Japanese Religions: Popular Religion

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In this article "popular religion" will be taken to include both "folk religion"by which is meant the diverse and at most only locally organized attitudes, beliefs, and practices that together constitute a people's customary observanceand popular or lay aspects of ecclesiastical bodies whose organization and solidarity transcend local boundaries. What is not included, then, is the religion promoted by elites such as priests, monks, and nuns, as well as by governments upon occasion, including the rites, beliefs, and theoretical systematizations that such elites officially promulgate or defend. It should be understood that in practice often no sharp line can be drawn between any of these categories. Even religious elites often exhibit "folk" behavior and attitudes not justified by official doctrines; similarly, mutual diffusion can occur between official doctrines and folk attitudes and practices. These distinctions, however, are presented for the convenience of the student of religion and culture; they are usually not a part of the thought patterns of religious practitioners themselves.

For the purposes of this article, Japanese history will be divided into the following periods:

Prehistoric and protohistoric645 ce
Classical (Asuka, Nara, Heian)6451185
Medieval (Kamakura, Ashikaga)11851600
Premodern (Tokugawa or Edo)16001868
Modern (Meiji, Taishō, Shōwa)1868present

Popular religion in Japan is composed primarily of elements that can be assigned Shintō or Buddhist origins, although elements deriving from Chinese folk religionusually labeled Daoistare also important, along with those of an elite Chinese tradition, Confucianism, and, more recently, aspects of Christianity. In addition, the term Shintō must be understood in its most inclusive sense, namely, as denoting all of the indigenous religious attitudes and practices of the Japanese people prior to the influence of Chinese civilization (roughly beginning in the sixth century ce), as well as those that evolved from these native traditions in later centuries. Shintō itself reached the more complex status of an elite tradition only at the beginning of the classical period, with the establishment of an official cult with imperial patronage and the eventual promulgation of an official mythology, codification of rituals, and establishment of a priestly hierarchy. Even during this time, however, popular Shintō continued largely unaffected by these elite events; further, official Shintō itself clearly was derived from the vast reservoir of folk practices that had regulated the religious lives of the Japanese people from time immemorial.

Indigenous Folk Religion

The fundamental religious concept of Shintō past and present is kami, a widely inclusive term embracing the notion of sacred power from a mana -like impersonal force inherent in all things and concentrated in the unusual, to personal and therefore godlike beings such as culture heroes, the geniuses of particular places or things, species deities, and ancestors. Originally there were two major ways of interaction with kami: through matsuri ("rituals") that sought either to receive the blessings of the sacred powers or to turn aside their wrath, or through shamanic séances using the method of kami possession (kamigakari ), by which the will of the kami could be made known through the oracular utterances of the shaman. Intermediate forms such as divination, omen reading, and oath swearing were also common. Although imperial recourse to miko (female shamans) is well documented in the legendary period, this element was largely lost to elite Shintō in the course of its development. Miko flourished among the common people, however, and have declined only in the modern period. On the other hand, public rituals, which take place at the thousands of Shintō shrines and mostly at regularly scheduled times throughout the year, have continued at all levels of Shintō.

An important class of kami were the ujigami, or ancestral deities of the large clans that came to dominate Japanese social, political, and religious organization in the protohistoric period; in modern times the ujigami survive at the village level, although without their former importance, as dozokushin. Indeed, the ujigami was probably the most important kami to the early Japanese; as high priest, the clan head needed the shamanic services of his wife to ensure that the will of this kami was carried out for the weal of all.

Probably the most important kami of popular religion has been Inari, the rice deity, whose shrines are found everywhere, even in modern urban settings. Although not a part of the official mythology, Inari became associated in later classical times with such mythic kami as Ugatama, the female kami of food and clothing; Sarutahiko, the monkey kami, whose special province was fecundity; and Ame no Uzume, the goddess who, through exposing her genitals in an ecstatic dance, wielded the feminine kami power to bring back the life-giving sun to a darkened and dying world. Such associations illuminate both the character of the folk deity Inari and the process by which popular religious elements were engrafted to the elite strata in Japan. Inari shrines still are places where farmers go to pray for abundant crops, but they are also places where both rural and urban dwellers pray for aid in conception, childbirth, and child rearing, as well as more generally for success in any endeavor.

