Comparing Shinto and Buddhism

It can be confusing to tell the differences between the religious affiliations of a temple or shrine if you are not familiar with religious practices in Japan. Shinto is the predominant religion practiced by majority of the population. Numerous temples and shrines in Japan give visitors a glimpse of the unique culture and rich history of Japan and its people. Many religious festivals are celebrated in Japan with traditional pomp and it is simply a must to catch at least one whenever going for a visit.

Kanda Myoujin Shrine

Kanda Myoujin Shrine, a Shinto shrine in Japan.

Shinto and Buddhism

Shinto (神道 Shintō, “way of the gods”) is the ethnic religion of Japan focusing on ritual practices carried out diligently to establish a connection between the ancient past and modern times.

Shinto practices can be traced all the way back to the Kojiki (the oldest extant chronicle in Japan from the early 8th century) and Nihon Shoki (the second oldest book of classical Japanese history). These ancient Japanese writings are historical records of a collection of Japanese mythology and native beliefs. Modern Shinto focuses on public shrines devoted to the worship of the thousands of Shinto gods (kami), each one having a specific purpose.

Buddhism was introduced to Japan by five Chinese monks from Gandhara (an ancient kingdom extending to the Swat valley and Potohar plateau regions of Pakistan and the Jalalabad district of northeastern Afghanistan) who travelled to Japan during the Kofun period (250 to 538).

Buddhism established a foothold on Japan when Empress Suiko ascended the throne in 592 after taking the vows of a Buddhist nun. Following her footsteps, Prince Shotoku during his reign, commissioned a number of Buddhist temples to be built all across the country which propagated the further spread of the religion.

Zenkokuji Buddhist Temple

Zenkokuji Buddhist temple.

Syncretism of Shinto and Buddhism

New schools of Buddhism emerged from the 8th and 9th century onwards. Buddhism and Shinto beliefs began to merge and the two religions found common philosophical ground and became a part of people’s daily lives.

Buddhist monks began building temples next to Shinto shrines and created places for worship called “jingu-ji” or shrine-temples. This Syncretism of Buddhism lasted until the Shinto-Buddhism separation decree of the Meiji government in (1868). This was brought about by the structure of the state administration.

The Shinto god Amaterasu who had not been a major divinity was brought into the spotlight to help give validation to the role of the Emperor, as not just a ruler, but as the high priest of Shinto. Shinto became Japan’s official state religion and many shrines were given state funding.

Shinto vs. Buddhism

Certain differences between Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples will help you distinguish between the two.

Shinto shrine:

  • Shinto shrines make use of the suffix jingu after the shrine name.
  • The entrance of a Shinto shrine is marked by a torii gate.
  • Shinto shrines have statues of a pair of guardian lions or dogs (shisa or komainu) that often greet you at the entrance.
  • Purification fountains are found near the entrance of a Shinto shrine where you can cleanse your mouth and hands before praying.



Buddhist temple:

  • Buddhist temples use the suffix ji after the temple name.
  • An image or statue of Buddha is always found in a temple.
  • A large incense burner is usually located at the front of the temple where smoke from the incense is believed to possess healing powers.
  • A pagoda is usually found in the grounds of the temple.