Japan has always been secular

In an otherwise fascinating column on Japan’s peculiar demographics, Ross Douthat presents one misleading fact:

Japan is facing such swift demographic collapse, Eberstadt’s essay suggests, because its culture combines liberalism and traditionalism in particularly disastrous ways. On the one hand, the old sexual culture, oriented around arranged marriage and family obligation, has largely collapsed. Japan is one of the world’s least religious nations, the marriage rate has plunged and the divorce rate is higher than in Northern Europe.

These problems are still with us, and some of them are worse than ever. But they haven’t left us in anything like the plight the Japanese are facing. Our family structures are weakening, but high out-of-wedlock birthrates may be preferable to no births at all. We assimilate immigrants more slowly than we should, but at least we’re capable of assimilation. American religion can be shallow, narcissistic and divisive, but our religious institutions still supply solidarity and uplift as well. Our economy is weak and our deficits are large, but at least we aren’t asking the next generation to bear the kinds of burdens that today’s under-30 Japanese will someday have to shoulder.

From this piece you might infer that Japan has gone through a more radical secularization than the USA. But the World Values Survey has data from 1980 down to the mid-2000s. Below are the results for Japan, the USA, and Sweden (the last as a “control”).

  USA Japan Sweden
  2006 1982 2005 1981 2005 1982
Religious person 72 84 24 28 33 34
Not religious person 24 15 62 60 49 60
Convinced atheist 4 1 14 13 17 7

People tend to view other societies through their own experience. So, for example, one presumes a circumstance of modernization where societies become progressive more secular, and less coupled to institutional religion. That’s how it happened in the West. But this is not the case with East Asia. On the contrary, it is a defensible proposition that in East Asia modernization has been coupled with the rise of robust institutional religions! (e.g., South Korea) East Asia has long had weak traditions of organized religion, and the political orders have always managed to maintain the subordinate status of religious institutions.

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