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In-depth The Shifting Landscape of Japanese Religion
Japanese Religion Comes Full Circle: Millennials in Search of Their Spiritual Roots

Shimada Hiromi [Profile]


In the wake of the “new religion” movements of the 1960s and “new new religions” of the 1970s and 1980s comes the newest thing yet—young Japanese men and women drawing inspiration from Japan's ancient spiritual heritage. Religious scholar Shimada Hiromi offers a historical perspective on this latest phenomenon.

As a religious studies scholar who writes a good deal on the subject of Japanese religion, I am a frequent visitor to Shintō shrines and Buddhist temples. These days I rarely go to any shrine or temple without running into a throng of young Japanese visitors.

This was not always the case. Not so long ago, touring temples was mainly a hobby of the elderly. But nowadays I encounter older people there much less often. One still runs into the occasional senior bus tour, but not that many. The most enthusiastic habitués of Buddhist temples and Shintō shrines nowadays are unquestionably young adults.

Record Turnout at Ise Grand Shrine

Among the most popular religious destinations last year was the venerable Ise Grand Shrine in Mie Prefecture. In 2013 Ise completed its sacred shikinen sengū ceremony, carried out once every 20 years, in which the major shrine structures are rebuilt from scratch and the deity transferred to the new shrine. A record number of visitors made the pilgrimage in 2013, eager to be present on this rare occasion and to see the buildings in their pristine new state. The Inner Shrine and Outer Shrine recorded a combined total of 14.3 million visits, well in excess of the 13 million predicted.

Particularly noteworthy, it seems, was the unprecedented number of youthful visitors to Ise. This was certainly the case when I made my own first post-sengū pilgrimage near the end of the year. Moreover, the young people I saw there had studied their Shintō rituals well—for example, bowing whenever they passed through the torii gate, whether entering or leaving. Their behavior suggested that they were there as something more than curiosity-seekers.

I had the same impression when I visited Kamigamo Shrine in Kyoto on a similar occasion three years ago. In preparation for its own shikinen sengū, scheduled to take place in 2015, the shrine was offering special tours in which visitors had the rare opportunity to view the Main Sanctuary close up. Before paying their respects at the shrine, they were also invited to hear a presentation by the head priest. I was surprised to find that the audience consisted almost entirely of young adults, who listened to the priest with the utmost attention.

I cannot tell you exactly when temples and shrines became such a popular destination for the under-25 crowd, but there is no escaping it. More importantly, it seems clear that these young visitors are not there just to see the sights. They have come to get in touch with the divine.

“Power Spots” and Budget Outings

Of course, the “power spot” craze surely has something to do with this phenomenon. In recent years Japanese magazines and websites have sought to capitalize on the popular new theory that certain sites have a spiritual energy that one can marshal for one’s own benefit. Mount Fuji has figured prominently in Internet rankings of power spots since it was designated a World Heritage site in 2013.

I cannot deny having overheard young visitors to temples and shrines whispering to one another they could “feel the power.” I have also heard people of that generation react to a Buddhist images in a museum or exhibition with comments like “This one has amazing power.” Still, I am convinced that this is more than just a passing fad.

Economic factors probably contribute to the trend as well. Despite all the talk about stimulating the economy, conquering deflation, and boosting wages, incomes remain stagnant, and steady jobs are hard to find. The younger generation is by no means insulated from the stresses and strains of this economy situation. The bottom line is that they have less money to spend on leisure activities, and visiting temples and shrines is a cheap and accessible form of recreation. Nowadays a day at Tokyo Disneyland costs at least ¥10,000 per person. But one can tour the grounds of Ise Shrine for nothing at all, apart from a few coins tossed in the offertory box. “Power spots” in general are a good choice for the budget-minded, and Shintō shrines, which typically charge no admission at all, are especially attractive from this viewpoint.

Still, while budgetary considerations doubtless play some role, they do not explain why the young visitors arrive at these temples and shrines so well versed in religious etiquette. To my mind, the best explanation for their behavior is that they have a genuine interest in religion.

