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Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Literature Review
  5. Internet Use by Japanese Religious Organizations
  6. The Surveys
  7. Conclusion
  8. Acknowledgment
  9. References

Strong sect organizations are a feature of traditional Buddhist denominations in Japan. Having long benefited from the protection of Japan’s feudal society, these once strong organizations have been buttressed by factors of social change in the modern and post-modern eras, including modernization and the evolution of the media. The Internet is a rich source of information about innovations of religions adapting to social change. To examine these changes, I undertook a survey from 2002 to 2004 of 2,007 followers and religious specialists. The results highlight a critical attitude among followers: Sending and receiving messages in the interaction between a religious group and its followers results in followers expanding the scope of allowable subjects of criticism, and they have begun to entertain doubts regarding their faith systems. We may infer that in postmodern faith, horizontal interaction among religious followers will take on an increasingly important role in comparison with the vertical (top-down) structure of traditional doctrines.


Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Literature Review
  5. Internet Use by Japanese Religious Organizations
  6. The Surveys
  7. Conclusion
  8. Acknowledgment
  9. References

Religion on the Internet

Japan’s traditional religious structures suffered from the influences of urbanization in the 20th century (Ishii, 1996). After World War II, big landowner estates dissolved under land reform, rural society became mobile, and rural areas lost population (Tamaru, 1996). Most Buddhist temples and their congregations were located in rural agricultural districts, and these changes effectively drained them of their former followers.

Microsoft’s Windows 95 was released against this backdrop, creating an Internet boom in Japan that many hoped would kick-start stagnant religious activities. Young priests started to set up websites for their temples. A guidebook, Nihon no Home Page 40,000 [40,000 Japanese Web Sites] (Ascii Japan, 1996), which included nearly all Japanese websites as of 1996, listed 90 websites in the Religion category. This number grew as the popularity of the Internet increased throughout Japan. In 1999, Yahoo! Japan listed approximately 1,500 sites in the Religion category, a number that has grown slowly to 2,900 as of 2006. Despite this growth, the influence of the Internet on religion in Japan has been less dramatic than expected.

This does not mean that religion and the Internet are incompatible. A Pew Research Center report, Faith Online (Hoover & Rainie, 2004), states that 64% (82 million) of U.S. Internet users obtain some religious information from the Internet. There are also many Christian guidebooks to the Internet (e.g., Durusau, 1998; Schultze, 1996). In Japan, however, religious use of the Internet does not even register in most surveys (Internet Association Japan, 2006).

This study is concerned with the current state of, and trends regarding, religion-related Internet use in Japan, especially with regard to Buddhism. The study begins with an overview of Internet use by Japanese Buddhist religious organizations. Interviews and questionnaires reveal followers’ attitudes towards these activities and suggest future changes in the relationship between religion and the Internet.

Literature Review

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Literature Review
  5. Internet Use by Japanese Religious Organizations
  6. The Surveys
  7. Conclusion
  8. Acknowledgment
  9. References

In 1996, Time magazine reported that following the lead of businesses and schools, religions were rushing onto the Internet (Ramo, 1996). This rush was impelled by at least two kinds of motivation: First, participation in traditional religious activities was either homeostatic or declining (church attendance, for example, was largely stable); and second, while the routines of missionary work remained largely unchanged, missionaries are always looking for new converts. Following the Time report, guidebooks on how to use the Internet vis-à-vis religion began to appear (e.g., Careaga, 2001; Slaughter, 1998). Studies also followed: for example, journalist Jeff Zaleski (1997) investigated religion online in the U.S. by interviewing proponents of religion online from different faiths (e.g., Judaism and Islam) and describing current and future religious activity on the Internet.

Following these publications in the U.S., Masaki Tosa (1998) wrote the first book on religion online in Japan. Tosa approached the Internet as a new field of study in cultural anthropology and used information available online to analyze New Age religious movements such as Heaven’s Gate, highlighting the fluidity of religions. Following Tosa, Koushou Ikoma (1999) wrote primarily about American religions. Also using information available online, Ikoma focused on the periodic changes in the style of missionary work as mediated by radio, TV, and most recently the Internet, analyzing each medium’s effectiveness. In addition to such individual studies, the Japanese Association for the Study of Religion and Society undertook the Internet and Religion Research Project, highlighting the relationship between religions and the Internet (Internet and Religion Project, n.d.). Moreover, some project members created a database of religious websites and also conducted interviews (Kurosaki, 2000a).

These first studies share two commonalities. First, their academic focus is to examine what kinds of activities existing religions are involved in online, including surveys of religious groups’ missionary websites highlighting the novelty and potential of the Internet (Wilson, 2000). Second, they examine religious activity using existing theoretical structures. In particular, they focus on the use of the Internet for missionary purposes, in the hope that such activities will foster change in existing religious groups. However, the Internet is only one factor among many in the broader social context that can change religion; the Internet alone does not have such absolute power. Therefore, previous studies that solely identified the media-like features of the Internet in order to predict the future of religions are unbalanced.

For instance, Yuri Inose (2002) has argued that the Internet plays an important role in Jehovah’s Witnesses leaving the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society. But as Inose notes, innumerable factors influence the decision to leave a religion, including aspects relating to the founder, the followers themselves, the group and its doctrine, and the society they exist in. As a new medium of communication, the Internet is only one part of this context. Therefore, our task is not merely to point out the novelty of the medium vis-à-vis religion and to speak of religion as seen on the Internet. Rather, it is to understand religion as it exists on the Internet within the social context of the various religions’ connections with the Internet and within the context of their religious activities.

