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Is Japan a Religiously Divided Country? Fabian Drixler on Japan’s East/West Divide

Submitted by on November 30, 2015 – 5:10 pm 2 Comments |  

Japan Religion MapI was surprised by the depiction of Japan in Scolbert08’s map of world religion. The map depicts the main island of Honshu as essentially bifurcated into a more Buddhist west and a more Shinto east and northeast*; Shinto is also shown as more prevalent on the island of Shikoku and to a lesser extent in southern Kyushu, whereas Hokkaido in the far north is also shown as slightly more Buddhist. Okinawa in the far south, in contrast, is mapped as “other,” which in this case evidently refers to the semi-animistic, indigenous Ryukyuan religion. Significantly, no portion of Japan is shown as having a majority or even plurality of people with no religious affiliation, quite in contrast to neighboring South Korea.

Japan Religion ChartIt has long been my impression that Japan is a largely secular society—certainly less religious than South Korea, where Christianity is strong and Buddhism well established. Such an impression is partially justified by figures on membership in organized religious bodies, which indicate that over 50 percent of South Koreans belong to a religious organization, whereas in Japan only around 40 percent supposedly do, although most Japanese are buried with Buddhist rites. The religious situation in Japan is further complicated by the presence of so-called folk Shinto, which refers to beliefs and practices that are not affiliated with any formal religious group. As folk Shinto is present over most of Japan (although levels of belief and devotion vary considerably from person to person and region to region), South Korea Religion Chartareas in which relatively few people belong to a specific Buddhist sect might correspondingly be mapped as “Shinto.” Only a few percent of the Japanese population, however, actually belong to formal Shinto organizations.

Mapping religion in Japan is further complicated by the fact that both Mahayana Buddhism and Shinto are non-exclusive faiths, allowing adherents to simultaneously profess other belief systems. According to many sources, a clear majority of the Japanese people are simultaneously Buddhists and followers of (folk) Shinto, although most are not particularly religious in their daily lives. (Interest in Buddhism often grows in old age.) For about 1,300 years, moreover, Buddhism and Shinto had been deeply intertwined, and despite the state-imposed separation of the two faiths in 1868, elements of syncretism persist. Mapping separate Buddhist and Shinto regions in Japan is thus intrinsically problematic. Some evidence suggests that many areas with a high degree of adherence to Buddhism also have a high degree of adherence to Shinto. The paired maps posted to the left certainly indicate as Japan Shinto Buddhism Mapmuch, although I have doubts about their accuracy. (The second map, for example, shows Kochi prefecture in southern Shikoku as more than 85 percent Buddhist, whereas the data table in the Wikipedia article on religion in Japan claims that Kochi has Japan’s second-lowest rate of adherence to Buddhism, at 17.6 percent. The same table gives Kochi the highest level of membership in formal Shinto organizations, at 5.5 percent. Kochi also has the largest number of Shinto shrines in Japan.)


Japan Shinto Shrines Map

My current understanding is that while Japan does show a modest degree of religious regionalism, it is one that separates a more religious west from a more secular east, rather than Buddhist from Shinto regions. In trying to determine why this would be the case, I turned to Fabian Drixler, a historian of Japan at Yale University who also happens to be a superb cartographer. As Drixler notes in regard to Scolbert08’s depiction of Japan:


This map is quite unexpected. There is no prominent discourse in Japan today of a Buddhist West and a Shinto East, and in every part of Japan, most people participate in at least some of the rites of both traditions. But the map does not seem random either. For one, cultural differences between Eastern and Western Japan have a long history. Some medieval historians treat the Eastlands and Westlands as effectively separate countries. And in 1868, many of the protagonists in the war that brought down the Tokugawa shogunate believed that Japan’s fragmentation into an Eastern and a Western state was the most likely outcome, and made astonishing sacrifices to avert that outcome. This included the move of the imperial capital from Kyoto to the heart of the defeated Eastlands, the city now called Tokyo.

Japan’s religious geography according to Scolbert08 has other historical resonances. In most prefectures that are portrayed as having a plurality of Buddhists, Shin Buddhism (aka True Pure Land, Jōdo Shinshū) is the leading Buddhist denomination. In the 16th century, parts of central Japan were ruled by Shin Buddhist Japan Shin Buddhism Maptheocratic states with fearsome armies and impregnable fortresses. Although samurai warlords broke the power of armed Buddhism in the 1570s and 1580s, Shin Buddhists have continued to take their faith especially seriously. During the early modern period, Shin Buddhism dominated the religious landscape in Hokuriku, western Honshu, and parts of Kyushu. After 1870, Shin Buddhists were also numerous among the settlers that transformed Hokkaido from a thinly settled frontier into an integral part of Japan. (See my map posted here, created from a 1922 survey of religious affiliations.)