Postwar Urbanization and the Sōka Gakkai

The younger generation’s interest in spiritual matters is scarcely a new phenomenon. Indeed, one could argue that since the end of World War II, young people have been the driving force behind all the noteworthy developments in Japanese spirituality.

One of the biggest changes in Japanese religion since the end of World War II has been the rise of lay movements tied to Nichiren and Hokke Buddhism, most notably, Sōka Gakkai and Risshō Kōsei-kai. The growth and spread of these organizations, referred to in Japan as shin shūkyō (new religions), was powered primarily by young people who flocked from the countryside to Tokyo and other large urban areas during the period of rapid economic growth from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s. These migrants, many of them the second or third sons of farmers, found themselves isolated and adrift in the big city, and Sōka Gakkai offered them the social support and sense of community they sorely needed, as I explain in my 2004 book Sōka Gakkai. The same can be said of Risshō Kōsei-kai.

We can get a sense of the pivotal role the younger generation played in the early growth of Sōka Gakkai from the mass rally held at the foot of Mount Fuji in 1954, just before the organization plunged into politics. Attending the rally were some 13,000 members of Sōka Gakkai’s youth division (divided into a young men’s corps and a young women’s corps). It was their task to recruit new followers through the practice of shakubuku, an aggressive and sometimes coercive approach to proselytizing advocated by the priest Nichiren (1222–82). The major reason the organization chose Mount Fuji as the location for the rally was that it was the site of Taisekiji, head temple of the Nichiren Shōshū sect, with which Sōka Gakkai was then affiliated.

Nowadays, people tend to associate Sōka Gakkai and the other shin shūkyō with middle-aged women, but at that time, their membership was dominated by young people. And the same can be said of the religious movements and cults that have emerged since then.

Millennial Cults of the 1970s

The shin shūkyō that thrived in the heyday of rapid economic growth and urbanization lost momentum during the 1970s, particularly after the economic slowdown precipitated by the oil crisis of 1973. Sōka Gakkai’s problems were exacerbated by a wave of bad publicity in the media following its attempt, during 1969 and 1970, to suppress the publication of a book harshly critical of the organization.

As the shin shūkyō stagnated, a new crop of cults and sects sprang up to fill the gap. These were dubbed shin shin shūkyō, or “new new religions.” One of the major forces shaping the religious movements of the 1970s was a surge in apocalyptic and millennial thinking, epitomized by two of the top-selling books of 1973, Nosutoradamusu no daiyogen (Prophecies of Nostradamus) and Nihon chinbotsu (Japan Sinks). Where the shin shūkyō of the 1950s and 1960s had promised the worldly benefits of health, wealth, and peace, the shin shin shūkyō emphasized the approaching “end times” and promised followers the ability to survive the apocalypse.

As in the 1950s and 1960s, the rise of these new orders and cults was fueled predominantly by young seekers. This time, however, the majority of converts appear to have been individuals born and raised in or around major urban centers, as opposed to recent migrants from the countryside. Simply put, they were the children and grandchildren of the generation from which the shin shūkyō had drawn their membership. Among the more prominent of these apocalyptic and millennial movements were Mahikari, GLA, and Agon Shū, as well as the overseas-based Unification Church and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The 1970s were also marked by concerted efforts on the part of the established shin shūkyō to compete with the shin shin shūkyō in attracting young converts. A good example is the Inner Trip movement launched by the Nichiren lay organization Reiyūkai (from which Risshō Kōsei-kai originally sprang). Sōka Gakkai, meanwhile, began holding youth-oriented World Peace Festivals, conceived as opportunities to organize and draw young people into the fold.

  • [2014.04.10]

Adjunct instructor, Tokyo Woman's Christian University, and guest researcher, University of Tokyo Research Center of Advanced Science and Technology. Received his doctorate in religious studies from the University of Tokyo. Has been a professor at Tokyo Women’s University and is currently chair of the Soso Japan Society, which advocates the right to natural burial. Author of Sōka Gakkai, Nihon no jūdai shin shūkyō (Japan’s Top Ten New Religions), and other works.

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