Japanese Secularities and the Decline of Temple Buddhism

In: Journal of Religion in Japan
John K. Nelson University of San Francisco San Francisco USA

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In many ways, Japan provides a predictable example of how historical, political, economic, and cultural factors in the postwar and late-modern periods influence the interactivity of religious affiliations and secular forces. And yet, to grasp the complexity of the situation also requires a broader analytical perspective, one that can incorporate secularizing influences that are harder to identify because they are more globally diffuse. Based on extended fieldwork that has examined the ‘boom and bust’ of contemporary Japanese temple Buddhism, I first discuss historical and political legacies unique to Japan that have shaped local secularities. Additionally, concepts of Japanese religiosity and secularity have been referenced in controversial court cases that are relevant to the practice of religion in the public sphere. Finally, the discussion surveys forces that are domestic and familiar as well as global and invasive—new information technologies, greater personal agency, hyper-consumerism, corporate and bureaucratic restructuring, and a growing tolerance for diversity—impacting traditional temple Buddhism. Each one of these factors is significant in understanding Japan’s secularities. The purpose here is to see them as a mutually-reinforcing and interactive web of relations and consequences for the Japanese people and the religious institutions in their midst.

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