Is there Religion in Japan?

Agon Shu's Hoshi Matsuri... one of many religious ceremonies in Japan

Agon Shu’s Hoshi Matsuri… one of many religious ceremonies in Japan

At first glance the question of whether or not religion exists in Japan seems like it is rather straightforward and may be even a slightly silly question to ask. I mean how could anyone doubt there is religion in Japan? Just look at all those Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples! And what about all those famous Zen monks or those new age religions? Aren’t those clearly signs of religion in Japan?

My answer would be yes… but despite this seemingly straightforward answer, the question continues to raise its ugly head in both academic papers and, more recently, in the comment section of my blog (in particular any time ‘religion’ is mentioned alongside the topic of ninjas)!

The basic arguments presented in both cases are almost indistinguishable. Which means that I can address the arguments of both the ninjutsu practitioners and the academics in one fell swoop… (or at least that’s the idea!)

As for what that the basic arguments are, illustrations would probably be best: For an academic example I only need to turn to the most recent article I read- an article discussing State Shinto published this year (2009) by the noted Japanese scholar of religion Susumu Shimazono (available here).

In the article Shimazono says the following:

‘Religion’… was regarded as a unique systemic sphere, distinguished from other social fields. But the understanding that finds specialists and ritualists at the center reflects Christian premises and conceptual frameworks of religious systems that have been imported from the modern West. All religious traditions, however, whether Islam, Judaism, or Hinduism, have many aspects that do not fit into this understanding of religion. In such religious cultures, the realms of religion and other systems are mutually interpenetrating… of course, Shinto is also close to them. To think of Shinto being confined within a religious organisation is to force it into a Christian mold and into conceptual frameworks from the Christian cultural sphere.

And in a somewhat similar fashion, in the comment section of one of my articles on Ninjutsu and its recent moves to become registered as a religious organisation in Japan, an anonymous poster wrote:

Regarding religion in Japan: I have read (source: The Rough Guide to Japan, context section) that until quite recently in history shinto was not regarded as a religion by the Japanese. As they were isolated from the rest of the world, they did not need to distinguish their religion from anyone else’s and so they just saw it as something they did as natural as eating with chopsticks and most people having black hair and dark eyes in that country. Therefore religion does not have the same context and connotations in Japan as it does in Britain today.

To me there is a central point of contention which is clearly evident in both examples and it lies primarily with a hangup surrounding the actual word ‘religion’. The main problem identified is that, as an English word, ‘religion’ carries the cultural baggage of a host of implicit connotations, which are strongly linked to Christianity (the long dominant religion of the English speaking world).

Critics contend that such connotations make it an unsuitable or, at very least, a perilous term to use when examining non-Christian countries like Japan. Both quotes also raise the related point that the concept of ‘religion’ as a distinct sphere of activity was not an indigenous concept in Japan but an idea imported to Japan from ‘the West’, which means that to use the term in any analysis involves employing a foreign categorisation and is thus likely to obscure more than it illuminates.

There are many problems I see with these arguments and top of the list is that they rely heavily on the assertion that everything which is not Christian but is labelled as ‘a religion’ is immediately expected, due to the word’s origins, to fit into a Christian model. So, for instance, when people examine Shinto as a ‘religion’ they must immediately expect it to have centralised doctrines and an overall hierarchical ruling body which establishes orthodoxy which, of course, it does not have (… except of course for the Association of Shinto Shrines (Jinja Honcho) which administers over 80,000 of the Shrines in Japan, but then, membership isn’t mandatory so maybe we can just set that aside for now).

Now, the issue I, and certain scholars of Japanese religion, take with this is that to use the word ‘religion’ does not actually require that you expect the thing you are describing (or indeed all religions) to fit a Christian model. The origins of a word do not necessarily reflect its modern usage and while ‘religion’ may, for most of the term’s history, have carried Christian connotations this is not necessarily the case today and especially not when it is used in an academic context.

In a similar vein, I think that the claim that to use the word ‘religion’ implies a sphere of interest entirely distinct from all other areas, such as politics, philosophy or economics, is somewhat naive. Particularly because critics of using the term in Japan seem to almost universally imply that in Europe, or elsewhere, whenever ‘religion’ is discussed, it is discussed as if it is distinct from all other spheres of human interest. I do not believe this is typically the case, except maybe in theology, but even then I think many theologians would argue that their discussions are related to the outside world (consider Christian liberation theology for example).

