Afterword: Challenges Facing the Japanese Buddhist World

Rev. Masazumi Shojun Okano

Rev. Shojun Okano (center)
Rev. Shojun Okano (center) visiting residents in the tsunami affected areas in Tohoku, Spring 2011

Rev. Masazumi Shojun Okano is the President of the Kodo Kyodan Buddhist Fellowship and the Director of the International Buddhist Exchange Center (IBEC), publisher of this volume.

An important part of this volume was borne out of the Executive and Advisory Committee Meeting of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB) that was held in Yokohama in November 2012. As one of the organizers of this event, I wished that the INEB committee members, who gathered from all over the world, would see for themselves the realities, or certain realities, of current Japanese society and Japanese Buddhism. For this purpose, we organized three types of exposures.

INEB Exposures

The first of these exposures was the Fukushima study tour. Although it was triggered off by a natural calamity, fundamentally, Fukushima was a man-made disaster. Human greed and delusion were the primary causes of it. We hoped that our INEB friends from other countries would see directly what will happen once a nuclear disaster strikes. The situation in Fukushima is uncontrollable. It is uncontrollable not only because of political inability to resolve it, but also because human kind does not possess any technology to control it. Most people in Japan had been led to believe that nuclear energy was safe and controllable. We know now that those claims were false. The Fukushima disaster is truly tragic and something like this should not be repeated ever again on our planet.

Suicide Prevention Work by Buddhist Priests

The second of these exposures was a study session on the problems of suicide in Japan. We invited two Buddhist priests who were engaged in suicide prevention work to talk about their activities. For thirteen straight years (1998-2011), more than 30,000 people committed suicide every year in Japan. It is thought that the year 1998 marked the full onset of the Japanese economic recession. The dramatic increase in suicide that year may have been attributed to economic reasons, however, there were other social factors that worked as underlying conditions. Economic hardship alone does not lead to a large number of people taking their own lives. The Japanese in the past experienced much more difficult economic conditions, but the suicide rates were much lower. What is new about the current situation is that many people feel that they are disconnected. What I mean by “disconnected” is broad. It could mean “disconnected” from society, family, work, meaningful relationship, or meaningful life.

Even if you have a family, you may feel disconnected. In some areas of Japan, the suicide rate of elderly people who live with their children and grandchildren is higher than those who live by themselves. Those elderly who committed suicide felt disconnected from their own life, because they were completely dependent upon their family to the extent that they could not make decisions on even the small things in their daily lives. The elderly who were “kept”, not “looked after”, like this by their families obviously were not really loved by them—perhaps that was the cause of their sense of disconnectedness.

The “disconnectedness” that people feel in contemporary Japan is very complex. The Buddhist priests who are dealing with suicide prevention work, therefore, need to understand this complexity and discover effective means to help people. Traditional monastic training evidently does not teach them how to do this—at least not in a straightforward way. The priests, therefore, have had to find out by themselves by trial and error, or they have had to learn from secular sources. This does not mean that Buddhist teachings and practices are not useful. They are, in fact, very useful if one can apply them in skillful ways. In order to do that, however, one needs to have a deep understanding of the functions of Buddhist teachings and practices with regard to correcting the destructive aspects of the human mind. What is important in this respect is not to be restricted by traditional ways of understanding Buddhist teachings and practices. Broader perspectives are needed in light of seemingly new human problems. Accordingly, new ways of presenting teachings and practices are needed especially vis-a-vis the lay community.

A part of the struggle that these priests face centres around making Buddhism relevant to the problems of contemporary society. They are struggling to be Buddhist priests who happen to be engaged in psycho-spiritual care work, rather than psycho-spiritual care workers who happen to be Buddhist priests. This endeavor is significant, because it will bring out new possibilities in Japanese Buddhism. This can be said for other socially engaged Buddhist work carried out in the same spirit as well.

Reviving Traditional Buddhist Temples

The third exposure was a study tour that examined the current state of traditional Buddhist temples. This tour was intended to show various types of traditional temples to the INEB members. The conditions of temples differ greatly depending upon their geographical locations, sources of income, and the quality of relationships they have with their parishioners.

Although there are differences in conditions, the traditional temples as a whole are in decline. Unfortunately, the future of a large proportion of these temples looks grim. This is especially so for those in the rural areas. Excessive urbanization, falling birthrates, and a rapidly aging population have caused a large-scale demographic change in Japan. A large proportion of traditional temples are located in rural areas, and for centuries they have been supported by the local inhabitants. The rural areas, however, are suffering from depopulation, and because of this, the local temples are in serious financial difficulties. Many priests have to hold down other jobs to maintain the temple and their own living. It is predicted that many of these temples will go bankrupt in not-too-distant future. When the 3/11 disaster struck, the temples in the disaster areas were already in such difficult conditions.

The INEB tour did not bring the participants to such temples in dire conditions. They were in fact taken to temples in and around the metropolitan area that were attempting to present new forms of activities open to wider society. At the end of the tour, they were also given a lecture particularly on the deeper structural problems of Japanese Buddhism and its relationship with the government and public organizations.

The Problems Traditional Buddhist Temples Face

This Afterword aims to contextualize what has been written in this volume, namely, the Buddhist responses to the Fukushima nuclear crisis. For this purpose, let us look further into the current conditions of traditional Japanese Buddhism. It was pointed out in the Editor’s Foreword that, “the role of Buddhist priests and temples in society has been deteriorating”, and “Buddhist institutions are in crisis today on a number of levels.” Let me explain this in more detail. As was mentioned above, drastic demographic changes are driving many rural temples to near bankruptcy. In addition to the demographic changes, there are other internal and external factors of this crisis.

Buddhism and Political Authority

An account of Japanese Buddhist history with regard to its relationship with political authorities should be given first. Buddhist denominations were skillfully incorporated into the political system during the Edo period (1603-1867) by the feudal government. Buddhist temples were ordered to become registrar offices of the local villages. All births, deaths, marriages, and movements in and out of the village had to be reported to the local temple. The temples were, thus, assigned by the feudal government to oversee the local villagers. The villagers, in turn, were obliged to financially support their local temple. In this way, financial protection was granted to the temples but in exchange for giving up proselytization outside their villages. The feudal government set up this system so that there would be no fanatical religious movements springing up and spreading to try to overthrow the government, as had happened in previous eras. In this way, Buddhist priests within this system lost their skills and incentive to propagate their faith to the people. Instead, their religious role was confined to performing rituals for the local villagers—rituals such as funeral rites and memorial services for the dead. In this way, Buddhism during this period became a “funeral religion.”

The Edo feudal government was overthrown by the new Meiji government in 1868. The new regime established a Western-style, modern nation-state system for the first time in Japanese history but, at the same time, relied on more traditional sources of political authority. The Meiji government reinstated the Emperor as the head of the state for the first time in centuries and made Shinto the de facto state religion. Buddhism, on the other hand, was severely persecuted, and many temples were destroyed. The Meiji government was intent on curbing the power of Buddhist denominations and succeeded in this by legally allowing Buddhist priests to marry and to be non-vegetarian. The government encouraged priests not to follow their traditional precepts or monastic rules. The priests were not forced to transgress their precepts; they were just told by the secular authorities that they did not have to obey them. However, this was enough to change the nature of the Buddhist priesthood entirely. Eventually, many priests got married and changed their way of living. In the process, they lost their spiritual power, because the legitimacy of their spiritual power was based upon leading a spiritual lifestyle that was different from the lay people. This loss of spiritual authority contributed partly to the emergence of major lay Buddhist organizations later in the 20th century.

The Buddhist persecution during the Meiji period (1868-1912) did not last for a long time but left indelible scars on the Buddhist world. As a result, the Buddhist denominations became highly submissive to political authority. This continued on until the end of the World War II. As Rev. Taitsu Kono mentions in this volume, the Buddhist denominations during the Pacific War fully supported the war efforts of the military regime.

The end of the Pacific War and the beginning of the post-war democratic system changed the conditions of the Buddhist world for the better and for the worse. For the worse, many important temples lost large proportions of their land because of the new land reform of the Allied Occupation Authority. Until the end of the Edo period, many temples had been given land by the feudal authorities so that they could be supported financially by it. The large temples that used to be rich land owners, thus, lost sizeable proportions of their land in the new egalitarian political system.

