Religions of Japan (日本の宗教)

"Religions of Japan" describes religions in Japan.


According to 'Annual Statistics of Religion' (Shukyo Nenkan) issued by the Agency for Cultural Affairs, there are around 106 million Shintoists, around 96 million Buddhists, around 2 million Christians, and around 11million followers of other religions in Japan, adding up to 215 million people, or nearly twice the total population of Japan, belonging to any religion. Only Shintoists and Buddhists come to more than 200 million. This is because many Japanese people engage in rituals of multiple religions, holding the seven-five-three festival and other seasonal festivals at shrines and visiting shrines at the beginning of the New Year based on annual events and rituals developed in the natural climate from ancient ethnic religions of Japan, and by the influence of the temple guarantee system in the Edo period, holding funerals and bon festivals (a festival of the dead or Buddhist all soul's day) with Buddhist rites. People become a member of a religion by baptism in other countries, while those who worship a god of a religion are deemed to be a believer of that religion in Japan, (where many people are shrine parishioners and Buddhist parishioners at the same time). Therefore, Japanese people who worship deities and Buddha equally belong to multiple religions.

Shinto and Buddhism

As discussed above, great majority of Japanese people are Shintoists and Buddhists.

Shinto does not have a clearly defined dogma (Note: Religious sects of Sect Shinto [new religions] have concrete dogmas.)
There are thus no strict rules to join Shinto, but they are usually considered to be believers if they install a household Shinto altar, make offerings to shrines, and participate in rituals.

The custom of bringing a baby to the deity of the clan (ujigami) after birth may be interpreted as a kind of baptism of other religions, which gives the membership of Shinto.

As for Buddhism, mainly Mahayana Buddhism is practiced. Buddhism that was popular in the Kamakura period (Kamakura Buddhism) served as the basis of today's Mahayana Buddhism with profound influence in Japanese history, and has been followed by many people up to the present day. On the whole, this is based on the faith in the founder with few strict principles, so that there are few open disputes with other religions. Those who become priests are supposed to be formally recognized as Buddhists, but many Japanese enter the Buddhist priesthood by receiving posthumous Buddhist names at their own funerals. Buddhist schools in other countries, such as Tibetan Buddhism, are not supported by the public, except by some intellectuals, and have a very weak presence.

Since the syncretism of Shinto and Buddhism has been seen for a long time in Japan, there is no clear line between the two. For example, many families with a household Shinto altar also have a Buddhist altar, belonging to two religions at the same time. This is why Shintoists and Buddhists are said to total more than 200 million people.

From another point of view, it is more natural to assume that in Japan one religion has been created through a harmonious combination of Shinto and Buddhism than to consider the two have existed separately. Historically as well as presently, Shinto and Buddhism share functions and it can be said that the two come together to create a single religious notion.

In addition to these two religions, Confucianism has also left its mark mainly on funerals and the view of life and death, although it is less often cited as a religion. The idea of ancestors' spirits, based on ancient folk religion and Confucianism, fundamentally conflicts with Buddhist philosophy, but is now incorporated into Buddhism. The Buddhist mortuary tablet, memorial service, and other important rites for ancestors originated in Confucianism. Confucianism was studied for its morals and ethics mainly by the ruling class, and after the Meiji period, its influence was directly and indirectly exerted on the ordinary people.

Elements of folk religion are complicated partly due to its historical background. Folk religions are generally based on animism, and this aspect appears prominently in the previous belief style in sacred rock (iwakura) or mountain before the building for worship was constructed, and many of them changed their forms under the influence of syncretism of Shinto and Buddhism to be passed down to today (e.g., Doso-shin [traveler's guardian deity], Jizo Bosatsu [Ksitigarbha], and Ebisu worship). Shugendo (mountaineering asceticism), the Way of Yin and Yang and others have developed to go beyond Buddhism and Shinto under the influence of Esoteric Buddhism, and these religions were used to to pray for repose of vengeful spirits in sacred spirit service (goryoe) and other occasions from the expectation for the manifestation of mantra dharani (commandment of true words) or the power of Buddhism attained by accumulated virtues. This idea is still found today in the ground-breaking ceremony, etc.

Meanwhile, Soka Gakkai, or a new religious body of Nichiren Shoshu sect (but it is excommunicated by the sect at present), which is the power base of one of the governing parties, the New Komeito Party, officially announced that 8.27 million heads of families belong to the body, but a poll and other survey show there are estimated to be 4 million believers.


Christians account for 0.8 percent of the total population and this figure has never been more than one percent, except for a period right after Francis XAVIER conducted missionary work.

The figure is extraordinary low compared with the whole of Asia as well as developed countries mainly in Europe and the United States, and those involved in Christianity in Japan once described this situation as "the wall of one percent." Many Christian groups (Protestant churches in particular) in Japan are smaller in scale when compared to those in Europe, the United States, and South Korea, while the Catholic Church has the largest number of members. There is also a 'Non-church movement' to advocate facing the Bible alone at home without belonging to any specific church (famous leaders include Kanzo UCHIMURA and Shigeru NANBARA). The largest Protestant denomination is the United Church of Christ in Japan. It is also noted that a Protestant evangelical group depends more on 'the Bible faith' than other Christian groups in Europe and the United States. The Greek Orthodox Church (Japan Orthodox Church) is believed to have some 10,000 followers in Japan, which is fewer than the number of Islamic believers. However, annual events are acknowledged by the general public, regardless of whether they are Christians, so Christianity is deeply accepted.

Other religions

Among other religions, Islam is thought to have about 70,000 believers. It is said the number of Muslims has continued to gradually increase since the late 1990s, which is thought to be due to those who convert to Islam after marrying people from the Middle East. There are very few Jewish people.


