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Atheism in Japan


30 Jun 2003
How far spread is atheism/agnosticism in Japan, and is it real A/A or is it a veiled form of yes-men attitude when something remotely buddhist or shinto goes on, they just follow through ?

Is atheist activism present and to what extent ? Church(shrine) and state separation I think is clearly different than say Canada or the "official" position of the States, since they have a monarchial republic, with an emperor some people still to this day believe he is the son of the Sun God or something....

Can someone clarify on these points ?
There are those arrogant people who say that the mainstream in Japan is Atheist/Agnostic, like China, but not at all. Japan is a religious nation. Just because people do not attend shrines and temples all the time does not mean that they are atheistic.

Atheism is not wide-spread at all. Usually, members of the Communist Party are the atheists in Japan, and businessmen who have lost it all are also atheists or agnostics, but this is very rare. One could call Shamanism a branch of Atheism, but even Shamanism is not widespread, only in the far south and far north.

The percentage of Atheists is probably a little lesser than that of Christianity, which is 0.01%. Yes, very low.

As for the seperation of church and state, that has nothing to do with it. All the edict said was that the shrine could not be funded by the state. Easy as that.

If you need anything else, please let me know.
This is a difficult issue to approach. Most Japanese people know they are Buddhist (or Shinto, or both, or...) but a lot of them don't have a clue as to what sect they belong to. Furthermore, people who have described themselves as Buddhist still go to the shrine at New Year. There are no strict boundaries between the different forms of religion in Japan. But of course, we all know that.

So, whatever be the case, in a strict sense, they are religious as much as most Westerners are religious. Most Westerners are baptised, but how many still go to church? I am a catholic but I don't. We could consider our and their lack of "loyalty" and single-mindedness towards our/their own sect/religion as a form of opportunism and therefore in a sense atheist. But then most people from the westernized/modernized world would have to be called atheists.

In my opinion, this so-called opportunism is actually a form of traditionalized seeking for happiness in religion. A major theme, if not THE major theme, in Japanese religion is the notion of 現世利益 (read: genze riyaku), seeking worldly benefits in religion. In a harsh way, it doesn't matter what religion, as longs as we can get a lot of benefits. I believe this is the true reason for the diversity in religious beliefs in Japan. True Japanese folk-religion is all about this and is actually far from the philosophical thinking of Zen or the likes. We could be rigid and criticize the Japanese for this, but in fact, Westerners aren't/weren't that much different.
I think Japanese is very religious on the cultural ground, but not on the spiritual ground.

There's all kind of folklore going on : holy days, rituals, but how many people really study and practise their religion?

Beside not understanding their customs and traditions, in general, they celebrate holy days of different religions. Somehow it's good for Japanese, I think, because that allows them a few days off.

Still, religion is strictly separated from the State as there is no religious education at school, and during trials, you don't put your hand on the Bible and "swear to God." In that way, Japan is less religious than the US.

I'm Japanese and live in France but I often go to Japan.

Most Japanese I know, including my wife's family, say they're not very religious. However, the oldest male children still have a butsudan and kamidana in their homes. Additionally, most Japanese are both Shinto and Buddhist, since most funeral rites are Buddhist ceremonies because death is considered dirty in Shintoism, which is focused on purification.
A good question.

Everyone here has pretty much stated things well. When I was a University student in Japan, I attempted to address this issue. To begin, I conducted a very simple survey, questioning students, homestay families, and people off the streets. Here's what I found:

The younger people tended to answer they weren't religious, BUT did participate in "religious" activities, such going to shrines and temples for any number of different reasons.

Most older people I surveyed DID answer that they were religious, and could tell me what sect. they belonged too.

Keep in mind this was very informal and not exact, but just used to get a general idea.

Heh, I also learned that most Nichiren Buddhists don't like Sokka Gakkai.

