by Mamoru Billy Ogata
There are many new religious movements in Japan that have experienced phenomenal growth in recent times. We can gain church growth insights and effective mission strategies for our Christian groups by surveying them.
There are many new religious movements in Japan that have experienced phenomenal growth in recent times. We can gain church growth insights and effective mission strategies for our Christian groups by surveying them. “New religions” is really a rather ambiguous term: Most new religious movements are syncretistic and have their origins in traditional religions such as State Shinto, Buddhism, or Christianity.
JAPANESE NEW RELIGIOUS MOVEMENTS
Three new religious movements have appeared in Japan. The first arose at the end of the Edo era or during the Meiji restoration (in 1868), when masses of people ran to the new religions (Tenri-kyo, Konko-kyo, Kurozumi-kyo, etc.) looking for worldly profits. The second began after World War II, when Shinto lost its status as the state religion.
Since the oil shock of 1973, Japan has seen its third wave of new religions—the New Age—with an emphasis on meditation, the occult, magic, drugs, spiritism, and so on, and the Japanese mass media have taken note. Many magazines have referred to fortune-telling, charms, exorcism, inspiration, spiritism, supernatural power, prophecies, guardian (protecting) deities, ancestral spirits, mediums, magic, astrology, ancestor veneration, yoga meditation, and so on. In this “post-modern” world, new religious movements, including New Age movements, are a reality.
One, Soka Gakkai, founded in 1930 by Makiguchi Tsunesaburo (1871-1944), reported that it had grown from 5,728 households with adherents by the end of 1951 to 16,223,348 total adherents by the end of 1970 (Japan Bunkacho 1972:208). Figure 1 shows the statistics of 10 major Japanese new religions in 1975, as reported by the national Ministry of Education.
Figure 1: Ten Major Japanese New Religions in 1975
The Tenrikyo sect 1,993,217
The Kurozumikyo sect 407,590
The Konkokyo sect 514,997
The Omotokyo sect 143,891
The Sekai Kyuseikyo sect 662,072
The Seicho no Ie sect 2,424,950
The P.L. Kyodan sect 1,473,189
The Reiyu kai sect 4,259,587
The Rissho Koseikai sect 4,849,476
The Soka Gakkai sect 16,207,488
These new religions have elements of shamanism, animism, and ancestor worship, and their founders usually have shamanistic powers. Kenneth Dale points out several of their characteristics.
One of them is Gori-yaku Shukyo (honorable profit-making religion). The new religions present solutions of everyday life problems. Their messages are happiness, success, healing, wealth. The second characteristic of the new religions is that their teachings are syncretistic. In the third characteristic the new religions have charismatic leadership. The founders of these religions have often been regarded as Ikigami (living god). They have had shamanic powers such as divine revelation, a healing power. The fourth characteristic of the new religions is hierarchical structure. The fifth characteristic is that most of the Japanese new religions have a religious mecca as the national headquarters. The sixth characteristic is emotional and physical participation of believers. The seventh characteristic is that they have effective propaganda methods.1
The revival and practices of shamanism have not only helped advance new religions in Japan; Korean Christianity has also progressed by borrowing shamanistic forms. The Japanese new religions in turn have revitalized Shinto and Buddhism, which have been institutionalized for years.
New religions still exist today in Japan from all three waves. Examples include occult religions such as Sukyo Mahikari, Shinjishumei-kai and Reihan-ohikari, esoteric Buddhism such as Agonshu, syncretistic religions such as Shinnyoen and GLA, cults such as the Unification Church (the “Moonies”), the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Mormons (Latter-day Saints), Christian Science, and Eastern mystical cults such as Hare Krishna.
Power encounter and new religious movements
“Power encounter” has recently become a main missiological theme, and new religious movements are closely related to it. Alan Tippett first used the term to refer to the clashing of the kingdom of God with the kingdom of Satan. In 1982, Paul Hiebert wrote an article, “The Flaw of the Excluded Middle,” in which he presented a three-tiered model.
Figure 2: Three-tier Model
Transcendent world beyond ours, includes:
– hells, heavens, other times, i.e., eternity
– high god (African); Vishnu, Siva (Hindu)
– Jehovah, angels, demons, spirits of worlds
Religion, faith, sacred, miracles, other worldly problems
Supernatural forces on this earth, includes:
– spirits, ghosts, ancestors, demons
– earthly gods and goddesses who live within trees, rivers, hills, villages
– supernatural forces; manna, planetary influences, evil eyes, power of magic, sorcery, witchcraft
– Holy Spirit, angels, demons, signs and wonders, gifts of the Spirit
Excluded Middle by Westerners
Empirical world of our senses, includes:
– folk sciences to explain how things occur
– explanations based on empirical observations "person shoots an arrow into a deer – he attributes death to arrow; "one cooks a meal – attributes ‘cooked meal’ to fire under pot"
– theories about natural world "how to build a house; plant crops; sail canoe"
– theories about human relationships "how to raise children; treat spouse; etc."
