Afterword: The Future of Buddhism in Post 3/11 Japan

Rev. Masazumi Shojun Okano 

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.

This volume has been an account of how Japanese Buddhists have responded to what is called in Japan the Great East Japan Earthquake (higashi nihon dai shinsai). The disaster that struck a large part of Eastern Japan on March 11, 2011 has brought so much suffering to a great number of people. As has been pointed out in this volume, the areas that have been damaged by the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown had already been suffering from various economic and social problems. The old farming and fishing communities in these regions lost so much of their economic, social, and cultural assets in the process of the great Economic Miracle that characterised the earlier part of post-war Japanese history.

Rapid industrialization and urbanization were the two main factors that drove this country’s unprecedented economic development in a short period of time. In 1950, the urban-rural population ratio was 3 to 7. In 1960, the ratio had flipped to 7 to 3. Now more than 80% of Japanese live in urban areas. The large cities during this economic development absorbed an influx of young people from the farming and fishing communities to work in factories and offices. In the process, these communities were left with a large aging population that could no longer support itself economically. The local governments in these areas were thus forced to cut their social welfare budgets, which resulted in closing down many public health and social welfare facilities. In this way, even before the 3/11 disaster, many of these areas did not have enough hospitals. This was part of the reason why many old and sick people died without proper medical care in the weeks after the tsunami.

As explained in this volume, the problems found in the communities where nuclear power plants are located also tell the story of the areas that were left behind during the period of rapid economic development. The large sums of “donations” that were given by TEPCO and the national government were gladly received by the financially challenged local governments in compensation for the “inconveniences” caused by the nuclear power stations. The 3/11 disaster, as we can see, is not only about earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear catastrophe but also about social and economic structural problems inherent in contemporary Japanese society.

These changes in the social and economic structures are in fact partly responsible for the decline of the traditional Buddhist denominations. A very large proportion of traditional Buddhist temples are located in rural areas, and for centuries they were supported by the local inhabitants. Rural areas, however, have been suffering from depopulation, and so the local temples are in serious financial difficulties.

The temples in urban areas also suffer for various reasons. Secularization and institutionalization are two of them. Religious worldviews and religious institutions can no longer exercise the strong influences that they used to hold on wider society. Social conditions and social values have changed, but traditional Buddhist denominations have not been able to respond adequately. Institutionalization that is deeply rooted in the culture of these denominations makes them inwardly-focused and not very attentive to the spiritual and psychological needs of the people. The denominations are seen by people as being unable to respond to these needs that are ever-changing and ever-diversifying, especially in urban areas.

Crisis is sometimes the only remedy for institutionalization. The 3/11 disaster—an unprecedented crisis in recent Japanese history—may work as a catalyst for revitalizing and re-orienting the traditional Buddhist denominations. The accounts in this volume have shown glimpses of that. What will come out of the various aid work that has been carried out by the Buddhist world remains to be seen. However, we can already see the possibilities of change in these denominations through the relief work of their priests. Let us look into this further by examining three groups of actors who have been engaged in aid work.

The first are the priests and their families whose temples are located in the disaster areas. Many of them have shown very strong commitment to the welfare of not only their parishioners but also the general victims in their areas. Noticeable among their various activities was using their temples as shelters for the victims and consoling those who lost their loved ones by voluntarily performing funeral and memorial rites. It is worth pointing out that the attitudes of the mass media have changed to some extent towards the Buddhist priests because of these activities. The mass media especially after the Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attack in 1995 has repeatedly painted negative pictures of religious organizations. Using various negative stereotypes was the primary way in depicting institutional religion, but there are signs of change seen especially in their reporting of the Buddhist priests’ role in caring for disaster victims. Traditional Buddhist funeral rites were described as obsolete and expensive in the pre-3/11 media, but many people have come to realize the power of these rites in helping victims deal with their deep sorrow. Change in the perceptions of the people towards Buddhist priests may in turn change the priests themselves by giving them more confidence in assuming larger social roles. However, more importantly, what is expected of them is their ability to give answers to the question of suffering. The victims want to know why they have to suffer so much. It may be through religious answers to this question that they can find the strength to live through this tremendous hardship. It is therefore important for local priests in the disaster areas to find ways to satisfy these needs of the victims.

