Japanese Engaged Buddhism: From Caring for the Individual to Transforming Society

an International Conference on Socially Engaged Buddhism

December 17, 2020

For full videos of each speaker, scroll down to the conference program


Japan has a long history of Buddhist priests and laypersons being active in a variety of social issues. Since the dawn of the modern era in the mid-19th century, a variety of forms of Socially Engaged Buddhism have developed in Japan, yet at the same time Japanese Buddhism in general has suffered through periods of political cooptation, socially passivity, and marginalization. Over the last 20 years, as Japan’s economic miracle has faded, a variety of social problems related to material and psychological well-being have arisen. A new generation of Socially Engaged Japanese Buddhists have emerged in this period to engage in a wide variety of activities, such as: rescue and care services for natural disaster victims; support for those suffering from social discrimination and poverty; psycho-spiritual care for the depressed and suicidal; and engagement in nuclear and environmental issues. These activities are increasingly connecting with like-minded work by Socially Engaged Buddhists in Asia and other parts of the world. This one-day conference held on December 17, 2020 and hosted by the Research Centre for World Buddhist Cultures of Ryukoku University in Kyoto was was originally planned as a full international conference in association with the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB). However, due to COVID-19, it was scaled down to a national and international Zoom conference with simultaneous translation into English. As the first attempt to bring together and present this variety of new Socially Engaged Buddhist activities in Japan, it marked another significant step towards integrating this work into a national movement.

The morning session of the conference began with a short opening addresses by the conference host Prof. Mitsuya Dake of Ryukoku University and Prof. Sulak Sivaraksa, the founder of INEB. A special short presentation for the international audience on the unique features of Japanese Buddhism, such as the prevalence of married clergy, was given by Rev. Masazumi Okano, President of the Kodo Kyodan Buddhist Fellowship, board member of the Japan Buddhist Federation, and Advisory Committee member of INEB. In a rather simplistic way, the conference was divided into two sections reflecting issues that were more apparently related to “individual suffering”, such as psychological illness and the trauma of facing death, and those related to “social suffering”, such as discrimination, poverty, and community development. It quickly became apparent in the morning talks, however, that these individual issues are tied up in a web of structural and cultural ones.

Morning Panel Discussion

In the very first talk, “What kind of death should we consider suicide as? How Buddhists deal with preventing suicide”, Rev. Sei Noro (Jodo Shin Pure Land) focused on how suicide has become pathologized and stigmatized in modern Japan through the influence of Christian based texts from Europe in the late 1800s. As a co-founder of the SOTTO Kyoto Self-Death & Suicide Counseling Center, Rev. Noro and his Buddhist colleagues have been working to clarify the Buddhist attitude towards suicide and to help both the suicidal and the bereaved families of those who have experienced “self-death” to find an affirmation of their existence despite their psychological struggles. Continuing with this very Buddhist theme of confronting death directly, the second speaker Rev. Daihaku Okochi (Jodo Pure Land) spoke about his work in establishing the Satto-san Home-Visit Nursing Station from his own Gansei-ji temple. Rev. Okochi, who also serves as a trainer of Buddhist chaplains for the Rinbutsuken Institute for Engaged Buddhism, is not only helping to offer psycho-spiritual care for the dying and their caregivers. He is also doing important structural work in connecting local medical caregivers with Buddhist temples to provide people in the community a more holistic form of care. Continuing along this thread of engagement in death was the third speaker Ms. Yuko Kubota, the wife of a Jodo Shin Pure Land priest, who has worked with survivors of the 2011 triple disasters in northern Japan to find meaning and healing in the loss of their loved ones. She and her colleagues in the First Star Team have developed stage dramas for school children to communicate Buddhist teachings on the meaning of life. The Team has performed them many times in the disaster areas with a strong and meaningful impact not only for children who have lost mothers, fathers, and siblings but also for the teachers and school administrators who have carried on in the work to raise these children. The final presentation of the morning by Rev. Yozo Taniyama (Jodo Shin Pure Land) was an appropriate conclusion to these case studies in the exploration of how to train Buddhist priests to engage in this difficult work of “being with death”. Rev. Taniyama is a professor at the Tohoku University Department of Applied Religious Studies and director of their Interfaith Chaplain training program. While Buddhist monks were traditionally trained in the existential arts of life and death, the modern age is presenting new challenges to both their training and their ability to support people who may have little connection anymore to institutionalized religion. Rev. Taniyama’s work, along with others like Rev. Okochi, is essential in cultivating a whole new generation of Japanese priests who can provide intimacy and promote transformation for the many citizens struggling in contemporary Japan. The morning session concluded with an extended panel discussion led by Rev. Okano.