The most famous Inari shrine is at Fushimi in the city of Kyoto, where the elaborate main shrine dedicated to the official cult is almost shouldered aside by the many popular shrines flanking the paths that meander about the mountain. Typical of the etiological tales associated with many shrines and temples is the legend that tells of the founding of Fushimi Inari shrine. In 711, many years before the founding of the capital at Kyoto, a nobleman was practicing archery by shooting at a ball of cooked rice tossed into the air. All at once the rice was transformed into a white bird that flew away and alighted at the peak of Mount Fushimi. There the nobleman built the shrine to the rice god.

Virtually all Inari shrines have statues of a pair of foxes flanking the main place of worship, a fact that illustrates syncretistic tendencies of popular religion. These foxes, now popularly understood to be the messengers of the rice god, or sometimes even identified with the god himself, were probably derived from popular Chinese lore concerning fox spirits. Certainly there exists in Chinese a large body of folk tales depicting the dangers of fox spirits, who usually take the form of a beautiful woman in order to seduce and ruin unsuspecting or weak-willed men. That these tales also have become naturalized in Japan discloses a much more general pattern of popular acceptance of Chinese cultural and religious elements; it also suggests the association of the fox as a symbol of sexual desire and Inari as a deity of fecundity and plenty.

Impact of Chinese Culture and Religion

At the beginning of the classical period Japan experienced a cultural revolution brought about by the assimilation of Chinese technical, philosophical, aesthetic, and religious elements. Buddhism took its place as a more or less equal partner with Shintō in the official structure of government and in the religious practice of the aristocracy. Confucianism was adopted as a theory of government and a guide to personal conduct. Daoism was used to provide a ritual structure and to assist both Shintō and Buddhist efforts to ensure the well-being of the nation. To be sure, this revolution began among the Japanese elite and for many years was largely confined to it. By the Nara period, however, despite the government's attempts to control its spread, Buddhism had begun to reach the common people. The famous Buddhist tale collection, Nihon ryōiki, which used the folktale genre as a means of converting the masses and of inculcating Buddhist virtues, was produced by a monk for use by popular Buddhist preachers. The Nara period also saw the paradoxical rise of the hijiri, or holy men, who were popular preachers and miracle workers whose activities were proscribed by the government on the grounds that they "misled" the people. While not all hijiri were Buddhist, most combined a Buddhist understanding of a bodhisattva 's compassion with a sometimes indiscriminate mixture of magico-religious practices in attempting to ameliorate the physical as well as the spiritual condition of the masses. The most famous of the hijiri was Gyōgi, whose elevation to the head of the official Buddhist hierarchy by Emperor Shomu in 745 expressed not only the pious emperor's desire to unify the nation under the banner of Buddhism, but also the growing recognition on the part of the elite of the popular forms of that religion.

Another result of Buddhist penetration at the popular level was reinforcement of native belief in malevolent spirits, known in the classical period as goryōshin. Buddhism gave such beliefs a strongly moralistic tone; previously, it was believed that kami power was concentrated in many kinds of beings, some of which were by their nature destructive. Now, however, destructive supernatural power could be understood as justified by human events. Just as motivation was discovered in the Buddhist psychology and its expression ensured by the law of karman, so did Buddhism present a new problem to the people. Goryōshin, as particularly the ghosts of humans who had been wronged in life, had to be propitiated or exorcised by Shintō rites and saved from their suffering by Buddhist prayers and priestly magic.

Medieval Popularization of Buddhism

The collapse of the classical social and political order, completed by the year 1185, not only brought on the medieval period of Japanese history but also resulted in the virtual destruction of official Shintō. To be sure, the imperial court continued to perform some of the old Shintō rituals in the name of the emperor and for the benefit of all the nation, but in fact these rites increasingly became the private cult of the imperial family and the ever more impoverished old aristocracy. But the relative decentralization of the times allowed a number of popular forms of Buddhism to become institutionalized independently of the old Buddhist schools. Among these, the Pure Land schools are especially noteworthy. These schools combined elite elements derived from monastic cults of the savior Buddha Amida (Skt., Amitābha) and popular practices of using Buddhist chanting to overcome evil influences. The so-called nembutsu hijiri had been at work among the common people throughout much of the classical period in healing and exorcising demons by chanting the Sino-Japanese phrase "Namu Amida Butsu" ("Hail to the Buddha Amitābha"). The Pure Land movement of the medieval period tended to convert this immediate concern for this-worldly problems to a concern for the ultimate salvation of the individual who, by complete faith in the power of Amida and by chanting of the Nembutsu, could be reborn at the end of this earthly life into the Buddhist paradise (the Pure Land).

