Other Religions in Japan


Christianity was first introduced to southern Japan in the mid-16th century by the Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier, a name well known even today. It was generally tolerated for half a century and was even embraced by several daimyo (barons) and national leaders such as Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The number of Christians grew to some 300,000. But the missionaries, along with Catholic Portuguese and Protestant Dutch and English traders, became embroiled in the power struggles of the time. Hideyoshi executed 26 Christians in Nagasaki in 1597 after a dispute over the rich cargo of a Spanish shipwreck. Soon after, Tokugawa Ieyasu finally unified the country and expelled the missionaries, who had supported his rivals. Also, Christianity - with its intolerance of other religions and belief in the importance of the individual conscience rather than obedience to superiors - was considered subversive and dangerous. Under Ieyasu's rule, persecution of Christians became systemized. Some 3,000 were martyred and in 1638 the country officially severed ties with the West. The only point of contact was with traders on the island of Dejima off Nagasaki.

The period of persecution continued until the late-19th century, although some 60,000 kakure (hidden) Christians had manged to continue their faith. Almost as soon as the country was re-opened to the West, missionaries began to arrive. Most established themselves through setting up educational facilities and social projects. The most famous examples today are the Catholic Sophia University (Jochi Daigaku) and the Protestant Aoyama Gakuin University and Rikkyo University.

There are about a million Christians today, less than 1 percent of the population. It is generally felt that basic Christian tenets - one transcendent God and an individual ethic - can never become popular in Japan, a country of many, immediate gods and a group ethic. Christian religions have been at their most popular during times of social upheaval but have failed to attract large numbers of followers. While many young Japanese are attracted to the image of a Christian 'white' wedding, for example, these ceremonies are usually held in hotel 'chapels' and administered by 'priests' recruited in the job classified ads and have little religious significance.

Several other originally Christian concepts, especially Christmas and Valentine's Day, have become popular and heavily commercialized in recent years. Christmas Eve has become a time for couples to have their most romantic date of the year. On Valentine's Day, females give chocolates or homemade cookies to their sweethearts - but also their fathers, brothers, male teachers and co-workers. This is often called giri choko, or 'obligation chocolate'. Not satisfied with just one bonanza day, the chocolate companies have created White Day, on March 14th. This is when men are expected to return the favors received the month before.


While not practiced as a religion, Confucianism has greatly influenced Japanese thought and society. Confucious, known in Japanese as Koshi, was a 5th-century Chinese philosopher. His teachings came to Japan in the form of Chinese culture and thinking. They greatly influenced many of the foundations of the Japanese way of life: social harmony, filial piety, loyalty to superiors, and a benevolent and bureaucratic government. It was adopted by followers of Zen Buddhism as a secular way of dealing with their political leaders. During the Edo Period (1600-1868), the country was at peace for the first time in centuries and the samurai warrior class found themselves playing the role of bureaucrats. They turned to Confucianism, with its similarity to the feudal system, as a model for society and government. It also played an important role in the education system.

They were combined with other religious beliefs, especially in the Mito School in the 19th century, as a form of nationalism. In the 1930's, this became the basis of the kokutai (National Polity of Japan) theory, which defined the special Japanese national characteristics. The emperor was presented as a ruler in the Confucianism style who expected loyalty, harmony and diligence of his subjects.

The influence of Confucian concepts is below the surface of everyday life. The sempai-kohai (senior-junior) system is very strong in sports, companies and even the entertainment world. Community spirit is very strong especially in rural areas. The selfish and sometimes violent behavior of today's young people is judged in terms of how it fails to live up to Confucian ideals of obedience and filial piety. Even blind loyalty to the emperor remains alive among a minority of radical rightwingers. The Confucian idea of meritocracy is making inroads into the Japanese business world, although this is being driven by economic rather than philosophical forces.

New Religions

The term shin shukyo means new religions but it is often used these days in reference to fraudulent and violent cults. Its original use was to describe organized religions other than Shinto and Buddhism. Most of these religions began as offshoots of the main organizations and adopted some of their elements. Two of the biggest examples today are actually lay organizations associated with the Nichiren sect of Buddhism: Soka Gakkai (Creative Education Society) which has more than 17 million members and Rissho Koseikai (Society for Establishment of Righteousness and Personal Perfection through Fellowship - !) with about 7 million members. Soka Gakkai has long been associated with the Komeito political party.

Often the founders of new religions claim to be possessed by a kami (god or spirit). Fukunaga Hogen, founder of the Honohana cult, claimed that his messages to the faithful were tensei, voices from heaven. He and 11 other leading members of the cult were arrested in May 2000 on charges of defrauding followers of 87 billion yen. They would 'read' the soles of people's feet and tell them that they would get cancer unless they bought expensive artefeacts and entrolled in even more expensive seminars. The cult that has received the most attention since the mid 1990's is Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth), responsible for a series of kidnappings and murders that culminated in the sarin gas attack on a Tokyo subway in 1995 which killed 12 and injured over 5,000 passengers. Cult members used truth drugs, sleep deprivation, kidnapping, murder and countless business fronts to keep followers in line and amass huge amounts of money. The trial of the cult's leader, Matsumoto Chizuo, continues.


Islam is not widely practised among the native population but there are over 100,000 Muslims from the Middle East and elsewhere living in Japan. The country has around 40 mosques. There has been a mosque in Tokyo since the early 1900's but a new large-capacity mosque - Tokyo Camii - was recently built on the site, funded mostly by private donations.

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