- Establishing the Revolutionary: An Introduction to New Religions in Japan ed. by Birgit Staemmler, Ulrich Dehn
New religions in Japan today claim many millions of devotees and play increasingly important roles in Japanese society and politics as well in the religious life of the nation. Starting in the late Edo period (1600–1867), they evolved slowly in the years before World War II, but grew very quickly in the late 1940s and early 1950s amidst the chaos of postwar Japan. Today their growth in Japan has slowed remarkably, but several of these new religions claim a growing number of followers in Southeast Asia, North and South America, and Europe.
Birgit Staemmler, a researcher at the Japanese Department of Tübingen University in Germany, and Ulrich Dehn, a professor of the Study of Religions, Missiology, and Ecumenical Theology at the University of Hamburg, have produced a comprehensive and well-written volume, Establishing the Revolutionary: An Introduction to New Religions in Japan. This book begins with four long introductory chapters that analyze the historical development as well as the doctrinal, sociological, and economic aspects of Japan’s new religions. The body of the book consists of chapters on ten of these religions, analyzing their respective histories, doctrines, membership, and present situation and activities. While Staemmler and Dehn have written some of the chapters themselves, they have solicited significant contributions from such highly respected scholars in the field as Susumu Shimazono, professor of Religious Studies at the University of Tokyo, and Masako Watanabe, professor of Sociology at Meiji Gakuin in Tokyo. The result is a fascinating handbook on these new religions.
The introductory chapters offer an in-depth study of the defining characteristics of Japan’s New Religions. Staemmler provides a useful analysis of their historical development from their origins in the mid nineteenth century to the present. Yoshihide Sakurai, professor of Sociology at the graduate school of Hokkaido University, has produced a very original chapter on how the New Religions have devised very successful methods of collecting money and financing their operations while the dwindling flow of contributions to traditional temples means that many of the older temples may be forced to shut down in the years to come.
Masako Watanabe focuses on a sociological approach to the New Religions, noting that a prime motivation for joining a new religion “is said to be a serious shortage in the fulfillment of fundamental needs, as in poverty, illness and strife. This kind of deprivation is felt to be the result of individual failure, but if looked at from a [End Page 1298] larger perspective, it is often the product of social conditions” (p. 70). Many of these religions experienced their greatest growth during the chaotic period right after World War II when huge social change threatened and dramatically altered the lives of most ordinary Japanese. Watanabe notes that these religions have been successful because they “provide an emotional place of belonging and bring about psychological and spiritual stability.” They “can give meaning to people’s lives, make their lives worth living again, and lead to rediscoveries of human solidarity” (p. 87). Their emphasis on small group activities promotes a sense of inclusiveness that is so essential to Japanese culture, and their relief activities after major disasters have won them a favorable public image.
The best chapter in the book is Susumu Shimazono’s study of “The Concept of Salvation” among the New Religions. Shimazono stresses that their focus on the concept of finding true happiness here and now is crucial to their success. He notes that the New Religions differ from the traditional Buddhist schools in that they deal with everyday problems facing people in their present lives:
In new religions, even when their teachings refer to a world after death, salvation is not thought to be achieved in a world beyond or a different dimension, but to be...