Religion in Japan

The country of Japan is an archipelago consisting of 6,852 islands made up into 47 different prefectures. Of the 6,852 islands, Japan is primarily made up of fpur main islands: Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Shikoku. Japan’s current population (2014) is approximately 127 million; of which 98% are Japanese, 0.5% are Korean, 0.4% are Chinese, and 0.6% are a mixture of various nationalities.   

The Constitution, laws, and policies in Japan protect religious freedom, and in general, the government respects religious freedom. In fact, out of the top 25 most populous nations, Japan has some of the fewest governmental restrictions on religion. 

Historically, the people of Japan have not always enjoyed high levels of religious freedom. Especially, from the 16th century to the Meiji Restoration (1868), there was violent religious persecution towards Christians.  Furthermore, Shintoism, the former (de-facto) state religion of the Empire of Japan, included a belief that the Emperor was divine. The history of religion in Japan is a dramatic example of how a state can transition from having little religious freedom to exercising high levels of religious freedom. Missionaries representing a wide array of religions from all over the world are able to freely walk the streets of Japan. The following paragraphs outline a brief history of the events that led to high levels of religious freedom in modern-day Japan. 

Anciently, judging from the remains, it is considered that some religious activities (which could be similar to Shamanism) were conducted in Japan, but no details of the same have been defined.  In 538, Buddhism finally made its way to Japan after being introduced to China and Korea.  In the 7th century, due to the rising popularity of Buddhism at this time, Emperor Kotoku decided to permit Buddhism.  Thereafter, a number of schools of Buddhism were established and spread throughout the country.  Even after Buddhism came to Japan, Buddhism and conventional religions (Shinto-type religions) coexisted.  The relationship between conventional religions and Buddhism is often described by the term “syncretism of Shinto and Buddhism,” which continued up to the Meiji government’s “Ordinance regarding Separation of Shinto and Buddhism” of 1868.  In the 1540’s, the first Christian (Jesuit) missionaries arrived in Japan; and perhaps the most influential and well-known missionary, Saint Francis Xavier arrived in 1549.  At this time, the central government was nominal in power, and the local governors were fighting each other to obtain hegemony over Japan.  As a result, there was a series of societal, political, and military upheavals.  This era is known as the Sengoku Jidai, or the “Warring States Period.” 

The initial reaction to Christianity was somewhat positive. In 1569, Oda Nobunaga, the most powerful local governor (who was killed in 1582 just when he was about to successfully establish his central government) permitted Christian missionary work.  In addition, other local governors also welcomed the Christianity and some of them even became Christians.  However, after Nobunaga’s death, a general who fought for Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, took control over the country and prohibited Christianity.  Consequently, he expelled Jesuit missionaries from the country.  Concerning this contentious time, Brian Grim, a senior researcher at the Pew Forum explains that, “One strategy for unity was that the government linked what is called ‘subversive creeds,’ such as Christianity, to possible Western attempts to invade and colonize Japan, stoking societal fears toward this religious newcomer.”  New religions, such as Christianity, were seen as a national security threat.  Japanese leaders, such as Hideyoshi, were afraid that allowing “Western religions” to infiltrate Japan could potentially “Westernize” Japan, which would corrupt Japanese society.  

Despite this struggle, Christian missionaries continued to enter the country throughout the 16th century and remained active in promulgating their message in Japan. In the early stage of the Tokugawa government (which was established in 1603 after Hideyoshi’s death), the government was not so strict about the activities of the missionaries in light of the interests from trade with Western countries.  At a later stage, however, in fear of possible invasion by Western countries, the government took a series of on-going violent religious persecution across the country.  The Tokugawa government ordered all Christians to renounce their faith or face exile or death.  Also, the government enforced strict religious laws in regards to Christianity and other “Western” ideas.  

