Tokyo Governor Says Tsunami is Divine Punishment—Religious Groups Ignore Him

Scenes of destruction and human suffering in Japan have elicited worldwide support—both material and spiritual. But amid global calls for prayer and other religious responses, the most widely publicized religious response to the nation’s worst disaster since the Second World War comes from within Japan itself—a series of comments made by 79-year-old Tokyo Governor, Shintaro Ishihara.

Ishihara, a prize-winning novelist, stage and screen actor, and a populist hero of the Japanese right, has gained notoriety for his willingness to court controversy, but his take on the tragedy in northeastern Japan offended even his staunchest supporters. On March 14, just three days into the crisis, Ishihara told reporters that he saw the tsunami as “divine punishment,” or tenbatsu, a term usually employed in Japanese to describe a righteous and inevitable punishment of the wicked. For Ishihara, the tsunami produced by Japan’s largest-ever recorded earthquake was a means of washing away the “egoism” (gayoku in Japanese) afflicting the Japanese people.

While the Tokyo Governor said that he felt sorry for the victims, he concluded that “We need a tsunami to wipe out egoism, which has rusted onto the mentality of Japanese over a long period of time.”

Ishihara, who will seek a fourth term as Tokyo Governor in a 2013 election, apologized publicly the next day, following comments by Miyagi Prefecture Governor Yoshihiro Murai, leader of the prefecture closest to the quake epicenter. Murai condemned Ishihara and urged sympathy for the hundreds of thousands of victims suffering in northern Japan. Despite Ishihara’s expression of regret, his “divine punishment” comment lingers as the most widely known religious sentiment yet expressed by a high-profile Japanese public figure in reaction to the current crisis. It resonates with similar remarks made in the United States following disasters, such as those by Pat Robertson in 2005, who described Hurricane Katrina as divine retribution for Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts upholding Roe vs. Wade, or the televised conversation between Robertson and Jerry Falwell on September 13, 2001 in which they characterized the attack on the Twin Towers as God’s punishment for American tolerance of “abortionists,” gays, feminists and the ACLU.

It is worth noting that Ishihara made his pronouncement while employees of the Tokyo power utility TEPCO and soldiers from Japan’s Self-Defense Forces willingly risk death battling to contain the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl at the damaged Fukushima reactors. He made his comments as hundreds of thousands of victims who have lost their homes and loved ones line up patiently in freezing refugee camps to receive meager supplies of food and water. There are no reported cases of looting anywhere in the country, even as thousands of Tokyo blocks are left without power during scheduled blackouts. When the hungry refugees receive food, they share it with their neighbors.

Cold, injured, bereaved, suffering from the onset of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and facing the bleakest imaginable future, victims in northeastern Japan seem to only be embodying the spirit of gaman, or “sticktoitiveness” that exemplifies the Japanese character. It’s difficult to view Ishihara’s comments as anything other than an ideological rant, and one that may come back to haunt him in the next election.

And while it appears as if Japan, like America, has its share of vocal public figures eager to equate disaster with apocalypse and to use mass human suffering as an excuse to propagandize, Japanese religious groups have joined together—largely under the media radar—to help in the relief effort.

Here’s What Mass Religious Mobilization Looks Like

Even as Ishihara ranted about “divine punishment” Japanese religious organizations have been working hard to provide aid and support. A few days ago, my colleague Keishin Inaba, Associate Professor of the Sociology of Religion at Osaka University, started a Japanese-language Facebook group called Faith-Based Network for Earthquake Relief in Japan, a clearing-house of newspaper articles, blog posts, tweets, and other information on relief initiatives by all sorts of religious groups operating in Japan.

Here are a few examples of what is turning out to be a rapidly developing story of mass religious mobilization in the face of Japan’s most tragic event in generations:

Temples, shrines, and other religious facilities across the Tohoku region, and elsewhere, have been transformed into refugee centers. An article from March 16 on reports that the priest at the Rinzai Zen temple Jionji in Rikuzentakata village is housing 69 refugees who were treated by doctors and nurses from the Japan Red Cross. Seventy to eighty percent of the town’s 8000 households were wiped out by the tsunami.

Jodo Shinshu, Japan’s largest traditional Buddhist sect, has cancelled plans for the 750th memorial of sect founder Shinran. Instead, the Shinshu priesthood has transformed head temple Higashi Honganji in Kyoto into a dispatch center for relief supplies. Temple staff members are loading water, food, and portable stoves into trucks to be sent to the afflicted Tohoku region, and they’ve turned their famous garden Shoseien into a center for fundraising; and this at a time when the 115 Higashi Honganji Jodo Shinshu temples in Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima Prefectures have been damaged, clergy in Sendai have been killed, and the sect is unable to make contact with seven temples.

