New Religions
[Table of Contents]

Translator's Postscript

Norman Havens

What are Japan's New Religions and why are they new? While I do not wish to devote these pages to a recounting of previous efforts at definition, I want to use the questions themselves, and the opportunity of this postscript, to broach several related thoughts that I consider important in the context of religion in recent Japanese history, and its interpreters.

Typical definitions of the new religions, as might be obvious by the very use of the description "new," assume a diachronic typology. In simplest terms, the term "new religions" refers to the "modern" religions,1 religious groups that are said to have come into being within the crucible of social upheaval surrounding the last days of the Tokugawa shogunate and the dawn of the Meiji Restoration (1868). The latter event, in turn, both signaled an end to the Tokugawa warrior government bakufu and "restored" the imperial institution under Emperor Meiji.2

In the same way that "modern" Japan takes its identity from an implied contrast with the "non-modern," traditional, or feudal society and government of the pre-Meiji Edo period, the "new religions" thus take their identify from an implicit contrast with the religions that are not new, namely, what are usually referred to as the "established" (or perhaps better, the "establishment") religions of pre-modern periods.

But these very assumptions raise their own questions. First, it is clear that not all - and particularly the earliest of - the "new religions" can be said to have arisen under conditions of "social upheaval" surrounding foreign intervention, culture contact, or the momentous transition to a modern state. What is arguably the earliest "new religion" (Fujikô), has origins going back at least to the mid-eighteenth century, a period that probably suffered no more from heightened social crisis than any other in Japanese history. In that context, Carmen Blacker states that

the period of the first upsurge of new cults, roughly 1830-1870 was in fact no more turbulent for the ordinary peasant in Japan, not actively engaged in the momentous political events of the Bakumatsu and early Meiji periods... The 1770s and 1780s saw disasters very similar to the famines and rebellions which so disturbed the lives of the early Foundresses. Why then did no messiahs emerge?3

She goes on to suggest that such earlier messiahs may have indeed appeared but failed to spread their teachings widely due to modern means of communiation, or as the simple result of governmental suppression.4 In point of fact, numerous anecdotal cases can be found of persons having religious experiences which might have given them "proto-founder" status, yet failed - or out of fear of persecution deliberately refused - to make the transition to a viable religious organization.

The Edo-period work Mimibukuro, for example, records the story of the wife of a jitô (equivalent to a hatamoto, a lower-ranking vassal of the shogun), who was cured from sickness by the toad-skin remedy revealed in a dream by the bodhisattva Jizô. On her way to express gratitude at a nearby Jizô shrine, the woman struck her foot on an object in the road, and discovered a woodblock engraved with the image of Jizô. Although she subsequently used the engraving to impress images on paper to distribute to friends and acquaintences, the impressions produced no divine efficacy. The woman thus decided the lack of miraculous effect was due to the impropriety of a layperson's keeping a sacred object in a profane home. As a result, the woman donated the woodblock to a nearby temple where it became the center of cultish veneration for a time.5

Other individuals formed the center of faddish religious popularity when they vowed to become "living deities," or deities of healing following their deaths, and who formed the object of veneration as what are commonly called hayarigami[Glossary: hayarigami] or "faddish deities." The deity called Shimokichi Myôjin is one such case. An old couple Yamada Kichizaemon and his wife Shimo served a feudal lord in Edo during the Hôreki period (1751-1763), but both suffered from an excruciating hemorrhoid affliction. Knowing well the pain of his own extended illness, Kichizaemon reportedly vowed before he died that "if anyone should suffer likewise, let them pray to me, and I will cure them." His wife Shimo also passed away shortly thereafter, and as rumor of their vow spread, the grounds of the daimyo mansion became the focus for a "mini-cult" centered on the deity "Shimokichi," a name of course taken from the wife and husband's combined names.6

