Transformation or secularisation?

In his blog entry, as well as the public lecture on which the blog entry is based, Ian Reader has raised some important questions regarding contemporary developments in Japanese religions. Following his thesis that Buddhism in Japan (and, by extension, religion in general) is in decline, he argues that Buddhist institutions have had to come up with inventive new strategies to attract visitors and raise funds. They have done so by framing their pilgrimage as ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’, while carefully evading concepts such as ‘religion’ and ‘faith’. Thus, he suggests, they have dissociated pilgrimage practices from their traditional ‘religious’ aspects. For instance, temples and travel agencies have organised public exhibitions in secular spaces such as department stores and airports, and the famous 88-temple pilgrimage of Shikoku has applied for UNESCO world heritage status (following the example of Santiago de Compostela). Reader interprets these developments as part of a process of secularisation and commodification, leading to the “transformation of the pilgrimage into a heritage-oriented tourist and consumer event”.

As Reader’s observations illustrate, ‘religion’ is a problematic category in Japan. Temples, shrines, local authorities and travel agencies tend to frame ritual practices and sacred places as ‘culture’, a politically neutral category, rather than ‘religion’. The main reason for this is a legal one: the Japanese postwar constitution prescribes a strict separation of church and state, so state patronage of religious institutions is illegal. Hence, if local authorities want to support temple or shrine activities in order to attract tourists, these need to be redefined legally as ‘cultural events’. But there is more to it. The Japanese equivalent for ‘religion’, shūkyō, has more limited and negative connotations than the term ‘religion’ in, say, northern Europe. With the exception of ideological minorities affiliated with membership-based religious movements, Japanese people do not generally define themselves as ‘religious’ – despite the fact that many of them do engage in different types of ritual behaviour, and believe in the existence of a variety of transcendental beings. Especially after the 1995 Aum attack (see my earlier blog entry on millenarianism), ‘religion’ has received much bad press, and is widely distrusted. Hence, it is hardly surprising that ‘religious’ institutions do not wish to be categorised as such, and define themselves in terms that carry more positive connotations.

There is a difference, however, between the legal, political and social category ‘religion’ as it is used in Japan, and the generic concept ‘religion’ as a tool for scholarly analysis, used to group a variety of ritual practices, worldviews and institutions. While a pilgrim’s prayer at a Buddhist temple may not usually be categorised as ‘religious’ in Japan, most scholars of religion would not hesitate to use the adjective ‘religious’ to refer to this type of behaviour. When suggesting that the current framing of the Shikoku pilgrimage may lead to “an erosion of the religious orientations of pilgrimage”, Reader seems to be using the term in the second sense. However, as he himself has demonstrated in his classic Religion in Contemporary Japan (1991) and in subsequent works, the fact that people and institutions do not frame their own practices as ‘religious’ (given the limited scope of the Japanese term) does not necessarily make them less ‘religious’ (when used as a generic category for cross-cultural comparison). In other words, the fact that Japanese pilgrimage organisations, local authorities and transport companies choose to describe their pilgrimage in explicitly non-religious vocabulary and advertise for pilgrimages in secular places, does not really tell us anything about the practices in which pilgrims engage, let alone the meanings they contribute to these practices.

This of course raises an inevitable question: what is it that makes a pilgrimage ‘religious’? Is it the experiences of the practioner, the rituals s/he performs, the vocabulary in which s/he expresses his/herself, or the ways in which institutions and/or media frame the pilgrims’ behaviour? To put it differently: if I, agnostic hiker, walk to Santiago de Compostela, do I engage in a ‘religious’ activity? Or do I contribute to the secularisation of the pilgrimage, as I am not affiliated with a religious institution? What if I wear a scallop shell and a cross-shaped necklace, walk devoutly 30 kilometres a day, and burn some candles in chapels along the way? What if, on the other hand, I am a professing Catholic, yet travel in style, enjoy luxury food and buy plenty of souvenirs? In pilgrimages worldwide, so-called ‘religious’ elements (prayers, rituals, healing) have always been intertwined with so-called ‘secular’ ones (sightseeing, entertainment, commerce), to the point that they can hardly be separated. In fact, it may be argued that the dichotomy itself is artificial. Pilgrimages contain a wide diversity of practices and meanings, and the explanatory narratives of actors involved in commercial activities do not necessarily correspond to those of religious headquarters, let alone individual pilgrims. 

Of course, Reader is well aware of these problems. In his excellent study of continuities and inventions in the Shikoku pilgrimage, Making Pilgrimages (2005), he convincingly argues against the artificial distinction between (religious) pilgrimage and (secular) tourism. His study, which is rich in ethnographic data, shows that pilgrims have a variety of motives and objectives that cannot easily be divided into ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ ones. Moreover, as he wrote in a recent article, the fact that media tend to ignore the devotional aspects of pilgrimage does not necessarily mean that pilgrims do the same; nor can it be assumed that “the commodification of pilgrimage via media representations necessarily turns pilgrimage participants into tourists. (…) [D]etailed contemporary studies of the pilgrimage (…) indicate that faith, spiritual quest, and devotion remain important criteria for many pilgrims” (Reader 2007: 26). In other words, mass media, temples and local authorities may have adopted secular vocabulary to describe pilgrimages, but that does not mean the pilgrimage as such has ‘secularised’ in the sense that devotional and ritual aspects have disappeared.

In sum, Ian Reader has drawn attention to several significant recent developments in Japanese society. He has shown that rural depopulation and the erosion of traditional patterns of temple affiliation have contributed to the decline of Buddhism in rural parts of Japan. He has explained how temple visits and pilgrimages have been commodified, by the institutions themselves as well as by other actors (transport companies, local authorities, mass media), and redefined as ‘culture’ or ‘heritage’ rather than ‘religion’ – thus illustrating the importance of classification for commercial and political purposes, and the problematic nature of the category ‘religion’ in Japan. This raises important questions about the transformation and redefinition of religious institutions, practices and places in contemporary Japanese society, as well as the challenges facing them. 

The question is, however, whether it is helpful to interpret these developments as ‘secularisation’; and whether the so-called ‘religious’ elements really are disappearing, rather than simply changing. In recent years, the classical religious-secular dichotomy has been criticised and nuanced by a number of scholars – not because there is no such thing as the decline of religious institutions and practices, but because there are many social and political developments that cannot adequately be explained in terms of a binary opposition between the categories ‘religion’ and ‘secular’. Pilgrimage, it seems, transcends such an opposition. No matter how secular the official language, there will always be space for experiences of the transcendent, as well as for faith and ritual practices. In Shikoku, the smell of incense is not likely to disappear anytime soon.


Reader, Ian. 1991. Religion in Contemporary Japan. Houndmills: MacMillan.

Reader, Ian. 2005. Making Pilgrimages: Meaning and Practice in Shikoku. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press.

Reader, Ian. 2007. ‘Positively Promoting Pilgrimage: Media Representations of Pilgrimage in Japan’. Nova Religio 10 (3): 13-31.


Aike Rots is a PhD candidate at the University of Oslo



By Aike P. Rots
Published Feb. 22, 2012 7:26 AM - Last modified June 4, 2015 1:47 PM