Afternoon Panel Discussion

In the afternoon, presentations shifted away from existential suffering and more towards aspects of Japanese society that are impinging on the rights and well-being of citizens, breeding a structural violence that exacerbates individual suffering. The first speaker, Ms. Kaori Matsuzaki, gave a detailed presentation on the structures and systems of patriarchy that pervade all parts of Japanese society, including and perhaps especially Buddhism. In her work as a board member of the Institute for Abbots of the Future, Ms. Matsuzaki is educating young male priests on these issues while providing a space for female priests to work collectively for their empowerment. The issue of discrimination was also a central theme of the next speaker, Rev. Gakugen Yoshimizu (Jodo Pure Land), the co-founder of the Hitosaji Association for homeless support and, along with Rev. Okochi, a trainer of Buddhist chaplains for the Rinbutsuken Institute for Engaged Buddhism. In documenting the lives of those who are increasingly slipping through the Japanese social safety net, Rev. Yoshimizu has learned of the wider forms of social discrimination that leave people isolated, alone, and often homeless, facing death in the streets. These include aging day laborers who have been thrown to the curb by Japan’s huge construction firms, LGBTQ persons ostracized from their family grave plots, and single mothers and their children increasingly falling into poverty. Rev. Yoshimizu is working to rebuild the fabric of human connections by bringing together a wide variety of people to provide daily forms of material and psychological support to such people. The accelerated spread of broken community is not only found in urban Japan but, in many ways, is first found in rural Japan, which began to experience rapid depopulation over 50 years ago during Japan’s great industrial boom. The third speaker, Rev. Chisa Yamashita, a Jodo Pure Land nun, has experienced this situation first hand growing up in a rural temple south of the great Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto megalopolis. Rev. Yamashita is documenting how many young Japanese would like to move back to the countryside for a better quality of life, but with the economy is so centralized, work-life opportunities are few in these rural areas. As the managing director of Amrita Buddhist Social Enterprise, she is partnering with a variety of local organizations to make living more feasible in these areas and offer Japan a real vision for a post-industrial society. Such a vision is also being built by the last speaker of the afternoon, Rev. Ryogo Takemoto (Jodo Shin Pure Land), co-founder of TERA Energy, a Buddhist based electricity company for social welfare. As a co-founder of the SOTTO Kyoto Self-Death & Suicide Counseling Center, along with Rev. Noro, Rev. Takemoto became frustrated with the triage work of supporting suicidal individuals with a small NGO heavily reliant on outside funding. As a way to get deeper into the causes of Japan’s “disconnected society” (mu-en shakai), Rev. Takemoto has created a clean energy electricity company with three other priests that takes its profits and donates them to a wide variety of social welfare projects run by Buddhists especially focused on community renewal. Connecting with another community development priest and long-time anti-nuclear activist, Rev. Hidehito Okochi, the two are working with INEB’s Eco-Temple Community Development Project to create environmentally sound, holistic community development models in many parts of Asia.

After another one-hour panel discussion among the speakers led by Rev. Takemoto, the wider international implications of these case studies and activities were summed up by the concluding speakers. The first was Prof. Hisashi Nakamura, professor emeritus at Ryukoku University, INEB Honorary Advisor, and a prominent development economist who has been supporting sustainable development in South Asia for over 50 years. The second was Dharmachari Lokamitra, founder of the Jambudvipa Trust in India and INEB Advisory Committee member, who has devoted his life to the upliftment of untouchable classes of Indians through the Socially Engaged Buddhist teachings of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. In conclusion, this one-day conference gave a small taste of the growing number of Socially Engaged Buddhist activities which are transcending sectarian divides in Japan. Indeed, if not for the COVID situation, this conference would have presented a range of activities from a wider group of Buddhist priests from the Zen, Lotus Sutra, Vajrayana, and other traditions. The organizers under the umbrella of the Japan Network of Engaged Buddhists (JNEB) hope to provide the opportunity for such a wider conference in the near future. They also hope that more ties can be established between Socially Engaged Buddhists in Japan and those in other nations so that a dynamic exchange will lead to even more evolved forms of engagement.

