Religion and the Samurai

Religion and the Samurai

As tradition is held to be a central theme in Japanese culture, it makes sense that religion has had a vital role to play in Japanese history. That history is composed of three main religions: Shinto, Buddhism, and Christianity.


Torii indicate the presence of a Shinto shrine. (Turnbull, The Samurai and the Sacred)

Shinto, meaning “way of the Gods” or “way of the kami“, is the indigenous religion of Japan. The Polytheistic religion tells of the origins of the island nation and its people. In this respect, the religion seems to exclusively address the Japanese nation. The kami or gods worshipped in shinto are divine beings in heaven and on earth as the scholar Motoori Norinanga defines them:

deities of heaven and earth and spirits venerated at shrines, as well as humans, birds and beasts, plants and trees, oceans and mountains that have exceptional powers and ought to be revered. Kami include not only mysterious beings that are noble but also malignant spirits that are extraordinary and deserve veneration. 

(Takeshi, 318)

An image of Amaterasu.

Shinto lore depicts the relationship of Amaterasu (sun goddess) and her brother Susanoo (god of the moon) as the genesis of Japanese imperial lineage. Fighting between the two split day from night and sent Amaterasu to hide in a cave sheltered from her brother’s rampage. Amaterasu was finally coaxed out of the cave and given gifts from her brother including his sword, a mirror, and jeweled necklace. She then passed these gifts on to her grand son Ninigi no Mikoto who was granted the divine authority to descend from the heavens and govern the Japanese nation, starting the imperial lineage. (Deal, 157)

Master swordsmith works with the spiritual aid of Inari, the kami patron of the forge. (Irvine, The Japanese Sword)

The shinto traditions permeated throughout much of Japanese samurai culture. We’ve already seen how central the sword is in this culture, from a mastered art to divine regalia. But sword smithing itself too was almost a religious ritual. The smithy was regularly purified by shinto priests. The swords were draped in prayer clothes during the final heating process. Smiths and their apprentices too were purified through sexual abstinence and moral devotion to the kami. Inari, the kami guardian of sword smiths was believed to be present in the smithing process, guiding the smith’s mastery of metal, fire, and water- three of five sacred elements composing the universe. (Irvine, 18)

In 1281, Mongol invaders set sail with the intention of conquest and occupation. Starting their attack in Tsushima and Ikki, the Mongols met a ferocious Japanese defensive that limited the Mongols to two islands in the bay. From there, the Mongols organized a series of attacks against the Japanese, lasting about a week. While the Mongol fleet stayed anchored in the bay, a typhoon stirred up, laying waste to the foreign invasion force. The Japanese credited this typhoon to the divine deeds of Amaterasu; they called it kami kaze or “divine wind.” The legend of this typhoon or kami kaze was inspiration for the League of the Divine Wind who sought to obliterate the foreign threats of the U.S. Kami kaze is even more famously known for its inspiration of suicide pilots who flew missions against the U.S. during World War II. (Turnbull, 61)

A Japanese illustration of Kublai Kahn’s invasion force being smashed by the force of the kami kaze.


Buddhism in Japan

Buddhism was founded in India during the fifth century B.C. It follows the spiritual Journey of Siddhartha Gautama who is believed to have been able to achieve supreme spiritual enlightenment. He is known as Buddha, “The Enlightened One.” He summed up his findings with four noble truths:

  1. All existence is suffering.
  2. Suffering is caused by desire.
  3. Cessation of desire results in the cessation of suffering.
  4. The “Eightfold Path” leads to liberation (nirvana).
The temple of Todaiji, Emperor Shomu’s gift to the Nara Period as the greatest Busshist monument. (Turnbull, The Samurai and the Sacred)

Historically there are two main divisions of Buddhism. Theravada and Mahayana. Theravada starts with Buddha’s enlightenment and follows Buddha as only one who has achieved enlightenment. Mahayana starts approximately 500 years after the death of Buddha. Mahayana follows that there are many “Buddah’s” since the first who have taught the way of enlightenment. (Deal, 202-203)

Mahayana Buddhism spread throughout India to southeast Asia. It finally reached Japan through Chinese influences in the middle of the sixth century. At first, Buddhism was met with resistance in Japan but quickly caught traction and solidified its role in the country when Prince Shotoku (572-621) pronounced the new religion to be the official religion of Japan(Turnbull, 29) Shinto and Buddhism came to form a syncretic relationship. The kami, while never losing their status as founders of Japan and the imperial lineage, came to be seen as higher order sentient beings who also needed Buddha’s salvation. The kami were often referred to as bosatsu (bodhisattvas). (Turnbull, 31-32)

The Great Buddha of Nara inside the temple of Todaiji. The original dates back to 745-49 and was recast twice after being destroyed in 1181. (Turnbull, The Sacred and the Samurai)

At the start of the Kamakura period, a new school of Buddhism was formed called Pure Land Buddhism, named after Buddha’s paradise- Jodo (Pure Land). This form of Buddhism believed in three stages of Dharma law: the period of Righteous Law (shobo) when teachings of Sakyamuni Buddha were transmitted faithfully, the period of Counterfeit Law (zobo) when the law was in decline and enlightenment was impossible, and the period of Decay of the Law (mappo) when practice nor attainment of the law was possible and the world would plunge into chaos. Jodo Shinshu (the True Pure Land) was a sect referred to by Christian missionaries as the ‘Devil’s Christianity’ due to its likeness to the western religion. The similarity is that Jodo Shinshu teaches that salvation is gained through Buddha and not the person therefore a sinner can accept his state and still attain salvation. (Turnbull, 73-74)

