The total is almost doudle the Japanese
population because some Japanese
recognize more than one religion
Japan is intrinsically not a very religious place. Religious practices are often viewed more as duties, traditions and customs rather than things with spiritual meaning to the people who practice them. Like the Chinese, the Japanese worship both Buddhist and folk deities as well as their ancestor's spirits in hope of pacifying everyone and thus ensuring good fortune. Confucianism (a philosophy incorporating ancestor worship) has been incorporated into the social and ethical code of Japan.

Shintoism, meaning the "way of the Gods," is an informal animist, nature-worshiping religion that honors ancestors, pays tribute to “kamis”, or spirits, and has traditionally had strong bonds with the Japanese state, emperor and culture. There are literally millions of kamis, most of whom are associated with the heavens or natural objects on earth such as trees and mountains. One of the most important deities is Amaterasu-omikami, the sun goddess, who, according to legend, is an ancestor of the Japanese Emperor.

Most Japanese practice some form of both Buddhism and Shintoism but few are devout followers of either. According to one count, Shintoism has 107 million followers (85 percent of the population) and Buddhism has around 93 million followers (75 percent).

There about 1.7 million Christians (about 1½ percent of the population) and they are divided more or less equally among Catholics and Protestants. There are also many religious cults. Many have links to Buddhism and some have several million members. There are very few Muslims.

Websites and Resources


Good Websites and Sources: ;Book: Religion in Japan ; Religion and Secular Japan ; U.S. State Department 2020 Report on Religious Freedom in Japan ; Resources for East Asian Language and Thought ; Society for the Study of Japanese Religions ;Contemporary Papers on Japanese Religion

Brief History of Religion in Japan

The history of religion in Japan is a long process of mutual influence between religious traditions. In contrast to Europe, where Christianity overwhelmed local pagan traditions, the indigenous religion Shinto has continued as a part of the lives of the people from the earliest days of an organized Japanese state up to modern times. When Buddhism was introduced to Japan in the 6th century, Shinto and Buddhist beliefs began to interact. This is the defining characteristic of Japanese religion. The most striking example of this interaction is the theory of honji suijaku, in which Shinto kami were seen as the incarnations of Buddhist deities. [Source: Web-Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan]

Confucianism and Taoism are two other religious “imports” that have played important roles in Japanese society over a period of more than 1,000 years. Confucian precepts had a major influence on Japanese ethical and political philosophy in the formative period of the Japanese state (the 6th to 9th centuries), and again in the Edo period (1603 — 1868). Harder to trace than that of Confucianism, the influence of religious Taoism in Japan can be found in the use of the Chinese calendar and in popular beliefs such as those concerning fortune-telling and auspicious directions. goddess), Tsukuyomi no Mikoto (moon god), and Susanoo no Mikoto (god of storms).

Religious Life in Japan

Most Japanese regard themselves as nonreligious but still make regular visit to religious facilities. Some have suggested that the Japanese appreciation of seasonal changes is rooted in religion and their experience with natural disasters has left them in awe of the powers of natures. Some also say that the Japanese sense the existence of many gods and inherently share Buddhist beliefs about nothingness and rebirth.

Many Japanese homes have two alters: one Shinto and one Buddhist. The faithful make daily offerings of rice cakes, salt and holy water which are laid on top of the alters, often decorated with the pictures of deceased relatives. There is a saying that Japanese come into the world as Shintos and go out as Buddhists: funerals are usually observed with Buddhist rites while births and marriages are celebrated with Shinto ceremonies.

The worship of dead ancestors and the notions of yin and yang, spiritual magic, divination and natural forces such as ki are also found in Japan. They evolved out of Taoist and Confucian beliefs that originated in China and entered Japan from Korea more than a 1000 years ago and perhaps as early as the A.D. 5th century.

The religious scholar G. Bownas wrote: “Japan’s religious sentiments have been mostly those of love and fear. The purpose of religious observance was to praise and thank, and thus to ensure the continued benignity of the powers, quite as much as to placate and mollify if anger turned such normal benignity to malevolence.”

After the Meiji Restoration, organized religion was divided into three categories — Buddhist, Christian and Shinto. There are currently more than 200,000 relgious organizations in Japan. Most of them have Buddhist or Shinto affiliations. According to a survey in 2000, on average Japanese spends about $165 a year on religious activities.

Book: “Religions of Japan in Practice”, edited by George J. Tanabe Jr. (Princeton University Press, 1999); “A History of Japanese Religion” edited by Kazuo Kasahara (Kosei Publishing);

Religion and Ritual in Japan

Praying at a Shinto shrine
Many Japanese religiously perform Buddhist and Shinto rites and pay tribute to their ancestor but don’t regard themselves as religious. One survey found that while less than one third of Japanese claim to be religious more than 80 percent pray to a Shinto kami or Buddhist figure a least once a year.

Religion in Japan tends to be more a matter of social cohesion or “a sense that one’s life is not one’s own” than a matter personal faith. Especially with Shinto, many things are left vague and undefined with no strict moral code to follow.

Ritual and religion are conducted out of consideration to cosmic forces almost as a form of politeness. The scholar Satsuki Kawano wrote in her book “Ritual Practice in Modern Japan”: “Bowing to kami and ancestors is performed for reasons similar to those in everyday life”to greet, show respect, thank, ask for a favor.” And cleaning, like bowing, is an act filled with moral meaning. Since cleaning is not simply performed for the sake of hygiene but is considered to better the inner self, it constitutes a form of moral discipline.”

