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Japan: The Most Religious Atheist Country

How can one country be simultaneously so atheistic and so religious?

By 5 min read 33

When the Agency for Cultural Affairs commissioned a report into religious beliefs in Japan, they were initially confused by their results. Totaling up the number of people who belonged to religious groups in Japan, they got the result that 209 million people belonged were religiously affiliated. The problem? This was almost twice the population of Japan!

This anomaly seemed to suggest that Japan was highly religious. However, further research showed that this strange result was caused by respondents happily checking the boxes for numerous religions without seeing any contradiction. After all, as the old saying goes a Japanese person is born to Shinto rites, married with Christian rites, and buried with Buddhist ones.

However when a subsequent Gallup poll asked about atheism, it discovered that 31% of Japanese people were also willing to check the ‘convinced atheist’ box. If the phrase ‘religiously unaffiliated’ was used instead of ‘atheist’, the yes-result was a jaw-dropping 57%.

How can one country be simultaneously so atheistic and so religious?

According to the ideas pioneered by such luminaries as Professor Phil Zuckerman and Dr. Nigel Barber, this result is not surprising. After all, atheism is usually influenced by a variety of factors, most of which Japan has. Check the list: capitalism (Check), economic stability (Check), political stability (Check), existential stability (Check).

“People who are less vulnerable to the hostile forces of nature feel more in control of their lives and less in need of religion,” Dr. Barber explains. Just as there are ‘no atheists in foxholes’, he believes there are fewer atheists when the world is relatively stable, “Atheism blossoms amid affluence where most people feel economically secure.”

So what is going on? If we accept that Japan is a perfect breeding ground for atheist thought, how can so many people be claiming religious affiliation as well? How can one country be simultaneously so atheistic and so religious? After all, if you fought through the crowds at 初詣 (Hatsumoude- the New Year visit to shrine), it is hard to believe that statistically a sizable percentage of those waiting to pray identified themselves as ‘convinced atheists’.

“Much of what is done at New Year and お盆 (The bon festival) does not require any prior or fixed religious commitment from the participants,” Professor of Religious Studies at Lancaster University Ian Reader explains. “The gods and Buddhas are seen as being supportive and one can pray to them without being obliged to join a religious organization. Or indeed without needing to declare belief in their existence.”

As an author of numerous books on the subject, Professor Reader believes that asking whether Japan is atheist or not is missing the point. “Surveys usually ask about religious belief (shuukyou shin 宗教心- having a religious mind), but that can be interpreted by ordinary people as asking if they have faith in a ‘specific religious organization’. Most would answer no,” He explains, “It does not mean they are ‘atheist’ in terms of denying existence of a god. These studies indicate a ‘not quite sure’ attitude as a rule.”


Certainly one of the big problems with saying that the Japanese are ‘atheist’ is that atheism requires there to be a ‘god’ to not believe in. Instead Japanese religions are somewhat unclear on the matter. After all, are the kami, spirits and ancestral entities that make up the Japanese indigenous beliefs really equivalent to the god of the Abrahamic religions?

In his book Rush Hour of the Gods, Neill McFarland found that the definition of kami was tough to categorize. Fundamental life principles, celestial bodies, natural forces, topographical features, natural objects, certain animals, the spirits of the dead and even influential people could all happily be included in a concise definition of the kami. It is a little difficult to say that you don’t believe in ‘natural forces’ and ‘fundamental life principles’!

Instead, Ian Reader believes that you have to consider Japanese culture and religion as a whole and trying to separate one from the other isn’t always possible. “Japanese society and culture are intricately interwoven with religious themes,” He writes, “(Japanese religion) is a deep and continuing stream of religious motifs interwoven with, rather than separate from, other aspects of Japanese life and society.”

In other words, religion in Japan isn’t something that you can choose whether to ‘believe’ or ‘not believe’ in. It’s so prevalent and all-encompassing that one cannot exist without the other. Perhaps the philosopher Daisetsu Suzuki got the answer right all those years ago. He argued that religion was so infused into Japanese culture that just by being born Japanese and taking part in the rituals and observances, you become part of the ‘religion’. Admittedly, he was talking about the Zen faith, but a similar thing could be said of Shintoism.

“The religion-secular dichotomy simply doesn’t work in the analysis of Japanese institutions. Ritual is pervasive at every level of society. A more convincing model is that of a family of over-lapping ritual performances that share ideas about reciprocity, self-sacrifice, and dependency.” Dr. Timothy Fitzgerald from the University of Sterling proposes, “In such a wider perspective, freed from the compulsion to stuff rituals and experiences into either the ‘religious’ bag or the ‘secular’ one, certain conceptual confusions will be reduced.”

