A reader sent me a question the other day about a topic that's also fascinated me for years. He worked as a missionary in Japan for a while, and he sensed that most Japanese seemed indifferent, if not outright hostile, to what he was offering. He had a simple question:
On the face of it, the idea that Japan is hostile to religion might seem weird, given the long traditions of Buddhist and Shinto belief in the country. Buddhism has been a part of the cultural landscape since back to the era of Shoutoku Taishi (聖徳太子), who ruled until 622 AD. And Shinto, the country's native, animistic belief system, has roots extending back to the country's creation myths, and was developed into a sort of nationalist creed in the decades leading up to World War II.
Yet, taking a wider view, two things become clear. The first is that Japan has never embraced Western religions - particularly Christianity - the same way that some other Asian nations have. South Korea, for example, counts a Christian population of 29% - and Koreans living in the United States are an astounding 71% Christian. By contrast, only 1.4% of Japanese report going to church regularly. Another 8% report having gone at least once, and an astounding 87% say they've never set foot in one.
Part of this might owe to the oppression that Christians faced during the Tokugawa era (1600s-1860s), when the religion was outlawed as a baleful foreign influence. There's also the phenomenon of sakoku (鎖国), or "isolation" - the long period during the Tokugawa era in which cultural and material exchange with the West was limited to a small island off of the coast of Nagasaki. This allowed the Tokugawa regime to control the flow of information through the country, which - coupled with brutal violence - likely kept conversion rates low.
The second is that, outside of the Western Big Three Religions, the Japanese aren't that religious at all - and that includes identifying as Buddhist or Shinto. Depending on which polls you look at and how the questions are phrased, anywhere from 57% to 72% of the Japanese population considers themselves mushinkyou (無神教), or "unbelievers" who don't espouse any religion. In international research conducted by Pew and other organizations, only about 35% of the population identified as Buddhist, while a mere 4% identified as practicing Shinto.
Why the huge difference in numbers? Polls and research conducted internally tend toward identifying a higher number of irreligious Japanese, while international polls are more likely to identify a larger contingent of avowed Buddhists. Why that large a discrepancy exists is itself a fascinating topic that I'll reserve for another time. No matter how you measure it, however, Japan is one of the most un-religious nations in the world.
(JP): The Ordinarily Un-Religious Japanese...Yet the Buddhist Population is Surprisingly Large!
無宗教が普通の日本人…でも意外と宗教人口が多かった！！ - NAVER まとめ
But, but...why? I have my own pet theories, which I set forth below, along with some observations from Japanese writers and researchers who have pondered the same question. The reader who wrote in to my site probably is more qualified to answer these questions than I am (he has a degree in Japanese, whereas I'm a diligent dilettante), but his own thinking and mine seem to accord on this subject. At any rate, take what follows as my informal opinion based on my exposure to the culture.
Hypothesis A: Religion Has Become Culture in Japan
It's hard to square the idea of Japan being a non-religious nation with one's initial observations. Just take a casual stroll through Tokyo, and you're bound to pass a dozen or more jinja (神社; Shinto shrines) and tera (寺; Buddhist temples). A favorite past-time of many Japanese is the collection of shuin (朱印), a page of official seals and hand-drawn Japanese characters you can receive for a small donation at most jinja. Many homes have small Buddhist and Shinto altars on which pictures of departed ancestors are caringly placed. Weddings and funerals in Japan have all the trappings of Buddhist ceremonies, and are typically resided over (by those who can afford it) by a Buddhist priest. And every year, at the start of the New Year, millions of Japanese participate in hatsumoude (初詣), the year's ceremonial first walk around one's local shrine or temple.
That's a lot of religion for an "irreligious" nation.
I think this riddle is easily solved by viewing the trappings of Japanese religion as synonymous with Japanese culture. These religious elements have seeped into, and become indistinguishable from, the culture itself.
I believe that the groundwork for this phenomenon is in the syncretism of Shinto and Buddhism, referred to as shinbutsu-shuugou (神仏習合) in Japanese. From the beginning of Buddhism's arrival on Japanese shores, argues one online writer, the deities and Boddhisattvas of Buddhism were regarded as Shinto deities, making Buddhism, essentially, a species of Shintoism in the eyes of many. In 1868, during the Meiji restoration, the government attempted to separate the two with the Shinto-Buddhism Separation Order (神仏分離令). Shinto had been declared a national religion, centered on the Emperor as its figurehead, and the government wished to purge it of "foreign" influences such as Buddhism, an Indian religion brought to Japan by way of China and Korea. But the two religions were already so intertwined that, by 1872, the government gave up.
To reconcile the existence of other religions, the Meiji Constitution officially granted freedom of religion to all citizens - with the understanding that, whatever religion people chose, they would continue to honor the Emperor through the rituals of Shinto. This had the effect of Shinto becoming less of a religion, and more of a national creed - a way of honoring the Emperor of the Great Japan Empire.
In other words, Shinto and Buddhism became culture. These rituals and customs are still performed today because...well, because that's what you do when you're Japanese.
