to This Precious Life: Buddhist Tsunami Relief and Anti-Nuclear Activism in Post 3/11 Japan
Before the tragic triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown occurred on March 11, 2011, Japan was already a nation in crisis. The high growth period of the 1980s and Japan’s rise to global economic power had given way to nearly two decades of economic stagnation. This was accompanied by a widespread deterioration in the quality of life—increased strains on workers at all levels and increasing personal bankruptcy; widening socio-economic gaps between rural and urban, rich and poor; community breakdown and personal alienation resulting in a chronically high rate of suicide amongst all ages—to make a short list. The Japanese Buddhist world has been in similar such crisis—marginalization of social roles and a pejorative image as “Funeral Buddhism”, declining numbers of believers, and more recent moves by the state to revoke its tax-exempt privileges.
When the disasters of 3/11 struck, all these problems and more were brought into intensified focus. Japan has always coped with previous devastating earthquakes in various regions in the country—as recent as the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995 and the Chu-etsu Earthquake of 2004. However, the scale of devastation of the ensuing tsunami not only brought a heightened sense of trauma but also precipitated the nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima #1 nuclear facility. This latter incident is still ongoing and has brought many of these aforementioned social issues into the forefront of social debate as yet to be answered questions: After two decades of economic stagnation, what is the economic vision for Japan in the 21st century? Can such an economic vision not entail the exploitation of people in the rural areas for their labor and their hosting of nuclear power facilities? What is the source of real happiness for the nation’s citizens: modern virtues of economic growth and consumer accumulation or more traditional Japanese virtues of continuing bonds and human interconnection?
While Japanese Buddhism continues to grapple with its own issues, many positive developments can be seen from this past year. Japanese Buddhism showed in its efforts to aid tsunami victims that it is still alive and quite prepared to step back into the lives of the common people through service to them and their communities. While this marks a continuation of traditional roles, especially in Northeast Japan where Buddhist faith has remained strong, it also shows a resurgence in working for society among Buddhist priests, especially younger ones who continue to do tremendous work as individuals and with their various youth associations. On the other hand, Japanese Buddhism’s slow response to the core issues of the nuclear issue has been in keeping with their many years of social conservatism. However, in the latter stages of 2011, we have seen a growing courage for Buddhists to come out on this issue—first, in encouraging people to re-embrace a Buddhist lifestyle of contentment over consumerism, and second, to challenge the economic and political system that has exploited many of its parishioners in rural regions.
In this volume, we have attempted to give a feel of the unfolding events of the year by structuring essays roughly in a chronological order. Part I opens with recollections and experiences from 3/11 and the immediate difficult days afterwards, focusing on the emergency relief work by Buddhist priests, their temples, and Buddhist based relief organizations. As the weeks and months passed, the relief work changed in character, and the latter essays in this section reflect that with stories of helping survivors deal with their experience of trauma and grief.
Part II focuses on the nuclear issue. Although this crisis unfolded in tandem with the tsunami one, the Buddhist world in particular was slow to address it in comparison to their timely work in the tsunami areas. This section begins with a wide-ranging essay by one of Japan’s top development economists, Jun Nishikawa, who provides an excellent context for understanding the nuclear issue in Japan and Buddhism’s connection to it. We are then introduced to the most radical Japanese Buddhists, involved in the nuclear issue long before the Fukushima incident. Then, we see the gradual awakening to the issue by mainstream Japanese Buddhism—a still ongoing awakening.
Part III is a shorter section on some of the important voices from the international Buddhist world directed to Japan during the year of crisis. They are voices of both sympathy and of challenge to Japanese Buddhists to take affirmative social leadership, not only in the healing of the nation but in guiding their people to a new society rooted in the perennial Buddhist virtues of non-harming (as non-exploitation) and personal contentment (as opposed to material avarice).
The editor would like to express his deepest gratitude firstly to the many authors and contributors to this volume who so generously offered their articles and stories. I would also like to express great thanks to our immediate circle of friends in the Japan Network of Engaged Buddhists (JNEB) (Rev. Kobo Inoue, Rev. Jin Sakai, and Rev. Yuzuki Matsushita in particular) for their assistance in translation, providing photos, and, most importantly, making connections to important people in the field who became contributors for this volume. A final debt of thanks goes to my wife, Naomi Takasawa, for her help in translation and support during this challenging year.
This volume represents the work of the International Buddhist Exchange Center’s Engaged Buddhism Project to document in English for the world outside of Japan the experiences, activities, struggles, challenges, and hopes of the Japanese Buddhist world in confronting the 3/11 disasters and the larger implications of them. The International Buddhist Exchange Center (IBEC) was founded in 1966 by the 1st President of the Kodo Kyodan Buddhist Fellowship, Rev. Shodo Okano. Its general goals are to develop modern, international perspectives on Buddhism through study and research, to create opportunities for those interested in Buddhism to learn and study further through lectures and events, and to cooperate with Buddhists inside and outside Japan on various social issues. IBEC’s Engaged Buddhist Project (EBP) was created in April 2006 by Kodosan’s 3rd President, Rev. Shojun Okano. The core focus of the project has been to investigate the activities of Japanese Buddhists, especially from traditional denominations, on social issues; that is the engaged Buddhist activities of Japanese Buddhists. The deeper emphasis of the research has been on grassroots activities focused on critical Japanese social issues, like suicide, poverty, problem youth, and since March 11th, 2011, emergency relief aid and nuclear activism.
February 7, 2012
Jonathan Watts has been a research fellow at IBEC since its founding. He is also a research fellow at the Jodo Shu Research Institute working on Buddhist care for the dying and bereaved with Rev. Yoshiharu Tomatsu and at the Rinbutsuken Institute for Engaged Buddhism with Rev. Jin Hitoshi. He teaches contemporary Japanese Buddhism and social issues at Keio University. He also serves on the Executive Committee of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB). Living in Japan since 1993, he presently resides in Kamakura, just south of Tokyo, with his wife and daughter.