The Japanese Don’t Believe in God

This probably isn’t news to you if you’re any type of Japanophile, but a recent study by the University of Chicago reveals that out of 30 countries surveyed, Japan had the least number of “strong believers” in God (and it’s on the decrease).  Only 4.3% of respondents believed strongly in a God, compared to 60.6% in the United States.  The Huffington Post gives a short summary and provides a table of responses used to determine the belief one has in God.

Anime reflects this lack of belief in God or any higher power.  While religious practice is strongly emphasized in anime, worship of God is lacking (this season’s Sakamichi no Apollon standing as an exception).  The Japanese are what Ian Reader cleverly calls “practically religious.” Their religion is a part of everyday life, an imbedded cultural aspect.  Going to shrines on New Year’s or saying “itadakimasu” before eating is more a reflection of culture and etiquette than it is faith for the Japanese.

Japan Happy New Year
Image by Art Jam

Still, from a Christian perspective, I wonder which percentage God is more concerned about – the Japanese one or the Christian one.  While the Japanese don’t even pretend to claim to believe in God, the majority of Americans still proclaim their unwavering belief that God exists.  But I think that a typical non-believer might think as I do, that there aren’t that enough Christians in the U.S. that follow God’s second greatest commandment, to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

There’s juxtaposition between what we say with our mouths and what we do in our actions (I’m no exception).  It reminds me of what Michael H. Hart said in his book, “The 100,” in which he presented his list of the 100 most influential figures in history, from least important to most.  Jesus landed third, not first, mostly because his followers didn’t “turn the other cheek” and otherwise follow his commands.

In other words, too many Christians are hypocrites.  If Jesus were here right now, it wouldn’t surprise me if he embraced the Japanese people, while turning to the Americans and proclaiming them “Pharisees.”

While I have hope that the Japanese people will come to know the power of God’s grace (there are certainly many missionaries there, including contributor Yuki-Anne and formerly the Mikoski family; co-blogger Zeroe4 is there right now in Discipleship Training School), I’m reminded that the land here in America is what smells rotten.  Jesus hated hypocrisy, and the U.S. is full of it.  And if less Christianized nations look the U.S. as a model, that’s a problem.

After all, how do expect others to change when the gospel hasn’t changed us?

Note: Read the entire University of Chicago report here.

36 thoughts on “The Japanese Don’t Believe in God

  1. Have you seen Kids on the Slope? I don’t know how it will last , but at least two of the main characters are Christian. I hope they don’t turn disrespectful with it… so far though I am loving it.

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    1. Oh yes, it’s a wonderful series! I’m absolutely loving it, and the Christian characters add just another layer to the show. Judging the show on its merits so far (and on how Watanabe handled Christianity in a previous show, Samurai Champloo), I imagine they’ll treat the religion with respect. From a post I’ve read, they’ve apparently captured Catholicism of the time pretty accurately.

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  2. Note, that on the same survey, only 8,7% replied “I don’t believe in God” compared to the USA’s 3%, France’s 23,3%, and Britain’s 18%.

    The Japanese might not be fundamentalist Christians, but they are also far from atheistic.

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    1. I think it’s also important to note that there are quite a few people who may be atheistic at heart, but are afraid to actually state it. I didn’t reveal my agnosticism to my parents until well into grad school because of the reaction I knew I would get; likewise, I didn’t tell anyone else because claiming Christianity had become a natural thing.

      Just from Facebook alone, I have seen tons of extremely inflammatory stases that jab at atheists. Much like how the statistics on true Christians who follow what they preach may be off, that is probably the same for the numbers on atheists.

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      1. There are also tons of extremely inflammatory comments that jab at faith. The religious don’t want to talk to the atheists because the atheists mock them. The atheists don’t want to talk to the religious because the religious insult them. The people in the middle don’t know what to do and some tilt in either direction dependent on their surroundings.

