Buddhism and Social Activism in Today’s Japan

The Activities of the Hitosaji Association

by Rev. Akinori Takase

Presented at Swarthmore College, March 19, 2013

takase2Rev. Akinori Takase is a priest of the Jodo Pure Land denomination. He studied Japanese History as an undergraduate at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto (2005) and did his graduate studies in Buddhism and Religious Studies at Taisho University in Tokyo. He served as a research fellow for three years at the International Relations section of the Jodo Shu Research Institute in Tokyo before spending the last two years as special research student on social services provided by religious organizations at the University of Pennsylvania. He has served as a member of Hitosaji Association as well.

My field is religious studies, but I’m focusing on especially social services provided by religious denominations so it’s connected to social work and sociology as well. In particular, I’m interested in supporting homeless people. I, myself, have been involved in such volunteer work. I’m interested in the motivation of the volunteers who work with the homeless; why do they do this? And also the nature of their organization; how do the organizations provide these services? However, since I’m a Buddhist priest, I’m a person who stands on the side of religion, but this doesn’t mean I’m a fundamentalist. Indeed, I’m a secularized and more relaxed Buddhist priest. I just want to look for something that we can contribute to society, not only just as a subject of study but also from the religious side. I’m also seeking a model in which there is a good relationship between religious groups and the public.ions section for three years at the Jodo Shu Research Institute in Tokyo before spending two years as a special research student at the University of Pennsylvania in the United States. He is also a founding member of the Hitosaji Association.

homelesstreetThe Homeless in Japan

When I talk about the homeless in Japan, people often are surprised and skeptical. Their facial expressions always show me, “Japan is one of the richest countries, isn’t it?” That’s true. Japan is still a major economy in the world. However, there are unseen sacrifices behind its prosperity. Homelessness is one of them. In comparing to the U.S., the number of homeless is relatively small, but still we do have homeless people.

In Japan, most of the homeless are single men and in their 50’s or 60’s. According to research on the actual condition of the homeless by the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare, in 2003 22.0% out of the total homeless (25,296) are 50-54 years old; 23.4% are 55-59; and 20.3% are 60-64. In short, two thirds of them are in their 50s or 60s. 60% of them are concentrated in cities, like Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya. This is because these big cities have “day worker’s towns” such as Sanya 山谷 in Tokyo, Kamagasaki釜ヶ崎 in Osaka, and Sasajima 笹島 in Nagoya. Many people are used to staying there for work at different construction sites. When those people, who built the Japanese economy, got older and the recession hit, they could not find new jobs. In order to work in the unstable construction market, they usually stayed in flop houses night by night. For them, losing their jobs meant losing their homes. Such structural vulnerability made them more visible as “the homeless”.

The Japanese government has social welfare and provides life support to people in need. Typical Japanese think if they can’t make a living, they can just live on welfare. Even though social welfare acts to cover all people who become needy, those who are single men and in the age group deemed employable have a harder time receiving social welfare, compared to children, women, people with disabilities, and the elderly. Although these groups of men theoretically are covered by welfare, in reality, they fall through the cracks since the social service office regards them as employable. However, who is willing to hire such men who don’t have an address and will be reaching retirement age soon? In other words, they are excluded from social welfare for these reasons as well as from the labor market by their age and lack of permanent address. Consequently, they become “visible homeless” to themselves as well as to the society.

Invisible and Potential Homeless

For several years, a portion of the younger population called “working poor” has increased. Most of them have worked on and off as part time employees. In spite of working as hard as regular employees, temporary workers have no benefits or security. Being afraid of abrupt layoffs, they have no recourses. They are less expensive than regular employees, and in order for many companies to reduce labor costs, hiring temporary workers is becoming a way of management. The climate was developed as part of the structural reforms implemented by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in 2001. Seasonal workers involved in auto factories or electronic parts factories usually lived in company dormitories. This system has now caused unsteady living arrangements, for if these young people lose their jobs, they end up moving from friend’s apartment to friend’s apartment, from internet café to internet café, night by night. If they can get a new job, they will start another transient life, because in that situation they have no choice but to accept contracts with worse conditions. Job-hunting is getting harder and harder. As the Japanese job market tends to prefer new graduates, once they lose a job, it is much harder for them to regain one. Some live with their parents while others are supported by their parents. Howeverm if their parents retire, they may lack funds to continue to support them. These young people can be called the potential homeless.

