Religion in Japan: History and Statistics

Great Torii of Itsykushima Shinto Shrine
The Great Torii - or entrance - to the Itsykushima Shinto Shrine at Miyajima Island in Japan. Shinto is one of the main religions of Japan.

korkuson Rodaree / Getty Images

Shinto and Buddhism are the dominant religions in Japan. Notably, the estimated population of each religion is almost identical: approximately 70.4% of Japanese are Shinto are 69.8% are Buddhist. These numbers reflect the ability of the two religions to coexist. Most Japanese identify as both Shinto and Buddhist. The other main religion in Japan is Christianity, though only about 1.4% of the population identifies as Christian. Another 6.9% of the population identifies as “other,” a group that includes Islam, the Baha’i Faith, Hinduism, Judaism, and animism. 

Key Takeaways

  • The main religions in Japan are Buddhism (69.8%) and Shinto (70.4%). Most Japanese people identify as members of both faiths. 
  • The other main religious denominations in Japan are Christianity (1.4%) and other (6.9%), which includes Islam, animism, Judaism, Hindu, and the Baha’i Faith. 
  • The constitution of Japan guarantees the right of religious freedom. There is no state-sanctioned religion in Japan. 
  • Though the constitution prohibits any religious group from exercising political power, the legitimacy of the Japanese imperial family is rooted in divinity, which has created some historic and contemporary political tension.

History of Religion in Japan

Shinto is the oldest belief system in Japan, though it has no formal establishment date. Instead, it is closely associated with the creation of Japan’s islands. According to Shinto legend, after seeing that islands needed a leader, Amaterasu, the Japanese goddess of the sun, sent her son, Ninigi, to lead the people. Ninigi’s son, Jimmu, became the first emperor of Japan. Every subsequent shogunate and emperor can trace his ancestry directly to Jimmu.

Buddhism arrived in Japan during the 6th century A.D. via trade along the Silk Road and integrated with the established Shinto beliefs. In 1635, the Tokugawa shogunate—the emperor of the time—issued the Sakoku Edict, which closed the borders of Japan to eliminate foreign influence. The Edict remained in effect for 220 years. During this time, Buddhism, Shintoism, and Confucianism were state-sanctioned beliefs, though families were required to associate themselves with a Buddhist temple. Christianity was banned, but many people continued to practice the religion secretly.

The opening of Japan and the Meiji Restoration in the 19th century saw policies forcing the separation between Buddhism and Shintoism in an attempt to rid the country of Buddhism, which the Meiji emperor saw as a link to the Tokugawa shogunate. During this time, violence against Buddhists escalated, and many temples and artifacts were destroyed. Conversely, the ban on Christianity was lifted, and Protestant missionaries began arriving to proselytize. Shinto was established as Japan’s official religion. This State Shinto was used to justify the nationalism and militant tactics used by Japan during World War II. 

State Shinto was dismantled in 1945 and 1946 under the influence of the United State and three official documents: The Directive for the Disestablishment of State Shinto, the Imperial Rescript renouncing Divinity, and the new Japanese constitution.

This post-war constitution guarantees the right of religious freedom and prohibits any religiously affiliated group from exercising political power. All schools, with the exception of religious schools, are secular, but students are educated in world religions as a part of national education standards. It is illegal for inmates to openly practice religion while incarcerated.

Shinto

Shinto shrine
Visitors wearing kimono walk through the torii at the Fushimi Inari Shrine. Shinto is one of the two dominant religions in Japan. BEHROUZ MEHRI / Getty Images

Shinto is Japan’s oldest indigenous belief system, with an intense focus on ritual and reverence for kami, or spirits. Since Shinto does not have a central doctrine, holy deity, or sacred text, it is considered by many to be a belief system, not a religion. For this reason, many people who identify as Shinto also identify as another religion, such as Buddhism.

The core of Shinto is the belief in kami, the spirits that animate people, natural occurrences, powerful businesses, and anything else of greatness. Representations of these kami are housed in shrines, where believers practice specific rituals to show reverence for the kami. These rituals are done to keep the balance between nature and humanity. There are approximately 80,000 Shinto shrines in Japan, though this number does not include the small shrines found in many private homes.