        Bottom line, everyone is at fault. As a society we have done an excellent job creating monologues that feed into themselves while completely neglecting the fine art of the dialogue. Perhaps this view is a bit pessimistic, but it is largely upheld by cursory glances around the Internet and is true of more than just concerns of faith.

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        1. You’re absolutely right. One of the reasons I created this site is precisely because the forums I’d been on before were either inflammatory or self-contained. I hope that in a small way, this is a place where we can meet in the middle and chat in a (mostly) open way. 😛

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      2. Yeah, there’s definitely that, especially in the U.S. It’s funny what’s happened to religion in this country – it’s become such a point of contention that two people of different ideas generally avoid talking about it, or else debate it.

        Speaking of which…would you mind if I emailed you, Marina? If it’s not too personal, I’d love to hear more about your background – you’ve revealed so many interesting tidbits here in these comments and past ones.

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    2. There’s definitely a concern with wording here – what the people conducting the study asked and what the respondents meant. What did the questioners mean by “God”? And do the Japanese specifically believe in “God,” or are they more spiritual in nature? These are questions that need to be asked when examining these answers, I think.

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  3. Excellent post. I really couldn’t agree more. The whole concept that you are talking about is becoming more and more obvious from my dealings back home and my dealings here in Tokyo. This was very well done.

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  4. You’ve provided an excellent topic for me to tell you the huge benefits of nonbelief. It’s not that the Japanese are good people in spite of their irreligiosity–it’s they’re good BECAUSE of their lack of religion. When you don’t base your life around nontruths the result is a a more honest, competent society.

    Please read the following paragraphs not as a personal attack on anything, but rather the observations of someone who used to be on the inside but is now on the outside looking in. I can only call it like I see it and I don’t hold back, so don’t say I didn’t warn you–for what it’s worth I’ve tried to be as tactful as I can.

    1. When you don’t believe there is a beneficent figure looking out for you and ready to intervene when things get tough you take responsibility for your own actions instead of saying, “I don’t have to worry, god will take care of that.” You’re also more compassionate because you realize the only one who can help you is another person; beckoning you to constantly help others at every opportunity.

    2. When your irrevocably held beliefs clash with reality the resulting war of knowledge is going to undermine the quality of education. This results in a population that is not capable of competing with societies who embrace the sciences, who learn from history instead of trying to rewrite it and don’t waste the time of our educators and legal systems with bronze and iron age mythologies. You learn to trust the real experts and because you had a good education you can understand what they’re saying and make informed decisions about how that information can best be put to use.

    3. When you realize there’s probably no god watching your every action, prejudging you for the supposed crimes of your ancestors a weight drops off of your shoulders and you are able to live life freely and happily. You come to the realization that you are not a dirty sinner fallen from grace, but the current end product (the beta in progress) of a process that started 13.75 billion years ago. It’s just going to get better from here because you get to be an active player in shaping the future of the universe and you get to accomplish this because you see farther than anyone in history by standing on the shoulders of the giants who came before. Thus your descendants will be the ones standing on your shoulders, seeing farther than it’s possible for you to even imagine.

    4. When you understand there’s probably nothing after you die, you want to make the most of the one life you know for sure you’re going to have. There’s no infinity waiting for you at the end of your finite time that would cheapen the present; sour the moment. You feel lucky to be alive and you want others to share in your prosperity. They aren’t outsiders who need to be converted to your way of thinking, but companions on our communal journey who we can learn from.

    I think that’s enough of that for now, but don’t forget that you have serious competition in Japan from people like me. Americans who are here not to turn Japan into America, but to absorb the greatest parts of Japan and take them back to America. I’m here to show the Japanese people that there are Americans who embrace knowledge, who are good without god just like them, who don’t act like a bunch of pompous know-it-alls trying to change them.