According to Hiebert, most non-Westerners have a three-tiered way of looking at theworld, but Western society’s world view excludes the middle. The top tier describes high religions based on cosmic personalities and forces, and theologies with heavens and hells. The bottom tier is everyday life and science. The middle zone, however, is influenced by superhuman and supernatural forces in this world, such as spirits, demons, ancestors, ghosts, magic, sorcerers, witches, mediums, angels, the Holy Spirit, signs and wonders, and any number of other powers. According to Hiebert, the power encounter belongs in the middle zone. Western theology used to exclude this middle zone, but animism and most Eastern and new religions have been and are deeply related to it.
The healings and miracles in many new religions in Japan have been shown to be performed by demonic power. For example, Shinjishumei-kai, one of the “post-modern” new religions, calls itself “the religion of miracle.” For healing and happiness, one adherent simply holds a hand over another’s forehead. We can say that Satan and demons are conducting these new religions, and we can suppose there are demons conducting the Moonies, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Hare Krishnas, Soka Gakkai, Sukyo Mahikari, and others, a supposition the Bible supports (1 John 4:1-3; 2 Thess. 2:9; 1 Tim. 4:1). In the spiritual battles against these new religions, we need spiritual armor (Eph. 6:10-18) and warfare prayer.
A CASE STUDY OF SOKA GAKKAI
This group has achieved enormous numerical growth, and we should be able to gain helpful insights about church growth by surveying it.
1. Historical Background. In 1963, Henry Van Straelen wrote that “the most vigorous, dogmatic, exclusivistic, belligerent, self-confident, and fastest growing religious group in Japan today is Soka Gakkai.”2 Soka Gakkai (Value-Creation Society), although now stagnating, is still one of the biggest religious movements in Japan since World War II. But its members insist that it is merely a lay organization connected with the Nichiren Shoshu (the Orthodox Sect of Nichiren Buddhism). A school teacher, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi (1871-1944), founded Soka Gakkai in 1930 and formed its organization during a 1937 public meeting with about 60 members in a downtown restaurant in Tokyo. Makiguchi was president and Josei Toda was vice president. By 1942, the sect had about 3,000 members, and Makiguchi and Toda were arrested for refusing the talismans from the shrines and going against State Shinto. Makiguchi died in his cell in 1944.
Toda, however, was released in July, 1945; in January, 1946, he had begun to call members together. On May 3, 1951, Toda was inaugurated as the sect’s second president. By the time of Toda’s death in 1958, Soka Gakkai had increased from about 5,000 families to more than 750,000 families.
Daisaku Ikeda, 32, was inaugurated as the third president on May 3, 1960. In the first 16 months of his administration, the number of households reportedly increased from 1.3 million to 2.11 million. Hesselgrave says of Soka Gakkai that “subsequently it continued to grow until it became one of the most phenomenally successful religious groups in the world.”3 By December 31, 1970, it claimed 16,223,348 adherents (Japan Bunkacho 1972:208). It now embraces more than 10 percent of Japan’s population.
2. Vision or dream. The leaders of Soka Gakkai have had a vision for the conversion of the world. Although the peak during Makiguchi’s life was only 3,000 adherents, Toda said when he became president, “You must not give Toda a funeral if 750,000 family units have not been won. Throw my bones into the ocean off the coast of Shinagawa (the Pacific Ocean).”4 In May, 1960, Ikeda set a goal of 3 million families by 1967, but there were already 5.5 million at the end of 1965. Ikeda later wanted to see the conversion of 15 million families by 1990.5 By about 1969, Soka Gakkai had household membership of 50,000 in North America, 25,000 in South America, 15,000 in Southeast Asia, and 1,500 in Europe, mostly in Germany and France.6
3. Message. Soka Gakkai’s message is simple. Tothe fundamental question “What must I do to be saved?” it answers, “Believe only in the Worship Object and recite the Daimoku, and you will be saved.”7 The message is this-worldly, dealing with daily life problems such as economic hardship, family, and illness. “Happiness” is the main theme and goal of the teaching. Emphases that have been most effective in leading people to the faith include 1) physical and emotional healing; 2) ethical and spiritual reform (in individual lives and in improved home relationships); and 3) economic and practical success (finding work, a job promotion or business success, more money, and so on).8 Soka Gakkai’s message, which traces its religious heritage back to Nichiren in the 13th century, is also tradition-oriented.9
4. Leadership. Maki-guchi was the man of words, Toda was the fanatic, and Ikeda the man of action. Makiguchi was the methodical, persuasive, puritanical, and persuasive scholar, but Toda was an organizer and a fanatic about action. Makiguchi was devoid of charisma, and while Toda may have possessed it to a degree, it was not a major factor. Ikeda, by contrast, is idolized by some of Soka Gakkai’s people.
