Rebuilding Human Bonds amidst Japan’s Disconnected Society PART V

Conclusion: Re-establishing Bonds with the Rural Homeland

The final part of the Hitosaji initiative brings us back to the origins of this entire issue of poverty and modern development, back to Akita and the rural homelands of the day laborers of Tokyo. When they first began this work, Hitosaji needed to apply to local area Food Banks to acquire enough rice to feed some 300 homeless on their patrols. However, as their work began to attract attention not only within their own Jodo denomination but among from other sects, priests who resided in rural areas that have few to no homeless wanted to support the work by donating rice from the areas around their temples—almost like the kyoden-in 敬田院 of Shitteno-ji temple in the days of Prince Shotoku. In this way, Hitosaji has become part of a network of Buddhist temples around the country that can provide emergency supplies, especially during seasonal floods and typhoons, as well as in earthquakes and major disasters like that of 2011 when Buddhist temples and priests were praised in the national media for their mobilization on behalf of the people of Tohoku.[1] It is somehow ironic then that the homeless who are served by Hitosaji may be eating the same rice they grew up eating in their ancestral homelands.

This “work” of Buddhist networks harkens back to Rev. Hakamata’s description of the shigoto of rural communities with strong bonds. In the same way Hitosaji is working to re-establish bonds in the alienated culture of urban Tokyo, Rev. Hakamata is trying to create a society “with connection” (yu-en 有緣) at their café called Yotte-tamo-re, which means“to welcome others to drop by anytime”. He says, “We have only one rule, which is to always listen to what others have to say. In our town, casual conversation had gone out of fashion, and superficial ways of speaking became predominant. At our café, conversation is reborn and so are new connections amongst the people of our community. Just to casually drop by and simply chat. What is the mystery in that?” Rev. Hakamata tries to cut against the grain of “thinking in terms of efficiency or in terms of economic prioritization” by inviting people take a little break in the middle of the day “from kasegi time”. Further, in the face of the culture of convenience and disposability, Rev. Hakamata offers the challenging vision that “humans can mature through the process of entanglement.” Criticizing the kind of society that emphasizes comfort over engagement and it complexities, he envisions a new community where “there will probably be some uncomfortable things and perhaps some entanglements will arise. However, I think human connection will be the important thing. I believe that Buddhism can be one main pillar for the construction of this new community.” Some rays of hope in this work can be seen in the reduction of hikikomori in Fujisato-cho in which 86 of the 113 identified in 2010 have begun to work and establish independent lifestyles.[2]

The Yottetamore Cafe

But is this all enough? Despite Rev. Hakamata’s work, suicide remains stubbornly high in Akita. Despite Hitosaji’s efforts, irregular employment is increasing in Japan and a new generation of young homeless appears to be on the verge of being born. Is there something more that can be done? The third main actor of this chapter has been Rev. Nakajima in Fukui prefecture amongst the Nuclear Ginza. Although one can also doubt the effects of his work while nuclear reactors mushroomed in localities around his town of Obama, he is conspicuous among Socially Engaged Buddhists in Japan for his direct engagement with the powerful structures of the Japanese government and corporate world. This style of engagement is too often labeled as “political” by Japanese Buddhists, who perhaps rightly so fear the kinds of entanglement in state policies that so deeply compromised them not only in the pre-war period but in earlier epochs. That said, Rev. Nakajima has been part of successful “political” campaigns by local civic groups to stop the building of reactors in Obama and also successfully win court cases to block the restart of reactors in the nearby region after Fukushima. As a leading member of the Interfaith Forum for the Review of National Nuclear Policy, they more recently in 2020 teamed with a lawyer’s association to shut down the giant nuclear fuel reprocessing facility located in Aomori, which neighbors Akita to the east.

Is this the kind of work that Hitosaji might also expand into? For example, campaigning for a simplification of welfare policies that would be easier to access for the homeless. Or perhaps, joining labor unions and other civic groups to reform the labor laws enacted during the 1990s and 2000s that significantly increased the number of irregular workers and is pushing them to the next precarious stage before poverty and then homelessness. And what about all the work Ryoshin Hasegawa put into the rights of women? Could Hitosaji help campaign for the many single women with children who live in poverty today? These would constitute more fundamental structural shifts that would compliment the more immediate work they presently do that could be defined as merely a “holding action”. Perhaps this is asking too much of Hitosaji and goes beyond their mandate of “one spoonful” as “nothing special done by everyone”. Perhaps it is also might an area they will eventually discover as their encounter with the 1st Noble Truth of the suffering of the homeless moves into the deeper insights of wisdom and compassion in the 2nd Noble Truth and emboldens them as they become older to more radical forms of engagement. For the time being, they remain a beacon of engagement creating “interconnection” (yu-en) with the many forgotten people of the Disconnected Society.

Rev. Yoshimizu creating connection outside of Kosho-in

[1] Okano, Masazumi Shojun. “Afterword: The Future of Buddhism in Post 3/11 Japan.” In This Precious Life: Buddhist Tsunami Relief and Anti-Nuclear Activism in Post 3/11 Japan. 2nd Edition.Ed. Jonathan S. Watts (Yokohama: International Buddhist Exchange Center, 2016),p. 208.

[2] Okiyama, Hideo. “The Number of Adult Hikikomori is Becoming Almost Zero in Fujisato-cho, Akita Prefecture. 3 ‘Not to dos’ have changed this town where one in ten people of this generation are hikikomori.” 大人のひきこもりをゼロにしつつある秋田県・藤里町。現役世代の10人に1人がひきこもる町を変えた”3つのNG” Shu-Prey News. October 12, 2019.

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