Is organized religion in Japan, including the country's most venerable Buddhist institutions, on a path of no return? A respected business weekly in circulation since 1895, the Weekly Toyo Keizai (Shūkan Tōyō Keizai), published a leading article, titled “The Crisis of Disappearing Religions” (宗教消滅危機), about the declining role of religions in Japan and their potential disappearance – or at least irrelevance – in the coming. The article is dated June 10.
This comprehensive 32-page article in the business weekly, aimed at executives, entrepreneurs and investors, describes how a "life or death struggle" is unfolding within the Buddhist community. Written by journalist Daiki Nonaka, the article questions a set of complex and potentially irremediable problems: the fall in the birth rate in Japan and the double blow of an aging population, the depopulation of traditionally religious areas, the simplification of rituals funerals (accelerated in the wake of the pandemic), and public scandals surrounding both traditional temples and secular religious groups.
Written in two parts, although the online version of the Weekly Toyo KeizaiThe article is divided into three sections – each segment, divided into subsections, focuses on different factors in the long-term decline of organized religion in Japan. The first part describes the depopulation of traditional areas of religiosity and the scandals around older settlements, such as the embezzlement of temple funds. Additionally, stark statistics of collapsing favor for elaborate funerals, coupled with growing competition among the funeral industry, have meant less business for temples. Part two examines the decline of so-called 'new religions', with separate parts devoted to the lay Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai, the Unification Church – which itself has been examined painstaking after the assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on July 8, 2022 – Jehovah's Witnesses and happy science. (Japan today)
In recent decades, temples' reliance on funerals to stay afloat had fueled negative stereotypes of Buddhism as unconcerned about the real lives of real people: The Buddhist Federation of Japan and Daiwa Securities once jointly conducted a survey that revealed “how priests are called to respond to the spiritual needs of parishioners. (Japan Today) The pandemic has led to an overall reduction in funeral costs, as well as proceedings with internet-based operators like Kamakura Shinsho and others eating away at temple business. Powerful business interests like Japan Agricultural Cooperatives, four private railway companies and three hotel groups have made matters even more difficult (Japan Today). Buddhist otsuya (the wakes) were already among the few consistent incomes of Japanese temples (which also made them targets of derision as funerary businesses). Now the pandemic has prompted many Japanese people to adopt a "single ceremony" funeral, with Buddhist wakes being the first to be canceled.
The pastoral front was also decimated. Despite conversations in the media and in society at large about the need for greater mental health awareness, encounters between practicing Buddhists and priests in family temples have continued to decline. Consultations on personal or spiritual matters are at a disastrous 0,7%. Even on festivals or funeral occasions, where Buddhist priests are supposed to be more visible, the numbers are far from encouraging: 50% for memorial services and funerals, 26,8% on Obon, the of the dead, and 25,8% during visits to family graves. (Japan today)
The article underlines that the crisis crosses all religious traditions, from Shintoism to Buddhism via Christianity. The deteriorating situation comes against a backdrop of a general decline in religion, with a 2015 prediction by Professor Kenji Ishii of Kokugakuin University that more than a third of Japan's official religious institutions (Hojin; incorporated religious bodies) will no longer exist by 2040 (Japan Today). As recently as April this year, a major temple in Tokyo, the Tsukiji Hongan-ji, conducted a religious trust survey of 1 people. 600% of respondents said their sense of confidence had decreased over the past two years (South China Morning Post). While there was slight good news in the sense that only 10% said they felt uncomfortable about Buddhism, 35% surveyed said they felt uncomfortable about Buddhism. religion in general. The demographic crisis could not be more glaring in the fact that most respondents under the age of 60 said they had “no reason” to visit a Buddhist temple. (South China Morning Post)
Overall, the picture looks extremely bleak for Buddhist institutions in Japan. Over the past two decades, several temples have tried to stay relevant by adopting certain "tricks" like attracting anime and manga fans, and in recent years, some have joined the conversation about AI and robotics, by even concluding research collaborations with universities. . But the downward trend seems irreversible without a radical reorientation of the very role that Buddhist institutions see as playing – and are seen as playing – in society. The scale and ambition of this shift may require unified action across multiple groups and factions, which temple politics may negate or impede.
Is religion in Japan in irreversible decline? (Japan today)
1.5億円税務事件の背景にある｢寺院存亡危機｣ (Japanese only) (Weekly Toyo Keizai)
｢家｣に立脚した宗教は多死社会でも出番なし (Japanese only) (Weekly Toyo Keizai)
伝統仏教は現代人の不安に寄り添えているか (Japanese only) (Weekly Toyo Keizai)
Is Japan losing its religion? Cults and the scandal of the Unification Church arouse growing mistrust (South China Morning Post)
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