Daibutsu, Kamakura

Daibutsu, Kamakura
Daibutsu in Kamakura, June 2010. There were thousands of school kids visiting that day. It was still great fun.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Buddhism may be dying out in Japan

According to an article in the New York Times, Buddhism may be dying out in Japan.

The article states that "Buddhism in Japan is often called “funeral Buddhism,” a reference to the religion’s near-monopoly on the elaborate, and lucrative, ceremonies surrounding deaths and memorial services. But that expression also describes a religion that, by appearing to cater more to the needs of the dead than to those of the living, is losing its standing in Japanese society."

The article further states that "Perhaps most significantly, Buddhism is losing its grip on the funeral industry, as more and more Japanese are turning to funeral homes or choosing not to hold funerals at all.

“That’s the image of funeral Buddhism: that it doesn’t meet people’s spiritual needs,” said Ryoko Mori, the chief priest at the 700-year-old Zuikoji Temple here in northern Japan. “In Islam or Christianity, they hold sermons on spiritual matters. But in Japan nowadays, very few Buddhist priests do that.”

“If Japanese Buddhism doesn’t act now, it will die out,” he said. “We can’t afford to wait. We have to do something.”

I'm not sure how to interpret this article. On one hand, my impression is that Japanese people today are not as religious as people in other countries. When I read about Japanese history, I have the belief that the people of Japan used to be much more religiously fervent in the past but that religion, both Shinto and Buddhism, no longer play as important a role in their lives.

On the other hand, maybe the article missunderstands Japan and Japanese beliefs, especially relating to religion. Japanese people may very well have a high level of spirituality that just does not manifest itself the way religion does in Christian, Muslim or Jewish countries.

My feeling is that it is somewhere in between what the article states and reality. Religion probably is not as important in Japan as it may have been 200 years ago and the Chief Priests concerns may have some validity. At the same time, Japanese people will always have some level of spirituality.

I do hope that what the article states is not true. It would be sad if Buddhism was dying out in Japan. I think Buddhism is a very important part of Japanese culture and tradition.


  1. I think it's difficult to comment on whether Buddhism is dying or not...my own feeling is merely that it is changing. Buddhism is a remarkably adaptable faith and has altered slightly over the centuries to fit lifestyles of the people in India, China, and Japan (among, of course, others). Hopefully this is just another little shift.

  2. That's a good point Tracy.

    But I kind of agree with the article. Although Buddhism may be different, the fact is that not many people practice it or believe in it and do only practice it at a cemetery.

  3. Anonymous12:17 AM

    From my perspective at least, I don't see any signs of it dying out. My family is full of active Buddhists, and we're surrounded by neighborhoods full of well tended shrines. Each day I can hear, just out my window, prayers going on at least twice from a home nearby. Every time we visit temples, we see a really healthy amount of folks young and old who are there to visit for its beauty or history, but also to pray, be blessed, buy omamori, dispose of expired omamori, etc. I do understand that it's mostly older folks nowadays that are fervent about it, but I have to wonder if it's not rubbing off on the younger generation who is growing up in their homes. They may not care so much when they're young adults, but do you think they might fall back on it as they get older? I start to wonder how many generations people have been worrying about this same thing.

  4. Thank you Tracy. I hope it is just a shift as well.

    Thank you Thomas. Unfortunately, I agree with you Thomas. To me, it seems that dedicated and deep Buddhist practice is not as common in Japan anymore.

    Thank you Dateline. Certainly there are still many devout Buddhists in Japan. However, is it the trend that devout Buddhism is becoming more rare?

  5. This particular journalist (Norimitsu Onishi) over at the NYT is famous for his anti-Japanese bias. There is some speculation about his background, you can google his name. I'm not sure what to make of him.

    As for Buddhism in Japan, of course it is changing - people move to large cities, population changes, more choices in terms of lifestyle. And isn't religion changing everywhere...? Of course it is not "dying out", that is just very, very bad taste for a NYT headline.

  6. Thank you for the comment Martin. I also feel that Buddhism is just changing but not dying out.

    Although Buddhism associated with the funeral is very important in Japan, I feel that it is because the people really feel spiritual about the process of death and they truly feel they are helping the spirits move on to the next life. I don't feel it is just routine or a habit.

    I actually think that funerals in Japan have more meaning then most funerals in the United States. And I have been to both.

  7. Maybe Buddhism has become like another "obligation" to the Japanese? As anyone who lives here knows, many "holidays" are based on going to the graves of relatives. Most of the Japanese I ask about this say it really doesn't have any meaning to them. A few do say it has some meaning to them.

    If I had to say where spirituality lies in Japan, it's in respect to deceased relatives and worry about their afterlife.

    (full disclosure--I was a religious studies major)

  8. Thank you for the comment Jason. If the Japanese sprituality lies moastly with the deceased and in praying for their afterlife, I think that is a good thing and I don't see that as a problem.