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Japanese Religiosity

I have mentioned before that Jinja Shinpō includes a number of regular columns. One of these, “Sunlight Through Leaves” (Komorebi), is shared between eight people who do it on a rota over the course of two years, and then all the authors are changed again. The authors change in May, and this year was a change year. One of the new set, Professor Inaba Keishin, studies contemporary Japanese religion, particularly in the context of natural disasters, and I expect that his columns will be particularly interesting to me. (A couple of the other new authors also look very promising.)

His first one, in the May 13th issue, certainly was. He wrote about recent Japanese religiosity, quoting some statistics. They do not indicate a significant change, but they do nicely illustrate the way things work here.

The first results were from two surveys conducted in 2018. One asked people whether they had a religion, and fewer than 30% said “yes”. On the other hand, the other asked people if they agreed with the statement “I do not do anything that could be described as a religious activity”, and only about 10% said yes. So most Japanese people have no religion, but take part in religious activities. (Assuming that a negligible number of people answered “yes” to both questions.)

The second results were from a survey of students carried out in 2020. Only 10% of students said that they had a religion, but over 60% went to hatsumōdë. 60% also thought that the kami and buddhas either existed, or might well exist.

As Prof. Inaba argues, most Japanese practise “unconscious religiosity”. This does not apply only to Shinto, but it is particularly significant for Shinto because very few Shinto priests are bothered about whether people identify as Shinto. They certainly don’t think that people should do so, although local people should come to the jinja to pay their respects. Thus, there is no pressure from the jinja side for people to identify as Shinto. Given that it is normal for a Japanese person, particularly a young one, to claim to have no religion, very few Japanese identify as Shinto. But a lot of people still do it.

The basic pattern of these numbers is the same as we see in surveys done ten or twenty years earlier, which suggests that this is a fairly stable feature of contemporary Japanese society.

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5 thoughts on “Japanese Religiosity”

  1. Does the column state if shukyo was the word used for–effectively—large scale organized faith that that lots of people don’t really do?

    If shukyo could correspond in English to, say, large scale organized _faith_ that really rather just seems to be a variety of live action role playing game, is there a word in Japanese that would correspond to a situation of “I have no faith, I have, instead, my personal religious practice which _I_ do”?

    1. The surveys use both “shūkyō” and “shinkō”, and people seem to be claiming to have neither.

      It seems that Japanese people tend not to think of these activities as religious in any sense.

  2. I know Ninjutsu . . . and mebbe fifteen other words of Japanese . . .

    I’d not run across shinkō before, as I recall, but after a bit of googlemancy, I did find . . . If translations such as faith, belief, creed, extol are accurate, then yes, I don’t see the respondents seeing shinkō being a good fit either.

    What comes to mind for what people actually _do_, instead of harping about, keeps reminding me of one of the Terry Pratchett axioms:

    Seeing, contrary to popular wisdom, isn’t believing. It’s where belief stops, because it isn’t needed any more.

  3. Just an observation I noticed. I asked a close friend and my girlfriend who are both Japanese, at first I asked “are you religious?”. They said no, but my friend interestingly said “but if I had to choose it would be Shinto”. I also realized in English (at least where I grew up), if you believe in anything like souls, spirits etc, then people would think you’re religious. So maybe in English the term has gained a double meaning away from “follows a doctrine” or something. Then when I asked “do you believe in spirits, souls, and kami etc. ?”, they both said yes. And apparently my girlfriend even visited a Tenmangu shrine while she was studying for university, to Tenjin, knowing he’s a kami related to studying. Or both said there’s this idea that all things are kami. I thought this might be insightful as a mini anecdotal survey on people in their young 20s

    1. Thanks for the information. That sounds about right. I think the natural response in Japan is “I have no religion”, so it does not always mean what westerners would think it means.

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