The second group of actors are the individual priests who come from outside the disaster areas and have been engaged in various relief work. This group refers to those priests who were not officially sent by their denominations but have chosen on their own to work in and for the disaster areas. Many of them had already been engaged in various forms of social work before 3/11. Some of them have a long history of relief work inside and outside Japan. Thus, they were very quick in responding to the 3/11 disaster. Those priests, although not many in number, are highly organized, and many of them work in cooperation with government organizations, NGOs, and civil society groups. There are also those who are members of inter-denominational groups that deal with social problems such as suicide, poverty, and youth problems. Many of them have been working in the disaster areas by using their expertise in these fields. The priests who are members of the anti-nuclear movement are also part of the second group. They had been engaged mainly in advocacy work in the past, but they have also begun to work for the victims of nuclear contamination in more direct ways by using their expert knowledge. The priests in the second group are the minority in the traditional Buddhist world, but if they can inspire others to work with them or start new groups, they may play a role in changing the traditional denominations.

The third group refers to the denominations themselves and the official inter-denominational bodies such as Japan Buddhist Federation. The administrative bodies of each denomination have come up with budgets for restoring their temples that were destroyed. Many of them have also donated a large amount of money to the Japanese Red Cross Society and other large aid groups. However, in terms of relief work, we have to say that the involvement of central denominational administrative bodies has not been very impressive. Impressive, though, are the activities of the youth associations of some denominations. The National Soto Youth Association, whose activities are introduced in this volume, is one of them. Some others are planning to reinforce their organizations so that they can do better aid work in the future. These youth associations are the bright spots for the denominations’ future. When these young priests start occupying higher positions within the denominations in the future, things may change drastically.

Inter-denominational and inter-religious cooperation may be an important factor in changing the inward-looking tendencies of the traditional Buddhist denominations. Inter-denominational exchange and cooperation are seen at different levels. At one level, there are those groups that are formed on a voluntary basis by individual priests who are connected through interests in particular activities, such as suicide prevention work. Regional inter-denominational and inter-religious associations, on the other hand, have a strong presence in some regional areas. In some disaster areas, these associations played important roles in helping each other in aid work and in performing inter-religious memorial rites for the victims. The Zenseikyo Foundation & Buddhist Council for Youth and Child Welfare, as mentioned in this volume, is an association of traditional denominations that is formed specifically to deal with youth and child issues. Their administrative office staff has been working in the disaster areas using their expertise in childcare. Although the activities of these inter-denominational associations are meaningful in themselves, their influence over changing the denominations’ introverted tendencies is rather limited.

The Japan Buddhist Federation (JBF), on the other hand, may theoretically have a better chance in this matter. JBF aims at forming a basis for an all-encompassing inter-denominational exchange and cooperation in the traditional Buddhist world. It also acts as an interest group that has official communication channels with government bodies and the media. Their activities have mainly centred around information exchange, educational work for members, and compiling official statements and declarations on various issues on behalf of the traditional Buddhist world. JBF, however, has been rather weak on bringing their member denominations together to take concrete action on social issues. Although the JBF’s anti-nuclear declaration is a big step forward, it remains to be seen if they can actually mobilize their members to take concerted actions towards achieving the goal.

This volume has been an attempt to describe how the traditional Buddhist world in Japan has responded to the 3/11 disaster. Its accounts are not by any means exhaustive. Women’s roles, for example, in the various relief work have not been examined here. There are also many other actors and issues that have been omitted. However, we hope that this book has given an insight into certain realities of the 3/11 disaster and the activities of Buddhists to deal with them. 

March 21, 2012

Yokohama, Japan

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