Shintoism and Buddhism

Most Japanese practice some form of both Buddhism and Shintoism, a nature-worshiping religion unique to Japan, but few are devout followers of either. According to one count, Shintoism has 107 million followers (85 percent of the population) and Buddhism has around 93 million followers (75 percent).

According to Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs: "Urbanization has cut many Japanese off from their family ties to a specific Buddhist temple and Shinto shrine. Still, many people consider themselves both Shintoist and Buddhist. Agency for Cultural Affairs statistics for 2006 show the combined membership of both religions at approximately 196 million, about 53 percent more than the total population of Japan. In the religious feelings of most Japanese, Shinto and Buddhism peacefully coexist rather than conflict. [Source: Web-Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan]

“For the average person, however, religious affiliation does not translate into regular worship or attendance. Most people visit shrines and temples as part of annual events and special rituals marking life passages. Such annual events include shrine and temple festivals, the first shrine or temple visit of the new year (“hatsumode”), and a visit to the family grave during the Bon Festival. Rituals commemorating the stages in an individual’s life include the first shrine visit of a newborn baby (“miyamairi”), the Shichi-go-san Festival shrine visit of three- and five-year-old boys and three- and seven-year-old girls, a Shinto wedding ceremony, and a Buddhist funeral.

Shintoism is a homegrown religion that grew out indigenous animist and shamanist beliefs that been around for centuries. Buddhism was introduced from abroad, spreading into Japan from Korea in the A.D. sixth century. For Japanese, the different religions are not regarded as exclusive of one another and have coexisted side by side for centuries.

For Japanese Shinto is concerned more with the here and now and while Buddhism is associated more with the afterlife. There is a saying that the Japanese come into the world as Shintos and go out as Buddhists. Funerals are usually observed with Buddhist rites while births and marriages are celebrated with Shinto ceremonies. Most homes have two alters: a Shinto shelf shrine (“kamidana”) and Buddha stand (“butsudan”). The faithful make daily offerings of rice cakes, salt and holy water which are laid on top of the alters. Buddhist altars are usually have pictures of deceased relatives on them.

On topic of accepting both Buddhism and Shintoism one imperial prince wrote in the 10th century: “The gods and spirits are just and equitable, for they accept only a man’s religious piety. Go and pray to them with sincerity of heart and you will be sure to please them.”

Irreligious Japanese?

Even though many Japanese have Buddhist and Shinto altars in their house, get married in a shrine or church and purchase graves at Buddhist temples few would consider themselves religious. Religion in Japan is often viewed in terms of culture, tradition and duty rather than in terms of faith, personal salvation and deep-rooted beliefs. Visiting temples and shrines is viewed as a recreation activities for holidays or something that one does for good luck.

A survey by the Yomiuri Shimbun in 2005 revealed that 72 percent of Japanese do no have a specific religious affiliation and only 25 percent said they believed in religion and 20 percent said they practice a faith and 37 percent said that religion was important for living a happy life.

One reason why the Japanese don't have a particular association with any one religion is that during the Meiji Period religion was tolerated as long as it did not disrupt political reforms and the definition of religion was shaped by the Western definition of “religion,” which did not necessarily have a place for indigenous Japanese faiths. During the postwar period the divinity of the emperor and state Shintoism were renounced (See Shintoism).

In a survey of views 17 institutions in Japan based on trust, organized religion finished dead last after the military, police, the United Nations and education. The religious scholar Tetsuo Yamaori told the Daily Yomiuri, “For more than 100 years , we have identified our own faith through the framework of monotheistic religions, We’ve come to think of our own religion is primitive and less sophisticated and it’s not what a religion should be.”

The Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami wrote: “God only exists in people’s minds. Especially in Japan, God’s always has been a kind of flexible concept. Look at what happened to the war. Douglas MacArthur ordered the divine emperor to quit being a God, and he did, making a speech saying he was just an ordinary person.”

Religious Japanese?

Some have said the statistics mentioned above don’t necessarily mean the Japanese are irreligious its just means they do not follow specific faiths as followers of monotheistic religions do. The 2005 Yomiuri Shimbun survey also revealed that 56 percent of Japanese believed in the supernatural, many seek help divine help when in trouble and 94 percent respected their deceased ancestors. In 2008, police said 98.2 million people visited a shrine or temple in the first three days of the year, the highest number since 1974.

Mark Mullins, a sociologist at Sophia University, told the Daily Yomiuri, “If you are looking at the cognitive dimension of religion where you’re focusing on belief it seems Japanese are rather less religious than, say, Americans. But if you look at ritual behavior and participation, all of a sudden, the population is actually fairly religious. You might say some practices are just a custom, That may be, but they are going to a sacred place.”

Christianity, Islam and Confucianism in Japan

There are about 1.7 million Christians in Japan (about 1.2 million Protestants and a half million Catholics). They make up about 1.5 percent of the population, compared to 49 percent in Korea. Christianity has traditionally found a following among a small highly-educated minority. It never caught in with the masses.

There are about 300,000 Muslims living in Japan, of which about 50,000 are Japanese. Most live in the Tokyo area. Islam was not recognized as an official religion until 1939. There is a large mosque in the Yoyogi Uehara district of Tokyo. It opened in 2000, replacing another mosque built in 1937 and deemed structurally unsafe in 1985.

The Japanese regard Confucianism as code of moral precepts rather than a religion. Introduced to Japan in the beginning of the sixth century, Confucianism had a great impact on Japanese thought and behavior, but its influence has declined since World War II.

Image Sources: 1) MIT Visualizing Cultures; 2) Ray Kinnane; 3,4) 5),, 6) Tokyo National Museum

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated January 2022

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.