The Religion Communication Model

The Internet influences communication (interaction) in many social contexts, including that of religion. Therefore, in order to discuss the influence of the Internet on religion, it is necessary first to re-evaluate religion from a communication (interaction) standpoint. From this starting point, I discuss the relationship between the Internet and religion within the context of modern society. I then create an interaction model for religion based on Susumu Shimazono’s (2004) analysis of the modernization of religion.

Shimazono discusses how religious philosophies and doctrines are fostered and accepted through narrative. Prior to modernity, religious philosophy was the preserve of the elite—and literate—classes, as it was written in sacred texts. According to Shimazono, the common people simply accepted these ideas as given to them. However, the establishment of the modern democratic state and popularization of printing technologies allowed many people to gain access to sacred printed texts, ushering in an era characterized by shared religious philosophies. Religious organizations authorized and published many kinds of religious narratives. Shimazono examines religious narratives as an organized alternative to previous religious philosophies at the foundation of people’s lives. Stories of common people’s experiences of faith are of particular importance among followers’ understanding of religion in modern society, in that they are a vehicle for linking worldly history and religious mythology. These narratives articulate individuals’ religious experiences and portray their religious life history, for example, how they acquired their faith and overcame their difficulties. Common followers can then incorporate these experiences into their own experiences.

In pre-modern times, religious philosophy and doctrine were embodied in great sagas, as epitomized by the myth of Genesis, which has now fallen by the wayside. But religious narratives are not based solely on religion; they also incorporate ordinary and rational understanding. Indeed, typical religious narratives include stories of experiences; these experiential tales are easy for modern people with a scientific and rational outlook to accept. Hence, narratives of experience play a vital role for followers of modern religions as a kind of confession of faith for ordinary people, and are indispensable for the acceptance of religion in modernity.

The following two communication models are based on these views. Pre-modern faiths are referred to as “non-personal faiths” because they lacked reference to personal experiences. Followers accepted the doctrines as given to them. By contrast, modern faiths are considered to be experience-based. I refer to these as “personal faiths,” because followers come to accept religion through the narratives of other followers’ experiences. Initially, experiential narratives could only be exchanged by word of mouth; thus they were not spread widely (e.g., historically or geographically) or verified. Religious groups shared those stories in ways they could control, such as through books or at meetings. Those experiences began to interact with doctrine: The experiential narrative referred to doctrine and was subject to its restrictions.

The following two interaction models highlight how the structures of modern denominations are reshaped by the experiential narratives of each follower.

1. Interaction (dialogue) among members and followers of religious groups

“Interaction” between members and followers of religious groups is varied; it includes daily conversation, the discussion of doctrine, and the relating of other follower’s experiences (Shimazono, 2004). These individual interactions collectively help direct the religious group as a whole, and this direction in turn interacts with the group’s doctrine.

2. Interaction between members and followers of religious groups and documented doctrine (generation, reference, regulation)

Following the aforementioned horizontal interaction (e.g., as taking place between equals), this model focuses on the interaction between members and followers and documented doctrine. Doctrine is influenced and regenerated continually and dynamically by the interaction of members, while member interaction refers to doctrine, which in turn regulates the interaction.

These two models of interactions underlie the pre-modern and modern faith models, as depicted in Figure 1:

image

Figure 1. Interaction in pre-modern and modern faiths

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In the pre-modern model, individuals largely accepted doctrine as given to them, that is, as “God’s word.” But this model is idealized because, although it works for the religious group’s founder and among the elite, most religious followers accept doctrine through the first-person narrative of the founder or proselytizer. By contrast, in the modern model, the word is spread through individuals’ stories of personal experience related as religious narrative—stories that refer to and are regulated by the doctrine.

The following sections examine how the Internet is incorporated into these two interactions, and then discuss postmodern religions that purposefully make the Internet a part of their activities.

Internet Use by Japanese Religious Organizations

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Literature Review
  5. Internet Use by Japanese Religious Organizations
  6. The Surveys
  7. Conclusion
  8. Acknowledgment
  9. References

Buddhism in Japan

After Buddhism came to Japan from continental Asia in the sixth century, Buddhism and Shinto (the native Japanese religion) represented most of the religious activities practiced in Japan. There have been two vitally important eras in Japanese Buddhism’s fifteen hundred years of history—the Kamakura Period (1192-1333) and the collapse of the Tokugawa Shogunate (in 1868).

Before the Kamakura Period, Buddhism was a tool used to govern the country. Only the emperor and the nobility could patronize major temples, and monks performed religious services solely for their patrons. Reacting against this, founders such as Shinran, Nichiren, and Dougen emerged in the Kamakura Period to establish the denominations most common in present-day Japan—Jodo Shin, Hokke, and Zen Buddhism, respectively—thus opening Buddhism up to ordinary people.

Even so, during the Edo Period (1603-1868), the Tokugawa Shogunate used these religious denominations to rule people. Once people joined a religious group, they could not change their family’s affiliation. For the roughly three hundred years of the Edo Period, followers’ inability to move from one religion to another led to religious stagnation. Monks and priests immersed themselves in studying doctrine but did not spread their learning to the common people. For their part, followers required only ritual and ceremony. Thus, the major Japanese religious groups built stable foundations based on providing ritual to the masses.

