When their Agency for Cultural Affairs commissioned a report into religious beliefs in this country, they were initially confused with the results.

The country is Japan, and it has some perplexing qualities.

When the Agency counted the number of people who claimed a religious affiliation, the result they got was 209 million. Almost double the population of Japan!

This would seem to suggest that Japan is a highly religious country. Yet further research suggested that this perplexing result was caused by respondents happily checking the boxes for multiple religions without seeing any contradiction.

As the old saying goes, a Japanese person is born to Shinto rites, married with Christian rites and buried with Buddhist ones.

However, when a subsequent poll asked about atheism, it discovered that 31% of Japanese people identify with being a “convinced atheist”. When they changed the phrase to “religiously unaffiliated”, the result was an incredible 57%.

This raises the question:

How can one country be so atheist and so religious at the same time?

According to Professor Phil Zuckerman and Dr. Nige Barber, this isn’t a surprising result. After all, Japan has all the characteristics that are usually associated with atheism: entrenched capitalism, economic stability, political stability and existential stability.

As Dr. Barber says:

“People who are less vulnerable to the hostile forces of nature feel more in control of their lives and less in need of religion.”

If we can accept the idea that Japan is the perfect breeding ground for atheism, then why are so many Japanese people religiously affiliated? How can one country be so religious and so atheist?

According to Professor Ian Reader from Lancaster University, much of the religious practices carried out in Japan don’t actually require any prior or fixed beliefs religious commitments.

“The gods and Buddhas are seen as being supportive and one can pray to them without being obliged to join a religious organization. Or indeed without needing to declare belief in their existence.

Professor Reader believes that asking whether Japan is religious or atheist is asking the wrong question:

“Surveys usually ask about religious belief, but that can be interpreted by ordinary people as asking if they have faith in a ‘specific religious organization’. Most would answer no. It does not mean they are atheist in terms of denying existence of a god. These studies indicate a ‘not quite sure’ attitude as a rule.”

One of the problems with indicating that Japan is atheist is that it requires a God for the Japanese to not believe in. Instead, Japanese religions have generally been unclear on this matter. The kami, spirits and ancestral entities that make up Japanese religious beliefs are not really the equivalent of the Abrahamic religions.

In fact, within the kami can include fundamental life principles, celestial bodies, natural forces, topographical features, natural objects, certain animals, the spirits of the dead and even influential people. The Japanese understandably find it difficult to say they don’t believe in “natural principles” and “fundamental life principles.”

Instead, it makes more sense to consider Japanese culture and religion as a cohesive whole, which makes it difficult to separate one from the other. As Professor Reader says:

“Japanese society and culture are intricately interwoven with religious themes. [Japanese religion] is a deep and continuing stream of religious motifs interwoven with, rather than separate from, other aspects of Japanese life and society.”

In other words, you can’t really say that you “believe” or “not believe” in religion in Japan. It’s just a way of life. At the same time, if you ask someone whether they believe in a God, they’ll probably say no which makes them sound like an atheist.

Surveys cited:

Resources directly quoted: