Are the Japanese People Religious?
Are the Japanese People Religious?Are the Japanese people religious? This is a question that arises for anyone who has visited this vibrant country where educators, government representatives, businessmen, and many educated persons as well, are quite likely to remark to visitors that they personally do not regard religion as playing a central role in their own lives or in Japan’s public life. Certainly these attitudes reflect something important about contemporary Japan, but they may not reflect the whole society or tell the whole story. In many cases, these views reflect a pervasive secularism among elites, their opinions regarding how Japan ought to be, rather than the attitudes of society as a whole. Elites want the world to know that Japan is a modern nation where the people value rational thinking and reject superstition. They often emphasize the view they wish to convey through denying that Japan is religious, but it is not the case that religion can be reduced to superstition and irrationality.
It is important to be clear about what we are asking in the question whether the Japanese are religious. We need to know something about the country’s historic patterns of religious belonging, practice, and belief in order to answer the question. We also need to know something about the different religions represented in Japan and how their patterns differ. Social attitudes towards religion in general are also important, and it is important to recognize that attitudes can be shaped significantly by recent events. Let us examine these several facets of the question before reaching conclusions.
Historical Patterns of Religious Affiliation in Japan
Japan has maintained statistics on religious affiliation in different forms going back to the Edo period (1600-1868). During that time, it was legally required that everyone be a parishioner of a Buddhist temple. This arrangement was part of the shogunate’s prohibition on Christianity. The prohibition itself requires some explanation before we can move on to the way that the people were subsequently made to become parishioners of Buddhist temples.
Francis Xavier had brought Christianity to Japan in 1549, and Christian communities were established in Kyûshû and around Kyoto through the 16th century. Initially Portuguese Jesuits were the majority of the missionaries; they were joined later by Franciscan and Domincan friars.1 Christian missionaries were initially welcomed as part of Portuguese trading missions, and a number of feudal lords (daimyō) converted. During Japan’s “Christian century,” converted daimyō typically decreed that people living in their territories would also convert to Christianity, and thus by the end of the sixteenth century it is estimated that there were as many as 300,000 Christians in Japan. Although the coercive nature of these early conversions might suggest that Christianity was perhaps not widely accepted, in fact it established deeply committed believers in significant numbers. Jesuits established schools, hospitals, seminaries, and printing presses, as well as churches. They baptised believers and provided religious education through the churches, as well as establishing the means for lay brothers to spread Jesuit teachings.
But in spite of Christianity’s early successes, prohibitions on the religion began to be issued from 1587. Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598), a powerful warlord at the end of the sixteenth century, had originally been friendly with the Jesuits, but when after he toured Christian sites in Kyūshū, especially in Nagasaki, he became alarmed at the extent of the religion’s spread. He worried that the people might be more loyal to the pope in Rome than to their Japanese overlords and thus began a persecution of Christianity. The missionaries were forced out of the country, and many were martyred, as were Japanese Christians who refused to recant their beliefs. The Christians’ last stand came during the Shimabara Rebellion (1637-1638), which resulted in the annihilation of the Christian rebels who had barricaded themselves in the Shimabara castle. Thereafter the remaining Christians either recanted or went underground to become “Hidden Christians.”
The prohibition on Christianity was continued by Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616) and the Tokugawa shogunate that ruled Japan from 1600 until the Meiji period (1868-1912). In effect, the shogunate required that the people as a whole become attached to Buddhist temples as a means to ensure that no one would be a Christian. Buddhist clerics were called upon to certify that there were no Christians among the parishioners of their temples. Every year the parishioners of village temples were required to come before the village headman and attest that they were Buddhists, not Christians. The Buddhist temples compiled written records of their parishioners, and these formed the census records of the period. The people were expected to support the temples and their priests, keeping the buildings in good repair and attending the temples on important anniversary days associated with the founders of the different sects. In addition, it became customary for graveyards to be made adjacent to temples, and for the Buddhist priests to perform funerals and conduct periodic masses for the dead, memorial services for the ancestors of each family. This relation between the Japanese people and the Buddhist temples persisted until the Meiji period, establishing strong attachments and deeply entrenched attitudes.