Other individuals became folk religious practitioners or ogamiya (religious "intercessors") and went on to form what might be called "mini-cults." During the first decade of the nineteenth century a maker of tabi (Japanese split-toe socks) called Kiyohachi lived in Edo and simultaneously "dabbled" in religious practice. A believer in the mountain faith of Takaozan (a low mountain west of Tokyo and known as a center of mountain religion, or Shugendô), Kiyohachi's long faith led him to equip himself with various "magic arts" that drew a regular clientele. According to the Kyôwa zakki, "His incantantations are said to bring fruition to all and sundry petitions, and it is said there is no sickness that he cannot heal; each day several dozens of people come to him to make requests of his magic, but there are so many people and his house is so small that the room is constantly overflowing, and people are forced to wait in a line outdoors." It was said that high-born personages were among his clients, and that he preached a kind of "conventional morality" including the strict observance of memorial rites to ancestors.7 Kiyohachi's activity, we might remember, took place at the same time that the Nyoraikyô - one of the earliest recognized "new religions" - was taking shape further west.

Given the ubiquitous presence of voluntaristic "confraternities" () throughout the period, the lack of a social ground was not likely not primary reason that earlier religious phenomena like the experience of the jito's wife and the intercessory activities of the tabi-maker Kiyohachi failed to make the transition to more permanent "new religious organizations." On the contrary, the more important reasons would appear to be the lack of initial aspiration to become a religious founder (by the jitô's wife, for example), and perhaps most importantly, the strict government prohibition of "new doctrines and deviant sects" (shingi iryû or shingi ishû) and otherwise "heretical groups" (jamon). The large number of such religious practitioners from the Genroku period on indeed prompted the bakufu to issue repeated notices prohibiting priests from drawing crowds to rented houses in urban residential areas, and while many were not oppressed so long as they maintained an ad hoc relation with their "clients," they would draw quick persecution if they, like Fujikô, attempted to combine their practices with a permanent religious organization.8

Second, it is not clear that the earliest of the new religions can, in fact, be unambiguously differentiated from the lay associations and confraternities () of "establishment" Buddhism and Shinto[Glossary: shinto] with which they are commonly contrasted, and which were an ubiquitous feature of the mid-Edo religious scene. As Inoue Nobutaka points out in his introductory article here, numerous periodization schemes or diachronic typologies have been suggested in the attempt to establish an upper limit, after which time a religious group or movement may acceptably called a "new religion." But such attempts are seldom unequivocal in their results, and precisely because the closer one gets to the earliest "origins" of these groups, the more one sees those origins fading off into a nebulous realm of prior groups and associations - most notably the religious confraternities which existed throughout Japan and which may have represented the first truly voluntaristic religious organizations in Japanese history.9

Finally, and not unrelated to the second point, the very notion of "new religions" contrasting with "established religions" may be problematic on theoretical grounds. The use of a category called "new religions" assumes a contrast with a class of "old religions"; if so, then our attempt to define the criteria for "new religions" must likewise take into account the fact that a definition for the "old religions" is being implicitly assumed. In other words, it is there that the question arises, "what are the `old' or `established' religions, and who was responsible for establishing that category?"

In brief response to that query, it might be suggested that the notion of "established" religions is itself an "invented tradition,"10 the result of an artificial construct promoted by the Tokugawa government as part of its system of political and ideological control, particularly aimed at the eradication of Christianity and other "dangerous thought" considered detrimental to rule by the Tokugawa shogunate.

Specifically, the religions that the Tokugawa government recognized as "established" were limited to those already existing, relatively older sects and schools of Buddhism (by contrast, the existing, but "newer" Fujufuse or Hiden, and Sanchô branches of the Nichiren sect were deliberately prohibited), together with two families of Shinto ritualists (the Shirakawa and Yoshida).

Through the mechanisms of universal "main-branch temple system" (honmatsu seido), family temple registration terauke, and the limitation of rights to grant shrine licenses by the Shirakawa and Yoshida families, the religious institutions that came to be viewed as "established" were, in essence, the religious groups and forms that had been "approved" - and used - by the Tokugawa government as organs of social monitoring and control.11

In other words, there is the possibility that by assuming the notion of Japanese new religions arising in a certain historical period against the background of an established religious tradition, we may already be inheriting and passing on a "definition of the situation" that is not our own assessment of the social conditions surrounding the process of Japan's modernization, but one that originated as an ideological pillar of the Tokugawa regime.

