Religious Pluralism in Japan
Turning to the Gods in Times of Trouble
Honji Suijaku: Shinto Torri with Buddhist Image and a Japanese Sun
"What is Religion" word cloud
What is "Religion"?

Dictioinary highlighting the definition of religion

According to Living Religions, The word is probably derived from the Latin, meaning ‘to tie back,to tie again.’ All of religion shares the goal of tying people back to something behind the surface of life a greater reality, which lies beyond, or invisibly infuses, the world that we can perceive with our five senses. (Living Religions, 2)
Icon representing ultimate transformation

Some Definitions of Religion to Consider

  1. “[Religion is] the belief in Spiritual Beings” (Edward B Tylor, Primitive Culture)

  2. “By religion, then, I understand a propitiation or conciliation of powers superior to man which are believed to direct and control the course of nature and of human life” (James George Frazer, The Golden Bough).

  3. “[Religion is] the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.” (William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience)

  4. “A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden – beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.” (b) [Religion is] “the self-validation of a society by means of myth and ritual.” (mile Durkeim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life)

  5. “[Religion is] “the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern, a concern which qualifies all other concerns as preliminary, and a concern that in itself provides the answer to the question of the meaning of our existence.” (Paul Tillich)

  6. “[Religion is] a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, persuasive, and long-lasting moods and formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.” (Clifford Geertz, “Religion as a Cultural System”)

  7. “Religion, like culture, is a symbolic transformation of experience.” (Thomas F. O’Dea, The Sociology of Religion)

  8. “[Religion is] a system of symbols (creed, code, cultus) by means of which people (a community) orient themselves in the world with reference to both ordinary and extraordinary powers, meanings, and values.” (Catherine L. Albanese, America: Religions and Religion)

  9. “Religion is a means to ultimate transformation.” (Frederick Streng, Understanding Religious Life)

  10. [Religion is] a means of ultimate transformation and/or orientation.” (Joseph Adler, “Varieties of Spiritual Experience: Shen in Neo-Confucian Discourse”)

  11. A religious tradition has at least three essential elements, each handed down and developed in the multitude of ways traditions transmit. One element is a mythic, philosophical, or theological cosmology defining the fundamental structures and limits of the world and forming the basic ways in which cultures and individuals imagine how things are and what they mean....

    A second essential element of religion is ritual. Rituals are a finite set of repeatable and symbolizable actions that epitomize things a tradition takes to be crucial to defining the normative human place in the cosmos. Early layers of ritual epitomize the hunt, nurturing of agricultural fertility, acknowledgment of political authority (worship of gods as lords), acts of commitment to other individuals, and so forth....

    The third essential element is that a tradition have some conception and practical procedures for fundamental transformation aimed to relate persons harmoniously to the normative cosmological elements, a path of spiritual perfection. In theisms this usually means salvation, a right relation to God. In Buddhism it means transformative enlightenment about the truth of change and suchness…. (Robert Cummings Neville, in Foreword to Rodney L. Taylor, The Religious Dimensions of Confucianism)

