Religion Finds Fallow Fields in Japan Today; 'Not a Lot of Interest' after Aum case.(WORLD)(BRIEFING: PACIFIC RIM)

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), December 27, 2002 | Go to article overview

Religion Finds Fallow Fields in Japan Today; 'Not a Lot of Interest' after Aum case.(WORLD)(BRIEFING: PACIFIC RIM)


Byline: Julia Duin, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

TOKYO - While former nightclub musician Marre Ishii, 37, whaled away at the piano, a backup six-piece band belted out ear-splitting tunes and about 50 Japanese young people dressed in a variety of punk-style costumes lifted their hands and clapped.

They were at Committed Japan, a youth-oriented church that uses rock music, evangelizes through a nearby cafe and sells its conferences, CDs and books.

Unhappy with traditional Japanese churches that average only 35 worshippers per Sunday, Mr. Ishii began his own church in September 1995 with four persons in an apartment. Now Committed Japan oversees a network of small churches and Bible-study groups numbering 170 persons.

"Japanese people are seeking hope," said Mr. Ishii, lounging in the church-owned Kick Back Cafe in a western Tokyo suburb. Those who fail to attain it, he added, may wind up throwing themselves in the path of a commuter train.

His church has an ingredient that is rare in Japan today: religious conviction. Although Japanese marry with native Shinto ceremonies, mourn their dead in Buddhist rites, and some worship as Christians, Muslims or other religions, public discourse is hardly influenced by theocentric concerns.

Mark Mullins, who teaches comparative religion at Sophia University in downtown Tokyo, says most Japanese avoid religion.

"Since the Aum incident, there's been a huge fallout," he said, referring to the March 1995 sarin-gas attack on the Tokyo subway system by adherents of Aum Shinrikyo - an apocalyptic group of Shiva worshippers founded by "Venerated Master Shoko Asahara" (born Chizuo Matsumoto in 1955) - that killed 12 persons and sickened more than 5,000.

"Now religion is connected with violence and considered dangerous. Before the Aum incident, you'd see religious groups handing out materials at the train stations. That has disappeared. There's not a lot of interest in religion, period."

Nobutaka Inoue, a professor of Japanese culture at Kokugakuin University in Tokyo, also faults the Aum incident for dampening interest.

"For the younger generation, religion is a little bit dangerous," he said. "They may believe in God or spiritual beings, but belonging to an actual group is another matter. Young people see religious people as overly concerned with money or involved with scandal."

This is not to say that the Japanese aren't spiritual: Memorials to aborted fetuses at Buddhist temples such as Hase-Kannon temple in Kamakura, dedicated to the goddess of mercy, and Zojo-ji in Tokyo testify that this is a people who believe strongly in the soul and some form of life after death.

"People will drop by the Meiji Shrine on New Year's," said Mr. Mullins, referring to the country's best-known Shinto sanctuary, "but they don't go anywhere where people will know them. You have a growth of anonymous religious behavior in Japan. ... Japan has always had an eccentric religious environment."

Shinto ("the way of the gods"), Japan's indigenous religion, dates to prehistoric times and has no founder or scripture. It concerns harvest and fertility, emperor worship and birth ceremonies. State Shinto, a mixture of religion and patriotism, was the force that propelled many to sacrifice their lives for the emperor during World War II.

Confucianism, the next-oldest religion, has been in Japan since A.D. 404. Most followers of this religion took up Buddhism, which came via Korea sometime around A.D. 600.

Christianity was brought to Japan in 1549 by Francis Xavier, founder of the Roman Catholic Society of Jesus (Jesuits). Rivalry with other Catholic missionary groups, and later with Dutch Protestants, for Japanese converts and influence led to restrictions on Christianity in 1612 and a nationwide ban two years later. Japanese Christians were persecuted under the rule of the Tokugawa shoguns and went underground until 1873, when religious sanctions were withdrawn under the Meiji imperial government. …

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