The collapse of the Tokugawa Shogunate destroyed these foundations. The modernization of politics and education empowered ordinary people to choose their religions and denominations, and new religious movements sprouted. The advent of democratic society after World War II gave Japan even more freedom of religious belief. Rocked by the changes to family structure caused by urbanization and industrialization (Ishii, 1996), traditional Buddhist denominations from the Kamakura Period began missionary work. They lost their traditional followers and needed to recruit new ones. However, over the last few decades the congregations of most temples have become increasingly older; indeed, they are approaching extinction, which is a major concern for most of the chief priests who own and direct a temple.

Nonetheless, traditional Buddhist denominations from the Kamakura Period have remained a mainstay among Japanese religions. Shin Buddhism, which was founded by Shinran, is the largest denomination today, with 10 million followers. To understand contemporary Japanese religion requires a focus on these mainstream denominations: While new religious groups offer novelty, they remain very small in scale. Hence I focus here on the Jodo Shin sect, the largest sect in Shin Buddhism.

Shin Buddhism’s doctrine can be alternatively simple and difficult to comprehend. Amitabha (a celestial Buddha) saves us, but any effort to obtain this salvation is meaningless; rather, we are to spend our days in thanksgiving. This simple and vague doctrine is far removed from modern scientific thought (Yokota, 2000), and hence the concern of Shin Buddhist priests: How to relate such a puzzling doctrine to people in a modern language that they can understand and relate to?

Temple Websites in Japan

With the spread of the Internet, beginning in 1995, the feeling of having reached a dead end in religious activities inspired some young chief priests to create websites for their temples. A 1998 interview with a website administrator highlights their motivation:

Temples have a dark and gloomy image of funerals and memorial services, don’t they? For the most part, anyway, my aim was to do something to counter that impression; I wanted to show people that temples are active in the community, too. (A temple chief priest in Hiroshima, quoted in Fukamizu, 2000, p. 51)

Such comments illustrate that the first religious websites in Japan were mostly established as advertising for temples’ services and other daily activities. But as we have seen, by 2000, the growth of temple websites began to slow, reaching only approximately 2,600 by 2006. One reason for this is that many chief priests who had hoped their websites would work as a publicity tool were disappointed, and their websites were abandoned or withdrawn from the Internet.

This situation was noted in the eighth internal study conducted by the Jodo Shin sect (Jodo Shinshu Denomination Hongwanji-Ha, 2004). In the study, possession of an email address was taken to be an indicator of Internet use; 35.7% of chief priests had an email address. This percentage varied according to the priest’s age. Some 78.5% of chief priests younger than 40 had e-mail addresses, but this figure was only 45.3% for those in their 50s and 10.3% for those 70 or older.

Furthermore, the study asked subjects about what they considered their primary missionary work to be. The most common answer was “regular services” at 76.9%, while “temple reports and newsletters” was second at 74.6%. “Internet use” ranked seventh out of nine, with only 7.1% of respondents listing this. In short, it can be inferred that most chief priests did not regard Internet use as important missionary work, and that the age of the chief priests influenced this outcome.

There are multiple issues here. Even if a temple sets up a website, the Internet is the domain of the younger members of its congregation and not of the elderly congregants who participate in sutra readings. There is also a limit to how much material a lone priest can generate that would warrant regularly updating the temple’s website: No priest can regularly compose an appealing new sermon and visual contents on his own. Further, it is very difficult for him (or for anyone else) to be both a powerful author and a capable web designer. The result is that website access numbers drop and chief priests lose interest in the Internet as a missionary medium.

Tatsuyu Imaoka (2002) conducted a study of Buddhist temple websites (most of which were Jodo Shin) in Japan. As he documents, website content created by temple chief priests tends to center on temple overviews, explanations of doctrine, and sermons, thereby offering only a one-way flow of information. A factor behind this is that the temples themselves may be places where sermons are given to followers unilaterally. Indeed, this style of preaching is typical of the Jodo Shin sect in particular. This means, then, that these missionary websites have not created a new model of religion on the Internet but rather have simply recreated their existing preaching styles online. Hence these websites are not the breakthrough that proponents hoped would revolutionize religion in Japan.

Religious Forums

The Internet as a communication medium easily allows the individual to broadcast a message. Anyone can, at modest cost, spread his or her messages all over the world via an online forum. In the modern faith model proposed here, the popularization of the Internet influences especially horizontal interaction by way of interaction among religious adherents.

By establishing an online forum, religious websites can use participants’ posts to keep the content of their sites attractive without continual updates by the chief priest being required. For example, Kourinji Temple’s website Bousan no Kobako [A Priest’s Box] features the Kikan Undou [Social Movement], a Jodo Shinshu opinion forum (Tanahara, n.d.)—resulting in the second-highest ranking in terms of website “hits” in Imaoka’s study. The third-ranked site, Jibun-sagashi no Bukkyou Nyuumon [A Handbook of Buddhism for Self-seekers] (Uryuu, n.d.), features an editorial style that incorporates dialogue with site users. (The top-ranked website attracts many people because of its provocative name, Gokuakusan Saiteiji [The Worst Evil Temple],Shaku-Houden, n.d.)