Surveys cited:

WIN-Gallup International ‘Religiosity and Atheism Index’ reveals atheists are a small minority in the early years of 21st century
2009 Report on International Religious Freedom – Japan

Resources directly quoted:

Why Atheism Will Replace Religion
‘Religion’ and ‘the Secular’ in Japan

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  • Kahlil Gibran says:

    Although this is very interesting to me. You are atheist if you don’t believe there is a one true god. To say the people of Japan have not considered the plausibility of a creator is absurd. The people of Japan are not shallow. By saying that they have not considered that there could be 1 creator of everything is saying the people of Japan are
    Shallow. Once they’ve considered this thoroughly and then say no there is no such being. Then you can say they are atheists. Believing that any man can or has become a god, to Christians sounds absurd as well. Not intentionally being rude. They are rooted in the belief that if you don’t believe in the Christian Bible which says beware of false prophets and false gods which in its core foundation is a shallow statement and very convenient to keep Christians from even considering any other possibility. Either shallow or created to keep its followers in line. Politicians create themselves to be gods and as long as the less educated stay uneducated there’s no reason to cause to debate the government rule. Religion in whole was created to keep leaders in power and their citizens in line. Christianity for all intent and purpose is the most successful religion. Right before Jesus was born a short 44-48 years before Jesus Juleus Cesar died and people claimed him to be a God. Just a thought.

  • Alksi says:

    1) We do not have infinite time. 2) evolution does not create perfect beings. but rather “good enough to survive beings) for example we use the same hole to breathe and eat, which could lead to death by suffocation. But most people don’t die like that so our species continues to exist with this imperfection.

  • Tikto says:

    I just found out something

    This is my story as Okinawan. Just until junior high school, I have never asked what religion I belong to and what I practice because no one asked about that and no one taught me anything.
    When I was in senior high school, my classmates and I went to Taiwan and I had a presentation on religions in Japan.
    What I found out was the main religion in Japan are Buddhism and Shintoism. I then thought I’m either a Buddhist or Shintoist.
    When I came to Canada, people ask and I answer that I m Buddhist and Shintoist. In Chinatown, there were Buddhist figures on boat and I had no idea who they are and in fact I have never seen them before. I came to realise that I am not even Buddhist since my Christian Vietnamese friend knew more about Buddhism than I do.
    So I start to think that I am Shintoist; gods exist everywhere, it didn’t contradict with the native Okinawan religion but I was thinking its not Gods, it’s sprites that’s everywhere. I just didn’t think much about religions and when my friends ask, I just answered “I don’t know”
    Then now, I just saw a surprising figure saying that 7.8% of Okinawans are religious, of which 3.6% are Christian, 3% are Soka gakkai.
    That’s it and in Okinawa we have the least temples and shrines (both per capita and #) in Japan.
    What is this all years trying to figure out what makes me Buddhist and Shintoist because I was told so by learning about the religions. but in fact, I just do what my grandparents do which is pry for our ancestors without a knowledge of Shinto or Buddhism.

  • Lucas Spoel says:

    Religion has nothing to do with GOD. Saying Christianity is NOT a religion. Most people get confused with that. Atheism requires there to be “a” GOD is also a wrong statement.

  • disqus_0cJboxuc5E says:

    I’m Japanese. Yes. A lot of Japanese people go to shinto shrines, but we don’t believe in any shinto gods. We know gods do not exist! Most Japanese people are not interested in any religion. We Japanese can’t understand religious people like Christians living in America or Muslims. Why are they believe still god in the 21st century? They’re crazy… We Japanese know that there are no shinto gods and don’t believe in god (Abrahamic god). We visit shinto shrines on New Years doesn’t mean we believe in gods! Okay? It’s just fun and tradition. If my English is wrong, sorry…

    • Aldrin says:

      You don’t believe that gods exist or you don’t believe objects or beings perceived as divine should be propitiated in anthropomorphic terms? (See what I did there.) It really all boils down to your definition of what a god is. It really isn’t a simple either/or question for people outside monotheist cultures.

  • Cashmoney says:

    Good point!

  • GeneralObvious says:

    However, if you ask any Japanese person if they believe in heaven and hell and an afterlife, most will say “yes”. Whereas an atheist would outright deny it. As I said before, your average Japanese person picks and chooses multiple facets from multiple faiths to include in their daily life, while atheists reject everything religious as a whole by definition. It’s not possible to be 1/2 atheist and 1/2 theist; you’re either one or the other.

  • Cashmoney says:

    I think the idea that you must be either a believer, an atheist, or an agnostic is only valid if you believe in the “one true religion” concept. Lots of people believe in deities or religious concepts as a choice because they like them and they`re a reflection of their values, and don`t have any desire to prove it`s TRUE. I went to the Ebisu shrine in Osaka after New Years and prayed there, not because I think Ebisu is a real deity but I was really praying for success, which is what Ebisu symbolizes. And rather than “praying” you could say “choosing to focus on it intently”. Am I religious? I don`t know, it doesn`t matter to me if I am.