The beliefs of Japanese Buddhists in the Edo period differed according to the sect to which a person belonged. People were not free to choose their sectarian affiliation; instead, once a family had established an affiliation early in the Edo period (if not before), the law required them to maintain that affiliation in perpetuity. A family could have only one sectarian affiliation, and was also expected to stay with the same temple of that sect over generations. When women married men of a different sect, however, the priest of the husband’s family temple would enter her name into that family’s section of the temple register. The fact that an individual’s personal beliefs might differ from the sect to which he or she was required to affiliate was not a legal reason for changing to another sect or temple. In fact, the temples were protected by law from such changes, and it was nearly impossible to be released from a family’s temple. For example, even priests of Shinto shrines were required to be Buddhist temple parishioners and to have Buddhist funeral rites when they died. It was only at the end of the Edo period that a few exceptions were made, even for them. This illustrates the government’s determination to maintain the system of mandatory temple registration.
Buddhist priests were expected to maintain their temples and to carry on an annual calendar of ritual, beginning with daily sutra recitations, ceremonies for the ancestors, the anniversaries of their sect’s founder, and seasonal observances such as a mid-summer festival at which the ancestors were welcomed back to their homes. Temples also held observances for the New Year, as well as gatherings of people to hear Dharma talks (sermons), sing hymns and recite prayers or chants particular to the sect, such as “Hail to Amida Buddha” in the case of the Pure Land and True Pure Land sects, or “Hail to the Lotus Sutra” in the case of the Nichiren sect.
What were the consequences of this system for popular belief in Buddhism? First, the connections between Buddhism and the state made the Buddhist parish priests assume the role of government officials in the maintainence of temple registers and submission of guarantees that no one in the parish was a Christian. If a person were accused of being a Christian, he or she faced the prospect of a formal investigation, imprisonment in miserable conditions, and possibly execution. Not only that, if a Christian were discovered, not only that individual, but his or her entire family might face the same punishment. This means that the village Buddhist priest held a kind of power over the people, inasmuch as he was in a position to withhold the certification needed to establish that no one was a Christian. While it is unlikely that many parish priests used their position to intimidate their parishioners, there were public notice boards in every village spelling out precisely what would happen if anyone were found to be a secret Christian. It was widely understood that the Buddhist priest’s position carried legal authority, and that undoubtedly made the people deferential to the priesthood.
Buddhist priests often served as the school teachers of the era, running “temple schools” (terakoya) that offered rudimentary training in the “3 Rs.” Calligraphy was typically taught by having pupils copy Confucian texts that explained the core values of the age: the virtues of filial piety, modesty, humility, hard work, and loyalty. As teachers, village priests were expected to be learned persons of high personal virtue, trustworthy in their supervision of children. They were expected to adhere to a celibate monastic code and to act as the moral guides of their followers. Japanese Buddhist sects endeavored to support and uphold the social order, and Edo-period Buddhist village temples stood for these core values that were not only religious, but also were regarded as the basis for the good society.
There is every indication that the Japanese people were deeply attached to their temples throughout the Edo period. It was not so often a matter of deep knowledge of the sect’s doctrines and the sutras that each one esteemed, so much as it was a matter of family. Because each family’s graves were connected with a temple, and because the Buddhist priests performed the funerals and subsequent masses for the dead, Buddhism became a ‘family religion’, and people considered it part of family tradition. This means that they were not likely to question it or focus on the details of the sect’s history or philosophy, except in the case of literate people.
These attitudes persisted after the Meiji government abrogated the requirement that the people belong to temples, and after it began to allow the practice of Christianity. With a history of over 250 years, Buddhist beliefs and customs had become deeply entrenched. For many people born into Buddhist congregations, it was natural to continue to support the family temple, much as people born into families linked to churches, synagogues, and mosques of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam would unquestioningly follow their family’s religious beliefs and customs. This type of traditional religiosity is very widespread in Japanese Buddhism. This kind of customary Buddhist belonging, a kind of unquestioning faith that Buddhism embodies social virtues that everyone can and should accept, would be regarded by many people today as a social rather than a religious thing.
Japanese Buddhists today would typically visit family graves—if possible—at the spring and autumn equinoxes and the mid-summer Obon festival, when the ancestors are believed to return to their homes. It would be natural to visit the family temple also on those occasions. Many families maintain a home altar called a butsudan containing the spirit tablets (ihai) of the ancestors, where they perform daily observances. These may be as brief as making an offering of tea, rice, and incense along with a brief prayer for the ancestors’ protection, or in the case of the more devout those offerings would be accompanied by sutra recitation and formal prayers. It is common for families to ask a Buddhist priest to visit at the time of Obon, and the priest would recite a scripture and prayers, visiting briefly with the family. On the occasion of special anniversaries of the death of a parent, family members would gather at the temple to have priests offer a special mass for the deceased.
