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The Social and Legal Status of Religious Minorities in Japan PDF Print E-mail

Mark R. Mullins
Meiji Gakuin University

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Tokyo, Japan May 23-25, 1998

My topic focuses primarily on the situation of Christianity in Japanese society and on new religious movements. In this paper I am going to outline, first of all, the socio-cultural context of religious minorities in Japan and then make a few observations about the legal status of religious minorities, particularly Christians and new religions, in a contemporary situation.

Although diverse religious beliefs, practices, and forms of association have existed in Japan for centuries, one should not mistakenly assume that the religious economy has been a free market or that the division of labor in Japanese religions has always contributed to social harmony. The practice of religion in everyday life has often been controlled by those holding the reins of political power. Religious beliefs have often been the cause of social conflict. The marginal and deviant status of Christianity and many new religious movements must be understood in relation to traditional Japanese religiosity, which typically consists of a system of layered obligations.

As a rule Japanese do not commit themselves to one particular religious organization. They tend rather to participate in the annual festivals and rituals of both Shinto and Buddhist traditions. At least during Japan’s modern century, Japanese have generally been integrated into a household Buddhist ritual system and communal Shinto religious system of obligations. By virtue of being a member of a family or a household, one is expected or obliged to do rituals for ancestors.

As a member of a parish or a geographical area, one belongs to a community, and by virtue of belonging participates in Shinto religious rituals. Over the course of Japan’s modernization, a layer of civil religious obligations was added to this traditional division of labor with the addition of state Shinto and the ritual civil religious obligations at Shinto shrines. These preexisting religious duties and obligations provide the basic cultural background for understanding the difficult situation of religious minorities, whether it be Christians or followers of new religions.

Since the initial transmission of Roman Catholicism in Japan in the 16th century, Christianity has generally been regarded as an intrusive force in Japanese society often referred to as junkyo, or evil religion. The macro-political relations in various stages of the transplantation process have undoubtedly shaped the perception that Christianity is a deviant religion connected to incisive foreign powers with designs on Japan. This is how Protestant Christianity was largely perceived when missionaries arrived from North America and Europe at the end of the Tokugawa period. As latecomers to Japan’s religious scene, both Catholic and Protestant churches have experienced considerable difficulty in shedding their reputation as foreign religions.

Furthermore, transplanted Christian traditions have tended to clash with Japanese religious sensibilities by demanding exclusive commitment. Their pre-existing religious duties and obligations made it extremely difficult for most Japanese to make a personal commitment to Christianity. When such a commitment has been made, the consequences have often been disruptive. The history of Christianity in Japan abounds with stories of individuals being cut off from their families or isolated in communities. This isolation comes because of newfound faith and perhaps a consequent refusal to participate in Buddhist ancestor rites or community festivals related to the Shinto tradition.

It is really only in the last decade or so that Japanese attitudes toward Christianity have become more favorable, particularly among Japanese born and educated in the postwar period. One indicator of this changing climate is that Christian weddings are becoming increasingly popular among young couples. A 1991 survey discovered that the percentage of Christian or church-related weddings was 35 percent in the Kanto area and 23.8 percent in the Kansai region. At the very least, the fact that scores of younger Japanese are choosing Christian weddings indicates that the present environment is much more open to Christianity and that the stigma once attached to the Christian faith has declined during the past several decades.

However, don’t misinterpret this superficial reference to Christian rituals. This is not necessarily a reflection of deep faith but connected to popular movie stars and all of that. Nevertheless, it was an unthinkable thing 50 years ago that Japanese would widely choose Christian weddings, so the postwar environment has changed remarkably.

While Christianity has been burdened with the image and reputation of being an evil and subversive religion, new religions have been labeled as fake or bogus religions that simply bilked naive or unsuspecting people out of their money. Despite these negative portrayals by the mass media over the past century, Japanese scholars estimate that today between 10 and 20 percent of the population is involved in one or more of the new religions. New religions in Japan are often criticized for being individualistic, this-worldly, and profit-oriented. But there is ample evidence that it is a mistake to caricature new religions as individualistic and concerned only with physical and material gain. Most teach their members that the benefits of religion are not just for the individual but for all humanity.

Self-transformation (kokoronaoshi) is only the first step in the religious life. Most new religions teach that individuals are also expected to make a contribution to social or world transformation (yonaoshi). Because of this kind of philosophy, Omotokyo got in trouble. It had a larger vision of social transformation for the world that came into conflict with the Koki philosophy in wartime Japan.

In any case, the wider influence of new religions cannot be ignored. Many of the larger movements in Japan have made a significant impact in such areas as politics, education, social welfare, and volunteer activities. It must be recognized that Christianity and many new religions in Japan have represented a fundamental challenge to status quo religion. Conventional or established religions—in this case, traditional Shinto or Buddhist institutions—often contribute to what sociologists call the maintenance of the world as it is, rather than challenging this taken-for-granted reality.

In the Japanese context, Christianity and many new religions encourage individuals to consider alternative interpretations of reality, lifestyles, and spiritual disciplines. As a result, these new traditions can cause conflict and division in many situations and be disruptive of the wa, or harmony, of traditional Japanese society. Although some new religions encourage members to fulfill traditional religious obligations as well as adopt new disciplines and practices, it is important to note that most introduce an element of tension by stressing the distinction between the world as it is and the world as it should be.

