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Concerning Japan, the term, shūkyō 宗教 (religion) has a very complex history, which is closely connected with the relationship between modern Japan and the West. Before the encounter with the western colonial powers, different terms were commonly employed, such as o michi  道, (via, way, system, as in, Shintō, “The way of the Gods”), while we have no proper equivalent for the European and American notion of religion, nor the aristotelic logic that led to the non-contraddiction principle: therefore, rather than interpret different thought systems as irreconciliable, such background favoured the compromise, the similarities and the shared elements.


The origins of shūkyō

The development of the term shūkyō begins in 1907, coined by Anesaki Masaharu 姉崎 正治. In the beginning, we see that on the one hand the term referred to a unified religion particular to Japan (with a sense of exclusivity), while at the same time it was employed to refer to the diverse Japanese religions (in a more inclusive way). The majority of the Japanese scholars have avoided the term in its exclusive sense, consecrating it to the conceptual hybrid space that includes the different religious experiences in Japan.

Religion in Japan

The word “religion” is acknowledged, from Japanese authors, to carry a strong notion of trascendency, derived from Western Christianity; in modern Japan the transcendental aspect of Christian (Protestant) belief has been employed as a means through which citizens could develop a transcendental view of self, and thus objectively criticize social values and state authority. However, while the Western notion of transcendence has been taken into consideration, it remains difficult to locate the sense of guilt, tipical of Western-Christian society, in the Japanese interpretation of Christianity, leading instead to a indigenization and trasforamtion of the notion.

Parallel to the analysis of the transcendental element within Christianity, also the Buddhist transcendence came to be rediscovered, through the work of researchers and philosophers such as Nishida Kitarō西田幾多郎. In general, the introduction of a concept of religion intended as modernizing and westernizing is considered to be a crucial premise for the subsequent relationship between religion and the state in modern Japan


The conceptual core of State Shinto as it came into being since the1880s, i.e. the definition of Shinto as a non-religious entity, hinged upon a certain antecedent definition of religion that made possible the exclusion of Shinto from it.

Krämer, “How ‘Religion’ Came to Be Translated as ‘Shūkyō’”, p. 90.

Religion and morality

The introduction of a western concept of religion, therefore, introduced a dichotomy between wat was now conceived as the sphere of religion in the Christian sense, shūkyō, and the sphere of morality, dōtoku道徳.

Due to these considerations, in the international academic world concerned with the study of there is a significant caution and even skeptiscism about a precise and clear definition of the concept, to the extent that in some cases the researchers suggest to avoid an introductory definition


una definizione di ciò che la religione è non può trovarsi all’inizio, ma caso mai, alla fine di un’indagine come quella che segue.

Weber Max, Economia e società, Milano, Comunità, 1968 [first ed. 1922]. Pag.411.

Religious beliefs in Japan

The majority of Japanese people tends not to identify with a single faith; they usually combine within their religious experience elements from difference traditions, in what we can call a peaceful religious freedom for everyone.

[ctt template=”11″ link=”A8tcM” via=”yes” ]The majority of Japanese people tends not to identify with a single faith @EmmezArt[/ctt]

The most important traditions in Japan are Shintō (lit. The way of the Gods) and Buddhism; beside them, we find a strong influence of confucian philosophy that penetrated deeply within Japanese culture (even if it never actually developed in a religious system), in particular in the organization of the family structure and the ancestors’ worship. Moreover there are the so-called New Religions, name that points to a wide range of religious movement of a relatively recent origin, often arising around charismatic figures of healers and shamans, with a mix of shinto, buddhist and christian elements. We can find, finally, some religious minorities such as Christianity (between 1 and 3 milions believers), Islam, Hinduism, Bahai religion, Jainismo, Okinawa’s and Ainu’s traditions.

[ctt template=”11″ link=”e9s81″ via=”yes” ]The most important traditions in Japan are Shintō (lit. The way of the Gods) and Buddhism @EmmezArt[/ctt]

What is the first image that pops into your mind when you think about religion in Japan? The beautiful red shrines or the silent temples in the forest? Let me know in the comments, or feel free to use the form below

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