As a result using religion as a distinct category/topic also does not require the associated implication that the things which qualify as religions cannot influence or interact with any other spheres of life. All churches/temples/shrines and mosques exist as a part of a local society and culture and are used by everyday people so there is no good reason to expect them to remain entirely seperate from all other worldly affairs. Two examples which immediately spring to mind which show such a distinction to be pure fiction are 1) the Christian political parties in the UK (currently enjoying a surge in popularity) and 2) the cultural influence of religious figures like Reverend Al Sharpton, the Dalai Lama or any number of conservative pastors and reverends in America. People may argue that religion should stay out of politics or other areas but this is rarely the case!

Furthermore, politics is, by and large, understood as a sensible category that applies across borders- but yet politics is also never a sphere of activity completely unrelated to other spheres like economics and religion. Thus, I cannot see why people who hold reservations about using the word ‘religion’ rarely seem to extend such reservations to using other words like ‘politics’ or ‘economics’ or ‘art’ to discuss aspects of Japanese (or any other non-Western) society. The arguments seem to fit just as (un)compellingly as they do for religion so I cannot discern what makes the term ‘religion’ deserving of such special concern. Unless I’m being cynical…  in which case the fact that it fits very neatly with a popular ‘postmodern’ perspective which contends that categories that originate from ‘the West’ must have ties to imperialism and Christianity offer one potential explanation for why it is quickly singled out. But perhaps that’s too conspiratorial!

Now, in case folks think I am not representing the arguments of those who criticise the use of the term religion when discussing Japan fairly a clear illustration of both points of view in the debate can be found on the electronic journal of contemporary Japanese studies which, despite possesing a less than impressive website layout and some debatable quality control, contains some excellent articles and debates. The particular articles relevant in this case are:

(2003) ‘Religion and the Secular in Japan: Problems in History, Social Anthropology and the Study of Religion’, Timothy Fitzgerald.

(2004a) ‘Ideology, Academic Inventions and Mystical Anthropology: Responding to Fitzgerald’s Errors and Misguided Polemics’, Ian Reader.

(2004) ‘The Religion-Secular Dichotomy: A Response to Responses’, Timothy Fitzgerald.

(2004b) ‘Dichotomies, Contested Terms and Contemporary Issues in the Study of Religion’, Ian Reader.

Fitzgerald’s position is summed up quite nicely by this paragraph:

The issue takes on added interest if we are aware of the number of anthropologists and historians who have pointed out that many – perhaps most – societies in Asia and, I believe, Africa, do not have an indigenous word for ‘religion’, but when confronted by powerful invaders with their merchants, armies, missionaries and administrators who claimed to represent civilization, have been compelled to search for and construct a suitable word from their own traditional discourses. The idea that there are some special phenomena in all societies that can be described as religious or religions was not something that the people in that society decided on by themselves, but an idea received from the west, or at least negotiated into existence by local elites with the help of trading enterprises, military officers, Christian missionaries, colonial administrators and others. What constituted ‘religion’ in any given society in Asia was not a self-evident fact to the people there, neither was it indeed to the outsiders, but had to be discovered and/or invented.

Ian Reader on the otherhand provides over a series of articles (what I would consider) a devastating critique of Fitzgerald’s argument pointing out problems such as:

Fitzgerald tells us that ‘religion’ and the concept of the ‘secular’ or the ‘non-religious’ were imposed on Japan in the Meiji because of ‘the insistence by the western powers that a civilized society separates church and state’. This is an extraordinary statement in the light of the fact that the ‘western powers’ concerned with the transformation of Japan in the Meiji era included European nations that did not adhere to the notion of church-state separation. Does Fitzgerald really believe that Meiji-era British diplomats, representing a state and serving a Queen who was Head both of State and of a national church, thought that a civilised society separates church and state? Did they perceive their own society as, therefore, uncivilised? Or is Fitzgerald just telling us here how tenuous his grasp of historical, to say nothing of political, issues is?

Perhaps more importantly he also points out that the distinctions and categories Fitzgerald claims to be Western inventions were long present in Japan (please excuse the long quote but the point is very well made):

The problem here is that Fitzgerald appears to be only minimally aware of Japanese history and religion when making such comments. He fails to note, for example, that distinctions between the ‘religious’ and the ‘non-religious’ have been a recurrent element in Japanese history since at least the eighth century onwards. The Ritsuryō Codes of the eighth century, for example, sought to develop a synthesis of politics, religion, culture and state: the need to legally institute a synthesis itself indicates that people at the time were aware that these elements occupied different spheres of interest and hence needed some legislative process to link them together for the sake of government.