As we have seen, many existing Jodo Shin websites lecture people about Buddhism in one-way information flows. However, two websites attempt to promote personal faith (as described earlier) through dialogue by encouraging people to post messages on the site.

Kurosaki (2000b) reviewed Christian mailing lists in the U.S. He notes that the incomplete nature of the message posted—e.g., prayer requests incorporating everyday elements of private life, in contrast with final and complete sermons—acts as a trigger for more active interaction. Moreover, dialogue within mailing lists can be seen as the antithesis of actual church activity. That is, church activity is in itself complete and not very active, while the “incomplete,” active religious activities that many people seek have become popular on the Internet. Relatedly, Len Wilson (1999, 2002), a pastor and media spokesman at the media-savvy Ginghamsburg Church, opined that as electronic media evolve, sermons are being replaced by building up experiences, and the old “linear” style of sermon is being transformed into a “looped” format. The media alone did not cause these changes. Rather, changes in the society as a whole—including the media—have caused these looped interactions within religions. Conversely, it could be said that the change in religious interaction from a unilateral, linear style to a looped but incomplete experience has been highlighted by the change in the media.

Alternatively, the two-way religious interaction seen on these websites can be construed as an embryonic new form of religion, one evolving as a result of social demand. Thus, religion can make itself attractive to people, in both the actual and online worlds, depending on how it adapts to changes in the social context that serves as a backdrop to changes in culture and language.

The ease with which information can be disseminated can result in a flood of information. Alongside the official websites of religious groups, lies and slander abound online. An example of superfluity of information is the forum Kokoro to Shukyo Keijiban [The Heart and Religion Forum] on the noted Japanese site 2 Channel. Nonetheless, this forum is very popular. Unlike many temple websites created for publicity purposes that provide a one-way flow of information parallel to the top-down organization structures of religious groups, online forums have no single source of information, and participants exchange their opinions in a network-like set-up. Forums illustrate the potential of new forms of religion with different organizational structures from their predecessors and, as the users of these forums know, a number of people support this new religious form.

Attitudes of Those Accessing Religious Websites

Studies that I conducted in 2002 and 2003 as part of a research project for the Association of Society and Religion indicated that the portion of respondents (including Jodo Shin members) who had used the Internet for religious purposes was low (Fukamizu, 2004). Overall, approximately 60% of the Young Men’s Buddhist Association (YBA), a relatively younger set, used the Internet, as did about 50% of the chief priests. A survey of people attending Higan, the autumnal equinox festival services at Hongwanji, the head temple, showed that roughly 25% of respondents (with an average age of 55.4 years) had used the Internet. It is difficult to compare this result with general statistics (MIC, 2005) because of differing question styles, but it is reasonable to conclude that the aforementioned survey reflects the current reality that half of the Japanese population uses the Internet in one form or another.

Meanwhile, the number of respondents who said they used the Internet for religious purposes was very low. While some 30% of YBA and chief priests used the Internet for religious purposes, only 3.4% of ordinary followers attending Higan services did so. However, these low numbers do not mean that ordinary followers do not use the Internet for religious purposes. Rather, they demand things from the Internet that differ from their demands towards existing religions. This section considers the manner in which people use the Internet, focusing on Ms. I., who uses the Internet and visits religious websites. Ms. I. is an adherent of Jodo Shinshu and was introduced to the author by a chief priest of the temple Ms. I. attends. This case study of a follower of Japan’s largest existing Buddhist group aims to zero in on trends not only on the Internet but in religion overall.

The following is a brief profile of Ms. I. and how she became involved with religion on the Internet, based on interviews.

Age: 60s Education: Junior College Graduate Profession: Retired hospital clerical worker Residence: Lives in a house in a suburban agricultural community with her son and his wife. Husband passed away in 1997 Hobbies: Gardening, oil painting, computers

Ms. I. first encountered the Internet at work. She went to work for a hospital as a receptionist once her child started elementary school. Around 1990, a doctor recommended she take up computers as a hobby “at home, with nothing to do with work.” She first subscribed to Nifty-Serve (an early online community). She comments, “I accessed forums on women’s issues, gardening, and other things I was interested in. At that time, I wrote quite a few messages in the forums.”

While becoming more proficient at using her computer, Ms. I. gradually built up her interest in the Internet through magazine articles. She portrayed the Internet as convenient: She began to gather hobby-related information at sites like Nifty and gradually began using the BMOS Apartments site, which featured chat rooms and forums. “I met all sorts of people in forums, and emailed people with similar interests,” she added.

Interaction at this time was mostly about her hobbies, such as gardening. Then Ms. I. reached a turning point in her use of the Internet: In 1997, her husband died while traveling, only three months after she had lost her mother-in-law. Being alone at home motivated her to use the Internet for religious purposes. On anxious, sleepless nights, Ms. I. would use the Internet as a way to alleviate her grief. “Alone at home, I was too lonely to sleep. I feel that talking with various people online at those times helped me get back on my feet again,” she said.

Online chat rooms and forums afford anonymity, which allows users to express their true feelings:

On the Internet, I can let it all out without hiding anything, because no one knows who anyone else is. I don’t know who the other are, but they all responded with great sincerity. I was very happy … I realized that people can be really kind. (Ms. I.)

