The “New Religions” of Japan
A Mixture of Old Wines in New Bottles?


The Quest for Renewal
The Meiji Restoration presented Buddhism with an unexpected crisis. The preceding centuries of patronage by the Tokugawa government (1600-1867) had led many Buddhist priests and temples to take for granted their superior positions of wealth and leisure. Priests of local temples became so firmly entrenched in their role of providing government-required rites and supervision for every family that acquisition of wealth often outstripped cultivation of spirituality. Then in a flash the Tokugawa government fell, the legal obligation to support Buddhism vanished, and temple income dropped. (Japanese Religion, 181)

As a whole, Buddhism tried to maintain in the Meiji period the same role and position it had known during the Tokugawa period: religiously, preoccupation with ancestral rites; politically, subservience to the state. Buddhist priests were so totally concerned with funerals and masses that they had come to be referred to jokingly as the “undertakers of Japan”; they strove to be at least second to Shinto as supporters of the state. However, implicit in the Meiji criticism of Buddhism was a call for a spiritual as well as a moral renewal of Buddhism. ...
This possibility for renewal, however, only further complicated an already complex Japanese Buddhism, which was split between traditional piety and modern intellectualism. Popular Buddhism continued in the same patterns as in Tokugawa times, while some Buddhist priests and intellectuals tended to think in terms of appropriated Western concepts. Buddhist studies in Japan is a huge field, covering almost every imaginable doctrinal and philosophical aspect of Buddhism’s history throughout Asia, such that it is difficult to characterize briefly. However, one general feature of Buddhist studies in Japan has been a tendency to focus on the “original” Buddhism of India or the Chinese foundations for Japanese Buddhism. Buddhist scholars have concentrated more on historical aspects of scriptures, doctrines, and philosophy rather than living Buddhism today (which often is looked down on as inferior to the original Indian or classical Chinese Buddhism). (Japanese Religion, 181-3)

Limited Growth since 1868

The story of Christianity in Japan from 1868 to 1945 shows some similarities with the Christian century of Roman Catholic missions from about 1550 to 1650. In both periods early phases of Christian success linked with Japanese acceptance of Western culture were followed by phases of Christianity’s decline due to Japanese reaction against the West. ... After 1873 [when the ban on Christianity was lifted], Christianity tended to gain followers. However, the career of Christianity in Japan was shaped by three major factors that presented obstacles to gaining individual converts. ... The first factor is that the official attitude of Christianity toward other traditions (especially in modern times) has been to favor conversion rather than compromise and synthesis. ... Thus the Japanese had to make a radical leap from their own tradition to accept Christianity and its insistence on renouncing other traditions. ... The second factor is that the Japanese people were not only aware of, but proud of, their long and rich heritage. To be Japanese meant to accept the plurality of religions, and to hold the worldview and follow the beliefs and customs of the Japanese tradition — including semi-religious activities such as respect for (or veneration of) the emperor and ancestors; some customs such as visiting shrines and temples at New Year’s were followed even by people who did not consider themselves very “religious.” … The third factor was that Japanese officials looked to the West for models of government and science. This meant an initial acceptance of Christianity as the spiritual culture of the West, until the Japanese realized that they could be Westernized (and industrialized) without becoming Christian. (Religion in Japan, 223-4)
Statistics of religious affiliation are particularly difficult to determine in Japan. But, by the turn of the twentieth century there were about seventy-five thousand church members. And, by the late 1930s, there were about three hundred thousand Christians. Because the total population was about eighty million at this time, the percentage of Christians — both Protestant and Roman Catholic — was lower than it had been at the high point of Roman Catholicism in the early seventeenth century. Of course, one can argue that in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries mass conversions of feudal domains took place, whereas in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries conversions were individual and probably more sincere. Nevertheless, before World War II, the total number of church members constituted less than one or two percent of the total population. This number is small even when compared with the individual New Religions of the same period. (Religion in Japan, 226)

