In January 2000, we sent questionnaires to all the people who were registered in the category of Japan of our pen pal service and who indicated that they are willing to participate in surveys. We received 241 valid responses from Japanese people; 70% of them were female, and 83% were between 10 and 30 years young. In addition to the unbalance in age and gender, we must consider the fact that all survey participants are registered in an online international pen pal service, which may mean that they are overall more internationally and less traditionally oriented than the average Japanese.

We also sent the same questionnaire to registered American pen pals in order to be able to conduct some comparisons. We received 134 questionnaires filled out by American citizens.

Japan's two traditional religions are Shinto, the indigenous religion which is as old as the Japanese people, and Buddhism which was introduced from the Asian mainland in the 6th century. Basically, the two religions have coexisted harmonically for most of Japan's history and have even complemented each other and melted together to a certain degree. The first Christian missionaries entered Japan in the 16th century, but the foreign religion was later banned from Japan for most of the Edo period that lasted until 1868. For more detailed information about religions in Japan, visit our religion information pages.

In the first question, the participants were asked to which religion(s) they feel to belong. A majority of 52% indicated that they do not feel to belong to any religion. 36% feel to be Buddhists and 11% Shintoists. A large group of 11% indicated to feel closest to Christianity. As in the Christmas survey, female teenagers are especially attracted to the Western religion with 17% feeling to belong to Christianity.

If we look at a few other surveys and statistics published on religions in Japan, the variety of results is amazing. A survey conducted by Asahi Shimbun in 1995 asked national voters in which religion they believe. The results were similar to ours with non-believers in the majority (63%), followed by Buddhists (26%), Shintoists (2%) and Christians (1%). On the other hand, the official number of believers published by the Agency of Cultural Affairs in 1997 show the Japanese nation to consist of 49% Shintoists, 44% Buddhists and 2% Christians (in total far over 100% since many people consider themselves Shinto Buddhists). What are the reasons for these large differences? The wording of the question? An uncertainty concerning the meaning of the terms "religion" and "believe" in a Japanese context, especially concerning Shinto?

On the question whether they are religious or not, a majority of 55% of the Japanese participants answered not to be religious, and only 16% answered to be religious. Surprisingly, the percentages of religious people is among Buddhists (15%) and Shintoists (11%) even below the total average; i.e. most people who feel to belong to one of the traditional Japanese religions do not consider themselves religious. On the other hand, 48% of the Japanese Christians indicated to be religious and 55% of the Americans who feel to belong to a religion indicated to be religious. Furthermore, every third Japanese participant indicated not to know whether he/she is religious or not. Among the American survey participants, this percentage is only 17%.

The next question asked the participants after the importance of religion in their daily life. For every second person religion has no importance at all in everyday life, for 38% it is a little bit important, and for only 12% it is either important or very important. 40% of the Japanese Christians indicated that religion is important or very important for them in everyday life, while for majorities of Buddhists and Shintoists religion has only a little importance in daily life.

Parallel to the above are the results to the question of how often the participants visit a shrine, temple or church. In total, two thirds visit shrines, temples or churches a few times or once per year. Only about 6% visit religious buildings weekly or even more frequently. Among Christians, the latter percentage is with 25% again far above the average.

Religion clearly seems to be rather unimportant in Japanese daily life also in comparison to the American survey results: 43% of the Americans indicated to be religious and 44% indicated that religion is important or very important to them in daily life. Furthermore, almost one third indicated to go to church every week.

The question, in which style the Japanese survey participants celebrated or wish to celebrate their wedding ceremonies, showed that Christian style wedding are clearly most popular (46%) followed by Shinto style weddings (18%). Even among Shintoists, Christian style weddings are more popular (50%) than Shinto style weddings (46%) with many people expressing their wish to combine the two styles in their wedding ceremony.

At last, we asked the participants with respect to several elements of religions whether they are important to them. The Japanese survey participants expressed that support in difficult life situations is important to them (31%), followed by the reverence of ancestors (24%). Less important are explanations of matters such as afterlife (16%) and everyday life guidance (12%). While the reverence of ancestors is by far most important for Shintoists (41%) and Buddhists (35%), it is one of the least important aspect for Japanese Christians (8%) and teenagers (10%).

In comparison, the American participants expressed that moral teachings (63%), guidance in everyday life (46%) and explanations of things such as afterlife (46%) are of greatest importance for them, while they do not see the reverence of ancestors (12%) as an important element of religion.

After looking at these survey results, it seems that the Japanese are very un-religious. Is this true? Are Japanese religions just a relatively unimportant part of way of life in contrast to Western religions which ask their believers for absolute loyalty? Is the Western concept of religions so much associated with Christianity that it does not really fit into the context of Japanese religions (especially Shinto)? Or are many Japanese simply not interested in religions?