Read CHAPTER IX - Superstitions and religious observances of Sketches of Japanese Manners and Customs, free online book, by J. M. W. Silver, on

The Sintoo faith and Buddhism are the prevalent religions of the Japanese. The teaching of the other sects is modelled more or less on the tenets inculcated by these two. Some, however, hold a philosophic doctrine, which recognises a Supreme Being but denies a future state, holding that happiness is only to be insured by a virtuous life.

Sintooism may be regarded as the national religion of the country. It inculcates a high moral standard; and its chief personage is the Mikado, or spiritual emperor, who is considered to be a mediator between his subjects and the inhabitants of the other world.

Every Sintoo has the image of a patron ‘kami,’ or ‘saint,’ enshrined in his house, to which he lays open his necessities and confesses his shortcomings, and by whose intercession with the Supreme Being he trusts at his death to be translated to the regions of the ‘kamis,’ as they designate their heaven.

The wicked are supposed to be consigned to the abodes of the disembodied spirits, who are punished according to the nature of their crimes. For instance, saki merchants who have sold bad spirit are believed to be confined in stagnant pools; and murderers are supposed to haunt the graves of their victims, until the prayers of their relatives release them. Purity of life and body is the leading feature of the Sintoo faith. As an emblem of the natural purity of the soul, mirrors are hung up in the temples; and the more ignorant people (who in Japan, like every other country, are most influenced by superstitions) believe, as they look into the mirror, that the Supreme Being sees their past lives as easily as they do their own faces. The value attached to indulgences and charms is very great, and the sale of them contributes largely to the revenues of the Mikado. Charms are eagerly purchased by the lower orders, who carry them about their persons, and never let anybody touch them except themselves.

At a tea-house at Kamakura, one of these charms was accidentally dropped by a lively little ‘moosmie,’ or ‘girl,’ who was waiting on a party of foreigners. One of them picked it up, and was on the point of opening the small box in which it is placed for safety when she discovered the loss, and made a desperate rush for its recovery. On finding the importance attached to it, the ‘friske,’ as she called it, was handed round the group as she eagerly darted after it; and on one of the party pretending to light a cigar with it she burst into tears, and was not to be pacified until it was restored.

A religious observance of great importance with the Japanese is ‘Osurasma,’ or ‘praying a soul out of purgatory,’ as they wisely consider that even the most holy must have some small peccadilloes to answer for.

This ceremony takes place in the seventh month after death: a white lamp is its emblem. This is hung up at the entrance of the mourners’ houses, while they offer oblations and burn joss-sticks. Food is also prepared and laid out, in case the spirit of the departed, finding the journey to the regions of the ‘kamis’ a long and wearisome one, should need refreshment.

No Japanese dreams of entering a friend’s house while the white lamp is hung up, or of disturbing in any way the privacy of a family engaged in these solemn duties, as the spirits of the departed are firmly believed to revisit their former dwellings at such times, if they have not already entered into a state of bliss.

In one of their festivals they make pilgrimages at night to the graves of their friends, on which they place food and hang lamps. It is said they believe their ancestors to come from heaven to them on these occasions, and imagine that they return again in small boats, to which they attach lanterns, and which they place on the water at ebb-tide, on the evening of the last day of the festival, and eagerly watch, out of sight. An old fisherman, however, who was observed intently watching his frail bark floating out to sea, explained, on being questioned, that he whose lamp burnt longest caught most fish; and judging from the old man’s solemn manner there was no doubt he had perfect faith in the truth of his statement.

However gross their superstitions may he, there is no doubt that they affectionately revere the memory of their dead, and treat them with quite as much respect as the most civilised nation in Christendom.

In battle the Japanese always carry off the fallen.

At the bombardment of the Simono-seki forts, at the entrance of the Suwo-Nada, or ‘Inland Sea,’ in September 1864, Prince Choisiu’s loss, according to one of his own officers, amounted to upwards of 500 killed and wounded; but all had been removed when the brigade of English, French, and Dutch, under the command of Colonel Suther, C.B., Royal Marines, took possession of the forts early next day. At the storming of a stockade (which was pluckily defended) by two battalions of Royal Marines and the light-armed companies of the British squadron, the Japanese were noticed carrying away their dead and wounded, and several were unfortunately shot while thus employed.

A few nights afterwards large fires were noticed in the interior, which were said to be the funeral pyres of those who had fallen in the defence of the forts and stockade.

The illustration representing the last offices, depicts a custom of Buddhist origin which is generally adopted by the Japanese. They believe that shaving the head of the dead propitiates the deities in their favour. It is also considered to be an emblem of sanctity, and the bonzes, or priests, always keep their heads clean-shaved. Even children intended for the priesthood, as well as certain religious societies of both sexes, are similarly distinguished. Odder-looking creatures than these bald-headed specimens of humanity can hardly be imagined.

The itinerant sweetmeat vendor shown in the woodcut is a specimen of the class of Japanese most prone to superstition. The lantern he carries serves not only to light his way but to advertise his wares: it also bears his name, no Japanese of the lower orders being allowed to stroll about at night without a lantern so distinguished.