A View of Religion in Japan

U.S.-Japan Foundation Media Fellows Program
A visitor in Japan for even a short time feels caught in a tug of war between crisis and complacency. The list of crises is familiar: Economic instability is eroding Japan’s hard-won wealth and threatening the entire global marketplace. The old political system has grown brittle to the point of cracking, spawning widespread cynicism. Globalization has raised material expectations, but eroded traditions that people relied upon to give them a sense of identity and purpose. Young people are the heirs to all these problems, and everyone over 30 ritually laments their lack of direction and their taste in hair color. Every week, it seems, the media report the latest atrocious youth crime, which is then invoked as a symptom of the national malaise.

But stroll around in any Japanese city or chat with people in the street, and there’s at best a fitful sense of urgency about all this; people seem generally well-fed and content. Shoppers jam malls, construction sites buzz and, of course, trains run on time.

So it is with religion too. The changes of the last decade have ratcheted up unsustainable stresses on religious institutions that their members don’t seem willing or able to address. Religious worship no longer provides the sense of community it once did. Politics and the Internet are scrambling the role of spirituality in Japanese life. Religions have not kept pace with people’s problems or expectations. The "old religions" are increasingly marginal in the lives of most people. Many are overseen by insular priesthoods preoccupied with making money and passing it on to the next generation. "New Religions" that prospered in the postwar period have hit a slump. And many "New New Religions" are viewed with suspicion, as potential Aum Shinrikyos.

"Japan is becoming more and more secularized, and young people are interested in survival and earthly values. … they need their friends, not support from institutions. I believe the influence of organized religions is likely to continue to decline," said Yoshiya Abe, the president of Kokugakuin University in Tokyo.

The religious scene, always complex, has become a pastiche of contradictions. This is a summary from a recent report on world religions:

"Traditional Buddhism represents 55 percent of the population, compared with 80 percent in 1900. New religions that are sects of or schisms, from Buddhism and Shintoism have grown since 1945. The biggest: Soka Gakkai  (Value Creation). 'State Shinto' was once a national cult that all citizens belonged to, but today most attending Shinto shrines are Buddhists, and there are more Christians (3.6 percent of the population) than Shintoists. Half of Japanese homes have a Bible. Government religious statistics, based on family heritage, claim 85 percent of the population is religious, but polls show two-thirds profess no religion."

There are two big forces at work here. One is the well-known flexibility Japanese display toward religious faith – a more pragmatic, less absolutistic notion of faith than you find in the West and especially the United States. The other is the legacy of the last 50 years. For hundreds of years, Japanese lived under systems that fused politics, power, and religion. Now they live in an American-style system in which church and state are formally separated – and no one is quite sure what religious freedom, with its Western idea of individual choice, really means.

Toshimaro Ama, a former journalist who now teaches at Meiji Gakuin University and wrote a book called "Why the Japanese Consider Themselves Irreligious," traces the problem to the Meiji Restoration. When Meiji rulers elevated Shinto at the expense of Buddhism and associated it with the emperor worship, he said, the result was the political corruption of traditional spirituality.

"Japanese would turn to Shintoism for specific things, but they looked for salvation in Buddhism," Ama said. "So without Buddhism there was a decline in religious sentiment…Meiji policy created a spiritual void. People no longer tried to seek this transcendent, universal state. This situation endures to this day." The latter-day result of this, he said, is that there was nowhere to turn after World War II. The emperor system was officially discredited, and traditional forms of worship were antiquated, out of tune with the modern world. "The Japanese people still have not found the answer to the question – what is true religious freedom, independent of the state," he said.

To narrow this complex topic, I looked at some old and new forms of Japanese Buddhism and their followers’ attempts to cultivate an ancient tradition in shifting circumstances. Buddhism has proved very adaptable through its long history, judging by the varied forms of it found around the world. But some Japanese Buddhist sects are inspiring more interest abroad than at home.

