The Japanese Irreligious

fantasyI have a theory. Those with rich fantasy lives tend to be less religious.

Here in Japan, comic books (manga) and cartoons (anime) are a staple of a very literate public with almost 2 billion manga books and magazines sold in Japan in 1995. At the same time, the percentage of Japanese atheists and agnostics is at a very high 65%.

I’d like to suggest that the mundane reality of the average Japanese life is alleviated by an escape into fantasy. At the same time, Japaneses are in no way confused about which world is real and which is fiction. The escapism is a conscious choice that is activated in a discrete part of their minds, and is not at any time entangled and confused with their material realities. This notion was substantiated by several of my Japanese friends who marveled that Americans so easily fall prey to claims of miracles and notions of god. A lonely missionary I meet regularly in Tokyo’s Yoyogi park as he attempts to evangelize Japanese “sinners” admits the fact that Japanese very quickly dismiss the miraculous claims of the bible.

Americans, however, are much more inclined to combine the elements of myth and reality. Instead of simply alleviating the boredom and limitations of reality with conscious forays into fantasy, they attempt to redefine their physical reality by forcefully mapping a “spiritual” dimension onto it that makes that reality more tolerable. This merging of the mythical with the material requires the introduction of “faith”, something not needed in the independent material and fantasy modules that function discretely within the minds of Japanese.

This phenomena is mirrored in the U.S. in an interesting way. The percentage of irreligious skeptics who attend fantasy and science fiction conventions is far above average. Surprisingly, skeptics who very reluctantly add to their ontology, have no problem immersing themselves in fantasy of all sorts. Just as with the Japanese, these skeptics know precisely where reality ends and fantasy begins.

Other considerations might include the pressure of the perennial optimism within the American psyche. This optimism is more adept at distorting material reality into a “spiritual” personal meaning that includes divine purpose, eternal life and inscrutable notions such as a god’s “infinite” love.

As always on my speculations, comments are very welcomed.


5 thoughts on “The Japanese Irreligious

  1. Perez Christina says:

    you live in Japan?

  2. Mike Antonelli says:

    This doesn’t explain why so many Japanese :
    go to Suitengue with their babies,
    or get married at Meiji Jingu ( for example )
    or have a funeral at the local Temple
    or pray in front of aShinto shrine every day

    whats up with that ???

    I’m in Miyajima ( near Hiroshima) and there are hundreds and hundreds of Japanese people here making the journey via ferry to get out and see this .

    Why ?

  3. Tim Stilwell says:

    That is an interesting theory. I’ve always felt it to be a little paradoxical that atheists and agnostics engage in fantasy worlds in order to escape reality.

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