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Dharma World Buddhist magazine

Religion's Response to the Earthquake and Tsunami
in Northeastern Japan

by Keishin Inaba


People of faith are . . . acting to comfort the sufferers,
collaborating with each other across religious lines.


Great numbers of people fell victim to the powerful earthquake and ensuing tsunami that hit the Tohoku region of northeastern Honshu on March 11, 2011. The response to the disaster was immediate. Among those who became involved in the relief efforts were people of religion, and some religious organizations set up disaster response centers on the very same day, quickly dispatching the first contingents of relief workers. The Shinnyo-en Relief Volunteers and the Tenrikyo Disaster Relief Hinokishin Corps, which have their own specialized organizations for responding to disasters, swung into action, and the Donate-a-Meal Fund for Peace of Rissho Kosei-kai promptly decided to donate 500 million Japanese yen for aiding the victims. The various Buddhist, Shinto, Christian, and other religious organizations soon became engaged in efforts to ascertain the safety of their followers and give them support. The surviving temples, shrines, and churches in the stricken region became places of temporary refuge and facilitated efforts by patrons, parishioners, and local residents to support one another.

On March 13 I launched the Web site Faith-Based Network for Earthquake Relief in Japan (http://www.facebook.com/FBNERJ) on the Internet. My objective was to provide a place for sharing information on rescue operations and support activities transcending religions and denominations.

Over the first three months after the Kobe earthquake of 1995, an estimated 1.18 million people worked as volunteers in the afflicted region. Religious organizations also orchestrated volunteer activities to provide emergency assistance. The jobs they undertook were of various types, such as transporting and distributing relief supplies, making food available, and even cleaning toilets in evacuation centers. Many victims were suffering psychologically, but religious groups for the most part held back from a leadership role in the provision of counseling out of concern that their involvement might be construed as missionary work. While many religious groups played an active role in the relief efforts, few reports appeared on the contributions they made. Acting in the spirit of providing charity secretly, they endeavored to supply reliable assistance without calling attention to themselves.

Despite the fact that Japan's religious organizations carry out many social welfare activities, the public is not widely aware of them and does not have high expectations of them. In 2008 the Niwano Peace Foundation conducted a survey of attitudes toward the social contributions of religious organizations. When asked whether they knew of the activities these groups were undertaking to contribute to society, only 35 percent of the respondents said yes. This low level of recognition indicates that the Japanese social context is not one where people of religion can easily forge strong bonds of trust in communities and bring local residents together through intimate relationships with them.

When the Tohoku tragedy occurred, it seemed likely to me that religious organizations and individuals in Japan would carry out numerous relief activities and that their social power would surely gain greater recognition. After all, following the Kobe earthquake, various religious groups became more socially active, and religious NGOs stepped up their operations. Over recent years, moreover, the movement known as socially engaged Buddhism has gained momentum, and the Shien-no-machi Network, an interfaith network for supporting social and interpersonal connections, and other groups have actively addressed such issues as poverty. In short, people of faith in Japan have already begun collaborating, and the media are paying increasing attention to what they are doing.

There are some 78,000 temples and 85,000 shrines in Japan. In addition, Christian denominations, new religions, and the assorted other religious entities have a total of more than 180,000 places of worship, a number that is four times larger than the number of convenience stores and nine times larger than the number of community centers. Many temples, shrines, and other religious facilities suffered damage in the disaster, but they have been able to function as evacuation shelters and centers for relief activities.

Articles posted on the site of the Faith-Based Network for Earthquake Relief in Japan were viewed more than one hundred thousand times within the first ten days or so. Currently the number of page views is in the five thousand to eight thousand range per day. Most of the discussions on the site are grouped in the following categories: (1) damage to religious organizations and information on their safety, (2) disaster response centers and relief activities, (3) calls for financial contributions and reports on donations by religious groups, (4) the acceptance of evacuees, (5) prayers and memorial services, and (6) counseling.

The site confirms that religious organizations and individuals are involved in all sorts of activities. In addition to collecting information for conducting volunteer work in the stricken regions, religious groups are providing support for relief and reconstruction by, for instance, coordinating the acceptance of volunteers - a task assigned to the local chapters of the Japan National Council of Social Welfare - and offering accommodations to volunteers. They are also collaborating with other NGOs. Buddhist priests are engaged in assorted activities, such as transporting supplies to places where they are needed and providing memorial services at crematories. In addition, some temples have taken in evacuees. People of faith are also acting to comfort the sufferers, collaborating with each other across religious lines.

At the same time, there has not been a flood of calls for Buddhist priests to work at public facilities, such as by holding memorial services. Buddhist clergy are acutely aware of this limitation, a reality they must accept. We need to ask, How deep are the connections they have built up with people in their daily lives?

Japanese society is going through radical change. In January 2010 NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation) aired a special program titled "Muen shakai," which might be translated as "the unconnected society." It is a place lacking the relationships that have traditionally tied individuals together. Besides suicides, each year more than thirty thousand individuals die without anyone's knowing, much less anyone's being present. These lonely deaths, which are as numerous as suicides, have emerged as a social concern. Ties among neighbors, coworkers, and family members have all grown weaker, leading to an increase in people who live in isolation. About 20 percent of all households were single-person households thirty years ago, but the share has now risen to 30 percent and is expected to reach 40 percent within two decades.

