Religion in Japan | David Koresh and the Branch Davidians | India's TM and the Hare Krishnas | Religion and Communist Parties in East Europe, Cuba and China | Reverend Moon and the Unification Church | Jehovah's Witnesses | The Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh
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, and religious organizations were obliged to register with the state – the Department of Education – but with the Japanese, registration was accepted as a civic duty.
The drift in religious ideas that had been normal down through the centuries produced, by 1951, registered religious organizations that numbered 720, some of them controversial, and some that soon disappeared.
There was one movement that invented rituals for healing. Another new 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."
A rebirth of Soka Gakkai occurred, which 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 co-founders, 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 believe 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, New Komeito (Clean Government Party), which 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, employing free enterprise advertising. 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 was less than cautious or modest in describing forces that were impinging upon the world. He 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 U.S. would eventually 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. Like the French and Bolshevik revolutions, the struggle also occurred among fellow members.
The 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, and, 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 discernable impact on the enthusiasm among the Japanese for their traditional religions. Most Japanese continue to participate in rituals and customs derived from several religious traditions, matching the long term trend of cultural diffusion and blending of traditions outside monotheism. Births and deaths are likely to involve Shinto rituals. A wedding ceremony might be performed by a Shinto priest, but secular American-style chapel weddings have also come into vogue. Funerals are often performed by a Buddhist priest, and Buddhist rites are practiced for a family member on the anniversary day of his or her death.
Shinto rituals are performed for a new year, and also involve the Buddhist ritual of a successive ringing of a bell in Buddhist temples, with supernatural implications that leave behind concerns that have tormented humanity. The last ring occurs at midnight, enabling the start of a prosperous and joyous new year.
Buddhists have an annual Bon festival, traditionally to honor the spirits of one's deceased ancestors. It has developed into a family reunion holiday and community fair, with carnival rides, games and summer festival food.
Copyright © 2009-2013 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.