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Latest survey on religious beliefs in Japan and East Asia

Maciamo

先輩
17 Jul 2002
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The Pew Research Center has conducted a new survey on Religion and Spirituality in East Asian Societies. It's interesting to see how Japan compares with its neighbours.

Japan is the most Buddhist country in East Asia. 46% of Buddhist, 42% of non-religious and the 9% of other religion are probably Shintoists for the most part. That shows that Shintoism is dying as a religion (its modern role is more folkloric).

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East Asian and West/North European countries have the highest percentage of people quitting their childhood religion.

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Christianity, Buddhism and Taoism are all losing ground to the non-affiliated, except in Vietnam where both Buddhism and Christianity are slightly on the rise.

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Interestingly most people in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Vietnam believe in karma (a Hindu and Buddhist concept), while only 16% of Japanese do. It's surprising as Japan has the highest share of Buddhists.


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Many Japanese Buddhists may actually be Buddhist in name only. Half of Japanese people who consider themselves Buddhists do not believe in reincarnation, which is a core tenet of Buddhism. And only 57% of Japanese Buddhists do not follow the ethical teachings of Buddhism! In fact, more unaffiliated people in Hong Kong follow Buddhist ethics than Japanese Buddhists. :oops:

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In every East Asian country young people are less religious than their elders. However Japan is the only country where young people (18-35 years old) are more likely to be Christian (3%) than older people (1%). In South Korea, the most Christian country in East Asia, younger people are much less likely to be Christian (25% vs 35%).

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83% of the Japanese are opposed to religious proselytism - the highest rate in East Asia, although closely followed by South Korea.

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Worldwide, Japan is the country where religion is the least important in people's world.

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The survey is very long and has plenty of other charts. I am not going to repost everything here. I encourage you to check the link above if you want to know more.
 
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This is very comprehensive data. Interestingly, Shintoism is either not mentioned or subsumed under "some other religion." I have only ever met one Japanese who declared herself a practising Shintoist.
 
Overall I think this is a good survey, but there are several inaccuracies about religious activity in Japan that need to be pointed out.

First, asking a Japanese person, "Do you believe in Buddhism?" and then asking them, "Do you believe in Shintoism?" is a mistaken methodology. Many Japanese people follow Buddhist customs but they follow Shinto customs too. Does this mean they are both Buddhist and Shinto? Westerners feel that when a Japanese person says they are Buddhist, it automatically means they do not follow Shinto, which is an idea that does not work in Japan. And how about someone who is not willing to say, "I am Buddhist," but follows Buddhist customs? It is said that Japanese people are 'born Shintoists, marry as Christians, and die as Buddhists,' which is true. Trying to pigeon-hole such people into one religion is a mistake (and Japanese people are perplexed when Westerners try to do so).

Then there is the problem of asking a Japanese person which religion they belong to, considering how both Buddhism and Shintoism have been thoroughly denounced by many Japanese people in the last 100 years. During the war, Buddhism was seen as being anti-Japanese because it did not teach emperor worship the way Shintoism did, turning off many Japanese people towards Buddhism. Some laws were even enacted during the war that officially reduced Buddhism's stature in Japan. Then, after Japan lost the war, many Japanese people blamed the entire WWII disaster on emperor-worship and Shintoism, and as a result, became disgusted with Shintoism. As a result, within the last 100 years, both Buddhism and Shintoism have been totally discredited in Japan, and many Japanese people continue to feel this way even today, towards Buddhism, Shintoism, and organized religion in general. Trying to have a religious discussion with a Japanese person is very complicated and is fraught with Japanese people guarding what they actually believe. For many Japanese people, religion is a forbidden topic of discussion.

Next is the idea that Japanese do not believe in reincarnation. Many people do not know that most Buddhists absolutely refuse to use the word 'reincarnation' in any context, and strongly prefer to use the word 'rebirth.' (This is a huge issue in today's Buddhism.) Asking such a person if they believe in reincarnation is ludicrous, uninformed, and gives any academic study significant errors. (I was once told by a Buddhist person that I am not even 'allowed' to say the word 'reincarnation' and I must always say the word 'rebirth' instead.)

To many Japanese Buddhists, the question of whether they believe in reincarnation/rebirth simply is not important and never comes up, so when asked about it, they are caught off-guard. The fact is that, yes, many Japanese Buddhists do not believe in reincarnation/rebirth, but there is some discussion as to what Buddha actually did and did not teach. So I think saying that reincarnation is a core tenet of Buddhism needs to be reconsidered.

(By the way, I once had a fascinating discussion in Japan with a Shinto Priest, and the discussion went quite differently than how I would have expected it to go.)

Interestingly, many of these issues are also true of Buddhism in China. (Chinese Buddhism is a fascinating study all by itself, and Chinese Buddhism is quite different than Japanese Buddhism.)

Another thing that mystifies Westerners is how Japanese people do not get their morals from religion. Westerners base much of their morals on, "If you do that, you will go to Hell," but that is not the approach to morality that most Japanese people take.

"83% of the Japanese are opposed to religious proselytism." This is how it should be, and I am happy to see that most Japanese take this approach. I remember one Filipina lady in Tokyo (a strong Catholic) who was upset/angry that Japanese people never asked her about her religion. I, on the other hand, commend Japanese people for not asking such questions.
 
Overall I think this is a good survey, but there are several inaccuracies about religious activity in Japan that need to be pointed out.

