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Japan and Religion

October 18th, 2007

This story about a cult which killed an elderly lady might be catching the eyes of people interested in Japan, and most of us are familiar with the gassing of the Tokyo subway by Aum Shinri-kyo (an attack that my brother and his wife narrowly avoided getting caught in). These kinds of stories tend to be the usual exposure we get to Japanese religion; not much else gets reported on them in the media. Oh, we’ll see the odd movie that shows a Japanese monk with the rounded hat, or a Shinto priest blessing a car, or something like that.

However, Japan is supposed to be a thoroughly religious society. See, it says so, right here on the label. According to the CIA World Factbook, 84% of Japanese “observe” both Shinto and Buddhist religions, and the remaining 16% observe other religions, with 0.7% of those being Christian. I’ve seen other designations that claim Japan is 98% Buddhist and Shinto.

The thing is, none of that is true. In fact, compared to America, Japan is about as non-religious as you can imagine a society being. At my college, we have young people with whom we discuss all manner of subjects, including religion. And few of them have any concept of religion at all. Neither is it only with young people; most Japanese, when asked, will tell you that they are not religious. People I have asked guess that maybe 20% of Japanese people, give or take somewhat, are religious to an extent we would consider being modest or normal in the West.

Oh, yes, everyone visits shrines and temples. However, that’s mostly just social stuff, not really connected to belief. Kind of like celebrating Christmas or having a minister at a wedding, it’s something that people do whether or not they believe. You go to Shinto shrines for weddings, Buddhist temples for funerals. You visit both or either on New Year’s, and each has its festivals and holidays and so forth. Sometimes you just visit because it’s a pretty or interesting place to go to.

Yes, Japanese people will “pray” when they visit; you throw your coin into the offering box, shake the rope with the bell at the top, clap your hands twice, and pray to the kami. But most Japanese seem to treat this the same way that westerners say “god bless you” when you sneeze.

Certainly, there are the fervent believers. Many do take the religions seriously, some make them their calling. But I would say that most Japanese see these religions as either cultural background or an insurance policy, kind of a just-in-case kind of thing. Many Japanese have some kind of belief about the afterlife or the nature of the universe, though that is more of a free-formed personal belief, rather than adherence to a specific religious doctrine.

As for religion itself, most Japanese people seem to treat it far more as a tradition to be upheld, and less like a serious set of doctrines to be followed. Especially Shinto, where there is less focus on morality and philosophy (compared to Buddhism or Christianity). A co-worker said he once met a Shinto priest who, in an unguarded moment, admitted that he didn’t take the whole thing too seriously himself–he did it as much out of familial loyalty than anything else.

Of course, most of the people I am exposed to are younger, and in Japan, that means less focused on religion. As might be expected, when Japanese people reach their senior years, there is more interest in religion, and more probability that the person involved will take it seriously.

Even then, religion in Japan is pretty quiet; aside from the odd Christians, few people will knock on your door and want to tell you about Buddha or Amaterasu. Yes, Soka Gakkai is (unofficially) affiliated with the Komeito political party, but you never hear about religious stuff being pushed in government. No bans on abortion, no mandatory prayer in schools, no abstinence-only programs, no demands for reshaping biology, geology, or history curriculums to allow for the creation of the Japanese islands by Izanagi and Izanami some three thousand years ago or whatever. The worst that happens in that sphere is prime ministers and their cabinets visiting Yasukuni Shrine (where some Class-A war criminals are enshrined), and that’s more of a diplomatic issue than one that actually affects one’s daily life.

All told, religion in Japan is refreshingly distant and hands-off. You’re allowed to indulge all you want; it’s there is that’s your thing, there’s nothing stopping you. But if you’d just as soon keep it at arm’s length and not have it bother you, Japan is much easier a place to live than is the United States, to be certain.

Yes, there are cults, but notwithstanding the extreme cases like Aum Shinri-kyo, they rarely if ever impact your life, unless a close friend or relative drags you into it.

Perhaps a lot of this has to do with there being far less in the way of a dominating holy book; there is nothing on par with the Bible or the Koran when it comes to Shinto or even Buddhism–nothing that dictates the shape of the world. You get the feeling that people in most Japanese religious sects could care less if you’re not interested, and don’t worry all that much about your soul, immortal or otherwise, if you care not to involve yourself. Mostly, it’s a matter of take-it-or-leave-it; there is no public pressure to subscribe to anything at all.

And that’s the way I like it.

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