Why Many Japanese Say They have No Religion: Collective Spirituality, Family and Law

By Kyoko Inoue.

Published by The International Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Society

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Japanese religion has been intensely social, providing people with a sense of community and identity, particularly on the local level. Yet, large numbers of Japanese today say that they have no religion, even though they visit shrines and temples and engage in activities usually considered religious. They don’t seem to consider them to be spiritual acts. This is in part a consequence of legal changes imposed during the American occupation, which contributed to undermining the communal spiritual basis of religious activities.
Historically, the most pervasive form of popular religion in Japan has been a blend of two traditions, Shintoism and Buddhism. In Shintoism, people worship gods of natural phenomena such as mountains, rivers and forests, as well as ancestors, in communal ceremonies. Families were protected by the ancestral and village gods. When Buddhism reached Japan, ancestor worship, added in China, helped make the new religion congenial to the Japanese. Over time, the religions began to merge, and many Japanese now embrace both without clearly distinguishing them. For the most part, religious practices in the blended tradition have been largely local, rooted in community festivals and ceremonies.
After WWII, the American occupation forces abolished state control of Shintoism and provided for separation of the state and religion in the new constitution. They also eliminated the Meiji household system, under which the house head looked after the family, including the ancestors. Separation of state and religion prevents local communities from providing financial support to shrines and temples. The elimination of the household system has left it unclear who would maintain the family tomb to show reverence to ancestors. Both provisions thus weakened the foundation of collective spirituality.

Keywords: Community Spirituality, Religious Community, Religion and Law

The International Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Society, Volume 1, Issue 3, pp.17-26. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 728.881KB).

Dr. Kyoko Inoue

Professor Emerita, Department of English, University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, USA

I was trained in theoretical linguistics at the University of Michigan and taught linguistics and modern English (focusing on syntax-semantics) most of my career at the University of Illinois at Chicago from 1975 to 2007. However, since the early 1980s, in my research, I have devoted myself to comparative cultural studies of Japanese and American societies. My work has resulted in two books and one book manuscript: “MacArthur’s Japanese Constitution: A Linguistic and Cultural Study of Its Making” (University of Chicago Press, 1991), “Individual Dignity in Modern Japanese Thought: The Evolution of the Concept of Jinkaku in Moral and Educational Discourse” (Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan, 2001), and “Liberal Education in Japan: Deweyan Experiments” coauthored with Richard B. Muller (2010, not yet in press). My interest in comparative studies of American and Japanese religious traditions-the nature and the role of religion in society-is one of the evolving themes that I have pursued and discussed from different perspectives in all three books in my thirty years of research thus far.