By the end of the seventeenth century, the construction of new Buddhist temples was sharply curtailed and an attempt was made to limit those temples already in existence to activities approved by the secular authorities: popular kaichô or "exhibitions" of temple statuary were allowed only at specifically approved intervals, and as noted earlier, the government's magistrates of temples and shrines issued constant warnings against new doctrines, deviant sects, and heretical groups, indicating a strong level of policing of any "new" religious activity. Religious gatherings were permitted only so long as they were associated with a recognized shrine or temple (for example, Ise-), were traditional parts of the local socio-religious environment (shrine guilds or miyaza[Glossary: miyaza] and Nembutsu confraternities), or were contingent groupings that came together around a folk-religious practitioner like Kiyohachi for such reasons as faith healings or the exorcism of evil spirits.

As a result, anyone desirous of the legal approval to engage in professional religious practice had, first of all, to gain certification from one of the officially sanctioned sects of "established" Buddhism (Zen, Jôdo, Jôdo Shinshû, Shingon, Tendai, Nichiren), or of Shinto (the Yoshida and Shirakawa families of ritualists), a fact that gave those institutions unassailable authority within the world of Edo-period religion. Other religions, such as Christianity or the Nichiren-related Fujufuse, were driven underground. Of the earliest new religions, Kurozumi Munetada[Glossary: kurozumi_munetada], founder of Kurozumikyô, and Nakayama Miki[Glossary: nakayama_miki] (Tenrikyô) received certification as members of the Yoshida school of Shinto, while Konkô Daijin[Glossary: konko_daijin] (Konkôkyô) received licensing from the Shirakawa.

With the coming of the Meiji period, restrictions on religious association were relaxed, eventually allowing "older new" groups like Fujikô, Fujufuse, and Christianity to emerge and claim legitimate status, and other entirely new groups to plant much easier and more secure footholds in Japanese society. But as a means of controlling the proliferation of smaller and "deviant" groups, the Meiji government largely continued the Tokugawa policy of investing certain religious traditions and groups with a meta-authority as "established religion." And in order to avoid persecution, new religious organizations continued to be coerced to receive official certification as a member of one of these larger, officially recognized institutions. Nagamatsu Nissen (1817-1890, founder of Honmon Butsuryûshû) was a professional Buddhist priest, but returned to secular life to proclaim a strong lay-centered Buddhism focusing on the Lotus Sutra. In order to avoid persecution around the time of the Meiji Restoration, however, he was at one point forced to return to his former officially recognized clerical status within "established" Buddhism.

Likewise, Kurozumikyô applied in 1876 for official membership in the newly established and government-sanctioned Shinto umbrella organization Shintô Jimukyoku, making it the first of the so-called "Thirteen sects of Shinto" to receive official recognition under this sanctioning body. Konkôkyô followed a similar course, receiving its official recognition in 1884.

Within Tenrikyô, Nakayama Miki (1798-1887) applied to the Yoshida family on the eve of the Meiji Restoration (in 1867) for official certification as "Tenri-ô Myôjin." But due to persecution, she was forced for a time to join a local "established" Buddhist temple as a confraternity (the Tenrin'ô Kôsha), and only after her death did the group finally receive official recognition as a member of the Shintô Honkyoku, the independent Shinto umbrella organization established when the governmental Shinto Jimukyoku was dissolved in 1886.

Needless to say, I do not wish to suggest by the preceding discussion that the category or notion of "new religions" is invalid or of no use. I do believe, however, that our definitional assumptions need to be considered more carefully, especially since most treatments of the new religions have generally proceeded on the assumption that (1) social conditions of anomie, poverty, deprivation, and crisis are particularly conducive to the appearance of new religions, and (2) that such conditions have been particularly severe in the modern period (including generally the period surrounding the Meiji Restoration), and thus (3) that the new religions are something essentially related to Japan's modernization or Westernization.12

In contrast, I raise the above issues in order to suggest that while the religions we call "new" may be related to elements of, broadly, "change" in Japanese society, those elements go back substantially further than the events leading to the Meiji Restoration. In other words, rather than being novel responses to the rapid changes in late-Tokugawa and modern society, is it not possible that the new religions appeared when they appeared due to little more than the lifting of public restrictions on religious assembly and organization?

According to this view, if crisis was a particularly responsible factor in the new religions, it was a crisis much more frequently encountered and going much further back into Japanese history, namely the "crisis of legitimation," one involving conflicting assumptions about who had the right, and on what basis they were to "define the situation" of human society and human relationality, and to exert legitimate authority within that relationship.

And in that context, it is most intriguing to note the degree to which "imperial" motifs characterize the language and visions - either positively or negatively - of many of the new religions. Some of the most obvious might be the post-war religions of Jiu[Glossary: jiu], whose founder claimed to be a new emperor, and Tenshô Kôtai Jingûkyô's Kitamura Sayo[Glossary: kitamura_sayo], who proclaimed a new divine authority and denounced the reigning emperor. But earlier religions like Tenrikyô, Konkôkyô, Ômoto, and Honmichi[Glossary: tenri_honmichi] likewise demonstrated motifs of resistance to imperial authority, or of the internalizing of divine power and responsibility in contrast to relying on external socio-political authorities.

Even those religions, like Gedatsukai, that claim to be strong supporters of the present imperial institution, simultaneously claim on occasion to have ultimate right to interpret the real meaning of imperial loyalty, and thus to establish the proper relationship between emperor and subject.13

Likewise, in the religion of Shinreikyô (discussed in this volume by Watanabe and Igeta), the authority of the founder Ôtsuka Kan'ichi is legitimated by claims that he is "the one and only kami, a living kami, or a kami revealed in the form of a human (arahitogami)." These expressions not only point to a universalistic monotheism or henotheism common to many of the new religions, but the last term, in particular, is one which was traditionally used to refer to the emperor.

Similarly, while Tazawa[Glossary: tazawa_yasusaburo][Glossary: tazawa_seishiro] (of Shôroku Shintô Yamatoyama[Glossary: shoroku_shinto_yamatoyama]) does not claim specifically to be a new emperor, he does adopt the name "Yamato," which is one of the foremost names traditionally used to refer to old imperial Japan, hinting at least of a self-identification with the "legitimating principle" of Japan.

Similarly, the foundress of Kômyô no Kai, Ajiki Tenkei[Glossary: ajiki_tenkei], claimed to receive a vision from the imperial deity Amaterashimasu Sumera Ôkami, telling her to "make Yamato [Japan] once again a home to the emperors, and restore the veneration of the deities."

These elements may point to the need to renew our attention to those aspects of the new religions relevant to changes in the ways power has been perceived and exercised in Japan, and the processes whereby authority for that power is legitimated. This issue is particularly relevant in the context of the papers presented here, for each of these papers can be read as a study of the changing faces of authority, and visions of legitimation in modern Japanese society.

Kômoto Mitsugi's paper investigates the place of anscestral worship in new religions centered on veneration of the Lotus-Sutra, attempting to determine how such groups handle this element of what is commonly considered an integral part of "traditional" Japanese folk religiosity. Most important, while the influence of karma is emphasized in Lotus-related groups like Reiyûkai, responsibility for personal health and happiness is placed on a wide-ranging web of social relationships, and one's ability to submit him or herself to the demands of such relationships. Responsbilitiy for "ancestor" veneration, for example, is extended in some groups not just to one's immediate family, but to "unrelated deceased spirits" or muen-botoke, and from there to potentially encompass everyone in the world.

In this expanding worldview, the range of "relevant others" is changing and expanding, and one can never know with surety to whom he or she is indebted. As Kômoto points out in the story of Kotani Kimi[Glossary: kotani_kimi], the spirits of totally "unrelated" persons like the youths of the White Tiger Brigade are shown to be, in fact, related, and thus the cause for illness unless properly placated. In this way, the individual is reminded of his social ties to a continually expanding circle of "relatives."

