Japanese religious organizations and activists have hurried to establish
their presence somehow on the Internet. However, some important
distinctions about this use have to be made.
One might imagine that in this age of new
technologies advancing through a globalized culture, the relations
between religions and the media would assume rather similar
characteristics wherever you go. However, this is not always the case.
Therefore, after noting some widely recognized features of "mediatized"
religion worldwide, I will present here some key features of the
Japanese scene in this regard, concentrating in particular on the use
of the Internet in the communication of religious systems. At the same
time, other media are important in Japan, too, as everywhere, so I will
begin with some general remarks.
During a recent visit to Brazil, I was struck by the
constant battle for attention on the TV channels among various kinds of
Protestant religions, supposedly "charismatic" (i.e., moved by the Holy
Spirit) but in fact highly manipulated, and Catholic media shows
emanating from nationally popular shrines such as Aparecida or the
media village Cancao Nova (New Song). Whether Catholic or charismatic,
the originating churches are believed to be the locus of miracles of
healing. However that may be, it seems that there is some kind of daily
shouting or singing match transmitted on endlessly running channels.
Such is the competition for market share in the world of religious
provision. Commercialized religious channels are also found in other
parts of the world, not least in North America and Europe, and in the
latter case there is a strong North American missionary aspect.
However, they are not really characteristic of Japan. There the
religions that advertise themselves strongly often do so in the printed
media, taking whole sections in the daily newspapers or advertising
their publications and services in the weekly magazines.
In most European countries, religious services and
talks are broadcast on publicly sponsored channels. Here the question
of balance, that is, of being fair to the various religions in the
country, becomes important. In Germany, for example, the religious
service in the main TV slot on Sunday morning alternates between large
Catholic and Protestant (Lutheran) churches. In Britain things are
similar, but a greater range of churches is reflected. There is also a
popular devotional program named Songs of Praise, which is broadcast from churches of various Christian denominations all over the country.
The underlying concept in these European
arrangements is that religion in general is "a good thing" and that it
should be given public time and media space. At the same time, the
minor religions are squeezed out. Even if there has been a recent shift
to benefit religious traditions of ethnic minorities, with a view to
social harmony, minority new religions are regarded as a
potential threat to the social balance that religion is supposed to
help to maintain. The Internet shifts the balance again. For example,
on the British radio program Prayer for the Day there is
regular participation by Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, and Baha'is, as well as
by representatives of the major Christian denominations, but no
participation by members of the Unification Church, the Church of Jesus
Christ of the Latter Day Saints (Mormons), or the Church of
Scientology. But on the Internet all religions have equal access, and
all interested persons also have equal access.
The situation in South Africa has been particularly
interesting, in that programs on religion have quite consciously been
regarded as a vehicle for nation building in the post-apartheid era. As
Rosalind Hackett writes:
There have been, and still are,
great hopes for the modern media to help realize the African
Renaissance, in whatever modality that is imagined-cultural pride,
academic recognition, spiritual rediscovery, moral renewal,
informational accuracy, political freedom, economic growth or social
harmony. . . . In that regard, the particular focus in this essay on
religious broadcasting demonstrates the strategic role that the state
can, and should, play in transitional democracies such as South Africa,
in promoting religious tolerance. (Hackett 2006)
Of course this underlying approach is not without difficulties in practice, as explored authoritatively in Hackett's article.
In Japan the situation is rather different from some
of these Western or developing countries with large Western-derived
churches. There are no full transmissions of religious services on
public channels, although there is a slot for edifying talks by leading
religious personalities during low viewing times. What we do find is
that regular news programs commonly end with a short clip about a
current religious event or festival, taken either from Buddhism or from
Shinto. These events are not presented as "religion," for the public
media are not supposed to infringe the separation of religion and the
public realm. Rather, they are presented as part of the general
cultural pattern that the inhabitants of Japan share. However, the new
religions are never included in these news items, even though in
several cases their followers run into millions. They are just not
regarded as part of the religiously or culturally dominant
establishment. Thus, there is an unspoken control of the message by the
public media, which reinforces traditional religions.
The commercial channels lose no time in reporting at
length, and in the manner of rather scurrilous magazines, any problems
or scandals that arise in the leadership of religious bodies. Here the
new religions come in for especially heavy treatment. This attitude is
the same as that found in weekly magazines. In other words, where sex
and corruption are concerned, the media will report on minor religions,
but not otherwise.