For the better, freedom of religion was guaranteed, and the denominations no longer had to worry about the unduly interventions of political authorities. This did not, however, lead to changing their entire character with regard to political submissiveness. They are perhaps not politically submissive as such any more, but they certainly seem unconcerned with important social and political issues. In this sense, Rev. Kono is unusual. He and his denomination were the first in the traditional Buddhist world to make a public statement on the Fukushima problem. Only few other denominations followed suit. What is prominent about Rev. Kono is that he had previously made a conscious decision to officially repent his denomination’s history of actively supporting the war effort of the military regime. Few other denominations have gone to this extent. By officially repenting the past, Rev. Kono could sincerely declare that he and his denomination value all forms of life and respect human rights. As a result of consciously severing his denomination from their politically submissive past, his denomination has had no qualms about speaking out freely. It should be noted that the other outspoken priests in this volume—such as Rev. Nakajima, Rev. Osada, and Rev. Okochi—all share similar sentiments with Rev. Kono, but as individuals, not necessarily supported by their own denominations.

Rigid Institutions

Why cannot the traditional denominations change like Rev. Kono’s denomination? Their rigid institutional structure is part of the problem. Each denomination has its central administrative body that is led by the administrative head (shūmu-sōchō) who is a priest. The administrative head usually is elected, directly or indirectly, by the denomination’s priests who have voting rights. The administrative head has a fixed term, the length of which differs in each denomination; usually it is for a few years. The administrative head forms his “cabinet”, which carries out the administrative work of the denomination. The cabinet members are also priests. The important issues of the denomination are decided by the denomination’s “parliament”, which consists of the members who are elected by the denomination’s priests and others in some cases who also have voting rights. The MPs (members of the parliament) usually belong to a “party”. Each denomination has at least two parties that in many cases represent different geographical regions. The head of the “ruling party” usually becomes the administrative head. For many denominations, the parties take turns acting as the “ruling party” after each term.

The “parliamentary system” is good, because it is “democratic”. However, if it becomes caught up in “party politics”, real important issues may be set aside. Moreover, if, for example, the administrative head decides to bring up an issue that requires changing the mentality of the denomination in a drastic way, he will need to go through a lot of consensus-building. Officially repenting the denomination’s wrong deeds in the past, for example, would require a wholehearted commitment by the whole of the denomination. Consensus-building for such a commitment may require a lot of time and energy. This task will be especially arduous, if, in this case, not everyone in the denomination thinks that supporting the military regime was wrong.

Even if the parliament decides to view the Fukushima problem without linking it to the war-time issue, it may still be difficult to build a consensus. What may typically happen is paralysis by analysis. One MP may insist that, “The government is saying that the problem is under control, and this kind of accident will never happen in the future. Why should we make a critical statement, if that is so?” Another MP may point out that, “We know that some of our parishioners work within and on the edges of the nuclear power industry. If we make a critical statement, we will end up harming them.” These kinds of discussions were actually repeated in and out of the parliament sessions of some denominations. Discussions like these only breed confusion, not decision. If this is the state of the highest decision-making body, one can easily imagine that it will tend to keep the status quo rather than take on new challenges.

In the traditional Buddhist denominations in Japan, the administrative head and the spiritual head are separate. For some denominations, the spiritual head is decided outside the parliamentary system, and he is often someone who has never been in the political game. Most spiritual heads now are in their 80s and 90s and beyond. The office of the spiritual head does not usually possess any political power, but he could “inspire” the direction of the denomination. Rev. Kono is the spiritual head of his denomination, and that is what he did. Being a relatively young and energetic, charismatic leader, he inspired the administration, the parliament, and the denomination as a whole. It should be noted, however, that this is unusual in the world of traditional Buddhist institutions in Japan. No matter how charismatic the spiritual leader may be, it will always be difficult to change some parliaments.

Separation of Religion and State

What is currently most pressing with regard to Buddhist institutions’ relationship with state authority is the issue of the separation of religion and state. The post-war constitution’s principle of the separation of religion and state was intended to protect, above of all, religious freedom. It is for protecting religious practices and religious institutions against undue intervention by state authorities. It also protects against state authorities trying to use religion for their own political ends. It also prevents a religious monopoly in the public sphere. Despite the fact that these are the underlying beliefs of this principle, state authorities in Japan, especially the bureaucrats, have the tendency to misinterpret the meaning of it. It is often misinterpreted by civil servants to mean “the separation of religion and the public sphere.” Misinterpreting in this way, religion is excluded from the public sphere at all levels by the central as well as local government bureaucracy. For example, religion is not taught systematically at public schools at all. Some local governments prohibit public buildings and facilities from being used for religious purposes. Even memorial services for the 3/11 disaster victims performed by inter-religious groups were not allowed at public buildings in some towns.