It seems clear that neither major figure in the Pure Land movement, Hōnen (11331212) or his disciple Shinran (11731263), sought to found an independent Buddhist school. Instead, they were largely apolitical figures who intended to extend to the common people a share of Buddhist salvation hitherto reserved for monks. The result was a radical democratization and simplification of Buddhismin short a truly popular form of that religion. In these schools, monasticism was abolished, priests were expected to marry, and the old elite Buddhismwhat they called the Holy Path (shōdomōn )was rejected as selfish and arrogant. This popular Buddhism had become a religion of lay participation, congregational worship, and acceptance of the social and political status quo. The elite quest of sanctification, of personal transformation, and of enlightenment was out of reach of the ordinary person; instead of working toward the transformation of self as in the Holy Path, the Pure Land schools (called, by way of contrast, jōdomon, or Path of Pure Land) brought about the transformation of Buddhism into an instrument of salvation open to all.

Another way in which Buddhism accommodated itself to the popular mind can be seen in the rise of the yamabushi, or mountain ascetics, whose tradition goes back to the classical period. Both of the dominant schools of Buddhism in the Heian period, Tendai, headquartered on Mount Hiei, and Shingon, headquartered on Mount Koya, established adjunct orders of yamabushi. Of these, one that was allied to Shingon, Shugendō, has survived into the modern age. The members of the yamabushi orders were differentiated by their varying degrees of initiation into the group's mysteries. In addition, the yamabushi did not follow the Buddhist monastic rules: they were laymen who lived ordinary lives except for certain times of the year when they would gather to go on pilgrimages and conduct their own secret rites deep in their sacred mountains. A famous nō play by Zeami (Taniko ) depicts one of the Shugendo pilgrimages.

Belief in sacred mountains appears to be a native Shintō phenomenon in Japan, although both Daoism and Buddhism brought from China their own traditions of encountering the sacred among mountains, traditions that served to strengthen and sometimes modify indigenous attitudes. Mountains were the special abodes of the Daoist xian (Jpn., sennin ), or immortals, as well as the saints and recluses that the personalistic side of that tradition promoted. These traditions, especially in the form of popular tales, were brought to Japan, where they found ready acceptance, mixing with the native hijiri tradition. In the Heian period, the Buddhists, themselves influenced by the Daoist tradition, especially sought out remote mountains as sites for monasteries as well as for retreats and hermitages for meditation. In addition, several mountains, such as Ontake and Fuji, were thought by the laity to be the special abodes of bodhisattva s or the entryways to the afterlife. All these cases show traces of the old Shintō notion that austerities practiced in mountains were especially efficacious for gaining spiritual power. The yamabushi demonstrate this connection by their habit of making long and arduous hikes through the mountains and by ritual bathing in icy mountain streams. Many sacred mountains in Japan were gathering places for miko, who served the common people by contacting the spirits of the dead or of Shintō, Daoist, or Buddhist saints and deities who were believed to inhabit such places.

The association and even amalgamation of Shintō and Buddhism among the people was aided by the honjisuijaku ("essence-manifestation") theory first promulgated in the classical period by Buddhist monks using Chinese models. Almost from the beginning of the Buddhist presence in Japan the people had assumed that Buddhist figuressaints, bodhisattva s, celestial Buddhaswere related in some way to native Shintō deities. The honjisuijaku theory simply gave official sanction to this popular view by stating that specific native figures were but the manifestation of certain Buddhist figures who were their true essence. This tendency to amalgamation can also be recognized in the practice, documented from the Nara period, of building small Buddhist temples within the confines of Shintō shrines, and vice versa. Thus the Shintō kami (deities) could be served by Buddhist rites, while Buddhist figures could be worshiped through Shintō rites. Sometimes the Buddhist rites were understood as attempts to bring the kami to Buddhist enlightenment; alternatively, they were thought of as a Buddhist accommodation to the parochial Japanese mentality, which often preferred native forms. By the medieval period, many local shrines and temples were served by priests who were both Shintō and Buddhist, performing the rites according to the figure addressed. Often, yamabushi would marry miko and carry on local priestly functions as a team within this popular amalgamation of religions.

