Registered 'believers' outnumber population

The number of people registered as members of religious groups as of the end of 2002 came out to twice Japan's population, according to the Cultural Affairs Agency.

It's an oft-quoted number used to describe the peculiarities of faith in this country, where professed atheists can be affiliated with multiple religious organizations, one being the temple where their ancestors' ashes lie.

By Western standards, most people are irreligious and don't think twice about buying protective charms at shrines, getting married in churches and holding funerals at temples.

Only 20 percent to 30 percent of adults actually believe in and practice a particular faith, according to Fujio Ido, a professor emeritus at Tsukuba University.

"It is these who for the most part are building the massive and ornate buildings" housing the established religious organizations and newer "booming" groups, Ido said.

The nation's largest Buddhist group, the Jodo Shinshu Honganji sect, which boasts 6.9 million followers, is in the midst of a 10-year project to restore its main hall in Nishi Honganji, Kyoto. Begun in 1998, it is expected to cost 8.5 billion yen, of which 3.3 billion yen will need to come from individual donations.

A temple roof tile, which can be inscribed with the contributor's name, starts at 10,000 yen; the more ornate tiles for "eternal preservation" are dedicated to contributors of 300,000 yen or more.

Some religious organizations, which enjoy tax-exempt status, virtually coerce followers into donating.

"I was told if I didn't give a certain amount of money, I wouldn't be saved, and trouble would happen to my family," said a 36-year-old Buddhist at another organization.

She switched affiliations last year, but still donated 720,000 yen to her former group "just in case."

Despite their seemingly strong dependence on charity, a handful of the 225,501 religious organizations in Japan have succeeded at designing self-sustaining business models, according to Koji Tatesawa, a journalist who has followed new religious groups.

"Religion is not a business," said Jacob Vissar, 74, a minister who heads the Japan Rural Mission in Oita Prefecture, a nondenominational evangelical church. He came to Japan in 1958 from South Africa.

"I taught English, and now I give weddings at other churches."