Why Buddhism Faded in Japan and How It Can Be Revived

by Kooi F. Lim, The Buddhist Channel, 23 January 2024

Tokyo, Japan -- The downturn of Buddhism in Japan started shortly after the end of the second World War.

japanese buddhism

The disintegration of "Kokka Shintō" led to a loss of governmental authority and control over religious doctrines, compelling various Buddhist sects to make doctrinal compromises and resulting in a decrease in their political sway. This left many Buddhist sects in a state of confusion.

In addition to this, agricultural reforms also had a significant impact on temples that depended on tenant farmers, pushing Japanese Buddhism into a fight for its existence.

However, the post-war era initially witnessed an economic revival. Contributions to temples skyrocketed in the 1970s and 1980s, pulling the danka, or the system of "affiliated families", out of destitution.

The danka system in Japanese Buddhism is a traditional support mechanism where families or households form an association with a specific Buddhist temple. This association usually extends over generations, fostering a long-lasting bond between the temple and the family. The danka system, which originated in the Edo period (1603–1868), has been a crucial element of Japanese Buddhist communities.

The danka offers financial backing to the temple, often in the form of regular donations, contributions during ceremonies, and support for funerals or memorial services. This system cultivates a tight-knit bond between the temple and the affiliated families. Over time, these families become a vital part of the temple community, participating in religious ceremonies and community events.

Regrettably, this period of prosperity was short-lived. The economic bubble burst in the early 1990s led to Buddhist organizations facing neglect, impoverishment, and a growing sense of insignificance by the dawn of the new millennium.

By the 2020s, the downfall of the danka system was complete, echoing throughout Japan. This had a severe impact on Buddhist organizations across the country. The number of affiliated households shrank, especially in disadvantaged areas, leading to the closure of temples. Even in urban areas, the once robust ties between temples and the community have weakened, with Buddhism being seen as increasingly irrelevant.

The future of Buddhism in Japan seems uncertain. Both established and new Buddhist organizations are anticipated to see a decrease in followers and political influence. While the organized aspects of the religion shrink, individuals seeking comfort may still turn to Buddhism.

In a world growing more chaotic with economic uncertainty, the timeless teachings of Buddhism may offer a refuge from the stresses and anxieties of contemporary Japanese society. Perhaps the time has come for the use of "wise, intimate, personalized technology" trained in Buddhist teachings as a means of direct reach to individuals. Buddhist AI chatbots, such as NORBU (https://norbu-ai.org), are rooted in fostering real-time engagement and meaningful discussions about the Dharma and social well-being.

Bots such as NORBU not only provide easy and immediate accessibility but also personalized wisdom. By tailoring insights to the unique spiritual journeys of individuals, it is able to guide them in understanding and applying Buddhist principles in their daily lives.

Of course, for the Japanese public to fully embrace such a tool, it has to communicate in the native language and incorporate cultural nuances, making the teachings more relatable to the local audience. This ensures that the wisdom of Buddhism is easily comprehensible and resonant within the cultural context.

This brief analysis, focused on the organized history of Buddhism in Japan, acknowledges the struggles faced by the hierarchical structures. However, it also looked into the possible impact of new technologies offered by Buddhist chatbots such as NORBU as a means to revive interest in Buddhism among the Japanese people.

The Buddha Dharma teaches about the timeless truth of change and impermanence. What had worked once may not be effective now. The danka system is gone, and temples and the Japanese Sangha need to adapt and look into new ways to engage with individual Buddhist adherents. Japan has had a rich and glorious Buddhist legacy. It can be revived, provided that the ruthless obliteration of the old can make way for the emergence of the new.

Kooi F. Lim is Founder and Managing Editor of the Buddhist Channel, based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
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