Is there not a need for unbiased, balanced reporting on religious organizations and
for more broadcasting of quality programs on religion?
The New Year season and the Bon Festival in summer to honor the
spirits of ancestors are the two times of the year when the Japanese
become most actively religious. As Christmas and New Year's Eve
approach, even the Japanese see this as a time for looking back over
the past year with deep emotion. Then, on January 1, our TV screens
show huge crowds making a hatsumode, the first visit of the New
Year to a shrine or temple. The scene seems to inform us that the
religious side of the Japanese has gone unchanged from ancient times to
the present, but this may be a fabrication of the TV images.
It is said that some 20 percent of the Japanese these days prepare no osechi ryori,
the traditional Japanese foods of the New Year season. Traditional New
Year customs are disappearing from households and communities, and amid
the hustle and bustle of modern life, rejoicing at the arrival of the
New Year has become a thing of the past. One nonfiction writer even
stated that the New Year steps out to greet us from the TV screen while
we watch the annual "Yukutoshi kurutoshi" program ring the old year out
and the new one in on New Year's Eve, gaze at scenes of crowds lined up
before shrines and temples, and enjoy other New Year's programs.
To urban residents, some of the key images that represent the end of
one year and the start of the next are those broadcast on "Yukutoshi
kurutoshi." The program begins with the scene at a temple as its bell
rings out the old year and ends with a scene at a shrine where the New
Year is joyously welcomed. By imperceptible degrees, we have come under
the influence of religious information delivered by television. In
fact, we may have been more than influenced. Perhaps the very religious
reality of the contemporary Japanese has come to be created by the TV.
Two Changes in the Postwar Religious Nature of the Japanese
When we take a bird's-eye view of the religious behavior and
attitudes of the Japanese since World War II, two major changes stand
out. One is the weakening of religious sentiment and the other is the
strengthening of critical attitudes toward religious organizations.
After the war, close to 70 percent of the Japanese replied yes to
the question, "Do you have a religious belief?" Today, some sixty years
later, fewer than 30 percent answer in the affirmative. The share of
the Japanese who say they are interested in religion has also declined.
And among young Japanese, those who reply that religion is "not
important" have come to outnumber those who say it is "important."
Religion is on the retreat as an element of daily life. Shinto altars (kamidana) and Buddhist altars (butsudan)
used to be normal fixtures of the Japanese home, but the number of
households with them rapidly dwindled during the postwar years. More
than half of all households in the nation lack Shinto altars, and in
Tokyo only about one family in four has one. Buddhist altars have fared
somewhat better, but even they remain in only about half of homes
nationwide and 40 percent of homes in Tokyo.
We are witnessing a weakening of the religious nature of the
Japanese, which used to be nurtured in daily life through rites of
passage and annual events. Only a few such religious activities have
managed somehow to remain popular, among them hatsumode and the
Bon Festival, as mentioned at the start of this essay. Another is the
visits many people make to graves to comfort the souls of ancestors and
family members who have departed. These occur on the occasion of o-higan, a one-week period twice a year centered on the vernal and autumn equinox days.
In 1995 the Japanese were severely shocked when the Aum Shinrikyo
cult released the deadly sarin gas in Tokyo subways. The coordinated
attacks by this religious group killed twelve people and injured more
than five thousand. The postwar Japanese had been growing increasingly
critical of religious organizations, and this atrocity cemented that
attitude. Even today, religious organizations have been unable to
regain much trust, with people rating them alongside Japan's parliament
as untrustworthy bodies.
Religious Information Grows Stereotypical
In the midst of the changing postwar situation, television has
continued to provide a wide variety of religious information. Even as
organized religion has fallen out of favor, whether traditional
religions or new religions are concerned, television is the one
institution that has continued to transmit messages relating to
religion. But the images and information on religion delivered by TV
are growing stereotypical.
The American journalist Walter Lippmann (1889-1974) coined the term stereotype in its modern sense in his 1922 work Public Opinion.
This is an oversimplified, preconceived, and distorted notion or image
of some social phenomena shared by the members of a specified social
group. Stereotypes are often used as tools for social control, one
infamous example being the Nazi propaganda about the Jews.
Four Types of TV Programs Providing Religious Information
TV programs relating to religion can be broadly grouped into four
categories. The first is the programs religious organizations
themselves supply. At present none of the key TV stations are airing
any of these programs. In the past, several such programs were
broadcast, including Hiei no hikari (Light on Mount Hiei) and Kokoro no tomoshibi
(A lamp in the heart). After other programs had been discontinued, one
of the private broadcasters, NTV (Nippon Television Network
Corporation), continued to present Shukyo no jikan (Religion's
hour) for a number of years, but in March 2001 this, too, went off the
air. It was unilaterally terminated at the convenience of the
The second category consists of educational programs, a representative example being Kokoro no jidai
(The spiritual age) of the public broadcaster NHK (Japan Broadcasting
Corporation). The private broadcasters also air programs of this type,
although such programs are few. I find it disturbing that these
programs have recently become overly focused on just the temples and
churches on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Educational programs are a
genre I would like to see get greater attention.
The third category covers news reports with a religious angle. Often
they are reports on incidents or scandals or coverage of seasonal
events and festivals. In the area of incidents and scandals, just a few
examples are the affair of the Ark of Jesus cult, which was accused of
kidnapping and brainwashing; the alleged swindling scandal by the Ho no
Hana Sanpogyo cult; the case of the Kigenkai cult, one of whose members
was beaten to death; and a whole string of incidents involving Aum
Shinrikyo. Incidents and scandals caused by religious organizations
tend to get intensive media coverage and are often mined for their
sensational, attention-attracting value, with segments of the daytime
talk shows devoted to them. Anybody who has been watching Japanese TV
in recent years will recall that this was the kind of treatment
accorded to the doomsday Chino Shoho cult and its "scientific" arm,
Pana Wave Laboratory. In the case of new religions, about the only time
they receive any coverage is when they get involved in difficulties.
Religious activities that make contributions to society rarely find
their way to the TV screen.
Within this category of news reports is some coverage of religion in
daily life, such as the religious customs I mentioned at the start, as
well as reports that mention religions overseas. Often a function at a
shrine or temple will be reported in the news as a seasonal event. This
type of coverage is becoming stereotypical through its focus on
familiar traditional religious events.
The reporting on religion overseas is extremely one-sided. Islam is
mentioned only in connection with reports on incidents caused by
extremists; Hinduism is portrayed as if it were an undeveloped
religion. In general the reports on the world's religions feature
bizarre rituals or strange customs, and they seem of little use in
enhancing understanding of foreign cultures. Because viewers watch the
programs without much conscious thought, more consideration should be
paid to what is presented.
The fourth category is variety shows with religious content. In the
1970s programs on the alleged supernatural powers of such psychics as
Uri Geller debuted on prime-time TV, and today they have flowered into
a whole broadcasting genre covering alleged supernatural powers,
spiritualist phenomena, unidentified flying objects, mythical
creatures, and other such subjects. In recent years these programs have
begun to receive critical scrutiny, and they have been attacked as
promoting emotionally manipulative sales and giving support to
pseudoscience, thereby violating the program standards of the
Wanted: Religious Literacy and Quality Programs
There is much that needs to be said, but here I will sum up my
thoughts in just two points. The first is that there is an
insufficiency of what is called religious literacy. In view of the fact
that religion plays an important role the world over, should we not be
disturbed by the problems in the religious information delivered by
television today? It is not just that TV broadcasters are failing in a
duty they have set for themselves, which is to contribute to public
welfare and cultural improvement. Worse than that, quite a few harmful
programs that perpetuate prejudiced views are being aired.
Second, is there not a need for unbiased, balanced reporting on
religious organizations and for more broadcasting of quality cultural
programs on religion? Toward this end, we would be wise to create an
organization charged with regularly checking the veracity of TV
reporting on religion, calling attention to problem points and giving
public praise to quality programs.
The Changing Information Environment
It was in the second half of the 1990s that use of the Internet
began to spread in Japan as people became familiar with it. Today the
Internet has become a widely employed information tool. Talk about the
media formerly considered only newspapers and television, but the times
are greatly changing.
From the viewpoint of users, the element of chance draws a sharp
dividing line between TV and the Internet. Whereas chance is a major
factor in what TV viewers watch, it plays a much smaller role in
Internet use. Until now TV viewers would happen to encounter shows on
alleged supernatural powers and spiritualist phenomena as they surfed
channels, and indeed these shows were put together with that in mind,
but one does not come across these subjects on the Internet unless one
searches for them.
As the structure of daily life changes, will not the religious
nature of the Japanese grow weaker yet? And among those who are keenly
interested in religion, will they not acquire more and more information
about it? Along the way, we may see the formation of an insurmountable
barrier of understanding dividing these religiously oriented citizens
from the rest of the public.
It is my fervent hope that what we will witness instead is the
arrival of an age in which respect for religious culture spreads widely
among the Japanese.