Formerly an economics and humanities student at UCLA, Oe Kaori is now an intern for the United Nations.
As I watched the members of the New Religious Movement Research Institute from Kyushu University in Nagasaki, Japan, answer questions from the audience at the 2016 World Congress of Ethnic Studies in Helsinki, Finland, I wondered if they were religious. Their presentation emphasized secularism and skepticism, and I wondered if any of them were believers in the supernatural.
As a Japanese-American who grew up in a Christian household, I always had questions about religion, including the sometimes puzzling question of why religious language and rituals feel so strong in Japan. Why are shrines and temples so important to Japanese people?
My recent research into this question explains why, based on my years of research with people from many different countries, I conclude that Japanese people are not religiously religious, and they tend to practice skepticism toward religious claims.
How Do We Define Religion?
What is a religion? Many scholars believe that the traditional, ethnocentric definition of religion is a product of colonialism. In recent years, they have increasingly referred to the notion of “social religion,” which considers religion to be a social institution rather than an entity that “exists apart from” a culture.
If Japan was a predominantly Christian country, one could argue that Japanese people are religious. But I argue that this is incorrect, as surveys show that only a minority of Japanese identify themselves as Christian, and most Japanese are suspicious of religion.
The Arrival of Christianity in Japan
Christianity was introduced to Japan at the beginning of the Edo Period (1603–1868), but it did not become prominent until the Meiji Restoration when Emperor Meiji promoted a reformed version of Confucianism that emphasized the Japanese emperor’s divine status.
Soon after, Protestant Christians found more receptive audiences for their teachings. In 1873, Confucian scholar John Hall’s translation of the New Testament became the first New Testament to be printed in Japan. Hall’s translation of the Bible was the first religious book to be printed in Japan since the 17th century.
While the majority of Protestants used the Japanese characters in the Bible’s title, title page, and parables in the book of Matthew to identify the Japanese books, Hall’s version of the New Testament was printed with Western characters and transliterated into Japanese. The result was a biblical translation that was written in the Latin alphabet and for the Japanese language, which initially attracted Japanese people. In many ways, the translation offered a higher form of literacy that was exciting for the Japanese.
The Japanese reaction to Hall’s translation was, however, somewhat complicated. Christian missionaries had discovered the religion’s potential among the middle and upper classes, and the desire to be the first to learn about it also played a role in its popularity. When Hall’s translation of the Bible was released, the Book of Revelations was a common reading for upper-class Christians and Confucianists. A few Japanese Christians may have interpreted the book as saying that the Japanese emperor was going to rule the world for 1,000 years. Many Christians also probably read into Hall's translations.
Several years later, Hall returned to Japan, where he used his English training to translate the New Testament again. This version, which he titled the Revised Version of the Bible, contained many of the changes Japanese Christians had asked for. His version also included a few additions, such as quotes from Japanese religious books.
As a result of Hall’s translations, Japanese people started to associate Christianity with literacy and the modernization of Japan. Today, most Christians in Japan do not practice the religion. As I explain in my research on Buddhism in Japan, the traditions of the first Christian missionaries to Japan and the local Japanese Christians have blended and combined, with a strong element of the Japanese culture coming through in their beliefs. Some Christians also did not feel that the revival of Christianity in Japan was a genuine revival. A member of the clergy even suggested that the Japanese church was a “slave church” of the Western church.
The Role of Gezui in Japanese Christianity
The main reason for this is the historical Japanese concept of gezui. In this concept, society is viewed as an interdependent system, in which different parts interact and remain together. The understanding of human dignity is promoted in this way. Although many Christian sects outside of Japan don’t practice the religion in their daily lives, all Japanese people, including members of the Orthodox or Catholic churches, understand that their Christianity has its origins in Japan.
This idea of gezui offers an explanation for why some members of Japanese Christianity may not see their faith as an entirely local phenomenon, but as a continuation of Christian teachings that have influenced and been influenced by Japan for more than a millennium.
Christianity has impacted Japanese life in many ways. The way it is practiced in Japan is still an active, vibrant area of research. And, as Hall has shown, Christianity in Japan has been both an important factor in the development of the nation’s political culture and in the history of how people around the world view Japan.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2020 Oe Kaori
Oe Kaori (author) from Yokohama Japan on October 16, 2020:
Thanks. Many times people think Japan isn't religious but we do keep traditions. South Korea is way more Christian than Japan. Very weird phenomenon.
Tim Truzy from U.S.A. on October 16, 2020:
Intriguing. I particularly like where you mentioned Christianity combined some elements with Buddhism in Japan. In America, many elements of Christianity were combined with African religions during slavery. Scholars explain this is why Christ took on a more "gentle" perspective, whereas before the doctrine of Predistination reigned in the faith. Great work. Fascinating. Thanks.