Equally, after the Heian Court in the early ninth century permitted the Tendai sect to establish its own ordination platform, Buddhist orders were able to establish a form of self-governing authority that marked them out from the rest of society… Such legal differentiations… are very much in evidence, too, in the continuing links and struggles from the Heian until the early modern era between the concepts of ōbō (also written as ōhō), Imperial law and buppō the Buddhist Law…

The ōbō-buppō dyad, in other words, indicates a reality of pre-Meiji Japan: that Japanese thought worlds conceived of and were well aware of a differentiation between types of institution and areas of activity and thought. As such, too, one could argue that formal attempts to separate ‘religion’ from the political in the Meiji era were driven as much, or more, by the clear wish of the authorities to reduce or remove the influence of the religious sphere in public life, as they were by any wish to ‘construct’ a special set-apart sphere called ‘religion’ to accord with western sensitivities.

There is much more detail in Reader’s replies but I’m sure you can get the picture from the above extracts (or just read the original articles). The simple fact is that there were categories in use in Japan long before Westerners appeared that distinguished religion from other areas of activity. The distinction between religion and other areas was thus not a Western invention and to claim so gives far too much credit to Western society! Reader also refers to the work of Michael Pye, another scholar of religion, who translated a Japanese tract from 1754 which used the word shūkyō (the Japanese word translated as religion) in much the same manner that the word religion is used today. From this and other evidence Pye concluded that:

… two things are indisputable about the term shūkyō … it is a clear equivalent for ‘religion’ as in the phrase ‘the study of religion’, and it was not invented by westerners.


…the modern study of religion(s) in Japan is influenced not only by reaction to western models but also by underlying ideas available in the Japanese intellectual tradition itself… The term ‘religion’ should by no means be written off as a misleading western import.

Part of Fitzgerald’s response to these comments was to argue that the disagreement was largely because when he referred to ‘religion’ he was really referring to “religions in the modern reified sense” and thus nothing outside of the modern era actually qualifies as a religion or religious to him:

I do not believe, for example, that it clarifies institutional history to describe the Roman Catholic Church or Christendom in the 15th century as ‘a religion’, neither to describe the Franciscan or Dominican orders as ‘religions’. The same point would apply to the Buddha Dhamma Sangha of south east Asia or the Soto Zen sect of Japan. I am not an expert on Islam at all, but I imagine there are serious problems in trying to classify Islam as ‘a religion’.

His perplexing definition and the mental gymnastics it involves are indicative to me of the more general problems with these kind of semantic arguments. All too often I find that such arguments involve dismissing the utility of a word simply because of it’s origins or because of issues with how it has been used in the past. Yet if we were to abandon all words that had been misused in the past we would have very few things we could actually discuss!

Reader makes this exact point contending that Fitzgerald is:

… too little attuned to the modern (by which I mean, contemporary) transformations of the terminology. I think that he is arguing for too narrow a remit and ultimately too parochial a context for ‘religion’ – one that seeks to bind it back into its nineteenth century straitjacket rather than liberating it and enabling it to embrace practice and belief.

If all this is sounding a bit too one-sided, well that’s because I am not neutral on this issue! As a result, I think Ian Reader presents a much more compelling argument and therefore deserves more attention. I do however believe it is worth reading Fitzgerald’s articles so that you can judge for yourself.

With that said, I also think it is important to understand that those arguing that the term religion is meaningful and useful to discuss aspects of Japanese society are not oblivious to the fact that there are potential problems with the term. On the contrary, they actually (just like the critics of the term) tend to spend a fair amount of time discussing its limitations and the dangers of buying into its unstated but implicit connotations.

Ian Reader & George Tanabe, for instance, in a book they wrote about popular religion in Japan commented that when they used the term religion in reference to Japan they use it with “parameters… found in much of contemporary Japanese scholarship… as an inclusive term that has elastic frontiers readily intermingled with cultural and social themes in which belief and doctrine can play a part but are not essential”.

Similarly, in the second reply to Fitzgerald, Reader summarises his position by stating:

I think we should recognise that the term has changed in nuance and has broader meanings than it did then, and that as scholars working in the (post)modern age we should recognise those meanings while being cautious about extending them so far that the term loses all intellectual coherence. One should accept that, even if there was a monolithic nineteenth century construction of ‘religion’ as a generic term of discourse, and even if this term was imported lock, stock and barrel as a wholly new concept into Japan (points I have disputed above), this does not mean that nowadays the terms and meanings remain the same, nor that contemporary usage is necessarily founded in an ideological discourse of colonialism. Contemporary scholarship in Japan has liberated the term shukyō from earlier belief-centric limitations and such developments have been a positive contribution to the field that have enabled us to push further our understandings and conceptual frameworks.