Christian wedding ceremonies have since the mid-1990s displaced the Shinto rite and continue to remain Japan’s wedding ceremony of choice. Christian wedding ceremonies have in the last thirty years moved from the sideline to the mainstream of Japanese society. The popularity of Christian wedding ceremonies represents new widespread acceptance, commercialization, and popularity of a religious ceremony. The postwar history of Christian wedding ceremonies is best understood in light of the efforts made by traditional Christian churches and the bridal industry to meet the religious needs and demands of Japan’s largely “nonreligious” (mushukyo) constituency.
Although the Japanese have unprecedented access to the Catholic Church, the majority of weddings in Japan follow the Protestant liturgy. As such the ceremony includes elements typical to a traditional Protestant wedding including hymns, benedictions, prayers, bible readings, an exchange of rings, wedding kiss, and vows before God. It is typical for a bride to enter with her father and then be “given away” to her husband — an exchange that usually involves bowing and shaking hands. In recent years, the custom of lowering the veil has also become popular. During the veil lowering the mother of the bride lowers the veil for her daughter before she continues down the “virgin road” with her father toward her husband. In the case of a non-Japanese wedding minister, the ceremony is commonly performed in a mix of Japanese and a western language (typically, English). (Wikipedia/Marriage in Japan)

The New Religions
New Variations on Old Traditions
The rubric “New Religions” (shinko shukyo) has been given to a number of religious movements that first appeared in late Tokugawa times, gained strength after the Meiji Restoration, and became a powerful force after World War II. ... The term “New Religions,” however, is somewhat misleading because these movements are neither entirely new nor necessarily complete religions in the Western sense. Every New Religion contains elements from one or more of the preexisting traditions: folk religion, Shinto, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and even Christianity. Therefore, these religious movements are as much renovation as innovation, as much renewed religious traditions as new traditions. (Religion in Japan, 226)
One of the distinguishing features of the New Religions is that usually a living person served as either founder or organizer. In most cases the impetus for organizing a religion came from the charismatic quality of the founder, who was considered semidivine or divine; his or her utterances became revealed scripture. Even the sect developments of Shinto selected special kami from the Nihon shoki and Kojiki as objects of worship. The New Religions offered specific objects of faith and appealing forms of worship. They usually promised the solution of all problems through faith and worship. Some of the founders were led to their crucial religious experience (or revelation) by a personal dilemma that was solved by the discovery of a new faith. Often the New Religions practiced faith healing but also promised solutions to personal crises such as financial and marital difficulties. (Religion in Japan, 227-8)
Though the guarantee of religious freedom was never removed, [from the 1930s to the end of WWII] the Constitution’s limitation of freedom of religion “within limits not prejudicial to peace and order, and not antagonistic to their duties as subjects,” came to be interpreted so strictly as to suppress or even openly persecute any religious group the state saw fit to target. Actually, two kinds of groups, one secular — communism, the other religious — New Religions, were increasingly the scapegoat of state attacks. ... [I]f we focus just on the perceived threat of New Religions, we note that they were attacked by the combined force of intellectuals, competing religious organizations, and the state. To be sure, throughout much of their history, the New Religions have received much criticism as unrefined, superstitious, and interested mainly in acquiring money. However, if they were so “evil,” how can their popularity and “success” be explained? (Religion in Japan, 229-30)

A Sampling of New Religions
Tenrikyo, Soka Gakkai & Aum Shinrikyo
Of all the New Religions that have arisen in Japan since the early nineteenth century, Tenrikyo and Soka Gakkai are two of the most important; their stories serve to highlight similarities as well as differences among New Religions. ... Tenrikyo was a pioneer New Religion early in the nineteenth century. It was one of the first to succeed on a large scale, and it served as a model for later movements. Soka Gakkai arose about a century later in the prewar period and flourished only after World War II, yet its rapid success has made it the envy of other groups. ... Aum Shinrikyo, a third example of a Japanese new religion, arose later, in the postwar period, drawing on especially Buddhist, but also Hindu, Christian, and New Age elements. Aum Shinrikyo was equally organized around its divine founder and his teachings and practices. (Religion in Japan, 234-5)
The Original God, a Living Kami, and a Joyous Life
One of the earliest and in some ways most paradigmatic of the major new religions, now claiming nearly two million members, Tenrikyo was founded by a farmer’s wife named Nakayama Miki (1798-1887). Its defining revelation occurred in December 1838. Shuji, the eighteen-year-old son of Miki, had had a severe pain in his leg for over a year, which greatly inhibited his helping with the farm work. ... A yamabushi was retained to do yosekaji or ritual incantations on the youth’s behalf ... [which required] a female assistant serving as medium to go into trance, holding two sacred staffs with gohei or Shinto zigzag paper hangings on it; a diagnosis of the affliction would be received form a kami who possessed her and spoke through her lips. At the ritual on December 9, 1838, the usual medium, Soyo, was not available. Miki took her place. In trance, the woman’s face reportedly took on an appearance of tremendous majesty, and the voice that spoke through her was not that of one of the may kami, but a Being who said “I am the True and Original God. Miki’s mind and body will be accepted by me as a Divine Shrine, and I desire to save the world through this body.” (IJR, 211)

