Religion and the State in Contemporary Japan

In her essay “Religion and the State in Contemporary Japan,” scholar Elisabetta Porcu analyzes the relationship between religion and the state in Japan. Of interest to scholars is the separation of religion and state by the Japanese Constitution, especially in the post-war Constitution of Japan. Today the Constitution ensures freedom of religion for all, the prohibition of state privileges for religious organizations, and the non-interference of the state in religious education or other religious activities.

As Porcu identifies, the relationship between the state and religion has historically been complex and has undergone numerous developments (1). She points to the Shinto Directives in 1945 issued by the Supreme Commander of Allied Powers (SCAP) seeking to bring to an end to state Shinto, a system in which state support was granted for Shinto from the beginning of the Meiji period until the end of WWII, the period from 1868 until 1945. During that period, Shinto was elevated to the position of the state religion while a series of directives and regulations were issued to ensure its privileged status over other religious organizations. There was compelled participation in shrine rituals for all citizens, a strong presence of Shinto-related activities and teachings in the field of education, the building of Shinto shrines in Japanese colonies, the repression of other religions, such as Buddhism and new religious movements, and more.

Further, there were decrees issued by the Japanese government in 1868 that caused the separation of Shinto and Buddhism, two religious systems which, despite their many internal differences, had coexisted until then (2). Buddhism was particularly impacted as it lost state patronage and suffered persecutions through the haibutsu kishaku (literally, ‘abolish the Buddha, destroy Shakyamuni’) campaign. During this campaign, many temples were destroyed. But before 1868, there were strong ties between the state and Buddhism such as in the ancient Ritsuryō system (645-1185), the Edo period (1600-1868), and the state-sponsored temple registration system. 

Most recently, the Shinto Directives and the postwar Constitution legally abolished State Shinto and separated religion from the state. But this does not deter the efforts of Shinto and other religious traditions to reaffirm their presence in the public and political spheres. This is helped by the fact that the formation of political parties by religious groups is not disallowed by the Constitution, which has led to the involvement of religious institutions in politics.

This is evident in some new religious movements, such as Komeito, or the Clean Government Party, founded by Soka Gakkai. Komeito was criticized for religion intruding into public affairs, especially because the party relied on the fusion of Buddhism and politics (3). There is also Aum Shinrikyo that created the Shinrito (Supreme Truth Party) and in 1990 ran in the elections, although none of its candidates won a seat.

Another new religious movement, the Kōfuku-no-Kagaku (Happy Science) was founded in 1986 and established its own political party, the Happiness Realization Party in 2009. Kōfuku-no-Kagaku initiated its Happiness Realization Party during the crisis caused by the North Korean nuclear missile tests. Consequently, its election campaign in 2009 took an aggressive stance against North Korea and it wants to restore the “religious spirit” of Japan. It ran in the elections between 2009 and 2012 but won no seats in parliament.

It is in the case of the Happiness Realization Party that we find the borders between politics and religion vanishing (4). The party does not conceal its goal of creating a state where religion plays a fundamental role in every aspect of society. Japan would, under their governance, become a Buddha land and the party wants the country to offer the world a “model of a religious nation.” But such attempts are impeded by the separation of religion and state sanctioned by the Japanese Constitution, although the Happiness Realization Party sees this as an external imposition by the Western powers following the defeat in World War II. In their view, religion and politics should be integrated.

The Yasukuni Shrine is both important and controversial in Japanese religion, and it provides us with a clear example of how the borders between state and religion blur (7). In Yasukuni, since the Meiji period, military personnel who died in Japanese wars have been enshrined. The shrine became a powerful tool for propagating wartime ideology and today remains a controversial site that aims to revive nationalism and the role of Shinto in public affairs. The shrine occupies a central position in the government revival of prewar Shinto symbolism and is also central to an emerging myth of the national identity. It is also a symbol of power struggle. From 1969 to 1974, the Liberal Democratic Party made several attempts to pass a bill to reinstate state support for the shrine, although these plans failed because of strong criticism by various religious groups and activists. Various Japanese Prime Ministers have made official visits to the shrine, which has also been criticized for violating the separation of state and religion.

One must notice that Shinto is not the only tradition that has tried to re-establish its role in society. Buddhism has also attempted to do so. One scholar noticed that after the earthquake, tsunami, and the nuclear power plant accident in Fukushima in 2011 there has been an increase in the activities carried out by religious organizations, in particular Buddhist organizations, in the public sphere (8). In the 1990s, it was commonly thought that Buddhism (and religion itself) had failed away from the public sphere to become a private matter. But this has changed since the 2011 disaster where Buddhist groups have tried to get their voices heard in society, in particular regarding the nuclear power policy pursued by the government.

Porcu identifies another area where the boundaries between the religious and the secular vanish, which is in Japanese towns and villages that are divided into neighborhoods (9). Many of these neighborhoods are linked to a Shinto shrine and each is organized through what is called a neighborhood association. These associations are important in community life and through them the boundaries between the religious and the secular often vanish. For example, some activities carried out by these associations are related to religion, such as organizing festivals at the local level. Funding for such festivals and religious activities, many of which are linked to Shinto, come from the monthly fees paid by the residents of the neighborhood.


We have not brought to the forefront all the insights that Porcu offers in her article, but we have noted enough to demonstrate the complex relationship between religion and the state, such as the separation of religion and state as sanctioned by the Japanese Constitution. It was noted how Shinto acquired the status of state religion in the period from 1868 to 1945, how this status was lost after WWII, and how it has since tried to reaffirm its position in the public sphere through political activities, which we also noted in connection to the Yasukuni shrine. Other religions like Buddhism have also attempted to reestablish themselves in the public and political spheres. As Porcu concludes, her analysis of the separation of religion and the state reflects only a small share of this controversial topic, which deserves further academic exploration.


1. Porcu, Elisabetta. 2014. “Religion and the State in Contemporary Japan.” In Religion and Politics: European and Global Perspectives, edited by Johann Arnason and Ireneusz Pawel Karolewski, 168-82. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. p. 168-169

2. Porcu, Elisabetta. 2014. Ibid. p. 169

3. Porcu, Elisabetta. 2014. Ibid. p. 170.

4. Porcu, Elisabetta. 2014. Ibid. p. 170-171.

5. Porcu, Elisabetta. 2014. Ibid. p. 173.

6. Mullins, Mark R. 2012. “Secularization, deprivatization, and the reappearance of ‘public religion’ in Japanese society.’” Journal of Religion in Japan 1(1):61-82.

7. Porcu, Elisabetta. 2014. Ibid. p. 173-174.

8. Shimazono, Susumu. 2012. “Japanese Buddhism and the public sphere: From the end of World War II to the post-great East Japan earthquake and nuclear power plant accident.” Journal of Religion in Japan 1(3):203-225. p. 214.

9. Porcu, Elisabetta. 2014. Ibid. p. 175-178.

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