Ms. I. related that she took a laptop computer with her to bed and logged on to the Internet for three or four hours almost every night. Communicating with others in online forums and chat rooms helped Ms. I. regain emotional stability, and she began to look for religious websites. Entering the keyword “Jodo Shin sect” (to which her family belongs) in a search engine, Ms. I. turned up the aforementioned Jibun-sagashi no Bukkyou Nyuumon. She believed that people could ask anything they liked on the site’s forum, and that there would be replies from ordinary people. The site had forums with dedicated themes, such as for times of sadness, happiness, and anger. There can be found experiential narratives of common people who describe their faith journeys—how they acquired their beliefs and commitments, how they used these in the face of difficulties, etc.

In contrast, if Ms. I. finds a website that is concerned with highly technical Buddhist topics or that is not updated, she will not go there a second time. “I don’t understand all that difficult stuff,” Ms. I. declared, stating a preference for websites that offer two-way communication where ordinary people submit their messages and the priest responds.

Ms. I. found emotional relief through her use of the Internet: “When I faced a death in the family, I looked to religious sites as a place to bring peace to my troubled mind.” In response to the question of whether or not there was any change in her religious activities outside of those online, Ms. I. replied that there was no difference in her daily faith and activities such as offering prayers at and maintaining the family grave after her husband’s death. The reason given was that Ms. I. did not encounter sermons at temples that suited her. Even if a temple is comparatively lively, there is only about one opportunity a month to attend a service. In Ms. I.’s case, sadness and anxiety at the loss of her husband struck according to its own timetable, not in accordance with temple schedules. Hence one sermon a month was unlikely to offer relief.

On the Internet, however, Ms. I. was free to look for sermons that suited her. At any time, day or night, Ms. I. found the sermons she wanted, even using “death” as a keyword to search for websites that suited her frame of mind. It was especially useful to her that those sermons were not formal and specialized but were generated, instead, from other followers’ experiences. With those sermons, she projected herself into others’ experiences that were similar to her own. Thus, she could sympathize with those sermons.

Another problem with conventional religious sources is that a priest at a temple preaches in a one-way flow of information to his lay followers. A widow attending a service at the temple would have no idea whether or not the topic would be suitable to her situation. At times, the service may get bogged down in complicated academic arguments relating to doctrine; at others it may simply concern an incident from the priest’s daily life. Simply put, services often do not meet listeners’ requirements.

The case of Ms. I. highlights two aspects of Internet use for religious purposes that are worthy of further examination. The first is the use of the Internet to find emotional relief after a personal loss, and the second is the search for emotional relief not in the form of direct religious answers such as sermons but in Internet forums and chat rooms that address emotional pain through dialogue.

Using the religious interaction models described previously, it can be concluded that there is little hope for the top-down, “talk-at-you-rather-than-with-you” approach of doctrine-centered communication. The fact that horizontal interaction, e.g., dialogue among forum members, acts to provide emotional relief is indeed noteworthy.

As Imaoka’s (2002) research shows, however, only a few religious websites respond to this demand. It can therefore be assumed that the gap between the actual state of religious websites and the demand is one reason why the incidence of religious Internet use in Japan is so low.

The Surveys

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Literature Review
  5. Internet Use by Japanese Religious Organizations
  6. The Surveys
  7. Conclusion
  8. Acknowledgment
  9. References

Research Objectives

In the preceding section, the use of Internet information was illustrated using the case of Ms. I. What, then, is the attitude of regular Internet users toward religions? Previously, I conducted studies of groups of followers such as YBA and temple chief priests (Fukamizu, 2004); however, these groups constitute a small part of the Jodo Shin sect, which, with six million followers, is the largest Buddhist denomination in Japan. For the present study, I conducted a new survey, this time of people attending the Higan autumn festival at Hongwanji (a head temple of the Jodo Shin sect), in order to highlight Internet use among the ordinary followers who make up the bulk of the sect. The aim of this survey is to compare the Higan data against older data and then to use this analysis to determine the influence of Internet use on religion.

Methodology

The following methods were employed for the two surveys:

  • A.
    Priest survey March and April of 2003 Sample: 800 priests selected from an official register of 10,000 priests Postal survey; valid responses: 188 Average age: 57.4
  • B.
    Higan Study September 23, 2004 (Holiday) Sample: Attendance at the Higan autumn festival at Hongwanji Face-to-face survey; valid responses: 293 Gender ratio: roughly 1:1 Average age: 55.4

Because the Higan study targeted those who attended services, the followers’ levels of faith and understanding of religion varied. Additionally, because the study was an on-the-street intentional (non-random) survey, the sample is not a pure sample of the parent population of followers, in contrast with the study of the priests. However, because the Jodo Shin sect does not keep a register of all followers, it was impossible to sample from the parent population, meaning that surveying people who attended Higan services at the head temple was the most appropriate method employable at the time. Moreover, it is almost impossible for outsider tourists to attend this service. The aim of this survey is therefore to examine Jodo Shinshu followers to the fullest extent possible (given these caveats), and compare them with priests.

Survey Results

These surveys featured two kinds of questions. The primary question was about Internet use; follow-up questions were on religious matters.

The primary question asked was: Have you ever used the Internet at least a few times per month? In the Priest study, 49 of 188 priests (26.1%) responded yes. In the Higan study, 77 of 293 followers (26.3%) responded yes.