Let us next inquire into the character of belief in Shinto. From earliest times, the Japanese people have made shrines to deities called the Kami. The Kami may be the spirits of a particular place or natural forces like wind, rivers, and mountains. Kami such as these would not be regarded anthropomorphically. Other Kami are the characters of myth, such as the Sun Goddess Amaterasu Ōmikami, the legendary hero Yamatotakeru, or the Kami of war, Hachiman. Ancient myth and poetry also spoke of the emperor as a living Kami. Some Kami originated as the deified spirits of actual human beings, such, the Kami of learning and scholarship, Tenjin, the deified spirit of the Heian period courtier Sugawara no Michizane (845-903). A powerful government official, he was wrongfully accused by his rivals, was exiled, and died far from friends and family. When numerous disasters struck Kyoto subsequently, resulting in his rivals’ deaths and the imperial palace being struck by lightening, it was widely believed that Michizane’s vengeful spirit was responsible. To placate his angry spirit, he was divinized and shrines were built for him. Thereafter, he came to be regarded as a benevolent Kami who helps students acquire knowledge. Students hoping for success in school or university entrance examinations today frequently pray at one of his shrines. In the early modern era, it was not uncommon for political leaders such as the feudal lords of the era to be deified. The deifications of Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu provided the model for this practice. Ieyasu was deified in 1617 as Tōshō Daigongen (‘Great Avatar of the Eastern Light”), and his mausoleum at Nikkō was made into a great shrine; provincial branches of it were also created. Lesser feudal overlords were sometimes deified in domain shrines in imitation of Ieyasu. In the modern period, the idea of the emperor’s divinity was promoted, not only by Shinto but through such influential institutions as the schools and the military. Religious groups regarded as denying the imperial divinity or somehow damaging the dignity of the emperor were proscribed. In addition, some founders of new religious movements have been regarded by their followers as living Kami. Thus the concept of Kami is very broad, and it has changed over time.
The Japanese people have constructed shrines in every community. Whevever a new community was founded, a shrine (often very small in scale) would be erected to the spirits of that place, as a way of honoring them and expressing the hope for their benevolence and protection. The instinct to build a shrine wherever people live stems from the idea that Kami are everywhere, that there is no place that is not under the dominion of Kami. If people plan to disturb their domain by digging in the earth, planting crops, and erecting buildings, it is ‘only proper’ to begin by acknowledging the presence and power of the Kami of the place by doing them the honor of asking for their permission and blessing with prayer, offerings, and a place for them to dwell, ie, a shrine. It is not important to identify such Kami beyond a kind of generic reference, such as Kunitama (‘spirits of the land’) or Ujigami (‘local protecting Kami’). Knowing which Kami are there is not so important as acknowledging their prior claim on the territory. Without a shrine, a place is ‘unfit for human habitation’ in a sense, because the people there would not yet have established the proper relation with the Kami.
The fact that shrines are a common feature of ordinary communities goes hand in hand with the fact that many people do not typically consider it important to know which Kami are the deities of their local shrine. They focus instead on the idea of living under the protection of the local Kami, not necessarily regarding them anthropomorphically. Many think of that protection as a source of spiritual support, and of the Kami as beings to whom they would ‘naturally’ pray for good health, well being, and long life.