That this new view of the relationship between individual and ancestors did not result in what might be considered great change on the level of visible or apparent values is no doubt in part linked to the fact that a consistent attempt was made by the Japanese state to coopt the ancestral concept, giving it an ideological interpretion that subsumed ancestor worship within imperial veneration (see, for example, Kômoto's remarks on paragraph 91 about the "The Teachings of the Church of the Ancestors" [Senzokyô kyôsho]).

Nishiyama Shigeru and Fujii Kenji discuss the role of a Japanese new religion among expatriot Japanese living in Hawaii. Tenshô Kôtai Jingûkyô combines universalistic monotheism with a repudiation of many elements considered integral to "traditional" Japanese social patterns. While the group's radical stance almost guarantees the marginalization of its members within typical Japanese society, it also may represent the struggle felt by many Japanese to rationalize the contradiction between premodern particularism and the demands of a more "modern" universalism. This aspect of Tenshô Kôtai Jingûkyô is illustrated here, for example, by the example of the militant Hisshôkai, who through this new religion were enabled to transfer their allegiance from a pre-war imperialistic Japan to an idealized, "purified" Japan that would take the role of a global "spiritual leader."

Takeda Dôshô's paper uses a discussion of the religion of Renmonkyô as a vehicle for analyzing the relation between new religions and what might be called one of the more "non-democratic" characteristics of Japan's mass media, namely its tendency to function as an organ for the established authorities and "conventional" values.

The condemnation of Renmonkyô by Yorozu chôhô and other newspapers was nothing new, reflecting the strong pressures to conform in Japanese society, and the tendency to condemn new forms of thought and practice as "bogus religion" (inshi jakyô), in contrast to the politically approved or established religions.

In another sense, the case of Renmonkyô demonstrates the dilemma of survival faced by the new religions in the pre-war period, namely the demand that they either demonstrate solidarity with the values of the imperial state (Mitsu's forced reorganization of Renmonkyô under the state-approved umbrella organization Taiseikyô), or else face persistent and ultimately mortal state oppression.

A central element in the struggle for authority demonstrated by Renmonkyô is that revolving around the definitions of, and cures for, illness. Areas of culture characterized by ambiguity and marginality, areas which lack clear definitions or problems that lack clear "solutions" may become prime areas open to conflict in the contest for the authority to "define the situation." As a result, while the state possessed no sure answer for cholera, it nonetheless demanded the right to define both the illness and the "proper" responses to it. On the other hand, Renmonkyô took advantage of the ambiguous situation surrounding the disease in order to press its own claims for the disputed territory, offering its own diagnoses and cures.

The Shinsei Ryûjinkai[Glossary: shinsei_ryujin-kai] was a short-lived religious revivalist group of the pre-war period. In this study by Tsushima Michihito, the messianic nature of the group is demonstrated clearly, with its claims to establish a new authority, messiah or savior.

Of particular importance in the case of Shinsei Ryûjinkai is the group's attempt to construct an "imperial genealogy" and body of mythos that goes far afield from the officially approved myths of the state. In that sense, too, one can see the struggle to define the legitimate holder of authority in Japan, or the "legitimate emperor," to finish the restoration of what was considered the unfinished business of the Meiji Restoration.

The final paper by Watanabe Masako and Igeta Midori covers broad ground, investigating the use of "holy water" by eleven new religious groups in relation to the establishment of charismatic authority. Wataname and Igeta, in fact, attempt to shed light on two aspects of the struggle for the authority to define the situation, namely that occurring between the religious leader and the surrounding society as a part of the process of the establishment of the leader's "charismatic authority," and the internal struggle that can occur in the context of a wavering in the leader's charisma.

Students of the new religions have recently noted that few elements of the fundamental teachings or ethics of the new religions are truly "new" in the context of Japanese religious history.14 On the contrary, it is the organizational side of the new religions that may be both their most original aspect, and the side most dependent on the historical contingency of a friendly political regime. To the degree that the new religions demonstrate changing ways in which authority has been comprehended and legitimated in Japanese society, they point to an ageless principle, one that historically goes back at least to what has been called a Japanese "cargo cult" in the seventh century.15 It has not been my purpose here to deny the validity of the notion of "new religions," but merely to remind us that that notion has its own history and ideological origins, and that the real story is both more complex, and less amenable to historical typologies, than the mere rubric "new" might at first suggest.

