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In-depth The Shifting Landscape of Japanese Religion
Japan’s Religious Ambivalence: The Shaping and Dismantling of a National Polity

Shimazono Susumu [Profile]


Religion is often regarded as playing a comparatively minor role in Japanese society, but is this really true? Religious scholar Shimazono Susumu examines the historical evolution of religion as a social force in Japan.

Influences of Revealed Religions in Japan

In 1996 the religious scholar Ama Toshimaro published a book titled Nihonjin wa naze mushūkyō na no ka, which was translated into English (as Why Are the Japanese Non-Religious?) and Korean, becoming widely read internationally. In the book Ama suggests that, although the Japanese are said to be mushūkyō (nonreligious), this is because comparison is being made to “revealed” religions—those with a specific founder and a clear set of teachings. Christianity claims Jesus Christ as its founder, Buddhism has Gautama Buddha, and Islam has Muhammad. By contrast, Hinduism and Shintō have no identified founder. Folk religions have no founders either; rather, they are popular systems of belief that have evolved naturally.

Religion in Japan has been greatly influenced by revealed religions. Buddhism entered Japan in the sixth century and was the most influential religion until the mid-nineteenth century. Even today, most Japanese hold Buddhist-style funerals or are familiar with Buddhist statues. Some can distinguish between the different kinds of statues, such as Amida Buddha (Amitabha in Sanskrit), Kannon Bodhisattva (Avalokitesvara), and Jizō Bodhisattva (Ksitigarbha). The vast majority of Japanese people visit their family graves every year, in front of which they place their palms together in a Buddhist form of prayer.

Christianity has also exerted a strong cultural influence in Japan since the late nineteenth century through the establishment of missionary schools and the introduction of Western scholarship, but Christians as a religious group account for no more than about 1% of the entire population. There are some “revealed” variants of Shintō, including Tenrikyō, founded in the mid-nineteenth century by a village woman named Nakayama Miki. Many of the new Shintō sects have been influenced by Shintō-Buddhist syncretism, as Shintō, until the mid-nineteenth century, was largely inseparable from Buddhism, a fact that reveals the very powerful influence Buddhism exerted in Japanese society.

Natural Religion at the Core of Japanese Faith

Ama noted that while revealed religions have had a certain degree of influence, at the core of the Japanese people’s faith are aspects of natural religion. People worship local and family deities in the absence of highly developed doctrines. Thus the seeming nonreligious nature of the Japanese people can be said to be a manifestation of their Shintō (in the broad sense) or folk beliefs. At the heart of Japanese faith is a natural religion, which, despite the influence of later revealed religions, has not been uprooted. This is the reason many Japanese feel uncomfortable with a powerful revealed religion and conclude it is not for them. The self-applied mushūkyō label applies, then, only insofar as religion is defined narrowly (as revealed religion).

This is the gist of Ama’s argument in Why Are the Japanese Non-Religious? The book was published in 1996, the year after the subway sarin gas attack by Aum Shinrikyō. Many of the group’s members were men in their twenties, particularly undergraduate and graduate students, with specialized knowledge of computer graphics, medicine, natural science, and other areas. Were these young people lured by Aum’s teachings as an alternative to Japan’s mushūkyō religious vacuum?

Ama discounts the vacuum premise, noting the existence of an indigenous natural religion. Natural religions, certainly, are not a thing of the past. While they have been around since primitive times, many have evolved into revealed religions, scholars say, as humankind reached more exalted stage of sapience. This interpretation links the development of human civilization with the increasing sophistication of revealed religions. In Japan’s context, natural religions refer to faiths that predate the arrival of Buddhism.

Shintō can be considered a form of natural religion. Before Aum Shinrikyō’s activities began making headlines in the 1980s, animism was a popular filter through which Japanese religion was conceptualized. Although Shintō’s association with prewar nationalism gives it an aura of national exclusivism, that image changes when it is interpreted as a form of animism. The Shintō that existed before the country came under a centralized authority is known as Koshintō, or ancient Shintō; some Japanese contend that Koshintō lies at the very root of their religious sentiments, but from the perspective of a religious scholar, such notions are nothing more than a convenient, modern invention.

