Japan's new postwar Constitution of 1947 guaranteed freedom of religion to all. Government control of religions was abolished, and the state was to offer no favor to any religion over other religions. People belonging to religious organizations had to obey the law. Religious organizations were obliged to register with the state, and the Japanese accepted registration as a civic duty.
By 1951, the drift in religious ideas that had been normal down through the centuries produced registered religious organizations in Japan that numbered 720, some of them controversial, and some that soon disappeared. There was one movement that invented rituals for healing. Another movement, founded by a woman, Kitamura Sayo, acquired a following with her singing sermons in front of the Tokyo train station. From there, she led people through the streets in "a dance of selflessness," her followers experiencing the "joy of salvation."
Spirituality was an important part of the lives of many Japanese. A rebirth of Soka Gakkai occurred. This involved chanting that was associated with Nichirin Buddhism. Soka Gakkai's leadership had been imprisoned by the military authorities in 1939, and one of the cofounders, Josei Toda, had survived. The Soka Gakkai grew domestically and into an international organization founded in 1975. The group grew worldwide to around ten million members and included celebrities such as Grammy Award winners Herbie Hancock and Tina Turner; model Miranda Kerr; and actors Orlando Bloom, Patrick Duffy, John Astin and Vinessa Shaw. A leader of Soka Gakkai International, Daisaku Ikeda, was a prolific writer and a peace activist and has received honorary doctorate degrees from almost 250 accredited academic institutions.
Soka Gakkai has been described as having a following in Japan of about ten percent of the population. Followers of Soka Gakkai believed that chanting refreshes oneself spiritually and leaves one happier, wiser, more compassionate, more productive and more prosperous in all areas of one's life. In Japan, Soka Gakkai supported political activism and a nominally independent political organization, the New Komeito (Clean Government Party), and it grew to become Japan's third-largest political party, holding seats in the lower and upper houses of parliament.
In 1984 another Buddhist sect was founded, Aum Shinrikyo, roughly translated into English as "Supreme Truth." It represented the potential of modern religious inventions in a free society to become targets of legitimate state repression. Its founder was Shoko Asahara, 29. He was blind in one eye and could hardly see from the other. He studied traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture, various religious concepts, Taoism, yoga and Buddhism, trying to acquire whatever wisdom traditional Eastern religions had to offer, including Hinduism. He studied what has been written about Jesus. And he read the science fiction of Isaac Asimov.
He returned to Japan from India and told his disciples that he had attained his ultimate goal: Enlightenment. He was given money which helped him expand his movement. He advertized. The group is described as having by 1995 as many as 9,000 members in Japan, and as many as 40,000 worldwide. It attracted enough recent graduates from Japan's elite universities that it came to be labeled as a "religion for the elite".
While seeing himself as a person of superior insight, Shoko Asahara created a doomsday prophecy that involved a Third World War and a nuclear Armageddon. He made the mission of his cult the survival of this Armageddon. Like all people on a grand mission he found enemies of that mission. He found fault with Jews, with the British Royal Family, and he named the United States as the Beast from the Book of Revelation and predicted that the US would eventually again attack Japan.
For the coming war, the group exercised its interest in science by starting to manufacture sarin gas. In 1995, against an imagined enemy, it released the gas in Tokyo subway stations, directing it against trains passing through stations used by government employees. They killed a dozen people, injured fifty and caused vision problems for almost a thousand others. What had begun as a reach for spirituality had descended into what adherents perceived to be a life and death struggle for survival against determined enemies.
Japan's government prosecuted Shoko Asahara and his group, taking away its official status as a registered religion, but in 1997 the government was prevented from banning the group altogether. The government kept the group under surveillance. In 2005, the National Police Agency described the group as having approximately 1650 members, 650 of them living communally.
The development of Aum Shinrikyo had little discernible impact on the enthusiasm among the Japanese for their traditional religions. Most Japanese continue to find satisfaction and meaning in rituals and customs derived from several religious traditions, matching the long term trend of cultural diffusion and blending of traditions. In Japan, births and deaths were likely to involve Shinto rituals. A wedding ceremony might be performed by a Shinto priest. But with cultural diffusions still alive, secular American-style chapel weddings also came into vogue. And there were funerals performed by a Buddhist priest, and Buddhist rites might be practiced for a family member on the anniversary day of his or her death. In Japan, Shintoists and Buddhists had quarreled, but now a greater harmony between them had developed. Shinto rituals were performed for a New Year. This included the Buddhist ritual of a successive ringing of a bell in Buddhist temples, which had supernatural implications of leaving behind concerns that had tormented humanity. The last ring occurred at midnight, enabling the start of a prosperous and joyous New Year.
Japanese Buddhists had an annual Bon festival, traditionally to honor the spirits of one's deceased ancestors. It had developed into a family reunion holiday and community fair, with carnival rides, games and summer festival food.
The World Factbook in 2015 had Shintoism as 83.9 percent of the population and Buddhism at 71.4 percent – suggesting that some people considered themselves both or a blend of the two. Christianity was listed at 2 percent.
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