Shinto traditional rituals are strongly associated with ascension practices of the imperial family. In April 2019, Emperor Akihito abdicated his position as emperor, passing the throne to his son, Naruhito, in a series of state-sponsored festivities. Later that year, a cohort of religious organizations, including Catholics and Buddhists, filed a lawsuit against the government and the imperial family, stating that it was unconstitutional to use government funds during imperial ascension rituals, as these rituals are historically Shinto in nature.

Buddhism

Seated Buddhist monk meditating
A Buddhist monk meditating with his hands in the Gyan mudra, which improves concentration and promotes consciousness. Buddhism is the second dominant religion in Japan. Mint Images / Getty Images

Buddhism, which originated in India during the 6th century B.C., arrived in Japan by the 6th century A.D. by way of China and Korea. The beliefs and practices of Buddhism, including the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, integrated with the practices of Shinto early in Japanese history. During the Tokugawa shogunate, Buddhism was closely associated with the shogunate—or leader—of Japan, and all families were required to be affiliated with a local Buddhist temple. By contrast, Buddhists faced strong persecution during the Meiji period when State Shinto was inscribed as the main religion of Japan. 

Though the Meiji ban on Buddhism was lifted after World War II, Buddhism remained in decline in Japan until the 1980s. Since the 1980s, Buddhist numbers have risen significantly, particularly within Nichiren Buddhism, which places a high value on social responsibility.
Mahayana Buddhism is the primary school of Buddhism in Japan, though other popular contemporary schools include Nichiren, Zen, Pure Land, and Shingon. Buddhist rituals are laced throughout ceremonies that indicate a change of life, specifically marriages and funerals, even if those participating in the ceremonies do not identify as practicing Buddhists.

Christianity 

Japanese statue of the Virgin Mary
A statue of the Virgin Mary made to look like Guanyin, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. During the ban on Christianity, many hidden Christians altered artifacts to resemble Shinto and Buddhist deities to shield their faith. Carl Court / Getty Images

In 1549, Portuguese Catholics became the first to introduce Christianity into Japan. By 1570, there were approximately 20 missionaries, located mostly in and around Nagasaki. However, the Sakoku Edicts of 1635 prohibited Christianity for the duration of the Tokugawa period. Many Japanese Christians continued to practice in secret, and they became known as Kakure Kirishitan, or hidden Christians.

When the ban was lifted in the 19th century, Protestant missionaries began arriving in Japan to build schools, focus on social welfare, and to convert the mostly Shinto population. The hidden Christians also began a campaign to revive Catholicism in and around Nagasaki. A series of ten towns, a castle, and a cathedral tells the story of the hidden Christians and the revival of Catholicism in the 19th and 20th centuries. In 2018, the World Heritage Committee inaugurated these sites as UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Christianity never gained a strong following in Japan because of the nature of monotheism, a stark contrast to traditional Japanese culture and beliefs. Less than two percent of the population of Japan identifies as Christian.

Other Religions in Japan

Ainu chiefs sitting together, 1908.
Three Ainu chiefs sitting together in Hokkaido in 1908. Some of the indigenous Ainu people of Japan practice traditional animism. Library of Congress / Getty Images 

Minority religions in Japan are claimed by about 6.9% of the population. These religions include Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, the Baha’i Faith, and animism. The indigenous Ainu people of Japan, concentrated mainly in the northernmost islands of Hokkaido and Honshu, practice animism.

A vast majority of the Muslims in Japan are not native Japanese, but immigrants or refugees. For example, hundreds of Rohingya Muslims currently reside in Japan as refugees fleeing religious persecution in Myanmar (Burma). Uighur Muslims from mainland China also make up a significant population of Muslims in Japan.

Sources

  • Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom: Japan. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of State, 2019.
  • Central Intelligence Agency. The World Factbook: Japan. Washington, DC: Central Intelligence
  • Agency, 2019.
  • Henshall, Kenneth. A History of Japan: From Stone Age to Superpower. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.  
  • Kidder, J. Edward. Japan: Before Buddhism. Thames & Hudson, 1966. 
  • Watts, Paul. “Japanese Religions.” Stanford Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education, National Clearinghouse for United States-Japan Studies, Oct. 2003.