Shrines have been a distinguishing part of Japanese social life since antiquity, and they remain so today. One important aspect of shrine history is the fact that in many—perhaps even most—cases, shrines were inseparable from Buddhist temples for most of Japanese history. This complicated history is not easily explained, but the following is a rough outline. When the Japanese islands were originally populated in prehistory, waves of immigrants came from a vast swath of China, Korea, and island Southeast Asia, bringing their own gods, myths, and religious customs. Buddhist influence began to be felt early in the Common Era, culminating in an official gift of Buddhist sculpture and scriptures to the Japanese sovereign by a Korean king in the mid-sixth century. Thereafter, the Japanese imperial court incorporated Buddhist rites into its annual calendar of ritual. At first, Buddhist divinities were understood as a type of Kami, only later giving way to the realization that they represented a different philosophy entirely. In Japanese society, Buddhism was first patronized by the aristocracy, who built clan temples for the worship of their ancestors. Sponsored by the imperial court, a network of official temples was built throughout the country. Buddhist missionaries fanned out across the country, building temples and spreading Buddhist teaching. But everywhere they went, they encountered the worship of the Kami, and in order for temples to be established, it was necessary to reach some understanding about the relation between the worship of Buddhas and Kami. A number of theories arose in that context, such as the idea that the Kami are honorable gods who nevertheless are not at such an elevated spiritual level as the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas—they require Buddhist teachings in order to reach perfection. Another formula held that the Kami are the local or phenomenal manifestation of the more cosmic and universal Buddhist divinities. Still another idea held that the Buddhist divinities mercifully “dim their light” and take the form of the Kami in order to bring salvation to humanity. In all these ways, Buddhism, the more powerfully organized tradition, enveloped Kami worship, (which did not yet have a unified organizational form as “Shinto”), honoring it, yet making clear that it was a secondary and subordinate tradition. On this basis, temples came to incorporate small shrines within their grounds, where sutras and other Buddhist observances were made before the altars of the Kami. Likewise, shrines came to have small Buddhist chapels in their grounds, and shrine priests worshippped there.
Characteristic religious attitudes were formed through the combination of these philosophical ideas about the links between Kami and Buddhas, embodied in the combinatory framework in which shrines and temples were inseparably linked. Virtually no one saw a conflict between the worship of Kami and the worship of Buddhas. The two types of divinities and the two types of worship were regarded as complementing each other. Yet significant differences remained between the two. A division of labor, one might say, grew up between the two traditions, so that one went to the shrines to celebrate the New Year, a good harvest, or the birth of a first child, while one went to the temple for funerals and ancestral rites. The Kami are thought to abhor the pollution of blood or death, and thus while Shinto funerals do exist, they are rather rare. The Kami are most associated with the celebrations of life, while Buddhism is in charge—for the most part—of rites of death. With the important exception of the Buddhist True Pure Land sect (Jōdo Shinshū), Japanese Buddhism has affirmed and encouraged the worship of the Kami, identifying it as an important element of Japanese culture that is worthy of respect and reverence.
The social position of shrine priests developed in a different way than the Buddhist priesthood, though similarities are also significant. In ancient times and in many small shrine communities today, there is no full-time priest. Instead, the oldest men or a group of local elders take turns conducting the shrine’s rites and ceremonies. The idea that every shrine should be served by a professional priest is a modern notion, and one that has never been fulfilled in practice. While there is a minority of shrine priests who serve full time at one shrine only, the majority serve ten shrines on average. The number of Shinto priests has historically always been much smaller than the number of Buddhist priests (though in contemporary Japan it is not uncommon for Buddhist priests to serve multiple temples). Another key difference lies in the fact that whereas each Buddhist sect has maintained its own seminaries and in modern times universities, it is only in the Meiji period that we see the creation of a small number of Shinto universities. This means that the Shinto tradition has been slow to unify the traditions of separate shrines, and even today there is no such thing as “Shinto doctrine” that unites them all. This surprising fact derives from the historically local character of shrines, their local specificity, their rootedness in particular places and communities.
Because of the historic connection between shrines and their founding families in ancient times, and later between shrines and communities of unrelated people, there is a strong bond between shrines and family, on the one hand, and community on the other. Everyone living in Japan is—in theory—the ujiko of a shrine. The term ujiko means the ‘children’ of the local protecting Kami of a shrine, the Ujigami. To be an ujiko is to live under the protection of the Kami presiding over the place where one lives, and to owe respect and gratitude to the Kami of the shrine. It is not necessary to know the identity of the Kami, but in traditional thinking it is important to go to the shrine at specified times such as the New Year, the shrine’s annual festival, and at the end of the year, as well as other major observances hosted by particular shrines for the ujiko to express graditude and respect. Probably most people in Japan today—other than those affiliated with the True Pure Land sect or with Japanese Christianity—would find it ‘natural’, an expected and easily accepted part of social life, to comply with that traditional expectation. Not only that—they would probably comply with neighborhood fund raising in support of the shrine or its festival, whatever their personal religious beliefs, and even if they disliked pressure to do so from the local neighborhood association. This means that today Shinto shrine observances have acquired such an air of established custom that many people would not even regard them as religious in nature, but rather would view them as a customary part of life in Japan.
