I grew up in Japan during 1960s and 70s. During that time, religion was not a big part of my upbringing. My experience is a very common one in Japanese households. A majority of Japanese families do not belong to any organized religion.
My mom was a religious person and was always in search of a religion to worship, but my dad was totally against the idea. There was no consensus among them, and we were not taught to believe in anything specific. Thinking back, I do not remember any of my childhood friends belonging to any religion or talking about religion. It just was not a big, important thing for us back then. The situation still seems to be the same in the current households.
My parents’ home, just like a lot of other homes in Japan, had a small alter displaying the pictures of deceased relatives along with fruits and sweets as offerings. It is a common belief in Japan that the spirits of ancestors are always around to protect their descendants. Japanese people worship the ancestral spirits at home, and do not go to public places to collectively worship. You may see Japanese people visiting and praying at famous temples and shrines, but that has more to do with seeing the famous sights than worshipping.
You may think it sounds like the average Japanese, without God in mind, must have low morals and a low standard of behavior. However, that’s just not the case. Japan has the lowest crime rate in any of the developed countries and people are, in general, very nice, polite, and well-behaved. I had the hardest time explaining to my religious American friends that it was very possible to raise a child to be a responsible and civilized person without faith in God because I have experienced it myself and seen other Japanese under similar circumstances. We agreed to disagree and I was happy with that.
Recently, I had a chance to read the thoughts written down by my mom and dad, both of whom are in 90’s. That was the part of their self-help study group exercise, and I am very thankful that I had a chance to peek into their deepest thoughts. In Japanese families, deep feelings are typically not shared with each other and tend to be internalized. Reading their essays gave me quite the insight into the roots of religious apathy in Japan. Specifically, my mom’s story is a poignant one. It deals with WWII and how her belief system was shaken to the core.
Until World War II, the Japanese were taught that the emperor was a living God who would lead Imperial Japan in world conquest. You were expected to make any sacrifice you can for your God, the emperor. During World War II, the emperor was manipulated by the religious fanatics who used Shinto (an ancient Japanese religion that worships multiple native Gods) as a mean to control the masses. . The Japanese people were told that was impossible for Imperial Japan to lose the war because their God, the emperor, was almighty.
My mom’s family was highly religious, and believed in every word that was taught and tried to be good Japanese citizens by making sacrifices. Her oldest brother must have been a brilliant man, because he was chosen to be in a Kamikaze pilot force to take down the “corrupt” Allied forces. It was a big honor to be chosen to sacrifice your life for the emperor, the God. They chose the best young men for the mission. My mom never spoke of the experience probably because it was so painful. Eventually, my uncle flew into an enemy plane and sacrificing himself for the emperor.
On August 15th, 1945, following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there was a radio broadcast by the emperor announcing the unconditional surrender of Japan’s military forces. I heard from my Mom that the emperor spoke in formal, old-style sentences, and most Japanese did not quite understand the meaning of the speech on the radio until the media reports digested it. No common Japanese had heard the emperor speak in person before that time.
On January 1st, 1946, the emperor made a written statement that denied his divine status, which meant the emperor was after all, a human like everybody else. It triggered a total meltdown of the Japanese belief system. The Japanese people just did not know what to believe. They went through very tough period of time of rebuilding the country and economy after the war with a numbness hidden in their hearts and minds from the betrayal.
I think the religious apathy in modern Japan stems from this period of chaos. It was especially hard for my mom and her family. They sent their prodigious, first born son to die for the emperor who was later declared to be just a human being. Nothing will bring him back to life. He sacrificed himself for a lie after all. After going through such an experience, my parents’ generation did not know what to teach their children to believe leaving a massive void in Japanese faith after the end of World War II.
In my opinion, majority of Japanese people do believe in spirits. They are not religious in the sense of belonging to a sect or an organization, but they are spiritual and do respect religious rituals. Traditionally, the births and marriages are often celebrated following Shinto customs. Many Japanese go to Shinto shrines to observe milestones in age such as age seven, five and three (七五三) and the coming of age at 20. Funerals and after-death rituals are usually held following Buddhist traditions. However, there is still an inherent skepticism of the organized religion left by the experience of World War II. The effect was so profound and it is still tangible 70 years multiple generations later.