One theme that is taken up from time to time is the
financial cost of religious services. In late 2008 there was a TV
report on an independent religious group named Ho'on no Hikari (Light
of Recompense), which combines three main themes in its teaching or
services. The first step is to analyze one's fate (unsei) for
the high fee of thirty thousand yen (about U.S.$300). Apparently, since
the results of this analysis are usually unfavorable, comprehensive
counseling is then called for. Typically, it then emerges that one's
ancestors have been neglected, so that care for them is needed to avoid
further misfortunes. This service is also provided, naturally for a
fee. The impression is left that this "new religion" is little more
than a new religious business, making large profits by dwelling on
people's anxieties. However justified this critical journalism may have
been, the problem remains that it is always small religions that tend
to be attacked in the media. After all, it is well known that there is
widespread dissatisfaction with the high cost of quite normal Buddhist
funeral services, but this is not "news." The immense media attention
given to the Aum Shinrikyo case in the 1990s, while the courts have
shown that it was justified in itself, also had the effect of giving all new religions "bad press," with very negative effects on their activities.
To be fair, the more traditional religions do not
completely escape attention. Another recent news item told of a sudden
interest in the little-known Kabushima Shrine, located just on the
coastline of Aomori Prefecture in northern Japan. The word kabu
not only means "turnip," as in the name of the shrine, but also, as a
pun, "stocks" or "shares" in the financial sense. At the time of the
financial crash in late 2008 there began a soaring postal trade in
amulets (o-mamori) from this shrine, which were ordered by
securities companies for their customers. Of course, once reported on
television, they could also easily be found on the Internet. Similar
considerations apply to a shrine on a small island off the coast of
Kyushu, whose amulets appeared to bring about lottery wins.
A field of religion that has no official
existence as a registered corporation is the wide area of informal
religious activity known as "spirituality," "New Age culture," or even
"mysticism." These are not really appropriate designations, and indeed
it is difficult to sum up this wide field of religion except as
"noninstitutional." The main features are the attempt to identify one's
existential situation through astrology, divination, or other means;
the search for healing and a new or refreshed identity; and various
ways to restructure one's life, both body and spirit, in harmony with
holistic and idealistic visions of the universe. The wide interest in
these themes is evidenced by innumerable publications found in
bookstores, and it is also a growth area on the Internet.
As one might expect, Japanese religious
organizations and activists have hurried to establish their presence
somehow on the Internet. However, some important distinctions must be
made. Some Japanese religious Internet sites are straightforward,
informative presentations of well-established religions. These
sites may be searched and viewed. Others, by contrast, invite the
Internet surfer personally to participate in rituals online. That is,
the user is invited to engage in religious behavior operatively
by means of the site. Those who use religious Internet sites are
therefore either viewers of presentational sites or actors in
operational sites. In the latter case, the ritual can take place at
one's own desk, insofar as keyboard keys are struck, and in one's own
mind at a shrine that may exist somewhere else, or not. A second
important distinction lies, therefore, in whether Internet sites relate
to identifiable institutions that really exist in a place, or whether
the religious institution or agency is itself virtual, that is, only
virtual, having no counterpart in the religious geography of the
country. Such ambiguity is typical of the Japanese cultural
imagination. The widely used term interactive is too general
for this analysis. It does not do justice to the religious action that
is operationalized by the user. After all, even a presentational site
is interactive in the simple sense that the viewer can move around
within the site. The terms presentational and operational are therefore preferred in contrast to some others because they emphasize the diverse weighting of the relevant agency.1
A typical presentational site is that of the
Association of Shinto Shrines (Jinja Honcho). This is an umbrella
organization for the Shinto religion, which, as it says on the site,
reveres Ise Shrine as its main focus while linking together eighty
thousand shrines all over Japan. The home page seeks to give an easily
understood introduction to Shinto as a faith (shinko) unique to
Japan. It also emphasizes reverence for the imperial family, which is
identified with the centrally important Ise Shrine. The few interactive
options are limited to the exploration of the site and its links. These
refer to shrines that can also be located geographically. Thus, it is
possible to travel around Japan, as if in real time and space, visiting
the Association of Shinto Shrines, Ise Shrine, or indeed any other of
the eighty thousand shrines of the country.
Of course, eighty thousand is a traditional symbolic
number and does not correspond to a real set of buildings. It is an
archaic hint of potential "virtuality." What, after all, is a shrine?
At its simplest, a shrine is a spot where the sacred is localized, as
marked by the appropriate symbols, which may be massive-or very tiny.
The main hall of a shrine, where the kami themselves reside, is smaller than the hall for human visitors, which suggests that the kami have no particular size. So it may be argued that Shinto has always had an intimate relation with virtuality.
There are also operational sites in the general area of Shinto.2 The practice of drawing a fortune slip (o-mikuji)
is of course common at Shinto shrines. Today the Web site of Shirasagi
Shrine in Tochigi Prefecture invites its visitors to draw a virtual
fortune slip. The request is then sent off by e-mail. In another
example, Sakura Jingu, a real shrine in Tokyo, invites surfers to
perform a virtual shrine visit. That is, without ever entering Tokyo's
complex underground system, one can carry out a religious "visit" (o-mairi)
that corresponds in meaning to an actual one. Both of these are
operational sites that correspond both in name and in the practices
performed with real shrines that can be geographically located.
A site called uebbu-jingu (Web shrine) takes us further into operational virtuality. This picks up the high-sounding word jingu, for "shrine," but this jingu
is not at Ise or anywhere else in the islands of Japan. It is a virtual
shrine that can be accessed only via the Internet. Further clicking
gives the options of drawing a fortune-telling slip or even "visiting
for worship" (sanpai). A similar site is entitled "computer qualifications shrine" (denno gokaku jinja).
Here we find the idea, popular among students, that a shrine is a good
place to pray for the attainment of educational qualifications. Here,
too, there is no corresponding shrine outside the electronic network.
The click-on options are both serious and playful: "visiting the
shrine" (o-mairi suru), "qualifications," "computer
fortune-telling slip," "playtime," and "cherry-blossom notice board."
Other sites invite the user to pay veneration to a deceased person or
animal. With all of these sites, the main point is to invite ritual
behavior in the form of electronic interaction.
We find that electronic representations of religion
in Japan build upon six well-established characteristics of Japanese
cultural style in religious matters.
1. Readiness to use technological aids in religious contexts
2. Readiness to provide abbreviations of symbols and rituals
3. Acceptance of remote access to sacred foci
4. Readiness to provide popularized representations
5. Individual control over much (though not all) religious action
6. Undefined relations between reality and unreality
Space permits only the briefest examples here.3
A nice example of item 1 is the remote-controlled Buddhist home altar,
which saves walking back and forth in the room in order to open and
close the doors. For item 2, we may recall the miniature Mount Fuji
mounds, only a few meters high, for those who find it difficult to go
on a tiresome climb for pilgrimage purposes. Turning to item 3, we note
the concept common in Shinto, but not restricted to it, of "worship
from afar" (yohai). This implies that one can stand before a miniature shrine anywhere in Japan and pay reverence to kami
whose residence is far distant. Since there are so many potential
ritual actors, we also find a wealth of popularized representations of
sacred beings to be venerated (item 4), a common example being the
bodhisattva Jizo, who may be found standing in a fine hall, swelling
the ranks of the images in a hillside cemetery, or simply standing by
the roadside. This variety of religious representations is related to
the wishes of the people who have significant individual control over
their religious actions (item 5). Finally, just as we have seen that
reality or unreality is not an issue in Shinto, the Mahayana Buddhist
refusal to discriminate between existence and nonexistence is also
relevant (item 6). This final ambiguity underlies the teachings or
practices of practically all Japanese religions. It is significant that
all of the features named here are particularly suitable for transference to the Internet.
The Internet undoubtedly helps to maintain and
develop awareness of the ideas and values associated with traditional
religious institutions. Only lack of space prevents us from charting
the increased global presence of well-organized Japanese religions. On
the other hand, the institutionally unrelated area is being enlarged at
the cost of specific religious institutions. What differential is to be
expected between Japan and Europe? In Europe, it may be anticipated
that the strengthening of "informal spiritualities" will continue and
that more Internet use will continue to relativize institutionalized
religion. In Japan, religious institutions may be able to reinforce
their position by Internet sales of real products such as amulets,
ancestor mementos, or devotional aids, for real money. It remains to be
seen how profitable the offers for virtual benefits will become. It
seems doubtful that virtual transactions will seriously reduce the need
for real-space temple and shrine visits and reduce transport
congestion! Because of the frequent connections between religious
destinations and leisure travel, many Internet sites help to maintain
interest in the real-space, institutionalized sector as well.
Nevertheless, it appears that some typical characteristics of religion
in Japan encourage a very special relationship between religion and the
. Other proposals may be found in Helland 2002 and Karaflogka 2002.
. I am grateful to Ms. Petra Kienle (University of Marburg) for pointing out some of these to me.
There is much more detail about these matters in Pye 2005 (on
"electronic projections of Japanese religion and the growth of informal
spiritualities," but in a Finnish translation) and related writings.
Hackett, Rosalind I. J. 2006. "Mediated Religion in South Africa: Balancing Air-Time and Rights Claims." In Media, Religion, and the Public Sphere, edited by Birgit Meyer and Annelies Moors, 166-87. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Helland, Christopher. 2002. "Surfing for Salvation." Religion 32, no. 4: 293-302.
Karaflogka, Anastasia. 2002. "Religious Discourse and Cyberspace." Religion 32, no. 4: 279-91.
Pye, Michael. 2005. "Japanilaisen uskonnollisuuden sahkosia heijastumia." In Pyha media, edited by Johanna Sumiala-Seppanen, pp. 146-66. Jyvaskyla, Finland: Atena Kustannus.
Michael Pye was professor of religious studies at
the University of Marburg, Germany, until 2004. He is now a visiting
professor at Otani University, Kyoto. From 1995 to 2000, Dr. Pye served
as president of the International Association for the History of
Religions. His books include Skilful Means: A Concept in Mahayana Buddhism and MacMillan Dictionary of Religion.
This article was originally published in the July-September 2009 issue of Dharma World.
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