5. Healing. Soka Gakkai says there are two kinds of physical illness. The first is caused by things such as overeating or overdrink-ing and can be healed by a physician or medicine. But if a believer prays to the worship object while undergoing medical treatment, the cure will be faster and more complete. The second kind can only be healed by religion. To recover from sickness caused by one’s evil karma, only faith in the magical power of the worship object will suffice.10
6. Lay ministry. From its founding, Soka Gakkai has been a lay movement, training lay believers to become leaders. Laymen lead the small groups (zadankai) using an apprenticeship training method. “Each member is in a teacher-follower relationship that approximates the ‘parent-child’ relationship characterizing so much of social interaction in Japan. He is at once the follower of his own converter and the teacher of those he has converted.”11 Each layman can advance by winning nonbelievers to the faith, and through his faithfulness, activities, and successful completion of written exams.
7. Small group activities. Small groups have been the major means of Soka Gakkai’s propagation since 1956, when three points about future policy were elaborated: 1) The group leader’s authority should be fostered; 2) the zadankai should be understood as a battlefield where aggressive propagation is carried on; 3) there should be more concentration on guiding members of society, taking the idea of devotion as a basic principle.12 The discussion group (zadankai) is the central activity and the key socialization structure of the local Soka Gakkai group (kumi). The leader establishes the agenda with considerable autonomy along the general guidelines for the month’s activities.
The zadankai has singing, chanting, testimonies (personal experiences such as merit received from this faith or confession of personal problems), some forms of recreation, and discussion. The most important point of the meeting is persuading newcomers to join the religion.
8. Mass communication. Realizing that the Japanese value education and publishing, Soka Gakkai’s leaders have produced many books and magazines and publish a daily newspaper with a circulation of 4.5 million.
9. Women’s activities. The proportion of housewives in the religion is very high (43.2 percent in 1965), and its women are active. Many, without salary, rise early to distribute Soka Gakkai’s newspaper.
10. Prayer. Members are obliged to worship daily as individuals and in families, and to make occasional pilgrimages to the main temple at the foot of Mount Fuji. According to McFarland, “every morning and every evening they are obliged to pray the gohonzon (a small facsimile of the ‘original’ mandate of Nichiren).”13 Early in the morning eager believers chant the prayer formula several hundred times.
11. Organizational structure. There are fourbasic groups: vertical, peer, functional, and interest. Vertical groups are highly structured, extending from the individual to the unit kumi (as many as 10 families), to the district chiku (500 to 1,000 families), to the chapter shibu (5,000 to 10,000 families), to the general chapter so-shibu (an unspecified number of chapters), to the joint headquarters sogo honbu (over the headquarters). The strength of the vertical line is that each member has a teacher-follower relationship, being both the follower of his own converter and the teacher of those he himself has converted.14 Zadankai have been opened on each level of the vertical line: the kumi, han, and chiku levels.
The three other basic groupings also are structured. There are three main branches to the peer groups: the Men’s Division, the Women’s Division, and the Youth Division. The functional groups consist of the Student Department and the Culture Bureau. Various interest groups are involved in latent or manifest indoctrination.
MAIN POINTS FROM THE SURVEY
1. Big vision and clear goals. As we have seen, Soka Gakkai leaders have a big vision and clear goals. They know that without vision or a dream, people cannot be successful. People can only accomplish their work as far as their vision goes. Sokka Gakkai, the Unification Church, the Latter-day Saints, and the Witnesses, among others, have foreign missionary organizations because they have a vision for the world.
2. A message that addresses felt needs. Generally, new religions such as Soka Gakkai touch felt needs first. The message tends to be authoritative, practical, holistic, positive, unique, apocalyptic, and this-worldly. After people become believers, they learn doctrine in small groups. “The worship and other rituals of these movements tend to focus on the needs which people feel, such as the psychological need for acceptance and the physical need for healing as well as the spiritual needs of mankind.”15
3. Lay ministry. Lay ministry is an important growth element in most Japanese new religions and in cults such as the Witnesses, the Unification Church, and the Mormons. Lay people, individually and in groups, carry out face-to-face propagation and other small group activities. They are not passive attendants. Usually, each is both a teacher and a follower in relationships approximating parents and children, taking care of followers through home cell meetings. These new religions have achieved geometrical growth through this kind of apprenticeship training.