Shinto today is associated with many of the same values we saw taught in the Buddhist temple schools of the Edo period: hard work, loyalty, filial piety, modesty, humility, and so on. In addition to these, however, Shinto today—at least as represented by the Association of Shinto Shrines—weighs Japanese ethnicity very heavily and promotes respect for the Ise Shrines and the imperial house. The Association regularly promotes conservative political causes and acts as a political lobby for such causes as revision of the constitution, the elimination of gender-neutral educational policies, and affirmation of Japan’s prewar political regime. This is not to say, of course, that all followers of Shinto, or even all shrine priests, are as conservative as the Association, but the organization is definitely influential throughout the shrine world.
In Japanese households it is very common to have both the Buddhist altar discussed previously and also an altar for the Kami, called a kamidana (“god shelf”). While the Buddhist altar traditionally stands on the floor, the kamidana is located high up near the ceiling. The kamidana is the place where people make small offerings of sake, salt, rice, and sometimes sprigs of the sakaki tree before a paper or wooden talisman from one or more shrines, including the local ujigami shrine and often the Ise Shrines or other shrines that a family has visited. Daily offerings are generally in the morning, accompanied by characteristic shrine etiquette of bowing and clapping twice to call the attention of the Kami.
One measure of traditional religiosity in Japan is seen in changing rates at which the Japanese people maintain kamidana and butsudan. It should be understood that these home altars are usually associated with families, and while it is not unknown for single people to have them, it is not surprising that many young people living in apartments in the cities would not have them, either because they would think that these matters are taken care of by their parents, and/or because the small size of Japanese apartments makes it difficult to find space for them. In response to the spatial considerations, we see the development of small size altars. Statistics on ownership of kamidana and butsudan collected since the 1960s consistently show higher rates in rural areas and lower rates in the cities. Some early surveys limited to small samples and small areas of the country are available, and while it is difficult to compare them minutely because of differences in their samples, they nevertheless show that from the 1950s onward, rates of ownership of home altars had begun to decline. It is only since the 1980s that surveys covering the entire country have been conducted. The following Table summarizes some of the major findings since then.
Table 1: Changing Rates of Ownership of Kamidana and Butsudan, 1981-20092
|Year||% of Respondents Owning Kamidana (National)||% of Respondents Owning Kamidana (14 Largest Cities)||% of Respondents Owning Butsudan (National)||% of Respondents Owning Butsudan (14 Largest Cities)|
These figures show that rates of ownership of home altars has declined in both Shinto and Buddhism, and also that the rate of ownership tends to be lower in the cities. We note also that the rate of decline is steeper in the case of kamidana, and that the difference between city and countryside in owning kamidana is larger than the comparable gap in ownership of butsudan. This suggests that the phenomenon of ancestor worship remains a significant element of social life.
In the cases of Japanese Buddhism and Shinto, we have been discussing traditions in which social and religious values merge, and in which the character of affiliation tends to be customary, based on location, family, and community more than on religious conviction. These two traditions make only minimal demands on ordinary believers for time, money, and allegiance, though of course people who feel a stronger attachment will devote more resources and energy. By contrast, Japanese Christianity places much more emphasis on religious beliefs and conviction, and ministers and priests provide much more religious education. Bible study and discussion are central in most churches, whether Protestant or Catholic, as are charitable activities.
Japanese Christianity spans a wide range of Protestant and Catholic organizations stemming from historical missionary work of churches in Europe and the United States, and there are small communities of Russian Orthodox as well. In addition, there are numerous Christian churches that have been founded in Japan by Japanese Christians, separate from overseas churches. While Christians have never numbered above two percent of the Japanese population, their influence is greatly disproportionate to that statistic. There are prominent Christian intellectuals and writers. Christian schools and universities are regarded as maintaining very high standards. Christians are conspicuous among political activists.
New religious movements form an important sector of Japanese religious life, with hundreds of organizations, large and small, representing Buddhism, Shinto, Christianity, and completely novel faiths. Such movements have been appearing since the beginning of the nineteenth century, and some of those founded at that time, such as Kurozumikyō (f. 1814) and Tenrikyō (f. 1838) are still in existence. Another wave of such movements flourished in the early twentieth century, such as Ōmoto (f. 1892) and Sōka Gakkai (f. 1930). After restrictions on the founding of new movements were removed at the end of the war, a period of dramatic growth in this sector ensued, popularly called ‘the rush hour of the gods’, Many groups that had been supressed before the war became active again, and many new groups were founded. In 1964, Sōka Gakkai, the largest of these groups with as many as twelve million members, founded its own political party, Kōmeitō. This political party subsequently became a significant factor in Japanese politics, founding a coalition with the Liberal Democratic Party in 1993.