This divinity was Tenri O no Mikoto, literally “Lord of Divine Wisdom.” (Tenri means “heavenly wisdom” and O no Mikoto is equivalent to “royal divinity.”) The deity is also known as Oyagami, “God the Parent.” This divinity gave a rather new message through Miki’s mouth: the kami had loaned Miki her body, but now was reclaiming it and demanding that Miki spend the rest of her life spreading the divinity’s message. Her family reluctantly yielded to the demand. This 1838 event marks the traditional founding of Tenrikyo, the religion of divine or heavenly wisdom. From this point Miki [generally referred to as Oyasama, an honorific title meaning “worthy parent”] is viewed as a kind of living kami. (Religion in Japan, 236-7)
[The story of creation] starts by saying, “In the beginning, the world was a muddy ocean. Finding that condition tasteless, God the Parent thought of creating us human beings so that, by seeing our Joyous Life, God might share in that joy. The whole creation originated from that thought. When creating human beings and the world, God began by drawing forth what were to become models and instruments, and their joined efforts allowed human creation to commence. Human beings, thus created, have thereafter been nurtured by God the Parent while undergoing many rebirths over an extremely long time. The formation of land and sea, heaven and earth, and the entire universe progressed in pace with human development. (
In time, the basic teachings of Tenrikyo emerged. The original creator God is now trying to call humankind back to himself, and so to the yokigurashi [陽気ぐらし] the joy in which the Parent had meant us to live. But we have allowed our minds to be covered by hokori, “dusts,” that have brought forgetfulness and various vices. ... In the Ofudesaki, the scripture she composed under inspiration, she recites the Tenrikyo story of creation, and describes the dances which would be the religions’ basic rite. As we saw in Chapter 2, the greatest dances are performed in the main temple, around the Kanrodai [甘露台, literally “sweet dew stand”], the pillar which according to Oyasama marks the place where the creation began. (The temple is on the former site of the foundress’ home, not far from Nara.) Dances performed in branch churches present sweeping gestures that indicate the wiping away of the dusts. Another practice is osazuke, a commonly-performed healing rite consisting of stroking gestures made just above the body of the patient. Otherwise, worship in Tenrikyo churches is definitely of the Shinto type, with altars (including one to the foundress) and offerings made in a way characteristic of that religion. (IJR, 212)
Central to this movement’s ethos was the founder as a living kami; her life was a kind of divine model. What she wrote was considered revelation and came to be the scripture of Tenrikyo. The songs she composed became hymns, and the dance she created was transformed into Tenrikyo liturgy. The gestures she used in the dance became standard ritual gestures. Her scripture indicated a nearby spot as the place where the world and human beings were created (by Izanagi and Izanami); this location, considered the center of the world, became the site for the main shrine of Tenrikyo. The shrine was built in accordance with Miki’s revelation: there is a square opening in the roof and a wooden column underneath. The corporate worship and elaborate liturgies that Miki established continue to be performed around this column under the open roof. Although these features have assumed a mysterious symbolism within later Tenrikyo, they signify a channel for continued communication between Heaven and humans. As Tenrikyo gradually developed into a larger organization around the central figure of Miki, it also developed a message, or philosophy of life, based on her teachings. Miki taught that “At the very beginning of the world, God the Parent created mankind out of an earnest desire to make them live a yokigurashi, a joyous life. Mankind, however, ignoring the will of God the Parent Who created them to live a life of yokigurashi in the truest sense of the word, has come to abuse their minds which were granted to them as their own, and becoming self-willed, come to regard life as a gloomy world.” According to this teaching, because people have become self-centered and selfish, they are surrounded with gloom. But when an individual recovers oneness with God the Parent, he or she once again participates in the joyous creation of the world. The means to this joyous life is faith in God the Parent and “sweeping away” one’s evils through the worship services instituted by Miki. (Japanese Religion, 198)


