Japanese people are thought to be atheists and they would admit they are. However the Shinto religion influences Japanese people well into their subconsciousness and their world view clearly indicates that they are Shinto. Here’s an explanation of Shintoism and how almost all Japanese people are Shinto, in 11 minutes.

Show host Kyota Ko walks you through the history and now of Shintoism, in layman terms.


Hello world, you are listening to the Metro-classic Japanese, bringing you a podcast today to solve one mystery about Japanese culture. Are Japanese people atheists, and if so, why? To go straight to the point, Japanese people think, feel and claim they are atheists, but in fact they are not. I think this is a phenomenon that’s very unique to Japanese culture and I felt I needed to clarify what’s going on with Japanese people’s spirituality. My name is Kyota Ko.

In 2019, NHK Broadcasting Cultural Research Institute, conducted a survey on close to 1500 Japanese people. And the main finding of the study was that less people are religious now than ever, which is not a surprise. I think the same thing is happening in many other countries. 

In the survey, as expected, when Japanese people were asked whether they had a religion, almost 65% answered no. 

So right around 35% of Japanese people claim that they are at least technically religious. They were born into a family with a religion, and the vast majority of these families are Buddhists. But when these people were asked if they believed in their religion, only half of them said yes. So one in two Buddhist Japanese people do not believe in the religion. 

So if we add everything up, we get 82%. At least 82% of Japanese people say they feel they are not religious. So the answer to the question “Are Japanese people atheists?” seems to be a big yes, but things aren’t all that simple. 

If you know what the Japanese religion of Shintoism is all about, you can say that all Japanese people are Shintos – like almost every single one of us – even those who were born into a Buddhist family. 

Shintoism is a weird-ass religion. It’s barely a religion. In fact it has been debated in Japan for a long time, whether Shintoism should be classified as religion along with all the other ones out there in the world. The term “religion” came into Japan long after Shintoism had become a part of the identity of Japanese people, so it doesn’t really fit perfectly in the definition of religion. But let’s say Shintoism IS religion so that I can tell you how weird it is compared to the major religions we have here in our world today. 

The best word to describe Shintoism, I think, it’s an adjective – is “loose.” Shintoism is loose. It loosely but definitely influences the minds and hearts of Japanese people.

The reason I say it’s loose is because there are no rules or disciplines that tell people what to do or what not to do. There is no one charismatic person who started the religion, nor there is a bible of any sort. You don’t have to learn or memorize anything. You don’t have to learn about any deities because there are far too many. And the loosest thing about Shintoism is that it accepts the existence of the God or gods of any other religion. 

Shintoism is one of the few animist religions that has survived until now. Animism is considered to be a primitive religion in which people believe there is a spirit in everything. And it’s said that many cultures originally had animist religions, but through being ruled or influenced by new ideologies of their own people or other cultures, they eventually perished. Japan had never been invaded or colonized, so Shintoism just stayed. 

Believing that there was a god or spirit in each mountain, river, roof, spoon, chopsticks, beauty, love, poverty, basically anything with a vocabulary word, this was second nature to Japanese people for hundreds of years. There are so many folk tales that are still told now where humans and gods living in the neighborhood interact and end up being a comedy or tragedy. So we all grow up being suggested that gods can be anywhere.

And gods are invented from time to time. After a historically important person died or whenever Japanese people felt sorry for someone who died a tragic death for an unjustifiable reason, shrines were built for them. Therefore gods were made out of people who actually lived, or more precisely, they were made members of the afterworld worthy of having a name and being remembered.  They built shrines as a gesture of condolence.  

For example near where I live in a residential area called Setagaya in Tokyo, there’s a shrine called Shoin-jinja Shrine. This was a shrine that was built quite recently, only a 140 years ago, partly as a gesture of condolence towards a person called YOSHIDA Shoin, he was a motivational speaker and the teacher of many of the key persons of a revolution Japan underwent in the late 19th century. Now, Shoin-jinja Shrine is visited by students and parents of students to pray for academic success. So in Shintoism, real people are sometimes made into deities and they would carry superpowers that would help people realize their desires. 

It seems like gods have been really close to the minds and lives of Japanese people since forever. But the peculiar thing about Shintoism is that you don’t have to be so faithful to any god. Like I mentioned before, Shoin-jinja is an example of a shrine where people go to pray for academic success, there are actually many such shrines known for giving out good fortune in academics, but nobody commits to worshiping any of these gods, by for example visiting and praying at their shrines regularly. You just go there just before you take a college entrance exam and boom! You’re supposed to get blessed with supernatural powers to pass that exam. If you actually pass the exam, you may or may not go back to that shrine to thank the god there, but then you move on with life and probably never really visit that shrine again. It’s very dry. 