Confucianism as a Quasi-Religion

As I have described above, the Japanese can be characterized as being either nonreligious or practicing a form of natural religion. Despite people’s disavowal of adherence to any specific set of teachings or precepts, though, they do actively ascribe to quasi-religious practices and beliefs.

A case in point is Confucianism. The Japanese value courtesy and will show it by bowing to anyone—a custom that appears to derive largely from Confucianism. Honorifics are used, even by teenagers when talking to their seniors. The language they use when talking to their juniors is quite different, as they place importance on chōyō no jo (the Confucian concept of order between seniors and juniors, in which older people look after their juniors and younger people respect their elders). Honoring the dead is also characteristic of Confucianism. While funerals and grave-visiting customs are the domain of Buddhism, as stated earlier, they may also have been influenced by Confucianism.

Whether or not Confucianism is a religion depends on how religion is defined. But there is religiosity in the value it places on the mandate of heaven, the continuity of life from ancestor to descendant, and order imparted with sanctity through ritual. In East Asia, moreover, the word (or tao in Chinese, meaning the “way”) is considered to correspond to the Western-derived word shūkyō (religion). In the minds of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Japanese, both Buddhism and Confucianism were disciplines that showed the “way.”

Solitude in Vagabond and the Modern

The role of Confucianism—a prime example of a quasi-religion—in society has declined since the Meiji Restoration of 1868. But there are many more examples of quasi-religion in Japan. Take the manga Vagabond, for instance. The series counted 36 volumes as of October 2013, with a total of more than 60 million copies printed in Japan since it was first serialized in a manga magazine in 1998. The protagonist is Miyamoto Musashi, a real-life samurai who lived in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Musashi was a rōnin (masterless samurai) but one of the most skilled swordsmen in history, and he also wrote a book on bushidō, the way of the warrior. The manga series is based on Miyamoto Musashi, a serial novel that Yoshikawa Eiji wrote for a newspaper in 1935. The novel became a bestseller and was adapted into film.

Volume 36 of Inoue Takehiko’s Vagabond, published by Kodansha in October 2013. © I.T. Planning, Inc.

This romanticized tale of a loner who lives by the sword has struck a chord with today’s young people. Although the protagonist of Vagabond is a samurai, he has no master to serve, allowing him to live freely as he chooses. It is a life on the road, taking the swordsman around the country far away from home, where he duels with the most formidable opponents he can find and always comes out the winner. Every victory is earned at the risk of his own life, so he is always conscious of death. The protagonist struggles with the meaning of life, and he ponders why he must continue to fight. It is a worldview in which winning over others has become a goal in and of itself—and one that reverberates strongly with modern readers asking themselves similar questions.

Bushidō has become a buzzword in recent years, partly due to the 2003 US film The Last Samurai. It connotes a life in which one is prepared each day to give one’s life in combat for one’s master, so there is constant awareness of the possibility of death. People seem strongly attracted to this style of life, perhaps feeling that bushidō holds a clue to their own search for meaning in life. This is another example of how even “nonreligious” Japanese embrace religious themes, especially when framed in terms of .

Many of the students in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Tokyo are also engaged in the arts, such music or theater. A great many also practice martial arts like aikidō and kyūdō (archery). Of the students I have personally met, a considerable number joined the department because they wanted to explore in greater depth the experiences they had while in high school or college through martial arts. This tendency is not limited to younger people; many seek emotional stability by learning pottery or practicing sadō (the way of tea) later in life, rather than seeking solace in lofty religious teachings. This preference for the acquisition of spiritual value through various forms of “art” or the “way,” which are more tangible and accessible, may be regarded as a feature of Japanese culture.

  • [2014.04.30]

Professor at the Faculty of Theology and director of the Institute of Grief Care, Sophia University. Completed coursework for a PhD at the University of Tokyo in 1977. Past positions prior to assuming his current position in 2013 include research fellow in philosophy at the University of Tsukuba, assistant professor at the University of Tokyo Department of Religious Studies, and professor at the University of Tokyo Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology. Has written Nihonjin no shiseikan o yomu (Reading Japanese Views on Life and Death), Tsukurareta hōshasen “anzen” ron (The Myth of “Safe” Radiation), and Rinri ryōsho o yomu (Reading Good Ethics Books).

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