‘Lived Religion’ in the Japanese Context: Realities of Individual Practice and Institutional Survival

In the current state of religious affairs, the concept of “lived religion” brought to us by Meredith McGuire in her latest book “Lived Religion: Faith and Practice” appears to be a highly relevant one, and most certainly, a fascinating one. It made me think about the manifestations of personal religiosity and the role of institutional engagement in shaping them in the Japanese context. It also brings to mind the notion of being “practically religious” in Japanese Buddhism and beyond. Ian Reader and George J. Tanabe, in their book Practically Religious (1998), argue that “Japanese religion is less a matter of belief than it is of activity, ritual, and custom”[1] and “the promise of this-worldly benefits is an intrinsic element within Japanese religion in general”.[2] In other words, Japanese religiosity is not necessarily based on what one believes in, but rather on what one does or should do and what one can get out of such activities, regardless of whether the fruits are of a spiritual or material nature.

Hence, it is a promise of some kind that lures people into visiting religious sites. For those who seek spiritual support, it might be a promise of deities’ protection against an illness or reassurance of peace for their ancestors’ spirits, which is bought with the offerings for prayers and fees paid for protective o-mamori (amulets). Yet, for those looking for a place to relax, escape their daily routine and experience something exciting, temples and shrines need to invent new ways to satisfy that need, especially at the time when more people claim to have little or no religious affiliation, and when visiting shrines and temples became associated with cultural and tourist activities rather than with religious activities. An increasing number of Japanese people today, especially young, visit famous religious sites for exclusively recreational reasons.

The number of Japanese people claiming lack of religious belief increased to 80% in the post-Aum era,[3] whereas the number of people admitting to have some sort of religious belief is no more than 20-30% and even lower among university students.[4] The semi-structured interviews I conducted in November and December 2009 among 86 Kyoto University students[5] revealed that all of them described their religious belief as mushūkyō (“non-religious”), only three of them identified their religious affiliation as Buddhist (mainly due to their family affiliation), and 84 confirmed that they visit temples and shrines on various occasions during the year, including hatsumōde, ō-bon celebrations and cherry blossoms viewings, and usually during their visits they purchase o-mamori (protective talismans) and o-mikuji (written oracle). My interviewees stated three main reasons for those visits, dentō (tradition), nihonjin-no koto (this is what Japanese people do), and tomodachi-to asobu toki (fun time with friends).

None of the interviewees mentioned their spiritual needs, whereas all put a stress on cultural and entertaining aspects of their visits to Buddhist temples. This may hint that young people in particular have low levels of religious affiliation; however this does not mean that they have no connection with religious places. It appears that visiting shrines and temples by young people is a widespread activity, yet the importance of ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ motivations is rarely if at all highlighted. It appears that this notion of Japanese practicality in one’s personal engagement with religion may somewhat distort the concept of “lived religion” or “religion as lived” understood by McGuire as a subjective experience. Yet, perhaps this practical or action-based approach of engagement allows people to nurture their subjective experiences of faith without necessarily revealing their personal motivations behind their practices.

On the other hand McGuire discusses the malleability of religion (especially that personal one) and the “pic and mix” nature of “lived religion” with people drawing from a number of different religious traditions for practices and teachings. The very notion of malleability in this context brought my thinking to the ongoing discussion of change in religious traditions, institutions, and personal practices. This again brings me to my area of research in Japan where many institutions, including Japanese Buddhist temples, adapt to facilitate the religious engagement and its financial survival.

Along with the modernisation and commercialisation of society came the necessity to adapt to the new cultural, social and economic conditions; and this is true for all religious traditions in Japan. When Buddhism first arrived in Japan in the 6th century, it also needed to convince both the ruling class and the people that it was in tune with local spiritual traditions. The Buddhist concept of hōben (skillful means) allows us to understand the secret of religious adaptability in Japan today. Skillful means, in Buddhist terms, represents the idea of not always telling the truth, as long as it helps people in achieving enlightenment, or as it can be understood today, as long as it helps people and attracts potential visitors to temples and shrines. The concept of “untruth” understood in terms of hōben is perpetrated for the sake of others and with the use of any means available at the time which can contribute to the popularisation of a particular practice or religious site.

