Japanese religion

Japanese religion

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Most Japanese do not exclusively identify themselves as adherents of a single religion; rather, they incorporate elements of various religions in a syncretic fashion[1] known as Shinbutsu shūgō (神仏習合 amalgamation of kami and buddhas?). Shinbutsu Shūgō officially ended with the Shinto and Buddhism Separation Order of 1886, but continues in practice. Shinto and Japanese Buddhism are therefore best understood not as two completely separate and competing faiths, but rather as a single, rather complex religious system.[2]

Japan enjoys full religious freedom and minority religions such as Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism are practiced. Figures that state 84% to 96% of Japanese adhere to Shinto and Buddhism are not based on self-identification but come primarily from birth records, following a longstanding practice of officially associating a family line with a local Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine.[3][4][5][6] About 70% of Japanese profess no religious membership,[7][8] according to Johnstone (1993:323), 84% of the Japanese claim no personal religion. In census questionnaires, less than 15% reported any formal religious affiliation by 2000.[9] And according to Demerath (2001:138), 65% do not believe in God, and 55% do not believe in Buddha.[10] According to Edwin Reischauer, and Marius Jansen, some 70–80% of the Japanese regularly tell pollsters they do not consider themselves believers in any religion.[1]

A 2008 poll carried out by the NHK Broadcasting Culture Research Institute and ISSP (International Social Survey Programme) surveyed 1200 Japanese people on their beliefs from 22 November 2008 to 30 November 2008, and 39% of the surveyed people reported having a religious belief: 34% declared to follow Buddhism, 3% Shinto, 1% Christianity (0.7% Protestantism, 0.2% Catholicism) and 1% other religions.[11]

Japanese streets are decorated on Tanabata, Obon and Christmas.


Main article: Shinto

Shinto, meaning "the way of the gods", is Japan's indigenous religion and is practiced by about 83% of the population. Note that due to its nature Shinto does not require the same admission of faith as Judeo-Christian religions. Instead, merely participating in certain aspects of Shinto is generally considered enough for association. Shinto originated in prehistoric times as a religion with a respect for nature and for particular sacred sites. These sites may have originally been used to worship the sun, rock formations, trees, and even sounds. Each of these was associated with a deity, or kami, and a complex polytheistic religion developed. Shinto worship of kami is performed at shrines. Especially important is the act of purification before visiting these shrines.

There are a variety of denominations within Shinto. Shinto has no single founder and no canon, but the Nihongi and Kojiki contain a record of Japanese mythology. Individual Shinto sects, such as Tenrikyo and Konkokyo, often have a unique dogma or leader. Shinto began to fall out of fashion after the arrival of Buddhism, but soon Shinto and Buddhism began to be practiced in tandem. On the sites of Shintō shrines, Buddhist temples were also built.

Before 1869, there were three main forms of Shinto: Shrine Shinto, the most popular type; Folk (or Popular) Shinto, practiced by the peasants; and Imperial Household Shinto, practiced by the imperial family of Japan. In the 18th and 19th centuries, independent Shinto sects – Sect Shinto – formed, some of which were very radical, such as the monotheistic Tenrikyo. These became known as the Shinto Sects or the New Religions. Following the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Shinto and Buddhism were forcefully separated. The Emperor Meiji made Shinto the official religion, creating a form of Shinto known as State Shinto by merging Shrine, Folk, and Imperial Household Shinto. The radical Sect Shinto was separated from State Shinto. Under Meiji, Japan became a moderate theocracy, with shrines under government control. Shinto soon became a reason for Japanese nationalism. After Japan took over Korea and Taiwan, State Shinto became the official religion of those countries as well.

During World War II, the government forced every subject to practice State Shinto and admit that the Emperor was divine. Those who opposed the Imperial cult, including Oomoto and Soka Gakkai, were persecuted. When the United States occupied Japan in 1945, the shrines were taken out of government control, and State Shinto was abolished. Shrine, Folk, and Imperial Shinto again became separate, and Sect Shinto further distanced itself from mainstream Shinto.


