The Paradoxes of Secularism in Contemporary Japan

Jason Ānanda Josephson discusses evidence from Japan regarding the complexity of  employing Euro-American Jason Josephsonunderstanding of concepts such as religion, nonreligion and secularism  in other cultural contexts.

Probably the most surprising Japanese bestseller of 1996 was a short monograph written in a largely accessible style by Ama Toshimaro, a professor of International Studies at Meiji Gakuin University, titled Why Are the Japanese Non-Religious? (Nihonjin wa naze mushūkyō nanoka). This monograph had a widespread appeal in Japan partially because it touched on a seeming paradox: that many Japanese who claim to be ‘without religion’ (mushūkyō, 無宗教) actually engage in activities–Buddhist funerals, Christian weddings, Shinto festivals, prayer ceremonies at Shinto shrines–that seem to Ama and other observers to be profoundly religious (Ama, 1996: 8-10). This work presented a seeming contradiction between self-identified secularity and popular religious activity. Moreover, as European scholars were quick to note, the very Japanese citizens who claimed to lack religion attended multiple religious institutions without seeming to experience any incongruity. Restated, Japan seems to be a repository of paradoxical diversity in which each given ‘areligious’ citizen practices a plurality of religions.

Sociological Evidence

Quantitative sociological research would seem at first pass to deepen the paradox. In brief, according to some surveys the Japanese populace seems secular, while measures of religious identification and church/shrine attendance suggest a vibrantly religious country. What is more, the average Japanese person belongs to not one, but multiple religions. Here is some of the evidence:

The World Value Survey in 2008 rated Japan as the most ‘secular-rational’ country in the world, exceeding even the famously atheistic countries of Sweden and the Czech Republic. This claim was based in part on a study conducted in Japan in 2005, in which 80.5% of those who responded said that religion (shūkyō) was either ‘Not very important’ or ‘Not at all important’ in their lives (Yamazaki, 2005). But only one year earlier, in 2004, according to the U.S. Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report, 213,826,661 Japanese citizens claimed they had a religion – a number that, as the report’s author notes, is nearly twice as large as Japan’s population. This statistic is roughly supported by the Japanese government’s yearly surveys, which show that the total number of religious adherents exceed the population of Japan (Nihon Tōkei Nenkan, 2012: 753). This is not all. According to the CIA fact book of 2005, the breakdown of Japanese religious demographics was as follows: Shintoism 83.9%, Buddhism 71.4%, Christianity 2%, other 7.8%. That this exceeds 100% is further evidence that Japanese citizens belong to more than one religion. Taken together, these statistics describe a ‘secular-rational’ Japanese population in which very few people believe that religion is important and yet each person belongs to an average of two religions.

In sum, by the conventional categories of Euro-American thought, Japanese have more religious diversity than they have people, and they lack ‘religion’ while frequently attending religious institutions. So how do we account for this apparently contradictory intersection of religion and secularism (no religion)? I’d like to turn to the history of the category ‘religion’ in Japan to find some answers to this puzzle.

The Japanese Encounter with the Category of Religion

On July 8, 1853, American warships appeared off the coast of Japan. Although they were ostensibly on a mission of trade, part of their purpose was basically to open Japan to Christian missionaries. Hence, the term ‘religion’ appears multiple times in the American documents. But Japanese translators were presented with a conundrum. There was no indigenous Japanese term that corresponded to the English word ‘religion’ or which covered anything close to religion’s range of meanings. My book, The Invention of Religion in Japan (University of Chicago Press, 2012), traces the importation of the Euro-American concepts of ‘religion,’ ‘science,’ and ‘secularism’ into Japan and examines the sweeping changes—intellectual, legal, and cultural—that followed.

Although there is not space here to summarize the whole book, I show that the problem of defining ‘religion’ gained national prominence in the last part of the nineteenth century, giving birth to a broad debate at several levels of Japanese society and inspiring a host of different possible translations for religion, each of which implied a different conception of religion and a different set of institutions. What is more, Japanese translators quickly realized that to work out the meaning of the European concept of religion, they had to figure out its double–‘the secular’ or ‘nonreligious’.

Moreover, although almost everyone involved agreed that for American diplomats Christianity was the primary religion at stake, it was not immediately clear what Japanese traditions, if any, might be considered ‘religions.’ On the one extreme there was the possibility that there were no Japanese religions, merely the archaic vestiges of failed politics or backward superstitions. On the other extreme, the Japanese landscape could have been partitioned into a significant plurality of different religions. (Josephson, 2012: 192-223). I demonstrate that even after a translation term had become stabilized for ‘religion’ (the functional neologism, shūkyō 宗教), many of the extrinsic features of the European conception of ‘religion’ – including ideas of exclusivity, conversion, and even religious identity – appear only incompletely and inconsistently. This was not a failure to grasp the concept of religion on the Japanese part, but evidence that the Christian contours of the modern concept of religion have only a limited applicability to non-European cultures, even those that have legally produced a category for religion in the modern mold.

In sum, this means that while it is possible to talk about atheism, secularism, or nonreligion in Japan, one has to be careful not to import assumptions from the specifically Christian formulations of the category ‘religion.’ Moreover, I argue that the paradoxes are not in Japanese culture; so much as they highlight the contradictions of the concept of religion itself and push at the limits of its globalization.


Ama, Toshimaro. (1996). Nihonjin wa naze mushūkyō nano ka. Tokyo: Chikuma Shobō.
Josephson, Jason Ānanda. (2012). The Invention of Religion in Japan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Nihon Tōkei Nenkan. (2012). Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. Tokyo.
Yamazaki, Seiko. (2005). “World Value Survey Methodological Questionnaire: Japan.” World Value Survey Vol. 3,1-33.

Jason Ānanda Josephson, Chair and Associate Professor of Religion, Williams College. Josephson received his Ph.D. from Stanford University and has held visiting positions at Princeton University, École Française d’Extrême-Orient, Paris and Ruhr Universität, Germany. He has two primary research foci: modern Japanese history and theory of religion more broadly. He is the author of “The Invention of Religion in Japan” (University of Chicago Press, 2012, winner of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion’s- Distinguished Book of the Year Award for- 2013).

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One Response to The Paradoxes of Secularism in Contemporary Japan

  1. Great post, Jason! Just one minor point of clarification: the fact that the number of adherents regularly exceeds the Japanese population is not due to self-reporting on the part of individuals. It is actually due to religious institutions using questionable sampling methods to arrive at their numbers. Shinto shrines will count every household in a parish as parishioners, for example, and will regularly (and generously) “estimate” the total number of people in a household.

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