(JP) Link: On New Years, Thoughts on Why So Many Japanese Say They're Irreligious
なぜ日本人は無宗教と答える人が多いのかお正月に考えた - 温玉ブログ
This theory was stated in another way by Japanese religious scholar Ama Toshimaru (阿満利麿), who compared the "natural religion" of Japan with "founded religions".
According to Ama, it's said that Japanese are irreligious, but that this is because they're being contrasted with founded religions. A "founded" religion designates a religion with a specific founder that has an explicitly defined doctrine. These are founders such as Christianity's Christ, Buddhism's Gotama Buddha, and Islam's Mohammed. On the other hand, Hindu and Shinto don't have specific progenitors. That is to say, in a folk religion there are no specific founders, and the religion is something that in a sense is born naturally from unnamed individuals.
(JP) Link: Why Are So Many Japanese Irreligious?
なぜ、日本人に無宗教が多いのか？ - NAVER まとめ
Buddhism incurred the same fate, and to this day, Buddhism is a nominal "religion" for most Japanese people. Suzuki Shunryuu, one of the Buddhist monks who helped kick-start the Zen movement in America, left Japan because he was tired of his job focusing on mainly weddings and funerals; he wanted to revive Zen as a living, practiced tradition. For this reason, I distrust some of these statistics touting almost 30% of Japanese as "Buddhist", and wonder if some confirmation bias might be at play here. But that is, also, a topic for another day.
Hypothesis B: Recent Experiences with "Religion" Have Been Awfully Negative
In 1995, fear was struck into the heart of Japan when a deadly sarin attack in a Tokyo subway claimed 13 lives and poisoned 6,300 others. Practically everyone in the world knows about the infamous attack, perpetrated by a cult calling itself Aum Shinrikyou (アウム真理教).
What many people unfamiliar with the history of Aum don't realize is that the sarin attack was one of 42 acts of terror linked to the cult. When Aum began "disappearing" people who tried to leave, a group of lawyers sought to expose them, and revoke their status as a religious organization. This led Aum's leader, Asahara Shoukou, to order his followers to kill seven people in various sarin attacks. The Tokyo attacks wouldn't occur for another nine months, and after another four people had fallen victim to Aum. By the time their reign of terror had ended, Aum Shinrikyou was ultimately responsible for killing 32 and injuring around 7,000.
It was only July of this year (2018) that Asahara Shoukou and six other key followers were finally executed in accordance with their death sentences. The consciousness of Aum and the destruction it wrought still looms large in people's minds. Some commentators still fret that, despite the damage it caused, Aum still manages to find a small following, primarily among the young.
This is complete speculation on my part, but I tend to think the example left by Aum has done damage to the concept of organized religion itself. The concept was never big to begin with, and the recent largest example looming in collective memory ended in disaster.
A year ago, a famous Japanese actress, Kiyomizu Fumika (清水富美加), announced abruptly that she was quitting acting and joining "Happy Science" as a full-time devotee. Known in Japanese as koufuku no kagaku (幸福の科学; literally, "The Science of Happiness"), the organization is a new religious movement based largely on Buddhist psychology that says it aims to promote happiness "that pierces through this world to the next". Kiyomizu's sudden departure sparked a fervor in the media, with people wondering whether Koufuku was a "cult" that had brainwashed the star.
There's little in what's known about the organization that would lead anyone to categorize it as a dangerous cult. The Japanese public's reaction, to me, is a sign that the nation is still wary of anything that comes close to resembling Aum Shinrikyou - i.e., to any organized religious movement with a charismatic leader.
Hypothesis C: The Last Thing Japan Needs is More Structure
This last bit is pure speculation based on my 45 years experience as an American, and looking at Japanese society from that perspective.
I think one reason religion is so strong in America is that American society is, essentially, structure-less. We are a comparatively young country comprised of immigrants that promotes the idea that you can become anything and anyone you want to be. Our country is practically torn in half between two political factions whose visions of "America" are diametrical opposites. In short, there is no firm concept of what it means to be "American".
This hotbed of cultural chaos is a perfect breeding ground for the spread of religion, which promises meaning, purpose, and structure.
But Japan has structure. Confucian ethics and Buddhist moral precepts bestowed a societal structure in the 600s that still endures to this day. As already discussed, the syncretism of Shintoism and Buddhism provides an abundance of cultural ceremonies. Annual festivals (matsuri; 祭り) bring people together to celebrate the antiquity and unique beauty of Japanese culture. Despite any debates that might happen over the country's future, there is no fundamental crisis over what it means to be "Japanese".
In short, organized religion is not necessary to most people's lives in Japan. Its current structure has worked just fine for its people, and has resulted in a relatively peaceful and orderly society whose cleanliness and low crime rate is praised around the world.
As I said, that's a completely individual opinion, supported more by impressions and reflection rather than data. But I believe it's generally accurate.
These three reasons, taken together, mean that Japan is pretty happy without the existence of organized religion in its borders - and that any religion wishing to increase its footprint likely has a tough row to hoe.