How many Shrines in Japan? At least 174,006, possibly 261,000

January, 2018: A methodology based on the number of shrines in, so far, 20 of Tōkyō's 23 wards

I have estimated the number of shrines in the following 20 wards: Adachi, Arakawa, Bunkyō, Chiyoda, Chūō, Itabashi, Kita, Kōtō, Meguro, Minato, Nakano, Ōta, Setagaya, Shibuya Shinagawa, Shinjuku, Suginami, Sumida, Taitō. and Toshima. For these 20 wards, the Association of Shinto Shrines has 1,029 shrines registered with it, while my database has 1,496. Applying the same ratio (1,496/1,029=1.45) to the 3,978 shrines registered with the Association in Greater Tōkyō gives a total of 5,783 for the actual number of shrines.

July 7, 2017: A different methodology. one based on the number of subordinate (massha) and auxiliary (sessha) shrines

Of the 42 shrines covered on my web site as of today, 25, 57.1% , have subordinate or auxiliary shrines in their grounds. Assuming that the same ratio holds true for the 64,682 main shrines currently in my database 36,961 have subordinate or auxiliary shrines. The 25 shrines on my web page have a combined total of 74 subordinate shrines, an average of 2.96 per shrine. Applying this average to the 36,961 gives a number of 109,045 for the potential subordinate shrines in my database. Adding back the 64,682 main shrines gives a figure of 174,087 for the total number of shrines. This is amazingly close to the 174,006 number calculated below, indicating that the Kamata number includes massha and sessha. Scaling up the 64,682 main shrines in my database to the "official" 81,300 and applying the same calculation gives a total number of 218,183.

The table below, taken from the Shintō Shi DaiJiten (“Great Dictionary of Shintō”), gives a breakdown of the number of shrines by region from the late nineteenth century until 2015. In 1879 it puts the total number of shrines at 176,844, of which 56,435 were registered and 120,287 unregistered. In 1902 the number peaked at 196,398. In 1906 the Shrine Merger Order came into into force and in 1907 the number fell to 176,739 from the previous year’s 190,435. By 1916 it had fallen below 120,000, and over the next 24 years stabilized at between 119,000 and 110,000 before falling to 88,362 in 1948, the decline presumably due to war damage.

The numbers for 2015 are taken from the Agency for Cultural Affairs’ Religion Yearbook. Given the seemingly inexorable aging and decline of Japan’s population—a wonderful example of the extrapalator's craft, the “Web Clock of Child Population in Japan” has the number of people under the age of 15 alive in Japan falling to just one on August 14, 3776—it is perhaps surprising that in the last twenty years the number of shrines has seemed to stabilize around the 81,300-81,400 level (the number of temples in Japan in 2015 was 77,392, the number of churches 31,820).

However, this 81,300-81,400 number, while reasonably reliable, includes only officially registered shrines and there is no reliable number for the actual total number of all shrines. You can walk around the Tōkyō suburbs and see small shrines in various nooks and crannies—particularly house gardens and company grounds—and to the best of my knowledge there is no substantive information available on these.

A web search in Japanese for the number of shrines in Japan turns up, among others, a reference to a 1982 Readers Digest article. It is actually a two-page spread on shrine festivals in its “1982 Atlas of Japan” and gives a total of 131,900 for the combined number of shrines at 21 of Japan’s biggest shrine groupings. This number, taken at face value, must by definition be on the low side for the total number of shrines as there are other groupings with a national presence, as well as regional groupings and some restricted to one town or even one district of one town, not to mention all the nook and cranny ones. It's not really clear how reliable the Readers Digest numbers are—they are given in a small box in a two-page spread on shrine festivals and no sources are given—but they are remarkably similar to those given in a book edited by Kamata Tōji, “Sugu Wakaru, Nihon no Kamigami” (lit. Immediate Understanding of Japanese God)s published in 2005, pp.86,87. This book gives a table of the 17 most popular kami ranked by the number of shrines at which they are worshipped (table below) and says it is based on a 1976 study led by Okada Shōji, a professor at Kokugaku University. It could be inferred that the Readers Digest numbers are from the same source.

I am in the process of compiling my own data base—it now (Feb. 2018) has 64,723 entries, and counting. While the Kamata table gives a total of 138,045 shrines my own data base has just 28,391 shrines for the same kami/shrine groupings. Stripping out the 28,391 from the 64,448 leaves 35,961 entries: adding these back to Kamata’s 138,045 gives a number of 174,006. The difference between the Kamata number and the 81,342 registered shrines (Japan region Table) is explained in the next paragraph. The question now, and on my part the answer can only be pure guesswork, is by how much to increase the 174,006 to allow for unregistered, secondary, and nook and cranny shrines. I would suggest that 50% is well within the realms of possibility so I am positing a number of 261,000.

The difference between the Kamata number and the 81,342 registered shrines is due not only to some shrines choosing not to register but also to the existence within many shrine grounds of secondary shrines, sessha/massha. These are usually quite small and enshrine kami different to those of the main shrine. Often there is just one of these secondary shrines to be found but in the case of the more important shrines there can be a fairly large number, 23 at Izumo Taisha for instance.

In February 2002, the Asahi Shimbun ran an article counting the number of shrines based on 25 groupings (table below) which, because it is based on the 80,000 or so registered shrines, came up with a much smaller number, 34,822. With some diffidence I have included my own calculations in the table: some of my numbers are quite different from the Asahi Shimbun ones, but my data base is a work in progress and I will be doing further work on it in due course. To put these numbers in some perspective the number of churches in the UK rose from 49,727 in 2008 to 50,660 in 2013. Based on the 81,342 registered shrines the average population per shrine in Japan is 1,553, per church in the UK it is 1,282.