Is Japan really the 2nd-most atheist nation?

Japanese Buddhist Monk by Arashiyama, by Marubatsu

While stereotypes portray Japan as a nation of serene mystics, surveys reveal the world’s second largest population of atheists.

– by B. T. Newberg

“I don’t know anything about Buddhism,” she said.

I stared at her quizzically.

But you’re a priest’s daughter, I thought.  You grew up in a temple, and may even take over the temple one day.  How could you not know anything about Buddhism?

“I don’t really have a religion,” she said.

The young Japanese woman in this exchange is fairly typical of many today for whom religion has become mostly cultural custom.

East Asia is apparently a hothouse of atheism, according to world polls.  But is it really so, or is it an illusion of cultural factors and skewed statistics?

Last time we looked at South Korea, with the 5th-largest atheist population.  Now let’s look at an even stronger atheist population, coming in at number two in the world: Japan.  A combination of statistics, history, and personal experience living in Japan for five years will shed light on the matter.

The stats

Stereotypical Western perceptions often depict Japan as a Zen nation full of serene, highly-spiritual mystics.  Yet surveys tell a different story.  According to Gallop’s 2012 Global Index of Religion and Atheism, Japan boasts the world’s second-largest population of those who report as “convinced atheists”, coming in at 31%.  Meanwhile, over half (62%) of Japanese describe themselves as “not religious” or “atheist.”

Data from 2008 reveals the lion’s share of religionists to be Buddhist, at 34%.  Shinto comes in second at 3%, Christianity at a mere 1%, and other religions, including Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, and a variety of new religions make up about 1%.  The large remaining portion is comprised of non-religious (49%) and “do not know/not stated” (12%).

Conspicuously absent from these data are Confucianism and Taoism, both of which have had extensive influence but which have largely been incorporated into Buddhism and cultural custom.

Meanwhile, there is a great deal of overlap between religions thanks to a long tradition of shinbutsu shugo, literally “syncretism of kami and buddhas.”  This attitude fosters a climate of integration, wherein religions tend to fill different niches in one’s life rather than claiming exclusivity.  A common saying holds that today’s Japanese are born Shinto, marry Christian, and die Buddhist.

Finally, the data may be skewed by a distinction not made in English between two types of religion, shu and kyo.  While the distinction is somewhat murky, a shu is a collection of beliefs and customs, whereas a Japanese co-teacher explained kyo to me as follows: “I think of kyo as having a book,” i.e. sacred scriptures, as in Christianity or Buddhism.  A term covering all equivalents of the English “religion” was not coined till the late 19th century, formed by putting the two together as shukyo.

First-hand experiences of Buddhism

A Buddhist altar, by B. T. Newberg

A Buddhist home altar

Riding in a car on the way home from a funeral of a person who had committed suicide, I asked a friend about the supposed afterlife destination of the deceased.  She told me that suicides are said to “fall down” into hell.*  She also noted that on the death certificate, those who take their own life are recorded as dying from “mental illness”, for the reason of avoiding discomfort with the idea of a destination in hell.  But, she quickly added, no one believes any of that.  I was surprised, as she was the daughter of a temple priest.  Another friend in the car concurred.  Despite their Buddhist customs, my friends seemed quite secular in outlook, and they were not at all atypical in this respect.

Buddhism in Japan is fast becoming more cultural custom than “religious” in the traditional sense of the word.  This is not because of the so-called atheistic nature of the religion.  The philosophy and meditation-oriented Buddhism familiar to Westerners is largely limited to certain monastic orders and Westerners; Asian lay folk rarely meditate, and lay Buddhism is often as “supernatural” as anything other religions have to offer.  The secularization of Japanese Buddhism has more to do with cultural and historical factors, as we shall see.

