Are the Japanese Religious?

When sociological surveys are conducted of contemporary Japanese, only about 26 percent of the public and 12 percent of university students indicate they are religious. Less than a third of Japanese typically indicate they belong to a religious group. When asked to name Japanese religions, few respondents even mention Shinto. Twenty percent of Japanese in one survey described themselves as atheists. Sixty-nine percent of respondents trusted the police, and 63 percent had faith in the legal system, but only 12 percent of Japanese trusted religious institutions, with 40 percent of respondents indicating religious groups were just out to make money. Yet one-half of respondents believed in God or Buddhas and almost two-thirds believed in an unseen higher power. Almost 20 percent of atheists indicated they believed in God (Swanson 2006, 1–12; Bodiford 2006)!

What does all this information tell us? The term ‘‘religion’’ is a Western one in the minds of most Japanese and in many ways does not apply to the rites and practices, especially those associated with Shinto, in which many Japanese engage. Traditional Western notions of what constitutes a religion also often do not fit with widely held beliefs associated with Buddhism. Dominant Japanese religions lack the highly specific prescriptive codes of conduct found in such faiths as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Thus, Japan is characterized by more religious toleration than many societies and by a lack of clearly defined religious-based moral laws. Many Japanese are frightened of the new religions, especially in light of the Aum Shinriyko incident. First and foremost, in the words of the scholar of Japanese religions William Bodiford (2006), in Japan, ‘‘no religion does not mean non-religion.’’