Zen Buddhism, for example, is everywhere in Japanese culture, and its fusion of philosophy, spirituality, esthetics and temporal power is one of the world’s great cultural achievements. At Ryoan-ji and other Zen temples in Kyoto, starkly plain elements – wood, stone, tile, trees, grass – are arranged with great economy and beauty. The gardens and buildings are also an enigmatic and playful form of abstract art that still reaches out tweaks visitors hundreds of years after its conception. At Eihei-ji, the head monastery of the Soto Zen sect, the monks aim to faithfully recreate the practices of founder Dogen, who lived 800 years ago and espoused a philosophy of single-minded concentration in all activities. Even the smallest and most mundane tasks are treated as an opportunity for enlightenment. Practice is obsessively fine-tuned, from the choreographed formal meals to the procedure for climbing onto the cushion for meditation.

For someone who had seen many Western knockoffs of Japanese Zen centers, these places were a powerful affirmation of the strength and roots of the tradition. But they were also essentially living museums; it felt like nothing much had changed in the past couple of centuries. Today, Zen is neither popular or influential in Japan. But it is steadily growing in popularity in the West. That has created new tensions – between past and present, East and West – and a kind of koan for Japanese and foreign Zen practitioners alike.

What happens when a traditional religion, tempered by one culture, crosses boundaries and takes hold somewhere else? Is there some characteristically "Japanese" quality to Japanese Buddhism, especially Zen, that’s inseparable from the more universal philosophy it espouses, something that would be lost crossing an international boundary? What are the conflicts between preservation of exquisite cultural forms, the hunger for something new and the pressure to evolve? And if Zen must evolve, as everyone says it must, what will it look and feel like?

There are flaws and compromises on both sides of this cultural divide, and no one has a monopoly on tradition. "American Zen practice is creative," said Taiun Matsunami, a Rinzai Zen priest who runs Ryosen-an, a temple in the large complex Daitoku-ji in Kyoto. "They don’t have meditation halls, traditions. They have to create everything. They have to sew cushions, (the ceremonial garments) kesa and rakusu, and they have to turn the cowhouse into a zendo." But at the same time, he noted, American Zen has been plagued by scandal, partly because it lacks the hierarchies and checks on priestly power found in Japanese Zen. And the Japanese system has its own problems. "Here, everything is established, we have good facilities. But here they also accept not pure, not real Buddhist monks’ practice. In other countries, priests don’t marry, they don’t drink. Drinking is a Shinto thing that has been accepted in Buddhism."

Traditionally the practice of elites in Japan, Zen now attracts little new blood to the priesthood. Loosening the rules a century ago and allowing monks to marry created a dynastic structure in temples, with sons following in their fathers’ footsteps. Few lay people practice Zen meditation. Often no one shows up for a daily zazen meditation service Matsunami offers. The old monastic structures are outmoded, and shrinking. Religious life is no longer viewed as a viable vocation for outsiders. If your family is not in the Zen business, choosing to become a monk may be viewed as a sign of mental imbalance. And maybe it is – the requirements and hardships of the priesthood – which in a premodern world seemed like a reasonable tradeoff – today present almost insurmountable obstacles.

"There are 39 Rinzai monasteries and 50 roshi who can give the whole transmission of the teachings. So there’s just about one per monastery," said Michel Mohr, a professor at the Center for the Study of Zen Buddhism at Hanazono University in Kyoto. "It takes 15 to 20 years to go through the whole koan system. So if you start in your 30s, you won’t get there till your 50s."

Japanese Zen practitioners feel deeply ambiguous about this state of affairs. Many look to the West as the best hope for carrying on the tradition and celebrate cultural differences. "The basic principle in Zen is the same everywhere. Like Mt. Fuji, there are different paths to the summit," said Kusho Itabashi, the abbot of the Soji-ji monastery and the current head of the Soto sect. "Americans don’t have to go through the medium of Japanese culture or language, and that can be a purer practice of Zen."

But they also have a certain propietary interest in Japanese traditions. "The problem comes when the Japanese leave and the community is left with only Americans or Europeans," said Tetsuo Otani, the vice president of the Soto Zen sect’s Komazawa University. "It’s become very confusing. The sects have become very jumbled. Many people ask me questions. They said they’re not sure they’re getting guidance from the Rinzai or Soto sect. That kind of thing never happens in Japan."

