‘Lived Religion’ in the Japanese Context: Realities of Individual Practice and Institutional Survival

In the current state of religious affairs, the concept of “lived religion” brought to us by Meredith McGuire in her latest book “Lived Religion: Faith and Practice” appears to be a highly relevant one, and most certainly, a fascinating one. It made me think about the manifestations of personal religiosity and the role of institutional engagement in shaping them in the Japanese context. It also brings to mind the notion of being “practically religious” in Japanese Buddhism and beyond. Ian Reader and George J. Tanabe, in their book Practically Religious (1998), argue that “Japanese religion is less a matter of belief than it is of activity, ritual, and custom”[1] and “the promise of this-worldly benefits is an intrinsic element within Japanese religion in general”.[2] In other words, Japanese religiosity is not necessarily based on what one believes in, but rather on what one does or should do and what one can get out of such activities, regardless of whether the fruits are of a spiritual or material nature.

Hence, it is a promise of some kind that lures people into visiting religious sites. For those who seek spiritual support, it might be a promise of deities’ protection against an illness or reassurance of peace for their ancestors’ spirits, which is bought with the offerings for prayers and fees paid for protective o-mamori (amulets). Yet, for those looking for a place to relax, escape their daily routine and experience something exciting, temples and shrines need to invent new ways to satisfy that need, especially at the time when more people claim to have little or no religious affiliation, and when visiting shrines and temples became associated with cultural and tourist activities rather than with religious activities. An increasing number of Japanese people today, especially young, visit famous religious sites for exclusively recreational reasons.

The number of Japanese people claiming lack of religious belief increased to 80% in the post-Aum era,[3] whereas the number of people admitting to have some sort of religious belief is no more than 20-30% and even lower among university students.[4] The semi-structured interviews I conducted in November and December 2009 among 86 Kyoto University students[5] revealed that all of them described their religious belief as mushūkyō (“non-religious”), only three of them identified their religious affiliation as Buddhist (mainly due to their family affiliation), and 84 confirmed that they visit temples and shrines on various occasions during the year, including hatsumōde, ō-bon celebrations and cherry blossoms viewings, and usually during their visits they purchase o-mamori (protective talismans) and o-mikuji (written oracle). My interviewees stated three main reasons for those visits, dentō (tradition), nihonjin-no koto (this is what Japanese people do), and tomodachi-to asobu toki (fun time with friends).

None of the interviewees mentioned their spiritual needs, whereas all put a stress on cultural and entertaining aspects of their visits to Buddhist temples. This may hint that young people in particular have low levels of religious affiliation; however this does not mean that they have no connection with religious places. It appears that visiting shrines and temples by young people is a widespread activity, yet the importance of ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ motivations is rarely if at all highlighted. It appears that this notion of Japanese practicality in one’s personal engagement with religion may somewhat distort the concept of “lived religion” or “religion as lived” understood by McGuire as a subjective experience. Yet, perhaps this practical or action-based approach of engagement allows people to nurture their subjective experiences of faith without necessarily revealing their personal motivations behind their practices.

On the other hand McGuire discusses the malleability of religion (especially that personal one) and the “pic and mix” nature of “lived religion” with people drawing from a number of different religious traditions for practices and teachings. The very notion of malleability in this context brought my thinking to the ongoing discussion of change in religious traditions, institutions, and personal practices. This again brings me to my area of research in Japan where many institutions, including Japanese Buddhist temples, adapt to facilitate the religious engagement and its financial survival.

Along with the modernisation and commercialisation of society came the necessity to adapt to the new cultural, social and economic conditions; and this is true for all religious traditions in Japan. When Buddhism first arrived in Japan in the 6th century, it also needed to convince both the ruling class and the people that it was in tune with local spiritual traditions. The Buddhist concept of hōben (skillful means) allows us to understand the secret of religious adaptability in Japan today. Skillful means, in Buddhist terms, represents the idea of not always telling the truth, as long as it helps people in achieving enlightenment, or as it can be understood today, as long as it helps people and attracts potential visitors to temples and shrines. The concept of “untruth” understood in terms of hōben is perpetrated for the sake of others and with the use of any means available at the time which can contribute to the popularisation of a particular practice or religious site.

