Christianity and the ‘‘New’’ Japanese Religions

Christianity, which was present in Japan long before the end of World War II, occupies an unusual position in Japan. Only approximately one percent of Japanese are professed Christian. Yet at specific points in Japanese history, Christian institutions and individuals have exercised considerably more intellectual, social, and cultural influence than might be supposed given today’s small number of believers. To date, there are at least three distinct periods of Christian influence: the period when Christianity first came to Japan dating from the mid-16th century until the Tokugawa government banned Christianity after the first few decades of the 17th century, the period from 1873 when the Meiji government lifted the previous ban until 1945, and the postwar years.

In the 16th century, the Portuguese and Spanish first introduced Catholicism to Kyushu, and promulgators of European protestant sects also arrived. Some scholars have labeled this first introduction of Christianity as Japan’s ‘‘Christian century’’ since at no subsequent time has a higher percentage of Japanese actually converted to the faith. However, the Tokugawa government, primarily fearful of foreign political domination, banned Christianity and persecuted those adherents who would not renounce their faith. Despite this treatment, some Christians secretly practiced their religion, and a small number of adherents of the tenets of underground Christianity still exist today. Because underground Christians had no access to Christian teachings or literature until the latter part of the 19th century, these few remaining practitioners of the belief system are actually much more engaged in a folk religion with many indigenous beliefs than what could be considered Christian doctrines.

During the Meiji (1868–1912) and Taisho (1912–1926) years, Christians were actively engaged in social reform, particularly in education but also in leading efforts to increase public access to health care and to develop labor union movements. Christian missionaries from primarily the United States and Canada were (and still are in more limited ways) active in Japan, and a number of young Japanese either were influenced by Christian sects in Japan or came to the United States to study at Christian educational institutions. Some of these young people gained national influence in education and other intellectual endeavors. In particular, Christians in Japan were in the vanguard in the creation of educational opportunities for women, and such Japanese Christians as Naruse Jinzo (1858–1919), the founder of Japan Woman’s University, and Nitobe Inazo (1862–1933), the first president of Tokyo Christian Women’s University, were pioneers in this field. Christianity gained even wider general influence in education and the public through the activities of such prominent individuals as Uchimura Kanzo (1861–1930), Mori Arinori (1847–1889), and Nambara Shigeru (1889–1974). Uchimura, a prominent Christian and a political and social commentator, resisted rising Japanese ultranationalism. Although not a Christian, Mori, who went on to become the father of Japan’s public schools, was deeply influenced by his experiences with the religion in the United States. Nambara in December 1945 became the first Christian president of Tokyo University, Japan’s most prestigious institution of higher education.

Christianity’s influence on a number of educational institutions in Japan continues today. The number of private Christian schools in Japan is higher than might be imagined given the low number of Christians, and such higher educational institutions as International Christian University and Doshisha University, which is not Christian but is rooted in the religion, continue to be highly respected.

After World War II, the Japanese government established freedom of religion for the first time, and a number of new religious groups rose to prominence. However, for the most part Christianity did not grow. Many Japanese have mixed or negative feelings about actually becoming Christians for a variety of reasons including associations of the faith with Western dominance and the incompatibility of much of its theology with Japan’s spiritual traditions. This is much less true of the new Japanese religions. Since roughly the 1850s, there have been at least three religion booms in Japan during which new and often quite unorthodox faiths have attracted large numbers of people. The first boom coincided with the end of Tokugawa rule, and the second occurred after World War II. Some observers assert that the third boom, which dates back to the 1970s, is still occurring. There are hundreds of the new religions, and several, of which Soka Gakkai is the largest, have millions of members.

Approximately 11 million Japanese are adherents of the new religions.

Most of the new religious movements have high-profile leaders, many of whom behave in somewhat similar fashion to charismatic Christian evangelists in the United States. The new religions originally tended to promise happiness on earth and deliverance from suffering if members faithfully subscribed to the creeds. Other characteristics of the more prominent new religions include lavish headquarters and mass meetings attended by thousands. Until recently, the overwhelming majority of followers of the new religions were lower-middle-class or poor people, many of whom spent their youths in rural areas and moved to the city for economic reasons. However, there is substantial evidence dating from the 1980s and 1990s that the socioeconomic class backgrounds of people who are attracted to some of the newest religions are becoming more varied. These newest religions seem to be appealing to younger and often well-educated people who feel alienated with what they see as evil materialism and a nonsensical world.

Soka Gakkai merits special attention because of its large following, great wealth, and political activities. Soka Gakkai, or in English, ‘‘Value-Creation Society,’’ was founded in 1930 but began to attract a large number of adherents after World War II. Soka Gakkai was originally affiliated with the more than 700-year-old Nichiren Buddhist sect, but the two religious organizations severed ties in the early 1990s. Although the statistics are highly disputed, Soka Gakkai is reputed to have somewhere between 8 and 9 million members in Japan and somewhere between 1 and 2 million members in 120 other countries including the United States. The sect’s beliefs and practices are a combination of mantra chanting, positive thinking, and self-help strategies. Soka Gakkai makes generous donations to charities and claims to promote peace, culture, and education. Still, Soka Gakkai’s claim that other religions are in error makes many Japanese quite ill at ease.

Large numbers of Japanese are also disturbed by the wealth and influence of Soka Gakkai. Estimates are that the sect has amassed approximately $82 billion through sale of burial plots, rental property, and publications. Soka Gakkai also has a political arm, the New Komeito (formerly Komeito), or ‘‘Clean Government’’ Party, which commands several million votes and has accounted in the past at times for approximately one-tenth of Japan’s voting population and an estimated one-fifth of voters who turn out in most elections. Because of this political strength, the Liberal Democratic Party has in recent years included the moderate to socially conservative Komeito Party in coalition governments.

Although many Japanese continue to be uneasy about Soka Gakkai, the Japanese people were shocked by the March 20, 1995, actions of Aum Shinriyko, a doomsday new religions cult led by Shoko Asahara, a partially blind former meditation teacher. Allegedly acting to divert police attention since authorities were already investigating previous cult activities, Aum Shinrikyo members released deadly sarin nerve gas, invented by Nazi German scientists in the 1930s, inside five Tokyo subway cars during rush hour, killing 12 passengers and making more than 5,000 other passengers sick. Authorities then found weapons, poison gas, and torture chambers at the Aum Shinrikyo compound near Mount Fuji as well as clear evidence that cult members had murdered individuals who tried to leave Aum Shinrikyo. Although Aum Shinrikyo’s membership (the group recently changed its name to Aleph) has now shrunk to a little more than 1,500 members, in its heyday Aum Shinrikyo claimed to have 10,000 Japanese members as well as considerable membership in Russia. The sarin gas incident caused the Japanese government, while retaining religious freedom, to tighten the legal specifications for obtaining official religious group status.

Aum Shinrikyo’s actions also stimulated a discussion in Japan that went far beyond the specific crimes that the cult perpetrated.Many of the cult’s leaders were young, welleducated Japanese with university degrees. A number of social commentators as well as some young people feel that too many young Japanese are now experiencing a spiritual malaise. Those concerned about what is perceived as a spiritual vacuum believe that since the end of World War II the most highly valued goals of most Japanese have been economic development andmaterialism. There does appear to be evidence that a number of young people want somethingmore fromlife than simply affluence.