Kosen Nishiyama, a Soto Zen priest in Sendai who oversees some groups in Europe and the United States, is both expansive and protective about the Zen tradition. He touts Zen’s potential as a world religion in an era of science and postmodernism. But he feels that specific cultural traditions that link the present with the past are integral to practice, noting that Zen emerged from Japan’s "sitting culture."

He has tried to restore a clear line of religious authority by giving the shiho, or teaching seal, to priests abroad. At first one group of Westerners, followers of the late expatriate Zen teacher Taisen Deshimaru, didn’t want it. "After Deshimaru died, I went to talk with his disciples about ceremonies. They said we have the teaching, we don’t need shiho," Nishiyama said. "But you need to have this, I explained, to be a Zen teacher." They eventually agreed.

Nishiyama disdained the tinkering that the groups had done on various rituals – for example, a drum roll that they had added to the end of a service in the Soto sect’s liturgy. He also admitted to some chauvinistic feelings, saying it’s always a little strange to see Westerners practicing. He recalled that the Jesuits tossed out of Japan by the shogun were called barbarians, and also namba-jin, or red pepper people. "When I see them in the dojo," he said, "I think a little of this."

Westernern Zen practitioners in Japan live on a fault line. Since they typically lack a connection to a family temple, Japanese may question their motivation – or sanity. They must wrestle with the idea of what "authentic" Zen practice really is. Jeff Shore, an American professor at the Rinzai Zen sect’s Hanazono University in Kyoto, has lived in Japan 20 years, most of them while practicing first as a monk and later a lay person at the Tofuku–ji monastery. It is an unusual arrangement that has made a deep mark on his life. "I feel like the frog in the well here. It’s very deep but very narrow, full of rocks, old," he said. "Then when I go to Europe or the United States, it’s like being thrown into the ocean."

Shore says that Japanese Zen is so entwined with culture, history, and geography that transplanting a particular set of customs wholesale would be folly. If Zen, or any religious tradition, moves into new territory it must reinvent itself – usually bit by bit. That does not automatically make the altered tradition less of a useful as a path for its followers (though it may). It also does mean losing something of the original – and being able to let go is, indeed, a central idea in Buddhism.

This process of change is essentially very practical and often  improvisational. "The Zen scene here is a worn out record, but what they have is wisdom, old teachings, years of laboratory mistakes," said Patricia Daichi Storandt, the American vice abbot of Sogen-ji, a 300-year-old Rinzai Zen monastery on the outskirts of Okayama. "In the West, though, we have the raw materials."

Compare Sogen-ji with Eihei-ji (or most other Japanese Zen monasteries), and you can see the work of reinvention in progress. Abbot Shodo Harada is one of the few Japanese there. The monastery lacks the authority to serve as a practice center for monks seeking the priesthood – in part because it invites women and men to practice together. So monks following the traditional career path steer clear of the place. In their place, a mixture of foreigners from the United States, Switzerland, Denmark, Mexico, and a dozen other countries has taken up residence. Some of the strict monastic routines, such as formal seated meals, have  been relaxed or otherwise altered. Chanting is done in English and Japanese.  Sogen-ji has an energy and vitality that you don’t see at other Japanese monasteries. Part of this is the residents’ expressiveness, a contrast to the intense restraint of Japanese in similar surroundings. But the more significant difference may be that the participants were there not out of obligation, but a conscious choice.

At the same time, however, Japanese tend to approach Zen practice with a more matter-of-fact attitude. I attended Eihei-ji’s program that exposes visitors to the monastic schedule along with six Japanese and one Hungarian. The Japanese viewed it less as a potentially transcendental experience and more as just … practice, a brief interlude to clarify things. After years of experience with the sometimes self-conscious attitudes of Americans trying to practice Zen, the lack of drama was quite refreshing.
In contrast to Zen, many "New Religions" in Japan are a modern phenomenon: mass movements that took Buddhist ideas and addressed them to the pressing needs of a country trying to recover from war. Groups such as Soka Gakkai emphasized satisfying material and physical needs, and helped members survive. Soka Gakkai and Rissho Kosei Kai, another large (and less controversial) Buddhist organization also based on the teachings of Nichiren, aim to be accessible. Their chanting practices and general philosophies, based on the Lotus Sutra, emphasize pragmatism and appeal to a broad, generally middle class audience.

But now these groups face the same demographic shifts all Japanese institutions are confronting. Their members are getting older, priorities have shifted, and their relevance to young people and society in general is declining. Their charismatic leaders are in some cases dying, in others embroiled in controversy. Soka Gakkai has balanced some of these trends by expanding abroad, and has followers in the United States, Korea, and elsewhere.

Rissho Kosei Kai, a large Buddhist organization that follows the teachings of Nichiren, is "skewing older" as the years go by. At an RKK neighborhood meeting in the Itabashi ward of Tokyo, I attended, several hundred people showed up, mostly middle-aged and older, with many retirees. Members complained that their emphasis on traditional family life and the demands of their tight-knit, highly bureaucratic organization were in some ways liabilities. "How do we appeal to the third and fourth generations?" asked RKK official Yukimasa Hagiwara.
The advent of prosperity, and recent social and economic uncertainty, have shifted the goal of these religious groups away from survival and toward psychological well-being. I attended a local meeting of Soka Gakkai in the Bunkyo ward of Tokyo. At SG meetings, people confess their problems and anxieties, then describe how they overcame them with the group’s help. The sessions employ some of the same therapeutic language used by AA and many Christian churches in the United States.

After chanting and some presentations, several people gave talks about their lives. One woman said she felt besieged, that values had changed and her neighbors tended to be selfish, they didn’t know how to serve others. Helping others is an essential homily of Buddhism, and SG presents it in modern, self-help  terms. "The final objective is for you to be happy, and to find your own inner revolution," the local group leader said. "But it’s also to help others find happiness. We tend to forget that we are also practicing for the happiness of other people."

Members said the group had helped them come to terms with disappointments, competitiveness, and impersonality of modern life. "When I was in elementary school, a relative gave ma a small Buddha statue," said Kinue Watanabe, a college student. "I prayed, but none of them were answered. I was often bullied by my friends at the time. To tell the truth, my prayers were rather passive. I would pray for nothing bad to happen. …. When I was a junior I wanted to take a civil service exam. So I studied hard, but failed and started to doubt all my efforts. My friend taking the same exam seemed not to make much effort, but passed. I came to realize there are certain things you can’t control, no matter how much you study, you may not win."

The notion that Soka Gakkai is a kind of friendly shelter in a hostile world was common. "Most people who join don’t do it with a full understanding of the teachings of Nichiren Daishonen," said Bunkyo member Katsumi Fujinawa. "What attracts them is the warmth of the people. They so earnestly care about you and want you to be happy. That’s what moves you at the beginning. Then once you do it, you come to understand."

But membership also comes at a price. Soka Gakkai, of course, is very controversial in Japan because of its cult-like qualities – its history of aggressive proselytizing, its all-powerful leader Daisaku Ikeda, and its involvement in politics. Ask almost any Japanese about Soka Gakkai and the response will be, "watch out!" The controversy over the group reflects the current tensions over religion in Japan – the role of religious groups in public life and more generally, the limits of group fealty in a society that prizes conformity.

One common complaint is Soka Gakkai has isolated itself, violated conventions of how Japanese groups ought to behave.

"We think they have a belief in their original tenet that there are the only or absolute answer, and their education is the only right way," said Kenji Saito, a vice president at Shinshuren, the Federation of New Religious Organizations. "So they have engaged in recriminations, severely criticizing other organizations. They have a closed-door attitude, and have been reluctant to have a dialogue with other religions."

The group’s excommunication a decade ago by the Nichiren school left it a lay organization with no official ties to a clergy. Some ex-members have formed a Soka Gakkai Victims Association that has besieged the group with lawsuits. I spoke with a couple of members, who complained that Ikeda had strayed from the values of the group’s founding by meddling in politics and, more generally, cultivating power for himself. They said that people trying to leave the group were harrassed, had garbage dumped in their front yards and dirt left in their cars. SG officials dismissed this assertion, though it seems somewhat credible; even if such tactics don’t come from the top, it’s easy to see how the siege mentality and earnest zeal of some members could lead to such behavior.

The group has also sparked popular suspicion with its hierarchical, pseudopolitical structure, a block-by-block organization tightly controlled from the top, and its forceful proselytizing – though that has slackened in recent years. There may be reasons for suspecting Soka Gakkai, but the Japanese tendency for group-think is also at work. The prevailing attitude of mistrust toward the group has cultivated a sense of grievance and victimization among SG members.

Disapproval is rarely voiced directly, creating a chill rather than open hostility. So members turn inward, and associate primarily with other members.  "It’s very difficult for people to voice their doubts directly to us," said Fujinawa.  "If they can tell us there are negative things, then we can correct them. Because of this problem, it’s hard to generate a mutual relationship."

The group’s cohesiveness is a powerful political force. "In our institutions we have differing opinions and we fight them out. But in Soka Gakkai, if someone disagrees they are cut out. They are a bloc vote," said Yoshiya Abe, the president of Kokugakuin University.

My first inclination was to compare Soka Gakkai’s closely aligned political party, New Komeito, with the religious right in the United States. Christian groups  have a narrowly focused political agenda they want to pass. New Komeito has pet causes – religious freedom, nuclear non-proliferation, giving the vote to ethnic Koreans – but none has the moral imperative that, say, banning abortion inspires in the United States. New Komeito seems, if anything, eager to compromise on its issues. The compromise of the moment, of course, is the party’s role with the ruling coalition.

The most common fear is that SG aims to establish a quasi-religious state headed by Ikeda. SG officials vehemently deny this, noting a long history of persecution by the state – of Nichiren in the 13th century, and SG founders in the 20th, who were jailed for thought crimes during the war after criticizing the government’s policies on religion. "Our movement is rooted in a philosophy of individual empowerment; our mentor died due to freedom of conscience. If we ever tried to found a state religion, everything we stand for would be contradicted," said Toshinori Iwazumi, a Soka Gakkai vice president.

The hoarding of political power seems to be done not to accomplish something specifically, or even for its own sake, as much as it is for self-protection. "Their platform is very clear: Stay in power," Abe said. "To stay in power means not to be suppressed. And the history of Nichiren Shoshu has a long history of being suppressed."

New Komeito officials said their aim is to bring Buddhist values into politics. Buddhism is an infinitely flexible philosophy, a useful thing in politics. In their view, postwar freedoms have opened up new opportunities for personal and political transformation that only Soka Gakkai and Komeito have recognized.

"Soka Gakkai is a very new phenomenon in Japanese society," said Motohiko Endo, the chairman of New Komeito’s International Affairs Committee. "It can be compared with a kind of Reformation: Trying to link to God directly without the state, and the establishment of the primacy of the individual – which laid the groundwork for the Enlightenment, market capitalism, etc. In Japanese society, people are not used to this idea because there never was a Reformation. It’s a natural thing to link spirituality with politics. Mahayana Buddhism is not confined to inside yourself – it’s about action in society. So the idea of religious organizations getting involved in politics has a very strong basis in natural life. It’s not compromise, but application. Sometimes it seems like compromise, but Buddhist principles are very flexible."

But the big compromise with the LDP crossed a line that even many members thought shouldn’t be crossed, and has further isolated the group in some ways. "Because Soka Gakkai got involved in politics, we got bashed, which has been extremely damaging," Iwazumi said. And Komeito’s alliance with the LDP has lost it some of its credibility even among SG members. "It was easier for Soka Gakkai to support Komeito when it was in the opposition," he said. "Anti-establishment has been our identity since Nichiren."

