Prior to understanding Japanese Christian theology, it is important to know how the Japanese view religion in general. In Japan there are basically two distinctions when it comes to religion: the revealed and the natural religions. Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and some new religions are considered to be revealed religions, because they have specific books and scriptures to live by and upon which religious life is practiced. In contrary to revealed religions, the natural religions are more tradition and folklore-based religions, followed with few or no specific books or scriptures. Even though Shintoism does have texts and scriptures to a degree, it is considered more as a natural religion.
It is important to emphasize that in Japan, when people talk about religion, they generally mean the revealed religions, and in particular Christianity. When Japanese people mention that they are nonreligious, it means they do not commit themselves to a revealed religion or religious organization. Japanese people often see all the religions as one entity, and not separate from one another. It is often said that the Japanese are born Shinto, marry in a Christian (western) style and die Buddhist, as many Japanese are buried in the Buddhist way. Japanese do not have the urge to be committed to any particular organized religion. In Japanese, this mindset is called mushukyo, meaning “non-religion” or even “non-religious.”
It is crucial to understand the characteristics of mushukyo. First of all, being non-religious does not mean that one does not believe in a god or kami, but rather that one does not believe in an organized religion. The Japanese consciously or unconsciously separate these two. Religion is understood in a Western-Christian framework, and thus folkloric or indigenous festivals, matsuri, related to Shinto and even Buddhist culture, are not considered to be religious. This makes the Japanese religious mind more complex and difficult to understand for outsiders. This is better understood when we distinguish between religion and religious culture. Japanese can be participants in religious culture without being a part of an organized revealed religion. To a certain degree, this can be true in Western European societies as well. For instance, one may celebrate Christmas in the Netherlands without being a religious person or belonging to an organized church. In the Netherlands, Pentecost has become a national holiday; some people celebrate this event without being a part of a church or a Christian denomination. Some may not even know what the meaning of the day really is.
Further, mushukyo does not mean that the Japanese do not have religious feelings. This is visible in the way that the Japanese honor their ancestors on Obon day or visit Shinto shrines and temples during the New Year’s holiday season. When it comes to religious feelings and even religious superstitions, Japanese are actually relatively engaged.
Why do the Japanese prefer to be non-religious? According to Toshimaro Ama, professor at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo and the author of Why Are the Japanese Non-Religious? (originally known as Nihonjin wa naze mushukyo nanoka), the annual festivals like Obon or other cultural festivals are a means of gaining spiritual peace, and replace the need for Western-style organized religion. Therefore there is no need for people to choose revealed religions as their means of spiritual liberation (Ama, 2005).
According to Ama, incidents and scandals surrounding religious organizations further contribute to the unpopularity of organized religions. Reports that some religious groups deceive their members into making large donations and organizing supernatural events make most Japanese uncomfortable with organized religions. Another reason that Japanese may feel apathy towards organized religions is the widely held perception that such religions disturb the public peace. For instance, Japanese disapprove of Christians who walk in the streets with megaphones, calling people sinners and asking them to repent. To most Japanese this is not acceptable. Even though the majority of Christians do not perform such acts, Japanese people are often cautious about Christianity because of its evangelical wing (ibid).
Lastly, the exclusive nature of some activities of revealed religions cause people would stay away from them. For those who are already members of a religion, it is enjoyable to read holy texts, praying and sing specific songs, but for an outsider, these are often not pleasant experiences. In his book, Toshimaro Ama indicates that unless one becomes aware of the importance of life and its related anxieties, revealed religion does not make sense (ibid). This awareness is often created when one realizes how irrational life can be; this awareness can lead a person to find solutions in revealed religions, but otherwise the Japanese choose to be mushukyo (ibid).
Samuel Lee is founder & president of Foundation University in the Netherlands (www.fedu.eu). He is a sociologist with Japan as his area of interest and is a member of the Japan Evangelical Mission Association (JEMA). He maintains a website about Christianity in Japan and has authored two books:Understanding Japan Through the Eyes of Christian Faith (Foundation University Press) & Rediscovering Japan, Reintroducing Christendom: Two thousand Years of Christian History in Japan (University Press of America).This post was originally posted at his personal blog.