Gregory Wilkinson and Dr. Don Sull Choi, Religion
The research conducted for this research grant was motivated by one incident. Mainly, the Tokyo subway bombing of March, 1995 conducted by the religious sect Aum Shinrikyo.1 This religious event was such an anomaly in Japan’s usually tranquil situation. The research hypothesis delved into what social causes could be connected to this significant event.
Initial research into Japan’s current religious situation showed wide and sweeping changes. Religious sects and religious interest in Japan has been on the rise for a few decades. New sects of Buddhism, Shinto, Christianity as well as mystic or new age sects are all on the rise in Japan. More and more Japanese are beginning to investigate and adhere to different religious sects.
In searching for sociological answers that would explain the rise in religious sects, the research turned to the village social order that is central in Japanese life. The village system grew out of the Shogunate system of government as well as the rice agricultural labor division system which created small tight communities where individual identity and responsibility were strictly defined.2 However, these systems were generally rural. Since the end of World War II, Japan has become more urban and with this change the village system with its strictly defined identities and positions in society began to wane. Those who moved from rural to urban societies sometimes had difficulty reproducing the type of community they enjoyed in the country and religious affiliation was one way in which some Japanese filled this void.
This social explanation answered some of the questions regarding Japan’s religious change. However, the village system was not a complete answer to Japan’s religious rebirth. Two of the major problems with the village explanation were first, it did not address why urban Japanese would seek religious affiliations over those found at work or school, and second, it did not address why large numbers of today’s young people (a generation that never experienced a rural village community) were joining new religions at an increased rate. It was these questions that the research next attempted to answer.
With regards to the question of why people sought religious associations over those found at work or school, the best sociological answer was found with the concept of amae. This Japanese concept can best be described as the need for interdependence.3 Japanese feel the most comfortable in groups where individuals are connected together through bonds of interdependent relationships of obligation. Educational or occupational groups that are, by nature, competitive, may not be successful in creating these types of groups for all of Japan’s people. In order to achieve a atmosphere that fosters amae, some Japanese have turned to alternative groups, including religious groups. Religions are seen as groups where people can gain stable positions within the group without being compared to others according to attribute. In Japan where competition has grown ever more fierce, these types of cooperative groups are becoming more attractive.
In regards to the second question, the research showed a direct difference between the current generation in Japan and the ones of a few decades before. The change in this new generation is so distinct that many Japanese are calling them the shinjinrui or new type of human being. The paper referred to them as the post-material generation. The research showed that this change in the young generation came mostly from the fact that the young in Japan are not required to sacrifice for economic well being in a way that their parents and grandparents have. Without the need to sacrifice for material well being, fulfillment is not achieved solely through economic gain and the young have turned to other things in search of fulfillment. The paper referred to two main movements of the past few years: first, nihonjinron or nativism and second, religious curiosity.
As an outgrowth of the rapid westernization of Japan, nativism in Japan has increased over the past few decades. This movement has been very popular among Japan’s young. The movement started as a call for heightened Japanese awareness, but eventually lead to claims of Japanese cultural superiority. Despite its growing success among some of Japanese youth, the extreme claims of Japanese elitism has hurt the movement over the past few years.
As nativism has waned, religious curiosity is on the rise among the youth. Psychic abilities and phenomena as well as new age and occult phenomena have increased in popularity among the mass media and the younger generation in Japan. Surveys show that Japan’s youth are more religiously interested and active than a decade ago.4 This popular movement has lead to an increase in religious involvement among Japan’s young. New sects are gaining adherents almost exclusively among college-age individuals. Aum gained most of its followers from college campuses.
The research showed that several changes in Japan’s society have created a significant change in Japan’s religious situation. Significant in what it means to Japan’s social order and as Aum’s actions have shown, significant in its impact of global affairs.
- David E. Kaplan and Andrew Marshall, The Cult at the End of the World, Crown Publishers, New York (1996).
- Ann Waswo, Modern Japanese Society: 1868-1994, Oxford University Press, New York (1996)
- Takeo Doi, The anatomy of dependence, Kodansha International, Tokyo (1971).
- Caroll Ladd Everett and Karlyn Bowman, Public Opinion in America and Japan, AEI Press, Washington, D.C. (1996) 95.
- This research was also supported by the Global Awareness Society International and was presented at the society’s annual conference in Montreal, Canada.