It can be suggested that religious organisations in Japan today are likely to resort to the use of modern hōben methods such as a wide range of advertising techniques and use of technology in the context of the economic and social changes that affected them after the promulgation of the new constitution in 1946. Through the variety of those advertising techniques and imagery of religious sites promoted with them, I would argue that the emphasis on entertainment themes and the shift from religious to tourist activities associated with visits to Buddhist temples has become especially evident in commercial advertising of the recent years. However, it is essential to understand that the idea of blending of religion and entertainment is not a product of postmodern consumption-driven society and has long-established roots in Japanese religious tradition. It is only in recent years, however, that the notion of fun managed to dominate the sphere of the religious. It may be suggested that Buddhist temples in Japan are also undergoing a process of experimentation and subjectivity of experience associated with the notion of “lived” as opposed to “preached” religion. How these changes impact on the identities of people living in local communities is something that I would like to explore in the future.


[1] Reader, Ian. and Tanabe Jr., George J. (1998) Practically Religious: Worldly Benefits and the Common Religion of Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press., pp.7

[2] Reader, Ian. and Tanabe Jr., George J. (1998) Practically Religious: Worldly Benefits and the Common Religion of Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press., pp.8

[3] Dorman, Benjamin. and Reader, Ian, (2007) “Projections and Representations of Religion in Japanese Media”, Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions February 2007 10/3 pp.6-13

[4] Tanatsugu, Masakazu. and Yamanaka, Hiroshi. 棚次 正和 / 山中 弘 2007 宗教学入門  (Introduction to Religious Studies) (東京:ミネルヴア書房)

[5] These are the findings of the semi-structured interviews I conducted in November and December 2009 among 86 Kyoto University students during my stay in Japan in 2009-2010. Although the sampling of my research was limited in number, it can still be argued that these numbers provide an evidence for rather secular attitudes towards religious practices permeating in postmodern Japanese society.

Religious Authority in a Post-Religious Society

The question of charismatic and spiritual authority has become ever more relevant in present day Japan, which is an exceedingly “non-religious but spiritual” nation. In her interview, Dr. Erica Baffelli introduces us to a wide variety of perspectives on creating, distributing, maintaining and defending religious authority that can be found within Japanese new religious movements (NRMs). Japanese religious leaders operate in a complex social landscape in which they must constantly maneuver between tradition and modernity, specificity and universalism, nation and world, in their quest for legitimacy. The variety of approaches that can be found among NRMs, and the persistence of non-Western views of history and ritual that call the applicability of the category “religion” into question, make the country’s religious landscape difficult to characterize, but Dr. Baffelli does an admirable job of summarizing some major avenues of study into Japanese religious authority.

As Dr. Baffelli and her interviewer describe, religious authority in Japan can be analyzed through categories such as space, body, text, politics, media, and technology. The differences between Japanese and Western formations of these subjects, as well as the diversity within Japan, can help shed light on the assumptions we make about how authority is acquired and asserted. For example, Western understandings of religious text are closely linked to the concept of a “scripture,” a divinely inspired, normative document. But Japan has traditionally had many different kinds of religious text, which are not necessarily considered inspired or treated as normative. Japanese NRMs offer us many different ways to derive authority from a text.

Dr. Baffelli points to a recent article by Clark Chilson, “Cultivating Charisma: Ikeda Daisaku’s Self Presentations and Transformational Leadership”, which is an excellent study of the Sōka Gakkai leader’s use of text, primarily the roman à clef epic Human Revolution, to distribute authority to his readers. As Chilson describes it, Ikeda’s readers are apprentices as he once was. They have been initiated into his path to the Truth and are now striving to mature their own capacities for leadership. Ikeda’s text describes how his authority was not granted to him exclusively, but was acquired through experience and can be passed on to any Gakkai member. Ikeda is thus preparing the Gakkai to manage institutional authority and power long after he himself is gone.

Ikeda’s magnum opus makes for a sharp contrast with the texts of Ōkawa Ryūhō, founder of the NRM called, in English, Happy Science. Ōkawa’s many speeches and books make it evident that his authority belongs to him alone, through his hidden identity as God the Father, and cannot be acquired by anyone else. Ōkawa’s ability to expound on the past and future of humanity, and to channel the higher spirit of any human or extraterrestrial being, living or dead, makes reading his books a lesson in simple “awareness” of his omniscience, not an instruction manual for those who would want to maintain his sect in future generations.

