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Transcending Borders in the Wake of Catastrophe: Religion and Spiritual Care after the 11 March 2011 Earthquake in Japan

Panel Chair: Elisabetta Porcu | Tuesday, August 25, 1:30-3 p.m.

This panel examines religious responses to the 3.11 disasters in Japan with a focus on survivors’ interactions with the tsunami dead and the emerging trend of “spiritual care.” The important role of psychiatrists and psychologists in providing “mental care” to disaster victims has been acknowledged since the Hanshin Awaji Earthquake of 1995. However, relatively little has been introduced about “spiritual care” as practiced by religious specialists and the religious needs of disaster victims. The 2000s saw the growing recognition of “spiritual care” by doctors and nurses in aid for the dying and the terminally ill. This type of care was distinguished from “religious care” and counseling in favor of a particular religious persuasion. In the wake of 3.11, religious specialists downplayed their own sectarian identity and explored new standards for “spiritual care” and grief-counseling in trans-religious networks, raising new questions about the “public” role of religion in a post-secular age.

Tim Graf

Religion in the Public Sphere: Policy Changes, Regionalism, and the Rise of “Spiritual Care” in post-3/11 Japan

This paper presents perspectives on religious responses to the 11 March 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster through the lens of Japan’s constitutional separation of religion and state. I will begin by outlining the role of Buddhist temples as emergency shelters in the wake of 3.11, followed by a discussion of the ways in which religious activists promote the use of religious sites as designated refuge centers in dialogue with local governments. Part two of my presentation explores the shifting role of religion in the public sphere with a focus on trans-religious relief networks and collaborations between clergy, scholars of religion and medical doctors in post-3.11 “spiritual care” programs that have worked to shape a notably more positive image of religion in the media by reassessing the role of religion as a socially engaged practice, and by enabling religious specialists to practice “spiritual care” at hospitals and healthcare facilities.

Hara Takahashi

Tales about Ghosts of the Tsunami Dead and their Reception in Japan’s Religious Landscape

In this paper, the author provides an overview of how religious professionals, especially Buddhist monks, are dealing with so-called occult phenomena in the tsunami stricken areas after the Great East Japan Earthquake. Most of the ghost tales seem to result from a variety of unconscious anxieties, and monks are often consulted in such cases. Generally, they accept ghost tales for what they are, and conduct religious ceremonies that intend to bring peace to the restless souls, usually by reciting a sutra. While this seems to be inconsistent with Buddhist doctrine, clergy never fail to add some instructive advice that the souls of the deceased never do any harm, and that it’s important to take care of the dead through daily rituals. Monks seem to view their clients’ distress to be settled in the course of time. In this way, monks contribute to providing spiritual care to the tsunami survivors.

Norichika Horie

Continuing Bonds in the Disaster Area: Locating the Destinations of Spirits

This paper is a report of qualitative and quantitative research on “continuing bonds” with the deceased in the areas affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake. The disaster victims recount that it is normal for them to have conversations with the deceased, and that the continuing bonds with the deceased make them feel better. Communities of grief, within which stories about the dead are shared, have emerged among the bereaved. These groups share a stronger belief in religion and the afterlife than the general public according to opinion polls. Apart from heart-warming stories about the “familiar spirits” of loved ones, scary ghost stories about “unfamiliar spirits” are also shared with different frequencies in different places. Being affiliated with a Buddhist temple may strengthen the continuing bonds with familiar spirits. Many victims, however, consider their connection to the deceased to be stronger than their connection to the priests.


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