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From Disparities in Compassion to Mutual Support
Pinning Hope on the Social Contributions of Religion

by Keishin Inaba

Religions can use their "social capital" to promote humanitarian volunteer work, which in turn spreads a spirit of compassion that helps build a society of mutual support.

When people speak of a society of inequality, they normally are thinking of a society in which income differentials have grown prominent, but in the following I wish to address the topic of a society with conspicuous differentials in feelings of compassion. I call it "a society of disparities in compassion," and it is one in which differences have arisen in the strength of compassionate feelings.

Modern Japanese society is moving decisively in the direction of neoliberalism and self-responsibility. It is a society with a strong current of egotism, of the thinking that "all is well as long as I get what I want." In a 2009 opinion poll on social attitudes conducted by the Cabinet Office, 45.8 percent of the respondents characterized the current age as one in which people put their own interests first in one multiple-answer question, while only 11.2 percent called it an age of compassion in another.

Even as some individuals devote their energies to self-interest and self-protection, however, there are others who feel uncomfortable with a society of excessive egotism and pursuit of profits, and some participate enthusiastically in volunteer welfare activities. In this way, Japan is becoming a country of disparities in compassion, with a dividing line between those who do and do not act compassionately toward others.

Needless to say, adults who think little about others and are lacking in compassion influence children by the way they lead their lives. Survey results show that the strength of compassionate feelings among Japanese elementary school pupils declined rapidly in the 1970s and 1980s and has remained at a low level since the 1990s. Economic disparities are problematic in their own right, but when one considers the responsibility of adults for bringing up the next generation, one can say that disparities in compassion are of even greater concern. We have reached the point where action is imperative to regain truly human compassion and build a society of mutual support. (Based on this belief, the author in 2008 published a book titled Omoiyari kakusa ga Nihon o dame ni suru: Sasae-au shakai o tsukuru yattsu no apurochi [Disparities in Compassion Will Ruin Japan: Eight Approaches to Building a Society of Mutual Support]).

A Judgmental Society: The Loneliness of the Modern Individual

Why have disparities in compassion arisen? One of the main causes, I would say, is our "judgmental society." After we come into the world and while we are growing up, we are constantly under pressure from being evaluated by those around us. There is no end to the judgments. Are we going to a good school or good university? Have we landed a job at a first-rate company? Are we satisfactorily performing our assigned tasks? Of course, it is a fine thing to strive with all your might, receive a just evaluation, and be rewarded for your efforts. In an environment of never-ending evaluation, however, you may be unable to easily admit your blunders or tell somebody about your worries, since that could cause you to be seen in a less favorable light. Interpersonal relations weaken in this kind of setting. Individuals keep their worries to themselves, and not a few eventually commit suicide as a result. More than thirty thousand Japanese take their own lives every year. Japanese society gives such individuals but a sideways glance. It has become a place in which many people focus their attention narrowly on efficiency and profits and pay little consideration to others. Meanwhile, there are also others who choose another road, one of a compassionate way of life, and you will find them volunteering for disaster relief or working with nonprofit welfare organizations. The disparities in compassion just keep on widening.

Social Capital

Beneath a society's assorted organizations and groups is a foundation of trust, norms, and reciprocity between individuals, and when this foundation is firm and strong, it works to the advantage of organizations and groups. Mutual-support activities motivated by compassion become livelier, and various social problems are remedied. The trust, norms, and reciprocity between individuals in organizations and groups constitute "social capital."

In the aftermath of the 1995 Kobe earthquake, media coverage enabled people to see the flood of volunteers from all over the country into the affected areas. In the World Values Survey (WVS, http://www.worldvaluessurvey.org/) conducted during that year, the degree to which individuals trust other people rose in Japan. Upon witnessing the existence of fellow Japanese who felt compassion for the suffering of others and were ready to take action on their behalf, many people became more willing to place trust in others. Trust gains strength in places where volunteerism is flourishing. Data of the WVS collected from more than thirty countries have identified a strong correlation between such mutual-support activities as volunteer work and the ability to trust others. And as interest in the concept of social capital spread around the world, countries started implementing a variety of policy measures to utilize it.

Why has social capital come to be regarded as valuable? Like many other countries, Japan has become increasingly democratic, and people have pursued greater affluence. But modern society also has a host of problems, such as crime, poverty, environmental degradation, and terrorism. Urbanization has progressed, nuclear families have spread, and the framework of the community faces the danger of collapse. With people placing supreme value on the market, economic differentials have widened. Today, in reaction to these trends, criticism of excessive egotism is on the rise, and the longing for a mutual-support society is strengthening. It is in this context that social capital has attracted attention.

Religion as Social Capital

Religion is considered to be one of the wellsprings of social capital. In a society of risks, where people cannot easily place trust in others, interpersonal relations grow weak, and individuals lead lives that are not closely connected to social capital. Human beings cannot live, however, in the absence of relationships based on trust. They therefore strive to develop such relationships, though they find this to be no easy task in a world where social capital is in short supply. Religious organizations, meanwhile, connect individuals together on the basis of faith, and they have the potential to serve as the foundation of a community. That is why people in Western countries have in recent years been looking at religion as a form of social capital.

An effort is going forward in Britain to create an inclusive society embracing all who have been excluded or become isolated. The British government enthusiastically introduced the concept of social capital and is promoting partnerships with citizens on a voluntary basis. At the same time, charities grounded in a faith are engaged in wide-ranging fields on the front lines of social welfare, where they are seeking, for instance, to eradicate poverty.

In the United States, the land of "civil religions," their roots planted in the Declaration of Independence and the words and actions of the nation's founders, about half the people attend church services once a week. Over the course of each year, welfare services run by religious organizations extend support to more than 70 million Americans. Religions in the United States have developed connections with social welfare and community-based mutual-support activities.