I'm no expert on the subject, but while I was in Japan it seemed that the Japanese religions were much less strict than Western religions. They didn't seem to contain rugid sets of rules, but seemed more like general philosophies. In that way, they didn't even seem to fit the Western definition of a religion.

Also, being "atheist" means that you don't believe in a "supreme being". It has nothing to do with going to church. If you believe in God, but never go to church, you are not an atheist, you're just not very religious. There is a huge distinction between having a belief in God and subscribing to an organization that worships God. 🙂
There is a broad spectrum.

it seemed that the Japanese religions were much less strict than Western religions. They didn't seem to contain rugid sets of rules, but seemed more like general philosophies.

I would say that it depends entirely on the person and the religion. I've met some pretty strict people when it comes to religion. Notably, followers of Tenri (sp?) impressed me with their austerities. On the other hand, I know a few Buddhists who like to drink and womanize!

In shintoism and buddhism, there is no supreme being. In shintoism, the belief is that there are "kami" or spirits or minor gods but a single ruler or supreme being does not exist. In Buddhism, there is Buddha, but you do not worship him and he is not a supreme being. You simply use his teachings and wisdom and he is more of a teacher and certainly no god. So technically, you could be Shinto or Buddhist or both and still be an atheist.

Now, I am an atheist, meaning that I believe that God doesn't exist and so is my family. Most of my friends are also atheists, although I do have some Christian and Hindu friends. But I do know many people who are either non-religious or buddhist or shinto but also believe in a supreme being at the same time. They often refer to it as "kami-sama" or God but it is not a supreme being in the Judao-Christian sense. The kami-sama just exists and they usually have any religious rituals to worship it in the way of religions with supreme beings, though the characteristics of the "kami-sama" and how people interact with the "kami-sama" seems to difer depending on the person.
I would think that anyone who believed in any kind of "Being" wouldn't qualify as being an atheist, but I don't know. Most religions have some kind of take on what that "Being" might be like, but they're all reaching different conclusions about the same thing and giving them different names.
In Buddhism, there is Buddha, but you do not worship him and he is not a supreme being.

That might be true in some theories, but not necessarily true in all practices. Many branches of Buddhism do stress praying to the Buddha, and treat him as a Supreme Being. The best example I can think of is Pure Land Buddhism, or Amitabha Buddhism. The way and manner Buddhism is practiced is diverse as any faith. Even the enigmatic Sokka Gakkai Buddhists stress that though chanting the daimoku you can gain material benefits. (E.I. new cars, health, etc.) Not to mention the pantheon of god-buddha's that have developed since Buddhism's birth.
When asked about God, the Buddha retained his "Noble Silence." Since the Buddha never confirmed nor denied if there is a God, it might be said that all Buddhists are, or should be, Agnostic (they don't know if there is or isn't a God). However, within the Buddhist faith you may find that there also are many Theists and Atheists. As mentioned above, Amidism has unwittingly produced many laypeople who view Amitabha/Amitayus Buddha as a sort of God to be prayed to. This was clearly not the intention of Shakyamuni Buddha, but due to a cultural misconception it became common place for the Pure Land laity. Also, I have personally met many self-proclaimed Atheist Buddhists in the Zen tradition. Several said that they were fed up with the fear and guilt of Occidental, Theist religions and found a comfortable home in Zen Buddhism.

Respectfully, Kakuzen (aka. Zenshin)
Shinto, Kami/Jin, and religion in general.

Most of Japan are into Shintoism much like on how most of Indonesia are into Islam.

In other words, in papers only. The same goes for Chinese and their 'dominant religion'. And the same goes for everywhere around the world.

As for religiously.

Human beings are religious people, even atheistic people have their own religions. The concept of religion in Arabic also equivalent of the meanings "debt". And of course we often heard people said on how a certain person read the technical manual of something religiously.

If you got a ko-gal who regularly visited the mall. Well... I guess you know what is her religion and her regular 'house of worship'.

And should math be banned from U.S. public school for promoting a certain religion?