Eight follow-up questions were also asked. The eight questions employed a response scale from 1 to 5 (1 = disagree; 5 = agree). Respondents replied with a number corresponding to the degree to which they agreed or disagreed with the questions regarding religious matters. To analyze the responses to these eight questions, factor analysis was performed with a promax rotation. (Promax rotation is one of the valid oblique rotations of factor analysis: Using promax rotation, we can distinguish a certain factor from other factors.) Table 1 shows these results.

Table 1.  Factor loading (promax rotation)
 Table of Factor Loading (promax rotation)
Factor 1Factor 2Factor 3Factor 4
Q 10.77140.1151−0.01480.0885
Q 20.6608−0.11360.0065−0.0837
Q 30.08870.77210.0502−0.1064
Q 4−0.07430.65880.00810.1221
Q 5−0.03880.03690.6964−0.0413
Q 60.02680.01970.68900.0599
Q 70.1128−0.07290.01360.7232
Q 8−0.15820.0653−0.00200.5711

The four factors listed below were then identified and named.

Factor 1: The sublimity of the Jodo Shin sect

Q1: If everyone were to follow the Jodo Shin sect, society would take a turn for the better.

Q2: Those who follow other religions, and who are completely unaware of the Jodo Shin sect, cannot be saved.

Factor 2: Religion as ethics and discipline

Q3: Even if my faith preaches a power other than my own, it is my own efforts that allow me to deepen my faith.

Q4: The idea of the Pure Land (“Jodo”) is a man-made creation, made for religious purposes.

Factor 3: The mystery of religion

Q5: The spiritual phenomena that people claim to experience are fake, but there is a spiritual world that exists beyond human cognizance.

Q6: Faith can cure illness and make wishes come true.

Factor 4: Religion as emotional healing

Q7: Placing oneself in the hands of Amitabha means doing nothing.

Q8: The evolution of psychology renders religion unnecessary.

Through analysis of the foregoing, factor scores were derived for each group. Table 2 indicates the average factor scores.

Table 2.  Average factor scores
 Average Factor Score
Factor 1Factor 2Factor 3Factor 4sample
priest0.4073−0.7041−0.5939−0.5529159
Higan−0.30990.53570.45180.4207209

Figure 2 indicates an interesting contradiction between priests and lay followers. The Jodo Shin sect is Japan’s largest Buddhist organization with about seven hundred years of history. But its size and age mean that it has faced a number of disputes within its ranks. Many researchers have pointed these out (e.g., Andreasen, 1998). For example, there are times lay followers want to hold a memorial service for a deceased family member, but priests refuse to hold such ceremonies. As a result of analysis conducted as part of this study, these contradictions are clearly apparent in Figure 2. For example, on Factor 2, followers consider religion to be ethics and discipline, but priests strongly deny this idea.

image

Figure 2. Average factor scores

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Putting this contradiction aside, the above results were divided into two groups based on the primary question, Have you ever used the Internet? The results are shown in Table 3 and Figure 3.

image

Figure 3. Average factor scores of non-Internet users and Internet users

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Table 3.  Average factor scores of non-Internet users and Internet users
 Average Factor Scores of Non-Internet Users
Factor 1Factor 2Factor 3Factor 4sample
priest0.4864−0.7554−0.6473−0.5405118
Higan−0.21700.54940.45850.4108145
Average Factor Scores of Internet Users
 Factor 1Factor 2Factor 3Factor 4sample
priest0.1095−0.5473−0.3963−0.614538
Higan−0.52040.50450.43660.442964

T-tests were then performed on the average scores for the two groups to compare Internet users and non-users with regards to each factor. Table 4 indicates those p values.

Table 4.  P values
 Factor 1Factor 2Factor 3Factor 4
priest (non-user: user)0.0063**0.13820.0553*0.4702
Higan (non-user: user)0.0085**0.49000.81440.7632

Two significant differences (**p<0.01) are found in the Factor 1 column. There is a negative correlation between Factor 1 and Internet use. This correlation appears in both the surveys of priests and Higan attendees. It can therefore be concluded that Internet use lowers Factor 1, the sublimity of the Jodo Shin sect. Furthermore, another significant difference (*p<0.06) can be seen in Factor 3 for priests. Internet use decreases Factor 3, the mystery of religion.

Analysis of Results

How then is one to comprehend the negative correlation between Internet use and the sublimity of the Jodo Shin sect, which was observed in the surveys of both priests and followers? One hypothesis is that the correlation was caused by age. Table 5 shows a comparison of Internet users and non-users among priests and followers.

Table 5.  Average ages of Internet users and non-users among priests and followers
Average ages
 PriestsHigan
  1. Note: T-test p<0.001

Non-user60.6657.32
User47.0844.17
Difference13.5813.14

Table 5 shows that there is a significant difference in the average age vis-à-vis Internet use: Internet use is more common among younger people. Because the question regarding Internet use classified Internet users as people who log on at least several times a month, it is difficult to conclude that Internet use itself creates any characteristics among these groups. That is, the result of the Internet use question was to establish which generations use the Internet. In that sense, the negative correlation in Factor 1 can be viewed as a gap between generations for which Internet use is a valid indicator.

