Japanese religion and influence on culture


Once described as a “coral reef with five arborescences contributing to the complexity of the Japanese religious culture: Shintoism, Confucianism, Buddhism/Zen, Taoism, and Western impact”, Japanese spirituality markedly differs from the Judeo-Christian ideas that predominate the western cultural sphere. In Judeo-Christian (or western) eschatology, the battle between Good and Evil is viewed as a temporary struggle with a fixed end. Members of the major monotheistic faiths believe in an End of Days that will see the victory of their God over Evil; sinners will be punished and the righteous will see deliverance. However, eastern spirituality has historically taken a different route. While the judgment of a soul after death does exist in some Asian faiths, eastern eschatology tends to take a more cyclical view of things. This is modeled in works such as The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, where the fight between Demise and Hylia (two primordial deities) is eternal, extending over many lifetimes. The protagonists of the game, Link and Princess Zelda, are the champion and reincarnation of Hylia respectively, and serve to defeat the various incarnations of Demise throughout the games. However, though the player sympathizes with Link and spends most of their time fighting against Ganon (the form Demise takes over Link’s lifetimes), it is repeatedly stressed that this is a never ending battle and that Ganon has a purpose as well. In fact, the peaceful, lush landscapes that characterize the games are the result of the battles fought between Link and Ganon, thus rendering their eternal fight indispensable to the overall atmosphere of the games. Along with this, the aura of ancientness and mystery that surrounds the forests in Zelda titles such as Ocarina of Time and Breath of the Wild, and the existence of many woodland creatures and sprites such as the Kokiri, greatly evoke the Shinto ethos of nature worship. 

A notably darker title that also exemplifies traditional eastern spirituality would be the 1995 anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion. The story follows the young boy Shinji and his comrades as they fight against alien invaders known as Angels. The show is notorious for its kabbalistic imagery and Jewish themes, but it is also true that the characters in the show have many incarnations across one canonical timeline of stories. From the original 26 episode show and movie, there are 4 “rebuild” movies in which the cast fight against the Angels only to endure the same trials again. The Angels are quite clearly “bad” in that they want to end humanity as it exists, yet the show takes pains to remind the viewer that this is a necessary step in the progression of time, the destruction of the world is but a part of the story. That is why the movies are known as the “rebuilds” among the fandom, the world must fall so that it can be rebuilt. This is perhaps the central dichotomy between eastern and western faiths, the former holds that chaos is a necessary part of the world that will both vanquish and be vanquished in turns throughout time, and the latter maintains that chaos is meant to be overcome at The End. Put simply, eastern thought dictates that the world will fall to be rebuilt while the west focuses on the After, the rebuilding and the conquering of all that threaten it. 

In both of these works, the traditional Japanese themes of impermanence and great sadness are seen, and they evoke an especial poignancy in the more melancholic parts of these titles as they represent problems that exist and must be continually faced in the real world. However, this does not mean that hope cannot exist. The teachings of the Buddha are hopeful, and maintain that it is always possible to release oneself from suffering, protect others from harm, and build a better world; a notion also present in both Zelda and Evangelion.

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