4. Power encounter and power evangelism. Most of these movements demonstrate signs and wonders, such as healing. Satan and the powers aligned with him are leading many people to hell this way, unfortunately. Our battles, then, are not against the flesh and blood believers, but against the devil, demons, and demonic teachings. We need all of our spiritual armor and warfare prayer against the principalities, powers, and rulers of darkness of this world. Jesus not only proclaimed the Word; he also used signs and wonders. The apostles had that same balance, and the church also may face situations demanding power encounter and power evangelism.
5. Contextualization. Japan’s new religions and cults have grown rapidly because they have not been tied down by traditional religions, have found and satisfied felt needs, and have penetrated the culture of this age. Although most of them stem from traditional Shinto and Buddhism, some have grown via Christianity’s influence (the Seicho no Ie sect and the Spirit of Jesus sect—Iesuno Mitama Kyodan—which has grown rapidly in the postwar period, are two examples).
Like the Korean church, the Japanese new religions have answered people’s needs through home cell meetings. So to indigenize Christianity, we need to identify and satisfy felt needs, avoid uncritically importing Western Christianity, and avoid uncritically accepting traditional cultural and non-Christian religious forms. We must plant the genuine gospel in each soil.
6. Strong leadership. Most of the founders and topleaders of the new religious movements qualify as charismatic and authoritative, exercising tremendous influence over their groups. They are committed to seeing their teachings propagated. Joseph Ruther-ford, Joseph Smith, Josei Toda, Daisaku Ikeda, Sun Myung Moon, and others have common characteristics. Josh McDowell observes:
This strong leadership leads the cult follower into total dependence upon the cult for belief, behavior, and lifestyle. When this falls into the hands of a particularly corrupt leader, the results can be tragic, as with Jim Jones and the People’s Temple tragedy. The more dramatic the claims of a cult leader, the more the possibility of a tragic conclusion.16
7. Small group activities. Most new religious movements regard home cell meetings as the best means of propagation. Cell groups can offer freedom from an impersonal, lonely, fearful, technological society and provide lay people with many opportunities for leadership. In some of the cults, such as the Unification Church, people even live together in their small groups. Hesselgrave insists that “Christians must find identity and a measure of security in the ‘believing family’ if they are to be faithful, producing members.”17
8. Organizational structure. Growing religious movements (Mormons, Witnesses, Moonies, Soka Gakkai, and others) tend to have hierarchical and vertical structures, and a nationwide sphere. These groups form their larger organizations through the construction of small units, and they are small-group oriented.
Although we evangelicals carry the truth of the gospel, we can still learn insights on effectively spreading our message, meeting people’s felt needs, and mobilizing our laity by studying Japan’s new religious movements. May God give us the discernment, courage, and grace we need to do so.
1. Kenneth J. Dale, Circle of Harmony. A Case Study of Popular Japanese Buddhism (Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library, 1975), p. 19.
2. Henry Van Straelen, Modern Japanese Religions (New York: T.P. Inc., 1963), p. 98.
3. David Hesselgrave, Dynamic Religious Movements (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1979), p. 132.
4. Kodaira, Soka Gakkai (Japan: Shinousha, 1958), pp. 84, 85.
5. Kiyoaki Murata, Japan’s New Buddhism (New York: Walker, 1969), p. 127.
6. J.A. Dator, Soka Gakkai: Builders of the Third Civilization (Seattle, Wash.: University of Washington Press, 1969), pp. 20, 21.
7. Tetsuano Yamamori, Church Growth in Japan (Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library, 1974), p. 145.
8. Hesselgrave, op. cit., p. 144.
9. Yamamori, op. cit., p. 145.
10. Noah S. Brannen, Soka Gakkai (Virginia: J.K.P., 1968), p. 150.
11. James White, The Soka Gakkai and Mass Society (Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1970), p. 90.
12. Hesselgrave, op. cit., p. 145.
13. H. Neil McFarland, The Rush Hour of the Gods (New York: The MacMillan Co., 1967), p. 208.
14. White, op. cit., p. 90.
15. Hesselgrave, op. cit., p. 312.
16. Josh McDowell and Don Stewart, Concise Guide to Today’s Religions (Herts, England: Scripture Press Foundation, Ltd.,1983), p. 24.
17. Hesselgrave, op. cit., p. 325.
EMQ, Vo. 27, No. 4, pp. 362-371. Copyright © 1991 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.