F&A Series: ‘Community-based Care and the Possibility of Religious Activism in Japan’

Aura Di Febo recently completed a PhD in Japanese Studies at the University of Manchester. Her research looks at the social engagement and public presence of religious organisations in contemporary Japan. Currently a postdoctoral fellow in the UKRI project “Religion and Minority” and a Lecturer at the University of Leeds.

At present Japan faces a range of pressing social issues, including a crisis in welfare and care provision for its shrinking and aging population. Recent developments in social policy have addressed the issue by fostering a shift toward a “community-based welfare system”, rooted on the cooperation between a wide range of public, quasi-public and private actors. Within this context, religious organisations as well have come to play an important role as formal and informal providers of social care. To what extent, however, are they able to take part in communal networks of support? In this piece, I draw from the case of the lay Buddhist organisation Risshō Kōseikai,[1] to discuss some of the issues faced by religious activists in Japan. More specifically, I argue that religious actors’ involvement in community-based networks is subordinated to a “concealment” of their religiosity.

This raises important questions about the possibility of religious activism in Japan. Although faith represents a powerful motivation for social mobilisation, its overt expression becomes an obstacle to activism, undermining practitioners’ efforts to foster cooperation with public and private actors and promote initiatives. Japanese religious institutions experience a range of limitations stemming from the formal exclusion of religion from the public sphere and social mistrust of organised religion, primarily associated to the terrorist attack perpetrated by the new religious group Aum Shinrikyō in 1995.[2] Legal constraints, most notably the constitutional principle of separation of religion and the state, significantly hinder Kōseikai-inspired activism, affecting practitioners’ interaction with public actors, and their capacity to secure permission for their initiatives or access spaces, services, and financial benefits. The widespread social mistrust of religious institutions exacerbates these issues, hampering the implementation of activities, recruitment of participants, and cooperation with local actors.

In my fieldwork, a representative example in this respect came from “Meisha A”, a branch of the “Movement for a Brighter Society” (Akarui shakai-zukuri undō, Meisha for short), launched by Kōseikai’s founder in 1969. Albeit formally independent, the two organisations remain tightly related: Kōseikai members represent the near totality of the volunteers supporting Meisha, which also rely extensively on the financial and logistic support of the religious organisation. Meisha A constitute an exception among local branches, given its decision to decisively distance itself from Kōseikai. According to Goto, president of the association, this had been instrumental to their success. The many services provided by Meisha were rooted on an extensive network of collaborations with the public administration, the social welfare council,[3] educational institutions and non-profit organisations (NPOs). Goto believed that an organisation manifesting an overt religious connotation would have never been able to build those ties, or implement similar initiatives; people would not use its services, the public administration would not support it, other associations would refuse to cooperate with it. “Since Japanese people fear religion”, Goto observed, “faith becomes a barrier that separates religious actors from the rest of society”, limiting their capacity to foster change.

Kōseikai members adopt several strategies aimed at circumventing these limitations and increasing their trustworthiness in the eyes of the community. These combined patterns of legitimation based on the removal of explicit markers of religious identity, and affiliation with reliance on the mediation of nonreligious actors.

For religiously-inspired associations, incorporation offers one possible pathway of legitimation, serving to attest to their trustworthiness and help boost recruitment beyond the congregation. In the past, Meisha A experienced some frictions with the public administration, which Goto attributed to their association with Kōseikai. In the attempt to establish a clean-cut separation from the religious organisation, he decided to apply for incorporation. The strategy proved successful: their relationship with the city office improved drastically, they established a partnership and were granted financial support. Obtaining official recognition also paved the way to cooperation with other institutions. The shift in legal status had not substantially changed their relationship with Kōseikai, whose members still constituted the core of the association membership (and leadership). Incorporation, however, allowed Meisha A to formally severe ties with Kōseikai, and served to guarantee their reliability in the eyes of citizens due to the tighter control that the state exerts on NPOs compared to unincorporated associations.

Incorporation, though, is not a dominant trend among Kōseikai members, who operate mainly through unincorporated associations or in individual capacity. In those cases, practitioners can choose other means to legitimise themselves in the eyes of public functionaries, social care providers and community members. In particular, practitioners often channelled their activism through social welfare councils. Besides access to training, logistic support, publicity, and volunteering opportunities, registering as individual volunteers or as a voluntary group provide also a pattern of legitimation. Welfare councils’ careful monitoring of volunteers vouched for practitioners’ reliability, smoothing their interaction with providers and recipients of care. In general, Kōseikai members noted how legally, professionally or publicly recognised statuses helped counter the limitations associated with religious affiliation, and facilitated access to key services and resources, as well as collaboration with public and private actors. These roles, however, commonly implied a prohibition to overtly express one’s faith.[4]

Another strategy centred reliance on non-Kōseikai actors as intermediaries and guarantors of trustworthiness, as exemplified by Meisha’s leadership system. It was common for local branches to ask an influential member of the community, not affiliated with Kōseikai, to assume the leading role. That had also been the case for Meisha A, where president Goto was not himself a member.

Overall, Kōseikai members’ ability to circumvent the limitations encountered in their activism was directly dependent on their willingness to conceal their religiosity. These considerations highlight the complex relationship existing between faith and activism in Japan: while the first often motivates and supports the latter, in practice it can often hinder the very change religious practitioners seek to implement.

Written By: Dr Aura Di Febo

Image Credit: Dr Aura Di Febo

[1] For more details see also https://religioninpublic.leeds.ac.uk/2018/12/17/socio-religious-networks-of-support-in-contemporary-japan-mutual-assistance-in-local-congregations-of-rissho-koseikai/#more-1108. For a comprehensive overview of the movement see https://wrldrels.org/2016/10/08/rissho-koseikai/ (Accessed 17/02/2020).

[2] See Baffelli, Erica and Reader, Ian. 2012. “Editor’s Introduction. Impact and Ramifications: The Aftermath of the Aum Affair in the Japanese Religious Context”. Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 39(1), 1-28. https://nirc.nanzan-u.ac.jp/nfile/4081

[3] Social welfare councils (shakai fukushi kyōgikai, in short shakyō) are quasi-governmental associations promoting community work and volunteering.

[4] For further details see https://nonreligionandsecularity.wordpress.com/2018/12/17/negotiating-religion-in-secularised-domains-religiously-inspired-social-care-in-japan/ (Accessed 23/02/2020).