Non-Japanese people who do not know a Japanese person personally, and whose knowledge about Japan is limited to news and magazines, might have the impression that either Shinto or Buddhism is Japan’s main religion. In a way, this is true, but it’s also false... Huh?
In Japanese junior high schools, students study evolution in history class – as opposed to, say, science class. Hence, evolution is generally accepted as a fact. So the average Japanese person does not really believe in a god of some kind.
However, there is no lack of Japanese people who visit shrines and temples, buy charms, and pray for their wishes to come true. On New Year’s Day, Japanese people visit Shinto shrines in droves for what is called “hatsumode” – the first prayer of the year. Weddings are generally held at shrines. Funerals are held in Buddhist style. To top it off, the Japanese also celebrate Christmas!
Based on the above, while it can be argued that Japanese people treat religions lightly, it’s more probable that religions are considered as forms of traditions and culture, in the same vein as Tanabata, Setsubun and the like. There are Japanese people who theorize that it’s simply because the nature of Japanese society is such that it welcomes with open arms anything it considers fun and interesting. There are indeed those who are devout believers of either Shinto or Buddhism, but the number pales in comparison to the rest who don’t.
The popularity of anime and manga has also affected religious beliefs in a significant way. In 2007, the extremely popular anime Lucky Star helped boost the number of visitors in the sleepy town of Washinomiya in Saitama prefecture. The Washinomiya Shrine that appears frequently in the anime is based on the actual Washinomiya Shrine in the town. Thousands of “otaku” (people highly obsessed with anime) have flocked to the otherwise relatively unknown shrine.
Horyoji Temple in Tokyo have similarly seen a boost in visitors (otaku, but visitors nonetheless) after incorporating an original anime theme – there’s a figurine of an anime goddess in the temple, and it also has a “moe” (cute) style anime song as its theme song, performed by girls cosplaying as goddesses, complete with an original music video done in true “moe” anime fashion.
Although it can be pointed out that these otaku do not worship “real” deities but the anime characters instead, considering that the average Japanese person does not really believe in deities either, this seems to be a minor issue.
This seemingly callous attitude towards religions might be frowned upon by devout followers of any religion, but in a world where, as history as shown time and again, religions are a major source of conflict, this might not be such a bad thing after all.