    As a little aside, my atheism / humanism has landed me the honor of being the only American living in Japan one of my coworkers respects. We had a long conversation a few months back about all things philosophical and my sincerity and honesty has changed his mind about the future of America. Where missionary after missionary left him peeved, an atheist has given him hope. He and I agree that losing religion is the best thing that can happen to America–it’ll become more like Japan in all the ways I listed above. And considering the current youthful generation is the most nonreligious the country has ever seen, the future is looking bright indeed. ^_^

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    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Alexander. As you know, I really don’t ever intend to use this forum for debating, so I won’t do that. Instead, I’ll just point out a couple of items. First, I hope that missionaries are not trying to change Japan into America – that’s pretty arrogant and unthoughtful. Instead, they’re trying to introduce the Japanese to the gospel message, which as we know, geographically began in the Roman Empire, in the Middle East.

      Also, your ideas are sound from the perspective of one who hasn’t enjoyed the power of God’s grace. Ideas like guilt, personal responsibility, and education are not limited by Christianity (though they can and are often limited by man). Grace provides freedom from sin and the ability to live a full life. Now, I know you don’t believe this, but still, I think the basic concept is this – those who understand and embrace the love of Christ and God the Father don’t live in a way or promote some of the ideas you seem to think lead from Christianity.

      Of course, it all comes down to truth. If I have to boil down my belief into one reason, it’s this – I believe that it is true. A lot of our disagreement can also be boiled down into the fact that we both believe different things to be true.

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  5. Somehow, I’m not surprised byJapan not being that religious. A lot of studies have shown that the higher the GDP and more modernized a country is, the less religious they are. The US is the exemption to the rule.

    I’m wondering what the incentive is to convert – Japan is in a fairly good place, with low murder rates, a decent economy (even if it’s in a downturn like the rest of the world), etc.

    But I will openly admit I’m biased against caring what happens in Japan, because I’m more focused on Africa at the moment. There’s been an upswing of murdering kids because of accusations of witchcraft that some churches have been inadvertantly funding, and I care a lot more about that.

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    1. “I’m more focused on Africa at the moment. There’s been an upswing of murdering kids because of accusations of witchcraft that some churches have been inadvertently funding, and I care a lot more about that.”

      You and me both. The Roman Catholic church has also been lying to the people of Africa telling them that condoms spread AIDS when in reality it’s exactly the opposite. >_<#

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      1. Well, I do have to speak up for the church. Not getting into the mess of protection against STDs, I will say that the church is doing so much good for the continent and that the power of grace is quite amazing. I work for a man who was a victim (and sole survivor) of a Rwandan genocide event. His faith has helped transform to many people, and his giving has changed a reigion.

        This is just a small example. On a larger scales, many Christian groups are going in and focusing on aiding the physical needs of people in Africa. Certainly, Christian organizations have taken the lead is attempting to transform the continent in the wake of all the evils done there, particularly in the 1800s and 1900s.

        That said, evil is done in the name of church, Witchcraft accusations join in with “Christian” leaders doing mass murders under the name of Christ. This is so vile, particularly because these are the very same people who pretend to be helping others. It’s sickening and so sad…I’ve read so much about the victimization of children recently and in 20th century history…and it’s just heartbreaking. I get especially angry when people do it in the name of a Savior who loved children.

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      2. Oh, hellllll no. All it takes is a small hole for HIV to get through. Condoms have substantial fail rate. If you think condoms are going to save you and just start havin’ sex instead of abstaining or being faithful to your spouse then you are may more likely to get AIDS than if you just didn’t have sex. I’m not saying condoms don’t help stop the spread on a surface level, but they encourage people to engage in the sex act with just anyone out of a false sense of security.

        I’m with the Apotolic See on this one. Condoms aren’t going to solve anything.

        I’m not trying to be too controversial here but I’m not going to let that slide. Especially considering how much crud the Catholic Church is forced to put up with, though it’s not surprising. They nailed Jesus to a cross after all…

        Forgive me.

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        1. Condoms have a fail rate of 10% with typical use… which is substantially lower than going without. That’s a number that can’t be scoffed at when talking about countries like Africa, where girls are often sold and forced into prostitution by their own families, and asking the men to use condoms can get them beaten and killed. So they go without, and that ups the STDs and pregnancy rates, and that means those men are also going back to their wives and giving whatever they picked up to them… because wives aren’t allowed to ask for their husbands to use condoms, either.