The bumpy transition from charismatic to institutional authority has been a key turning point in many Japanese NRMs. Dr. Baffelli states that many groups find comfortable rule by a group of experienced members to be preferable to a continuation of unruly charismatic leadership. But the sudden loss of a charismatic leader just as frequently causes an NRM to lose its direction and unity. In a 2007 article, “Shifting Paradigms and Mediating Media,” Christal Whelan described how an NRM called God Light Association underwent radical changes and splits following the loss of its leader, Takahashi Shinji. Members in Osaka continued to revere Takahashi by watching videos of his glossolalic interpretations, while members in Tokyo reorganized around his daughter Keiko , who rebuilt the group into a completely different therapeutic program. Still other members joined Ōkawa Ryūhō at Happy Science, or another NRM known as Pana Wave Laboratory.

A notable point made at the end of this interview deserves the attention of scholars of religion. Since the 1980s, the innumerable thousands of organized Japanese NRMs, called shinshūkyō in Japanese, have been losing members. The 1995 sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway by Aum Shinrikyō, an esoteric NRM which had attracted the support of several Japanese religious scholars, certainly hastened criticism of NRMs in public discourse, but the trend away from NRMs did not begin with Aum. Since the 1980s, social and economic pressures to stay within mainstream society have become more prominent, and spiritually minded individuals more often seek more limited, loosely bonded participation in New Age-style modes of thought, dubbed “new spirituality movements” by Shimazono Susumu (c.f. Shimazono 2004).

But questions of charismatic, spiritual, and institutional authority remain with us. The scholarly work on NRMs is by no means outdated, but, in fact, is increasing in relevance as we try to make sense of Shimazono’s NSMs. From crystal healing and Reiki, to millenarian “ascension,” to attendance at shrines, to therapeutic forms of mass communication, NSMs are everywhere in 21st century Japan, and with them come new questions about how spiritual institutions can aid the bricoleurs who wander their way, and what sort of authority is possible in such loosely connected interactions.

In his book, “Spiritual” wa naze hayaru no ka, journalist Isomura Kentarō offers the counterintuitive but revealing example of an e-mail list and blog run by former video game designer Itoi Shigesato, which offers self-help advice and pick-me ups to roughly a hundred thousand subscribers every day. Readers are devoted to the heartwarming writings of Itoi, who is affectionately dubbed “Darling,” but when they bring up his blog posts in everyday life, they frequently get the impression of being perceived as adherents of a religious cult. Having discovered his charismatic authority, Itoi now has the full-time job of delicately managing a small media empire while avoiding the stain of religiousness. He aims to produce messages and physical products (most notably, a fancy notebook called the Hobonichi Planner) that readers will enjoy, but not to draw them in as closely as an NRM leader would have done.

A similar phenomenon is happening even in overtly spiritual movements. I will soon begin a study of a loose network of readers of the channeled text Hitsuki Shinji. After being the focus of two NRMs in the postwar years, the lengthy text was virtually abandoned until the 1990s, when the writer Nakaya Shin’ichi began publishing dozens of books offering a spiritually minded exegesis. But until this year, Nakaya’s interactions with his readers have been limited to a monthly magazine and public talks. Similar to Itoi’s mailing list, the text has been offered as a direct reading experience unmediated by any organization, and its implementation has been essentially left to the individual. But starting this spring, Nakaya intends to take the risk of forming a more tight-knit group and asserting authority as the text’s chief interpreter. Can an NSM be transformed into an NRM? The answer to this will be found in the complex social landscape of modern religious authority.


Chilson, Clark. 2014. “Cultivating Charisma: Ikeda Daisaku’s Self Presentations and Transformational Leadership” Journal of Global Buddhism, vol. 15, pp. 65-78

Isomura Kentarō. 2010. “Spiritual” wa naze hayaru no ka. PHP Kenkyūjo.

Whelan, Christal. 2007. “Shifting Paradigms and Mediating Media: Redefining a New Religion as ‘Rational’ in Contemporary Society.” Nova Religio, vol. 10, no. 3, pp. 54-72

Shimazono Susumu. 2004. From Salvation to Spirituality: Popular Religious Movements in Modern Japan. Trans Pacific Press.