A Beginner’s Guide to the Religious Symbols of Japan

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Japan is a universally reverent country, with a deep religious history and a long tradition of respect for gods and men alike. You’ll find a rich tapestry of religious traditions including Shintoism, Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism alongside smaller folk religious traditions. This rich tapestry of spirituality is expressed through a broad vocabulary of religious symbols found on every island in the nation.

Shinto Symbols

This ancient religion believes in spirits of good and evil which permeate all things, with a rich gallery of good and bad spirits that permeate the life of the religion’s followers. There are a few key Japanese religious symbols which appear in religious documents and Japanese culture.

The maneki-neko, or literally “beckoning cat,” is the always-waving cat you’ll often see in Chinatowns throughout the West. This symbol of Shintoism holds a barrel-shaped object under its paw, which it waves up and down, beckoning the viewer near. The maneki-neko is believed to attract good luck, and its lineage is one of the reasons cats enjoy such a positive relationship with Japanese culture.

The torii gate is a well-recognized symbol of Japan throughout the West. This unique architectural structure is believed to mark the boundary between the finite world of human cares and infinite realm of the spirit world.  Shinto shrines can be easily identified by the torii gates at their entrance, but these gates also sometimes mark Japanese Buddhist temples.

Omamori are religious amulets sold at Shinto shrines which are believed to provide the bearer with luck and divine protection. While omamori were once made of wood or paper, modern amulets are usually small items carried inside a brocade bag which might contain a prayer or invocation. Travelers often give them as gifts. Their sale supports the Shinto temples they’re sold at.

Taoist Symbols

Taoism, also known as Daoism, is a religious philosophy based on living in harmony with the desires and patterns of the natural world. Followers strive to adhere to the Tao (or “way” in English) which is understood to be the source and pattern of everything that exists.  Taoism does share its philosophical underpinnings with Confucianism. However, it does not share Confucianism’s emphasis a rigid social order and strict religious rituals.

Most notable among Taoist symbols is the yin-yang, which might be the best known religious symbol in the world. The yin-yang represents how apparently contradictory forces like chaos and order, day and night or life and death are truly part of an indivisible whole. This principle underlies many Asian philosophies, medicine and martial arts practices.

The I Ching, or Book of Changes, is a book of divination used in the practice of Taoism. Practitioners seek moral guidance by concentrating on a question, then throwing vegetable stalks or coins and consulting a list of hexagrams to interpret the result of these apparently random throws. The meaning associated with these hexagrams, or kua, is found in the I Ching and can be interpreted as an answer to the practitioner’s question. The circular I Ching coins themselves are a powerful symbol of the religion. They feature a peculiar square hole in the center of each coin.

Buddhist Symbols

By Shazz, Esteban.barahona (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Japan is also home to its own unique strain of Buddhism, known as Japanese Buddhism. It shares much of its history and symbology with other varieties of Buddhism. As a result, practitioners of one will be familiar with the other. Like the other religions we covered, Buddhism is replete with symbology, so we can only discuss a few here. 

The Wheel of Dharma (Dharmachakra) represents the cyclical nature of death and rebirth (samsara) found in Buddhism. The Wheel is one of the most important symbols in the religion’s lexicon. The eight spokes on the wheel symbolize the Nobel Eightfold Path that the Buddha elucidated in his teachings, as well as Buddha turning the Wheel of Truth and Law. Further symbolism can be drawn from the structure of the wheel. The hub symbolizes moral discipline, the spokes represent wisdom and the rim represents training in concentration. Each of the three must be present to make a functioning wheel.

Buddhism also refers to the Eight Auspicious Symbols frequently. They include the following:

  1. Parasol (chattra) – spiritual power
  2. Golden Fishes (suvarnamatsya) – blessings, good fortune and salvation
  3. Treasure Vase (kalasha) – fecundity, both moral and spiritual
  4. Lotus (padma) – mental purity
  5. Conch Shell (sankha) – Buddha’s teaching’s fame and renown
  6. Endless Knot (shrivasta) -Buddha’s infinite wisdom
  7. Victory Banner (dhvaja) – the victory of the Buddha’s teaching over ignorance
  8. Wheel of Dharma (Dharmachakra) – see above

They come from Indian symbology, and are especially popular in Tibetan Buddhism.

Conclusion

The religions of Japan are rich in symbolism. As a result, it’s hopeless to attempt to cover them all in one short article. But hopefully this will provide an intriguing, if brief, introduction into one of the world richest spiritual regions.

 

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