordinary) people" (66). In recent times, the term has changed again to help place Japanese Folk Religions in context with other Folk Religions around the world. It is now believed that the term minzoku shūkyō (“folk religion”) is more appropriate, but it runs into trouble in that “religion” is not what folk religions in Japan are all about, necessarily. In Japan, there is more of an emphasis onshinkō (“faith”) (67). This shift in the usage of terms, which occurred during the late 1970s to 1980s, showed that scholars had discarded the elitist notions of prior scholarship and were taking Japanese folk religion seriously as a religious tradition.
In a way, Japanese folk religions epitomize Japanese religiousness at large. It comes from ancient traditions. It mixed with many of the traditions it coexisted with - both lending to and borrowing from their rituals, beliefs, and deities. It is difficult to define, it is nonexclusive and not a tradition that many are likely to identify themselves as a member of, and it is practiced in part by much of the Japanese population.
Written by: Eric Alcorn Edited by: Katie Parish, Tayln Cox, & Dr. Roemer
Bibliography: Earhart, H. Bryon. “Folk Religion:Religiosity Outside Organized Religion.” 2004. Japanese Religion: Unity and Diversity, 66-74. Belmont: Thomson/Wadsworth. Hitoshi, Miyake. “Folk Religion.” 1994. Religion in Japanese Culture: Where Living Traditions Meet a Changing World. 1st ed ed. Edited by Noriyoshi Tamaru and David Reid, 79-96. New York: Kodansha International (Jpn). Reader, Ian. 2006. “Folk Religion.” In Nanzan Guide to Japanese Religions, edited by Paul L. Swanson and Clark Chilson, 65-90. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.