Mental Disease and/or Disabilities

There are many people who have mental disorders and disabilities. One psychiatrist, who works at an organization to help homeless people in Ikebukuro, Tokyo, conducted research on the mental health of the homeless in Ikebukuro. According to him, about 60% of the homeless have mental disorders and 30% have mild disabilities. It is often too difficult for them to communicate their needs and fill out a form appropriately when the welfare system requires a registration by applicants by themselves. Even when they seem to need help, unless they apply for public assistance themselves, they cannot get any help. It should be noted that some of them have mild disabilities, not severe. If they have severe disabilities, they must be taken care of as “the disabled” before they are taken out from their home. If they have mild ones, however, they appear healthy to outsiders. Unless we talk to them, we can’t know their problem. “Mild” disabilities can mean inadequate reading or writing skills. Those who are in this category sometimes cannot write Chinese characters needed for application forms and explain their needs accurately. Their behavior is normal just like us. Even though they don’t receive public assistance, it doesn’t mean they don’t need it. Some cannot apply by themselves. Others just don’t know what they can get.

In addition, they are more vulnerable. There are some businesses that target the homeless. These are so-called “poverty businesses”. They provide a house to them with sugarcoated words and take away their welfare checks from the government as long as possible. People who use such outrageous services are deprived of public assistance and placed under their control until they run away from such companies. After such experiences, the homeless become more distrustful of others. They may think they should manage to live without any help.

The homeless also have a higher risk of assault. There are cases that young boys and drunks assault the homeless, and many people and police often overlook crimes against them. Only deadly attacks are reported by the mass media and investigated by police. Those who live in the streets are not treated as human beings with the same rights as us. They lead a vulnerable existence.

Hitosaji Association members reach out to the homeless

To support such people who are in need, there have been many NPOs and faith based organizations established to help them. Most faith-based organizations are Christian, and many NPOs started as Christian groups. In Japan, this kind of volunteer work, supporting feeding the homeless, is not appreciated by the public, because people regard the homeless as lazy or homeless by choice. Sometimes, they are criticized by neighbors. Although, some of them agree that it’s a good thing, they then say, “Don’t you have any other place to do it, not here?” This “Not In My Backyard” attitude shows that despite the fact that people are aware of the need for such work, the homeless are not welcome in their neighborhoods. This kind of objection is usually not from rational reasoning but emotional reactions. It is human nature to preserve their life space from “others”. If “others” pose some sort of risk, the established must be against it strongly. Homelessness is not the only issue here, but the building of crematoriums, garbage disposal centers, and nuclear power plant are also opposed by local people. Although we know such kind of facilities are necessary for our lives, we keep them as far away from us as possible. That’s our challenge as a human being.

In conclusion, these are the homeless issues and circumstances surrounding them that we have in Japan. Recently, a Buddhist group started taking action on the homeless issue, which I will now introduce.

hitsajiiconHitsosaji Association

This is a Buddhist group with which I had been involved. Hitosaji in Japanese means literally “one spoonful”. The name hitosaji came from a scene in a picture scroll biography Honen, the founder of the Jodo denomination in the 12th century. The story is that one day a different famous monk had a dream in which there was a monk giving rice gruel with a spoon to those suffering from illness one by one. Then the monk who was dreaming asked someone near him, “Who is that monk?” The person answered that it was Honen. The dreaming monk used to have little appreciation of Honen because of a difference in understanding of Buddhism. However, after the dream, he thought better of Honen. In the picture scroll, the rice gruel is a symbol or metaphor of the nenbutsu— the practice of Pure Land Buddhists to call the name of Amitabha Buddha. The scene expresses how nenbutsu practice is easy for everyone in an age which was believed to have no true teaching amidst great social turmoil. People who live in such ages are like the ill people in the scene. For ill people, rice gruel is good for their health, because they are so weakened that they cannot bite and chew normal food even if it contains more nutrition. The nenbutsu is like rice gruel; everyone can do it, yet it still contains the essence of Buddhism.