It can be suggested that religious organisations in Japan today are likely to resort to the use of modern hōben methods such as a wide range of advertising techniques and use of technology in the context of the economic and social changes that affected them after the promulgation of the new constitution in 1946. Through the variety of those advertising techniques and imagery of religious sites promoted with them, I would argue that the emphasis on entertainment themes and the shift from religious to tourist activities associated with visits to Buddhist temples has become especially evident in commercial advertising of the recent years. However, it is essential to understand that the idea of blending of religion and entertainment is not a product of postmodern consumption-driven society and has long-established roots in Japanese religious tradition. It is only in recent years, however, that the notion of fun managed to dominate the sphere of the religious. It may be suggested that Buddhist temples in Japan are also undergoing a process of experimentation and subjectivity of experience associated with the notion of “lived” as opposed to “preached” religion. How these changes impact on the identities of people living in local communities is something that I would like to explore in the future.


[1] Reader, Ian. and Tanabe Jr., George J. (1998) Practically Religious: Worldly Benefits and the Common Religion of Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press., pp.7

[2] Reader, Ian. and Tanabe Jr., George J. (1998) Practically Religious: Worldly Benefits and the Common Religion of Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press., pp.8

[3] Dorman, Benjamin. and Reader, Ian, (2007) “Projections and Representations of Religion in Japanese Media”, Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions February 2007 10/3 pp.6-13

[4] Tanatsugu, Masakazu. and Yamanaka, Hiroshi. 棚次 正和 / 山中 弘 2007 宗教学入門  (Introduction to Religious Studies) (東京:ミネルヴア書房)

[5] These are the findings of the semi-structured interviews I conducted in November and December 2009 among 86 Kyoto University students during my stay in Japan in 2009-2010. Although the sampling of my research was limited in number, it can still be argued that these numbers provide an evidence for rather secular attitudes towards religious practices permeating in postmodern Japanese society.

Where are you going…and Are you a Pilgrim?

How do you choose a vacation destination? Is it a specific location with personal meaning, or is the potential for exploration more alluring than anything else? If you visit the same location over and over again, is that a pilgrimage? These are just a few questions that came to mind after listening to the recent Religious Studies Project interview with Prof. Ian Reader of Lancaster University. Reader has spent much of his academic career investigating the idea of pilgrimage and challenges the listener to think through the difference between a ‘pilgrim’ and a ‘tourist’ in the contemporary world.

Prior to listening to Reader’s remarks, my understanding of a pilgrimage was the following: an arduous trip undergone by an adherent of a religious tradition, to a site with meaning or importance in that tradition, with the expectation of gaining spiritual fulfillment or insight during – or as a result of – the journey. I realize now that my understanding of pilgrimage is idealistic, a touch naïve, and largely shaped by my previous studies of medieval Christianity. Reader suggests that scholarly understanding of pilgrimage is much like mine, and often abstracted from reality, simplistic, and too limited. In his most recent publication, Pilgrimage in the Marketplace (Routledge, 2014), Reader examines in detail the complexities of pilgrimage sites, considering how pilgrimages are developed, constructed, and marketed. He further highlights that the success of a pilgrimage site is based on the number of visitors; if no one visits, it is likely to decline. The popularity of Lourdes, for instance, is not simply that it is a place that was visited by Mary. The Church supported Bernadette because she fit the image of a pious young Catholic woman. The location of Lourdes in relation to transportation (roads, train line, etc.) made it viable as a destination for Catholic pilgrims. In other words, Lourdes was not only a place where Mary appeared – there are many of those all over the world – but it had other, necessary qualities to make it a pilgrimage destination. Reader also discusses what motivates people to go on a pilgrimage. In his research in Japan, he found that very few people go on a pilgrimage to achieve enlightenment. More commonly it is an escape from everyday life, or provides the person with a sense of being in a location where something important could happen. Along the same lines, Reader explains that places such as Lourdes, Santiago de Compostela, and Shikoku are places where ordinary individuals can go to have a private, unmediated encounter with the world of the sacred/spiritual/divine.

