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Social Attitudes

This week’s Jinja Shinpō included an article about several surveys of Japanese social attitudes that have been carried out regularly over several decades. The one it was reporting in particular was carried out by NHK, the Japanese national broadcaster (like the BBC in the UK), and has been carried out every five years since 1973. Last year’s results showed clear majorities (60 to 70%) for statements like “You don’t have to get married”, “You don’t have to have children if you do get married”, “Women should continue working after they have children”, and “I want to send my daughters to university”. Japanese society is clearly changing; I would expect clear differences by age groups, but the article doesn’t report that, and the summary on the NHK website also doesn’t seem to have that analysis.

The first data that the article looks at in detail are those about attitudes to the Tennō. (That’s also what comes next in the summary pdf from the NHK website… hmmm.) These are interesting. The number of people who have no particular attitude has dropped from 43% to 22% over the 45 years, while the percentage with a positive attitude has risen from 20% to 36%. The percentage who respect him has risen from 33% to 41%, after briefly dipping under 20% in 1998. The proportion of people opposed to the Tennō has fallen from a peak of 2% in 1973 to 0% (after rounding) in 2018. Republicanism would not seem to be a viable political stance in Japan, which probably explains why even the Communist Party keeps quiet about its opposition to the Tennō system (and would, I would lay money, stress its respect for the actual current Tennō).

On more directly religious questions, the most interesting result is that there doesn’t seem to have been any marked change over the last 45 years. About 30% of people believe in kami, about 40% believe in Buddhas, and about 30% don’t believe anything religious. About 15% believe that o-mamori amulets have some sort of supernatural power, but only about 10% believe in an afterlife. (Compare this to the USA, where, according to the Pew Research Center in 2018, 56% believe in the Biblical God, another 33% believe in some sort of higher spiritual power, and only 10% don’t believe any of that. In 2016, the same group found that 72% believe in heaven, and 58% in hell. This is quite a difference.)

On the other hand, about 30% of them have o-mamori amulets or similar, so most Japanese people who have o-mamori do not believe that they work. In addition, about 70% visit their ancestor’s graves once or twice a year, although the overwhelming majority of them do not believe in an afterlife, and thus presumably do not think that their ancestors are there in anything other than the physical sense. Similarly, of the 80 to 90% of Japanese people who visit a jinja for hatsumōdë at New Year, it seems that we can say that a clear majority do not believe in the kami.

As one might guess from the fact that these numbers have not changed much in my lifetime, I have seen similar results before, and written about them. What these numbers reinforce is the strong impression that Japanese religious practices, particularly in Shinto, are practices above all.

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