Social Contribution Made by Japan's Religions

In 2006 a Japanese research project was launched on the social contributions of religions, and information on it can be found at the Web site http://keishin.way-nifty.com/scar/ (in Japanese). For a definition of the social contributions of religions, I proposed the following: "contributions to the resolution of problems in the various fields of society and to sustaining and improving the quality of human life made by people of religion, religious organizations, or culture, ideology, or other affairs with a religious connection."

Religion plays an important role in the fostering of compassion toward others, which underlies activities to make social contributions. Undertakings by religious organizations and people of religion to succor the socially weak function as the essential providers of services contributing to society, and they also function as public vehicles in which the spirit of compassion is strengthened. This is because the various religions all teach the importance of having a compassionate heart and altruistic motives. Attitudes of reverence and thankfulness toward the gods and the buddhas for their protection in life breed humility and encourage you to treasure the lives of others just as you treasure your own life. At the same time, the traditional Japanese spirit of thankfulness, which is expressed in words of thanks and actions to return favors, also motivates compassionate behavior. Those who are making social contributions based on such religious convictions have the potential to influence others in a positive way.

Religious organizations in Japan undertake many activities that contribute to society. Even so, the public recognition of these activities is not widespread, and the expectations of them are not very high. In 2008 the Niwano Peace Foundation conducted a survey of attitudes toward the social contributions of religious organizations, and one of the questions was, "Do you know that religious organizations are contributing to society by, for instance, providing school education and managing hospitals?" Only 35 percent of the respondents said yes.

The limited recognition of these social activities of religious organizations provides an indication of a weak context for religions to function as social capital. That is, the Japanese milieu is not one in which people of religion can easily forge strong bonds of trust with communities and bring individuals together through close relationships with local residents. The Japanese scene also has a special feature, however, which is that reappraisals at home can be encouraged by first getting an appraisal overseas. If religious organizations become active overseas through nongovernmental organizations and win praise for their accomplishments, Japanese society will take note of this, and people will gain awareness of the ways in which Japanese religious organizations are contributing to society, resulting in a reappraisal.

Quite a few Japanese religious organizations have become active overseas through NGOs. Based on religious ideals, they are engaged in activities directed at such objectives as realizing peace and aiding refugees. Around 1990 they began to form networks. In 1993 cross-denominational Buddhist groups set up the Ayus Buddhist International Cooperation Network, and in 2000 the Arigatou Foundation affiliated with Myochi-kai launched the Global Network of Religions for Children. Then, in 2003, the Buddhist NGO Network of Japan was brought into being with forty groups taking part, five of which have taken the lead: Niwano Peace Foundation, Ayus Buddhist International Cooperation Network, Shanti Volunteer Association, Rissho Kosei-kai Donate-a-Meal Fund for Peace, and Arigatou Foundation. In this way, the NGOs of Japanese religious groups are cooperating with each other in the field of social contributions.

In Conclusion

Nobody wants to live in a lonely, inhospitable world where some people put their own survival first, without any thought for the oppressed and the anguished, while others are forced to deal with miserable conditions all by themselves. In order to bring a mutual-support society into being, all of us, one by one, must raise our consciousness and take action. Communities today are extending aid to those who have been excluded from society or are in an isolated position, helping them to become self-supporting. Even if you do not engage directly in such activities, you can still help build a society of hope, not by looking on those who are suffering as somebody else's problem but by making a place in the corner of your heart for compassion toward them.

The power of an individual may not amount to much, but a single step forward by one person can set off waves that spread out like the ripples of a pebble dropped in water. Compassionate feelings coupled with a warm gaze are all it will take to pass a loosely connected society of mutual support on to the next generation.

Anybody at all can be compassionate in thought and action; this is not something bestowed only on special individuals who uphold lofty ideals. The duty of adults is to create an environment conducive to the fostering of a compassionate mind in children. Compassion in thought and action that arises naturally, without being forced upon one, will provide the motive power for the transition to a mutual-support society from our problem-plagued contemporary society, with its juvenile delinquency, poverty, and deaths with nobody present. I know that some will object to this statement, saying that reality is harsher than that, but I nonetheless wish to believe in the power of that which resides within the human heart, including empathy and compassion.

A religious individual engaged in social work in Britain said to me as follows: "Conflicts between individuals occur in the course of our activities. They do not occur because of intolerance, however. When you engage in group work, your values are bound to come into conflict with those of others, and you learn from that, using it to change yourself."

This is a suggestion to perceive clashes of values, which would seem to be the opposite of compassion, as presenting you with an opportunity. Upon experiencing such a collision between values, you take the route of dialogue to transcend the state of dispute. Various ways of thinking are current in this world, and you can strengthen your own compassion through acceptance of the fact that there are values that quite naturally differ from those you hold yourself.

While religion is important for fostering compassion and altruism, it has to be a religion that comes to life within society. No doubt preaching, expounding on compassion, and providing moral education have some effect, but their power is not that great. Individuals are socialized through their connections with other individuals. For compassion to grow within the heart, it is indispensable for one to have contact with good role models, with people who have gained experience through actual action. The people of religion need to be such a role model. I am pinning my hopes on the social contributions these people can make.


Keishin Inaba is an associate professor on the Faculty of Human Development at Kobe University. He studied comparative religion at the University of Tokyo and obtained his PhD in the sociology of religion at King's College, University of London. He is the author of several books in English and Japanese, including Altruism in New Religious Movements: The Jesus Army and the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order in Britain.


This article was originally published in the January-March 2010 issue of Dharma World.

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