Religion finds fallow fields in Japan today

While former nightclub musician Marre Ishii, 37, whaled away at the piano, a backup six-piece band belted out ear-splitting tunes and about 50 Japanese young people dressed in a variety of punk-style costumes lifted their hands and clapped.

They were at Committed Japan, a youth-oriented church that uses rock music, evangelizes through a nearby cafe and sells its conferences, CDs and books using standard marketing methods.

Unhappy with traditional Japanese churches that average only 35 worshippers per Sunday, Mr. Ishii began his own church in September 1995 with four persons in an apartment. Now Committed Japan oversees a network of small churches and Bible-study groups numbering 170 persons.

"Japanese people are seeking hope," said Mr. Ishii, lounging in the church-owned Kick Back Cafe in a western Tokyo suburb. Those who fail to attain it, he added, may wind up throwing themselves in the path of a commuter train.

His church has an ingredient that is rare in Japan today: religious conviction. Although Japanese marry with native Shinto ceremonies, mourn their dead in Buddhist rites, and some worship as Christians, Muslims or other religions, public discourse is hardly influenced by theocentric concerns.

Mark Mullins, who teaches comparative religion at Sophia University in downtown Tokyo, says most Japanese avoid religion.

"Since the Aum incident, there's been a huge fallout," he said, referring to the March 1995 sarin-gas attack on the Tokyo subway system by adherents of Aum Shinrikyo — an apocalyptic group of Shiva worshippers founded by "Venerated Master Shoko Asahara" (born Chizuo Matsumoto in 1955) — that killed 12 persons and sickened more than 5,000.

"Now religion is connected with violence and considered dangerous. Before the Aum incident, you'd see religious groups handing out materials at the train stations. That has disappeared. There's not a lot of interest in religion, period."

Nobutaka Inoue, a professor of Japanese culture at Kokugakuin University in Tokyo, also faults the Aum incident for dampening interest.

"For the younger generation, religion is a little bit dangerous," he said. "They may believe in God or spiritual beings, but belonging to an actual group is another matter. Young people see religious people as overly concerned with money or involved with scandal."

This is not to say that the Japanese aren't spiritual: Memorials to aborted fetuses at Buddhist temples such as Hase-Kannon temple in Kamakura, dedicated to the goddess of mercy, and Zojo-ji in Tokyo testify that this is a people who believe strongly in the soul and some form of life after death.

"People will drop by the Meiji Shrine on New Year's," said Mr. Mullins, referring to the country's best-known Shinto sanctuary, "but they don't go anywhere where people will know them. You have a growth of anonymous religious behavior in Japan. Japan has always had an eccentric religious environment."

Shinto ("the way of the gods"), the Japan's indigenous religion, dates to prehistoric times and has no founder or scripture. It concerns harvest and fertility, emperor worship and birth ceremonies. State Shinto, a mixture of religion and patriotism, was the force that propelled many to sacrifice their lives for the emperor during World War II.

Confucianism, the next-oldest religion, has been in Japan since 404 A.D. Most followers of this religion took up Buddhism, which came via Korea sometime around 600 A.D.

Christianity was brought to Japan in 1549 by Francis Xavier, founder of the Roman Catholic Society of Jesus (Jesuits). Rivalry with other Catholic missionary groups, and later with Dutch Protestants, for Japanese converts and influence led to restrictions on Christianity in 1612 and a nationwide ban two years later. Japanese Christians were persecuted under the rule of the Tokugawa shoguns and went underground until 1873, when religious sanctions were withdrawn under the Meiji imperial government.

Some 75 percent of Japanese have Buddhist or Shinto altars in their homes and almost 90 percent pay visits to ancestral graves on religious festivals. Two percent or fewer of Japan's 127 million people consider themselves to be Christians.

However, Japanese like to sample Western Christian customs, such as church weddings and black gospel music. According to a 1999 study published by Kokugakuin University, Japanese associate Christmas with the following in descending order: Santa Claus, Christmas trees, presents, cake, parties, Jesus Christ, church ceremonies and Christmas cards.