As older groups struggled, newer religions sprang up that take Buddhism one step beyond the self-help of the big lay groups. Like Scientology in the West, some are self-consciously non-traditional – and controversial. Kofuku No Kagaku, or the Science of Happiness, blends Buddhist ideas with New Age notions, science fiction, and apocalyptic imagery. Aum Shinrikyo borrowed from Buddhism, biology and anime, among other sources. Nobutaka Inoue, a professor of religion at Kokogakuin University, coined the term "hyper-religion" to refer to groups that borrow different elements from traditional religions, pop culture, science, and politics, in much the same way that the Internet’s hypertext creates links to many different texts and sites.

"Traditional religions don’t function anymore in Japan, so people need an interpretation of the world and hope for the future," he said. "So they look around. Invent a product. The inventor is very important. I borrowed the word 'hyper' from the computer world. We used to read books. Chapter 1, chapter 2, etc. But today we collect data from many sources and mix it together as one product."

Polls show young people are the least likely to profess religious belief, but some of these groups have attracted many young members by offering something different. Some promise an escape from the pressures of society and from emotional pain through tantric techniques, magic, or even godlike space aliens.

Tatsuya Nagaoka, an ex-Aum member, said he was often sick as a child, stuttered, and was bullied by fellow students. He embarked on a search for a religion that could address his problems and insecurities and provide a kind of perfect shelter. He became fascinated with the idea of cultivating his own personal spiritual power, and got interested in spoon-bending paranormal artist Yuri Geller, Agon Shu, a new Buddhist group that emphasizes tantric techniques, and more generally in philosophy. Eventually, as a university student he was drawn to Aum, which charged him a hefty fee to join and put him immediately to work folding and distributing flyers. At the time, leader Shoko Asahara was trying to enter politics. He described his experience there as a bad dream – deprived of sleep, food, and warm clothing, he worked almost round the clock and fainted several times. Eventually, his father contacted him and arranged his escape from the group – several years before its nerve gas attack – and founded a network of Aum family members.

Now a real estate broker who practices Tibetan Buddhism, Nagaoka disagrees with those who view Aum as an aberration. He says the group distilled many problems with Japanese society. Asahara "derived good feeling by controlling and destroying other people, like a bully. He saw humans as material. In Japan, people are recognized as parts of a big machine. Each person was a piece of the organization – one part of the organization produced gas, another mind control. Everything was black and white, there was no place for opinions of your own. Japanese society is like that."

One of the religions Nagaoka joined briefly was Agon Shu, a religion founded in the 1970s that rejects traditional Japanese forms of Buddhism and instead borrows the non-Japanese Theravadan and Tibetan esoteric traditions. Asahara was also an Agon Shu member before founding Aum, and the group emphasizes reincarnation and the cultivation of clairvoyant powers.

I interviewed founder Seiyu Kiriyama in a cluttered meeting room at his Tokyo headquarters. He described a spiritual journey he undertook after being diagnosed with tuberculosis as a young man – at the time, a virtual death sentence. After studying religion, philosophy, and literature, he said he came upon the Agon sutra, a little-known writing dating to the early days of Buddhism that he said contained the secret of enlightenment. "No matter how bad the fate or destiny you were born with, you can change it," he said. "That was a turning point for me and I came to know how to change bad fate, and liberate myself from karma."

Kiriyama’s fire ceremonies blend ancient ritual with 21st-century showmanship, and seemed designed for mass appeal. His group has 350,000 members, and is growing. The esoteric, 'magical' elements of his practice also have a particular appeal especially among young people. Is this the future? Though his approach is controversial, Kiriyama says it is consciously aimed some of the faults in Japanese Buddhism – such as the large gap between monastic and lay practice.

"I think Japanese religious organizations need structural reform," he said. "I feel sympathetic with some (Buddhist) religions in Japan because they are trying to believe in and protect 500 to 1000-year-old sutras. There might be very insightful monks and priests, but if they stay in this old-fashioned form, they can’t have a voice in society."
Topics:  Social Issues

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