Are Japanese atheists really non-religious? Find out the truth from Japanese traditional culture!


After I moved to Australia, I got pregnant just only in two months, and then a year later, after I had a baby, I had postnatal depression. It was not only because of hard labour, but I had childhood trauma which I had to face it as a newly motherhood.

It took over a year to get better then one day my husband said I should do something for my life which I really like. Then I decided to go to art school, which was my childhood dream since I was five years old. I could get into one of the best University for fine art in Sydney, that was the start point to explore who exactly I am.

During my uni classes, I learned that there were so many Japanese arts influenced western arts such as woodblock prints and paintings. Thus I got quite a few questions from my classmates and lectures about Japan. However, I realised that I didn’t really know about my country’s cultural and even its history! I actually felt quite a shame….then I started to study my mother country for my own sake.

Also, being an artist is exploring yourself; you really need to understand where your work is coming from.

So, for my investigation report was all about where I came from based on my art which was influenced by Japanese culture, religions, traditional art etc. Mainly, I was fascinated by traditional Japanese colours which were named as represented from Japanese nature as well as animism features. It continued from my bachelor degree to the master’s degree.

Lost WWII caused to change Japanese tradition

World War II is a dark past that left a massive wound to the world. And it was Japan that started. Well, I know some people today may dismiss it by saying that it is a war, most likely war destroys many things. But I believe that the war we lost and changed Japan’s cultural traditions.

In Japan, especially in the Meiji period, Japanese were taught that the Emperor was the god. And this imperial worship culture will lead to the subsequent World War, and it deserved to rule the whole world.

But the problem was that the tendency that this Emperor worship is all of Shinto religion then it has spread as Shinto’s general aspect. Indeed, it is Shinto that devotion the Emperor and that a particular person becomes a god that calls like heroism worship.
However, upon my investigation, I started to think that there is a certain kind of “denial” in Japanese people.

They might think it was Shinto’s idea that drives the war. They also might believe that “the world thinks it was so foolish that the Japanese believed the human emperor was a god.” So then, they have a sense of inferiority or guilt, so that they started to deny Shinto itself.
But let me explain about Shino religion, perhaps it’s better to get more information from Wiki.

Shinto, also known as kami-no-michi, is a religion originating in Japan. Classified as an East Asian religion by scholars of religion, its practitioners often regard it as Japan’s indigenous religion and as a nature religion. Scholars sometimes call its practitioners Shintoists, although adherents rarely use that term themselves. There is no central authority in control of the movement and much diversity exists among practitioners.

Shinto is polytheistic and revolves around the kami (“gods” or “spirits”), supernatural entities believed to inhabit all things. The link between the kami and the natural world has led to Shinto being considered animistic and pantheistic.

Shinto – Wikipedia

What is original Shintoisum then?

Basically, Shinto is originally an animism religion, just like any other countries’  fundamental human’s awe of nature in ancient time. Then in the Asuka period, there came to the first forms of imperial Shintoism as myths and legends in Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki. Here it’s better to read Wiki which explains well too;

Asuka period

The Theory of Five Elements in Yin and Yang philosophy of Taoism and the esoteric Buddhism had a profound impact on the development of a unified system of Shinto beliefs. In the early Nara period, the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki were written by compiling existing myths and legends into a unified account of Japanese mythology. These accounts were written with two purposes in mind: the introduction of Taoist, Confucian, and Buddhist themes into Japanese religion; and garnering support for the legitimacy of the Imperial house, based on its lineage from the sun kami, Amaterasu. Much of modern Japan was under only fragmentary control by the Imperial family, and rival ethnic groups. The mythological anthologies, along with other poetry anthologies like the Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves (Man’yōshū) and others, were intended to impress others with the worthiness of the Imperial family and their divine mandate to rule.

In particular the Asuka rulers of 552–645 saw disputes between the more major families of the clan Shinto families. There were disputes about who would ascend to power and support the imperial family between the Soga and Mononobe/Nakatomi Shinto families. The Soga family eventually prevailed and supported Empress Suiko and Prince Shōtoku, who helped impress Buddhist faith into Japan. However, it was not until the Hakuhō period of 645–710 that Shinto was installed as the imperial faith along with the Fujiwara Clan and reforms that followed.

Shinto – Wikipedia

So here you go, now you know the history of imperial Shintoism, but originally Shinto is animism just like any other countries primal religion. 


Japan is not the only country that has a view of the Shinto religion.

Shinto is not a rare thing in the world, and it is a primitive religion initially derived from the natural spirit and animist religious views.

However, it linked to Japanese mythology (as I attached link about Shintoism in Wiki), and I think it can be divided into three types. Besides, Buddhism was introduced from China, and people accepted as new views of Shinto. As a result, Buddhism and Shinto merged perfectly, in which the newly formed Shinto and the doctrines of Buddhism.

1. Enshrines the spirit of nature

The first thing that Shito belief was just the awe of nature. Primitives had no medicine or scientific basis, so they just prayed for something as they believed as supernatural being to get well if you get ill or lousy luck in everyday lives. Also, when a disaster occurs, it scares them so badly. From these points, various forms of primitive natural spirits and animist religious views have arisen.