As a result of on-going religious persecution, Christians, as well as most foreigners (aside from the Dutch), were completely eradicated from Japan until Commodore Mathew Perry compelled the Tokugawa government to open up to Western trade.  This led to the Treaty of Kanagawa in 1854.  The treaty opened the Japanese ports of Shimoda and Hakodate to United States trade and guaranteed the safety of shipwrecked U.S. sailors.  However, the treaty did not create a basis for establishing a permanent residence in these locations.  The treaty did establish a foundation for the Americans to maintain a permanent consul in Shimoda.   

The arrival of the American fleet, together with similar pressures from other foreign countries (England, France, Russia, etc.), would trigger the end of Japan’s 200 year policy of seclusion, the collapse of the Tokugawa government, and the establishment of the Meiji government.  This political change is known as the Meiji Restoration (1868).  In 1873, the Meiji government issued an order to permit the worship of Christianity.  Next, the government studied constitutions in European countries and the former Constitution was enacted in 1889, which included a provision concerning freedom of religion.  On the other hand, in 1870, the Meiji government issued a proclamation pronouncing Shintoism as the official state religion.  Japanese leaders believed that this would unite the population in the shared belief of the divinity and authority of the Emperor.  Because of the strong presence of Buddhism, the Meiji government’s initial attempt to designate Shintoism as the official state religion (as indicated in the 1870 proclamation) turned out to be unsuccessful.  On the other hand, it is a historical fact that the government strongly patronized Shintoism. Thus, Shintoism can be considered the “de-facto” state religion.  Considering the government’s patronization of Shintoism, religious freedom before WWII was substantially limited.   

However, Japan’s surrender at the end of WWII placed them under the direct supervision of the Allied powers. Consequently, Japan’s postwar legal system was constructed during this time.  Laws regarding religious freedom were erected, which resulted in the Shinto Directive.  This 1945 order laid out three main principles concerning religion in Japan: “religious freedom, strict separation of religion and state, and eradication of militaristic and ultra-nationalistic thought.”  As a result, laws in favor of religious freedom were established in the 1946 Constitution.  Since then, thousands of religious groups became recognized by the government and violent religious persecution has drastically decreased and is no longer an issue in Japan. 

According to the Agency for Cultural Affairs, approximately 182,000 religious groups are certified by the government as religious organizations with corporate status.  According to the agency’s current yearbook, 108 million people identified themselves as Shinto, 88 million as Buddhist, and 2.3 million as Christian, while 8.9 million followed “other” religions.” This equates to 89.3% practice Shintoism, 71.4% practice Buddhism, and about 2% are Christian (total adherents exceed 100% because many belong to both Shintoism and Buddhism).  However, nearly 70% of Japanese people profess no religious affiliation.  

Constitutional Provisions and Ordinances on Religion

In 1946, the current Japanese Constitution was adopted as an amendment to the 1890 Meiji Constitution under the supervision of the Allied Powers.  The Japanese Constitution anchors religious freedom in Japan. The state is prohibited from advancing or prohibiting any religion in Japan. While Japanese citizens are allowed to freely participate in religious activities according to their own free will, the government is unequivocally banned from endorsing any religion. …

Religious Policy Decision Making Federal Level

Japan is a constitutional monarchy  where the power of the Emperor is very limited.  Stated another way, the state of Japan has a parliamentary government supplemented with a constitutional monarchy.  The Emperor acts primarily as a ceremonial figurehead, much like the Queen of England.  The Japanese Constitution defines him as “the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people.”  Contrary to the practice in some constitutional monarchies, the Emperor of Japan is not even the nominal chief executive. Akihito is the current Emperor of Japan while Naruhito, the Crown Prince of Japan, stands as next in line to the throne.

Contrary to the current situation, the Meiji government violated the principle of separation of religion and state. The government patronized Shintoism and considered that the Emperor was the highest authority of the Shinto religion, as he and his family were considered to be direct descendants of Amaterasu (a Shinto deity).  

Political power in Japan is divided among executive, legislative, and judicial branches.  Japan has a unitary system of government in which local jurisdictions largely depend on the national government.  Therefore, policy regarding religious freedom is formulated largely at the federal level rather than the local level.  …

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