Reader and other scholars are thus not arguing that there is one monolothic ‘religion’ category whose features are exactly the same in every society, instead they are arguing that ‘religion’ is a useful term for cross cultural comparison despite its problems.

On this point I wholeheartedly agree and I would also note that even scholars who are wary of the implications the term religion can carry, ultimately tend to still find employing the term beneficial enough to warrant its use. So, for example, we see Shimazono who I identified in the beginning of this article as a critic of the term ‘religion’ and its implications concluding his article with the following statements:

…when it is becoming difficult to gain fundamental agreement on cognitive frameworks, what do words such as ‘religion’… specifically mean? It is certainly not easy to gain a consensus on their definition. However, such terms are helpful in tracing the history of ideas, sentiments, and practices if care is taken in universalizing them. The use of such general words as ‘religion’… is probably necessary to gain a comparative understanding of a spiritual culture that developed over a long period of time and to apply them to various problems in contemporary situations.

I rest my case!


  1. Japan is a very spiritual country in my opinion. I have visited there many times. Just because the way they practice religion is different then the way people in other parts of the world do, it does not mean that they are any less religious like some people believe.


  2. I think the dispute is not necessarily over whether there is ‘spiritual’ activity in Japan but whether ‘religion’ is a suitable term for it. I happen to think it is but some others disagree.


  3. Interesting post…very good to see the difficulties that defining religion brings out…. although from what I have read here I would tend to agree slightly with Fitzgerald regarding the transportation of the term/concept of religion. That is, that religion the same as culture and art (as terms in english) are given to by an external agent and not necessary by the people within. For example, at Uni they spoke of a student culture in the media, which none if us knew what exactly it looked like. This is not to say the term religion cannot be used to describe the “spiritual culture” or the process of spiritual development as you posted… but as a concept and defining term it is not necessarily that which the participants will agree on…


  4. Dear Chris,

    Thank you for your praise for the Fitzgerald/Reader debate in ejcjs.

    You say, ‘the electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies which, despite possesing a less than impressive website layout and some debatable quality control, contains some excellent articles and debates.’

    Please would you let me know where you think the journal lacks ‘quality control’ and in what way the journal has a ‘less than impressive website layout’. You can reply to me directly, if you like. My e-mail is below.




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  6. Of course, definitions are problems when we want to describe anything.

    And yes, in a classical sense, there are religions in Japan and for that matter, the same or similar religions are practised, in different locally-affected variations throughout the whole of eastern and southern Asia. What is practised there is not much different from what you get in China, India, Korea and even, to a large extent among the local minorities in Muslim dominated countries, like Malysia and Indonesia.

    Shintoism, and Shinto came from the practice of worshipping “Shen” (sinicised), immortals spirit no different from those of the Chinese mythological religion (which is the dominant religion among the Chinese). For an account of some of them read the Chinese “Canonisation of the Gods” stories. You will note the same religious practice all through the east.

    Unlike the West which almost completely destroyed the so-call pagan religion of the Norse and Greek (some parts of which survived into the Aryan Vedic worship), through accusation of heresy by the Christian and after that by the Muslim, the Eastern religious practice survived simply because the subsequent religions that came to dominate the region, Hinduism (is there really such a religion???) and Buddhism, never destroyed them but instead embraced them.


  7. @ Chris,
    2009 ! Well, I came here from your 9/13/14 post, as one of the many links. I am reading links as I go along, so I don’t know the conclusion of that article yet.

    Unlike you, in this 2009 article, I have problems with the word religion.
    But like you:

    (1) I don’t have the post-modernism assumption that religion, as a category, contains Western imperialism

    (2) I don’t think that uses of the word necessitate “a unique systemic sphere”.

    (3) I know that not all uses of “religion” contain Christian assumptions, though many do.

    But the crux of my issue is the point that there are not definitions of words, but uses and uses always contain purpose, agenda, and more. There is no “religion” to be discovered, it was a man-made word. And like other highly abstract words, it is by necessity packed with agenda, exclusion, effort and more.

    Highly abstract words are of course useful, but when people forget that they are arbitrary abstractions and not real things, the problems begin. And it is indeed then that Christianity, Imperialism, Patriotism, Exclusivism and much more jump on for the ride, until someone declares that the King has no clothes.

    Now, back to your 2014 article! 🙂
    Oooops, I just noticed that I was only half-way through this post. So I will divide my comments.


  8. @ Chris,

    I liked Fitzgerald’s point!