Image representing the "family resemblance" definition of religion
According to the 1990 edition of the Cambridge Encyclopedia, “no single definition will suffice to encompass the varied sets of traditions, practices, and ideas which constitute different religions” (, in which case it may simply be impossible to develop a universally acceptable definition of religion. Mark E. Hanshaw suggests a potential solution to this problem by focusing on commonly occurring attributes of religious traditions, such as:
  • Belief in a supernatural intelligent being;
  • Complex worldview interpreting the significance of human life;
  • Belief in some sort of afterlife experience;
  • A moral code;
  • Account of the nature and origin of evil;
  • Ritual practices;
  • Revealed truths;
  • A mythological tradition; and
  • An institutionalized social community constructed around these and other priorities.
From this perspective, a tradition that possesses most of these attributes could be classified as a religion, while the absence of one or two attributes might not prevent a tradition from being regarded as a religion. (Religion in the Midst of Life, Chapter 1, Section 2)
Venn diagram of "religion" showing overlap between belief, practice and experience
Icon representing the relationship between Buddhism and Shinto
Sanja Matsuri at Asakusa Shrine (connected to Sensoji Temple)
Are the Japanese Religious?
Are you religious? Yes=15.9%; No=55.3%; Don't Know=28.9%
Icon representing the relationship between Buddhism and Shinto
Book cover for "The Invention of Religion in Japan"
Kanji for "religion" (shukyo)Religion in Contemporary Japan (book cover)The Japanese word generally used in surveys and elsewhere to denote ‘religion’ is shukyo, a word made up of two ideograms, shu, meaning sect or denomination, and kyo, teaching or doctrine. It is a derived word that came into prominence in the nineteenth century as a result of Japanese encounters with the West and particularly with Christian missionaries, to denote a concept and view of religion commonplace in the realms of nineteenth-century Christian theology but at that time not found in Japan, of religion as a specific, belief-framed entity. The term shukyo thus, in origin at least, implies a separation of that which is religious from other aspects of society and culture, and contains implications of belief and commitment to one order or movement — something that has not been traditionally a common factor in Japanese religious behaviour and something that tends to exclude many of the phenomena involved in the Japanese religious process. When tied to questions of belief it does conjure up notions of narrow commitment to a particular teaching to the implicit exclusion and denial of others — something which goes against the general complementary nature of the Japanese religious tradition. (RCJ, 13-14)
Hatsumode (New Year's Celebration) at the Meiji Shrine
[The statistics and examples provided by Reader indicate] the extent to which religious ideas, concepts and activities are socially and culturally imbibed without necessarily being explicitly recognised as religious by the performers. ... People participate in religious activities because of such socio-cultural belongings. Hatsumode and o-bon are good examples of this: many Japanese people take part in the former because it is the thing to do at New Year and the latter because of household obligations. They can therefore pray to the deities and the ancestors because the situation and circumstance demand it, yet need not express belief in either. Participation thus cuts across religious boundaries: hatsumode and o-bon are not so much Shinto and Buddhist as events with religious connotations identifying one as being part of the social culture of Japan. (RCJ, 12-13)
Images related to the Bon Festival
Venn diagram of "religion" showing overlap between belief, practice and experience
Professor Hoffert with an orthodox Jew in New York City
If these are just "socio-cultural" practices, then are they really "religious"?
There is a deep relationship between situations, actions and religiosity in Japan. Situations demand actions that express a latent religiosity, as with the incidence of a death in the family. This necessitates actions: going to the temple, getting the Buddhist priest to perform certain rituals, enshrining the dead soul in the family butsudan and then performing acts of worship and making offerings before it. ... Accordingly, when performed with purity and sincerity of mind, the traditional and socially prescribed reactions to the situation of death are not simply formalistic, but become vehicles of religious expression. Latent belongings to Buddhism are trannsformed into actualities, brought to life through ritual performances and acted on, even if only temporarily, with religious sincerity. (RCJ, 15-16)
Shinto icon
Students visiting Tenmangu Shrine
Turning to the Gods
Japanese charactersfor "turning to the gods in difficult times"
In general ... action precedes belief and is not in a religious sense dependent on it, although actions brought about by needs and situations may help in the awakening of a sense of religiosity that creates and nurtures the seeds of belief, leading to a fruition which may in itself become a commitment. ...
I know this sounds strange and difficult to believe. I thought so too before I got involved and started to do the practice, but when I did it I began to realise its truth. If you do it you will understand too.
... The strong sense of pragmatic functionalism manifested by the ‘do it and see’ attitude is inherent in all the relationships that the Japanese have with the religious world. When I asked a seminar group of twelve Japanese students that I was teaching to describe their religious orientations and to state when they last went to pray at a shrine or temple, eight of them responded that they were ‘not religious’. All then went on to state that at the time of their university entrance examinations they had gone to various shrines and temples to pray for help. One student after another used the popular Japanese saying kurushii toki no kamidanomi (turn to the gods in times of trouble) to describe the sentiment they felt at such times. (RCJ, 16-20)
Omamori (amulets) on display at a shrine store
If it's only about "practical benefits," then is it really religion?
Icon representing the relationship between Buddhism and Shinto
Religious Pluralism: icons of various religions with people engaged in various religious rituals
What is "Religious Pluralism"?

Are the Japanese "Religious Pluralists"?
(And if so, does this mean the same to them as it does to us?)

Deductive vs. Inductive reasoning
What is "truth" ...
and can contraditory truths coexist?

Icon representing the relationship between Buddhism and Shinto