Main article: Buddhism in Japan

Buddhism first arrived in Japan in the 6th century from the Southern part of the kingdom of Baekje on the Korean peninsula. The Baekje king sent the Japanese emperor a picture of the Buddha and some sutras. Japanese aristocrats built Buddhist statues and temples in the capital at Nara, and then in the later capital at Heian (now Kyoto).[12]

Buddhism is divided into three forms: the orthodox Theravada Buddhism, which is prevalent in India and most of Southeast Asia; Mahayana Buddhism, which spread to China, Tibet, Vietnam, and ultimately to Korea and Japan; and Vajrayana Buddhism. From the beginning, the largest form of Buddhism in Japan was the Mahayana school. According to the Agency of Cultural Affairs, 91 million Japanese identify themselves as Buddhist.[4]

The six Buddhist sects initially established in Nara are today together known as "Nara Buddhism" and are relatively small. When the capital moved to Heian, more forms of Buddhism arrived from China, including the still-popular Shingon, an esoteric form of Buddhism similar to Tibet's Vajrayana Buddhism, and Tendai, a monastic conservative form known better by its Chinese name, Tiantai.

When the shogunate took power in the 12th century and the administrative capital moved to Kamakura, more forms of Buddhism arrived. The most popular was Zen, which became the most popular type of Mahayana Buddhism of the time period. Two schools of Zen were established, Rinzai and Sōtō; a third, Ōbaku, formed in 1661.

Another form of Buddhism known as Jodo-kyo, or Pure Land Buddhism, arrived in the Kamakura period. Pure Land Buddhism emphasizes the role of Amitabha Buddha and promises that reciting the phrase "Namu Amida Butsu" upon death will result in being removed by Amitabha to the "Western Paradise" or "Pure Land", and then to Nirvana. Jodo-kyo attracted the merchant and farmer classes. After Honen, Jodo-kyo's head missionary in Japan, died, the form split into two schools: Jodo-shu, which focuses on repeating the phrase many times, and the more liberal Jodo Shinshu, which claims that only saying the phrase once with a pure heart is necessary. Today, many Japanese adhere to Nishi Honganji-ha, a conservative sect of Jodo Shinshu.

The monk Nichiren established a more radical form of Buddhism, Nichiren Buddhism, which praised the Lotus Sutra. Nichiren's teaching was revolutionary, and the shogun distrusted him; when Nichiren predicted that the Mongols would invade Japan, the shogun exiled him. Nichiren was a progressive, the first Japanese thinker to declare that women could gain enlightenment. Nichiren Buddhism is the second largest Buddhist sect in Japan today. Sub-sects of Nichiren Buddhism include Nichiren-shu, Nichiren Shōshū and Sōka Gakkai, a controversial denomination whose political wing forms the conservative New Komeito Party, Japan's third largest political party.

In modern times, Japanese society has become very secular, and religion in general has become less important. However, many Japanese remain nominally Buddhist and are connected to a local Buddhist temple, although they may not worship regularly. Buddhism remains far more popular in traditional rural areas than in modern urban areas and suburbs. For instance, while some 90% of rural households include a Buddhist altar (Butsudan), the rate drops to 60% or lower in urban areas.

New religions

Beyond the two traditional types of religions, a great variety of popular religious movements exists in modern Japan. These movements are normally lumped together under the name "New Religions". These religions draw on concepts from Shinto, Buddhism, and folk superstition. The officially recognized new religions number in the hundreds, and total membership is reportedly in the tens of millions. The largest new religion is Soka Gakkai, a Buddhist sect founded in 1930, which has about 10 million members in Japan.

Many of these new religions arose as part of Shinto and retain elements of Shinto in their teachings. Some, though not all, of the new religions are considered Sect Shinto. Other new religions include Aum Shinrikyo, Gedatsu-kai, Kiriyama Mikkyo, Kofuku no Kagaku, Konkokyo, Oomoto, Pana-wave laboratory, PL Kyodan, Seicho no Ie, Sekai Mahikari Bunmei Kyodan, Sekai kyūsei kyō, Shinreikyo, Sukyo Mahikari, Tenrikyo, and Zenrinkyo.

Minority religions

Bahá'í Faith

The Bahá'í Faith in Japan begins after a few mentions of the country by `Abdu'l-Bahá first in 1875.[13] Japanese contact with the religion came from the West when Kanichi Yamamoto (山本寛一?) was living in Honolulu, Hawaii in 1902 converted; the second being Saichiro Fujita (藤田左弌郎?). The first Bahá'í convert on Japanese soil was Kikutaro Fukuta (福田菊太郎?) in 1915.[14] Almost a century later, the Association of Religion Data Archives (relying on World Christian Encyclopedia) estimated some 15,700 Bahá'ís in 2005[15] while the CIA World Factbook estimated about 12,000 Japanese Bahá'ís in 2006.[16]


Main article: Christianity in Japan

In the year 1542, the first Europeans from Portugal landed on Kyushu in Western Japan. The two historically most important things they imported to Japan were gunpowder and Christianity, in the form of Roman Catholicism. The Japanese daimyo on Kyushu welcomed foreign trade because of the new weapons and tolerated the Jesuit missionaries. These missionaries were successful in converting large numbers of people in Western Japan, including members of the ruling class. In 1550, Francis Xavier undertook a mission to the capital, Kyoto.