Another hypothesis is that the gap is caused by a difference in the degree of faith and understanding of religion between priests and followers. However, the correlation applied not only to followers but to priests as well. If it was caused by a difference in the degree of faith and understanding of religion, differences should appear between priests and followers in all four of the factors presented above. But the Internet use indicator caused a negative correlation for both priests and followers only in relation to Factor 1, which leads to the inference that it is unrelated to faith or religious understanding.

Based on these findings, this study concludes that a negative relationship indeed exists between the generations of Internet users as regards Factor 1, the sublimity of the Jodo Shin sect. In other words, members of the Internet-using generation—even priests—are beginning to harbor doubts about the sublimity of their religion.

Critical Attitude?

In this study, doubts about one’s own religion are called “critical attitude” (Facione, 2004). What causes such critical attitudes to appear among the Internet-using generation? The evolution of the media and the resultant dramatic increase in the volume of information is thought to be one explanation. Modern media are descendants of the development of printing technology, and those media now mean that it is easy to broadcast any message. But modern media were formerly focused on commercial printing, which conferred only to certain people the power to spread messages, e.g., commercial writers with superior language skills. The Internet, that postmodern communication medium descended from the printing press, has opened up the possibility for message dissemination to anyone with access to Internet technologies.

In pre-modern times, according to Shimazono (2004), the world heard only polished, charismatic voices, and followers invested their faith in these people. I propose that in modern times, these voices gave way to the printed word. Religious groups regulated who could and could not spread the gospel, controlling also the quality of the information disseminated. But postmodern media like the Internet have opened up the floodgates for the voices of the masses, charismatic or otherwise. The quality of these messages varies, and even those dulcet broadcasters admired by religious groups have lost the special status they enjoyed earlier. There is no religious group that is able to regulate and control its followers.

According to the modern faith model described above, by increasing the number of information sources, the Internet promotes horizontal interaction and undermines the one-way, top-down information flow of doctrine. Given the glut of information of varying quality, people are becoming increasingly unable to place absolute faith in a specific voice. Awash in a flood of information, Internet users must constantly examine information critically to see if it is worthy of faith. These critics are skeptical of everything and do not make judgments lightly or take action quickly. Even priests and followers display evidence of critical attitudes, especially toward certain expressions of faith, and, of special symbolic importance, they attempt to avoid passing judgment on the sublimity of the Jodo Shin sect.

These critical attitudes also appear in Factor 3. Priests believe in the doctrine of Buddhism, which consists of logical theology. They do not accept any unexplained phenomena of a mysterious nature. But the flood of information on the Internet contains all sorts of mysteries, and priests who use the Internet encounter them. Some are incredible and some meaningless, and therefore the priests adopt a critical attitude towards them and subsequently display a neutral attitude towards Factor 3, the mystery of religion, thus avoiding judgment.

The author’s research leads to the conclusion that the evolution of the media is causing critical attitudes among Internet users that manifest in the way they avoid believing in religious claims. Table 6 summarizes this view.

Table 6.  Evolution of religious media
EraMediumSpeakers’“Charisma” levelNumber of speakersInformation qualityRecipients
Pre-modernSacred textsHighVery fewHighBelievers
ModernMass/Commercial printingMediumÅ′Å™Followers
Post-modernInternet(not relevant)Very manyLowCritics

Conclusion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Literature Review
  5. Internet Use by Japanese Religious Organizations
  6. The Surveys
  7. Conclusion
  8. Acknowledgment
  9. References

From Personal Faith to Shared Faith

As Shimazono (2004) explains, modern religion uses religious narrative based on actual experiences to convince followers to accept lofty religious concepts. These experiential narratives are what religious followers share among themselves as modern and post-modern religious doctrine. At the same time, individual tales always referred to existing doctrine and needed the authority of the religion behind them if they were to be spread widely. This results in the inverted T-shaped interaction model presented in the literature review that indicates the relationship between members’ personal faith and doctrine.

It is therefore a characteristic of religious websites that they tend to contain not only traditional existing doctrine but also personal confessions of faith. Moreover, online forums have transformed faith from something private to something shared with others. In such forums, participants exchange and examine their faiths based on personal life experiences (Brasher, 2001). The Internet means that these tales are subject to large-scale communication, examination, and reference.

Online groups that share information, including stories of personal experience, are beginning to have greater influence on followers than has existing authoritative doctrine. The case of Ms. I. tells us that the Internet can be highly effective as a medium for promoting reciprocal interaction. Behind this development is the inability of supply to meet demand—that is to say, religious groups and specialists are failing to provide what followers require.

Modern Japanese religions have traditionally emphasized top-down communication derived from doctrine. As discussed above, however, people today want a kind of religion that is built on credible tales of experience shared through two-way interaction. Unfortunately, Japanese modern religions fail to satisfy those requirements, and so there is a movement towards more palatable religious interaction through sharing experiential narratives. The medium that so effectively propelled this “horizontal” interaction onto a wider plane has been the Internet.

However, as can be observed in the case of Ms. I., from a larger perspective, the degree to which the Internet functions effectively as a place to share stories of personal experience is as yet small. In fact, much of the information posted on the Internet is not worthy of faith and is subject to skepticism by Internet information recipients. Many of these online tales of experience are not of the same high quality as discussed earlier, and within these Internet-based systems of interaction, existing doctrines lose their status and are buried under the overwhelming volume of low-quality information (Meyrowitz, 1985). For example, when I recently input key words such as “Jodo Shinshu” [Jodo Shin Sect] into various search engines, they retrieved many websites, with the official website below the second position.