Domestic Piety and Ancestor Reverence

Even in the early twenty-first century most Japanese families have within the home both a Shintō kamidana ("god-shelf") and a Buddhist butsudan ("Buddhist altar"). At both, offerings of flowers and food are made from time to time and prayers are recited. Ancestral tablets will be found within the home, placed either in a special shrine or within the kamidana or butsudan according to the emphasis of the particular family. Theoretically, the Buddhist prayers are offered for the benefit of the departed, to aid them in their continuing postmortem quest for salvation in various hells or heavens or in rebirths in this world, while the Shintō prayers are acts of filial piety that address the spirits of the dead as present in the tablets, as still present family members who require service in death as in life. In practice, however, the popular mind often does not make such sharp distinctions.

An important example of attitudes toward the dead can be seen in the Obon festival, traditionally from the thirteenth to the sixteenth day of the seventh lunar month. Although its origins can be traced back even to pre-Buddhist Hindu ancestral cults, it clearly shows its folk Buddhist as well as Shintō colorations in Japan. Preparations for the festival include cleaning and decorating the butsudan and preparing special offerings there. Usually this is an occasion for the full cooperation of the dozōku in honoring its common ancestors. Fires are lit the first night before the door of each house as well as along the roads to the village to light the way of the dead, who are thought to return to the land of the living for these few days. The spirits are entertained in the home with food, gifts, and prayers, while in the village the entertainment takes the form of graceful dancing, the famous bon odori, of Shintō origin. During this time graves are visited and finally the spirits are sent off again with beacon fires.

Attitudes toward death among the Japanese people have been characterized by considerable ambivalance. On the one hand, the Shintō association of death with pollution or contamination has been strong from the first: touching, being in the presence of, or being kin to one who has just died make a person ritually unclean, requiring seclusion and ritual purification. A part of a larger and very ancient belief in the contagious nature of misfortune, this fear of the dead has resulted in a near monopoly of Buddhism in the conducting of funerals. On the other hand, much evidence, from prehistoric burial mounds as well as old Japanese poetry, attests to the continuing ties of affection and duty that the people maintained with the departed even in ancient times, while the continuing popularity of the Obon festival and of ancestral reverence in the home show that even today the continued presence of the dead, if properly handled through ritual, is still valued.

It should also be noted that Confucianism, another import from China, has played an important though amorphous role in promoting both ancestral reverence and family cohesion. From the beginning of the classical period the values of Confucian "familyism" were promoted by the government as the proper basis for a harmonious and prosperous nation. By the Tokugawa period Confucianism once again became an important philosophy of both government and personal life. Loyalty to the nation was one part of a value system that took the family as the model for all values. The native Japanese reverence for ancestors as well as for all loci of authority was thereby greatly reinforced.

Folk deities, often of mixed Shintō, Buddhist, and Daoist heritage, continue to be accorded some degree of reverence among the people. Kami of hearth, privy, and yard are still known, and, curiously in the modern world, deities or nameless powers of good or ill fortune remain popular. Some examples of these are Ebisu, the kami of good luck, having its origin among fishermen, Dōsojin, the kami of roads and gates and protector of children and of marital harmony, and Kōshin, a rather malevolent deity of Daoist origin whose calendar days, occurring once every sixty days throughout the year, are considered unlucky. Belief in lucky and unlucky days was greatly stimulated in classical times by onmyōji ("yin-yang masters"), who popularized Daoist ideas and promoted themselves as expert diviners and ritualists and who could discover in their books of astrology times and directions to avoid or to welcome in order to ritually protect one from the consequences of ill-considered actions. Modern fortune tellers continue this tradition and Shintō shrines usually have booths where fortunes are told and charms can be bought. These charms, or omamori, are usually blessed by the priests of a particular shrine.

