18 November 2009

Japanese society: at crossroads of religion and superstition

There’s a saying, 'Every Japanese is a Shinto when he’s born, a Christian when he marries, and a Buddhist once he dies'. During my stay in Japan for the period of little under four years, I've learned that Japanese people, most of the times, refrain from talking about two things: politics and religion. Probably that's why it took more than half of a century for the Japanese to seriously think of replacing the Liberal Democrats to lead Japan (Read the related post here). However in this post, I intend to discuss only about religious aspect of the Japanese society.

It appears that religion doesn't play a very big role in the Japanese society. Most of the Japanese will tell you that either they are atheists or they don't take religion very seriously. Buddhism and Shintoism are the major religions of the Japanese, although not many engage in the kind of daily religious activities that we see in other countries. An average Japanese would look somewhat religious while visiting a shrine or while going to a cemetery. However, when asked if they really believe in god, the answer will be either denial or vague philosophical.

Before I continue further, let me share an interesting incident with you all. Last year, I was on a trip to the Okinawa islands of Japan in order to attend a conference. I was accompanied by one of my friends who hails from Indonesia. In that trip I met several interesting people but the coolest person I met would probably go unnoticed by many. He was a taxi driver. After leaving the airport, we hopped onto a taxi and took off for the hotel. 'So, where shall I drop you guys?', asked the taxi driver in an interesting way. He was surely different than many others who appear so formal and polite in their conversations. He appeared to be carefree in attitude and comfortable in his own skin. His manner and words were refreshing. After he had the idea of our destination hotel, he asked  casually, 'where are you from?'. 'Nepal', I replied. It seemed that he had no idea about my country so I added, 'It's the country of Mt. Everest and birth place of lord Buddha. I guess you are a Buddhist, right?' His answer was nothing less than a surprise to me, well, you may think so. I'm a Buddhist probably because of my ancestors but, I'm not a religious person. I think most of the Japanese don't believe in religion literally.' Suddenly the conversation had become intense and interesting. I asked, 'so what do you believe in? Do you think religion has nothing to do in our lives? What I think is that religion has a basic role to lead us towards a happy life. Isn't it so?' His response was so philosophical, 'see, what I believe is that a happy life is not because of any religion or god. The right way to lead my life would be to do always good and help others. The most important thing is to follow our conscience and not merely live according to any religious ideology'. We talked almost all the way till we finally reached our hotel. However, I am not going to write rest of the conversation as it would be out of scope of this post. My intention of putting this incident here is only to show how most of the Japanese react once asked about their religion. The statistics  reveal that Japan is among one of the least religious countries.

Are Japanese non-religious? Well, if you put this question in a different way, you are most likely to get different responses. Do you visit a shrine or a temple on occasions like New Year, festivals or before taking a major decision? Do you bow and pray to the rising sun? Do you seek a good luck charm from a Shinto shrine? Do you want to get married at a Church? Do you take your babies to the shrine for blessings? Do you want to have your funeral held in a Buddhist temple? etc. Questions like these are most likely to generate positive answers. The following table summarizes the major religious activities of Japanese:

o-miya mairi
On the 30th day after birth
At the age of 3, 5, 7
Praying for success in exams
February, March
Coming-of-age day
Age 20

Shrine/ Temple/ Church
Funeral, memorial services

Temple/ Church
warding off evils

Shrine/ Temple
(Source: The book 'Unfolding Japanese Traditions')

In the present Japanese society, people are not bound to a specific religion and they don't seem to care much about their rites in life being connected to Buddhism or Shintoism, because they don't consider it exactly a religious practice. Going to Shinto shrines, getting married at a Church and holding funerals at Buddhist temples have become practical customs for the Japanese. Most of the Japanese accept each religion along with the associated religious occasions so naturally.

Sounds a bit strange, right? It seems that these occasional 'religious' activities are followed only as traditions. This may be due to either most of the Japanese: a) have no or very little faith in the relevance of their 'own' religion; b) don't think that only religion drives the moral values or provides meaning to life; c) think that every religion has a basic purpose to provide means of leading life in a disciplined, peaceful, and happy way.

Are Japanese superstitious? Although not always the case, many people relate religious activities to superstition. Superstition is an irrational belief arising from ignorance or fear of certain 'other-worldly forces' of the universe. There are many practices to indicate that Japanese people are superstitious. One of the examples being their faith in good luck charms. They believe that during life, one has one or two unlucky years (for men: 25 and 42 years of age ; for women: 19 and 33 years of age) in which important changes related to health, family, social life, fortune etc. may occur. Those years are considered as the turning point of their lives. Therefore at these ages or when one is hit by a spell of bad luck, he visits to a Shrine or a temple to have the evils warded off (warding off evils). Like in many other countries, superstition have strong roots in Japanese society.

At the end, Japanese people may not be committed to any specific religion but their thinking and life-style seems greatly influenced by the Shinto beliefs that has helped to glue their cultural heritage together. Though people continue to believe in the social rituals, they don't want to be the part of an organized religion. Besides, being superstitious is not bad as long as it’s not harmful. What I admire about Japanese is their commitment towards ethics and high moral values. I believe that religion has a basic purpose of helping us lead life in a disciplined, peaceful, and happy way. Japanese are less sensitive towards any specific religious doctrine but, at the same time, are superstitious in their beliefs. In a way, Japanese society stands at the crossroads of religion and superstition.

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Basanta on November 18, 2009 at 9:50 AM said...

Very elaborative post Deependrajee! Thank you for posting such an well analyzed post.

Natsu said...

Yeah. Most Japanese will asnwer you like you have mentioned and there are few who will come up and say they are Buddhist.

But, for me, it is hard to believe Buddhism can be a religion.

Dilip Acharya on November 18, 2009 at 7:05 PM said...

Very informative and interesting post. Thanks !!!

Dhruba Panthi on November 18, 2009 at 7:39 PM said...

True picture of Japanese society about religion!

I got similar responses from some Chinese friends too when I asked them about the religion they follow. One Chinese friend humorously said that he follows "communism religion" as he is from a communist country. But one thing I found is that the influence of Christianity is increasing in these countries.

Joshua Zimmerman on November 19, 2009 at 2:24 PM said...

For some reason the "lack" of religion in Japan annoys a lot of people.

I always like to think that Christianity never took hold in Japan because the first missionaries that came over demanded that their followers stop bathing. In the end the population chose to be clean over religion. Seemed like things worked out for them.

Anonymous said...

'Consumerism' is the 'religion' in which most of the Japanese believe. The number is continually growing who think money is the solution to everything. And it makes me feel good about this country that religion doesn't play a very big part in society.

Anonymous said...

I think it would be more appropriate to describe Japanese as spiritual. Not in the sense that new-age palm readers are spiritual, but in that they believe in, or respect, the sacredness or life-force within people, things, actions. Everything has meaning and potential.

Anonymous said...

Thank you all for sharing your opinion.

@ Natsu, with more than 300 million followers worldwide, Buddhism is considered as one of the major religions. However, sometimes people tend to differ and claim it as 'philosophy of life' rather than a religion but it depends what you mean by a 'religion' and what by 'philosophy of life'. Like all major religions Buddhism contains an explanation of the origin of existence, a morality, and a specific set of rituals. However, due to the ambiguity in definition of god and religion, we often fail to perceive what Buddhists would mean by god. What I believe is that every religion has the basic concept on transformational goal, a desire to improve one's situation, and a distinct moral code. with this view point, Buddhism is definitely a religion.

Thank you all once again for making the discussion lively by putting up your thoughts. I agree with the comment made by Anonymous that it would be more appropriate to describe Japanese as spiritual.

Kim Realubit on January 7, 2010 at 2:18 PM said...

What the taxi driver said about "living a straight life doesn't depend on having a god" sounds so very atheist. All he does care is to do good and help others. And it also means not harming other properties. But do you really assess
he's completely HAPPY and FREE?. Most of the time we make other people feel everything is OK,that's so superficial but I guess somewhere deep inside every person is a DEEPER, UNFATHOMABLE NEED that can only be filled by the Holy Spirit. I'm sorry to disappoint you but I'm a full-pledged Christian and I'm just sharing my thoughts. Why do you think many rich and famous people commit suicide or die unmercilessly under the influence of drugs or booze? It's because they feel empty and that emptiness can only be filled by a touch or an act of SOMETHING OMNIPRESENT AND ULTRA POWERFUL.

Shailesh Ghimire on January 12, 2010 at 1:22 AM said...


A very thoughtful post on your observations of Japan. I've only visited once and that was for a week, so I have no experience with society there. It was therefore very educational to read your analysis. Well done.

Indian Astrology on February 10, 2011 at 12:45 AM said...

hEy ..
most of the japanese believe in superstition and i also agree with them .. superstition exsits and we can cure many thing with it's help ..

thanxx for sharing ..

Anonymous said...

After the major Earthquake & Tsunami:
1) THE CALM: Not a single visual chest-beating or wild grief.
2) THE DIGNITY: Discipline queues for water & groceries. No rough word or crude gesture.
3) THE GRACE: People only brought what they needed for the present so everyone else could get something.
4) THE ORDER: No looting in shops or homes. No honking or overtaking on roads.
5) THE TENDERNESS: Restaurants reduce prices. Unguarded ATMs left alone. Strong cared for the weak.
6) THE SACRIFICE: Fifty workers stayed to save the Nuclear plant.
7) THE TRAINING: Everyone knew exactly what to do.
8) THE MEDIA: Showed restraints in the bulletins. Only calm reportage.
9) THE CONSCIENCE: When the power went off in a store, customers put things back on the shelves.
10) THE ABILITY: Building swayed but did not fall.

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