It becomes even more absurd when religion is discriminated against in the reconstruction programmes in the disaster areas. In the city of Sendai, the local government announced that it cannot use its reconstruction fund for restoring religious facilities, such as Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, that were destroyed by the disaster, because that will violate the principle of the separation of religion and state. In another instance, the residents of a highly contaminated evacuation zone in Fukushima were not allowed re-entry when they declared that the purpose of re-entry was to place family members’ ashes in their ancestral tomb. In this area, the former residents could obtain re-entry permits from the government so that they could pay brief visits to their property in the evacuation zone. The visit to their ancestral tomb was not allowed by the government, however, because it was a religious activity. It was explained to the residents by the government official that the government could not possibly “champion” people’s religious activities because that would violate the separation of religion and state. Don’t they know that the separation of religion and state was intended to protect religious freedom?

As one can see, this kind of confusion, or ignorance, to put it mildly, creates all sorts of problems for not only the Buddhist world but also the entire religious world in Japan. The Japanese Association of Religious Organizations and the Japan Buddhist Federation, amongst other organizations, have been fighting for religious freedom when the very right is violated in the name of the separation of religion and state. This battle hits against a thick wall quite often, because civil servants are usually convinced that they are absolutely right about their “interpretation” of the principle. It is rather ironic, one must say, as they are very religious about it.


The Japanese religious world cannot afford to leave this situation be, because religion is rapidly losing its influence in society, which is widely secularizing. Religious worldviews and religious institutions can no longer exercise the influence that they used to have on wider society. In Japan, secularization has gone very far. It has gone even further than many western European nations. The influence of not only religious organizations but also religious worldviews, religious culture, and religious customs has greatly diminished in contemporary Japanese society. The decline of traditional village/town life styles brought about by drastic demographic changes has been a major factor. Religion was deeply ingrained in the culture of traditional local communities. With urbanization, the proportion of people who were brought up in these communities has diminished. Instead, an increasing proportion of the population has been born in secularized urban areas. These people usually have very little chance to come in contact with religious customs, practices, and teachings as they grow up in cities, unless their family is a member of a religious organization. Secularization is accelerated even more, because religion is actively excluded from the public sphere by state authorities.

Reinstating Religion in the Public Sphere

The 3/11 disaster has triggered off movements to reinstate religion in the public sphere. Some of the significant developments of these movements are the plans to set up new chaplain training programmes. Such programmes did not exist before the 3/11 disaster. Particularly significant is the programme organized by Tohoku University. It is significant, because it is a state university and is by definition in the public sphere. The university is located in the disaster area, and the programme was borne out of a strong need to care spiritually for the victims. One of the founders of the programme was a medical doctor who worked extensively with the victims. He realized that for many of them spiritual care more than medical care was needed. The programme is catered for practitioners of all religions. If this programme is successful, other state universities may also start similar programmes. If the programme is successful in setting up systems to allocate chaplains to work in various public institutions, it will contribute further to efforts to reinstate religion in the public sphere.

Another such programme has been organized by the Zenseikyo Foundation & Buddhist Council for Youth and Child Welfare, which is an association of traditional denominations that was formed specifically to deal with youth and child issues. Their administrative office staff has worked in the disaster areas using their expertise in childcare. They have also felt that well-trained Buddhist chaplains are badly needed not only in the disaster areas but also in wider society.

Last Words

The project to compile this volume began with the aim to inform the world of the suffering of the people in Fukushima and the Buddhists who are committed to support them. The Fukushima problem will be with us for decades, or even centuries, to come. This problem will affect not only our generation but also the future generations. Fukushima residents are in for a long fight—and the very thought of this is a major source of their suffering. Their suffering is aggravated, because they do not know what to believe and who to believe. The uncertainty and the confusion that hang over their daily lives wears them out. They need a break from all this, but their own mind does not give them a break. The Buddhist priests and their families in Fukushima are also in for a long haul. Many priests and their families have remained with their people. The next generation of priests and their families will probably do the same.

Both the people and the Buddhists in Fukushima need help from outside. Buddhists from outside can help them by letting them know that they are there for them. I am very grateful that our friends from overseas have given words of compassion, encouragement, and wisdom in this volume for the sake of the people in Fukushima. I think the people in Fukushima will appreciate words of compassion to help them overcome fear, words of encouragement to help them move forward, and words of wisdom to help them find happiness within themselves. We will have to find ways to bring these words to the people there.

October 2013

Yokohama, Japan


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