Folk Tales as Expressions of Popular Religion

One important and often neglected expression of popular religion everywhere is the folk tale. Although in Japan as elsewhere this literary genre resists reduction to narrowly religious categories, in Japan especially many scholars have noted the close association of folk tale and popular religious sentiments. Many folk tales express deeply felt religious attitudes and values at variance with official codes set by ecclesiastical and governmental elites, yet many also reflect these more official views. Indeed, examples abound in which priests have made use of existing tales, either to create an official orthodoxy as in the construction of a mythology, or to teach certain religious values and behavior. In this latter category, the Buddhist use of folk tales in the Nihon ryōiki is an early example; later Shintō priests helped to invent the okagura dramas, which in part taught the old mythology to the masses at shrine festivals; similarly, the medieval Shintō-Buddhist world of ghosts and karmic retribution was combined with Zen-inspired aesthetics to create the famous nō dramas from folk tales and historical legends. In the Tokugawa period, popular pilgrimages, especially those to the great shrine dedicated to the sun goddess Amaterasu at Ise, spawned new tales of wonder, miracles, and divine retribution.

The well-known tale Hagoromo (The feather cloak), known in the West as The Swan Maiden, contributed significantly to the official mythology of Amaterasu, as well as to the Daijosai ritual, in which a new emperor is enthroned. Again, tales of Buddhist piety as found in the Konjaku monogatari collection of late classical times indicate both the power of Buddhist faith and charms sanctioned by elite religionone notes especially the long section depicting rewards both in this life and in lives to come for those with faith in the Hokekyō (Lotus Sūtra) and also an antinomian tendency that criticizes the faults and foibles of worldly clergy. A more purely folk phenomenon contained in these tales is the rejection of official unworldly values for such mundane goals as sexual fulfilment and the pursuit of wealth.

The greater portion of those folk tales that treat of supernatural phenomena have little to do with any official mythology, theology, or value system. To be sure, many promote such pan-Japanese values as loyalty, gratitude, and curbing of the appetites. However, the greatest number of tales as collected by professional folklorists in the twentieth century may be described as vaguely animistic in tone. The list of extrahuman powers and intelligences told of in such tales is very long and ranges from the ghosts of human beings to traditional kami, including many more fanciful entities such as the long-nosed tengu, hag-witches called yamauba, and mischievous fox-spirits. Not unusual are tales in which plants, especially trees, are endowed with powers that can cause much suffering among humans if insensitively treated. Perhaps the greatest error told of in these animistic tales is simply that of impiety: this world is a crowded place inhabited by myriads of powers, each of which the "good" man or woman treats with awe and respect, while the "bad" person ignores them to his or her peril.

Pilgrimage and Popular Drama

The rise of the pilgrimage as a popular form of religious expression can be traced to the sixteenth century, although the earliest Japanese literature shows that the aristocracy were wont to make journeys into sacred mountain fastnesses at least as early as the seventh century. It was not until the medieval period, however, that journeys to sacred sites, especially to Shintō shrines, became mass movements. The Ise Shrine, main cult center of Amaterasu, was the primary goal for the millions, mostly peasants, who undertook the often dangerous journey at the peak of the popularity of this phenomenon in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. A kind of frenzy, characterized by some as mass hysteria, caused many to drop their tools, abandon their domestic and economic responsibilities, and seek the abode of the kami. To be sure, motives were mixed, and nonreligious reasons such as a desire to break out of monotonous existence of toil must be considered. Still, popular tales of amulets mysterously falling from the sky, of healings, of misfortune to those who resisted or preached against the urge to participate in the pilgrimage, all powerfully reinforced the prevailing notion that it was the will of the kami that the people should pay their respects in this way.

It should also be pointed out that in the case of the Ise Shrine, these mass pilgrimages mark the last stage in a long history of slow democratization of the worship of Amaterasu. Originally, she was the ujigami of the imperial family and thus admitted only their exclusive worship. Apparently, her status as a national deity, always implied by her position as progenitor of the imperial lineage, had made of her a direct object of veneration for all in the course of a thousand years or more. It must also be noted that the outer shrine of Ise is dedicated to Toyouke, goddess of food and fertility, basic existential concerns of those close to the subsistence level of economy. From this point of view, the ritual pilgrimage, with its set forms of dress and gesture, its taboos and sometimes ecstatic dances, can be seen as a new means of carrying out village rites of cosmic renewal. The dangerous and rigorous journey was a long ascetic rite of abstinence and purification. The dancing (okage odori ) is homologizable to the dances that accompany village festivals such as bon odori, in which the deities and spirits of the dead are entertained, or again to the ecstatic trance-inducing dances of the miko who communicate with the deities in shamanic rites. Prayers at the shrine of destination, and the distribution of amulets by the attending priests, are also a part of village shrine festivals.