Hitosaji was officially established in 2009 as an organization by some Jodo Pure Land denomination priests, even though the activities first started in 2004. One of founders, Rev. Gakugen Yoshimizu was born and raised in the Sanya area of Tokyo, where many day laborers had lived before. Nowadays, we can see many people sleeping on the street at night. We have three activities for the needy: 1) funeral support, 2) feeding the needy, 3) promotion of rice donation. Through these activities, the group tries to build cooperative relations with the community and NPOs for supporting the needy as well as becoming a model for public interest activities performed by Buddhist temples.

1) Funeral Support

As a religious service, we perform funeral rituals for homeless people who have passed away on the street. This was the origin of the group when a certain NPO asked some priests to chant and pray for them one summer. This time of year is called Obon, when it is believed that the spirits of people who have passed away come back to this world to see family and friends. Through these memorial services, priests faced the fact that homeless people don’t have any place after they die. Because usually they are already cut off from their family relationships, even when the families are alive, they cannot be buried in their family graves. In this way, some of the homeless worry about after death. One homeless man told to a priest, “Now we are homeless, and after death we will still be homeless as well. If we knew we had a place to stay in the afterlife, we could be more serious and think about how to live life. If I knew that after I died friends would come to my grave and talk about me, I would be able to strive more intensely in life.”

yuinohakaThe priests felt these people need a grave site where everyone who has a relationship with them can pray and recall them. Now there is a grave site for those who have been abandoned by relatives or society in the temple. It is called yui-no-haka. Haka means “grave”, and yui means “tie” or “connection”. This priest set up such as grave site in the hope that homeless people would be able to maintain ties and connections to their friends, NPO members, and us. This part of our work is a very spiritual one, and the place from where we started.

2) Feeding the Needy

We provide material support for the needy, feeding them and giving them medicine. We have various volunteers who operate this program, such as priests from other denominations, NPO members, college students, etc. As for college students, at first they just came as a part of their course work, but some have come back to join as volunteers repeatedly.

This practical material program was started by one priest’s question, “How much do we know about suffering?” Buddhist priests often preach to people that Buddhism is one of the ways to get away from suffering, that suffering comes from our excessive attachment, greed, and obsession, and that life is suffering. However, we priests live in temples where we can have enough food and sleep on a mattress with a blanket. What do we know about suffering? This Buddhist priest felt the need to do something and to have a conversation with people who are suffering, even if we cannot do enough to help them.

riceballmakingAs for feeding the needy, there are two ways of doing this work. One is to make a specific place to give aid—“Soup Kitchen Type.” Another is to go to the homeless on the street and provide assistance—“Sharing on the Street Type”. Hitosaji uses the latter style. We make about 200 rice balls (onigiri), walk around the area, and give them out one by one. We also bring some medicine, which are over the counter drugs, such as for cold relief, pain killer, stomach ache and so on.

We do this twice a month on the 1st and 3rd Monday nights. We don’t force the homeless to use public programs or housing against their will. Since most of the homeless have lost social ties, they often go back on the streets again to hang out with “old friends” even when they have a new home or join public programs. When they lived on the streets, they were cut off from family, community, and social institutions. Of course, some homeless people want to have an apartment and receive welfare. In that case, we provide them with information and sometimes accompany them to public offices to get appropriate assistance. If they need to see a doctor, we tell them about a free clinic supported by another NPO.

chantingMy group operates the same way as a secular group except for one difference. We take time for Buddhist chanting before going out and after the food sharing. My group was created by Jodo Pure Land priests, so we always chant a Pure Land sutra before food sharing and recite the nenbutsu before we go home. For others who join the group, this practice is completely optional. For those who have another faith, they don’t have to join against their will. We just tell volunteers, “From now we will recite the nenbutsu ten times. If you want to do it together, please put your palms together and follow us. If it’s hard for you, that’s no problem, just close your eyes, pray for the homeless, and reflect on yourself in your way.” Furthermore, we don’t preach to the homeless. It’s obvious to see we are Buddhist priests from our appearance, but we don’t show it off more than necessary. Proselytizing is of little help to the homeless.