As for atheist.

It means no ("a") god ("theist"). Any god, ranging from Zeus to Amateresu. Don't be fooled into thinking that being an atheist means don't believe in monotheisme and believing polytheisme.

Now... As for the G factor in Japan.

Well... This hard to say, considering that there are around 125 millions Japanese people and to find that out you need to literally searched the heart of every person.

But I would say that most Japanese like most people in the world are peaceful (or "muslim" in Arabic) and many just like many people in the world probably has a G factor inside of them and believe it in one sort of way or another (or "mu'min" in Arabic).

As for the whole kami-sama things.

The Japanese like many people seems to be divided into two types:

- Those who respect the kami, considering that they are essentially neighbours. Basically treating the kami as fellow creatures. Though if that's case, these creatures probably aren't kami to these people.

- Those worship the kami. This type of people seems to be have been fooled by the kami, the kami are not ALL good ones though, some are quite mischievous creatures.

Now as for saying that the Japanese aren't monotheistic due the huge population of kami. Remember that in Japan, even your deceased relative are considered as kami, as matter in fact, many of the Japanese kami are often considered as ancestors.

As for the whole monotheistic thing. Come on, most old religions are monotheistic in some sort of way, considering that they shared the same origin.

Hindu for example while have many gods (The Japanese probably would refer them as Kami/Jin, while the Qur'an refer them as "Jinn"), in its core is a monotheistic religion.

Of course religions that aren't monotheistics chances are one of those fancy New Age religions. Then again, maybe modern shunti is one of those religions, maybe the shin in

As for the whole Japanese religion is 'less strict' thing.

Those who said that are brainwashed into thinking that each type of religion is different. The idea of 'less strict' thing seems to arose on the fact that many (most?) people don't follow what their temples, mosques, churchs, and so on said, which is a good thing.
Hmmm, I'm having difficulty accepting some of your rather personally coloured views on religion, after all we are talking about Japanese religion here.

For instance, regarding the "whole monotheistic thing", what you described there as a common origin of all religions. I do not believe that Buddhism shares the same origin with for instance Christianity. Furthermore, stating that all religions are in se monotheistic, like Hindiusm that underneath the polytheistic surface a monotheistic core exists, is just plain generalization. The concept of the atman, to which I think you are referring to, is a philosophically constructed vision and has not so much to do with the common people's religious life.

Be careful not to mix up philosophically constructed religious doctrines and the beliefs of the common people. As is also the case for Japan, the common people's religiousness wasn't/isn't as strict as what the temples prescribed (although I can easily argue that, but I would take me a lot longer to explain and it would just get too academic). In a way, you are partially right about that one.

However, as for the "brainwashed" 'thing'...
You seem to have this strong idea about all religions being the same in the core, and maybe they are, but that's talking on a completely different, even personal level. We are talking facts here, we are talking Japanese religion here. Not MY views on religion.

Thing - over and out.
There are those arrogant people who say that the mainstream in Japan is Atheist/Agnostic, like China, but not at all. Japan is a religious nation. Just because people do not attend shrines and temples all the time does not mean that they are atheistic.

Hmm, it's not quite accurate to call Japan a "religious nation", at least not in the sense that we usually use the term. Religion in Japan is a very different concept from how we view religion in the "west". If you ask most Japanese "does a God or gods exist?", they will mostly answer "I don't think so" or "i don't know".

Buddhism is atheistic, Shinto is polytheistic, yet most Japanese are Buddhist *and* Shinto... at the same time. (In fact, it sounds weird, but in my experience, many people haven't even heard of the word "Shinto", but they go to Shinto shrines, carry out Shinto rituals as well as Buddhist temples to revere their ancestors). In every city, and town in Japan there is some sort of solstice festival, harvest festival or fertility festival at a shrine or a temple. Most Japanese don't consider them religious though, these festivals are merely Japanese traditions. Almost every Japanese person will visit their ancestors' grave to "pray" but if you asked them directly if their think their ancestors can hear them or affect their life, they'd most likely say "no" or "I don't know".

