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New Religions
In addition to the traditional religions of Shinto and Buddhism, Japan is also home to more than 600 “new religions” (shinko shukyo), which incorporate Buddhist, Shinto, and Christian elements. In this video series, Harvard University professors Theodore Bestor and Helen Hardacre discuss the impact of religious values and traditions on Japanese life.

Helen Hardacre :: In addition to Shinto, Buddhism, and Christianity, Japan is home to a number of new religious movements. The term “new religions” in Japan can be a little bit confusing, because it refers to lay-peoples’ movements founded from around 1900 to the present. Thus there are some of them which have nearly 200 years of history, and it’s hard to think of them as “new” in the same sense as a group that may have been founded as recently as 1985.

A recent encyclopedic dictionary of new religious movements in Japan lists over 600 new religious movements. This is, however, only one subsection of Japanese religious life.

New religious movements may be Buddhist, Shinto, Christian, or entirely independent movements which originate in revelations to a founder. Many founders of new religious movements are women. Some of the most important would be Tenrikyo, founded in 1838 and still today having about 250,000 members. This group is a rural new religion, but it also has branches all over the country.

There are many Buddhist new religious movements. They tend to prosper more in the cities and to be influential in community life, and also at a grassroots level in political life. Sometimes new religious movements function as a surrogate family or a surrogate community for people in the cities who may be cut off from deeper ties to their family of birth, which may be back in the countryside.

New religious movements are active in society in a number of ways. The 1964 founding of the Clean Government Party by Soka Gakkai [Soka Gakkai is a lay organization for believers in a branch of Japanese Buddhism called Nichiren Shosu or orthodox Nichiren sect] is the most visible aspect of new religion’s political activities, but in many areas they are active in a less visible way, not necessarily endorsing candidates, but perhaps going door to door for candidates who may be members. Sometimes they do endorse candidates. In other ways, they may be active in social welfare activities, founding hospitals, clinics, activities for the aged and other types of social welfare activities.

Rissho Kosei-kai is a Buddhist new religion founded in 1938. It is active in Japanese politics in a very distinctive way. It doesn’t sponsor a particular political party, but while it provides sponsorship and funds for some politicians, it nevertheless has a litmus test about who it will support. It refuses to support politicians who have been linked to corruption of any kind, and it also puts a premium on maintaining the separation between religion and state, so that politicians who use their office, for example, to sponsor the pre-war shrine to the war dead, called the yasukuni shrine, are also excluded from its political support.