Beyond Primitivism: Indigenous Religious Traditions and Modernity

By Jacob K. Olupona | Go to book overview

Chapter 15

Popular religions and modernity in Japan

Michio Araki

As is often pointed out, one of the most important religious and social phenomena in modern Japan has been the gradual decline of the established religions of Buddhist sects and Shrine Shinto and the dramatic rise and development of many new religious movements having a strong influence on the cultural and religious life of Japanese people (Araki 1990, 1992). Japanese new religions, however, have been very little appreciated, partly because of the enlightenment policy of the modern imperial regime in Japan and its overall influence on Japanese culture and society, and partly because of modern Western concepts and images of religion that were introduced into modern Japanese universities, which in themselves were modeled after Western universities.

These new religions have thus often been ignored or dismissed as something less than religion, in spite of the fact that these new religions have been created and supported by the common people, have sustained the common people through existential life crises in an ever-changing culture and society, and are the creative transformations in the modern context of folk religious traditions with a long and important history. It is Japanese folk religion that both indigenized Buddhism, initially a foreign religion, and subtly influenced and gradually transformed Christianity in Japan. Folk religion is the very tradition that constitutes the underlying substratum of Japanese religion, running from archaic, prehistoric religion in Japan to the present. It is the organic vessel into which important, yet fragmented, elements of various historic religions have been received and transformed. Being closely linked with folk religion, Japanese new religions are thus of crucial importance for understanding all aspects of Japanese religion.

Understanding the full significance of Japanese new religions requires, however, a greater appreciation of the intentions they embody. New religions in modern times manifest their creativity under the identity of new “popular” religions. They are popular in that they emerged spontaneously from the lives of common people. Though born of folk religious traditions, the new religions manifest more coherent worlds of meaning than folk religion and aim, more or less clearly, at creating an egalitarian world and community. They thus aim to sustain and enhance the lives of common people who are alienated from the structure of the surrounding society, a structure in which the elite (including the state) and the folk, the rulers and the ruled, and the “haves” and the “have-nots” are divided in opposition. New religions envision and try to embody a world of relations beyond the divisions and hierarchical structure of society (Araki 1990). They are religions of the people in the sense that they are created by the people, sustained by the people, and are for the people. Even when they become entangled with the elite and state religion and seem not to be popular religions in actuality, they are still religions of the people in terms

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