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Japanese 'religion of the home' alive and well, says scholar


"The end of the year is approaching. This old man, in the time occupied by a single resolution, began straightening out his disheveled home. Nothing was assigned to any organized place. While first turning toward a pile of clipped newspaper articles on my left and starting to sort them, I pulled out something interesting."

That is how Nobuyuki Kachi, author of "Silent Religion -- Confucianism" (1994) and a fellow at Kyoto's Doshisha University, opens his essay in the Sankei Shimbun (Dec 15) about the Japanese awareness toward religion.

The newspaper article he had kept was dated Sept 15, 1991. It announced a study by the former General Affairs Agency (now the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications), which released the results of a worldwide survey titled "A national census on life and awareness among the elderly."

According to the report, the most important factor common to older people in all countries was "family and children." For the second item, the most common reply in the U.S. was "religion and beliefs," with over 37%. In the UK and Germany, "friends and companions," placed second, with 37% and over 34% respectively.

Among Japanese respondents, the second most important item was "wealth," with over 37%. That figure had risen by 9.5 points over the previous survey conducted in 1986. In South Korea as well, "wealth" was the second place reply, so stated by over 32% of respondents.

In the responses given by Japanese, "religion" ranked fifth in importance, stated by 5%.

This data from the news clipping is now 22 years old, says Kachi, and he doesn't know what the current figures are. But his gut feeling then and now would be that if anything, importance placed by Japanese on "wealth" will have increased, while "religion" has remained unchanged or perhaps declined.

Based on the above, it would be easy to conclude that Japanese are money-grubbing ghouls, and materialists with little or no concern for spiritual matters and religion. But that, he says, would be jumping to a hasty conclusion and is far from the actual situation.

As is widely known, because many Japanese practice more than one religion, they worship a specialized deity when deemed necessary, offer donations and hope for fulfillment of their prayers (such as praying to a specific Buddhist deity for healing from sickness), in ways that benefit them in the here and now. In other words, their religious belief takes on the form of worshipping a god or Buddha at the times deemed necessary, and the rest of the time they do not involve themselves.

Christians and other practitioners of monotheism, on the other hand, worship a god that they believe is omniscient and omnipotent which requires believers to always maintain that kind of absolutist awareness.

From such differences, it's impossible to engage in any debate over which way is superior or inferior to the other, or what is the true religion.

Viewed from such a perspective, all this means is that the figures for Americans, reflecting their awareness of monotheism, tend to be high, whereas for Japanese, who lack such an awareness, tend to be low. Taken from the perspective of polytheism, however, Kachi supposes the figure for awareness toward "religion and belief" by Japanese would probably be considerably higher than that of Americans.

At the core of religion among Japanese is "religion of the home," which is conducted through rituals centered around the family's ancestors (both for Shinto and Buddhism). Even if a survey were to be conducted that dropped these explanations or awareness concerning polytheism, such a survey would only produce results that were far from the actual situation. This awareness of "religion of the home' among Japanese, Kachi asserts, is alive and well even now. It can be elucidated by the teaching in Chapter I of the "Analects" of Confucius that states, "Carefully perform the rituals of 'ending" and memorials of "distance' (mourning your parents and venerating your ancestors)."

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Somehow, I get the feeling that the polytheistic Mr. Kachi doesn't put up a Christmas tree in his living room...

0 ( +3 / -3 )

From the Buddhist/Confucianist perspective, these deities or pagan gods or angels perform an important role of bridging the gap between human and the ultimate enlightenment. Because human's state of being is too far apart from the ultimate enlightenment, there are what I call 'intermediate heavens' where we can go because the environment there is more conducive for cultivation. The ultimate awakening requires no less than total eradication of our 7 sins, can you imagine how difficult that can be.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Watching the interaction of my Japanese family, from 6- and 11-year-old boys to their parents to their 80-year-old grandparents, I can only say my limited knowledge of the subject has revealed the truth of 'religion of the home'. Being warmly accepted by the family has been a blessing.

6 ( +7 / -0 )

It may be about time the Japanese try to complement Confucius ideals with a monotheistic outlook in order to curb their materialism.

-10 ( +0 / -9 )

Regardless of the religious views of the participants, it seems the replies were to the question: "What do you value in your later life?" - an open-ended question, allowing respondants to answer freely. If people were asked more direct questions, such as: "How important is some form of religion for you?" the results might have been completely different. As long as everyone answered honestly, that's ok. Honesty is a good quality. Beyond that, if people want to judge relevant merits of friends, wealth and religion - well, that's up to you.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Most Japanese seem to think that only Westerners, and Americans in particular, are materialistic. They also don't seem to see how much wealth they have in comparison to the average person on this earth. I believe in monotheism and that belief is number one on my list. Just from reading my bible and looking at what I have I know I have a lot more than what the average person in the world has been given.. Everything can be taken away or may be the cause of strife but your belief isn't one of them. I do believe some of the things Japanese believe and my beliefs have changed somewhat since I came here, but even being Christian, I do think religion is not the same as beliefs.

-2 ( +3 / -5 )

Remember Nietzsche said Christianity is just poor people making poverty a virtue, and Calvin made wealth a virtue. Even justifications for segregation (being Black is the sin of Cain, polygenesis, etc.) Whatever you want is there. Religion is not really a useful guide to life. Japanese religion is much more modest. And do not confuse Japanese religion with state Shinto during the war. During Japan's modernization, that was just a perversion in which Shinto was made to play a role analogous to that of the Church in Europe (Divine Right of Kings).

2 ( +3 / -1 )

It's easy for an older generation Westerners to rate religion so highly, when they've been brought up in fear for example, of 'missing mass on a Sunday'. Those nuns really beat it into us hehe!

0 ( +2 / -2 )

"Taken from the perspective of polytheism, however, Kachi supposes the figure for awareness toward “religion and belief” by Japanese would probably be considerably higher than that of Americans."

What an utter crock... not just what I quoted, but the article as a whole. The only thing that is 'alive and well' in terms of religion in Japan is the need to pay for a bunch of rituals that are 'required' by society but are not believed in at all. Some people who are extremely deep-rooted in Christianity, or Islam for that matter, can be quite scary, but they honestly believe in it. But go ask a Japanese Buddhist at their Shinto wedding when the Buddha's birthday is and I'm pretty sure even by the time they change dresses for the mock Christian ceremony with the ALT 'priest' they won't have an answer.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

It's a fact that many changes have occurred in the last decade of Japan with stresses on religious institutions that their members don't seem willing or able to address. Religious worship no longer provides the sense of community it once did. Politics and the Internet are scrambling the role of spirituality in Japanese life. Religions have not kept pace with peoples problems or expectations. The old religions are increasingly marginal in the lives of many people. Many are overseen by insular priesthoods preoccupied with making money and passing it on to the next generation. New religions that prospered in the postwar period have hit a slump and many new religions are viewed with suspicion in this modern era.. Thus Japan is becoming more and more secularized and young people are more interested in survival and earthly values. They need friends not support from institutions. Therefore the influence of organized religion I believe is likely to continue to decline. As a result the religious scene, always complex, is a pastiche of contradictions.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

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