Participation in certain Buddhist customs remains strong.  One of the most conspicuous of these is the family altar.  Each extended family has one, called a butsudan, and it holds memorial tablets on which are written the Buddhist names of deceased family members.  In the Jodo Shinshu sect, which is the most popular in Japan and what I observed most in Hokkaido, offerings of rice or other foodstuffs are made at the altar for the wellbeing of the deceased in the afterlife.  The dead are said to be undergoing a process of gradual awakening, at the end of which they will become fully enlightened Buddhas.  This finds a neat parallel in some family altars with multiple tiers: as the years pass, tablets are moved to higher tiers, until no one living remembers who they were and they become ancestors in the generic sense, devoid of personal attributes.

Special rules dictate who must care for the extended family’s butsudan, which usually passes to the eldest son.  As a result, altar practices take on such an overtone of family obligation that personal beliefs can seem irrelevant.  This may be one reason why religiosity has been able to wane without the disappearance of religious custom.

Another reason is the system of frequent death day celebrations, held on the anniversary of a relative’s passing after specific intervals of years after death.  While this may sound macabre, and the sight of a family all in black may look so as well, it is an occasion for bonding.  In a nation where rapid urbanization has scattered families across the country, it is an opportunity for family members to reconnect and socialize.  Thus, despite the religious premise for getting together, the practice facilitates socialization unrelated to religious belief.

While such participation in Buddhist customs remains high, interest in the philosophical and theological concepts behind them is low.  The daughter of a Buddhist priest quoted in the opening paragraphs knew next to nothing about her father’s religion and could honestly say she had no religion herself.  She was not a rebel or nonconformist in any respect; she simply had no interest.  This was especially shocking to me given that the priesthood, which passes along hereditary lines, might one day pass to her.  As a matter of fact, several years later, it did.  When her father died, she was obligated to take over.  After several months of intensive priestly training, she now leads the family temple along with her husband.  Upon talking to her recently, it seems doubtful to me that her religious feeling is any stronger than it ever was.

First-hand experiences of Shinto

A Shinto Kamidana, by B. T. Newberg

A Shinto home altar

In contrast to the heavy mood of death in Japanese Buddhism, life abounds in Shinto.  A far smaller number self-identify as Shintoists than Buddhists, but centuries of syncretism make it difficult to separate one from the other.  Households may have a Shinto altar called a kamidana.  In contrast to the low Buddhist altar before which one kneels, the kamidana is placed highest in the room.  One stands before it.  It may be a site of prayer, but does not hold the ancestral tablets of the butsudan, nor is it kept for the whole extended family.

A Shinto shrine festival in Asahikawa, Hokkaido, by B. T. Newberg

A Shinto shrine festival

The most visible element of Shinto tradition in Japan is, by far, the matsuri.  Every Shinto shrine has one of these annual festivals, and nearly every community and neighborhood has a shrine.  Once a year, sacred items are taken out of the shrine and paraded around the community in a large hand-carried shrine-float called an o-mikoshi.  The float is carried by a large cohort dressed in traditional hapi coats.  This is an extraordinarily raucous event, involving much consumption of rice wine and marching to the rhythm of a hoarsely shouted wa-shoi! wa-shoi!  These words, as far as I could tell, either have lost their meaning or had no meaning to begin with, in the manner of “heave ho.”

The shrine festival clearly has religious overtones, but today it is highly secularized.  Participation requires no special priestly status or religious belief whatsoever, and in fact usually involves local governmental figures and citizens.  In my town, it was mostly employees of the town hall.  I played taiko drums for it every year.  The endpoint of the parade was the shrine itself, where there was often games such as children’s sumo, or the mayor throwing rice cakes from a nearby roof.  Almost know one I met knew the name of the deity the shrine was devoted to, though admittedly this is not very important in Shinto.

The only display of marked religiosity I ever encountered at a shrine festival was an elderly man with whom I was eating who made a public display of shedding tears of joy for my presence (because I was a foreigner?).  Dabbing a cloth on his eyes several times, he showed me and others and pointedly said, “Look, I’m crying.”  At the time, I didn’t know what to make of this.  Later, I learned of something similar in Korean shamanism, where the shaman sheds tears for the spirits on behalf of the community, collected on a cloth.  Whether the elderly man was engaging in a similar practice or just feeling emotional, I cannot say.