Near the end of the 16th century, Franciscan missionaries arrived in Kyoto, despite a ban issued by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. In 1597, Hideyoshi proclaimed a more serious edict and executed 26 Franciscans in Nagasaki as a warning. Tokugawa Ieyasu and his successors continued the persecution of Christianity with several further edicts.

In 1873, following the Meiji restoration, the ban was rescinded, freedom of religion was promulgated, and Protestant missionary work began. Today, there are around 0.6–3 million Christian adherents of various denominations.[4][6][17] Most of them live in Western Japan, where the missionaries' activities were greatest during the 16th century. Since World War II, a number of Christian customs, including Western style weddings and the celebration of Valentine's Day and Christmas, have become popular among the non-Christian population.


Main article: Islam in Japan

In 2000 Keiko Sakurai had estimated the number of ethnic Japanese Muslims in Japan at 63,552, and around 70,000 - 100,000 foreign Muslims residing in the country.[18] In Japan the government does not take religion into account as part of the demographic concern under religious freedom. As Penn states, "The Japanese government does not keep any statistics on the number of Muslims in Japan. Neither foreign residents nor ethnic Japanese are ever asked about their religion by official government agencies".[19]


Main article: Hinduism in Japan

Hinduism is a minority religion in Japan. There are currently 4,000 registered Hindus in the country, about one third of whom are located in the Kansai area and living in Kobe. Though Hinduism is a little-practiced religion in Japan, it has still had a significant, but indirect role in the formation of Japanese culture. This is mostly because many Buddhist beliefs and traditions (which share a common Dharmic root with Hinduism) spread to Japan from China via Korean peninsula in the 6th Century. One indication of this is the Japanese "Seven Gods of Fortune", of which three originated as Hindu deities, including Benzaiten (Sarasvati), Bishamon (Vaiśravaṇa or Kubera), and Daikoku (Shiva). Various Hindu deities, including the fore-mentioned, are worshiped in Shingon Buddhism. This denomination, and all other forms of Tantric Buddhism, borrow heavily from Tantric Hinduism.


Main articles: History of the Jews in Japan and Jewish settlement in Imperial Japan

Jews are a minor ethnic and religious group in Japan, presently consisting of only about 2,000 people[20] (or about 0.0016% of Japan's total population). Jews have been present in Japan and Judaism has been practiced on a very limited scale since the Age of Discovery in the 16th century, when some Jews arrived from Europe with European (primarily Dutch and Portuguese) merchants and travelers. With the Opening of Japan in 1853 and the ending Japan's "closed-door" foreign policy, some Jews immigrated to Japan from abroad, with the first recorded Jewish settlers arriving at Yokohama in 1861. The Jewish population continued to grow into the 1950s, fueled by immigration from Europe and the Middle East, with Tokyo and Kobe forming the largest communities. During World War II, some European Jews fleeing the Holocaust found refuge in Japan, with one Japanese diplomat, Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul to Lithuania, disregarding his orders and issuing more than 6,000 entry visas to Jews fleeing the Nazis. After World War II, a large portion of Japan's Jewish population emigrated, many going to what would become Israel. Some of those who remained married locals and were assimilated into Japanese society.

Presently, there are several hundred Jewish families living in Tokyo, and a small number of Jewish families in Kobe. Israeli diplomats attached to the Israeli Embassy and their families are always living in Japan. A small number of Jewish expatriates of other countries live throughout Japan, temporarily, for business, research, a gap year, or a variety of other purposes. In addition, there are Jewish members of the United States armed forces serving on Okinawa and in the other American military bases throughout Japan.

There are two major active synagogues in Japan. The Beth David Synagogue is active in Tokyo,[21] and the Ohel Shlomo Synagogue is active in Kobe.[22] The Chabad-Lubavitch organization has two centers in Tokyo.[23][24]

Ryukyuan religion

Main article: Ryukyuan religion

The Ryukyuan religion is the indigenous belief system of the people of Okinawa and the other Ryukyu Islands. It has been influenced by Japanese Shinto and various Chinese religions.