In my experiences in Philadelphia, I sometimes go as a volunteer to feed and support the needy. I joined a faith-based organization that is run with public funds and participated in a church program as well. I was surprised that even though their programs are sponsored by a church and by private donations, they still have a huge program. For instance, a certain church runs a soup kitchen five times a week. In addition, they run an education program for computer literacy and a clothing center as well. In Japan, however, my group program is smaller, but we do what we can do. To perform this program, we give the first priority to continuity and sustainability.

3) Promotion of Rice Donation

The third activity is encouraging other temple priests to donate rice to charitable activities—not only for our work but also for many other NPOs. Our feeding program needs tons of rice. At first, we always bought it. Then, gradually, other temples, even ones located far away in rural agricultural areas, started to donate rice to us. Then, we thought about how we can use these networks more broadly. There are many organizations that tackle poverty in Japan. We found we could offer food through the Food Bank, which is an organization that distributes food to those who have difficulty getting or buying enough to avoid hunger. It delivers to facilities such as shelters and orphanages as well. They also distribute food to other NPOs that support homeless people as well. Such organizations usually collect food donations from companies, but we could also become one of the “depositors” of the Food Bank.

Some other priests agreed with our idea so we started the project. They asked their temple members to donate a small portion of rice, collected it, and delivered it to the local food bank.*This project has been launched in some other local areas. One great aspect is that it could work well after the tsunami in northern Japan in 2011. Through the project, we built connections and networks with NPOs so that rice and foods collected in each temple were delivered to the disaster areas through various networks.


In conclusion, we can say the funeral support and feeding the needy take a direct and concrete approach. The promotion of rice donations we can say is an approach that makes use of the unique social relationships among temple groups and temple members. I would summarize them in the following way:

  • Funeral services: This activity is done as a priest. As I said, Japanese Buddhism has always been involved in funeral services to console people’s spirits. This funeral support can be an advantage of the Buddhist priest. We can utilize our background well. It can be a help to enhance the homeless’ self esteem, because through the rituals, funeral, and memorial services, homeless people realize they are not alone. They notice they have someone who will remember them after they die. This can mean their lives are not meaningless.
  • patrol1Feeding the needy: This is done as an individual who lives in the same society as common people. A priest is also a person who lives in society. It is nothing special to offer practical support to the needy. People who are not temple members can also join this part. People can do this together beyond their faith and position. Priests can also learn from the needy and deepen their faith. After I interviewed other priests, I noticed that many of them have internalized the teaching based on Pure Land Buddhism after engaging in these activities.
  • Promotion of rice donation: As an organization that has networks with lay people, this is a good way to involve many people who don’t live in a big city with many homeless. The homeless issue is peculiar to big cities like Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya. However, in order to think about it as not someone else’s issue but our own collective social issue, it is important to have this channel. Actually there are many temples and priests who want to get involved in social issues, but many of them just don’t know how or where to start. This has been an effective activity to connect temples, lay people, and NPOs to each other.

An Attitude Based in Buddhism

We’ve seen Hitosaji’s activities and its characteristics. From a theological perspective, I would like to explain something about its attitude. As you have seen, my group provides just a small amount of help. This stance can be seen in the name of group, Hitosaji, which means a spoonful. Of course, this is just a small portion and cannot be not enough. However, our view is that something special done by someone special can become nothing special done by everyone. In other words, people should do what everyone can do. This is more important than great works done by only people who have special skills and abilities. We think it is important that everyone can join it if they want to. This view is derived from our basic practice of the nenbutsu. It’s actually an easy practice, just reciting the name out loud. People can do this regardless of their social status, education, or personality.

Another aspect is the attitude to do volunteer work and help people who are in need. What we do is nothing special. Sometimes it seems to be not enough for the needy. We aim to build a horizontal relationship, like a friend, and not vertical one based on the idea of salvation. This attitude also comes from Buddhist teaching. In Pure Land Buddhism, the first step is realizing or accepting ourselves as weak and powerless; in other words, to accept our limitations. The attitude is that we cannot save you or give you salvation, but we can stay with you. We cannot provide an apartment and cannot give you assistance to make a living. Through giving them just one rice ball and some tea, we make sure to have a conversation with them as much as possible. We don’t want to be one-sided provider. In this way, many priests actually learn from the homeless and reflect on their own religious lives. So trying to build interactive, horizontal relationships is important.