The Kagura Service


The task of reconstructing the entire world as the world of the Joyous Life is a huge undertaking that cannot be accomplished without God the Parent’s help. Through our performance of the ritual known as the Kagura Service, God the Parent manifests once more the immense energy by which humankind and the world were created and thereby enables all human beings to return to their true and original state and thus lead the Joyous Life. The Kagura Service is truly the ultimate means to replace our minds and return to our original state – the way we really are.

The Kagura Service is performed by ten dancers, five men and five women, who wear their respective kagura masks and symbolize by hand-gestures the ten aspects of God the Parent’s complete providence. To perform this Service, the ten dancers take up positions around the Kanrodai (the Stand for the Heavenly Dew), which is set up on the Jiba, the very place where God the Parent resides.

The Kagura Service depicts the state of the Joyous Life World. The ten Service performers, for example, each represent a different aspect of the complete providence, and yet during the course of the Service they bring their minds into perfect harmony with God the Parent’s desire to actualize the world of the Joyous Life. The Kagura Service thus shows us that, although we human beings may differ from one another in terms of our personalities, abilities, and functions in society, we must cooperate with one another in a unity of mind in order to actualize the Joyous Life World.

All people attending the Service – not just the ten Service performers – must bring their minds into unity and pray for God the Parent’s help in actualizing the world of the Joyous Life. That is the goal of the Kagura Service.

Following the Kagura Service, the Teodori (Dance with Hand Movements) is performed by three men and three women who stand in a line. Whereas the hand gestures employed in the Kagura Service vary in parts from performer to performer so as to symbolize different aspects of the complete providence, the hand movements for the Teodori are identical among the six performers. Through this song and dance, therefore, we are able to savor God the Parent’s teachings and return to our true and original state.

Local Tenrikyo churches conduct a monthly service, which comprises the seated service – in place of the Kagura Service – and the Teodori. This monthly service is the most important function of the local churches since it enables the church members to receive the truth of the Kagura Service performed at the Jiba. (


Syncretism in Tenrikyo/New Religions
As befits a religion emphasizing yokigurashi and of which the main rite is dancing, Tenrikyo has no strict or stern moral code, but says live a happy life and encourage others to be happy. Let life have a festive, celebrative flavor. The faith affirms karma (innen) and reincarnation. It has no belief in a future life other than one’s next embodiment, the quality of which will depend on the karma one creates in this life. But unlike the Buddhism which sees reincarnation as a gloomy doctrine, indicating one is chained to the wheel of samsara, for the Tenrikyoist rebirth is something about which to be optimistic and joyous. All in all life is getting better and better. Indeed, soon a wonderful transition will occur, when kanro or sweet dew will fall into a basin atop the Kanrodai, the world will become paradisal, everyone will live to be 115, then painlessly die and be quickly reborn to another long and joyous life. ... Tenrikyo clearly has links in its very founding to shamanistic Shugendo, and just as clear ideological roots in Tokugawa Shinto and Neo-Confucianism (in the very term tenri “heavenly principle”). ...

But there are also new emphases ... [such as] monotheism, belief in one God. The idea of one supreme God may have foreshadowings in Japan in the Confucian Heaven, in Buddhist Oneness and particularly the popular figure of Amida (Miki was raised in Pure Land), in some medieval Shinto ideologies, and even by means of underground Christian influences. But there is no doubt that Tenrikyo, like the other new religions, was monotheistic or monistic in a new, decisive way, especially in that it emphasized the one God as Creator of the world at a definite point in time, and made this creative act and its recollection central to teaching and worship. In this it is more like the Western monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, though whether any direct influence from them reached Miki is hard to prove one way or the other. ... [Another element that Tenrikyo has in common with other new religions is] a charismatic founder, often a woman and often possessing shamanistic characteristics (a powerful initiation experience by God or the gods; ability to enter into trance and utter divine words — kamigakari or divine possession; ability to heal and prophesy; sometimes ecstatic singing and dancing). (IJR, 212-4)

Soka Gakkai
Faith in the Lotus Sutra and a Happy Life
Soka Gakkai International (SGI) is a Buddhist network
that actively promotes peace, culture and education
through personal change and social contribution.

