World Values Survey and religion in Japan

According to the World Values Survey, Japan is one of the most secular-rational societies. Sweden is not far behind Japan. These results are partly based on questions about religion.

The problem with these questions about religion is that they reflect a western view of religion. This makes them more or less useless when describing cultures with a very different view.

According to the anthropologist John R. Brown,

“About 65 percent of Japanese people have told survey-takers in repeated surveys that they have not religious beliefs … But 76 percent of these respondents have in their homes either a Shinto altar devoted to kami, or a Buddhist one devoted to the souls of the dead.”


“One problem is the word religion, which in Japanese is shukyo, a word originally devised to answer pesky missionaries who asked Japanese to state what their religion is … Thus, asking someone in Japan if he or she has a religion or religious belief is something like asking a person in the United States if he or she is a member of a religious movement, a question that would elicit denials from many churchgoers.”

The Japanese have also promoted “state shinto” as a response to modernity.

The quotations are from Bowen, John R., Religions in Practice: An approach to the anthropology of religion, 3 ed, Boston & New York: Pearson, 2005, p. 32.

The same is applicable to Sweden. For example, full religious freedom was only achieved in Sweden in 1951, and a vast majority of Swedes still belong to the state Lutheran church. Extreme ideologies have also taken turns to dominate Swedish political life in the 20th century. The black robes (the old state Lutheran priests) became the:

1. White coats (the social engineers in the 1930s).

2. Red coats (the Marxists in the 1970s).

3. Pink coats (radical feminists in the 1990s).

According to a recent doctoral thesis, this cultural continuity explains the extreme Swedish laws with regards to prostitution. See Susan Dodillet, Är sex arbete? Svensk och tysk prostitutionspolitik sedan 1970-talet, Stockholm & Sala: Vertigo, 2009!

Another way of describing this is that there is no clear relationship between modernity and religion. It is rather the case that countries with a strong tradition of state involvement in religion often display a high degree of “secularism”, while nonetheless retaining a strong heritage of intertwining ideology, public morality and politics.

In fact, in the last few years the researchers responsible for the World Values Survey admit something to this effect. They have now changed their earlier views of the relation between religion and “modernity”.

What this suggests is that global surveys can not be trusted because they may be based on false assumptions because they fail to take in account cultural variation.

It also suggests that if a country produces extreme results in a global survey of this type, that could be a red flagg that suggests a theoretical or methodological error.

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