Seminar 6: Interconnected Religious Professionals: The Potentials of a Networking Model for Disaster Relief

Speaker: Susumu Shimazono

Director, Japan Religion Coordinating Project for Disaster Relief


The 6th seminar in the Rinsho Buddhism training program was given by Prof. Susumu Shimazono. Prof. Shimazono was a highly acclaimed scholar on Japanese religion in contemporary society for many years at Tokyo University with a number of English language publications. Since April of this year, he has moved to Sophia University in Tokyo to take over as Director of the Grief Care Center there. Prof. Shimazono’s presentation focused on the work and efforts of the Japan Religion Coordinating Project for Disaster Relief (Shu-en-ren) which he helped found in the days after the tsunami and nuclear disasters of 2011 in northern Japan.

Prof. Shimazono began his talk talking about the religious and spiritual needs of people during disasters and asked why in Japan there have not been more hospitals and medical care facilities built by the many large Buddhist groups compared to the active role of Christians in this kind of work all over the world and especially in Europe. He concluded that Japanese Buddhists need to come out into society and more actively face the needs of the people.

Rev. Shimazono then documented the increasing work of religious groups in Japan in this area, especially since the catastrophic Hanshin earthquake around Osaka in 1995. Some groups, like Shinnyo-en and the Soto Zen denomination, have even created their own emergency relief, non-profit organizations. Other denominations have had individual priests create groups to serve during disasters like the previous week seminar’s presentator Rev. Ga-e-i Tsuji, who created the Shingon Koyasan Denomination Footbath Corps to offer footbaths and counseling during the Noto peninsula earthquake of 2007. There were also many new groups created in the aftermath of the tsunami and nuclear incident in 2011, such as the gyocha tea party activities of the Soto Zen denomination’s Youth Association which emphasized deep listening to the experiences of the traumatized.

Shortly after the disaster, Prof. Shimazono began to think of how to link all these groups and their activities, which all have their own particular strengths. He felt if they cooperated and shared knowhow, the effect of the work would be that much more powerful. In this way, the Japan Religion Coordinating Project for Disaster Relief (Shu-en-ren) was launched on April 24, 2011 through a wide collaboration of religious groups such as the Japan Buddhist Federation (zennichi butsu), the Association of Japanese Religious Denominations (nihonshukkyo renmei), the Association of New Japanese Religious Denominations (shinshuren), the Association of Shinto Denominations (jinja honcho), the World Conference on Religion and Peace (WCRP), Japanese Christian groups, and professors from a variety of universities. The overarching goal was to confront the needs of disaster victims in a flexible manner and to provide an opportunity to gather to discuss mutual experiences. The project has also been considering the potential for disaster relief that crosses religious and denominational divides and is not limited to the Buddhist world. In this way, they first worked at helping place refugees in churches and temples in other parts of the country, especially in the Tokyo area. Coordinating relief aid was also a major early concern as well as offering memorial services to the thousands who died but could not be buried properly in such a short time.

The nuclear issue in Fukushima also became a key concern for the protection of children’s health in the region as well as support for refugees, which included many priests and religious professionals from these areas. Prof. Shimazono noted how religious groups in Germany served as important leaders in the surge for banning nuclear energy there shortly after the Fukushima incident. While the Japanese religious world was quite late in responding, the declaration by the Japan Buddhist Federation was important in its emphasis on different values from mainstream economic growth, like the Buddhist concept of “sufficiency” (Jp. shoyoku chisoku, Pali. santutti). This declaration and others that followed by individual denominations questioned the meaning of life and happiness beyond economic drive, especially when it has become obvious that people have been injured and hurt by the economic system. In this way, Prof. Shimazomo highlighted the need for society to have a religious base for rooting itself in the meaning of its existence.

Another critical issue that developed over the long term was the care for the traumatized and the need for a spiritual dimension in care. While the United States and some parts of Europe have developed chaplains to serve in hospices and other places of need, Prof. Shimazono noted that Japan lacks such a chaplain system and still is under the strong authority of doctors. Palliative care is a relatively new field associated especially with the relief of pain for the dying, and its definition includes a spiritual care element. In Japan, doctors have little involvement in this field, which is mostly performed by nurses who are developing a growing interest in spiritual care.

Although there is a tradition in the past in Japan of monks serving as doctors and offering medical services as well as spiritual support to the sick and dying, very little is being done by Buddhist groups in Japan today on this issue.

In this way, Prof. Shimazono was encouraged by the recent activities of various groups to increase psycho-spiritual support for the traumatized, like a psycho-spiritual consultation center in Sendai offered as a collaborative activity by a number of religious groups. Further, besides this Rinbutsuken Buddhist Chaplain Training Program, there is the recent multi-faith chaplain training program at the new Department of Practical Religious Studies at Tohoku University in Sendai City, which was hit hard by the 2011 tsunami.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: