Japan: Religion and culture today


Issue: "Troops hunt for weapons," June 14, 2003

The black frock coat-wearers of the late 19th century did leave behind one signal accomplishment. One of the houses at Glover Garden contains the student benches of the Old Steel Memorial Academy, which opened in 1887. A plaque at a nearby museum devoted to private schools notes that Dutch Reformed missionaries opened two schools, Methodists two more, and Episcopalians another. "They worked diligently and founded schools to realize their ideals." Their efforts were not completely in vain, because men like Rev. Michael Kiyonubu Kozaki, the pastor at Peace Memorial Church (located near Nagasaki's atom-bomb site) came to Christ at those diligently founded schools.

Rev. Kozaki and I spoke one evening in Nagasaki about what he learned at an Anglican school begun a century before. "My parents didn't care about Christianity; my father was strong in Buddhism, and also went to a Shinto shrine. But he wanted the best education for me. Once a week we had a class on Christianity. I thought, 'There is no God, why must we study about God and about the Bible?' But then I thought, 'It is easy to say there is no God, I should test my opinions by going to chapel.' I was surprised there, because when we sang a hymn about God's love, I cried. I did not know then why I cried. Now I know. My father and mother were always fighting, there was always serious pressure in my life. In the church time I touched love, agape, for the first time. I was touched. Jesus loved me. I cried."

Rev. Kozaki leaned forward, gesturing with his hands: "Most Japanese think, 'I am the center. If I feel the need for God, I will go to a Buddhist temple tomorrow.' That turns Copernicus on his head. People years ago thought the sun was moving and Earth was in the center. I tell them, 'God is not moving, you are moving.' For most Japanese, the subject is always the person, the object is God. Buddhism reinforces that, giving us customs without belief, saying our minds are central. I tell people, 'You must change your thoughts. God is the central point. The subject is Jesus, the object is you.'"

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He concluded, "Our real Japanese religion has been business. Work hard, save money. That is good as far as it goes, but business cannot save us. During the past few years Japan has been changing. People in their 20s and 30s are changing. They say, 'My parents believed in the company, but the company is in trouble.' What should I believe in? Buddhism? But Buddhism cannot save them."

Many Japanese say their real faith has been in their company and Japan's government. The Buddhist background is evident: Officials call briefing sessions on new pieces of legislation okyo-yomi, sutra-chanting. Two out of five Japanese adult males are "salarymen" who work all day in a corporate or government office and are obligated to spend most evenings with business associates. They commute three hours per day because land close to city centers is prohibitively expensive, and overall may have kugyo comparable in difficulty to that of Shingon or Tendai priests. Wives, typically charged with keeping homes pristine and children disciplined, and increasingly taking part-time jobs to gain income or satisfy occupational longings, have their own kugyo.

And for what? Veteran missionary Mark Dominey, who lives in a 35-floor apartment building in the Tokyo area with 1,000 other people, notes that salarymen don't arrive home until 11 on the average: "After work comes eating, drinking, and playing with bar hostesses. Often, children only see their fathers on Sundays. Most families are dysfunctional by Western standards." One student at Kyoto International University reported that she hardly saw her father on Sundays either, because he was so tired that he slept much of the day.

The domestic situation for those with family businesses-perhaps one-fifth of the workforce-is much better. Farmers, teachers, and many others also have more independence. Salarymen may head to Kyoto's famous entertainment district, the Gion, where I saw one throwing up in a creek, but other fathers are hands-on and may even clean up their babies' throw-up.

Here's another behavioral twist: While in theory many Japanese profess belief in karma, in practice many look to luck. Many Japanese brandish o-mamori, safety charms. Thought to be valid for only one year, many people buy new ones in December or January and leave the old ones at a shrine to be ritually burned. Adults attach them to car windshields and schoolchildren to their satchels. Many Japanese streets will not have a house address ending in 4, because the numeral 4 can be read as shi, which is pronounced the same as the word for death. Meanwhile, many Japanese try to cover themselves by having Shinto birth ceremonies, Buddhist funerals, and "Christian weddings," which have become fashionable.


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