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Published:September 8th, 2009 16:00 EST
The Religion of the Non-Religious Japanese

The Religion of the Non-Religious Japanese

By Geoff Dean

 They always tell you never to talk about politics or religion. I never listen to them. Last time, I waded into the topic of Japanese politics so I suppose this time I must tackle Japanese religion or lack thereof. I feel that I am just as qualified to discuss Japanese religion as politics which is to say, not at all, but that has never stood in my way, before or now.

 Japanese people have no religion. At least, if you believe most Japanese people. I have asked my students many times and nine out of ten people (OK, this is a rough approximation with no statistical accuracy, as if I care) will tell you that a) they have no religion and b) Japanese people in general are not religious. It`s tempting to believe it. One student suggested to me that Marxism should have been tried in Japan and not Russia as people here would have had less trouble with official atheism.

 On the other hand, if you pose the questions differently, you are sure to get different responses. Do you visit a Shinto shrine on New Year`s Day? Do you participate in o-bon festivals to send the dead back to the other world? Do you bow and pray to the rising sun? Mt. Fuji? Do you carry an amulet or good luck charm from a Shinto shrine? Before a major test, do you visit a shrine for blessing? Did you dedicate your children at the shrine? Did you get married in a church? Do you want to have your funeral in a Buddhist temple? After death, do you want to be given an auspicious Buddhist funerary name? These questions will all find a vast majority of "Yes" responses. And there are many other "religious" practices which I did not include.

 People claim not to be religious and yet they participate in any number of ostensibly religious activities. And, not only that, they frequently sample from various religions (child dedicated in a Shinto shrine, married in a Christian church, buried in a Buddhist graveyard). Which is it? Religious or not?

 I don`t really know nor claim to be able to explain. But I can say this. I have been in Japan for twenty years and no one has ever tried to convert me to Buddhism or Shintoism. As a matter of fact, I don`t know how one would become a Shintoist. There is no baptism, no initiation, no membership. Japanese religions are NOT evangelistic; there is no proselytizing. I`m not saying that is good or bad; it just means that people avoid confrontation. I don`t try to persuade you and you don`t try to persuade me. This "tolerance" seeps into every aspect of Japanese life, in my humble and crumbled opinion. Even the Shinto gods tolerate each other. For example, in most shrines to the god of war, Hachiman, there is in some corner, a tiny shrine to Inari, the fox god. When I asked a Shinto priest about this, he said Hachiman gets along with Inari so there is no jealousy. And Inari is is happy to defer to Hachiman and let him have the large space.

 Furthermore, and thankfully, finally, Japanese religions are gloriously inconsistent. Again, I do not say this to criticize. But Buddhism declares that there is no God and Shinto declares that there are millions of gods and most Japanese believe them both. In the summer, people throng Shinto shrines to dance and usher the dead back into the other world. But Buddhism teaches that the dead are reincarnated, not in some other world. So where are the dead? If you probe this with a Japanese person as I have at times, they usually say, they neither know, nor care. If someone attacked my religion as inconsistent, I would feel the need to defend it. In Japan, most people would laugh.

 Is that good or bad? Of course, I can pass no judgment. But I can see clearly the outworking of the "religious" philosophy of the "non-religious" Japanese every day as I interact with them.