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Modern Christianity Vs New Religions

Modern Christianity vs New Religions in Post-World War Two Japan

1. Japan’s relationship with religion has long been an exceedingly complex affair. This can be most clearly shown in the postwar period with the collapse of deeply ingrained societal beliefs caused by the capitulation of the Japanese emperor, ending the Pacific phase of World War Two (Inoue 21). Prior to and up to the surrender of Japan, the cultural belief ‘arahitogami’ (the belief thinking of “the emperor as a god incarnate”) was a significant cultural idea, as was the belief that Japan was the “land of the gods” (Inoue 21). These beliefs contributed to a strong sense of nationalism and patriotism, which in turn led to Japan’s famous refusal to surrender; even after the second atomic bomb was dropped in Nagasaki, many military factions of Japan wanted to continue fighting, and only the emperor’s direct intervention forced a surrender (Morton 613). Defeat forced them to reevaluate many of their cultural beliefs and led many to begin a search for new ones. That is not to argue, however, that pre-war Japanese culture was lost entirely; indeed, many held on to old traditions and values. Nevertheless, many new religions began to appear and grow in the wake of the cultural chaos following World War Two, with limited success (Inoue 21-22). Additionally, the main established religions, particularly Buddhism, Shinto, and Christianity, were weakened in the postwar era for a variety of reasons. Christianity, however, had been around for centuries in various forms and denominations, and the cumulative efforts of its missionaries have left both lasting impressions on Japanese traditions and society as well as influencing many Japanese values. In this paper, I will argue that Christianity, despite being damaged by poor public relations and the arrival of opportunistic new religions, remains a strong influencing force in Japanese society today.

2. Firstly, it is important to examine how Christianity was weakened in the postwar era. Christianity, as well as the other major religions, suffered from negative portrayals in the news during and after wartime. For example:

On 3 November 1947 an article in the Mainichi Shinbun argued that established religions were responsible for the masses going toward “superstitions,” Christianity lacked capable leaders, while Buddhist sects were occupied in sectarian disputes. The article concluded that “there will be no end to superstitions until the masses are awakened to true religion and established religions exert themselves to discharge their duties.” (Dorman 205-206)

This attitude was also prevalent amongst the general public, and the major established religions lost “public support, land, ” (Dorman 207). At the same time, new religions were only growing increasingly popular, “actively embracing the spirit of freedom and new values” (Inoue 23). In order to counteract their loss of support, these organized religions intentionally “emphasized distinctions between genuine religions and fakes” (Dorman 207). In doing so, they hoped to damage the reputation of these up-and-coming religions and encourage a more positive view of their particular religion.

However, these large religious organizations had more to be concerned about than the new religions. They also continued to compete with each other. This is especially notable in the schism between the Catholic Church and the Protestant faith. Take for example this statement as written in the Shinbun Kyōkaihō by a Protestant pastor:

The writer, Abe Kōzō, a pastor with the Church of Christ in Japan (Nihon Kirisuto Kyōdan), congratulated journalists for exposing what he called the unscrupulous activities of leaders of new religions like Jikōson and Ohikari-sama (another name for the leader of Sekai Kyūsei Kyō, Okada Mokichi). He advocated more stringent government controls on new religions. While praising journalists for acting as “watchdogs” in dealing with new religions, he simultaneously condemned them for their inability to attack the Catholic Church over its irrational practice of relic veneration. (Dorman 206)

While new religions were a common enemy as seen by the major established religions, they also took the opportunity to improve their own standing as well, relative to their opposition. As a result, these religions struggled against not only outside new religions, but against themselves as well.