Of all the examples that were mentioned in the interview, the one that stayed with me is of Chichibu, a Japanese shrine to Kannon that was in a state of severe decline until it played a role in a popular anime series.

Chichibu Shrine

chichibu_shrine_anime_ema_4738 Chichibu Shrine

After that, the shrine experienced a resurgence of interest as a destination – not by those visiting out of devotion to Kannon, but out of curiosity to see the place that factored in a beloved show. As scholars of religion, how do we represent that renewed interest? Reader strongly critiques the idea that the rise in popularity of some pilgrimage sites indicates a renewed religious fervor; Reader maintains that such an understanding does not investigate the nuances of why a site has become popular or how that has occurred. Perhaps one shrine is more accessible, or is located in a region with other, non-religious attractions such as hiking spots, or simply sells better souvenirs.

Because of my ongoing academic interest in religions in Japan, I hope someday to visit in order to experience the people, places, and culture. I would make a point of visiting as many Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines as possible, as well as other sites of cultural and historical interest. Since I am neither Buddhist nor Shinto, I would not consider this to be a pilgrimage. It would be an educational trip that I would also enjoy, and from which I would derive intellectual satisfaction. In my mind, I would be a tourist. According to Reader, the temples and shrines have adapted to be appealing to travelers like me, rather than those on a spiritual journey. It is tourists, rather than the religiously inclined, who determine what temples and shrines remain economically afloat.

As a related thought, I also wonder if academics are a contemporary type of pilgrim. We are seeking knowledge, our research trips are filled with purpose, and we may visit a certain place multiple times in pursuit of a goal. Moreover, if the academic is also a practitioner of the religious tradition, do those research trips take on an additional, personal meaning? Have we considered the impact that our travels (and subsequent writing) may have on the success or failure of a destination? Extrapolating from Reader’s remarks, one distinction might be the lack of economic gain for a tour agency that would set apart research-oriented travel from pilgrimage.

This highlights the one aspect of the topic that Reader does not directly address in the interview: what is a pilgrim? Who is a pilgrim? Simply visiting a shrine, cathedral, temple, or other ‘sacred’ site cannot be the defining characteristic. Based on the examples from Reader’s study of Japanese pilgrims and pilgrimage locations, it seems that there is a dictionary definition for a pilgrim, such as “a person who journeys to a sacred place for religious reasons,” and the more complicated pilgrim of the modern world who may or may not declare themselves to be a pilgrim, but makes a specific journey to a place that holds special meaning, whether that’s Lourdes, Chichibu, Santiago de Compostela, Graceland, or Nelson Mandela’s prison cell on Robben Island.


Reader, Ian. Pilgrimage in the Marketplace. Routledge Studies in Religion, Travel, and Tourism. New York: Routledge, 2014.

Pilgrimage Sites and Further Information

Chichibu, Japan –

Chichibu Shrine

Chichibu Kannon Pilgrimage

Guadalupe, Mexico –

Basilica de Santa Maria de Guadalupe

Lourdes, France –

Sanctuary of Our-Lady of Lourdes

Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage, Japan –

Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage (Wikipedia)

Sacred Japan (website of a Shingon priest & tour guide)

Santiago de Compostela, Spain

Camino de Santiago (The pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in pictures)

Santiago Cathedral

Shikoku, Japan –

Shikoku Shrine Pilgrimage

Pilgrimage to the 88 Sacred Places of Shikoku (tourism website)


Michael Stausberg. Photo: Hilde Strand (2012)

Some Questions about Spiritual Tourism

Michael Stausberg. Photo: Hilde Strand (2012)

Photo: Hilde Strand (2012)

On a more fundamental level, this raises the question whether ‘spiritual’ refers to a quality that may come in addition to an identification as religious, or whether the two refer to different groups and types of persons.