There are a few things you’re supposed to do when you visit a Shinto shrine, but they are only “recommended guidelines.” For example when you enter one of those red gates at a shrine, you are first supposed to bow in front of the gate, and you are not supposed to walk through the gate right in the middle; you’re supposed to walk a bit off to the side because the middle is the pathway of the god of the shrine. But you’ll totally see some Japanese people walking right through the gate in the dead center without stopping to bow, because they never officially learn these rules anywhere. And it’s not that they’ll get punished or receive caution from anyone if they do it wrong. 

In front of the main building of the shrine you visit, you are supposed to bow twice and clap your hands twice before you pray to the god there, and then bow once before you leave. But you will totally see some Japanese people bowing only once or not bowing at all, clapping only once or not clapping at all. Again, this is because these rules are not really taught anywhere like in school – you typically learn these things from your older relatives, or by looking it up on the Internet nowadays. And there’s confusion with the mannerisms at Japanese Buddhist temples, where you’re supposed to put your hands together silently in front of you and then pray, and then bow just once before you leave. I mean who can remember all these things unless you visit shrines or temples regularly? Most Japanese people only make maybe 2 or 3 visits to the shrine or temple a year. 

And Shinto gods wouldn’t give a shit if you go pray at a Buddhist temple, Christian church or an Islamic mosque, and then come back to them to wish for success in academics, business or love. Just throw in a 5 yen or 10 yen coin into the offering box when you pray, and you’ll get what you came for. I hope you are starting to see how loose Shintoism is. 

And I think you’ll realize how Shintoism focuses on benefits in the mortal life – our life now, not the afterlife. Why should we care about the afterlife? Let’s make the best out of our real life. Maybe Shintoism will be more accepted by young people nowadays.

It’s a very convenient religion. You don’t commit to faith in any particular god and you go see them only when you need help or you want good luck. Basically, if you’re a god of a shrine who doesn’t offer anything useful to human beings, you’ll never get visited. Because, why would anyone visit you? If you want to be a popular god, you should market yourself more effectively. 

This is the mindset of most Japanese people about religion. So by viewing gods as existences that benefit you in your current life whenever you need or want help, you are being very Shinto. You regard gods as beings who are almost like human beings. You can choose to have a business deal with them, or not. This, is Shintoism. But sorry, we can’t really convert you into Shintoism even if you love its idea, because Shintoism doesn’t care if you declare yourself Shinto or not. 

And this is also why many festivities of other religions and cultures are accepted and celebrated widely in Japan, like Christmas, Valentines and Halloween. You’ll notice that all these festivities of Christian origin are really, really commercialized in Japan. Christmas is a family event in other parts of the world, and you really feel the warmth of people’s hearts in the Christmas decorations and the presents, and how people interact with each other during this time of year. But in Japanese Christmases, that is not the case. It’s a commercial event, nothing else. It’s an excuse for retailers and eateries to sell more. 

If you look at instagram photos of Christmas lights in Europe, you’ll often see an explosion of the Christmas spirit. You can see from the densely and endlessly decorated warm lights that the purpose of all this was to express the Christmas spirit and nothing else, It’s to celebrate the happiest time of the year. But if you look up instagram photos of Christmas lights in Japan, you’ll see from the efficiently and compactly decorated LED lights that the purpose was to achieve cost-effectiveness. You can smell a budget. The purpose of setting up the lights was to draw pedestrians into the store or commercial complex they were set up in, within whatever budget was approved. It’s for business effect and nothing else. Which is one thing I’m not so proud about Japan. Valentines and Halloween are the same deal.

So it’s no wonder Japanese people are considered atheists and Japanese people themselves do not feel they are religious. Japan accepts foreign religious practices into its culture, at least the superficial parts of them, because in Shintoism, gods of other religions are the members of the many gods it acknowledges in the first place. I have a Muslim Egyptian friend who studies at a grad school in Japan, and when I asked her why she came to Japan, she said she thought there wouldn’t be much discrimination for Muslims in Japan. She has a point there.

So foreign religions are always welcome as long as they bring some cookies. The vast majority of Japanese people seem to think of religion in this manner, and this is why all of them can be considered Shinto, and they think they are atheists because they have never really considered Shinto as a religion. It’s hard to, because we never learn much about it in school or anywhere. It becomes a part of our cultural identity just simply through living life like anybody else would in Japan. 

So are Japanese people atheists? Not really. We are all loosely tied to a loose ideology that gets loosely categorized into the umbrella of religion. So I hope you enjoyed this episode. それでは、またお会いしましょう。