Japanese Religion and Secularism: the First and Second Stages (Part 2 of 7)

Graduation Thesis on the Aum Affiar: Part 2 of 7

The first two stages of Japanese religion and secularism will be explained in this post. This is part 2 of 7 for my graduation thesis on the “Aum Affair” in Japan – a biological attack on the public by a Japanese “New New Religion.”

  • For the introduction (part 1), click here.
  • For an explanation of the first and second stages of Japanese religion (part 2), click here.
  • For an explanation of the third and fourth stages of Japanese religion (part 3), click here.
  • For a brief history on the “New Religious” group, Aum Shinrikyo (part 4), click here.
  • For a summary of the “Aum Affair” – a religious act of terrorism (part 5), click here.
  • For an explanation of how other religions in Japan reacted to the “Aum Affair” (part 6), click here.
  • For counterarguments and my conclusion (part 7), click here.

This is part two in a seven-part essay on the Aum Affair in Japan. It was written (by me) in late November as my graduation thesis. I originally did not plan on “publishing” it – but I am on my honeymoon for the next six weeks and will not be able to blog while I am abroad. In the mean time, I broke the capstone graduation thesis into seven parts and scheduled them to publish while I was gone. This topic, Aum Shinrikyo, is relevant to me because:

1. My husband’s father was a prominent police officer during the affair and was in charge of raiding and arresting Aum members

2. I am a Christian who has spent copious amounts of time in Japan – as a student, teacher, and/or “living witness.” I was struck by both the non-religious and religious elements of Japan and wanted to explore why it was that way. 

Japanese Secularism and Religion in Four Stages

Secularism can be understood conceptually in three categories:

  • 1) the separation of church and state,
  • 2) the public disinterest of religious practice,
  • 3) and a tolerance toward minor religions (Munby, 1963) (Cliteur, 2010).

I chose to use a tri-fold approach to measure secularism, drawing from a variety of sources for the criteria. This study will examine the religious history of Japan in four stages: pre-1639, 1639 to pre-WWII, 1945 – 1995, and post-“Aum Affair.” By dividing religious practice into four historical stages, each distinguished by a radical event that shaped modern religious ideas, it becomes clear that the encounter with the West and Western ideas pushed Japan on a path toward secularism.

Modern Japan is secular, not because of the “Aum Affair,” but because Japanese religion has had difficulty finding a relevant place in society.

The First Stage (700 – 1639)

From the 8th century until the mid-17th century, the island country of Japan was isolated from the rest of the world. (Welzel, 2011). In feudal Japan Shintoism was not a separate activity from the management of the “state” and was by extension not secular.

Shinto priests often served in government positions and shrines were largely funded by the feudal government. While Zen Buddhism, an imported religion from mainland China, was not directly funded by the government, it still enjoyed favorable benefits. Beginning in the early 1600s, all families were required to belong to a Buddhist temple (Earhart H. B., 1998).

Public opinion of religion during feudal Japan was marked by religious tolerance and balance. Religion was seen as a positive force in society that provided a moral code to live by and all religions were seen as beneficial and integral to spiritual fulfillment (State, 2012). The native Japanese culture carried the idea that natural world was composed of sacred kami, elements of nature (Kitagawa, 1987). It followed that all non-Shinto religions (such as Buddhism or Christianity) were some sort of kami worship, and therefore harmony among all religions was balanced and desirable.

The composition of religious members from till the mid-17th century was dominated by  Shintoism and Buddhism, with 99% of Japanese claiming to be a follower of either (Earhart, 1998). A typical religious life in feudal Japan began with as a Shinto, because of their birthing and child ceremonies, and ended as a Buddhist, because of their death ceremonies and rituals (Carter, 2012). It was uncommon not to belong to a Shinto or Buddhist temple.

Christianity, on the other hand, was not nearly as popular among the populace, as it demanded a strict obedience to an omnipresent, monotheistic God  and pointed out the flaws in other religions as heretical. Christianity’s missionary zeal and rigid practice conflicted with the indigenous ideas of religious harmony and made non-Christian Japanese uncomfortable (Kitagawa, 1987).

As a result, two out of three of the categories for secularism presented in this paper were not fulfilled in the first stage, making traditional Japan clearly non-secular.

First stage
Separation of Church and State No
Public Disinterest in Religion No
Tolerant of Minor Religions Yes
Levels of Secularism 33%


The Second Stage (1639 – 1945)

From 1639 – 1945 Japanese society became increasingly intolerant of religion.

In a short period of time, Japan transitioned from religiously tolerant practice and coexistence to a narrow-minded and prejudiced attitude toward any non-Shinto or non-Buddhist religions. This non-secular approach was fueled by Japanese nationalism in the face of complicated relations with the West. Nationalism was especially prevalent in this era of globalization because Western expansionism was threatening Japanese superiority.

There was pressure by the West to wear Western clothes, enjoy Western media, and refurbish the house with Western appliances. Alone, it was not threatening, but coupled with other Western ideas, it became detrimental to the Japanese way of life.

Toward the middle of the second stage, if an individual was not fully with Japan, they were against Japan, and could be harassed, fired, or attacked for their ‘traitorous’ behavior (Reader, 1991).