Most also agree intellectually with Evolution and the scientific method (I use the word "agree" rather than "believe" because the Japanese themselves shy away from commiting themselves to certainly, even privately/internally). Confusianism has heavily influenced Japanese behaviour and society and Confusianism itself is also just as difficult to pin down as to whether it is atheistic or theistic. I don't think either labels apply.

If I were to name the Japanese belief system I would give it 4 names. Traditionalism, superstition, hierarchism and apatheism. Apa-theism is "practical atheism" or apathy, disregard, or lack of interest towards belief, or lack of belief in a deity. The majority of Japanese don't really have strong beliefs in anything really, apart from keeping society running like a well-oiled machine and not sticking out from the crowd. The issue of the divine is not important to them, but the Japanese respect traditions, they have a plethora of origin myths which are treated as stories, and superstitions which affect every aspect of society (eg. the numbers 4 and 9, not leaving chopsticks in a bowl of rice etc). Every level of Japanese society is hierarchical.

To illustrate Japanese traditionalism consider an example from the "west". In the United Kingdom, we don't *believe* in the concept of a divinely appointed monarchy, we believe strictly in democracy, yet we still have a Queen. She is a symbol of our history and tradition. Similarly, most Japanese don't literally *believe* in Buddhism, Shinto or Confucianism, but the rituals and behaviour are proud symbols of Japanese history and tradition. In giving them up, you lose what it means to be Japanese, just like many British people have this unspoken, nagging feeling that we'd be somehow less British if the position of Queen ceased to exist.

The Japanese often use the concept of "gods" to metaphorically describe the universe, but to pin them down as to whether they believe in the literal existence of those gods is a difficult task. The issue of *why* we are here is and has been rarely addressed in Japanese society. We simply *are* here and beyond the scientific answers, existence is not something that needs heavy analysis. Anyone who is dogmatic about the atheism or theism of the Japanese is simply wrong.
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must of the develope are Atheism

must of the lead people at science are Atheism,and without there point of view,the science were been with bad place...

must of the lead people at science are Atheism,and without there point of view,the science were been with bad place...

for example, in case of big bang...
what origin of big bang?
lim∞ 1/x=0 however , indeed it is not eqeal 0.
I think many scientist feel an exsistence of god at this point

I think Mono no aware is important mind for the Japanese
Knowledge Network: Columns

Experience the Japanese concept of 'mono no aware'
Bridging Cultural Barriers, by Boyé Lafayette De Mente

The Japanese have long had a reputation abroad as being "economic animals" who give work precedence over having a good time. To some extent they deserve this reputation. Each year a number of Japanese commit karoshi (kah-roe-she). In other words they work themselves to death! But there is another side of Japan that is wonderfully uplifting — and here is my personal take on that side.

One of the special elements of Japanese culture is the tradition of creating both environments and occasions for communing with the fragility of life — an element that adds enormously to the recognition of this fragility and makes people more inclined to enjoy the years they have.

One of the most memorable afternoons I have spent in Japan was in a traditional ryokan (rio-kahn), or inn, situated on the slope of a gorge on picturesque Izu Peninsula southwest of Tokyo. It was a Sunday afternoon. I was alone, and it was raining — not a heavy rain but a light, steady rain that was close to being a mist. I was sitting on the balcony of my room, looking out over the gorge, waiting for a friend to arrive.

As I sat there staring contemplatively at this incredibly beautiful sight, I began to experience what the Japanese call mono no aware (moe-no no ah-wah-ray) — a Buddhist concept that includes being very conscious of the ephemeral nature of man, his struggle in the face of great odds and the inevitability of his downfall and disappearance.

