Japan's New Spirituality
Lamont-Brown, Raymond, Contemporary Review
There is a new spirituality abroad in Japan: a spirituality based on true harmony within society. In a nation which, through such activities as ikebana (flower arranging) and bijutsu (fine arts), has strived to bring harmony between humanity, culture and nature the new inspiration is a strange entity. Yet this spirituality shows the Western observer that it was not harmony that the Japanese succeeded in engendering in the past but uniformity. Out of that uniformity the Western observer built the belief that, to quote one, 'the Japanese are like mindless worker ants'. The new spirituality now offers the concept of 'true harmony' that gives the Japanese a fresh flexibility of mind that they are rediscovering how to use.
The roots of the modern trends of Japanese spirituality are to be found in associations of the shin shukyo (new religions). By definition Japan's 'new religions', of which there are currently in excess of three thousand with a membership of thirty to forty million people, are those which have been founded since 1800. They exist outside the administrative and philosophical structures of what is known as otera (temple) Bukkyo (Buddhism) and jinja (shrine) Shinto, 'The Way of the Gods', which in pre-war days was redefined as a 'State institution'. Many of the new religions incorporate elements of the two main religions and are interlarded with such practices as Confucianism, folk religion, shamanism, ancestor-worship, animism, and curiously Shinkyo (Protestantism) and Katorikku (Catholicism).
Japan was always a prime candidate in the spread of new religions. Although bustling modem Japan has consistently given the West the belief that it is an economy-run secular society, its financial denizens regularly make time to have their new cars blessed at Shinto or Buddhist ceremonies; while its students give credence to the Taoist god Jurojin, deity of wisdom and education, to guide them in examinations. Jurojin is one of the Shichi Fukujin (Seven Gods of Good Luck) whose amulets and talismans are highly sought after in secular Japan's common pursuit of supernatural intervention in life's happenings. Add to all this the fact that Japan has probably the world's most myriad festivals, from the Dezome-Shiki (Fireman's Parade) of January to December's Omisoka (Great Last Day Festival), and you have a society ultra-receptive to new ideas of spirituality.
All of the new religions stem from three individual formations which are categorised by years of establishment. During 1800-68 Kurozumikyo (1814), Tenriko (1838 - 'The Teaching of Heavenly Truth') and Konkokyo (1858) emerged in the areas of some prosperity in western Japan. They took up doctrines of a Shinto-nature and in their early days fostered devotees that were chugi-na (loyal) and 'service' orientated to humankind as expressed through Kami ni tsukaeru (devotion to the gods). By the 1920s and 1930s, a fresh evolution of new religions appeared with Reiyukai Kyodan (1921-25), Seicho no ie (1929) and Soka Gakkai (1930). Both Reiyukai and Soka Gakkai were Buddhist in thought, but out of Seicho no ie came a belief that all creeds were linked and that the whole could benefit from such practices as meditation, spiritualism and even psycho-analysis. After the War a fresh burgeoning of new religious thought was evident as the restriction of the militarist government's 'thought police' disappeared. Out of the post-war relief that persecution of belief had gone, revivals of pre-war associations developed into such new religions as Perfect Liberty Kyodan, Sekai Kyusai Kyo, and Tenshokotai Jungukyo.
One of the newest of these developments is Agonshu (1978) with its own special Tanabata Matsuri (Star Festival), in February at Kyoto. Based on the belief that everyday problems stem from the machinations of sad spirits of the dead, these are placated at the festival, where spiritual counselling and teaching feature.
All of these have added such aspects as 'religion is art', faith healing, and a re-emphasis on ancestor worship to the birth of a new spirituality. It is within the new religions too, that fresh thinking towards human problems is to be found, as well as a penchant for a world view. Out of them has come in recent times concern for women's issues and the need for a 'listening ear' to provide meaningful outlets for new ideas on spirituality.
Who are the most receptive to the new wave of spirituality? Fundamentally devotees are seeking to reaffirm what can be called traditional Japanese values which offer them a sense of stability and continuity. Yet there is a greater subtlety of need. To understand this a comprehension of how the new religions organise themselves is necessary. The largest and most prestigious, and therefore powerfully influential, of the new religions have evolved an organisational structure that assesses and fulfills the needs of its members. Quite a few administer their own hospitals, nursery, elementary and high schools, with the Soka Gakkai religion, for instance, having its own university and media services. Soka Gakkai too, offers a complete range of social and cultural pursuits for members of all ages.
A straw poll of adherents shows that they tend to be self-employed, small business owners and their employees, and women far outnumber men. What they have in common is that they are outside the social grouping of those who earn corporate gekkyu - the Japanese 'salaryman' concept. Thus they do not have the foundation of the chain of - high school/crammer/university/multinational employment/possible job for life - links which make up Japan's corporate 'prestige factors'. The energy that many of the new religions' devotees would have put into achieving the trio for Japan's prestige factors to be winners in the nation's mainstream society - meisei (fame); ishin (credit); and iko (influence) - is now channelled into the doctrinal studies that underscore the new spirituality. Herein is one of the main causes why achieving the new spirituality appeals to women; for even on the threshold of the 21 st century the accomplishments of women in Japan's society are still curtailed. Unlike Shinto and Buddhism (or Christian sects) with their hierarchy of priests, the new religions are dual-gender lay-centred organisations offering ordinary members a chance to play leading roles in whatever ritual is subscribed. Some new religions even promote women as the 'spiritual parents' to those neophytes studying the new doctrines.
