Buddhism and the mass media share the potential for playing a positive social role.
They can turn people's eyes to what they cannot see for
themselves and open their minds to consideration for others.
It seems to me that the Japanese these days have lost interest in
others whom they usually don't see. They don't show compassion, and
they don't even dare to know the sufferings of people far from them.
These are the same people who so easily shed their tears over the film Departures (original Japanese title Okuribito)
or exclaimed "I was really moved. They gave me an emotional boost. I
was encouraged," when they watched Japan win the World Baseball
Classic. That's fine. They may have good reasons to be so moved.
What bothers me, however, is the wide gap between this sort of
enthusiasm and their indifference to the outside world. I don't recall
when, why, and how the Japanese started to show excessive expressions
of excitement. But one thing is clear to me. Now it's quite easy to
move the Japanese by dramatic events if they are highly visible, while
it's all too difficult to open their eyes to invisible things. How many
Japanese, I wonder, are concerned about the agony of the people in
Darfur, Sudan? How many of them paid attention to the atrocity that was
taking place in northern Sri Lanka? How many of them are aware that
over a billion people around the world live on less than one U.S.
dollar a day? How many of them actually extend helping hands to such
This does not just involve events happening in the rest of the
world. The widening economic disparity within Japan and the
marginalization of the socially disadvantaged would go unnoticed by the
vast majority of Japanese were many of them not among the victims. The
former prime minister who initiated policies that led to the disparity
was very popular until the nightmare of several hundred thousand people
suddenly losing their jobs became a reality. The random killings of a
series of innocent citizens in Tokyo's popular Akihabara district, the
nursing home fire in Shibukawa City, Gunma Prefecture, that killed ten
elderly residents-if such crimes and accidents had not taken place, the
issue of working and living conditions for the nation's large numbers
of temporary workers, or the pitiful situation of not being able to
ensure the safety of homes for the elderly living on government
assistance, would not have attracted public interest.
The Japanese have hardened into an inward-looking people over the
period since the "lost decade" of the 1990s, which started with the
bursting of the economic bubble and has continued into the twenty-first
century, as if to counter what some see as the progress toward
globalism. Troubling phenomena are occurring around the world, from
fears that vital national interests will be lost to the advance of
globalism, to nations and their citizens turning protectionist and
nationalistic. According to a Japanese university professor I spoke
with recently, the average college student of today shows no interest
in studying abroad, and regarding Japan's leading ally, the United
States, there are more than a few who have an attitude he describes as
"beyond anti-American, it is contempt for America." There are strong
feelings against former U.S. president George W. Bush, who paved an
unfortunate road to an expansion of international terrorism when he
stepped over the line by going to war against Iraq in response to the
terrorist attacks on the United States of September 11, 2001. Japan's
former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi worsened relations with the
neighboring countries of China and South Korea when he made an official
visit to Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, where the nation's war dead are
enshrined, including some designated as Class A war criminals following
World War II. These perhaps are among the causes for what is in Japan's
case a tendency to isolate itself from the world.
This trend to face inward is not limited to relations between Japan
and the rest of the world, however. Even within Japan people have lost
their feelings of solidarity and have become indifferent to those whose
circumstances are different from their own. Perhaps it is because
economic opportunities have diminished, or perhaps it is because of
problems involving education at home or at school, or maybe it is
caused to some degree by the coverage in the media. I do not think any
single element is to blame. Whatever the case may be, Japanese
society-the ordinary people who make up that society-has in the past
twenty years or so gradually lost the sense of caring for others.
Since the "Lehman shock" of September 2008, when the huge
international investment bank Lehman Brothers suddenly collapsed, a
slight change seems to have occurred in Japan when people of many
different backgrounds offered helping hands to the part-time and
noncontract workers who had unexpectedly lost their jobs. In a park
that is within walking distance of both the Imperial Palace, the home
of the emperor and empress, and Ginza, Tokyo's fashionable shopping
district, a camp was set up by nonprofit volunteers to offer jobless
workers a temporary housing arrangement and meal service over the New
Year's holiday. In Gunma Prefecture, where I work, many Brazilians of
Japanese descent have been working in the automobile plants and other
factories. When local Christian churches offered meals and places to
live to the many who recently lost their jobs and company housing, that
was big news.
The plight of noncontract and part-time workers has been publicized
throughout Japan, but I have not seen or heard anything about priests
from Buddhist temples or Shinto shrines pitching in to help them. I
have no recollection of seeing any report of that sort in the past few
Unfortunately, it is extremely rare for Buddhist or Shinto priests
to play an active role in humanitarian assistance, or for them to work
to correct social inequities. The more traditional the religious
organization, the more it appears to shun actively providing assistance
to those in society who need it.
The priests are seen only when they conduct annual services for such
occasions as welcoming in the new year and the summer Bon Festival of
the dead, or at formal ceremonies such as funerals and weddings. They
do not speak out or take a stand against social injustice, social
inequity, or violations of human rights. There is a good reason that
Buddhism is sometimes contemptuously referred to as "funeral Buddhism,"
meaning that many people turn to it only for conducting rites for
departed loved ones.
In 1982 a dispute arose in Kyoto, Japan's ancient capital, over a
new tax to be levied on temple visitors. The mayor of Kyoto at the time
announced his intention to tax the entrance fees charged by the
temples. Famous temples, including Kiyomizu-dera, had been collecting
several hundred yen per head for operations and maintenance. Needless
to say, the temples opposed the mayor's plan. The clerics claimed that
because visiting temples is a religious act, taxing such visits
violated religious freedom and was therefore unconstitutional. Many of
the so-called tourist temples threatened to close their gates to
visitors, and the two sides came to an impasse.
What method did the priests use so the citizens of Kyoto and temple
visitors could hear their side of the argument? They turned to the
media. They held press conferences to appeal to the public and express
their viewpoint. They provided information to the media only when it
suited them. They are not civil servants, so they even were not
truthful when it was to their advantage. When elections are scheduled
in Japan, the candidates move out-of-doors to make public speeches,
trying to garner voter support for as long as their voices hold up, but
the priests had too much pride to expose themselves in that way.
Perhaps they did not want to appear to be pleading their case before
the citizenry. At any rate, they were never seen actually out in the
streets of Kyoto directly explaining their position to the people. The
only way to interpret this, it seemed to me, was that they were waving
the banners of vested rights and privilege and using the means most
useful to them for attaining their objective.
I was in Kyoto at the time, covering the dispute between the temples
and the mayor, and I was disappointed in the priests' attitude. Public
opinion did not support their efforts to close the temples, which are
an important part of Japan's cultural heritage.
Around that same time, I went to Italy for the first time, to cover
the World Day of Prayer for Peace, a gathering of world religious
leaders on October 27, 1986, presided over by Pope John Paul II. There
were churches in every city center I visited, and they were all open to
the public. I had thought an entrance fee would be required at Saint
Peter's Basilica in the Vatican, which was not the case. I learned
Italy is quite different from Japan.
I am not trying to idealize the Christian system. I do not think
that Japanese society, which consists of Buddhist and Shinto values
superimposed on traditions of animism and ancestor veneration, is
inferior to societies based on Christianity or other great religions.
Nor do I think that the Japanese are lacking in religious sentiment or
beliefs. They may not be converting to monotheism or know how to read
the Buddhist sutras, but I do not think we can say that the vast
majority of Japanese are therefore atheists.
It is just that in Japan religion does not function as a moral guide
for society. For most people, religion does not provide a set of values
that they can follow as an ethical standard. While Japanese society has
many ancient traditions, the role that religion plays in the nation's
life is one of decidedly low priority.
Societies that are overexposed to religion can bring about
intolerance of others, I feel certain, so I do not think it is
desirable to attach too much importance to religious values only. Since
the end of World War II, however, the traditional religious
organizations in Japan, and the leaders affiliated with them in
particular, have distanced themselves too greatly from society, and
they seem to be in a state of near withdrawal. It appears that they are
so afraid of being hurt or misunderstood that they have given up
working directly with society.
Religion and the media have different basic functions, of course,
but it seems to me that they share the potential for playing a positive
social role. They can turn people's eyes to what they cannot see for
themselves. Appealing to public sensitivities, they can open their
minds. In these ways, consideration for others can deepen, and people
may begin to work toward the realization of a society where citizens
help each other. For this to happen, however, we need religion to
become more visible.
The media are also due some criticism. They also suffer from
diminished influence. The reasons are probably the same. The media are
resting on the laurels of past performance, on what they consider their
vested rights and privilege, and are too removed from the sensibilities
of the average citizen.
While events in the world and people's thinking are constantly
changing, people are forced to listen to the same "song" over and over
again. How long will it be before we tire of it? Maybe it is all as
simple as that. Perhaps some tunes need to be repeated. But if they are
not sung in a way that reaches people's hearts and minds, then the way
they are being sung should change.