text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
Despite the insistence of the Church of Greece and its various official or unofficial representatives, I never thought of Greeks as truly religious; I’ve always believed that their relationship with religion was more traditional than spiritual –in other words that it is more an element of their cultural identity than the result of a search about the big and important questions that torture people since the dawn of time. And this is the reason that I find strange the fact that most of my compatriots find strange the fact that by having two faiths (and even more so, two faiths with enormous differences, the native pagan Shintoism and the imported from China philosophical Buddhism) the Japanese end up being as non-religious as them.
But in reality this is exactly what happens! For the vast majority of Greeks, participation in church functions and ceremonies (a crucial aspect of being part of any religion) is limited to the absolute basics and with almost no internal investment and this is the case with the Japanese as well: keeping various rituals, at home or at the temple, Shinto or Buddhist, is done quite casually and it certainly does not define the way people live their lives at least from an ethical point of view. Perhaps the only important difference is that as compared to Greeks, the Japanese follow more of those rituals but even so these aren’t but a small fragment of the enormous spectrum kept and practiced every day in the temples.
Like Greeks, the Japanese inherit their faith from their families as part of their cultural makeover: buying an omamori (お守り) amulet, washing the hands before praying doing two bows, two handclaps and one bow at a Shinto shrine, going for hatsumode (初詣) the first visit to a temple after New Year’s Day, throwing a few coins in the collection box, performing Buddhist death ceremonies or Shinto weddings or participating in a festival/matsuri, are things that the Japanese learn from the time they take their first steps and usually bereft of their theoretical context; they are just things they do because they are Japanese, in the same way they learn to not throw away garbage on the streets or wait patiently their turn at a queue.
The reasons that made both the Japanese and the Greeks to bypass the spiritual essence of their religions and keep the typical outline are far beyond my knowledge; they wouldn’t have, perhaps, if Greek universities in the 1980s included comparative religion in their curricula. I wonder, though, whether this observance of the (many, in the case of the Japanese) rituals doesn’t eventually strengthen religions instead of cancelling them out. To the extent that any religion’s the essential reason of being is to preserve a community’s spirit and to tighten its bonds, in Japan (and, maybe in Greece too –at least outside big cities) this reason seems to being served in a very efficient manner; at any rate, what anyone really believes in remains solely their own personal matter.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.