chapter  3
Sacred sites and social conflict: Yasukuni shrine and religious pluralism in Japanese society
Pages 16

The free practice of religion has been a prominent feature of Japanese society since the end of World War II. The disestablishment of State Shinto by the Occupation government, the abolishment of the wartime laws regulating religion, and the post-war Constitution of 1947 created a free-market religious economy in which all forms of religion were allowed to exist without interference from agents of the state. In this new environment, legally registered religious organizations (shūkyō hōjin) were defined by the government as ‘public benefit organizations’ (kōeki hōjin) and accorded special treatment and tax benefits. It was understood that diverse expressions of religion could co-exist and contribute in some positive way to a democratic and peaceful society. Religious pluralism has flourished in the post-war environment and today

there are 182,310 religious bodies registered with the government.2 This number includes Shinto shrines (46.7 per cent), Buddhist temples (42.5 per cent), Christian churches (2.3 per cent), and New Religions (8.9 per cent). In addition, there are close to 25,000 propagation centres across the country (roughly 80 per cent belong to one of the New Religions). The older established Shinto and Buddhist institutions still clearly dominate the religious landscape and the ‘latecomers’ – both Christianity and new religious movements – represent only a small portion of organized religion in contemporary Japan. While these figures indicate a strong institutional presence and variety in the

contemporary Japanese religion, it should be noted that there is a serious discrepancy between the membership statistics claimed by these institutions and the self-understanding of the vast majority of Japanese. The total number of religious adherents for all of these religious bodies exceeds the population of Japan (127 million) by some 84 million people. Individuals are clearly being counted by more than one institution, which reflects the fact that many Japanese are at least loosely affiliated with both Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines and typically participate in annual events, festivals, and family rituals associated with multiple religious traditions. While such religious diversity has been a part of Japanese society and culture

for centuries, it did not constitute ‘religious pluralism’ in the modern sense of the term. As Winston Davis explains: ‘Pluralism is a differentiated system of genuine religious and/or cultural alternatives. I say “genuine” because in this case society

recognizes that adherence to one alternative may legitimately make commitment to other alternatives impossible’. The notion of religions as ‘alternatives’ is not a natural one in the Japanese context. Here, there has been a general tendency for individuals to be embedded in a system of ‘layered obligations that has little to do with personal beliefs or convictions’ (Davis 1992: 30-1). Individuals normally participate in rituals appropriate to the social groups to which they belong (Buddhist household rituals, Shinto community rituals) with little or no consciousness that the practices are associated with a distinctive religious tradition.3 While ‘religion as obligation’ has certainly weakened in the post-war period due to demographic changes (i.e. the shift of the masses from rural communities to urban areas), the notion of religious commitment and affiliation based on conscious choice and understanding of religious alternatives is still not that common.4