Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, Vol 14, No 1 (2020)

Is Japan Religious?

Christopher M. Kavanagh, Jonathan Jong
Issued Date: 5 Aug 2020


The popular image of Japan and religion presents something of a paradox. On the one hand, large cross-cultural surveys frequently present Japan as a country of non-believers, where only 10–15% of the population selfidentify as religious and the vast majority rank religion as being of little importance to their lives. Yet, any visitor to Japan is likely to be struck by the sheer number of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples that dot the landscape, and the diverse array of festivals (matsuri) that are performed at these sites. In this article, we argue that the apparent paradox is actually an illusion generated by the unwarranted ethnocentric assumption that religion everywhere must resemble the features of the Abrahamic faiths that are predominant in Western societies. To make our case we first review recurrent theoretical and definitional debates concerning religion and examine how they relate to the Japanese context. Second, we explore patterns in contemporary data from an online survey of N = 1,000 Japanese that asked about religious beliefs and practices. We illustrate through the results obtained that to understand religion in Japan it is necessary to move beyond theocentric approaches and expectations that religious belief must be tied to religious identities or exclusive membership in a given tradition. To conclude, we argue that the patterns observed in Japan demonstrate that scholars who wish to explore religion cross-culturally need to take greater account of orthopraxic cultural contexts and distinguish between ‘theocentric’ doctrinal beliefs and broader supernatural beliefs.

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DOI: 10.1558/jsrnc.39187


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