In the period of their respective foundings, all of the first generation members of the new religious movements were converts, and documents from the time of the founding of each one show that high levels of commitment were required. Converts had to overcome the resistance of their families and communities at that same time that they were building organizations and helping to systematize their teachings and ways of life. In second and succeeding generations, as each movement becomes more established and accepted, the need for such high levels of commitment tends to recede. In some groups, however, such as Sōka Gakkai, the emphasis on religious education and the expectation of vigorous and frequent participation remains strong. New religious movements, especially the newer ones, are likely to hold frequent group meetings for worship, spiritual counselling, community service, and proselytizing. Larger groups are able to create special groups for women and men, youth, for those interested in the arts or music, Especially among the most active members of these groups, life revolves around the religion in a way not commonly seen in temple Buddhism or shrine Shinto.
Thus far, we have examined historical patterns of religious belonging, belief, and practice. In the next section we turn to an event of recent history that has had profound repurcussions on Japan’s religious world and on attitudes towards religion.
The Aum Incident and Its Effects on Attitudes Towards Religion
In 1995 a tragic event occurred in which the religious movement Aum Shinrikyō unleashed deadly sarin gas on the Tokyo subway system, killing twelve people and bringing the capitol’s transportation system to a halt. The event spread terror and distrust of religion through the country. Police investigations revealed that at its several communal living facilities Aum members had sometimes been forcibly detained, abused, and even murdered people. It emerged that the founder Asahara Shōkō, who has since been sentenced to death for his crimes, ordered the torture and murder of numerous people. He required his followers to lead a celibate existence of great austerity while he himself had free access to the female members and lived lavishly. He especially emphasized recruitment of young scientists, whom he cultivated and ordered to produce sarin gas.
These revelations in the media continued over many months in blanket coverage so sensational that it is hardly surprising that attitudes towards religion as a whole were affected. For a time it seemed that all religions were being tarred with the same brush, and that Japan had become suspicious even of its most deeply established religions like Buddhism and Shinto. Statistics regarding confidence in religious organizations plummeted, and popular attitudes towards religion turned pervasively negative. More than a decade later, these attitudes have modulated somewhat, but the after effects of the Aum incident still color attitudes to religion and probably drive some of the recent statistics on religion.
Statistics on Religious Adherence in Japan
Table 2 introduces 2009 data from the Agency for Cultural Affairs of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), the most recent statistics available at the time of this writing.3
Table 2: Japanese Religious Organizations and Adherents
|Number of Adherents|
In MEXT’s calculations, the Shinto-, Buddhist-, and Christian-derived new religious movements would be folded into each religion’s total numbers for organizations and adherents, while the “Other” category includes other new religious organizations and their adherents, as well as minority traditions such as Judaism and Islam, in which the membership is composed largely of foreigners (and Japanese spouses and children). As these figures suggest, Japan hosts a vibrant religious scene with temples, shrines, churches, and other religious organizations throughout the country.
Japan’s population today is around 126 million. We can see that the total number of adherents of religious organizations is, however, almost twice as many. In fact, this statistical paradox has been found since the country began collecting statistics on religion in 1945. It reflects the pattern of multiple religious affiliations examined earlier, but it should also be noted that these statistics are compiled on the basis of numbers supplied by the various religious organizations themselves. They are not compiled on the basis of a survey of the people as a whole, but from numbers that religious organizations submit to the national bureaucracy in charge of religious affairs. This means that there is a strong tendency for numerical inflation.
Japanese Religiosity in International Perspective
Placing Japanese religiosity in a comparative framework helps us see where the country fits among other developed nations. Please refer to Table 3. Examining the question how many people are affiliated with a religious organization, we note that Japan ranks lowest, at 44.4 percent. The nearest country to it is France, at 57.5 percent. It is likely that Japanese asked to respond to the question, “Do you belong to a religious organization?” may say “No,” even though they may be members of a Buddhist temple parish or be on the list of ujiko of their local shrine. As discussed above, these affiliations have acquired such a customary and traditional nature that many people would not immediately think of them as religious.