First-hand experiences of Christianity

In contrast to Buddhism and Shinto, which remain strong despite secularization, Christianity is floundering.  It currently attracts barely 1% of the population.  This is dramatically different from Korea, where secularity is balanced by enthusiastic Christian fervor.  Andrew Eungi Kim points to historical factors to explain the difference. Whereas missionaries to Korea found a void of organized religious competition, Japan presented a different situation.  Buddhism was strong, organized, state-sponsored, and thoroughly integrated with Shinto custom.  Some, attracted by trade with the West, converted, but Christians were persecuted under the Tokugawa shogunate, and foreign missionaries were expelled during the period of isolation.  Freedom of religion was established with the Meiji Restoration in 1873, yet Christianity has not flourished as in Korea.  There is simply not as much room for a new religion to take root.

Despite low numbers of Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses are prominent and zealous today.  Their door-to-door proselytizing is common.  Most notably, converts are encouraged to throw away their family butsudan.  Not only is this contrary to the spirit of shinbutsu shugo, but it flies in the face of family obligations.  As we’ve seen, the butsudan does not belong only to oneself but also to the whole extended family.  Throwing it away is more than a personal decision.  In my town, a neighbor’s sister-in-law converted, producing more than a little tension in the family.

First-hand experiences of non-religion

It’s always hard to spot non-religion, simply because it has few events or opportunities to advertise itself (apart from the kind of Humanist meetings and atheist billboards seen in the United States).  Most Japanese that I knew, if asked, would speak of their family being Buddhist or Shinto, but without expressing particular religious interest of their own.  This seems to be the kind of non-religion most prominent at present.

What is most notable about the particular flavor of Japanese non-religion is its almost total lack of rejection of tradition.  Whereas American atheists tend to recoil at the slightest whiff of anything vaguely resembling religion, Japanese are perfectly happy to carry on religious traditions in a blithely secular fashion.  Japanese religion has always been far more about practice than belief anyway.

Moreover, I did not find Japanese to be at all anti-religious.  Once, when I had prepared a Druidic altar in the woods with flickering candles and masks, a Japanese man hunting for mushrooms came upon it.  I wasn’t sure what reaction to expect, but he turned to me and said, “Ah!  Very good!”  Another time, a student of mine saw me doing a Pagan ritual by the river.  He smiled and became very interested.  Most people’s reactions to learning of my Paganism were favorable.

Given the experiences of Buddhism and Shinto related above, I find the survey reports of atheism in Japan fairly believable.  While non-religion is always a bit different depending on the culture, and atheists in Japan may not necessarily resemble those in the West, there is a real sense of secularity among today’s Japanese.

*unlike most Buddhist societies, Japan has a three-tiered cosmology of heaven, earth, and hell

7 Comments on “Is Japan really the 2nd-most atheist nation?

  1. I am interested to know the impact of Fukushima on religiosity in Japan.

    • Good question. I’ve only been back for a short trip since, not enough to get a feel for that, unfortunately.

  2. This is fascinating to me. It seems that the religiosity in Japan has transformed into mere social obligation and tradition, without any of the spiritual element. I’ve always been baffled by people who just aren’t interested in religion. And I’m not talking about atheists — who often are very interested in religion, even if in a negative way. But the kind of people who are just nonplussed by religious matters — “blithely secular” as you say . To imagine an entire nation that is like that boggles my mind. I’ve always taken for granted that some form of spirituality is a fundamental human need, but your reports from these other countries really calls that into question. Or maybe there’s a spirituality there that I’m just not seeing in your description.