The rise of popular drama can be seen to some extent as a part of the same movement toward popularization of what had been the exclusive property of official Shintō, namely the mythology as set down in the early eighth century in the Kojiki and Nihonshoki. Okagura dramas enacted with music and dance the creation of the world by the primordial parents Izanagi and Izanami, the struggle between Amaterasu and her impetuous brother Susano-o, the descent to earth of the imperial grandchild Ninigi, and many other official mythic themes. As such, they represent a successful attempt on the part of the local Shintō priesthood to keep alive the old traditions by bringing them to the common people. The okagura became a part of many village festivals in the medieval period and gave rise to other dramatic forms, most notably the nō drama, which in particular achieved a high level of artistic sophistication. But okagura have remained popular phenomena, and still may be viewed today. Indeed, they offer a valuable opportunity to observe the blending of folk values and forms with classical elite forms and themes. There is a good deal of humor and even ribaldry in okagura, as well as a clear infusion of universal folk concerns that blend with the more solemn and particular mythic motifs.

Institutionalization of Popular Religion

It can be said with some confidence that by the middle of the Tokugawa period the pattern of folk religion that can still be observed in village Japan had been established. The pattern bears two features that may at first sight seem contradictory: first is the high degree to which religious elements of disparate origin have become intermixed; second is the conspicuous division of labor among various religious institutions. This latter is expressed in the common formula that the Japanese are born and married by Shintō rites, buried by Buddhist rites, and live their everyday lives by Confucian principles. Yet both these features seem to stem from a single source, namely, a very pragmatic tendency among the Japanese people: they take those elements that seem immediately useful, employing them in a contextual framework all their own.

Another pattern that has emerged with special clarityprobably the result of Japan's relative isolationis the process of interaction between elite and popular levels of religion. Within the long history of religion in Japan modern scholarship has been able to document much of the process through which elite elements are imposed upon or otherwise assimilated by the folk. Less well known is the reverse, in which folk elements are taken up into existing elite cultural strata or are institutionalized into what are often intermediate forms. Such popular movements often become church-like institutions with more or less clear hierarchical organization and geographical boundaries that go beyond the local arena. Beginning perhaps with the yamabushi movements of the Heian period, continuing in the medieval popular Buddhist movements of the Nichiren and Pure Land schools, and still continuing into the modern period with the celebrated burgeoning of the so-called new religions (shinkō shūkyō ), the religious institutions that have resulted have tended to combine simplified versions of old elite traditionsespecially of monastic Buddhism and court Shintōwith popular values that center upon social interaction in this world and the maintenance of domestic health and prosperity.

The Shintō new religion Tenrikyō was founded in the nineteenth century by Nakayama Miki after she was possessed by several kami, who, in the old way of Japanese shamanism, spoke through her while she was in a trance. In the course of these possessions a new mythology was revealed that, while similar in many respects to the old classical Shintō cosmogonic myth, shows striking differences from it. Present are the familiar primordial parents, and many lesser episodes concerning the creation of life are common to both; conspicuous by their absence, however, are references to Amaterasu and her brother, the central characters of the old mythology. Also absent is the entire mythic apparatus that supported the imperial institution. The classical mythology was a seventh-century creation that took many fragmented clan traditions and worked them into a drama of the establishment and legitimization of the classical religious and political order. Nakayama is more concerned, however, with domestic values. The kami of Tenrikyō are called divine parents; humans are their children. The good and correct life is led in humble recognition of this most fundamental relationship; hence the cardinal virtues are loyalty, obligation, and gratitude. Diseases and all other misfortunes are caused by insensitivity to this basic parent/child (oya-ko ) relationship. Specific cultic duties consist largely of participation in ritual dancing and in group activities such as shrine building and works of charity.