These are a few basic observations on the socio-cultural context for religious minorities. Now I would like to draw attention to several of the legal features of Japanese society that define the place of minorities. Here I refer to the earlier papers. Although the Meiji constitution in 1890 guaranteed religious freedom, by the 1930s the increasingly totalitarian national government required members of every religious group to participate in civil religious rituals and conform to state-defined orthodoxy. My own university, Meiji Gakuin University, during wartime was a Christian school, but by the early 1940s the head of Meiji Gakuin was taking students to the Shinto shrines for worship by direct order of the government. So much for religious freedom under the Meiji Constitution.

The Diet passed the Religious Organizations Law in 1939 to deal with religious deviants. Any group that did not go along with the imperial way was disciplined. At this time, all Christian religious bodies were forced to unite into two organizations, Protestants or Catholics. Essentially this was a method of control by the central government. In 1942 and ‘43, the Kenehonkadisto or Nepunknadisto, as it was called at the time, was raising money for warplanes and began every religious service by bowing to the imperial family or the emperor. Sermon topics were sent from the government directly to churches, and for the most part churches conformed to this directive. Various new religions and Christian denominations became the target of investigation, persecution, and arrest by the special police until the end of World War II.

The postwar period by contrast, has been characterized by religious freedom, as the wartime laws regulating religion were subsequently abolished and all religious organizations placed on an equal footing as voluntary organizations. Articles 20 and 89 of the postwar constitution clearly establish the principles of religious freedom and separation of religion and state. The 1951 Religious Corporation Law, Shukyo Hojin Ho, defined the status of religious organizations in the new environment. This law, passed in light of the government’s suppression of religious groups during the 1930s and ‘40s, was particularly concerned with protection of religious freedom. A basic assumption behind it was that registered religious organizations contribute to the public good. For this reason, they should be permitted to engage in economic activities to support their religious work and public welfare activities.

Although the climate of religious freedom characterized most of the postwar period, a concern for tighter regulation of religious groups reappeared recently as a result of the gas attack on the Tokyo subway system by members of Aum Shinrikyo in March 1995. The current situation of religious minorities must be understood in light of the public, political, and legal response to what is now referred to as the Aum Shinrikyo affair. Within four months of this incident, the Tokyo district court ordered that Aum Shinrikyo’s status as a religious corporation be dissolved. According to the court, there was clear evidence that its leaders had been involved in numerous illegal and violent acts and that it no longer qualified as a religious corporation. The court concluded that it was an organization working against the public good and should not enjoy the favorable treatment accorded such corporations.

That did not mean its members were prohibited from carrying out religious and commercial activities. Even without status as a religious corporation, groups are free to practice their religions and operate businesses. However, they cannot claim special consideration and the tax breaks that are accorded religious corporations’ businesses.

In this new social climate, politicians could confidently argue that the laws regulating religion needed to be revised so that government officials would have the authority to follow the activities of religious groups more closely and prevent another such incident. While prevention of violence by another dangerous cult was the official reason advanced for revising the law, discussions in the Diet quickly shifted to the unhealthy involvement of religious organizations in politics. Many observers have argued that politicians, particularly those from the Liberal Democratic Party, used the Aum crisis as an opportunity to tighten control of religious organizations in an effort to diminish the political power of Soka Gakkai. Despite a great deal of opposition, within months of this incident, the Diet amended the Religious Corporations Law. Most religious bodies have argued that the revised law represented a clear shift by the government from a concern with protection of religious freedom to one of concern with the supervision of religion. It is evident to me that politicians were operating with mixed motives in rushing through this revised law. But in my view, the conclusion was not something that many had forecast. The revised law does not represent an infringement of religious freedoms, though it does represent a clear shift toward making religious organizations more accountable in the postwar environment.

My personal view is that this increased expectation on the part of the government is not unreasonable. The reason for this is that there has been a great deal of abuse in the postwar religious freedom environment of the law. That is, over the past decade there has been a great deal of tax abuse by religious organizations. Seventy-three percent of the 250,000 registered corporations are religious organizations. A tax office carefully examined the records of 1,154 religious organizations in 1987 and discovered that 649 had inadequately reported their income and were subsequently required to pay additional taxes. Another survey found similar abuses. I won’t detail those here, but you should know that under the current law, religious organizations do receive good tax exemptions for their businesses as well as for religious donations.

Without getting into the details, my view is that the new expectations in the revised law are not unreasonable due to the privileged position that religious bodies have. In light of the past treatment of religious minorities in Japanese society, however, it is important for religious and human rights groups to keep a vigilant watch on any changes in the laws regulating religious belief and practice. The recent revision of the Religious Corporations Law does not restrict these fundamental rights in any way that I can see. The social and legal status of religious minorities in the future will, I believe, be enhanced if religious minorities, Christian and otherwise, can show in a more straightforward manner how their religious and economic activities contribute to the public good. Until this is done there will be a cloud of suspicion over religious bodies.