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Attempts at Adaptation in Contemporary Japanese Buddhism: Organizational and Discursive Transformation in the Pure Land Tradition

Panel Chair: Michael Conway | Friday, August 28, 3:30-5:30 p.m.

In the years since the close of World War II, Japanese society has transformed from a primarily agrarian one to a highly urbanized, post-industrial one. These demographic shifts have physically alienated the established religious institutions from their traditional support base, as temple members have moved en masse to urban centers. In this time period, the process of secularization has also advanced more rapidly than in much of the rest of the world, such that the majority of contemporary Japanese self-identify as “irreligious.” This intellectual alienation has become a major barrier to the attempts of religious institutions to maintain connections to their membership. This panel explores how the established religious institutions have attempted to adapt to this situation. We will show how the Shin Buddhist denomination has consciously attempted to transform both organizationally and discursively to meet the demands of a contemporary audience and inquire into the effectiveness of these attempts.

Robert Rhodes

Transforming and Re-transforming Japanese Pure Land Buddhism: The Dōbōkai Movement of the Shinshū Ōtani-ha and Its Contemporary Criticism

The Dōbōkai (Religious Fellowship) Movement, started in the 1960s by the leadership of the Shinshū Ōtani-ha (Higashi Honganji), was a radical attempt to restructure the denomination’s activities by shifting its focus away from conducting funerals to fostering the faith of the individual believers. But especially after the disastrous tsunami of March 11, 2011, the movement’s downplaying of funerals has been questioned by those concerned with the issues of death and the afterlife. Similarly, its emphasis on the individual has been opposed by those who place greater importance on the communal aspects of religion. This paper will discuss these recent criticisms of the Dōbōkai movement and consider how they may impact the future of the Higashi Honganji.

Yasushi Kigoshi

The Struggles of Traditional Buddhist Denominations in Contemporary Japan: The Case of the Shinshū Ōtani-ha

The fundamental problems facing Japanese society at present are the issues of declining birth rates and population concentration. Since birth rates dropped while the Japanese population also came to have the longest life expectancy in the world, the issue of an aging society, where the elderly outnumber the working population, has become a major source of anxiety regarding the country’s future. Further, as the population has become more and more concentrated in prosperous, convenient, large cities, the number of marginal villages throughout the country that are in danger of complete depopulation has grown rapidly. Established religious organizations have been forced to attempt to transform themselves in order to survive within these new demographic conditions. This presentation will introduce the current state of these organizations and how they are attempting to adapt to this situation by focusing on efforts within the Shin school, the largest among traditional Japanese Buddhist denominations.

Shin Fujieda

Secularized Statements by Japanese Buddhist Denominations Concerning Brain Death and Organ Transplants

Public statements concerning medical issues related to brain death and organ transplants have occasionally been issued by Japanese Buddhist denominations. Unfortunately, they have had little impact on the creation of legislation and the formation of popular opinion concerning medical issues. Presently, when the understanding of religion as a matter belonging solely to the private sphere is becoming ever more prevalent, it appears that established organized religions have had to accept that their influence in such matters is declining. To adapt to these circumstances, religious organizations sometimes have refrained from using religious vocabulary and employed secular language when issuing statements concerning medical issues. How are these secularized statements of Buddhist denominations related to the discussions concerning brain death and organ transplants in contemporary Japan? This is the issue I will take up in my paper.

Tomomichi Nitta

The Incorporation of Methods of Contemporary Psychology into Shin Buddhist Ministry

In recent years, the number of Buddhist ministers (including ministers in the Shin school) who are attempting to contribute to society by offering psychological care has increased. The methodological foundation for their activities is laid upon contemporary psychological methods combined with a discourse of “spirituality.” While these activities can be seen as attempts to adapt religious discourse to the needs of a contemporary audience, the issue of the continuity between these new approaches and traditional doctrinal systems is very much open to question. This paper will introduce the activities of these Shin Buddhist ministers, point out the differences between their approach and traditional Shin doctrine, and consider the implications of the problems that arise from this dissonance.

Michael Pye


The respondent will address the issues raised in the papers of this panel.


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