          You’re more likely to get any sex-related disease when you have sex with multiple partners, but in places where HIV infections are rampant, condoms would effectively lower that infection rate a substantial amount. You can’t scoff at something that would lower the rate by 90%.

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          1. I think the main reason we discourage the use is because of our crazy, evil, backwards sexual ethic that has been abandoned by all other Christian groups. We just don’t think it’s worth it. Besides, don’t you think it would be better to do our best to get rid of prostitution and illicit sex? I think that’s a better solution than convincing people that playing russian roulette with a condom is going to be their salvation.

            I do apologize for my tone, it was accusatory and condescending, I was emotionally charged and should have taken some time before I fired it off.

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            1. I don’t think it’s crazy/evil/backwards to wait until marriage – I think that if it’s right for the person who wants it, then it’s all good. But I do think that it’s overkill to say that it’s “playing Russian Roulette” to use a condom. If something was going to cut down on infant deaths by 90%, or on car accidents by 90%, or surgery errors by 90%, EVERYONE would be clamoring *for* it because…. 90%. The only reason that statistic is magically trivialized with condoms is because the Holy See doesn’t agree with it.

              While I’d love to see prostitution and *forced* sex go out the door, realistically it will never happen. Ever. Human nature isn’t that fantastic.

              There will always be people having sex out of wedlock for various reasons… and with my parent’s marriage, I can and have seen why people would choose never to get married and just live with each other instead. And I just don’t feel that people should be punished for what, with love, is a fantastic and beautiful thing, whether there is marriage or not.

              Also, your apology is accepted – I understand heated tones because issues that people are invested in get people like that.

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  6. Your post made me think about something, in France, the areas that are the most religious are also the politically most conservative ones, the ones who vote the most for the far right, the downright racist, non accepting and not respectful of the ones who’re different, party.
    At least they’re not hypocrites (though a lot of people won’t admit who they voted for), but it’s definitely not loving each others like yourself.

    As for the post in itself, I’m not really sure you can really compare the number of believers so easily, faith of the Japanese and Christian faith is really different after all. I don’t think they feel the need to worship, God(s) are/is there and that’s it. I was under the impression that Japanese were more living with their kami than seeing them as a higher being.
    And then there’s ancestors worship, though worship may not be the right word, more like paying respect to their ancestors, it exists and it’s definitely a religious practice, but you can’t say they’re gods, nor higher beings.

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    1. You bring up an EXCELLENT point. The Japanese people are an interesting group – you could call them largely “atheists,” and yet, I would say they’re far more spiritual than Americans. “Spiritual atheists” – its an interesting concept, and one, I think, that fits well with the Japanese.

      I should ask some of my missionary friends, but I wonder if this spirituality is a help or hindrance in their explaining of the gospel message. Ironically, I imagine its the latter.

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      1. I’d agree that this spirituality is an hindrance, I’d imagine the situation is pretty much the same as when catholicism started to spread around.
        We have saints because of this spirituality and a lot of celebrations are linked to pagan ones that existed before.

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  7. What an intriguing post. This brings to mind religiosity vs. spirituality. I don’t believe the Japanese necessarily have to believe in God. I have never been the type of Christian that feels others must have my faith. If people are doing right by one another, respecting the Earth, I doubt God will punish them. I don’t feel they are any less or emptier than I am because we differ in beliefs. I wonder if the Japanese are more spiritual than many Christians in America. I have found that a lot of Christians are Christian in name only, they “go to church” but that’s about it but true belief is not always there. If that were the case, America wouldn’t be as divided as it is now.

    I don’t see the Japanese being disrespectful or mocking of the Christian belief but I do see a lot of Christians being disrespectful and mocking those who don’t believe. I find that to be much worse than someone who admits to not believing in God. It is not our place to judge, we can talk to others but it was not Jesus’ way to convert people. He wanted those who professed to believe to actually follow the Scriptures.