The second stage began with a crucial event in 1639, when foreign businessmen were deported because their trading policies were deemed unfair by the Japanese government (Earhart H. B., 1998). The Japanese government also used this opportunity to shut down Western, especially Christian, religions that were not native to Japan.

The overzealous Christian gospel of a monotheistic creator of man and his son Jesus Christ was incompatible with national kami and loyalty to the Emperor, a descendent of the Shinto goddess Amaterasu. For two centuries, Christians were persecuted and killed and other non-Buddhist, foreign religions were forced underground (Hirota, 1999). It was  a dark time for Christians in Japan.

During this period was the emergence of New Religions starting in the 1930s. New Religions (also known as 新宗教, or Shin Shukyou), by definition, were religions created by a charismatic leader who selected elements of his or her favorite religions, creating a new “super-religion.” They were created in the violent backlash against all things foreign. New Religions offered a more peaceful way to look at the world, while still keeping Japanese roots, and were appealing to housewives, day laborers, and other semi-marginalized members of society who did not benefit from Japanese nationalism.

New Religions tended to be very “world affirming,” believing that the world was inherently benevolent and that anything was possible through hard work and dedication (Hardacre H. , 2003). Their view towards other religions was equally optimistic. Nearly all successful New Religions were derived from Shintoism or Buddhism, due in part to self-imposed isolationism and a ban on Christianity (Kisala & Mullins, 2001). Members of these New Religions were converts, as opposed to older religions where membership was passed through bloodlines.

Furthermore, these New Religions helped shape the idea that religion should be an active participant in social justice. While previously established religions were the least likely to be involved in civil society, New Religions were highly involved (Hardacre H. , 2003).

The Japanese government did not outright ban New Religions but they were under strict censorship and social control (Gardner, 2005). Newspapers were able to and often encouraged to print sensationalist articles slandering New Religions. This type of indirect of control was permissible while any criticism or subversive action against Shintoism and Buddhism was strictly prohibited.

During this period one of the iconic suppressions was against the Omotokyo, a New Religion founded in 1892 that was based on of Shintoism (Murakami, 1980). To counter negative press against their religion, the Omotokyo founded their own newspaper, the Taisho Nichinichi Shinbun, and began printing their own media highlighting the positive, benevolent qualities of the Omotokyo religious life.

It is important to note that this newspaper was not created as an attack toward Japanese media or society; rather it was a small-scale, peaceful press that published small pamphlets to educate non-members about Omotokyo. Despite their non-violent and non-confrontational approach, in 1935, their facilities were razed and leaders detained by officials because their worship was unrelated to the diefied emperor (Gardner, 2005). These kinds of prejudiced instances were common as religious instructions were supervised in the interest of the state before World War II (Affairs, 1972).

A combination of state Shintoism, a blindly loyal trust for native Japanese religions, nationalism, and a strong intolerance for Christianity and New Religions makes the second stage the least tolerant era of Japanese history.

Second stage
Separation of Church and State No
Public Disinterest in Religion No
Tolerant of Minor Religions No
Levels of Secularism Close to 5%


Works Cited:

Carter, Robert. (2012). Philosophy East and West. University of Hawai’i Press.

Cliteur, Paul. (2010). The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism. ISBN 978-1-4443-3521-7.

Earhart, Byron H. (1998). Religions of Japan: Many Traditons Within One Sacred Way. Long Grove: HarperCollins Publishers.

Gardner A, Richard. (2005). Collective Memory, National Identity: Victims and Victimizers in Japan. 著: BadaraccoHClaire, Quoting God (ページ: 153 – 172). Waco: Baylor University Press.

Hardacre, Helen. (2003). After Aum: Religion and Civil Society in Japan. 著: SchwartsFrank, PharrSusan, The State of Civil Society in Japan (ページ: 135 – 154). Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.

Kisala, Robert; Mullins, Mark. (2001). Religion and Social Crisis in Japan: Understanding Japanese Society through the Aum Affair. Tokyo: Sophia University Press.

Kitagawa M, Joseph. (1987). Understanding Japanese Religion. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Munby, L.D. (1963). The Idea of a Secular Society. London: Oxford University Press.

Murakami, Shigeyoshi. (1980). Japanese Religion in the Modern Century. Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press.

Reader, Ian. (1991). Religion in Contemporary Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

US Department of State (2012). The United States and the Opening of Japan in 1853. 参照日: 2013年November月05日, 参照先: Office of the Historian, Bureau of Public Affairs: http://history.state.gov/milestones/1830-1860/opening-to-japan

Welzel, C. (2011). The Asian Values Thesis Revisited: Evidence from the World Values Surveys. Japanese Journal of Political Science, 1 – 12.




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About Grace Buchele Mineta

I got into the writing business by accident. Now I live in the countryside near Tokyo with my husband, Ryosuke, where I draw comics, blog, and make videos about our daily life. Contact: Website | More Posts

3 Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. The “Aum Affair” – Religious terrorism in Japan (Part 5 of 7) | Texan in Tokyo
  2. How other Religions reacted to the "Aum Affair" (Part 6 of 7) | Texan in Tokyo
  3. Aum Shinrikyo and Japanese Secularism: Introduction to Modern Japanese Religion (Part 1 of 7) | Texan in Tokyo

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