In Japan as in most societies, religion has been a powerful force in motivating people for collective action and in bringing families and communities together. The remarkable thing about religion in Japan, however, is that multiple traditions, e.g., Buddhism and Shintō not only exist side by side in the society as a whole but in the minds and lives of individuals as part of their total religious life. Rather than being forced to choose between one religion or another, most Japanese practice several religious traditions, each in its own context. The total religious person in Japan includes a Buddhist component, a Shintō component, and other components. Many Japanese would feel incomplete without the opportunity to participate in both Buddhist and Shintō rituals.
One result of the complementary coexistence of these major religious traditions is a tolerance for religious differences. However, this has not always been the case in Japan. In the buildup towards the Pacific War, Shinto and Emperor Hirohito were made supreme by the political and military authorities, and Buddhism was relegated to a secondary position. Christianity for the past 400 years has claimed among its adherents about one-half to one percent of the entire population of Japan, and has made significant intellectual, ethical and philosophical contributions to Japanese culture. However, there have been periods in Japanese history, as in the seventeenth century, when Christians were persecuted, sometimes cruelly, because of a feared association with those foreign countries that posed a threat to Japanese sovereignty.
Today, however, the Constitution protects religious freedom and mandates a separation of church and state. Shintō and Buddhist rituals are both practiced by most Japanese families, and it is difficult to say which is the more important. To a great extent each has its own domain in their lives. Buddhist rituals are the most common in funerary and ancestor memorial activities. Shintō rituals predominate in prayers to the deities for success in relationships, business, exams, good health, fertility, safe childbirth, and protection from accidents, fires, and other misfortunes.
However, many times Buddhist and Shinto aspects are combined in the same ritual, and Buddhist and Shintō components frequently are interchangeable in a single ritual, e.g., in a local festival asking for the continued protection of the deities over the community and its members. Many Buddhist temples have Shintō shrines in their compounds so that the Shintō deities will provide protection against fires and other potential problems for the temple. The ritual of offerings and prayers to the Shintō deity in those cases typically is conducted by the Buddhist temple priest, in Buddhist style.