    I think I`ve turned a little Japanese after being here so long.

    • GeneralObvious says:

      I think you answered your own question. If you are “choosing to focus” on something, then you really aren’t praying to a god are you? Atheism is a lack of belief, so if you don’t believe that any gods exist, then you are atheist. If you are unsure, that’s a different story, then you would be agnostic.

  • nprdny says:

    So, it is safe if I conclude that the concept of religion in Japanese culture is somewhat confusing, isn’t it? But I wonder, does it have something to do with their success as a country?

  • Kevin says:

    Uh, just because they visit Shinto shrines on New Years(a tradition), does not mean they believe in any God. Most Japanese are indeed Atheist.

  • Kinami says:

    You might be interested in this article, then: http://ajw.asahi.com/article/behind_news/social_affairs/AJ201502060039
    It’s about the recent events involving ISIS, and a mosque in Aichi (near Nagoya) Japan.

  • TokyoMommy says:

    I found some information on the Japan Islamic Center website http://islamcenter.or.jp/ . Islam has been absorbed for certain amounts of time by Japanese visiting Islamic countries (for the sake of making “peace” with the natives so they can do business with them), but once they come back to Japan, they usually abandon the faith immediately. There have been some genuine conversions and there are a few Japanese Imams as well, but the faith has not grown much to speak of at all in Japan. The Japan Islamic center appears to be very moderate and passifist in their ideals.

  • Tess de la Serna says:

    Japanese are unique. They baffled us, the outsiders. They are like a closed book.

  • Shreevatsa R says:

    For the sentence “there is not god at all” to make sense, it requires the word “god” to have a meaning, i.e., it requires the conceptual category of a God — and this concept in Western countries is invariably heavily influenced by the idea of God as found in the monotheistic religions.

    If you read the article, it doesn’t say
    “atheism requires there to be a god to not believe in”
    but says
    “atheism requires there to be a ‘god’ to not believe in”
    — with quotes around ‘god’, i.e. it’s talking about the *idea* of a ‘god’ existing, which does not (in the same way) exist in Japanese culture.

    Both theists and atheists from cultures with monotheistic religions tend to treat their own (common) conception of “god” as if it is universal; this is another reason why it’s good to learn new languages and engage with different cultures, so that you know that your way of looking at the world is not the only one.

    For example: it would not be meaningful to ask (say) the average American to categorize themselves as “a-kami-ist” or not, because that category does not map to how they think about the world — you’d get misleading responses, and that’s what you see when Japanese are asked if they are “atheist”.

    • GeneralObvious says:

      Your argument falls flat. God is a well defined word and there is no argument or debate of it’s meaning (in either English of Japanese), nor of the meaning of the word atheist. The Japanese actually have there own word for ‘atheist’ (無神論者), it’s not a borrowed word.

      Atheists believe that gods (any god, from any religion) do not exists now, nor have they existed at any time in the past.

      Japanese people clearly understand the meaning of the word and that is why when asked if they are “atheist” they say “no”, but when asked if they have no religious affiliation they say “yes”, as they pick and choose to believe maybe different things from many different religions at the same time.

      • Aldrin says:

        The argument doesn’t fall flat. To say that your definition of ‘god’ or ‘religion’ or ‘atheist’ is the same everywhere else, in English, Japanese, or other languages, ignores the great diversity in the way humans of different cultures perceive things. What Shreevatsa said.

        • GeneralObvious says:

          A god is a god by definition. That is not part of this discussion. It is established fact based on the meaning of the word. Whether a Christian chooses to refer to their god as God, Allah or Kamisama is irrelevant as they are all the exact same word (conecept)in different languages.

          Similarly, the definition of “atheist” is also not up for discussion. The word has a very specific meaning in every language; i.e. a person who does not believe that gods exist. It’s black and white. You are either atheist or you are not. It’s not debatable and you can’t pick and choose to believe some spiritual things and not others and still call yourself atheist.

      • Shreevatsa R says:

        Your point that religious affiliation is not the same as “theism/atheism” is a good one, and well-taken. I agree with that.

        The article also mentions though, that 31% agreed they were “convinced atheist”—a smaller number than the 57% for “religiously unaffiliated” (this difference demonstrates your point above, and I agree with that part), but 31% is still a big number (considering what you mentioned, that 99% of the country visits Shinto shines).

        So returning to my point, it is not so much that “God” or “atheist” is a foreign idea in Japanese culture, but about how central the idea/category is in the conceptual map. For example, “animist” is a bonafide English word, but if you asked (say) Americans whether they were animist, both atheists and Christians may answer “no”, and this data may be confusing to draw conclusions from — because “animist or not” is not central to Western conception of religion.