We notice a big difference between the results seen in Tables 2 and 3 regarding membership in religious organizations. How can it be true that the total number of people affiliated with religious ogranizations is almost double the national population (Table 2), while in Table 3 we find the figure of 44.4 percent? This gap can be attributed to the tendency noted above for religious organizations to inflate their membership numbers. By contrast, the figures from Table 3 are based on surveys of individuals—not organizations—and hence represent a closer approximation of the actual situation.
Another way to guage religiosity is to ask how many people identify as atheist or agnostic. Here we find that Japan, at 13.1 percent, has around the same proportion as the U.K. (14.4), Canada (15.3), or the U.S. (12.6). Notable, France, Germany, and Sweden have significantly higher percentages of atheists and agnostics.
France, Sweden, and Japan stand at the low end of countries where people are attending religious services every month. In the case of Japan, neither temple Buddhism nor shrine Shinto have typically held monthly religious services, and thus it is not surprising to find that only a minority of 9.8 percent attend services monthly. Even so, at 9.8 percent, Japan’s rate exceeds Sweden’s, at 7.9 percent. Those attending monthly services in Japan are probably composed largely of Christians and members of new religious movements. In terms of the proportion of people who say that they are active in religious organizations, Japan, France, and Sweden are similar, with rates under ten percent.
When we examine typical religious practices and widespread beliefs, we find again that Japan is broadly similar to Western European countries, though showing lower rates on some items. This includes prayer and meditation, belief in the soul and the afterlife, thinking about life’s meaning and purpose, and finding strength and comfort in religion. Among other Asian countries, apart from the last of these items, Japan and Korea are broadly similar, while Singapore shows higher rates. By contrast, Canada and the U.S. show higher rates on most of these items than the other countries surveyed here. Japan occupies the middle of the spectrum, at 75.3 percent believing that religious leaders should not try to influence people’s vote, showing a higher rate than Korea, Germany, and the U.K., and the U.S., but lower than France, Sweden, and Canada.
One area in which Japan is exceptional concerns the questions of how many people consider religion important and how many regard religious organizations with confidence. Japan’s lower rates may result in part from lingering distrust of religion stemming from the Aum incident.
The examination above allows us to answer the question with which we started: Are the Japanese people religious? We saw that the historical patterns of religious affiliation with Buddhism and Shinto, especially, have resulted in a merging of social and religious values, probably leading many stalwart members of Buddhist and Shinto congregations to deny that they belong to a religious organization. They may not see temple and shrine affiliations as religious so much as a part of community life. We saw also that religious education has not been a central element of Buddhist and Shinto affiliation in most cases, and that the Japanese people are less focused on doctrine in their religious lives and more focused on practice and customary observance. Japanese Christianity and new religious movements stand out as requiring rather higher levels of commitment than temple Buddhism and shrine Shinto. Thus, while significant proportions of the Japanese people engage in a variety of religious activities, participate in such daily religious observances as tending household altars, and visit temples and shrines for traditional observances throughout the year, they may not see this as “religious.” The prevailing idea of “religion” tends to emphasize systematic beliefs approached analytically, and that is not the approach most Japanese people take to the traditonal observances we have examined. Thus if we were to characterize the way in which people are religious in Japan, it would be closely linked to the family and to tradition, emphasizing the things that people do, rather than their strict adherence to a set of doctrines.
We can see that while since 1945 there is a definite decline in tradtional religious observances, nevertheless strong attachments to a variety of religious beliefs like the existence of the soul and the afterlife are about as strong in Japan as in Western Europe. It may be that the place of religion in Japan is shifting in ways comparable to Western Europe, and that the Japanese express some of the same beliefs, regardless of the different religious histories of the countries. In the cross-cultural comparison seen here, we note that on most indicators Japan is more like Western Europe than the United States. Though this final point is not a focus for this essay, it is noteworthy that the United States generally shows higher levels of belief and participation in religion than the other developed countries. Since the United States is rather distinctive and different among the developed countries, it would be a mistake to use it as a yardstick when approaching the religiosity of other developed countries, including Japan.
1. Protestant missionaries were not active in Japan at this time; they began missionary activities in the early Meiji period.
2. Adapted from Ishii Kenji, ed. Shintō ha koko e iku ka. Tokyo: Perikansha, 2010, p. 21.
3. See http://www.mext.go.jp/b_menu/toukei.