The old capital of Kyoto is home to about 1600 temples and countless smaller shrines.
Every day tens of thousands of Japanese come to these temples to visit, to walk pilgrimage routes, to pray and to leave offerings. Various studies have shown that the vast majority of Japanese people participate in rituals related to Buddhism and/or Shintoism. An article in the Japan Times describes the religious landscape in the following terms:
Devotional and ritual observances involve not only an imported and adapted foreign religion (Buddhism) hybridized with an established state religion (Shinto), but also elements of animism and ancestor worship whose observances regularly reach down to the level of the neighborhood (o-mikoshi festival portable shrines) and even the household (butsudan shrines).
Yet when surveyed on religious belief a very high proportion of Japanese identify as atheist. It seems that the phrasing of the question has a dramatic result on the response. Roughly 30% of Japanese are willing to declare themselves avowed atheists but if the question is phrased in terms of ‘lacking religious affiliation’ the number jumps up towards 60%. Either way these figures seem high when applied to a country dotted with well-maintained public and private shrines.
A clue for this discrepancy might lie in the most recent foreign addition to Japanese religious practice. Chapel weddings have been growing in popularity in Japan since the 80s and now account for close to 75% of all wedding ceremonies; despite the fact that the Christian population of Japan has remained stable at a little over 1 per cent. The standard refrain now says that a Japanese person is ‘born to Shinto rites, married with Christian rites, and buried with Buddhist ones’. This a-la-carte approach to religion goes some way to explaining why so many Japanese people can declare themselves non-religious while still participating in religious rituals.
Many foreign scholars appear to have struggled to make sense of the ways in which secular and religious life overlap in Japan. The neat categories they brought with them simply didn’t apply to Japanese society. Timothy Fitzgerald, commenting on conclusions drawn by earlier anthropologists, points out that:
The decision about what is and is not categorised as religion is highly ideological, yet the word is used freely and rather uncritically as though we can all easily find religions in any part of the world and at any period of history. Most academics use the word religion without much consciousness of the way that their usage is arranging historical and ethnographic data according to a pattern that fits into [western] assumptions … This becomes of special importance in the context of colonialism and neo-colonialism, since it facilitates a distortion in our understanding of non-western ideologies and cultures.
The main point of difference between religious practice in Japan vs the west appears to relate to the extent to which religions are perceived to be mutually exclusive. In western cultures anyone practicing both Islam and Christianity would have to deal with a great deal of cognitive dissonance. Social pressure would compel them to settle on one belief system. Likewise there is an implicit understanding in western culture that a distinct boundary exists between day-to-day activities and religious observance. Most Christians would be confused as to what constituted ‘Christian cleaning’ but I get the sense that many elderly Japanese would see a natural connection between sweeping, meditation and Shinto rites. To make things even more difficult it appears that there is no direct equivalent in the Japanese language to the term ‘religion’. Fitzgerald observes:
A problem that occurs…is precisely what is understood when terms like ‘religion’ are used in Japan. The Japanese word generally used in surveys and elsewhere to denote ‘religion’ is shūkyō, a word made up of two ideograms, shū, meaning sect or denomination, and kyō, teaching and doctrine. It is a derived word that came into prominence in the 19th century as a result of Japanese encounters with the west and particularly with Christian missionaries, to denote a concept and view of religion commonplace in the realms of 19th century Christian theology but at that time not found in Japan, of religion as a specific, belief-framed entity. The term shūkyō thus, in origin at least, implies a separation of that which is religious from other aspects of society and culture, and contains implications of belief and commitment to one order or movement – something that has not been traditionally a common factor in Japanese religious behaviour and something that tends to exclude many of the phenomena involved in the Japanese religious process.
This translation difficulty offers the best explanation for the gulf between statistics on religion in Japan and how the society actually behaves.
More difficult to detect is the role played by the language itself in shaping how Japanese people see the world. Linguistic relativism is a theory that has been bobbing around at the fringes of academic debate for more than 70 years but only recently have studies lent credibility to its basic premise- that language, to some extent, determines how a society thinks. For example some scholars have suggested that strange descriptions of colour in ancient Greek poems (including Homer’s description of the ‘wine-dark sea’) may have been due to an absence of defined terms for certain colours like blue (radiolab has an episode on this theory). Other research has suggested that the gendering of nouns in languages like Spanish and German effects how those objects are subconsciously perceived by their speakers. But possibly the most striking example of this can be found in how the Guugu Yimithirr people in far north Queensland relate to the world around them. Linguist Guy Deutscher writes that:
Guugu Yimithirr does not use words like “left” or “right,” “in front of” or “behind,” to describe the position of objects. Whenever we would use the egocentric system, the Guugu Yimithirr rely on cardinal directions. If they want you to move over on the car seat to make room, they’ll say “move a bit to the east.” To tell you where exactly they left something in your house, they’ll say, “I left it on the southern edge of the western table.”
The extent to which these differences in language effect their user’s perception of the world is very difficult to determine with any certainty. But the lesson for people studying other cultures is to very carefully consider the question before getting carried away by the answers. Japan is often portrayed as an example of a technologically advanced, rational and secular society. But that depiction ignores the unique ways in which religion manifests itself in Japanese society.
The final word should go to Deutscher. At the end of NYT article on language he reminds us that:
The habits of mind that our culture has instilled in us from infancy shape our orientation to the world and our emotional responses to the objects we encounter, and their consequences probably go far beyond what has been experimentally demonstrated so far; they may also have a marked impact on our beliefs, values and ideologies. We may not know as yet how to measure these consequences directly or how to assess their contribution to cultural or political misunderstandings. But as a first step toward understanding one another, we can do better than pretending we all think the same.
Japan: the Most Religious Atheist Country – Matthew Coslett
‘Religion’ and ‘the Secular’ in Japan – Timothy Fitzgerald
Does Your Language Shape How You Think? – Guy Deutscher
Viewed through a religious lens, Japan makes more sense – Debito Arudou