        After all, ‘natural forces’ and ‘certain animals’ certainly exist, and the question in the Japanese context is not of one’s belief in their existence, but about one’s attitude and actions towards them (whether to pay respect, say).

        In cultures with monotheistic religions, “belief” and “faith” are considered central to those aspects of human activity known as “religion”, but looking at other cultures makes it clear that they don’t have to be. In parts of America, it may be considered hypocritical for someone to go to Church every Sunday if they don’t believe in God (or to not go if they do). In Japan, it may be considered arrogant and self-centred for someone to abandon the traditions and rituals of one’s family/ancestors just for the flimsy reason of not “believing” in them.

        So my point is that even the *question* of whether one believes in God or not (or at least taking that idea and question as the important one to focus on) may be a typically Western/monotheistic culture-inspired one. So the idea of existence of “God”, and the opposite idea namely atheism, may be universal but not universally important.

        (I agree with your observation that Japanese people pick and choose to believe different things from many different religions at the same time.)

    • Moose_Master says:

      That line confused me a bit too, but your explanation really helped.

  • Patrick Drazen says:

    Mark Twain said that humanity is “the only animal that has the True Religion–several of them.” Japan got along for 2,000 years before Christianity arrived without seeing a problem with believing in Shinto and Buddhism at the same time, since they serve different purposes in Japanese life.

  • nprdny says:

    Are you saying that the Japanese are agnostics?

    • GeneralObvious says:

      No. Most Japanese people pray to various Shinto gods throughout the year either for personal reasons or for holidays. They also believe in heaven and hell. Although they don’t follow a particular faith, they follow various practices of many faiths all at once including Christianity, Buddhism and Shintoism. They don’t believe there is nothing at all, as an atheist or agnostic does.

      • disqus_0cJboxuc5E says:

        i’m japanese. we don’t believe in heaven and hell… if a person die, the person become nothing. we know that lol. we say 死んだら無になる in japanese.

        • GeneralObvious says:

          I guess it depends on the person. I have plenty of Japanese friends who say they believe in afterlife.

  • Kazuya Yonekura says:

    Most Japanese people would find it hard to give a clear answer to the question “Are you religious or not?” Or it doesn’t really matter to most of us because religion is, for them, not principles to follow. Actually, the public schools in Japan are not allowed to teach religion by law. Only a few religious schools do teach it. What really matters is how others look on what they do, and thus they respect others, even if this may be only superficial.

    According to what I have studied, Japanese belief in gods or any religious belief is based on animism, which I think derive from this ruthless environmental conditions with the 4 seasons and all these earthquakes, eruptions, and tsunamis. They have no way but awe nature and at the same time appreciate whatever it brings to them. So they see spirits or gods in anything from nature to everyday tools. You can see animated objects in the old Japanese drawings like Ukiyoe or Emakimono, This tradition can also explain why Japanese are good at making comic books or characters of any kind.

    So to make a long story short, in my idea, gods are for Japanese not to seriously believe in but rather to play with. They don’t need a god to control them but rather they can create their own god to simplify the world. They may call it religion but the word “religion” might sound too serious compared to “god” to them.

  • Maybe it’s just me but I tend to think of Japan as being highly superstitious. All the rituals for good luck and good health, etc etc. and they do seem to come from many religions. Maybe a study should be done about the Japanese mindset around superstitions and not necessarily religion?

  • Rob Van Gelder says:

    Very interesting article! I’m a member of Jiko-ji, a shin temple in Belgium and we would like to translate this article so we can post it in our newsletter. Could we have the author’s permission, please?

  • Hampus Björklund says:

    Well if any of the three big ones like Islam, Judaism and Christianity I’m very sure only Christianity have a firm group of Japanese believers as there are tons of christian missioners. In fact the only time I have ever meet a Japanese Muslim was when my I meet my Indonesian friends Japanese Girlfriend who had turned to Islam thanks to him. And as I know my friend very well I’m very sure he didn’t push his believes on her and I think she probably started believing in Islam thanks to thinking it was interesting. And when you look at history Islam in Japan have only existed since 1850 or so, while Christianity have existed since at least 1550. But if you haven’t already here’s what Wikipedia have on Islam in Japan. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islam_in_Japan

  • Sumaya says:

    Hi Miss Iliyana mitova.. I have same passion as yours,..i love studying culture and religion…i been to japan for year to study both and now im in bahrain to know more islam…so if u want you can ask me any of which and i will be glad to answer especially islam im start learning more of it and also costums in japan and how they work towards religion…u can email me at sumaya0807@gmail.com

  • Bradley Temperley says:

    Kobe has a mosque. Not far from a synagogue. That says a lot about Kobe’s cosmopolitan history.

  • Jorge Berberena Ironside says:




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