This aspect of Japan's culture, developed between 700 and 1200, was based on the acute recognition of the impermanence of all things — an element that was enhanced by the code of the samurai which required them to be ready to give up their lives at a moment's notice — resulting in their lives being compared to cherry blossoms … beautiful but fragile to the extreme and subject to being wafted away by the slightest breeze.

This culture of impermanence was especially reflected in the haiku and tanka poetry of the era, as well as in the such great literary works as Genji Monogatari (The Tale of Genji), a novel about the intrigues and loves of an imperial prince (usually regarded as the world's first novel) written in the early 11th century by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady in the Imperial Court in Kyoto; and Heike Monogatari (The Tale of the Heike), compiled by a blind monk named Kakuichi in 1371.

The opening lines of Heike Monogatari, which depicts an epic struggle between the Taira and Minamoto clans for the control of Japan in the 12th century, say more about the human condition than many philosophical tomes:

"The sound of the Gion Shôja (temple bells in the Gion district of Kyoto) echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the sâla flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline. The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night. The mighty fall at last; they are as dust before the wind."

The culture of Japan reflected this theme in many ways, resulting in the Japanese developing an extensive vocabulary that expressed this inherent sadness of life.

While mono no aware means something like "indulging one's self in grief," neither this phrase nor any of the other keywords were actually used in sad situations. Instead they referred to a gentle melancholy view of the fragility and preciousness of life that included an element of subdued pleasure.

The annual custom of celebrating the short life of cherry blossoms is the largest and most popular of Japan's mono no aware rituals. It reminds them to take the time and find ways to enjoy life while they can because it will soon be gone.

My spending a quiet afternoon entranced by the natural beauty of the setting as it was being cleansed and renewed by rain was another of the mono no aware practices that are dear to the hearts of the Japanese. Still another way is to engage in "forest bathing" — spending time in an isolated forest, letting the sights, sounds and vibrations of the trees wash over you.

There is also an element of mono no aware in most of Japan's classic arts and craft designs, from kitchen utensils to the kimono worn by older men and women. The famous Tea Ceremony is a pure mono no aware ritual.

Knowledge of this cultural element makes it possible for one to appreciate more fully the distinctive essence of things Japanese — the elements that make them Japanese.

This factor is one of the unspoken and generally undescribed things that make the traditional aspects of life in Japan so sensually, intellectually and spiritually attractive to everyone, including foreigners who are sensitive to the brevity of life.

Knowledge Network
The problem with sorting out demographics in terms of atheism vs theism is that 1) Not all non religious people consider themselves to be atheists. e.g., agnostic, spiritual. 2) Not all participants of religious events can be classified as religious people. e.g., attending ceremonies out of tradition and respect, however not necessarily believing in the higher meaning behind it. 3) Not all religions share belief in deities and thus its members technically can't be considered theists.

Atheism is defined as: a⋅the⋅ism [ey-thee-iz-uhm]
–noun 1. the doctrine or belief that there is no God.
2. disbelief in the existence of a supreme being or beings.

This is the dictionary definition of atheism. Though as I've stated, it paints a gray area as to whether a person considers themself to be atheist or not. So, to get by the red tape on this. Here is a more direct poll conducted on this topic. The percentage of people in Japan who do "not believe in god." Doesn't matter what they think atheism is or not, or whether they consider Buddhism/Taoism to be a religion or not. Here is the number gathered on Japanese residents whom said they do not believe in any god...

51.8 % Dentsu Communication Institute Inc,
Japan Research Center (2006)

Now for the rest whom do believe in god or religion of some form. Here is the studies on that...

observe both Shinto and Buddhist 84%, other 16% (including Christian 0.7%) CIA World Factbook (2008)

So if the question is whether someone in Japan considers themself an atheist, then it would seem that the number might appear very low. Though if the question is if someone in Japan considers themself a non-believer of god, then it would appear over half don't. With a very small percentage whom do believe in god (.7%) being Christian.
That might be true in some theories, but not necessarily true in all practices. Many branches of Buddhism do stress praying to the Buddha, and treat him as a Supreme Being. The best example I can think of is Pure Land Buddhism, or Amitabha Buddhism. The way and manner Buddhism is practiced is diverse as any faith. Even the enigmatic Sokka Gakkai Buddhists stress that though chanting the daimoku you can gain material benefits. (E.I. new cars, health, etc.) Not to mention the pantheon of god-buddha's that have developed since Buddhism's birth.

i like to share this except article interview about chanting from the perspectives of sokagakkai/SGI.