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    1. While I disagree with you about what it takes for one to get to Heaven, I definitely agree with what you have to say in comparing the Japanese and Christians. SO many Christians have really twisted Jesus’ message into something hateful, not realizing that they’ve become the Pharisees that Jesus is speaking of.

      Likewise, there are many who talk about being “open,” while effectively telling Christians that they are wrong. -_-‘

      But yeah, largely the media I’ve seen from Japan shows them to be respectful of Christian belief. I’m reminded of a Yoko Kanno quote (from Wikipedia):

      “I’m not religious at all. But Japanese don’t believe in one God, but in gods everywhere in plants and animals. That’s right. In Japan, Christianity has a wonderful image. People enjoy the image of Christ and Christianity in picture books, but not as a religion”

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      1. God has shown that he is willing to accept those in the fold even if they aren’t Christians as long as they live pure lives. We have to remember that Jesus was not Christian and did not renounce being Jewish. If one is following the Scriptures without even knowing them, for me that means God is with them. This is where I differentiate between a good person and a good Christian.

        God is everywhere.

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  8. Oh my , a spent a good quarter of an hour from work reading this post and all of it’s comments. Personally, speaking as a Christian, I’m just thankful that a blog like this exists.
    The post itself got me really thinking (about Christianity in our Country mostly) and a lot of the comments have good points.
    the statement from Gandhi “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians” keep popping into my head while I read the comments. I’m a christian and not a catholic, there is a big difference in both. I love God, but sometimes I really do not like Religion. I do not believe in a lot of what them Catholics believe in, things like saints and stuff. I believe that being a christian is more of a personal thing and that I do try to share the good news but I don’t shove it through other people’s throats.
    I don’t want to offend anyone, but from what I see, the Catholics in my country are the ones who act the most un-christian like. They attend church regularly yes, but mostly only because , like Japan and their shrine attending in New Years, it has become part of our culture and tradition. I’m not saying all of them are, it’s just most Catholics that I see act worse that atheists. If they really do believe in a God watching over them then they should act as if there is one.

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    1. Thanks for the comments!

      I do think there’s a lot of hypocrisy to go around. Certainly evangelical Christians have often lost the point, forgetting to love others and focusing on judgement, politics, and ungraceful words and actions. On the other hand, I grew up with almost all of my friends being Catholics, and most of them knew little about the Bible and compartmentalized their faith.

      In the end, there’s plenty of blame to go around.

      The older I get, and the more I think about the words of God, study the history of the church, speak to other Christians, etc., the more I understand the depths of our sin and the need for grace which we all have. Despite all the negatives and all the differences, it’s this which we can all espouse and preach.

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  9. have they ever search of God i tried all religions , but most of them did not go to my mind cuz they have no answers ,but i felt that there must be one thing true , and i feel there is something is this world , i cant believe in people they make lies all the time and always change what is written , always there is different stories and visions , so i kept studying how they ended up to this believe, but the most amazing part i found is that all of them were worshiping one thing at the beginning which is God or call it what ever, and that thing is the one who made all of this around , this is what my reaching ended up , however , i found that God was description more closer to Quran in Islam and that same God that all nations were worshiping, still , many things i can not accept with Islam but it looks like they change lots like all nations have

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    1. People do indeed change and religions change. In Christianity, people living in very ancient Old Testament times didn’t know about the Messiah – they didn’t know that everything would be turned up on it’s head. But that’s what makes the Bible amazing – with context and hindsight, we see the incredible story of salvation from the beginning of time.

      I really encourage you to look into scripture and maybe to visit a church this weekend, particularly in light of Easter. If you have any questions, please feel free to email me, Thomas: beneaththetangles AT gmail DOT com.

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  10. Atheists or the non-religious are on rise everywhere, even in American they are one of the fastest growing minorities. Many countries are pushing for this because of the common belief of religion’s negative sway on scientific advancement, education and certain freedoms.

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