Every form of Buddhism recognizes buddha-nature, which is the seed of becoming a Buddha that lies within every person. However, in Pure Land Buddhism, even though buddha-nature is accepted, it is consider that we cannot make it bloom by ourselves since we are often obsessed by delusion, improper ideas, and greed. To become a buddha, we have to sweep these out of the mind, but we feel that is impossible. There is a way to become a buddha, however, that relies on asking Amitabha Buddha to help us. According to the Pure Land sutras written in India, Amida Buddha has promised that if we call his name, we can reborn in his pure land, which is the best place to practice becoming a buddha.

What is New About these Activities

We have looked at this work as a form of Buddhist activism. You may wonder if there were any such similar activities in Japanese Buddhism before? If there have been, why single out our activities? Is there anything new about them?

There have, indeed, been many charitable facilities in Japanese Buddhist history, such as certain clinics and shelters that were sponsored by imperial families who were devout Buddhists. Some monks also built houses to care for sufferers of leprosy. Especially, after modernization began with the Meiji restoration in 1867, Buddhist denominations developed social work and advanced into the social welfare area. The government also encouraged Buddhists to start such work. The government wanted to use Buddhists to prevent the socialist movement and to reinforce its regime. Buddhists responded to this expectation. Buddhists also became interested in how to educate people not to drop out of mainstream of society. At this time, they tended to offer more mental relief based on Buddhist teachings rather than material relief. Eventually, it became controversial that Buddhists had too much of a close relationship with the government, and after World War II, Buddhists regretted that they hadn’t been able to work as a brake to stop militarism.

Hitosaji members gather to talk after 2 hours of walking the streets with rice balls and medicine

In the post war era, secularization has increased. Many facilities offered by temples were cut off from their base organization by new laws separating church and state. Religious institutions have been hardly able to become engaged in public fields as religious institutions. Consequently, Buddhism has been marginalized into a strictly religious place. Japanese Buddhism has been mainly based on ancestral worship over the ages. Its teaching usually focuses on how important it is to have memorial services for ancestors and how important family ties are. In this way, Japanese Buddhism has cared the community as a family unit and not the individual. It has worked to reinforce the family ties. On the other hand, it hasn’t had a principle to advocate for people who drop out of the mainstream, so it doesn’t know how to treat the homeless who have left their families. The same points can be made in terms of the suicide problem that has plagued Japan in recent years.

In this way, the first new aspect of this Buddhist activism is that some Japanese Buddhists are starting to focus on individuals who are not in the mainstream. Actually, there are some people who have already been involved in such issues and have been working without denominational support. As they have a unique background or strong personality, they do their work without other priests. They may connect to secular groups by themselves, and sometimes they take a critical stance against their denominations or Japanese Buddhism, which makes it hard for other priests to get involved with them.

The founders of Hitosaji considered this issue, and in order to involve other priests as much as possible, they started doing their work with funeral services. They chose suitable parts from various sutras to support their activities theologically, to avoid conflicts or tensions with their denomination, and to make it easier for other priests to join in the program. This way prevents the activism from becoming our own business, not for others who are far from us. As an organization, we can also cope with social issues. There is now also an association of Buddhist priests transcending sectarian identification who work together on the suicide issue. Thus, this more open collaboration is the second new aspect of this Buddhist activism.


Supporting the marginalized is a part of new phase of Japanese Buddhism in recent years. Focusing on the individual and coping with issues together can be seen as new aspects as well. As an organization, Buddhism should try to adjust itself to social change in which individualism has increased. There are some people who decide to stay single or give up taking part in the worship of ancestors. They don’t follow old style religious services. The number of these people is increasing, and it is difficult to stop such a trend. Seeing how Hitosaji adjusts to this new situation is quite interesting for me.

As we have seen, social engagement enriches the networks between temples, NPOs, and people. Usually temple members just come to the temple when they hold ancestor services. However, the temple still has the ability to be a gathering place for various people, including non-temple members. Temple networks can stimulate people, even temple members, to come to temples more often. Such networks enhance the temples’ potential in society as well as working to revitalize the temple. Serving as the core of a community, temples can enhance their potential, which includes acting in cases of natural disasters and other emergencies.

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