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.
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.