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In Japan, memorial ceremonies are being held for the thousands of people killed in the earthquake and tsunami. This is a time when people traditionally turn to religion as a source of comfort. NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty explores the faith of Japan at a time of crisis.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Earlier this week, the governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, made this startling statement.

Governor SHINTARO ISHIHARA (Tokyo): (Through Translator) The Japanese people must take advantage of this tsunami to wash away their selfish greed. I really do think this is divine punishment.

HAGERTY: He later apologized, but people were shocked - not just because he seemed to blame the victims, but because the statement is so at odds with the beliefs of modern-day Japanese.

Mr. JOHN NELSON (Expert on Asian Religions, University of San Francisco): They know about tectonic plates. They know about geography, geology. They know why tsunamis happen, and they don't need some governor to say that it's the will of heaven that this happened.

HAGERTY: John Nelson, an expert on Asian religions at the University of San Francisco, says Japanese society is largely secular. And yet, events frequently drive them back to ancient traditions.

Mr. NELSON: There's a famous saying in Japanese that people turn to the gods in times of trouble, and I think we'll see that here.

HAGERTY: The rituals of Shinto and Buddhism permeate Japanese life. And in these two belief systems, scholars say, people do not focus on why the tragedy happened, but on how they should proceed. Duncan Williams is a Buddhist priest who just returned from Japan.

Mr. DUNCAN WILLIAMS (Buddhist Priest): We can't pinpoint exactly what brought this about. I think the takeaway is that, for Buddhists, is it almost doesn't matter what caused this situation. What's important is the response.

HAGERTY: Such as showing patience, resilience and self- sacrifice in the face of tragedy, Williams says, and memorializing the dead. Ian Reader, a professor of Japanese studies at the Britain's University of Manchester, says when honoring their loved ones, most Japanese turn to Buddhist rituals - where priests read scripture and chant sutras before the body is cremated.

Professor IAN READER (Japanese Studies, University of Manchester): The general perception is that you do need rituals to be done to help the passage of the spirit from the living - realm of the living to the realm of the dead, and also to separate the spirit from this realm.

HAGERTY: And if those rituals are not performed, says Brian Bocking, an expert on Asian religions at University College Cork in Ireland, bad things can happen.

Professor BRIAN BOCKING (Expert on Asian Religions, University College Cork): A spirit of ancestor who's not properly memorialized can cause problems you know, problems in the family, in the home, in the business and so forth -because they're unhappy; they're not being looked after properly.

HAGERTY: So what if a body - or thousands of bodies - have been washed out to sea? Bocking and others say Buddhist priests can hold mass memorials for the dead, and they are likely to do so in the next few days. After the funerals, when people begin rebuilding their homes and their lives, Shinto will move center stage. If Buddhism deals with death in Japan, Shinto deals with life. At the center are kami - life forces that are a little like deities, and are ever present.

Mr. NELSON: The deities have two faces.

HAGERTY: John Nelson says one face is benevolent, where deities help people in their day-to-day lives.

Mr. NELSON: But those same deities have this wrathful side, which can also manifest itself at unpredictable moments.

HAGERTY: And people turn to Shinto priests and rituals, he says, to restore the balance between the human and the divine. The Japanese appeal to Shinto deities at the beginning of things: the birth of a child, a wedding, a new home, a new car. Professor Brian Bocking says Japanese companies send delegations to Shinto shrines, and many have their own shrines.

Professor BOCKING: And this is not because all the employees are devout followers. It's just that everyone in Japan knows there's all sorts of things that could happen in life and, you know, why not get the gods on your side? I mean, they might not even exist, but if they do, then you might as well invoke them.

HAGERTY: Which is what the Japanese will be doing as they cope with a tragedy not seen in a generation.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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