Once again, this book has given me the opportunity to revise the earlier translations of these articles which I published in the Nihon Bunka Kenkyûsho kiyô. I wish to express particular appreciation to the authors of the articles and to Inoue Nobutaka and fellow members of the Institute for Japanese Culture and Classics for their response to my querries regarding numerous doubtful points of interpretation, as well as for their assistance in proofreading the completed translations. Any remaining errors are my own.


1. This is the usage assumed, for example, in Delwin Schneider, Konkôkyô, (Tokyo: ISR Press, 1962), xi-xii.

2. For a discussion of definitions of the new religions, see, for example, H. Byron Earhart, "The Interpretation of the 'New Religions' of Japan as New Religious Movements," Robert J. Miller, ed., Religious Ferment in Asia (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1974), 169-188.

3. Carmen Blacker, "Millenarian Aspects of the New Religions in Japan," Donald H. Shively, ed., Tradition and Modernization in Japanese Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971) 579-580.

4. Ibid, 569-70.

5. Negishi Shizumori, Mimibukuro, ed. Suzuki Tôzô, Tôyô Bunko No. 208 (Tokyo: Heibonsha, 1972) I:316.

6. Mimibukuro, II: 130; see other similar cases related in Miyata Noboru, "Hayari shinbutsu to zoku shinkô", in Ajia Bukkyôshi, Nihon-hen, eds. Nakamura Hajime, et. al., (Tokyo: Seikôsha, 1972), 4:184-187; Miyata Noboru, Ikigami shinkô Hanawa Shinsho No. 35 (Tokyo: Hanawa Shobô, 1970), passim.

7. Miyata Noboru, "Minkan shinkô to seijiteki kisei", Nihon shûkyhôshi ronshû, Kasahara Kazuo Kanreki Kinenkai, ed., (Tokyo: Yoshikawa Kôbunkan, 1976), 275-304.

8. Prohibitions issued against Fujikô from 1775 on were directed against their characteristic as "laypersons dressed in religious garb," reflecting bakufu disapproval of popular appropriation of "approved" religious power. A group of prohibitions are reproduced in Iwashina Koichirô, Fujikô no rekishi (Tokyo: Meicho Shuppan, 1983), 351-365.

9. See, for example, the comments of Winston Davis in his Towards Modernity: A Developmental Typology of Popular Religious Affiliations in Japan. Cornell East Asia Papers (Cornell University, 1977), esp. 75-76.

10. Erik Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, eds., The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

11. One introduction to this issue can be found in Tamamuro Fumio Edo bakufu no shûkyô tôsei. Nihonjin no Kôdô to Shisô, II (Hyôronsha, 1980). For another perspective on the purposes behind the Tokugawa religious system, see Herman Ooms, Tokugawa Ideology: Early Constructs, 1570-1680 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985).

12. Numerous criticisms of the "crisis" theories have also been suggested. As just two of the more well known, I would suggest Byron Earhart, "Toward a Theory of the Formation of the Japanese New Religions: A Case Study of Gedatsukai," History of Religions, 20:1-2 (August and November, 1980), 175-197; idem, Gedatsukai and Religion in Contemporary Japan (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989); Helen Hardacre, Kurozumikyô and the New Religions of Japan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986).

13. See Byron Earhart, Gedatsukai and Religion in Contemporary Japan, particularly the incident on page 35 regarding the the relationship between the imperial line and the temple Sennyûji. While the temple establishment gave one version of the relationship (we need and desire no assistance from commoners, thank you), the leader Okano claimed authority to present another version of the relationship (we're here to help you, the emperor is like a father to us, therefore how could we be guilty of impiety?).

14. Helen Hardacre notes that while individual teachings of the new religions may differ, there is a general commonality that is in common with a "Japanese worldview." See her discussion of this issue in Kurozumikyô and the New Religions of Japan, especially chapter 1.

15. Robert S. Ellwood, "A Cargo Cult in Seventh-Century Japan," History of Religions 23:3 (February 1984), 222-239.

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