Journey through Dukkha (Part 7: Conclusion)

The Future Arc of the Movement

As noted earlier, while the suicide rate has finally dipped below 30,000 people over the last two years, it is very difficult to say there has been a qualitative shift in the lifestyle of the average Japanese. This drop in number is probably reflective of the noted coordination on many levels in developing systems of suicide prevention around the country. However, as we have also noted, this type of action does not get at the roots of the problem, which as seen in Rev. Hakamata’s analysis lies deeply imbedded in the dislocations of modernity. Japan’s economic policies, especially under the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, dubbed “Abenomics”, are even more aggressively pursuing neo-liberal agendas, such as the Trans Pacific Partnership free trade agreement that would further expose Japanese agriculture to global economic forces. In this way, the economic and work strains that have been a major cause of suicide in Japan show no hope in the near future of abating, and perhaps of getting worse. Further, some, like Rev. Nemoto, feel that suicide rates may again surge as the increasing number of Japanese on medication for psychological problems hits a critical mass, and people begin to take their lives with the very medicines that are supposed to cure them. Others have also noted the surge in suicides in the northern Tohoku region as citizens are faced with the long-term desperation of rebuilding their lives after the tsunami and amidst the ongoing Fukushima nuclear crisis.[1]

In this way, we can expect that suicide prevention initiatives will become increasingly common and more institutionalized throughout Japanese society. As we have seen in the work of Revs. Shimada and Fujio, the role of the Buddhist priest may also become common in the public sector, as their experience and professionalism in this issue becomes increasingly recognized and valued. Adding to this trend are a number of Buddhist chaplaincy training programs developing around the country to train Buddhist priests and lay followers as well as other religious professionals in psycho-spiritual counseling; for example, the Clinical Chaplain (rinsho-shukyo-shi) Training Course at the Practical Religious Studies Department in the Graduate School of Tohoku University and the Rinsho Buddhism Chaplain (rinsho-bukkyo-shi) Training Program being run by the Rinbutsuken Institute for Socially Engaged Buddhism.

At the same time, it will be interesting to see how this push into the deeper causes of the suicide problem and more pro-active work in rebuilding community by certain suicide prevention priests expands. Certainly, it can be expected that many priests will stay focused on suicide prevention. However, will the regional associations of priests confronting the suicide issue look to expand and develop their activities beyond counseling sessions (wakachi-ai) and memorial services (tsuito hoyo)? If such comprehensive activities develop as part of the movement, we may see an important intersecting of the suicide prevention movement with the work of socially engaged Buddhists in other fields.

The Buddhist chaplaincy training work, especially at the Rinsho Buddhist Chaplain Program, is already starting to see such intersecting. At the Rinsho Buddhist Chaplain Program, to which Revs. Hakamata, Fujio, and Nemoto serve as instructors, students are at one time being exposed to a wide range of social issues and priests involved in them; from suicide, disaster trauma, juvenile delinquency, hikikomori, homelessness, terminal care, and so forth. Activist priests in the field are also picking up on these connections. The Hitosaji Association is a group of Jodo Pure Land priests and followers working with the homeless in the Asakusa part of Tokyo. Their director, Rev. Gakugen Yoshimizu, who also serves as a trainer at the Rinsho Buddhist Chaplain Program, has not only been aware for years of the higher rates of suicide among the homeless but has also come along homeless who have been day laborers in the nuclear power plants in Tohoku—connecting to yet another pressing social issue.

Thus, as these connections are increasingly made amongst issues as well as the Buddhist activists engaged in them, there is a natural progression deeper into the heart of the Four Noble Truths. In this process, Japanese Buddhists are increasingly becoming active in social issues in a genuine manner, not only out of concern for others but for concern over the future of their existence in society. As they gain experience and confidence in this engagement, as seen clearly in the suicide prevention priests, there are signs of greater confidence in espousing a new culture and direction for Japanese society—the post suicidal, post-modernity vision of the 3rd Noble Truth. The Buddhist priests who have become involved in the anti-nuclear campaign since 2011 are the clearest examples of this shift. Rev. Taitsu Kono, the former Chief Priest of the Rinzai Zen Myoshin-ji Sect and former President of the Japan Buddhist Federation, now regularly speaks on the cultural shift needed to values based in such Buddhist ideals as “contentment” or “sufficiency” (Jp. shoyoku chisoku, Skt. samtusti). There is also the Religious and Scholarly Eco-Initiative (RSE) created in May 2011 by a collaboration of religious professionals and scholars to confront the environmental crisis with the stated goal of “the harmonization of humans and nature and the construction of a new principle of civilization.”[2]

What is exciting and promising about this larger movement is its progressive and ecumenical nature. In the post war era, Japanese religion has been laden with the rapid development of evangelistic religious groups. These groups have had the tendency to focus on self-promotion, the rapid expansion of converts, and the consequent creation of huge capital assets from which they have attempted to buy economic and political power. Many have used social welfare and charity work, especially overseas aid, as ways to seemingly promote their sect rather than out of a genuine concern for society. They have also been largely exclusivist in manner, uninterested or unwilling to cooperate with other religious groups that may deflect attention from their own. The socially engaged Buddhist movement in Japan, as epitomized by the suicide prevention priests, is truly living up to the ideals of the vision of socially engaged Buddhism through following the trajectory of the Four Noble Truths. This begins with becoming intimate (yori-soi) with the real suffering of people, and from this foundation, finding genuine ways beyond the trappings of their own doctrines or religious institutions to find the causes of the suffering, support a new vision for going beyond it, and take substantive action towards realizing this vision. It will be very interesting to see how this movement further develops over the next five years at this critical juncture in Japanese history.

[1] “Suicides tied to 2011 disaster continue, with rate in Fukushima rising”. Japan Times. March 13, 2014.

[2] Watts, Jonathan S. (Ed.) Lotus in the Nuclear Sea: Fukushima and the Promise of Buddhism in the Nuclear Age. Yokohama: International Buddhist Exchange Center (IBEC), 2013.

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