The life of the isolated individual in the unconnected society overlaps with a life of indifference to others. Truly, modern Japanese society is under the sway of neoliberalism and self-reliance, and it has a strong current of egotism, of the thinking that "all is well as long as I get what I want." Or at least it used to be such a place. I would like to use the past tense here because my intuition tells me that a process of fundamental change has now begun. Indeed, such a change is to be highly desired.

A 2010 opinion poll on social attitudes conducted by the Cabinet Office found that 38.9 percent of the respondents agree that the current age is one in which people put their own interests first, whereas only 12.4 percent perceive it to be an era of compassion. As I see it, however, these percentages can be expected to change greatly. Having been confronted with an unprecedented catastrophe, people have awakened to the compassion lying dormant within them, and I think they have begun to respond again with empathy, with the recognition that they are all in the same boat. After all, is there not an unconscious religiosity deep within their hearts?

Only a minority of Japanese belong to the so-called organized religions - religious organizations with a visible face - and practice their faith daily. Even so, the spiritual foundation of the Japanese is firmly connected to religion on a deep level. While more than 70 percent of the Japanese say they have no religion, about 70 percent engage in such rituals as visiting family graves and going to a shrine or temple on the start of the New Year. Both individuals and groups erect cenotaphs or monuments in honor of the dead. Within religious rites for ancestors, a sense of thanks for the chain of life remains vaguely alive.

Numerous people hold shared attitudes of thanks and appreciation along with a sense that they are all in the same situation. What I see as the unconscious religiosity of the Japanese is this amorphous sense of being connected to something transcending the self and of gratitude to the ancestors, divine beings, and people in general. This sort of religiosity is alive even within those who say that they have no religion.

The year 1995, when the disastrous Kobe earthquake occurred, is seen as Year One of volunteer activities in Japan. People turned their minds toward building a society of mutual support. The nation had reached a decisive turning point in the wake of the collapse of the bubble economy of the late 1980s, and businesses were managing only a sluggish performance. The sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway by the Aum Shinrikyo cult also occurred that year.

But has Japanese society really changed much over the decade and a half since then? In fact, it is still a place where profits and efficiency are pursued above all else, where people are used as objects and discarded when they cease to be useful, and where individuals shoulder excessive loads in the name of self-reliance. It is a divided society that separates winners from losers and an unconnected society that has severed neighborhood, workplace, and family ties. So why did the Japanese, who seemed ready to create a society of mutual support in response to the Kobe disaster, wind up in this situation?

Though modern values and beliefs are now growing outdated, they continue to persuade people that humankind can control nature, that efficiency should be the foremost concern when undertaking something, that everything has a monetary value, that each person is an independent being, and that society will function smoothly when things are left to the market. This modern way of thinking has penetrated so deeply into society that the possibility of change after the Kobe earthquake lasted only momentarily, fading away before anything changed. People thinking in this way simply cannot stop racing along, because if they took a minute to stop and reflect, they would come face-to-face with the poverty of their way of living. Such thinking also underlies a society dependent upon nuclear power, in which people put their faith in the myth of nuclear power's safety even while recognizing its dangers.

Since the March earthquake and tsunami, people have risen up to deal with a stupendous natural disaster, and new feelings of solidarity have come into being. For a society that has been severing the ties among its members, should we not say that this is a momentous change? With the puncturing of the myth of nuclear power's safety, fundamental rethinking has begun on the way in which modern people look upon and interact with science and technology.

In Japanese society at present, there are those who do not feel they are making a sacrifice when they act to aid others and engage in altruistic behavior. A sense of solidarity, of the kind of reciprocal relationship that emerges from identifying with others, has been born. This is a desire within us to draw closer to and feel empathy for those who are suffering hardship. In a society where all sorts of other ties are weakening, ties of empathy welling from our unconscious religiosity have strengthened anew.

Many papers have been written about the empathy-altruism hypothesis, which holds that identification with and empathy for those in a difficult situation provide a motive for altruistic behavior. The theory posits that when we feel empathy for disaster victims, the homeless, and other such unfortunate people, identifying with the circumstances they have been placed in, we desire a lessening of their difficulties and an improvement in their unfavorable situation. Over the long course of history, religion has been drawn toward hardships of all sorts. This is the spirit of sharing others' sadness and suffering. For people of religion today, the birth of ties of empathy represents an important issue they must address.

All religions teach altruism and compassion. People are humble in their reverence and gratitude for being able to live under divine protection, and this may lead them to treasure the lives of others just as they treasure their own. Acts of compassion can be motivated by the feelings of appreciation expressed in words of thanks and repayments of favors. Truly, religion in Japan has been given a crucial role to play.

Keishin Inaba is an associate professor in the Graduate School of Human Sciences at Osaka University. He obtained his PhD in the sociology of religion at King's College, University of London. He is the author of several English and Japanese books on religion and altruism, and he is one of the organizers of the Japan Religion Coordinating Project for Disaster Relief, launched in response to the massive earthquake in northeastern Japan on March 11.

This article was originally published in the October-December 2011 issue of Dharma World.

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