    • It certainly sounds like that at times, especially based on the things I’ve highlighted. The funny thing is, though, that if there is any place where I’ve felt real spiritual connection among people, it’s in Japan. The part they are “blithely secular” about is the supernatural-esque theological ideas. But the social integration and personal fulfillment that comes from it is quite palpable in Japan. Of course, it *does* reach burdensome levels of obligation at times, and they have one of the highest suicide rates. So, it depends precisely what kind of spirituality you’re looking for, but I would say there is something not-quite-definable about Japanese culture that could be very “spiritual”…

  3. I don’t know much about this, but I think the whole philosophy of ukiyo-e, the floating world, is itself a kind of secular religion. The Wikipedia uses the following quote as an example of ukiyo-e: “Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves; singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves in just floating, floating; … refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current: this is what we call the floating world.”

    Japanese culture seems to have taken two key things from Buddhism: the notion of impermanence (thus the ubiquitous reference to cherry blossoms, that most ephemeral beauty), and the the notion of mindfulness — everything may be impermanent, but we can at least be attentive and mindful of it as it all floats by.

    Perhaps it is better to characterize ukiyo-e as an art of living (living in this world and for this world without concern for with the question of life after death) rather than a spirituality — but if we reject that notion of life after death, I’m not so sure that there is much difference between spirituality and an art of living well. We Americans are obsessed with techniques for living better, but we are sadly lacking in the art of living. We seem determined to be as unmindful as possible to the passing of our existence.

    • >We Americans are obsessed with techniques for living better, but we are sadly lacking in the art of living. We seem determined to be as unmindful as possible to the passing of our existence.

      Well said.

  4. This is a fairly complex topic but what Japanese understand by “religion” is necessarily not what those from Abrahamic traditions take it to be. So many Japanese while saying they are not religious will engage in what would be considered religious rituals in the West. There are various reasons given such as tradition/obligation to ancestors, social obligations, belief etc.

    Japan has always strongly resisted Christianity from the first encounter in the 16th century when it was welcomed initially along with European trade. The missionaries found considerable success and with it came temple/shrine burnings, forcible conversions by the local lords who became Christians, threat of a Spanish/Portuguese invasion (the nearby Philippines had already become a Catholic Spanish colony). The Japanese Shogunate gov’t then launched a thorough extermination campaign against Christianity, kicked out all foreigners and closed off Japan to the West for the next 250 years during which time Christianity and anything associated with it were strictly banned.

    When Japan was forced to open up by Perry’s aggression, they saw how the Western nations used Christianity for imperialism and resorted to state Shinto to counter it. Look up Aizawa Seishisai and his Shinron for example.

    Let me end with what Lafcadio Hearn wrote in 1891:

    Dear Professor Chamberlain,—I am delighted to hear the fire-drill is at last in your hands.

    About Shintō … Of course, as far as its philosophy is concerned (which I am very fond of, in spite of my devotion to Herbert Spencer), and romance of religious sentiment, and legends, and art,—my Izumo experiences have not at all changed my love of Buddhism. If it were possible for me to adopt a faith, I should adopt it. But Shintō seems to me like an occult force,—vast, extraordinary,— which has not been seriously taken into account as a force. I think it is the hopeless, irrefragable obstacle to the Christianization of Japan (for which reason I am wicked enough to love it). It is not all a belief, nor all a religion; it is a thing formless as a magnetism and indefinable as an ancestral impulse. It is part of the Soul of the Race. It means all the loyalty of the nation to its sovereigns, the devotion of retainers to princes, the respect to sacred things, the conservation of principles, the whole of what an Englishman would call sense of duty; but that this sense seems to be hereditary and inborn. I think a baby is Shintō from the time its eyes can see. Here, too, the symbolism of Shintō is among the very first things the child sees (I suppose it is the same in Tōkyō). The toys are to a great extent Shintō toys; and the excursions of a young mother with a baby on her back are always to Shintō temples. How much of Confucianism may have entered into and blended with what is a striking characteristic of Japanese boys in their attitude toward teachers and superiors, I do not know; but I think that what is now most pleasing in these boys is the outer reflection of the spirit of Shintō within them,—the hereditary spirit of it…

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