Jonathan S. Watts

JNEB Coordinator

International Buddhist Exchange Center (IBEC)

Hosted by: The Research Centre for World Buddhist Cultures Ryukoku University
Co-hosted by: International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB)
                        Japan Network of Engaged Buddhists (JNEB)
                        International Buddhist Exchange Center (IBEC)
                        Ryukoku University Center for South Asian Studies (RINDAS)
Support by: The Department of Religious Studies of Ryukoku University

Morning Session: 10:00-13:00 JST

Opening Welcome:

  • Prof. Mitsuya Dake (professor at the Research Centre for World Buddhist Cultures of Ryukoku University & INEB Board member) Video
  • Prof. Sulak Sivaraksa (Founder of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, Thailand) Video


  • The Unique Characteristics of Modern Japanese Buddhism: Rev. Masazumi Okano (President of the Kodo Kyodan Buddhist Fellowship, INEB Advisory Committee, Japan Buddhist Federation Board member) Video

Buddhist Activities to Confront Individual Suffering

  • What kind of death should we consider suicide as? How Buddhists deal with preventing suicide: Rev. Sei Noro (Jodo Shin Pure Land Hongan-ji priest; professor at the Ryukoku University Department of Buddhist Studies) Video
  • A Society of Extreme Elderly & End-of-Life Care: Rev. Daihaku Okochi (Jodo Pure Land priest; Rinsho Buddhist chaplain trainer; Gansei-ji temple’s Satto-san Home-Visit Nursing Station) Video
  • Confronting Trauma from Natural Disasters—The Potential of Buddhism when Orated: Ms. Yuko Kubota (Jodo Shin Pure Land Hongan-ji temple wife, radio announcer and chairperson of “First Star Team” Buddhist Recitation School) Video
  • Rinsho (clinical) Buddhism & Issues in Developing Human Resources: Rev. Yozo Taniyama (Jodo Shin Pure Land Otani priest; professor at Tohoku University Department of Applied Religious Studies) Video
  • Panel Discussion: The Role of Rinsho Buddhism in Confronting Individual Suffering, Chair: Rev. Masazumi Okano

Lunch Break: 13:00-14:00

Afternoon Session: 14:00-17:00

Buddhist Activities to Confront Social and Structural Suffering

  • Gender, LGBTQ, and Discrimination—The Wish for the Well-being of All People: Ms. Kaori Matsuzaki (board member of the Institute for Abbots of the Future, Japan Buddhist Federation public relations office) Video
  • Poverty and Urban Alienation—Considering a Buddhist Approach to Aid: Rev. Gakugen Yoshimizu (Jodo Pure Land priest; co-founder of the Hitosaji Association for homeless support, Rinsho Buddhism chaplain trainer) Video
  • Depopulation and Regional Development—Reviving local communities through alternative lifestyles based in Buddhism: Rev. Chisa Yamashita (Jodo Pure Land nun; managing director of Amrita Buddhist Social Enterprise) Video
  • Environmental Issues and Regional Development—Clean energy and a new financing mechanism using the Buddhist way of making offerings: Rev. Ryogo Takemoto (Jodo Shin Pure Land Hongan-ji priest; TERA Energy co-founder, INEB Eco-Temple Network) Video
  • Panel Discussion: A Buddhist Vision for the Future of Japan, Chair: Rev. Ryogo Takemoto

Farewell Closing:

  • Prof. Hisashi Nakamura (professor emeritus at Ryukoku University, INEB Honorary Advisor) Video
  • Dharmachari Lokamitra (Jambudvipa Trust, INEB Advisory Committee) Video
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