A portrait of Rennyo, the founder of the Ikko-Ikki. Turnbull, The Samurai and the Sacred)

The inclusive nature of Jodo Shinshu led to great involvement of the lower classes. During the warring states period when the relationship between imperial court, samurai, and religious figure heads broke down Jodo Shinshu inspired many uprisings (ikki). The most prominent was known as Ikko-ikki who came to rival Oda Nobunaga’s campaign to unify Japan. The rivalry technically ended with Ikko-ikki‘s surrender in 1580. After Nobunaga’s death however, Toyotmi Hideyoshi had to clean up remaining factions just before Tokugawa Ieyasu took administrative control and stabilized the Jodo Shinshu sect in 1602. (Turnbull, 73-88)



An oil painting of St Francis Xavier.

On August 15, 1549, St. Francis Xavier, who may be more famously known as a founding member of the Jesuit order of priests, landed on the shores of Kagoshima, Japan with the intention of doing God’s work by spreading the faith. Early attempts at converting the masses faced many struggles such as translation difficulties which led to some embarrassing misunderstandings. One of the greater problems inhibiting widespread acceptance of Christianity lies in the very nature of the religion and its followers. Where Buddhism’s acceptance into Japanese culture might be credited to the blending of Buddhist and Shinto mythology, Christianity strictly rejected the idea of a hybridized theory where Jesus would be described as becoming a kami to save the people of Japan. (Turnbull, 91-93)

A statue of Otomo Sorin. (Turnbull, The Samurai and the Sacred)

Caught in the turmoil of a broken Japan, Xavier and his missionaries relied on the patronage of the few willing daimyoDaimyo Otomo Sorin helped the missionaries from his first introduction to Xavier in 1551. Sorin would ater accept baptism in 1578. Due to nature Christianity’s clash with other religions, Sorin took to converting all of the people in his province and persecuting Shinto and Buddhist priests as well as destroying their property. (Turnbull, 96)  Luis Frois describes a similar account of another christian convert, Omura Sumitada (baptized Bartholemeo)

As Dom Bartholemeo had gone off to wars, it so happened that he passed on the way an idol, Marishiten by name, which is their god of battles….he had his men stop and ordered them to take the idol and burn it together with the whole temple; and he took the cockerel and gave it a blow with the sword, saying to it, ‘Oh, how many times have you betrayed me!’ And after everything had been burnt down, he had a very beautiful cross erected on the same spot and after he and his men had paid very deep reverence to it, they continued on their ways to the wars.

(Ellison, 89)

Takayama Ukon’s portrait shows his devotion to Christ. (Turnbull, The Samurai and the Sacred)

This religious fervor caught the attention of Oda Nobunaga, who welcomed the christian mission during his time of reunification. He used the christian ideals to his advantage, ensuring the loyalty those christian samurai under his ranks. This loyalty is exemplified in Takayama Ukon’s defection of the castle of Takatsuki to Oda Nobunaga, who Ukon admitted controlled Ukon’s true loyalty, second only to God. Nobunaga found this to be convenient considering he never had to contend with God for the loyalty during his campaigns against the Buddhist Ikko-Ikki. (Turnbull, 99-102)

Toyotomi Hideyoshi however, did not trust the christian mission. After Nobunaga’s death, Hideyoshi continued the push to unify all of Japan. After the conquest of Kyushu in 1587, Hideyoshi issued an edict that condemned Christianity and gave the Jesuits 20 days to leave. Hideyoshi declared that, ‘Japan is the land of the Gods,’ and he scolded the christians for destroying Shinto and Buddhist shrines. However, Hideyoshi’s true concern rested with the fear that christians might develop similarly to Jodo Shinshu, that christian samurai would revolt in the name of their faith, or even worse- support a foreign, christian invasion. (Turnbull, 104) Merchants however, were still very much welcomed. Japan opened up thriving trade relations with the Dutch and English at the beginning of the Tokugawa Shogunate. This even, however, came to an end in 1639 with the Sakoku edict- Japanese efforts at seclusion, sealing off the islands from foreign influences. (Turnbull, 125)

An oil painting of the crucifixion of the 26 saints of Japan in 1597, under the persecution of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. (Turnbull, The Samurai and the Sacred)



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Suggested Readings

Deal, William E. Handbook to Life in Medieval and Early Modern Japan. New York: Facts On File, 2006. Print.

Elison, George. Deus Destroyed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Pr., 1973.

Irvine, Gregory. The Japanese Sword: The Soul of the Samurai. Trumbell, CT: Weatherhill, 2000. Print.

Takeshi, Matsumae, and Janet Goodwin. “Early Kami Worship.” In The Cambridge History of Japan, edited by Delmer Myers Brown. Vol. 1. Ancient Japan. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Turnbull, Stephen R. The Samurai and the Sacred. Oxford: Osprey, 2006. Print.