Buddhism, which came from the Kingdom of Paekche in the mid-sixth Century, has been active in Japan for more than 1400 years. Shinto, Japan’s original indigenous religion, has maintained its presence even into the modern age. Other religions have had an influence on Japan’s culture as well, ultimately mixing together into one large conglomerate of faith perspectives.
This mixing of religions, however, has led to a sort of confusion regarding the definition of religion in Japan. What is it? Can one person believe in multiple faiths at once? And how do these religions affect one’s daily life?
During my research, I conducted interviews with multiple subjects. I will refer to the responses of three of them throughout this article. From hereon they will be called “Subject A,” “Subject B,” and “Subject C.”
Although Japan’s culture is generally considered homogenous because of its distinct yet limited ethnic communities, its religious culture does not follow the pattern. Regarding this very observation, Subject C provided some insight: “Japanese culture adapted many other Asian cultures over thousands of years (especially Chinese and Korean),” thus making it “very hard to clarify the origin of Japanese [religion].”
Following World War II, social structure and lifestyle in Japan underwent major restructuring. With urbanization, more and more young people moved to cities and urban areas, away from and out of the country. The result was a decline “in the transmission of local regions’ ancient sayings, legends and customs from older to younger generations” (Inoue).
According to Subject C, “the Meiji Restoration in 1868 affected and changed the Japanese culture. The governor abandoned Samurai and promoted [the adaptation of] Western cultures to catch up with other developed countries.”
Since the Edo Period, there has been a major decrease in agricultural population. Paired with an increase in the level of education and a piqued interest in Western culture, it seems almost inevitable that the traditional village structure would collapse. This made things for the smaller, folk religions much more difficult to organize, including festivals and rituals important to the village, contributing to the gradual and continuing loss of these beliefs and traditions.
Following the collapse of the village structure, and with continued modernization into the present, the strength of the household continues to weaken, as well. The household is very important in terms of affecting a person’s beliefs, but with the growth of individual thinking and of individual importance, this structure is finding it difficult to retain its influence.
This is the world in which the Japanese find themselves today: a world in which the household structure is struggling, but in which religions still do exist. There are pressures that exist now that never existed before (which will lead many to turn to the practices of the New Religions), and a societal structure that has been shaped by cultural and religious history so much that it is difficult to tell which is which.
All this proves, though, is that religious perspective is changing, and traditions are being challenged. The issue that was considered in the previous article was: Why do Japanese people claim to not be religious, despite partaking in and being surrounded by religion?
When so many respondents to various surveys claim to adhere to no religions, it may not necessarily be that they do not believe in any faith, but might rather come down to the word being used in the question.
The word for religion in Japanese is shūkyō. Broken down, it means sect or denomination (shu) and teaching or doctrine (kyo). It is a modern creation, derived from an ancient Buddhist term that came about in the Meiji era, when some word was needed to translate the foreign term for religion.
According to one writer’s research: “[Intellectuals] debated the Western conception of religion to the point that they soon equated religion with the Western notion of doctrine rather than ritual and communal activities. Consequently, when asked if they have a ‘religion’-a shukyo-most Japanese say no.”
The word shukyo thus carries with it connotations of being restrictive, committing, and intrusive. It implies “denial of others” and narrow adherence, on top of promoting a feeling of being separate from the other aspects of society and culture (Reader 13-14).
In line with this idea, Subject B proclaimed: “If [being] religious means to believe in a certain religion, we do not need it” (emphasis added). Religion, to the Japanese, then, is not separate from the rest of society, but rather might be considered as being in tune with it.
On top of having a word meaning clouded by interpretation, the idea of organized religion as a whole has garnered itself a tarnished image in Japan. Along with Buddhism’s strong associations with the death process (which will be covered in a later article in this series), Shinto is seen in a poor light because of the nationalistic fascism it helped promote leading up to Japan’s war defeat in 1945, and the New Religions are portrayed in the media as manipulative and “riddled with superstition.”
So does this, then, bode negatively for religion in Japan as a whole?
In a survey of 363 university students in Tokyo conducted by Nishiyama Shigeru, respondents reported high levels of interest in religious activities. However, when it came to questions regarding organized religion, those same survey-takers expressed “extreme contempt,” 92% stating that they would not join any organized religious movement (Reader 14).
The indication is that organized religion in Japan does not have a very popular appeal, and a tendency exists to shun the word, even if the actions of those individuals who shun it do not comply with their claim.
It’s true-despite seeming utterly opposed to religion (when referred to as that), it is clear that the Japanese lifestyle is permeated with religious attributes, so much so that people don’t even see them as religious (according to Subject C). Subject A listed instances such as using chop stix-you would never pass food from your set of chop stix to your friend’s, as it is reflective of what happens in the Buddhist funeral service. Even the whole structure of social relationships in Japan can be compared to Shinto-in which “creating obligations, receiving benevolence and responding with gratitude” is important for maintaining a solid relationship with the gods and mirrors the “matrix of reciprocity” present in Japanese society (Reader 27).
All of this represents how religion is, in fact, intertwined with daily life, even though these practices-that can be looked upon, from the outside, as being clearly religious-are not necessarily viewed in a likewise manner in Japan.
Whether or not there are true distinctions between how religion is defined in Japan versus the West, a distinction has been created in the minds of the Japanese. The distinction is a difference in definition, in word choice, which might ultimately lead the Japanese to say “we are not a religious people,” while holding in their mind’s eye an image of religion that does not match that of the West.
Nonetheless, the evidence that religion mingles with daily life activities cannot be ignored, as it exists as an indicator that religion may be more present in Japanese society than most people recognize.
This is part two of a series entitled Religion in Japanese Society Today.
Works Cited & Consulted for this Series:
1. Davis, Winston, Japanese Religion and Society: Paradigms of Structure and Change, State University of New York Press, Albany, NY 1992.
2. Hurst III, G. Cameron “The Enigmatic Japanese Spirit.” Orbis 42.2 (1998): 301. Military & Government Collection. EBSCO. Web. 13 Nov. 2009.
3. Inoue, Nobutaka. “Contemporary Papers on Japanese Religion.” Institute for Japanese Culture and Classics. 20 December 2000. Kokugakuin University. 27 October 2009.
4. McPherson, Sean. “Dashi Matsuri Festival as Ritual and Iconographic Public Sphere.” Iconomania: Studies in Visual Culture. 1998. UCLA Humanities. 1 December 2009. .
5. Reader, Ian, Religion in Contemporary Japan, University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu, HI 1991.
6. Reader, Ian and Tanabe, George J, Jr., Practically Religious Worldly Benefits and the Common Religion of Japan, University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu, HI 1998.
7. Smyers, Karen A., The Fox and the Jewel: Sacred and Private Meanings in Contemporary Japanese Inari Worship, University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu, HI 1999.
8. Subject A (Name Withheld, 50+ Age Range). Email Interview. 10 November 2009.
9. Subject B (Name Withheld, 31-50 Age Range). Email Interview. 11 November 2009.
10. Subject C (Name Withheld, 18-30 Age Range). Email Interview. 13 November 2009.
11. Susume, Shimazono, From Salvation to Spirituality: Popular Religious Movements in Modern Japan, Trans Pacific Press, Melbourne 2004.
12. Tanabe, George J, Jr. (Editor), Religions of Japan in Practice, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey 1999.