Religion gets personal

February 9, 2008

Japanese attitudes toward religion have often been considered something of a paradox–most Japanese consider themselves nonreligious but still visit religious facilities. In this installment of the “Currents” series, The Daily Yomiuri examines what religion means to the Japanese.

In a sun-filled, spacious “house” replete with refined European furniture, the former beauty queen’s grandchildren sang the heartwarming “Shiki no Uta” (Song of Four Seasons), the family’s favorite song. The family watched home videos, often chuckling as they recalled lighthearted moments and events that had slipped from memory over the years.

It was a pleasant family gathering on a pleasant day. And as they said their final goodbyes to the 88-year-old woman, her funeral came to an end.

Rather than following traditional funeral rituals, her relatives had opted for a more personal ceremony that they thought reflected the closeness of the family.

Witnessing this funeral service four years ago convinced Kenichi Nitto, the general manager of funeral company Kansai Shinseikatsu Gojokai, that he had been right to foresee a growing demand for such personalized rites in which families have more input in the proceedings.

When Nitto entered the funeral business about 30 years ago, he took it for granted that Buddhist rituals would be an integral part of any funeral. But when Nitto looked ahead to his own funeral, he realized he wanted a personal ceremony with a more homey feel that would assuage his family’s grief.

The result was Memorial House Keyakinomori funeral hall in Sanda, Hyogo Prefecture. Furnished with a stylish bathroom, beds, a kotatsu and even a kitchen, Keyakinomori is a far cry from the conventional funeral halls where Buddhist monks chant sutra before a wooden altar adorned with rows of chrysanthemums and other flowers.

Funerals held there since it opened in 2003 have catered to personal preferences and often are largely free of religious influence.

“More and more people are stepping away from the preconception that funerals require monks,” Nitto said. “At first, we were very worried whether people would accept such an extraordinary idea. But it turned out to be just what people wanted.”

Many Japanese people still associate funeral services with Buddhism. But this religion–in its original form–did not attach much importance to funeral services.

Instead, Shintoism–the indigenous religion of Japan–has influenced funeral traditions and rituals, said Sachiya Hiro, who has written many books on religion.

“Today’s funerals are actually shaped by Shintoism,” Hiro said. “Buddhism doesn’t have a conventional role in funerals. Buddhist thinking follows that whatever happens after people die should be left alone.”

Buddhism came to play a big part in funeral services in Japan in the late Edo period (1603-1867) at the politically motivated instruction of the shogunate. Before that, community leaders had conducted rituals in accordance with Shinto-influenced customs when a member of their community died.

In an attempt to stamp out Christianity, the shogunate required all families to register with a temple and placed the Buddhist institution in charge of ritual care of the dead. With the funeral being such an important Christian rite, the shogunate could deduce that anyone who did not follow the Buddhist service after death was likely to be a Christian.

“The monks were ordered to conduct funerals for common people. Until then they had never arranged such rituals,” Hiro said. “So they simply copied the rituals they had performed for funerals of their fellow monks.”

The practice of giving kaimyo–posthumous names to go to the spirit world–also spread to commoners at this time, according to Hiro.

After the sweeping reforms led by the GHQ of the Allied Occupation of Japan after World War II, temples were stripped of the income from their large land holdings, and had little option but to rely on funerals or anniversary memorial services as a way of generating revenue, he said. About the only other recourse available was to transform themselves into tourist attractions to stay afloat.

As illustrated by the services offered at Keyakinomori, however, a growing number of people are opting for funerals that they feel better accommodate their personal preferences.

A quiet change is also afoot in funeral practices.

Since the early 1990s, the practice of scattering ashes, called sankotsu, which was not uncommon before the Edo period, has gained growing acceptance, particularly among people uncomfortable with the manner and cost of conventional funerals and those who do not want to burden their family with the responsibility of looking after an ancestral tomb. For example, the Grave-Free Promotion Society, a nonprofit organization, has performed such “natural funerals” for more than 2,200 people on nearly 1,300 occasions since 1991.