Some Questions about Spiritual Tourism

by Professor Michael Stausberg, University of Bergen

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 17 April 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project interview with Alex Norman on Spiritual Tourism (15 April 2013)

In this podcast Alex Norman defines a spiritual tourist as a person who is travelling for spiritual betterment. As he himself admits, this is a pretty loose term. Alex carries on by saying that the people he interviewed in his research typically decided to change themselves or to reconstruct their lives, be it because they found their basic worldview unsatisfactory or because their lives in significant aspects went out of control. This need, obviously, can arise for people from all sorts of backgrounds, be they committed Christians or atheists. Is the term spiritual betterment as a project is applicable to everybody or only to such people from the spiritual milieu? Can also religious people travel for spiritual betterment or only such persons who have severed their ties to religious communities or ideologies (if they ever had such commitments)? In the podcast, the conversation partners seem to have a mutual understanding of the kind of practices characterized as ‘spiritual’, but no clear examples are given. On a more fundamental level, this raises the question whether ‘spiritual’ refers to a quality that may come in addition to an identification as religious, or whether the two refer to different groups and types of persons.

The podcast creates the impression that the persons interviewed by Alex are characterised by hostility towards Christianity and by a worldview that assigns agency to the subject; the latter aspect is often seen as a hallmark of New Age worldview (or spirituality). When seeking to better themselves spiritually, these people visit places or take part in activities that are part of religious traditions to which the tourists do not belong. Apparently, this exposure or this participation can contribute to the project of spiritual betterment, which thereby thrives on and is to some extent dependent on places and practices maintained by established religions. Given that the research was conducted at these sites we do not learn much about the travel careers of these spiritual tourists and the long-term biographical significance of their trips. This calls for follow-up research. It would also be interesting to know how widespread a social phenomenon this kind of spiritual tourism is.

In the interview, spiritual tourism is contrasted with the way many ordinary tourists visit religious buildings “between a baguette and a croissant”. This seems to imply the idea that, from a religious studies perspective, the ordinary tourists are less genuinely important, as if this somehow were not the real thing. As I have tried to show in my book Religion and Tourism (Routledge, 2011), when addressing tourism in the study of religion\s we should not restrict our inquiry to forms of tourism framed as religious or tourism but should cast our net wider to cover the variety of interfaces between the domains of religion and tourism—in the same way that we study the representation of religion in media instead of only focusing on religious newspaper, television channels or websites. While the Lonely Planet India may indeed, as Alex says, exhort its readers to try out different forms of religious places and practices, this volume is untypical for the series as a whole; yet, as a genre travel guidebooks are interesting because they are a kind of literature from which many travellers derive their information about religion. As I argue in my book, tourism is a major arena for religion (and spirituality) in the contemporary world, even though many intellectuals tend to despise tourism and tourists. Spiritual tourism as analysed by Alex is one such nexus.

Towards the end of the podcast, Alex seems to come close to a post-Durkheimian theory of the implicitly religious nature of holidaying. This line of thinking refers to three types of evidence: points of identification, gathering of masses that constitute society, and commitment. I don’t think that any of this will take us very far. If earlier on people identified with religion, and now they identify with traveling, does that amount to indicating a potentially religious nature of tourism (as if people would not identify with all sorts of things)? I also doubt that the very gathering of masses at beaches (an old trope in anti-tourism rhetoric!) is enough to qualify this phenomenon as ultimately resembling religion. As it proceeds, the argument seems to transport a Tillichian notion of religion, where religion is identified as what ultimately matters to us, so that people who spend much of their available money on holidays can be interpreted as expressing a ‘religious’ valuation of them. Is it necessary and theoretically compelling to turn everything of significance for people into something religious?

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

Photo: Hilde Strand (2012)

Michael Stausberg is professor of religion at the University of Bergen. His book publications in English include Religion and Tourism (Routledge, 2011), Zarathustra and Zoroastrianism (Equinox 2008) and, as editor or co-editor, Defining Magic (Equinox, 2013, with Bernd-Christian Otto), The Routledge Handbook of Research Methods in the Study of Religion (2011, with Steven Engler), Contemporary Theories of Religion (Routledge, 2009) and Theorizing Rituals (Brill, 2006-2007; with Jens Kreinath and Jan Snoek). See Michael Stausberg’s website for a full list of publications and downloads.