Another example, this time from the Buddhist tradition, can be seen in Sōka Gakkai (Value Creating Society), founded in 1937 by Makiguchi Tsunesaburō (18711944) and Toda Jōsei (19001958). Makiguchi was a schoolteacher who, during the difficult decades of economic hardship and increasing totalitarian repression in the 1920s and 1930s, developed a philosophy of life he called sōka, meaning "value creation." Initially his views seem to have been largely secular, although they borrowed heavily from Buddhist metaphysics in their fundamental insight into the relativity of all values (at least in the mundane sphere) and the necessity of overcoming dependence upon false absolutes. Only gradually did this view take on a more traditional Buddhist coloration. Eventually, however, through the efforts especially of Toda, Sōka Gakkai became affiliated with Nichiren Shōshū, one of the smaller branches of Nichiren Buddhism. Toda admired much of the Nichiren tradition, especially its unusual intolerance of other religions, its simple and straightforward rituals, its demand of absolute faith in ritual objects, in its founder, and in its sacred text (the Lotus Sūtra ), and, perhaps more than anything else, the quasi-military hierarchical organization of the sect.

Now disaffiliated from Nichiren Shōshū, Sōka Gakkai calls itself a lay Buddhist organization; technically, it has no priests, its leaders remaining laymen. The society has been a tremendous success, with membership numbering in the millions. Typical of the new religions, and consistent with its origins, it stresses immediate attainment of all worldly goals and interprets the ancient Buddhist goal of enlightenment as something closely akin to "happiness." The mental culture of such a worldview is maintained through intense small group meetings that are partly testimonials, partly study sessions. Its very simplicity, as well as its emphasis on mundane problems and upon group solidarity, all have contributed to the success of this popular religion in meeting the needs of many Japanese in the modern industrial world, which constantly threatens to overwhelm them with anomie and rootlessness. Salvation is here and now, and the conviction of it is strongly reinforced by group rituals.

Another and very different new religion, Aum Shinrikyō, sought to mix the characteristic this-worldly emphasis of other popular religious movements and an elitist monastic organization with its goal of individual salvation. As extensive interviews of past and continuing members conducted by Murakami Haruki show, this group also appealed to those out of step with the increasingly socially atomized modern Japanese society, but added an unusual rejection of that society's also rampant materialism. Granted official status by the Japanese government in 1989, Aum later became notorious for its engineering of the sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway in 1995. Seeking to fill a spiritual void in their lives, its members unfortunately gave themselves over to the guidance of a charismatic but psychologically unstable and increasingly paranoid master who called himself Asahara Shōkō. Before the destructive aspect of this group was generally known, their proselytizing efforts by means of the distribution of pamphlets and the sale of books, as well as small group meetings, met with some success, especially among younger people. Its core was made up of as many as three thousand "renouncers," or samana, while considerably more of the less committed contributed money and studied the founder's books and sermons while passing through a series of initiations derived loosely from Vajrayāna Buddhism. Initially Asahara conceived the group's mission to be prevention of nuclear holocaust through the power of yogic meditation undertaken by increasing numbers of practitioners, which practice could also lead to the individual achievement of nirvāa. Eventually a broader apocalyptic vision emerged, which some scholars believe was influenced by science fiction as much as by any traditional religious ideas, whether eastern or western. The gas attack was apparently an attempt to bring about an end to the present hateful age, seen to be a jumble of meaningless ideas and threatening powers. The Aum group would become a surviving remnant, ready to rebuild the world as a utopian community. Thus did mass murder become a means of saving humankind.

See Also

Amaterasu Ōmikami; Amitābha; Ancestors; Buddhism, article on Buddhism in Japan; Buddhist Religious Year; Confucianism in Japan; Domestic Observances, article on Japanese Practices; Drama, article on East Asian Dance and Theater; Foxes; Gyōgi; Hijiri; Hōnen; Honjisuijaku; Kami; New Religious Movements, article on New Religious Movements in Japan; Nianfo; Onmyōdō; Pilgrimage, article on Buddhist Pilgrimage in East Asia; Shinran; Shintō; Shugendō; Sōka Gakkai; Tenrikyō; Xian.


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Yanagita Kunio, ed. Japanese Folklore Dictionary. Translated by Masanori Takatsuka and edited by George K. Brady. Lexington, Ky., 1958.

Alan L. Miller (1987 and 2005)

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Japanese Religions: Popular Religion

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