Nichiren emphasized absolute, exclusive faith in the Lotus Sutra through the phrase Namu Myoho Renge Kyo (or Nammyoho Renge Kyo, the form preferred by Soka Gakkai). After Nichiren’s death, his followers split into groups that in time turned into hard denominational lines. (Japanese Religion, 201)
Soka Gakkai is more recent than the earliest Nichiren-derived New Religions but is by far the largest, most dynamic, and most efficiently organized. Its ethos is defined by the solution of all personal and societal problems through absolute faith in the Lotus Sutra. Soka Gakkai holds to absoluteness not only in the commitment of the believer, but also in the truth of its message. Therefore, it follows that all other religions are false. Likewise, all personal and cultural values must be dependent on this absolute truth. A positive aspect of this absolute faith in an absolute truth is its promise to solve all personal and cultural problems. A negative aspect is the frequent accusation that, especially during the aggressive conversion campaign started in the 1950s, absolute faith in the Lotus Sutra led believers to use any means to convert people. (Japanese Religion, 201)
[Under the leadership of Toda Josei (1900-1958), Soka Gakkai] became a lay teaching and evangelistic organization with the Nichiren Shoshu denomination. But it had its own structure, meetings for worship and cultural life, its own chain of command, its own publications, though nominally it acknowledged the authority of the older group and its priests. So effective was its promotional efforts that soon Soka Gakkai had five times the membership of the rest of Nichiren Shoshu, a strange relationship which was ultimately to lead to problems, but which worked at the time to make long-quiescent Nichiren Shoshu suddenly the largest Buddhist denomination in Japan, claiming some three million households by 1962, and 7,500,000 households in 1970, the peak year of its rapid growth. The movement had also spread around the world.
How did it accomplish this? First, Soka Gakkai organized in a thoroughly modern way into prefectural, city, district, and block groups. The old-fashioned Buddhism of family temples tucked away in remote villages or on side streets was not for it. Instead, this new Buddhism for the third age of the Dharma was participatory. Neighborhood leaders kept track of members and prospective members, caring about their problems. Soka Gakkai neighbors made sure the zeal of their co-religionists did not flag, and that non-members were not allowed to forget they could join this welcoming and supportive group too. Members were rarely at a loss for something to do; one had the opportunity to take part in lively meetings and activities virtually every night of the week.
       Nor was there anything musty about these activities. While of course dynamic chanting of the Daimoku and Gongyo (passages from the sutra) rang through Soka Gakkai halls and homes, this was a modern, streamlined form of Buddhism for today. No ethereal meditation amid incense and gongs, no ascetic diet or celibacy. Local centers sponsored art classes, sports teams, and music (especially marching bands and min-on, popular music) ensembles. Soka Gakkai activities were good places for outgoing young people to meet others of their kind.
       And there was the practice of shakubuku, “break and subdue,” winning new converts to “true Buddhism.” Needless to say, this was controversial. In the 1950s, it was said that the upstart sect used intolerant, unfair arguments against other religions, and high-pressure tactics. Shakubuku practitioners were accused of calling prospective converts at all hours of day and night, even of threatening to boycott the business of those who would not come around. One convinced family member was supposed to give the others no rest until they joined too.
On the other hand, Soka Gakkai made no secret of its promise of immediate tangible benefits from the practice: healing, prosperity, wishes granted. Shakubuku enthusiasts made house calls, circulated literature everywhere, filled the streets with parades, and the largest stadia with conventions. These were vast rallies, intended to generate enthusiasm more than anything else with the help of chants, cheers, marching groups, and banners. (IJR, 219-20)
Soka Gakkai’s grassroots strength was derived from small discussion groups of twenty to thirty people who met informally in members’ homes to share testimonials, discuss personal problems, and study Soka Gakkai doctrine. Most nonmembers made their first contact with Soka Gakkai when a member who happened to be a friend, relative, or coworker persuaded them to attend a meeting (often for the purpose of helping the newcomer handle his or her difficulty). After several meetings, the nonmember might seek to solve his or her problems in the context of such a group with faith in Nichiren and the Lotus Sutra; but to become a member of Soka Gakkai, the person had to be formally admitted into Nichiren Shoshu. This necessitated removing all traces of other religions from his or her home — throwing out or burning the Shinto and Buddhist elements and images that traditionally were an integral part of most homes (Christian elements, if present, also were forbidden). Only then could the individual go to a Nichiren Shoshu temple for the official conversion rites, at which time he or she was given a wooden tablet with the title of the Lotus Sutra carved in it. The tablet was patterned after the one Nichiren made and was a sacred object to be placed in the now-empty family altar.
Twice every day, morning and night, the member expressed faith in the Lotus Sutra by chanting the phrase including the title of this sutra (Nammyoho Renge Kyo) and reciting passages from it before the sacred object. From this time the member participated in the discussion groups and the other activities of Soka Gakkai. The new member also was required to be active in proselytizing others and was expected to make a pilgrimage to the head temple of Nichiren Shoshu, Taiseki-ji near Mount Fuji. Several million members made the trip annually. (Japanese Religion, 202)
Ikeda Daisaku
After Toda’s death, the presidency of Soka Gakkai fell to Ikeda Daisaku (1928-) ... [who] gradually led Soka Gakkai away from its narrow, quasi-fanatical mentality, and from the characteristic Nichiren nationalism — seeing Japan as the earth’s spiritual center — toward more emphasis on its cultural, world peace mission. He spoke often of “Buddhist Humanism,” and the Daimoku faith as the foundation of a “Third Civilization” — a new world for the third age of the Dharma, in which the planet would finally find peace, prosperity, culture, and happiness for all. Ikeda’s proudest accomplishments were his dialogues with world leaders and religious figures, including the Pope and the Dalai Lama, and the great world peace conventions sponsored by Soka Gakkai, which included distinguished delegates from many faiths and nations.