3. With literally centuries of roots in Japanese culture and as the dominant Western religion and value system, and with the embrace of Western beliefs and ideas in Japan’s own industrial revolution, it is no surprise that Christianity has had some level of influence upon Japanese culture. One of the more notable traditions apparently integrated into Japanese culture is Christmas. However, interestingly enough, the celebration is mostly secular; according to a 1999 survey conducted by the Research Project on Religious Behavior and Consciousness of the Japanese Association for the Study of Religion and Society as well as the International Comparison of Religious Education Project of the Institute for Japanese Culture and Classics of Kokugakuin University, under 30% of Japanese students associate Christmas with Jesus Christ. Instead, the majority of students associate Christmas with Santa and Christmas trees, instead (Inoue 19). Another example is Halloween, which has only become more popular recently, and is celebrated primarily to “ out and eyes and noses out of pumpkins (to make jack-’o-lanterns) and up in costumes (Inoue 18). Halloween “marks the eve of the ‘hallowed’ All Saints’ Day on November 1st”, although is similarly celebrated as a secular holiday. Interestingly enough, both of these traditions and the reason they are celebrated share some similarities within America, particularly the secularity and commercialization of Halloween (with Christmas to a somewhat lighter extent) although it lacks the political and religious controversy.

These are just two minor examples (although their commercial and social impact are anything but) of Christianity’s influence in Japan. A third example is best suited in the context of a counterargument, however, so it will be presented with the necessary information below.

4. However, arguments can be made disputing that Christianity has had any significant effect on Japan’s overall culture, and has generally faded in Japan. It is commonly recognized that religions of Buddhist and Shinto origin are by a substantial margin the two dominant doctrines, and religions of Christian origin “do not have all that many members”. This belief is essentially true; however, one has to look at more than the proportions and numbers of those that identify as a certain religion simply because of Japan’s general attitude towards religion as a whole. For instance, Hawaii is frequently considered the ‘melting pot’ of cultures, with its extremely diverse and integrated culture. In this way, Japan can be similarly considered the ‘melting pot’ of religion, wherein many of its core values and beliefs can be directly attributed to at least one religion. Many Japanese do not consider themselves religious, but nonetheless participate in a variety of activities with religious origin. In this way Christianity, though it is not directly celebrated by a majority of individuals, has certainly found some of its traditions and values integrated into Japanese culture and society.

To underline this, we have to examine the Japanese attitude that leads them to consider themselves irreligious. As written in Contemporary Japanese Religion, “Although according to public opinion surveys carried out immediately after 60%-70% of Japanese admitted to believing in religion, the responses recently have been in the 20%-30% range) (Inoue 47). That being said, interest in spirituality – magic, the occult, rebirth and after death worlds – has remained strong, especially amongst the youth. According to a 1999 survey involving over 10,000 Kokugakuin University students, “…More than 50% of them are curious about magic, the occult, or worlds people may go to after death. Only about 5% to 6% believe in a religion as such (Inoue 47). It is also interesting to note that about 30% have some interest in religion (and about the same claim to have none at all). Additionally, more than 50% of students, believe in reincarnation, as well (Inoue 47). While not beliefs strictly belonging to Christianity, it is clear that the general decline in religion is not exclusive to it, and that spiritual interest remains strong. When influences such as these are considered in addition to the borrowed holidays from purely Christian culture, it is reasonable to assume that it is not quite accurate to assert that Christianity has not integrated at all into mainstream Japanese culture.

Interestingly enough, it is these high beliefs in spirituality that led new religions to catch on so rapidly, in particularly amongst younger members of the Japanese.

5. In conclusion, it is clear to see that Christianity has, on a wide scale, integrated into Japanese national culture and held a firm position throughout the postwar period. This position has not faltered significantly since than, despite the influx of new religions and media disapproval. As demonstrated by this essay, when considering the impact of religion on Japanese culture, it is also important to view religion entirely different than from a Western standpoint, given the unorthodox attitudes towards religion and spirituality that the Japanese tend to hold.

Works Cited

Dorman, Benjamin. Celebrity Gods: New Religions, Media, and Authority in Occupied Japan. University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 2012.

Inoue, Nobutaka. Contemporary Japanese Religion. Foreign Press Center, Japan, 2000.

Morton, Louis. “The American Historical Review.” The American Historical Review, vol. 60, no. 3, 1955, pp. 613–614. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1845610.

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