Main article: Jainism in Japan

Jainism, unlike the closely related Buddhism, is a minority religion in Japan.

At present, there are 3 Jain temples in Japan,[25] with the Kobe Jain temple being the most famous one.


Main article: Taoism in Japan

Taoism is believed to be the inspiration for spiritual concepts in Japanese culture. Taoism is similar to Shinto in that it also started as an indigenous religion in China, although it is more hermetic than shamanistic. Taoism's influence can be seen throughout the culture but to a lesser extent than jukyō.

Religious practice

Most Japanese participate in rituals and customs derived from several religious traditions. Life cycle events are often marked by visits to a Shinto shrine. The birth of a new baby is celebrated with a formal shrine visit at the age of about one month, as are the third, fifth, and seventh birthdays and the official beginning of adulthood at age twenty. Wedding ceremonies are often performed by Shinto priests, but Christian wedding ceremonies, called howaito uedingu ("white wedding"), are also popular. These use liturgy but are not always presided over by an ordained priest.

Japanese funerals are usually performed by Buddhist priests, and Buddhist rites are also common on death day anniversaries of deceased family members. 91% of Japanese funerals take place according to Buddhist traditions.

There are two categories of holidays in Japan. Matsuri (festivals), which are largely of Shinto origin and relate to the cultivation of rice and the spiritual well-being of the local community, and nenjyū gyōji (annual events), which are largely of Chinese or Buddhist origin. During the Heian period, the matsuri were organized into a formal calendar, and other festivals were added. Very few matsuri or nencho gyo are national holidays, but they are included in the national calendar of annual events. Most matsuri are local events and follow local traditions. They may be sponsored by schools, towns, or other groups but are most often associated with Shinto shrines.

Most holidays are secular in nature, but the two most significant for the majority of Japanese – New Year's Day and Obon – involve visits to Shinto shrines or Buddhist temples, respectively. The New Year's holiday (January 1–3) is marked by the practice of numerous customs and the consumption of special foods. Visiting Shinto shrines to pray for family blessings in the coming year, dressing in a kimono, hanging special decorations, eating noodles on New Year's Eve, and playing a poetry card game are among these practices. During Obon, bon (spirit altars) are set up in front of Buddhist family altars, which, along with ancestral graves, are cleaned in anticipation of the return of the spirits. People living away from their family homes return for visits with relatives. Celebrations include folk dancing and prayers at Buddhist temples as well as family rituals in the home.

Social Construction of the Category "Religion"

Scholars Isomae Jun'ichi and Jason Ānanda Josephson have challenged the usefulness of the term "religion" in regard to Japanese traditions. They have shown in different ways how the process of formulating a Japanese term for "religion" (shūkyō, 宗教) in the 19th century led to fundamental shifts in the Japanese cultural landscape.[26]

Religion and law

In early Japanese history, the ruling class was responsible for performing propitiatory rituals, which later came to be identified as Shinto, and for the introduction and support of Buddhism. Later, religious organization was used by regimes for political purposes; for instance, the Tokugawa government required each family to be registered as a member of a Buddhist temple for purposes of social control. In the late 19th century, rightists created State Shinto, requiring that each family belong to a shrine parish and that the concepts of emperor worship and a national Japanese "family" be taught in the schools.

Article 20 of the 1947 Constitution states, "Freedom of religion is guaranteed to all. No religious organization shall receive any privileges from the State, nor exercise any political authority". Restrictions on the relationship between the government and religion was mandated by the United States during the occupation of Japan because of the role State Shinto played in encouraging the rapid territorial and economic expansion of the Empire of Japan significant enlargement of the Empire's geopolitical sphere of influence by endorsing and promoting the right of conquest in the years just before and during World War II.