The impact this situation has had is reflected in the results of the survey questionnaire described in this study. In the thick fog of online information, the Internet generation, even priests, are losing sight of the lofty religious standards of traditional doctrine and are adopting critical attitudes (Lövheim, 2004).

In conclusion, it can be inferred that the Internet is effective at providing the horizontal interaction that is required of, but not provided by, present-day religions. In this study of Japanese Buddhism, Ms. I.’s case is an as-yet rare example of the desired effect being obtained. At the same time, the Internet is pushing many people to adopt critical attitudes, against the wishes of established religions.

In modern religious groups, reference to, and regulation by, traditional doctrines once served as the rudder to give direction to the organization. Doctrine-less organizations based solely on dialogue lack that rudder and are therefore vulnerable to loss of control. Fortunately, Ms. I. found herself in a benevolent situation. But many online forums are filled with doubt and criticism, and the absolute object of faith is lost.

In the modern era, people were afraid of runaway ideology (Hayek, 1944), but postmodern society is in danger of becoming a runaway society without even ideology to cling to. This study has shown that people are adopting critical attitudes, wherein they express doubt about everything, even their own religious attitudes.

The Future of Religion in the Age of the Internet

This article examined the influence of the Internet on religion in Japan. It was found that the Internet can be very effective in cases like that of Ms. I., but that is also causes people to become critical, a trend antithetical to traditional faith. This is borne out in the fact that established Japanese religions have a hard time adapting to the Internet.

What role, then, can established religious groups play in the postmodern Internet age? Some insight may be gained from a consideration of effective online self-help groups. As Ms. I. discovered, self-help groups can be a means of communication for people in difficult situations—for example, alcohol dependency, divorce, loss of a loved one—to assist each other as they try to move beyond their difficulties.

One example in the Japanese context is the website Tanjoushi [Birth Death] (Ryuzan Shizan Shinseijishi-de Ko wo Nakushita Oyanokai, n.d.). The site is centered on forums for mothers who have lost their babies to miscarriage, stillbirth, or neonatal death. Until now, such deaths were concealed euphemistically by terms such as mizuko (literally “water baby”, a tacit synonym for a dead fetus), and rarely spoken of publicly. But of course, some mothers simply cannot forget about such experiences. By encouraging them to talk about and share their experiences, something that would never have been expressed openly to others previously, the Tanjoushi website helps mothers lessen their emotional burden.

However, although the Tanjoushi website is well operated, even this site is susceptible to lurching in unintended directions, as was suggested in the section on critical attitudes. For example, the women who participate often refer to their lost baby as an “angel.” However, if they regard an “angel” as a malevolent spirit, this network may begin to dissolve into hate and rancor—and there is no stable institution or organization to prevent it from doing so.

This is where existing religious groups and doctrines can play a role. For instance, Ms. I. searched for a Jodo Shin website because she was a member of that religion through traditional family ties. Yet people who participate in online dialogue may worry about whether the interaction is reliable or whether it will escalate into something dangerous, as seen in the cases of the Aum Supreme Truth cult and the Jonestown Massacre in Guyana. The brand value, as it were, that existing religions hold for addressing such anxieties and doubts inspires trust and belief, backed up by the long traditions that they provide.

Indeed, formation of a worldview using terms that are part of traditional doctrine may be an effective way of establishing a cycle of dialogue. The following is a model of what such a new form of religion might look like.

Traditionally, the modern religious group system had a triangular structure: It governed members with the existing doctrine at its peak. However, in the postmodern model, horizontal interaction enables a mutual form of reference and regulation, and horizontal dialogue begins to take the place of of existing doctrine. In other words, people refer to and regulate one another. Conversely, existing doctrine deviates from dialogue, and it is harder for religious groups to directly control dialogue, but that does not make existing groups redundant. There is hope that, in this computerized age, using the brand power and terminology that only existing religious groups can confer to establish a forum for dialogue will provide the firm but gentle control needed to help prevent horizontal dialogue from getting out of hand.

Acknowledgment

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Literature Review
  5. Internet Use by Japanese Religious Organizations
  6. The Surveys
  7. Conclusion
  8. Acknowledgment
  9. References

This study was supported in part by Japan Society for the Promotion of Science Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research #17330115.

References

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  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Literature Review
  5. Internet Use by Japanese Religious Organizations
  6. The Surveys
  7. Conclusion
  8. Acknowledgment
  9. References
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About the Author
  1. Rev. Kenshin Fukamizu is a vice-chief priest of the Senshouji (Jodo Shin) temple, Hiroshima prefecture. He holds a Master of Arts (Sociology of Religion) from Kyushu University, and has completed Ph.D. courses in science of religion from Kyushu University and in sociology from Hiroshima University. He teaches a Computer Skills class at Kanto Gakuin University. His current research interests focus on what kind of changes appear in a religion when many people use the Internet. He has conducted many research projects within the Jodo Shinshu denomination and is one of the first scholars of religion in Japan to point out the influence of the Internet in the sphere of religion.

    Address: 480-1 Kamishiwachi Miyoshi, Hiroshima, Japan