Japan's New Spirituality

By Lamont-Brown, Raymond | Contemporary Review, August 1999 | Go to article overview

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. …

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