I am amused that on Scolbert08’s map, Buddhism appears so weak in Eastern Japan, because this echoes a prejudice voiced by Shin Buddhist priests in Hokuriku more than two centuries ago. To cite one of these clerics (Enkiin of Honseiji): “In the Kantō [= Eastern Japan], the spirit of people is strong and brave, but they do not understand Buddhism. They delight in the taking of life and turn their backs on official prohibitions. The folly of parents killing their own children happens frequently there. Moreover, they do not understand the paths of good and bad karma, and in their prayers only ask for advantages in this present life. Or so I hear.”

Infanticide Japan MapScolbert08’s map also reminded Drixler of the historical geography of infanticide in Japan, a topic that he has studied extensively (see his award-winning book, Mabiki: Infanticide and Population Growth in Eastern Japan, 1660-1950). As he puts it, “Most areas once infamous for infanticide appear in mid-to-dark pink [the color for Shinto on Scolbert08’s map]”


Drixler also comments insightfully on the one part of western Honshu, Okayama Prefecture, that is mapped as more Shinto than Buddhist on Scolbert08’s map. As he notes, “Areas in which Buddhism suffered destructive attacks between the mid-17th century and 1880 are generally pink [indicating Shinto dominance]. Okayama domain, for example, tried to reduce the number of Buddhist temples and priests in the 1660s.”

Had it not been for such anti-Buddhist activities, Japan would perhaps be a more devoutly Buddhist country than it is at present. The main clampdown came with the Meiji Restoration of 1868, but previous incidents were often severe, as powerful Buddhist monasteries threatened political power-holders and offered tempting treasures. According to the Wikipedia:

Haibutsu kishaku [literally “Ditch the Buddha and destroy Shākyamuni”] is a term that indicates a current of thought continuous in Japan’s history which advocates the expulsion of Buddhism from Japan. More narrowly, it also indicates a particular historic movement and specific historic events based on that ideology which, during the Meiji Restoration, produced the destruction of Buddhist temples, images and texts, and the forced return to secular life of Buddhist monks.

Another example is the policies of temple closure and monk defrocking of the Okayama, Aizu, and Mito Domains, also adopted for political and economic, rather than religious, reasons during the early modern period. These domainal policies were in general based on Confucian anti-Buddhist thought. The Meiji period form of haibutsu kishaku, based on kokugaku and Shinto-centrism, was instead dictated by a desire to distinguish between foreign Buddhism and a purely Japanese Shinto.

Drixler, however, objects to this Wikipedia description, noting that the term “haibutsu kishaku” is usually limited to the events of the 1860s. As he notes, “In Japan’s version of the OED, the earliest mention of the term listed is 1868. I don’t believe this phrase was applied to the policies of Okayama or Mito or Aizu in the 1660s, for example, nor even for Mito’s confiscation of temple bells (to make guns) in the Tenpō period (1830-1844).”

Japanese Buddhism always made at least partial recoveries after such setbacks. Currently, however, it is facing a crisis of a different kind: lack of interest, especially among the younger generation. A recent article in The Guardian claims that, “Over the next 25 years, 27,000 of the country’s 77,000 temples are expected to close, in one of the biggest existential crises facing Japanese Buddhism since it was introduced from Korea in the sixth century.”

Drixler’s take on the future of Buddhism in Japan is more optimistic:

I don’t think a reduction in the number of temples by one third is an existential crisis, even if it should come to pass. Presumably, it will be the smallest temples that will close first, and their functions will be taken over by neighboring institutions. Even after these closures, there would be one temple for every 2000 Japanese citizens or so. That sounds like sufficient coverage for me.

And even the pessimistic Guardian article quoted above ends on a note of hope for the faith:

“Japanese Buddhism has gone in a strange direction,” said Shibata, a retired businessman who traces his interest in Zen Buddhism to early-morning meditation sessions as a child. “These days most people associate it with funerals, but there is much more to it than that.”

Some priests are attempting to reverse the decline and challenge the “funeral Buddhism” image by opening temple cafes, supporting volunteer activities, and hosting music and theatre productions. In Tokyo, priests at Vowz Bar dispense spiritual guidance along with alcohol, to their young clientele.

* This region might be deemed by outsiders as the northeast, but the Japanese generally view their country in east-west terms, with the Tokyo area forming the core of the east. “Northeast Japan” conventionally denotes a well-defined region within the East of Japan, that of Northern Honshu, or Tōhoku.


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  • D. Schwartz

    Very interesting. From some self images of Japan via elements of their popular culture there is frequently very little perceived division between Buddhist and Shinto elements. This is shown by characters belonging to one or the other groups temples, praying at either depending on the festival, and generally not showing any preference. I know this isn’t real life but it’s an interesting view on the matter.

  • billposer

    One reason for the bias of funerals toward Buddhism is that Shinto has a much greater emphasis than Buddhism on ritual purity. In particular, any sort of contact with the dead, such as necessarily occurs when conducting a funeral, renders a Shinto priest impure, necessitating three days of purification rituals. Performing funerals therefore uses much greater human resources in Shinto than in Buddhism.