But Japanese Christian churches are competing head-to-head with Shinto shrines as a place for wedding ceremonies as more people select Western-style weddings.

"This is a big debate in the Christian community," said Mr. Mullins. "Some say the bride and groom should be Christian. Others say this is the first time the Japanese have asked [Christians] for anything. Usually, we have to go out to them."

So do some of the Buddhist variants, such as Soka Gokkai, Mr. Inoue said. "They preach aggressively to strangers," he said. "The proselytizing attitude is quite problematic to the Japanese. They're even more aggressive than the Mormons."

Islam, which is growing in many other countries, Mr. Inoue added, has no more than 2,000 adherents in Japan, where all religions are trying to maintain a connection to the past while adapting to the future.

"Nothing is growing in Japan," he said. Church membership and attendance are "lessening here, but the interest in spirituality is growing."

"People are looking for something for mental healing, to ease the stress here."

If anything, he added, Japanese are more interested in phenomena such as space aliens, UFOs, exorcism and psychic phenomena. "Uri Geller," he said of the self-described psychic, "is popular here."

The Japanese have been vastly affected by globalization, in which "the religious culture has gotten mixed up," the scholar explained. "Japanese culture is changing because of so many foreign elements in it. People are still asking: 'Who am I?'

"Less and less people eat rice in the morning. More drink coffee and eat bread. Our culture is changing, and so is our religious culture. No religion here has a proper attitude toward this situation."

Michael Wenger, dean of Buddhist studies at the San Francisco Zen Center, said religion has to engage the culture to be effective. Buddhism is growing in the United States, he suggested, because of its allure among Americans as a sophisticated religion that encompasses faith and doubt.

"But in Japan, a lot of people think of Buddhism as 'old hat,'" he said. "They think of it as ancestor worship."

Masamaro Ohazaki, spokesman for Tsukiji Hongwanji, a venerable Tokyo temple belonging to the 10 million-member Jodo Shinshu sect of Buddhism, said attendance there is decreasing.

"People today tend to be attracted by prosperity and commercial benefits," he said. "New religions or cults offer that. Buddhism doesn't offer such profits. It focuses more on life after death."

Youth are more attracted to the "new religions," he went on — everything from Scientology and the Jehovah's Witnesses to several hundred variants on Shinto and Buddhism that sprang up in Japan starting in the 19th century.

"Because the new religions have no baggage or history, they can do whatever they want," he said. "Buddhism with its dark, old image has a hard time adopting new measures."

The Japanese brand of Buddhism is almost Hindu-like in its acceptance of multiple gods, said Shoshin Ichishima, a Buddhist professor at Taisho University in Tokyo.

"Even Christianity's God we'll accept," he said. "But the Japanese like the oriental way of thinking. We are more into nature worship. In Japanese, the word 'kami,' for God, means an impersonal force."

That is a major problem faced by Christians, for whom God is addressed as Father. Christian missionaries say that one would never use in prayer among Japanese the casual terms that Westerners use.

"In this culture, you'd never address God on familiar terms, because that is presupposing you are on equal terms with that person," said Marty Shaw, who works in Tokyo for Conservative Baptist International (CBI).

Moreover, historically in Japan, the mother is seen as nurturing, he said, while the father is stern and unapproachable — an image that only began to fade after World War II.

"Even Japanese believers have a difficult time worshipping [the Christian] God, because the expressions are not their own," said Ken Taylor, a missionary with CBI. "Everything in a typical Japanese church — from the music to the architecture — is imported.

"There are high percentages of Japanese converting to Christianity outside the country, but when they come back, they can't find a church like the one they left."

"A lot of Japanese churches are set in a Confucian system, where the elders rule," said Gary Fujino, a Southern Baptist missionary in Tokyo. "These churches are not going to change. Some say the Japanese church is too indigenized."

Observed Mr. Shaw of CBI: "When you enter a traditional church in Japan, it's a time warp. You are walking into a 1940s, 1950s kind of place. The church is irrelevant.

"Christianity attracts here through its weddings and black gospel music, but that is all surface. Missions organizations are quite discouraged. But when the Holy Spirit decides to move, He'll move."