How is the new 'spirituality perceived? For every new religion there has developed a new doctrine. This leads to an immense diversity of thought, yet there is a single thread which runs through all the thousands of new religions. It concerns the 'self' (in the context of Japanese 'myself' - Watashi jishin de) in affiliation with society, nature, the kami (gods) and their world of the supernatural. The healthiest state of the self is deemed to be through moral excellence which leads to the best individual spirituality. To gain this end - the healthy state of the self - self-cultivation is the key based on seven core values of Yamato damashii (Japanese spirit) which are deemed to produce the spiritually healthy person. These values are defined as producing someone who is seijitsu-na (sincere), chugi-na (loyal), kanson-na (unassuming), kimben-na (diligent) and full of kyoyo (refinement) and koko (filial piety) and with a finely honed emman (harmony between people). Tenrikyo specifically avers that spiritual strength comes through a cheerful attitude to life and that to rid existence of disharmony and misfortune the pursuit of a new spirituality by banishing 'bad thought' is a key. Thus this new spirituality would show that illness in its broadest sense, physical and mental, is a product of being out of harmony with the core values.
How is the new spirituality attained in modem Japan? For many, the achievement of spiritual regeneration is to take part in a section of the '88 Temple Pilgrimage Route'. It begins at Ryonzen-ji, on the Japanese main island of Shikoku, and the pilgrimage was introduced in honour of the Shingon (True Word) sect founder-scholar Kukai (724-835), who was later known as Kobo Daishi. To complete the pilgrimage, at twenty-five kilometres per day, would take sixty days, a tour of spiritual regeneration available generally only for the wealthy or retired; so most 'regenerators' speed things up by car and bus.
Armed with a kongo-tsue, a wooden staff of five foot length symbolising the founder Kukai, the junrei (pilgrim) - or henro to use the local name - sets off kitted out in travelling clothes and short white tunic. Each day of pilgrimage, from 7am to 5pm for travel, has its ritual of meals, reception at the sacred place, rest, bathing and the daily spiritual soaking of the mind in the divine and cultural richness of whatever site you happen to visit.
The seeking of spirituality through communing with nature and pilgrimage has many variations. For instance, devotees come to the Valley of the Kiso River, in the main island of Honshu's Nagano Prefecture, where for centuries the Ontake-kyo, worshippers of the god of sacred volcano Mt. Ontake, have devoted time to immerse themselves in an ancient religious cult belief which blends shamanism with Shinto, and animism with Buddhism. All around is scattered a petrified rosary of reijin-no-hi, the rough-hewn 'god stones'.
There are many who combine their new spirituality with politics. This is not a new concept in Japan, for religion and politics to step out together, as Shinto was hijacked by the military before the War for their own political ends. Today members of the new religions-based spiritual regenerations tend to be both socially and politically conservative. Again there is a contemporary trend for such member groupings to be more selective of their choice of candidates to support, eschewing those who have been associated with perceived malpractice, ethical or moral impropriety. One such group, the Risshokosekai, with its five million members have a not inconsiderable influence on Japan's political life. One party too, that has had a significant hegemony is the Komeito (Clean Government Party). Founded in 1964, it is the political wing of Soka Gakkai. In the current political climate in Japan, Komeito, which for so long was one non-Socialist home for anti-Jiyuminshuto (Liberal Democratic Party) ruling party government, has alienated even its fanatically loyal supporters with opportunistic policies.
Others seek spiritual truths in Japan's ancient past, enthusiasts asking such questions as: 'where did the Japanese come from?' with research programmes which go back as far as the Jomon period (10,000BC-300BC), when the 'proto-Japanese' began to emerge. The new spirituality is encouraging more people to see that such old Japanese texts as the Kojoki (Record of Ancient Matters) and the Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan) which date from the eighth century, are no more than books of myths. Indeed before Japan's New Constitution of 1946 these texts were promoted as facts.
Christianity remains a marginal component of Japan's religious sphere and in post-war days Japanese Christians have largely concerned themselves with social welfare aspects of their milieu. Observers should not be misled into thinking that Christianity has much influence in Japan, despite the nation's devotion to Kurisumasu (Christmas) or weddings in the Christian style. As Christian groups tend to be devoted elites they have little or no effect on the new spirituality. Nevertheless a few high-profile Christians like the best-selling Roman Catholic writer Shusaku Endo have done much to express Christian spirituality in Japanese style.
Because they were brought up during an era of rapid economic growth, with no memories of totalitarian militarism, war, shortages or unremitting making do, young people are looking at the new spirituality in a different way from their parents. Their spirituality tends to be the pursuit of 'meaning of life', 'life after death', and 'reincarnation' - questions that have remained dormant in the minds of the young for decades, although they were fundamental aspects of Japan's earliest religious history. Young people are attracted by a pursuit of a 'higher self' wherein is to be found a race-memory of all Japanese wisdom of the past, which when channelled can help with understanding the present. Herein is thought to dwell the secret of spiritual growth. In the 1990s then, it has been popular for young people to interpret a new spirituality through 'channelling' sessions to achieve this 'higher self' whether it has been through aromatherapy or a kind of spiritualism popular in Victorian times. Again seven out of ten devotees are women.
A 'listening ear' to the new spirituality in Japan is creating a sense of dynamism that is proving very attractive to modem Japanese. The new spirituality, too, is offering individuals confidence in confronting, and coping with, personal problems; and on a more overtly religious level, there is the bonus of achieving happiness and salvation. Through spiritual counselling and teaching the opening of the 'listening ear' is likely to achieve a positive promotion of social welfare in Japan.
'Japan's New Spirituality' is the first part of our series on Japan Today by Japanologist, author and broadcaster Raymond Lamont-Brown.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Japan's New Spirituality. Contributors: Lamont-Brown, Raymond - Author. Magazine title: Contemporary Review. Volume: 275. Issue: 1603 Publication date: August 1999. Page number: 70+. © 1999 Contemporary Review Company Ltd. COPYRIGHT 1999 Gale Group.
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