It’s a belief system that people sacred spirits dwell in things in nature such as; dragon gods, serpent gods, rock gods, and Inari-san. Some of these come from the awe of nature, such as epidemics diseases and natural disasters.

In Australia, Aboriginal views of religion have animism similar to that of Shinto, a primitive Japanese religion, so when I am talking with Aboriginal people about Shinto animism is very exciting, and I found it’s very interested.

2.   Shinto related to Japanese mythology

Are Japanese atheists really non-religious? Find out the truth from Japanese traditional culture!

It is a Shinto deity that enshrines the gods described in Kojiki, ancient Japanese mythology that is said to have created Japan such as Amaterasu. The most famous mythology shrines are; Ise Shrine and Izumo Taisha Shrine, but there are many shrines in the various places that enshrine many of the same gods.

Well, I think it’s not unique to Japan, as well as Greek myths have similar gods’ structure and so on other countries.

3. Shinto Heroism or evil spirits worship

In Shintoism, there is a unique worshipping that only becomes a god after their death. 

For example, this is quite a famous story about Tenjin god. Tenjin is one of well-known god and enshrine all over the Japan. And this got used to be a human ( Michizane Sugawara) then became a god for study and thunder god.

Michizane Sugawara was a very powerful governor in the Heian period, but he became a criminal then banished to the countryside. After his death, there were so many disasters, such as severe storms with thunder for many days. And so many people died of diseases. Then they thought it was because he cursed this world when he died. People were so afraid, almost shit themselves. 

So they decided to enshrine and worship his sprits as a god, hoping he forgave the people and their surroundings. 

Then now, Sugawara Michizane was a god for thunder and study, because he was very gifted and talented for studying. 

There is quite a lot of this kind of case in Shito.

Shinto customs are very closet to the Japanese way of life.

Are Japanese atheists really non-religious? Find out the truth from Japanese traditional culture!

I must say, Shino customs always exit on Japanese everyday lifestyle, it is so closed to by them; thus, they just can’t recognise it is benefiting from God.
In particularly after WWII, Japanese school doesn’t teach anything about Shintoism. Also, they may feel a pang of guilt as they were thinking imperial Shintoism lead the war. So that they just want to deny or they just don’t want to be a part of it.

However, the Japanese have always had a custom of greeting the god since they were born. For example, people go to local shrines for getting a blessing for their newborn child or visiting temple or shrine for praying their good health or wishes for new years day.

However, if you mentioned what they do is totally religious-based custom. Then many Japanese people would tell you that it is Japanese culture. But that culture is all based on Shinto or Buddhist traditions.

You may find it’s very odd to hear from people does a thing as religious people does!

Just before Meiji restoration, Shino and Buddhism were all treated as equal. For example, there were some Shinto shrines in Buddhism temple property, that was quite normal at that time. But after Meiji restoration, the government had established a new restriction that Buddhism was no longer treated the same as Shinto.
However, it is quite hard to change because people accepted both religions and worship them equally.

Therefore, if you consider carefully at the current Buddhism and Shintoism, you can notice some Shintoism in some of Buddhism.
So I wonder that it’s quite tricky to think both Buddhism and Shintoism separately.

Shintoism is very personal. Because the religion itself is personal or private, each person has a relationship with God. There is said to be like eight million Gods. “God” can sprout in your heart without knowing it.
That’s why I think that each person has a private connection when they say “my god is my god, not yours” or “not Shinto (it’s meant to be imperial Gods which led to the war), and in a sense, I think it is a peculiar Japanese religious view.

Why a lot of Japanese say they are atheists?

Now you get the idea, why many Japanese people say they are atheists.

1. There is a feeling of guilt that the Imperial Shinto worship had lead to the war then sacrificed many lives, so they just denied Shintoism. Or avoid using terms of Shinto.

2. They hadn’t taught any Shintoism at school so that they don’t have any knowledge of it. 

3. Shintoism is too familiar with everyday life and cannot recognise as it’s religion.


About recent Japanese Shinto

Are Japanese atheists really non-religious? Find out the truth from Japanese traditional culture!

Before I studied at university, I didn’t know much about traditional Japanese religion. As part of my study, I needed to analyse my artwork and to explain what it was theoretically about.
Consequently, I really started to research Japanese traditional cultural aspects, such as Shinto and Zen Buddhism.
I soon became very fascinated.

However, upon investigation, you can see that Japanese religion associated with Japanese culture, and it is a unique and beautiful perception.

I am so lucky that I was born in Japan and grew up there with Japanese sentiment, which strongly connected to religious feature (Shino and Buddhism or both combined) you probably can’t find anywhere else in the world.

However, recently it seems that local depopulation effects shrines’ existence. I’ve read that some of the shrines were demolished or abandoned due to lack of worshippers. I wonder what happens to these gods.

Anyway, Japanese religion has unique aspects if you are start researching. If you are interested in spirituality as well as supernatural, I recommend reading some of the books about Shinto and Zen Buddism.