Changing perceptions?

Recent trends indicate a diluted embrace of organized religion with regard to funerals, but what about Japanese consciousness of religion overall?

In recent years, more and more Japanese have considered themselves nonreligious. According to a 2005 Yomiuri Shimbun survey, 75 percent of respondents said they did not really believe in any religion.

But scholar Tetsuo Yamaori brushes off the argument that Japanese are nonreligious, saying Japanese simply do not follow specific faiths in the same way as followers of monotheistic faiths. He blames the post-Meiji education system’s fixation with modernization for causing the Japanese to misunderstand their indigenous religion.

Since the reintroduction of Western religions shaped intellectuals in the Meiji era (1868-1912) and influenced the definition of the term “religion,” Japanese have fallen into the habit of viewing their indigenous faith from the viewpoint of monotheistic religions such as Christianity, which believe there is only one god, said Yamaori, a professor emeritus of the International Research Center for Japanese Studies.

“For more than 100 years, we have identified our own faith through the framework of monotheistic religions,” he said. “We’ve come to think that our own religion is primitive and less sophisticated and it’s not what a religion should be.”

According to Yamaori, Japanese religion is polytheistic and tolerant of other religious beliefs, and evolved around nature worship, which he calls season religion, and the concept of “mu,” or nothingness.

Japanese people have long appreciated seasonal change, such as the blooming of cherry blossoms or the arrival of autumn foliage, and sensed the existence of many gods in nature. At the same time, Japan’s vulnerability to natural disasters cultivated feelings of awe toward the environment. Tenets of Buddhist belief, such as that nothing remains unchanged and everyone that is born must die, fit snugly with this sentiment.

The claim that many Japanese are nonreligious seems to come unstuck when one considers the number that still feel a connection to religious sites.

In the 2005 Yomiuri survey, more than 80 percent of respondents said they had visited a shrine, temple or church at some time during the past year. The survey also found many seek divine help when trouble strikes. And just last month, the National Police Agency said 98.2 million people visited shrines or temples across the country in the first three days of 2008–the highest number since 1974.

This paradox–in which many Japanese regard themselves nonreligious but still visit religious facilities–has intrigued observers.

“If you are looking at the cognitive dimension of religion where you’re focusing on belief, it seems Japanese are rather less religious than, say, Americans,” said Mark Mullins, a professor of Japanese religion and society at Sophia University. “But if you look at ritual behavior and participation, all of a sudden, the population is actually fairly religious.

“You might say [hatsumode and doing things relating to the family and graves of ancestors] is just a custom. That may be, but they are going to a sacred place,” he said.

Mullins added that this kind of practice, however, only rarely translates into exclusive commitment or belonging to one religious organization, with survey research revealing that just under 10 percent of Japanese claim to belong to a religious organization.


Revival of spiritualism

Japanese culture, society and civilization have been predicated on religious beliefs, yet many Japanese have drifted away from these beliefs as negative images of organized religion have put down deep roots.

Many religious scholars say the 1995 subway sarin attack carried out by the Aum Supreme Truth cult accentuated negative attitudes and suspicions about religion, leading to what has been dubbed a Japanese “allergy” to organized religion.

However, Japanese religious behavior does not necessarily correspond to their cognitive-level beliefs.

Many people seem to be seeking alternative ways to find solace or peace of mind–on a spiritual level.

Fumio Kaneki of Yokohama travels to the trendy Tokyo district of Nishi-Azabu on Monday evenings. Shopping and a fancy dinner are not on his mind: rather, Kaneki makes his way to the heart of one of the world’s busiest capitals to find some quiet and peace of mind. Tucked away down a quiet side street, Chokokuji temple offers zazen meditation sessions.

“I’ve been coming here for about 20 years,” the 75-year-old said. “At first I would drop in after a day at the office, just to recharge my batteries.”