    But when he says, Africa and Asia don’t have an indigenous word for ‘religion’, it somewhat buys into the assumption (as I mention above) that there is this thing called “religion” that we all agree with and it is almost a real, concrete thing.

    I don’t see Reader really addressing the strong side of Fitzgerald’s point but just going off on state-religion issues.

    Instead, both seem to be dancing around the point that any use of an abstraction (here “religion”) will have various and often conflicting uses — to expect to discover definitions is naive. And such uses are always polluted with agenda, purpose, groups and artificial taxonomies. These are of course useful, but loaded.

    Uses of “shūkyō” differ in important ways throughout Japanese history and from section of society to section of society as does “religion” in the West. The overlap is complex.

    Yet you quote Reader adding this exact caveat to the uses also. So it seems that Reader wants it both ways. Maybe Fitzgerald wants it both ways too. Is this an anthropology problem, a historical problem, a sociology problem, a political problem or a philosophy of language problem? Maybe all those, eh?

    Without agreed definitions, mixed agendas have a hard time discussing things using anything but contorted knots of words.

    If one is studying “religion”, one is going to be almost inevitably committed to the word — this is a huge detriment.

    But in all of this post, I don’t see you offering your own definition of “religion”, so as to make this issue decidable. Yet you act like there is one. I think that too illustrates the challenge.

    NOW, back to 2014.


  9. Hi Sabio (answering this now does feel something like time travel),

    As you (hopefully) will see in the new post, I have no issue with admitting the constructed nature of the ‘religion’ category. I do however, think it refers to a meaningful area of life that is not easily encapsulated by other existing categories.

    A comparable word not existing natively can mean that a concept is irrelevant to a certain culture, like ‘interest rates’ for a society that lacks currency, banks and a concept of personal wealth. But it can also be the case that employing an external analytical category can be illuminating i.e. analysing the psychological and economic aspects of gift exchange ‘economies’. The fact that concepts like psychology and economy may not exist in a given society or language doesn’t make them any less applicable.

    As regards devotion to the word religion for those studying it, I would first note that in modern religious studies it is probably Fitzgerald’s position that is dominant, and hence the field suffers from a rather schizophrenic identity problem. Second, I would contend that being committed to the word is not really that much of a detriment, unless you think it is so artificial and loaded with assumptions that it is inappropriate to apply cross culturally, I don’t accept those claims though. As a result I regard examining ‘religion’ cross culturally to be like examining ‘politics’ cross culturally. I don’t assume all ‘religion’ or ‘politics’ throughout history and across the world has been the same, but I do think the concepts help us designate meaningful analytical categories. My general issue is that those criticising the use of ‘religion’ tend to have nothing better to offer, or if they do they propose equally problematic terms, so I see nothing to be gained from abandoning the term.

    As to my definition, rather boringly I regard religion as a broad analytical category which relates to any and all behaviours and thoughts related to culturally postulated superhuman agents or more abstract spiritual cosmologies. There is lots of fuzziness in the boundaries (do devotional practices to Kim Jong Un count as religion?) but I’m fine with fuzziness because I don’t regard religion as a specific singular unitary thing. It’s more the case that the category offers a useful semantic network which can be used to identify a certain family resemblance for ‘religion’ worldwide.

    I could go into more detail and provide a bunch of specific definitions that I like but maybe that would be better in a full blog post.

    Anyway, thanks for reading and commenting!


  10. Hey Sabio,

    I agree that the definition is a little wanting. It and the response was ‘off the cuff’ but I’ve thought and wrote about this kind of stuff so much that I’ve got a whole legion of semi-prepared examples and arguments floating around in my unconscious nether.

    I also agree with you that the definitional issue is ultimately impossible to resolve, as the definition that someone accepts will be based on their theoretical assumptions, I do think however there is a case to be made for certain definitions being more useful and/or more coherent than others.

    I’m also not a fan of reinventing the wheel, so while there are others out there who have provided perfectly satisfactory definitions I am more than happy to appropriate them but I think you are right to metaphorically hold my feet to the fire. I don’t like it when people dance around what they really think or use obfuscation to avoid taking a specific position. I am guilty of this at times, unintentionally of course, but I do have what I consider to be a pretty coherent theoretical position and an associated bunch of definitions I ‘like’. I do also think it is possible to discuss things productively even when advocating different definitions as long as both parties acknowledge the difference- this is part of the reason I really like Cris’ blog. He uses very specific definitions, that I don’t always buy, but he is always quite clear about what he is using and why.

    Thanks again for the comments and I certainly don’t consider you a novice in these kind of discussions.


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