At the same time, there were problems. Not only was Soka Gakkai plagued by criticism and by declining levels of membership and participation as Japan became more prosperous and secularized, but the movement suffered tension between the technically lay leadership of Soka Gakkai and the priests of Nichiren Shoshu, the parent but much smaller (apart from Soka Gakkai) religious sect. The latter demanded authority which the lay group saw as unwarranted interference in their vast, modern, smoothly-running organization, including the administration of a great new temple, the Taisekiji, being built at the foot of Mount Fuji. On the other hand, Soka Gakkais contended that Nichiren Shoshu priests, now mostly married and passing on their high positions by heredity, sometimes to persons with no true calling and unworthy of priestly office, were in effect little better than privileged laymen and had no real right to rule over the spiritual lives of Soka Gakkai members. (IJR, 220-1)
In 1991, following an increasingly intensified power struggle between the New Religion Soka Gakkai as a lay organization, and the Buddhist denomination Nichiren Shoshu as the formal parent body and priestly institution, the two bodies permanently separated. From the Nichiren Shoshu viewpoint, this parting was excommunication of a recalcitrant subgroup. From Soka Gakkai’s vantage point, their departure from Nichiren Shoshu was voluntary, an active choice to free a lay Buddhist movement from the restraints of an irrelevant and outmoded priestly establishment. (Japanese Religion, 203)
The most famous — or infamous — of the New-New Religions is Aum Shinrikyo, organized in the 1980s by Asahara Shoko around a mixture of yoga, rigid asceticism, and mystical realization. Although Aum Shinrikyo was relatively successful in attracting followers and amassing an impressive capital base, its growth did not come close to that of some of the other New-New Religions, and it failed to attract members from other groups. Aum’s leaders, frustrated by the group’s inability to develop a large movement and its failure in electing political candidates, resorted to extreme measures. Asahara and members of his group were implicated in abduction, murder, and the 1995 poison gas attack in the Tokyo subway system that killed twelve people and injured thousands. In mentioning so briefly such a controversial subject, we must stress two points: first, Aum Shinrikyo shares many features with the New Religions, especially the New-New Religions — including the presence of a charismatic leader, faith healing, and adaptations of Indian forms of meditation; second, Aum Shinrikyo represents a rare instance of a New Religion resorting to violence against the people and the government to further its ends. (Japanese Religion, 196)
How should we explain the popularity and success of
the New Religions ?