According to Shobo Shimizu, who is in charge of zazen at Chokokuji, the temple provides the sessions in the evening so people can come and unwind for an hour or two after work. When The Daily Yomiuri visited Chokokuji last month, about 65 people were attending the session. On average, about 40 to 70 people aged from their 20s to their 70s take part each week, with some coming from as far away as Saitama and Chiba prefectures, Shimizu said.

Naoki Kashio, Keio University associate professor, said spirituality is nothing new to Japanese.

“Spirituality has been at the core of religion since ancient times. But existing religions are no longer doing very well at inducing this sense of spirituality in people,” Kashio said. “Yet people still want to believe in the existence of a higher being and feel a connection with something intangible.”

In 2004, Kashio and some fellow researchers launched a Web site called “Spiritual Navigator,” aimed at improving understanding of religion. The site mainly attracts people in their 20s and 30s and receives 1 million hits a month.

Kashio’s assertion that people have a craving for a spiritual connection is being borne out by a recent spiritual boom.

Take, for example, spiritual counselor Hiroyuki Ehara, who has achieved almost rock-star status, appearing regularly on TV and in magazines. His books have sold more than 9 million copies, and the popularity of his late-night TV show saw it shifted to a prime-time slot.

“There are still people who are seekers for some kind of meaning or some kind of practice that makes life worth living or manageable,” Mullins said. “I think this reflects a new individualism and volunteerism in Japanese religiosity, more experimentation outside of institutional religion.”

(Feb. 9, 2008)

Hakuno stops Asa/ Beats fellow yokozuna for 6th Emperos’s Cup
Asashoryu hits the dirt after being thrown to defeat by fellow yokozuna Hakuho in the final bout of the New Year Grand Sumo Tournament. The win earned Hakuho the first Emperor’s Cup of 2008.

In probably the most important bout of his short but illustrious sumo career, yokozuna Hakuho beat Asashoryu on Sunday to win the first Emperor’s Cup of 2008.

It was Hakuho’s third straight makuuchi division championship, but those victories had taken place with Asashoryu absent, suspended for playing hooky from a regional tour in the summer.

Throughout the second week of the New Year Tournament, the 22-year-old Hakuho had faced questions about how he would match up against his fellow Mongolian, a 21-time Emperor’s Cup winner who had beaten him 10 times in 15 career meetings.

Hakuho’s response on Sunday was to throw Asashoryu to the dirt to win the sixth Emperor’s Cup of his career.

“Since the summer tour, I’ve been working really hard for this bout,” Hakuho said ringside after he had received the cup from Japan Sumo Association chairman Kitanoumi.

“I didn’t want to lose to a yokozuna who was coming back [from an absence]. I didn’t want to let down my supporters–their expectations were very high.

“Of course, now I want to go for four in a row.”

There is no reason Hakuho can’t, although the smart money is on Asashoryu coming back strong after he was bested in a contest of two immensely proud men.

The two yokozuna refused to back down as they prepared for the bout, and once it started, lived up to their rank.

Hakuho was always on the attack but as with everyone who faces Asashoryu, had trouble turning that into victory.

A double-handed belt grip gave Hakuho a chance to force Asa to the bales, but Asa had the same grip on Hakuho’s belt and fought back, returning the contest to the middle of the ring.

Hakuho attacked again, forcing both into Asa’s side of the ring. Asa’s response was to lift his younger compatriot into the air, but it was an empty gesture. When Hakuho touched down, he started a left-hand, overarm throw that seemed to happen in slow motion before Asashoryu somersaulted to defeat.

Asashoryu’s performance over 15 days confirmed his recovery from the stress-related illness that left him a shadow of his former self in the summer. Sunday’s loss and a Day 2 reversal to No. 1 maegashira Kisenosato aside, the yokozuna swept aside every wrestler he met in the ring.

The rest of the day’s action paled in comparison to the final bout at the Ryogoku Kokugikan, but there was still more than pride on the line for some wrestlers.

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