First, asking a Japanese person, "Do you believe in Buddhism?" and then asking them, "Do you believe in Shintoism?" is a mistaken methodology. Many Japanese people follow Buddhist customs but they follow Shinto customs too. Does this mean they are both Buddhist and Shinto? Westerners feel that when a Japanese person says they are Buddhist, it automatically means they do not follow Shinto, which is an idea that does not work in Japan. And how about someone who is not willing to say, "I am Buddhist," but follows Buddhist customs? It is said that Japanese people are 'born Shintoists, marry as Christians, and die as Buddhists,' which is true. Trying to pigeon-hole such people into one religion is a mistake (and Japanese people are perplexed when Westerners try to do so).

I suppose that you did not read the full survey and its methodology. The people at the Pew Research Centre are professionals. They do religious surveys every year and many countries around the world and they obviously know that East Asian people can believe in many religions at the same time. It's actually part of the survey. For example:

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Then there is the problem of asking a Japanese person which religion they belong to, considering how both Buddhism and Shintoism have been thoroughly denounced by many Japanese people in the last 100 years. During the war, Buddhism was seen as being anti-Japanese because it did not teach emperor worship the way Shintoism did, turning off many Japanese people towards Buddhism. Some laws were even enacted during the war that officially reduced Buddhism's stature in Japan. Then, after Japan lost the war, many Japanese people blamed the entire WWII disaster on emperor-worship and Shintoism, and as a result, became disgusted with Shintoism. As a result, within the last 100 years, both Buddhism and Shintoism have been totally discredited in Japan, and many Japanese people continue to feel this way even today, towards Buddhism, Shintoism, and organized religion in general. Trying to have a religious discussion with a Japanese person is very complicated and is fraught with Japanese people guarding what they actually believe. For many Japanese people, religion is a forbidden topic of discussion.

I have a very different experience during my years in Japan. When I was teaching English in Japan (mostly private one to one lessons) I had plenty of opportunities to ask my students about their religious views and rarely encountered any reluctance on their part.

Over ten years ago, I wrote an article called The Six Faces of Japanese religion, in which I explained that Japanese people actually believe in a blend of various religions. What surprised me the most is that the vast majority of the Japanese do not see themselves as Confucianists, even though Confucian beliefs (like respect for elders, social harmony, or the concepts of sempai and kohai) are followed by nearly 100% of the Japanese, unlike Buddhism or Shinto. That was surprising because many people who consider themselves Buddhist do not seem to know much about Buddhism and even less follow Buddhist teachings (see below). But I am yet to meet a single Japanese (living in Japan) who rejects the Confucian system of sempai-kohai.

Next is the idea that Japanese do not believe in reincarnation. Many people do not know that most Buddhists absolutely refuse to use the word 'reincarnation' in any context, and strongly prefer to use the word 'rebirth.' (This is a huge issue in today's Buddhism.) Asking such a person if they believe in reincarnation is ludicrous, uninformed, and gives any academic study significant errors. (I was once told by a Buddhist person that I am not even 'allowed' to say the word 'reincarnation' and I must always say the word 'rebirth' instead.)

To many Japanese Buddhists, the question of whether they believe in reincarnation/rebirth simply is not important and never comes up, so when asked about it, they are caught off-guard. The fact is that, yes, many Japanese Buddhists do not believe in reincarnation/rebirth, but there is some discussion as to what Buddha actually did and did not teach. So I think saying that reincarnation is a core tenet of Buddhism needs to be reconsidered.
In chapter 5 they actually use the term rebirth. So I should have said that half of Japanese Buddhists do not believe in rebirth.

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Even more surprising is it about 1/3 of East Asian Christians believe in rebirth even though it is a concept not found in Christianity. For Christians the afterlife is heaven or hell, not rebirth.

But anyway religious people don't make sense to me. They're full of contradictions.

Another thing that mystifies Westerners is how Japanese people do not get their morals from religion. Westerners base much of their morals on, "If you do that, you will go to Hell," but that is not the approach to morality that most Japanese people take.

I see that you are from the United States and I take it that by Westerners you mean mostly Americans. The majority of Europeans are not religious. The latest survey shows that, for example, in the Netherlands less than 5% of the population are true Christians (Christians who actually believe in the Bible and in God, not agnostic Christians or people with doubts about their beliefs, who make up another 10% of the population).

I am an Atheist and this is one of the (many) reasons why I originally felt attracted to Japan where over half of the population is non-religious and the rest are mostly Buddhists. The true original Buddhism was also an Atheist religion and the closest modern form of Buddhism to what the Buddha preached is Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand. The East Asian Mahayana Buddhism incorporated many deities and superstitions. In Japan there is even a syncretistic religion merging Buddhism and Shinto, namely Shingon Buddhism (most popular in Shikoku).

Anyway, one of the most fundamental raison d'être of religions is to instil moral values (even if it is often to the detriment of critical thinking, logic an independent thinking). This is the reason why I find it surprising that people who consider themselves to be Buddhists do not follow Buddhist ethics.

This survey also found that only 27% of Japanese Buddhists meditate, which is less than the religiously unaffiliated in Japan!

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If Japanese Buddhists do not follow Buddhist ethics, do not meditate and do not believe in rebirth, there isn't much else left, apart for superstitions. If they are just left with superstitions —the worst part of Mahayana Buddhism— then it's really sad.

"83% of the Japanese are opposed to religious proselytism." This is how it should be, and I am happy to see that most Japanese take this approach. I remember one Filipina lady in Tokyo (a strong Catholic) who was upset/angry that Japanese people never asked her about her religion. I, on the other hand, commend Japanese people for not asking such questions.

As an Atheist my view is that religious proselytism should be prohibited or even criminalised. So I am glad to see that 83% of the Japanese oppose it too.
 
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