Shichihei Yamamoto argues that Japan has shown greater tolerance towards irreligion and science, saying, "Japan had nothing like the trial of Galileo or the 'monkey trial' about evolution. No Japanese Giordano Bruno was ever burned at the stake for atheism."[27]

Demographics throughout the 20th century

A 1952 survey by Yomiuri Shimbun found that 64.7% of Japanese believed in a specific religion.[28] That number fell to 35% in 1958 and continued to fall to 31% in 1963 and 1968 and 25% in 1973 before climbing back up to 34% in 1978. In 1983 it again slipped, this time to 32%.[29] The 2000 survey by the Yomiuri Shimbun found that 76.6% of Japanese do not believe in a specific religion.[28] The number fell to 72% by 2005, with only 25% believing in religion and 20% practicing faith.[30] According to Steve Heine in 2011, less than 15% of Japanese believe in God.[31]

The 1919 book "The Mastery of the Far East: The Story of Korea's Transformation and Japan's Rise to Supremacy", avowedly partial to a then hoped Christianization of Japan, reports of a census of 409 students in three schools showed that only 21 acknowledged any faith; of these, there were 15 Buddhists, 4 Christians, 1 Confucian, and 1 Shintoist. It reports also that young men at the Imperial University in Tokyo were asked to indicate their religions; out of those surveyed, 50 were Buddhist, 60 were Christian, 1500 were atheist, and 3000 were agnostic.[32]

Notable figures

Notable atheists and agnostics in Japan include:

  • Yamagata Bantō, a scholar after whom the Yamagata Banto Prize was named[33]
  • Nakai Chikuzan, one of the founders of Kaitokudo
  • Nakae Chōmin, a political theorist and journalist best known for helping the development of liberalism in Japan
  • Shin'ichi Hisamatsu, philosopher and scholar who rejected theism, claimed that God or Buddha, as objective beings, are mere illusions[34]
  • Marquis Ito Hirobumi, four-time Prime Minister of Japan, who reportedly said, "I regard religion itself as quite unnecessary for a nation's life; science is far above superstition, and what is religion – Buddhism or Christianity – but superstition, and therefore a possible source of weakness to a nation? I do not regret the tendency to free thought and atheism, which is almost universal in Japan because I do not regard it as a source of danger to the community."[35]
  • Yanagida Kenjuro,[36] a scholar and official member of the Communist Party
  • Hiroyuki Kato, who headed the Imperial Academy from 1905–1909 and said, "Religion depends on fear."[35]
  • Denjiro (Shusui) Kotoku,[37] a socialist and radical anarchist
  • Masami Kurumada, a manga artist known largely for Saint Seiya and Ring ni Kakero
  • Haruki Murakami, a Japanese novelist who wrote, "God only exists in people’s minds. Especially in Japan, God's always has been a kind of flexible concept. Look at what happened to the war. Douglas MacArthur ordered the divine emperor to quit being a God, and he did, making a speech saying he was just an ordinary person."[30]
  • Toshihiko Sakai, a socialist, writer, and historian
  • Takatsu Seido, leader of the Propaganda Committee in Japan's Enlightened People's Communist Party
  • Ando Shoeki, who denounced Confucian scholars and Buddhist clergy as spiritual oppressors of his age, though he still venerated the gods of old Japan as a pantheist would, equating them with the nature[38]
  • Osamu Tezuka, a cartoonist and manga artist best known for creating Astro Boy, Kimba the White Lion, and Black Jack.[39]
  • Fukuzawa Yukichi, who was regarded as one of the founders of modern Japan and found it impossible to combine modern learning with belief in gods,[40] openly declaring, "It goes without saying that the maintenance of peace and security in society requires a religion. For this purpose any religion will do. I lack a religious nature, and have never believed in any religion. I am thus open to the charge that I am advising others to be religious while I am not so. Yet my conscience does not permit me to clothe myself with religion when I have it not at heart...Of religions there are several kinds – Buddhism, Christianity, and what not. From my standpoint there is no more difference between those than between green tea and black...See that the stock is well selected and the prices cheap."[41]


The Japan Militant Atheists Alliance (Nihon Sentoteki Mushinronsha Domei, also known as Senmu) was founded in September 1931 by a group of anti-religionists. The Alliance opposed the idea of kokutai, the nation's founding myth, the presence of religion in public education, and the practice of State Shinto. Their greatest opposition was towards the imperial system of Japan.[42]

Two months later, in November 1931, socialist Toshihiko Sakai and communist Takatsu Seido created the Japan Anti-religion Alliance (Nihon Hanshukyo Domei). They opposed "contributions to religious organizations, prayers for practical benefits (kito), preaching in factories, and the religious organizations of all stripes" and viewed religion as a tool used by the upper class to suppress laborers and farmers.[42]

See also


Further reading

  • Earhart, H. Byron. Japanese Religion: Unity and Diversity, in The Religious Life of Man Series. Second ed. Encino, Calif.: Dickenson Publishing Co., 1974. ISBN 0-8221-0123-8

External links

  • Christianity is popular in Japan today