Do the Japanese disbelieve?

Only 10 to 15 percent of Japanese consider themselves religious.

In the “Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism” with the year 2012, Japan ranks second among the least religious countries.

Nevertheless, Japan's official statistics in 2019 recorded 87.9 million followers of the indigenous natural religion of Shintoism and 84.6 million Buddhists - out of a total population of 126 million.

Where are the errors of calculation and reasoning in the West?

Christopher M. Kavanagh and Jonathan Jong solve in their essay "Is Japan Religious?" In the journal Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture (Volume 14, Issue 1, 2020), whose predecessor was Ecotheology, the paradox of the areligiousness of Japanese in a country littered with sacred buildings. Temples and shrines are not just historical relics. For example, Kyoto's students pray at the Kitano Tenmangu Shrine for good grades in the exam hell, other shrines offer patron saints for cooks or traders. Typical is a spiritual division of tasks between life-affirming Shintoism - it is responsible for admission ceremonies for newborns, weddings and blessings at topping-out ceremonies or car initiations - and Buddhism, which is responsible for burials and the afterlife.

In particular, Japan's variety of Zen Buddhism with its affirmation of emptiness, its gesture of letting go and its discomfort with everything apodictic is an antagonist of the book religions.

The Shinto knows no dogmas, commandments, founders, ways of salvation, holy scriptures.

Does it even make sense, the authors ask, to speak of religion in the case of Japan?

Using a survey among a thousand Japanese, you are discussing the limits of the concept of religion.

The signs indicate sect and doctrine

Japan's religions have neither exclusive membership nor missionary mandates. Many households have both a Buddhist altar for ancestor worship with offerings and a Shinto altar for worshiping local gods. Despite the statistics, the Japanese are reluctant to declare that they belong to a specific religion. Negative images of organized religiosity also prevail because of the expensive Buddhist burials and the attack by the Aum sect on Tokyo's subway.

"Religion" has been translated as "shukyo" (the characters mean sect and doctrine) since modern times. The word suggests beliefs and hierarchies and cemented the dichotomy of secular and religious areas, especially since the constitution of 1889 also provided for religious freedom. But the modern imperial state used the term creatively, as the sun goddess worshiped at the Ise shrines was the legendary ancestor of Tenno. As the father of the ethnic family, the emperor was at the forefront of ideologies such as “family state” or “land of the gods”. Aspects of Shinto have been declared a state cult and the worship of the emperors a civic duty here below. The post-war constitution returned the Shinto to religion. The lack of distinction between the religious remains tricky, such as politicians' visits to the Yasukuni shrine that have been declared private,where the fallen are honored, prove.

A religion of human relationships

In an attempt to bypass Abrahamic pitfalls, the authors contrast orthodox cultures with the concept of orthopraxy.

Most interactions with religious institutions take place in the ritual practice of annual cycles, rites of passage and festivals (matsuri), during which prayer for a good harvest or protection against disease is made.

Japan's colorful festivals with processions of a portable shrine (Mikoshi) of the local deity through their community, accompanied by dance and music, are a tourist magnet and economic factor.

Despite the dramatic ritual performances, large parts of the festival community are neither aware of the locally worshiped deity nor the religious significance of the festival.

As an alternative to denominational ties to a dominant institution, the sociologist Kei'ichi Yanagawa speaks of a "religion of human relationships" that is based on rituals and includes ancestors. Toshimaro Ama contrasts the religions of revelation with commandments far removed from everyday life with natural religions such as Shintoism, which as a “poor religion” provides for purification rituals for its followers, but does not require them to follow a puritanical way of life. The core of Japanese religiosity, in spite of its openness to transcendence, lies in the orientation towards this worldly advantages (genze riyaku) through practices aimed at happiness, healing and purification.

The marketing of the protective power of temples in the form of amulets, devotional objects and festivals testifies to the centrality of the ritual in the spiritual marketplace. The authors advocate a concept of religion that goes beyond occidental criteria such as professing faith, regular participation, hierarchical institution and exclusive membership. Conversely, just as European Christians are often non-practicing believers, so Japanese could be called practicing without confession.

Keywords: