I recently went to a place that is clearly a religious site, yet is visited by thousands of elementary school children every year.

But I was powerless to do anything about it. It was in Japan.

During a recent visit to that country, my wife and I traveled to the Todaiji Temple, home of one of the largest statues of Buddha in the nation.  On the day we visited, literally hundreds of kids were having school-sponsored treks around the grounds. 

Now, since I only know the requisite handful of Japanese phrases for “good morning,”  “thank you” and “yes” and “no,” I had no idea what these children were being told.

Many of these young people came up to my wife and me and asked a series of carefully rehearsed and memorized questions, in English, to finish assignments where they were to ask tourists where they were from, and then have us sign our name on their worksheets.

We didn’t meet many teachers, and the few we did didn’t speak English. I was really dying to have a nuanced chat about whether Japanese parents ever complain about these trips or indeed what the children were being taught. 

Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in Japan are heavily engaged in what could be called “commercial” activities. This is not just about selling books about religious beliefs or medals, but also conducting a lucrative “fortune” business. You drop the equivalent of about a quarter into a box and then shake the container until a piece of paper comes out with your fortune.

If it is good, you keep it. If it is bad, you are supposed to hang it on a nearby tree so that the wind will “blow your bad fortune” away. 

I did speak to some people about this, and they didn’t seem ready to make any life-changing decisions based on what the papers said. At the Buddha shrine mentioned above, children do crawl through a kind of artificial tunnel from near the Buddha to partway down the temple to receive “good luck.”

Maybe this too is harmless fun.

Japan has had some real religion-and-government problems in the past. When Christianity was hitting the shores in the 16th century, government officials were so concerned that this new faith would displace Buddhism (itself a Chinese implant) that some Christian followers were literally crucified.

Later, as Buddhism began to reach political prominence and military rule was replaced with decision-making by emperors, Shinto, a religion that claimed that that the emperor was a direct descendant of a sun goddess, had a resurgence as the national faith. Shinto priests were paid by the government, and religion became intertwined with nationalistic goals.

After the nation’s defeat in World War II, the Allies required that Japan adopt a constitution that guaranteed the separation of religion from the state. Like the provisions of any constitution, it took decades for its meaning to be put into practice and for courts to opine on its true intent.

Issues of religion and state have arisen in Japan in recent years. All religious (and political) clubs are barred in Japanese public schools, prayers by school officials are not allowed and tuition assistance to private schools is not available. In addition, Japanese education officials draw clear distinctions between pedagogical strategies that are designed to inculcate religion (forbidden) and those that merely evaluate religious beliefs as they have affected Japanese history.

There have been other skirmishes, including a brief (but unsuccessful) attempt to water down evolution in one school and a municipality that had to back down when it announced the cancellation of a Santa Claus-focused children’s observance deemed religious because, well, there wouldn’t be a St. Nick if not for Christianity.

Occasionally there are efforts to curtail surgical abortions, which are readily available in Japan, but these are usually beaten back by the small but effective Japanese feminist movement.

The courts most recently have taken a very strong “no funding of religion by government” stance by declaring subsidies of a Shinto shrine unconstitutional and insisting on removal of the torii, gateway structures between secular and sacred spaces, on public property.

Public opinion runs high against having the prime minister make official visits to a shrine honoring those Japanese who died in World War II, including a number of persons executed as war criminals. Judges have agreed in informal opinions.

None of this has affected religious activity in Japan. I watched several men offering prayers outside the remains of the one large domed building left standing after the atomic bombing of central Hiroshima. Again, clear communication was not possible because of language difficulties, but even with the language barrier, one could sense their sincerity.

It’s ironic. Our country gave Japan separation of religion and government, and they seem to have little trouble applying it. I’d almost say they have perfected it – if only I knew what those kids were doing at that temple!



Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.