Religion in Japan

What religion is Japan?
Okuninushi, one of Japan’s earliest civilization-building gods

Is Japan a Religious Country?

People always ask me “what religion is Japan?” Well, pretty much none. This answer may surprise you, given the importance of shrines and temples in the lives of modern Japanese society and the expected inclusion of these spiritual complexes in any visit to the country.

Yes and No

Japan is a secular nation that guarantees freedom of religion in its constitution. In fact, Japan is often cited as one of the most non-religious countries on earth. And unlike my country of origin, the United States, Japan takes its establishment clause very seriously – especially in light of the devastation so-called State Shintō and “emperor worship” brought upon the nation[i]. In fact, while most of my Japanese friends and family are respectful of spiritual practices, most of them see these as merely traditional acts. That is, these are cultural performances, not acts of deep religious devotion. So, no. Japan isn’t particularly religious at all.

That said, there is a joke popular among foreigners living in Japan. “Japanese people are born into Shintō, marry like Christians, and die as Buddhists.”[ii] This isn’t a reference to an individual’s spiritual growth from cradle to grave, but rather a reflection of Japan’s ancient syncretic religious tradition where all beliefs mesh well together.

First, Let’s Define Some Terms

神道
Shintō

Shintō
Literally, “the way of the gods” or “kami-ism”

Shintō is the native polytheistic religion of Japan. There are an infinite number of kami spiritual beings in the world. Some might be a beautiful bend in the river, a striking mountain peak, or local kami who protects the local rice harvest. Every human who has ever lived can theoretically be honored as a kami, so the number of kami is truly infinite and evergrowing.

Shintō has shrines.
仏教
Bukkyō

Buddhism
Imported from the Asian mainland, Buddhism was more of a philosophy than the animism of Shintō, but it too suggests that a theoretically infinite number of humans can reach enlightenment (that is, becoming a Buddha). Therefore, there are an infinite and evergrowing number of enlightened souls.

Buddhism has temples.
syncretism
syncretism
Syncretism is when two or more religious traditions blend and create a new culture. Shintō and Buddhism played very well together and basically merged into a unique Japanese spiritual outlook. That is to say, for the average person, kami and Buddha are the same[iii].

Shintō, Buddhism, and Other Religions in Japan

In Japan today, the trappings of Shintō and Buddhism are all around you. Shintō buildings are called 神社 jinja shrines. You can identify them by their distinctive 鳥居 torii gates, mirrors, lightning-shaped white paper decorations, and sacred ropes wrapped around sacred trees, gates, and often the shrine itself. Entering a Shintō religious complex requires ritual purification with water provided in special basins. Shrines also tend to have a lot of greenery and sacred pools or moats.

Buddhist お寺 o-tera temples, on the other hand, have no torii gates, usually don’t require ritual purification[iv], and 95% of the time have a huge statue of a Buddha inside the main hall of worship.

Hakone Shrine floating torii gate #JapanThis

In contemporary society, the most well-known functions of Shintō shrines are ceremonies like 七五三 shichi-go-san which literally means 7-5-3 and refers to the age at which children are brought to shrines for blessings. In pre-modern Japan, the infant mortality rate was so high that if a child lived beyond their third year, fifth year, and seventh year…well, that was something of a miracle and deserved to be celebrated. While Shintō considers death a spiritual defilement, Buddhism was OK with death and arrived with ideas regarding what happens after humans die[v]. This is why most cemeteries in Japan are Buddhist.

Nikkо̄ Rinnо̄-ji, a Buddhist temple with distinct Shintо̄ attributes.

So that explains a big part of the “Japanese are born Shintō and die Buddhist.” So, what about the other part? Well, neither Shintō nor Buddhism have ancient traditions of marrying people, but guess what? Abrahamic religions are all about getting up in people’s sex lives, so of course they have ancient traditions of marrying people. Western movies provided Japan with romantic scenes of marriages on the Silver Screen and voilà, the blushing bride in a white wedding dress[vi] became the dream of many a young Japanese girl. Today, the most popular type of wedding is the so-called Christian Wedding, which is essentially a secular version of a traditional western wedding.

japanese western wedding

Still Confused?

So, now you understand why “Japanese people are born Shintō, are married Christian, and die Buddhists.” And, hopefully you can see how these are just cultural traditions and not firmly held religious convictions. Which brings me to another anecdote I like to share. If you question a random person on the street in Tōkyō and ask them “what is your religion?” I’m fairly certain they will automatically reply “Buddhist.” However, if you press them about supernatural claims, they’ll probably admit to being non-religious or atheists. That said, they probably regularly pop into Shintō shrines if they pass one on the street, and they most likely do the same when passing by Buddhist temples.

As for other religions, Japan is basically 1% Christian (mostly foreigners) and 0.0016% Jewish (mostly foreigners). Although Muslim immigrants are increasing, the numbers are unclear (but the majority are also foreigners). All of this said, nearly 40% of Japanese people claim no belief in gods.


What is the Religion of Japan?

Like I said, Japan has long Shintō and Buddhist roots, it’s pretty much a secular nation that is tolerant of foreign religious practices. Given its syncretic, polytheistic tradition, people here tend to be very skeptical or even suspicious of monotheistic religions[vii], but if you’re respectful, you’ll get respect in return. In short, religion isn’t very important in modern Japan, yet you can see and experience its religious history and traditions everywhere.

If you want to know about the Shintō worldview in very ancient Japan, you might like my article Japanese Cosmogony. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know. Cosmogony[viii] is weird word. Anyhoo, if you’re interested in Japanese mythology (which I haven’t talked about at all here), give it a read. I think you’ll find it interesting!

Further Reading:


[i] Yes, we’re looking at you, Imperial Japan.
[ii] By the way, I’m not a fan of this trite saying. I’m just repeating it because other people repeat it ad nauseam.
[iii] In fact, there are special names for Shintō avatars of Buddhist saints and special names for Buddhist incarnations of Shintō kami.
[iv] If they do require purification, this is probably because of the blending of Shintō and Buddhism.
[v] Most sects used to teach reincarnation, but these days I think most Japanese Buddhists see death as pretty final.
[vi] The acceptance of the immaculate white wedding dress is kinda hilarious if you think about it. In traditional Japanese culture, a white kimono is what was used to dress a corpse for wakes. In fact, when samurai committed 切腹 seppuku ritual disembowelment, they wore white kimono.
[vii] By definition, monotheistic religions are less tolerant than polytheistic, syncretic religions.
[viii] And its brother, cosmography.