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Lost in translation: Index on Japanese atheism off target

Global survey provides a distorted understanding of Japan's spirituality

Lost in translation: Index on Japanese atheism off target

A Shinto priest purifies Japanese businessmen and women during an annual New Year ceremony at the Kanda shrine in Tokyo on Jan. 4. Over 4,000 companies conducted New Year prayers at the shrine on the first two business days of the year. (Photo by AFP)

Cristian Martini Grimaldi, Tokyo
Japan

February 16, 2016

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Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the most atheist of us all? A quick search on the Internet for the most atheist country and Japan pops right up there, second only after the officially atheist China, with 31 percent of its population saying they are atheists.

The Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism appeared in 2012 and again in 2015. It resulted in The Washington Post coming out with the headline "A surprising map where the world's atheists live" which was based on the index's statistics gathered from Africa, Europe and the Middle East.  

The Huffington Post also crafted a graphic where the user could scroll, right to left, from the most religious country to the least one by simply clicking on an arrow. Japan is right there at the bottom, just above the godless Middle Kingdom.

This account of the state of belief in Japan plays into popular expectations, fed by frequent news reports, about the religious skepticism of the Japanese. But a closer look at this expectation might suggest they come from a major cultural misunderstanding.

"To speak of atheism in Japan is nonsensical," says Yajima Naoki, professor of philosophy and religion at International Christian University in Tokyo. "In fact I can hardly imagine someone asking a Japanese such a question and expecting to receive a direct answer. In Japan, in Asia in general, religion has more to do with rituals and practices than, for example, a real commitment to the truth."

Apparently the WIN/Gallup International — the agency conducting the survey — didn't quite grasp the different ways in which belief operates in various religions.

Wanting to know more, a young student friend and I decided to conduct a survey on our own. We asked a hundred students of ICU about their spiritual and religious lives. Our study group was composed of young students, mostly in their 20s, thus by definition a category of people who are usually disillusioned with or indifferent to religious issues.

Our survey asked directly questions asked in the global survey: "Do you believe in any religion?" and "Do you consider yourself an atheist?"

What we discovered was exactly the opposite to what the global survey found.

Our sample for the survey matched the average in the Japanese population of "religious people" found in the Global Index of Religiosity — 19 percent. Our explanation for this is that the question of religious affiliation allows a more straightforward response among Japanese people: you declare yourself a Christians or not, you call yourself a Buddhist or not, likewise if you are a Muslim. Also the respondents took little time to answer.

But when it came to consider a whole Western category such as atheism, the responses were less automatic and the respondents themselves had to struggle with their thoughts before voicing a reply. Interviewing our sample group, we researchers got the impression our subjects found it very challenging to interpret the questions.

Many asked us "what does calling someone an atheist mean?" Others declared, "I do pray to God but I don't know what kind of god exists." Another one asked "atheism? Which god are you referring to?"

In the West, questions about the existence of God (and of any gods) or a form of the afterlife, would expect a clear-cut yes or no answer. If you couldn't decide on either you would be labeled agnostic. But our study showed that the choice of God or no god is not enough information to declare if a Japanese person is an atheist.

And that is why in our survey only 15 percent of respondents defined themselves as atheists. And the figure is exactly half that for the Global Index of Atheism.

But there is a more surprising figure in our survey. It offers a key to understanding the difference between Western and Asian approaches on issues of faith: 81.2 percent of respondents said that they had no religious beliefs as such but were convinced of the existence of some form of deity.

"I am not surprised of the survey," says Yajima. "In fact Japanese are indifferent to institutionalized religion. But they do go to the shrine every New Year, they make their wishes, they conduct funerals in a Buddhist fashion," he says.

"The institutionalized religion has lost the function of a community gatherer. If the Japanese people have discovered they can do without religion as a community gatherer, that doesn't mean they have lost their spiritual curiosity," he adds.

Our survey found spiritual curiosity is there in abundance: among those who claimed to have no religion, more than half (53 percent) believed in some form of afterlife, and almost one in four (23 percent) believed in the existence of tengoku (literally a state that belongs to the heavens) and jigoku (literally: a land of suffering/hell). These are all people who declared themselves not "religious."

When we talk about religion in Japan, we are not including the intangible sphere of human spirituality. In Japan as elsewhere, religion and spirituality can appear to be different things; especially now where a general globalized hostility to institutions and roles in them has prompted a proliferation of "personal religions" where the individuals themselves decide what to believe in.

It is not surprising that Japan has become a champion in the promotion of shinshukyo or new religions.

With the defeat in World War II and the end of emperor worship, Japan experienced a spiritual vacuum that traditional religions — Shintoism and Buddhism — were unable to fill. But they created the conditions for the proliferation of new religions.

These religious organizations have steadily grown, especially during the years of the economic boom (1970s and 1980s). Urbanization deprived the Japanese of their traditional link with the temples and sanctuaries of the communities. Yet these provided the base for potential devotees that would appear in the many non-traditional religions.

Certainly the success of these new religions is also fed by a more general disorientation and the lack of spiritual references points for the most significant moments in the life of a Japanese citizen. The old adage goes that a Japanese is born in a Shinto shrine, marries with a Christian rite and dies in a Buddhist temple.

The new religions respond to the profound human curiosity about our surroundings and ultimately for our very existence.

From this research emerges that international polls often do not take into account the cultural gap between the questioner and the respondent. The media coverage of the Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism helped spread its questionable results. Simply stating that Japan is the second most atheist country in the world means very little once explained that atheism is a completely Western concept. To force this conceptual box into an alien cultural context such as the Japanese or the Chinese is misleading to say the least, if not entirely deceiving.

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