In the Meiji period and after World War II, various new religions emerged in Japan.
New religions are still being created and this situation is referred to as 'rush hour of the gods.'
So many religious schools have appeared that few religions and schools have gained sufficient followers. One view says that the Soka Gakkai has become a force through enthusiastic invitation activities, but it has only 8.27 million families nominally and and actual count of only 4 million people.

Religious idea of Japanese people

Originally syncretism of Shinto and Buddhism was widely seen from the Heian period until the Meiji restoration, and Shinto and Buddhism were not distinguished from each other as a general rule. The syncretism left traces, such as the torii (an archway to a Shinto shrine) in precincts of temples or the deity with the name of 'Hachiman Daibosatsu' (Great Bodhisattava Hachiman), in which a name for a shrine deity (Hachiman) is connected with a name of Buddha (Daibosatsu). Kamakura Buddhism became widespread, but it is likely that ordinary people believed in it as a kind of 'God' to escape from the suffering in the world, (but it should be remembered, of course, that there are always avid followers in any age).

In the Edo period, for the purpose of family registration control the public were required to belong to a temple of any sect or a shrine, which gave rise to various customs but those customs have become less common today. Seven-five-three festivals and wedding ceremonies came to be held in a shrine, not due to a religious census, but after the Meiji period.

"Night Talks of the venerable Mr. Sontoku Ninomiya" (Ninomiya-o Yawa) contains the following allegory of religious pluralism.

There is only one sheer truth in this world, but there are many gates to the truth. Shinto and Buddhism, or even various sects of Buddhism, such as Tendai-shu sect, Jodo-shu sect (the Pure Land sect), and Shingon-shu sect, are all nothing more than names of paths to the many gates to the truth. You can climb Mt. Fuji from any starting point at Yoshida, Subashiri, and Suyama, but you will eventually reach the summit and find yourself in the same place. It is wrong to think there are different paths leading to different destinations. Even if there are more than one gates, you eventually get to one single destination. This is the truth.
But, people say there are different paths and more than one truth.'

Writer Ryunosuke AKUTAGAWA made a character in one of his short stories say things to the effect that efforts to plant any religion in Japan would not be rewarded because Japanese people had had a unique view of religion to revere 'eight million different deities' since ancient times, which can be found in Shinto, Buddha and Jesus Christ being considered to be one of these deities in Japan. At the same time, he called it 'the ability to recreate' that Japanese people made foreign thoughts to change into their own thoughts.

Writer Motohiko IZAWA explains that in Japan there are unconscious and strong belief in 'vengeful spirits' and faith in 'harmony' to prevent the vengeful spirits from coming into this world, and on this foundation Shinto was established, while Buddhism turned out to be used as a tool to appease these vengeful spirits.
Foreign visitors to Japan and the Japanese who become avid religious followers say they can see that many Japanese people unconsciously have an idea of placing supreme importance on 'harmony.'
Izawa also found the belief in 'Kotodama' (the soul or power of language), which is peculiar to Japanese.

With regards to the afterlife, Japanese think 'one returns to nothing (nature) regardless of whether one did good or bad in one's lifetime' based on the Shinto perspective that human beings are part of nature, but also think one undergoes training under Shakyamuni after his/her death to 'become a Buddha' (entering Nirvana) from a Buddhist viewpoint.
There is also a phrase, 'this world is heaven and the other world is hell.'
Based on these religious perspectives, Japanese people think 'we should not speak ill of the deceased.'
However, the idea that the good go to heaven while the wicked go to hell is also common, so it is not that whatever misdeeds one has committed, one is justified (unpunished) after death. Meanwhile, there is also an idea that spirits remain in this world, although traditional dogmas say little about the idea, and stories of ghosts and spirits have been often talked about by the public and get around as urban legends even today.

In an opinion poll on religion, conducted by the Yomiuri Shimbun on August 6 and 7, 2005, 75 percent answered they do not have faith in religion, while 23 percent answered they do, which is a 11 percent decline from 34 percent in the 1979 survey.

Modern age

In Japan, many people participate in Shintoist and Buddhist festivals, some companies have a household Shinto altar, and services, such as praying for safety, are often held beyond religious boundaries of Shinto, Buddhism, Christianity etc. Although there are few Christians, Christmas, Valentine's Day, church wedding, Halloween, etc. are well known as events, and companies actively utilize these events to increase sales. Because people other than Christians do not perceive these events as religious rites, they easily associate Christmas with gifts from Santa Claus, Christmas trees, and cakes, and Valentine's Day with nothing more than an important romantic event. Church weddings are said to be chosen because brides want to walk down the church aisle, but after the ceremony less than one percent go to pray in church. Christian rites are carried out according to seasons, and Japanese people accepted the rites, not being involved in Christian faith at all.

The majority of Japanese people today lack a sense of belonging to religions, and many Japanese also consider themselves to have 'no religion,' although they actually engage in religious rituals.

Most Japanese have no religion, nor practice a particular religion, but it may be not true that they are atheists, as seen from the fact that many of them do not strongly deny religions or Shinto and Buddhist deities, rely on the deities when they are in trouble, and respect religious ideas, such as 'curses' and 'bad karma.'

Religious organizations in contemporary Japan

In Japan, religious bodies can have corporate status as a religious corporation. Religious corporations are certified, based on the Religious Corporation Act, by a prefectural governor who has jurisdiction over the location of the principal office. In cases where the religious corporation has grounds and buildings in other prefectures and where it has other religious corporations in other prefectures under its control, Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology certifies the corporation. After certified, the corporation comes into effect by registering for establishment at the location of the office. Many organizations of folk religions and new religions do not gain corporate status.

As of 2002, there are 85,212 Shinto organizations, 77,640 Buddhist organizations, 4,445 Christian organizations, and 15,337 other religious organizationsin Japan.

[Original Japanese]