Sociological theories about the fate of religion in modern societies originated in Europe and were initially based on the history of Western Christianity. Whether or not these theoretical perspectives are useful for the analysis of other religious traditions in non-Western regions of the world has been the focus of considerable debate for decades. This article engages some of the familiar theories of secularization in light of major developments in Japanese religion and society over the past two centuries. While it has been widely assumed that modernization inevitably brings with it a decline in religion, the first phase of this process in Japan was accompanied by the creation of a powerful new form of religion—State Shintō—that served to unite the nation around a common set of symbols and institutions for half a century. This was followed by the rapid and forced secularization of Shintō during the Allied Occupation (1945-1952), which essentially privatized or removed it from public institutions. Since the end of the Occupation, however, there has been an ongoing movement to restore the special status of Shintō and its role in the public sphere. Even though recent case studies and survey research indicate that individual religiosity and organized religions are facing serious decline today, the reappearance of religion in public life and institutions represented by this restoration movement also needs to be taken into account in our assessment of secularization in contemporary Japan.
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