Nichiren Buddhists chant the daimoku to get what they want—a successful career, better health, a good marriage, even world peace. Nevertheless, from a purely traditional point of view, it would seem a violation of basic Buddhist doctrine to chant for the satisfaction of earthly desires rather than striving to overcome them. Isn't this a contradiction? If you think that the purpose of religion is happiness, there really is no contradiction. The ideal of Mahayana Buddhism is the realization of happiness for oneself and for others. Nowhere is this more completely set out than in the Lotus Sutra, which recognizes the Buddha-nature in all people—women and men, those with formal education and those without. It declares that all people, without regard to their class, origin, personal, cultural, or social background, can attain enlightenment. Our recitation of the title of the Lotus Sutra is a way of renewing our vow to live in accord with this ideal.

Even so, the Buddhist tradition—even the Mahayana tradition—has tended to focus on a monastic approach to enlightenment. Do you see in the Lotus Sutra the suggestion of some kind of populist reform?
The Lotus Sutra does not deny the validity of monastic practice, of people dedicating themselves to their practice in a setting conducive to overcoming deluded impulses and attaining a peaceful state of mind. The problem arises when the practice comes to be seen as an end in itself, rather than a means of entering into the path of wisdom. Nichiren was the first to make the attainment of wisdom through faith a possibility for all people. By following his teachings, it becomes possible to use every occurrence in life—pleasant or painful—as an opportunity for the further development of our innate wisdom. When Nichiren declares that earthly desires lead to enlightenment, he is describing a process by which even ordinary people living in the midst of deluded impulses and earthly desires can manifest their highest wisdom.

I still think a lot of non-Nichiren Buddhists will have a hard time understanding how chanting for earthly desires leads to enlightenment.
Well, to begin with, I think it is important for all Buddhists—even members of the SGI—to understand that Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is not some kind of magic formula to be recited to fulfill desires. It is a practice that expresses our faith in the truth and brings our lives into rhythm with that truth. It is a path for overcoming the so-called lesser self that is attached to desires and tormented by deluded impulses. It is a process of training and transforming our lives to be able to manifest our greater self, to bring forth our Buddha-wisdom and the compassionate capacity to realize happiness for ourselves and other people.

In its early days, the Soka Gakkai was despised and laughed at in Japanese society as a gathering of the sick and poor. Josei Toda, my life mentor, took this as a point of pride, however, and declared with confidence: ツ"The true mission of religion is to bring relief to the sick and the poor. That is the purpose of Buddhism. The Soka Gakkai is the ally and friend of the common people, a friend to the unhappy. However much we may be looked down on, we will continue to fight for the sake of such people.ツ" Faced with the devastation of postwar Japan, Toda was convinced that, in the eyes of the Buddha, this was the most noble action.

Moreover, the Lotus Sutra doesn't deny the value of worldly benefit. By allowing people to start to practice in expectation of such benefit, the teachings of the Lotus Sutra establish a way of life based on faith, and through this faith—developed step by step, starting from wherever we happen to find ourselves in life when we come to the Buddhist path, and with whatever natural human worries or concerns happen to have us in their grip at the time—we enter the path of wisdom. By believing in this sutra that teaches universal enlightenment and by purifying our mind, we are then able to bring our daily actions into harmony with the core spirit of Buddhism. In the Lotus Sutra and the teachings of Nichiren, there is no essential dichotomy between enlightenment and the lives of ordinary beings.

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