Buddhism in Japan

Japanese Buddhism’s Postwar Struggle for Survival

Culture Society

In the years following World War II, increasing numbers of people left the danka system as lifestyles changed and traditional communities fell apart. Many found a home in new religious groups, but today even these groups are no longer the vigorous force they once were. Although Buddhism continues to decline as an organized religion, people will still turn to the teachings in search of meaning and solace.

The Collapse of the Danka System

When World War II ended with Japan’s unconditional surrender in August 1945, the various sects of Japanese Buddhism lost the foundation they had all shared in State Shintō, falling into a state of confusion. Having incorporated the real-world power of the emperor into their teachings, the sects were forced to abandon many of their doctrines and were stripped of their political influence. At the same time, agrarian land reforms had a huge impact on many temples that had relied on tenant farmers for a large part of their income. Japanese Buddhism was reduced to subsisting on what it could eke out of local parishioners registered under the danka system that continued since the Edo period (1603–1868)—people who made donations to their local temples and paid for funerals, memorial services, and other services.

After the war, a variety of factors led to a nationwide economic boom. This had an impact on Japanese Buddhism, and helped rescue it from an apparently terminal decline. For a while, the religion even prospered in the newly affluent postwar Japan. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, donations to temples increased as danka were lifted out of poverty. Temples all over the country were transformed by this new influx of cash. But this prosperity did not last long, and the boom years ended when the economic bubble burst in the early 1990s. By the turn of the millennium, Buddhist organizations were once again facing neglect, poverty, and growing irrelevance.

In 2023, almost all Buddhist organizations around the country are feeling the pinch as a result of the decline of the danka system. The fall in the numbers of affiliated households has been particularly pronounced in marginalized areas, where many villages and small towns are now sparsely populated and most of the remaining residents are elderly. Many temples are having to close down altogether. Even in the big cities, the connections between temples and ordinary people, kept alive for generations by the danka system, have atrophied. Even at funerals and other events that traditionally required the presence of a priest, Buddhism is now seen as irrelevant and anachronistic by many people. Buddhist prayers and ceremonies are steadily being displaced from modern Japanese lifestyles. Conscious of their fading importance, temples and sects have tried different measures to combat the trend, but have not been able to find a decisive solution. It seems clear that the danka system that has been in place since the Edo period is no longer viable and will soon vanish. The Buddhist presence in Japan will shrink, and the religion as a whole will struggle to find a strategy that will enable it to survive with its mission and sense of purpose intact.

New Groups Offer Solace Amid Change

Setting aside for now the traditional Buddhist groups and their fight for survival, let’s return to the situation in Japan in the immediate postwar era.

The most striking development in Japan in these years was the emergence of new religious groups, many of them affiliated with Buddhism. Rebounding from the harsh control exerted by State Shintō and the government during the war, religious freedom was widened considerably after the war, and one of the results was the emergence of various new religious organizations. Many such groups became influential in these years, including some that had been active before the war. Some of the best known include Sōka Gakkai (a Nichiren-affiliated group that has had a powerful influence through its political wing), Risshō Kōsei Kai (another Nichiren sect), and Shinnyoen (Shingon).

One reason why these new groups were able to attract so many adherents was the collapse of traditional village-style communities, which disintegrated under the impact of the economic boom. The danka system that had continued in place since the Edo period was built on the links between individual Buddhist temples and the families who lived generation after generation in the same communities. However, in the face of the sudden changes that swept through Japanese industry, society, and the economy in the years after the war, this traditional way of life started to fall apart. As new and more mobile lifestyles emerged, growing numbers of people fell out of the danka system.

But this severing of traditional ties with the family temple did not mean that people lost their longing for religious meaning in their lives. Indeed, many people, deprived of the traditional connection to the family temple, found themselves more in need of solace than ever as they faced challenges in their new lives. The new Buddhist organizations, by offering support and companionship separate from the traditional danka system, became a trusted refuge for many. In the decades after the war, people joined these groups in huge numbers and became often fervent followers.

However, this period of success peaked by the 1990s, and gradually these new groups lost the vigor and ability to attract new adherents. The aging and declining population was undoubtedly one factor in this, but it was not the only one. Many of these organizations had become increasingly bureaucratized and impersonal as they grew. Rather than working for people’s happiness, they were increasingly focused on maintaining themselves as organizations, and in the process they lost people’s confidence and trust.

Declining Prestige

In this series, I have attempted to trace the development of Buddhism in Japan from the lifetime of Shakyamuni around 500 BCE to the present day. In this final installment, I would like to look forward and consider what the future might hold.

One thing seems certain: Buddhism in its existing form will decline. By this I mean that its economic base will continue to weaken, and the number of temples and priests will continue to fall. Even if there is still a certain demand for Buddhist priests to officiate at funerals and other traditional ceremonies, it will certainly not be possible for Buddhism to maintain the kind of numbers and influence it has managed to maintain to this day. The range and impact of its activities will almost certainly shrink.

The same thing applies to the new types of Buddhism that enjoyed dramatic growth in the decades after the war. Even these new groups will see the number of followers dwindle in the years to come, and their political influence will also weaken. Probably the best outcome they can hope for is to survive as unobtrusive, moderate religious organizations.

But alongside this steady decline of the established religion, it seems likely that growing numbers of people will look to Buddhism for solace in some form or other, even as the official organizational aspects of the religion contract. As the world grows more chaotic and the future more uncertain, people will increasingly look for spiritual refuge. It is difficult to escape the suffering inherent in human existence with a scientific worldview alone. In these circumstances, people will increasingly ask: What were the original teachings of Buddhism, and can those teachings help to resolve the stresses and anxieties of contemporary society? In that sense, Buddhism may have a bigger role to play than ever before.

In Conclusion

In this series, I have tried to give a general survey of the history of Buddhism as an organized religion in Japan. As a result, much of what I have written has focused on the history of the Buddhist hierarchy as it has acted to protect its own interests. This is certainly one side of the history, but this aspect alone cannot tell the full story. Another history could be written of the individual human beings who have believed sincerely in the teachings and placed them at the center of their lives.

Quite apart from the formal structures of the religion, there is no doubt that the example of Buddhist monks and laypeople who lived out the precepts of their faith have made a positive impression on many people. This is a major reason why Buddhism continues to be respected as a force in society to this day. Since the purpose of this series has been to provide a bird’s-eye view, I have not had the space to say much about these individuals, but of course this side of the story is also essential to a proper understanding of the history of Japanese Buddhism.

It is my sincere hope that the teachings of Shakyamuni will continue to bring salvation to as many people as possible in the future. And with that, I bring this survey of the history of Japanese Buddhism to an end.

(Revisit the entire “Buddhism in Japan” series.)

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: A woman prays at a Buddhist temple. © Pixta.)

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