Meanwhile, leaders of the Pure Land Buddhist sect Jodoshu report that they’re unable to contact approximately twenty of the 300 sect temples in these prefectures; they’ve also assigned their headquarter staff to gather funds and supplies. Rinzai Zen headquarters in Kyoto have dedicated their staff to raising funds for emergency relief. The Soto Zen headquarters at Eiheiji reports that it has mobilized clergy to accompany members of its volunteer organization Shanti International Association who will travel to northeastern Japan to aid in relief efforts. Staff at the head temple of Nichirenshu, the largest sect of Nichiren Buddhism, is still contacting its temples in northeastern Japan, and it has cancelled all other activities in favor of fundraising. It’s likely that the leaders of every other traditional Buddhist denomination have dedicated their staff to raising money and gathering materials for earthquake relief.

Shinto organizations have also pitched in. Shinseikyo, or the National Association of Shinto Youth, immediately established a “Disaster Policy Committee” responsible for fundraising and contacting Shinto priests in the disaster area. The Shinseiky message board is now filled with inquiries seeking contact with Shinto clergy in shrines that cannot be contacted and are most likely destroyed.

Christians in Japan, who make up less than one percent of the country’s population, consistently initiate successful and high-profile social welfare activities, and they have leapt into action to provide relief. On March 12, mere hours after the quake and tsunami hit the Tohoku region, the YMCA in Kobe began soliciting relief funds; as an organization that survived the January 17, 1995 earthquake in western Japan and provided relief to residents in Kobe, they are eager to help victims of this latest natural disaster.

World Vision Japan is gathering relief funds and is working to aid victims; Caritas Japan, the Catholic charity, is gathering donations and working with dioceses to provide support in the afflicted region; the United Church of Christ is housing refugees in its Sendai churches; and the Salvation Army in Tokyo is gathering money and opened their doors to commuters in Tokyo stranded by power outages and unable to take trains home.

“Let us hold a collective memorial”

All Japanese religious organizations are also engaged in more expressly “religious” activities. Temples, shrines, and other facilities are holding prayer vigils and other services for the dead, and to seek solace for victims, and divine aid for a rapid recovery. Priests at the historic Shinto shrine Kasuga Taisha in Nara are undertaking the daunting task of chanting the norito (purifying prayers to the kami, or Japanese deities) ten thousand times to beseech Japan’s native deities for aid in renewing the nation. This ritual is expected to last several months, and its completion will be marked by a special ceremony.

One tweet on the Faith-Based Initiative Facebook wall from a young, media-savvy Nichirenshu priest named Nichibon expresses a sentiment that is doubtless shared by many concerned with the fate of those swept away by the tsunami: “The victims of this disaster had no vigils over their bodies, nor did they have funerals. Let us hold a collective memorial. There are approximately 80,000 temples in Japan; let every temple hold a vigil and funeral for the victims. It doesn’t matter if the bodies have gone missing.”

The Faith-Based Network also provides reports from some of Japan’s many so-called “new religions”—groups founded in the last two centuries that have, in some cases, grown into the largest religious mass movements the country has ever seen. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the new religions have been amongst the quickest organizations to mobilize their members. Unlike the “traditional” Japanese groups, they are putting their lay adherents to work in large numbers. Beginning March 12, Rissho Koseikai members began assembling themselves into “Aid Brigades” to gather emergency supplies to transport into the Tohoku region. The Shingon Buddhism-affiliated new religion, Shinnyo-en, has mobilized teams from its volunteer organization SeRV to travel into Tohoku to assess damage and offer relief support.

The largest-scale New Religion disaster-response is being coordinated by Soka Gakkai, which claims 8.27 million households in Japan, including many thousands of adherents in the disaster-stricken region. The day after the earthquake, Soka Gakkai shut down regular operations at its massive headquarters in Shinanomachi, central Tokyo, and set its thousands of employees and ordinary member volunteers to work on relief efforts.

Staff members who ordinarily run the administrative headquarters and publish the daily newspaper Seikyo shinbun are gathering food, blankets, portable toilets, and other supplies, which they are transporting north to the disaster area. Soka Gakkai has opened its Culture Centers to refugees; a Gakkai employee I was in touch with over email informed me that members of its Young Men’s and Young Women’s Divisions are “working without rest and without sleep” to help refugees, regardless of their religious affiliation. There is no doubt that members of Soka Gakkai view this disaster as a chance to gain new converts to their faith; but there is little reason to doubt the absolute sincerity of the many thousands of Gakkai volunteers who are seeking to help.

Is Japan really “without religion”?

The proactive response by Japanese religious groups doesn’t appear to be widely publicized in the Japanese media; in fact, many of these initiatives would surprise many in Japan who, when asked “do you have religious faith?” would respond by declaring themselves mushukyo, or “without religion.”

People in Japan may turn to Buddhist temples for funerals or memorials, they may visit a Shinto shrine at New Year’s, and many favor Christian ceremonies for their weddings, yet most are likely to look askance at explicit expressions of religious faith. The number of negative responses is particularly high among younger people in Japan; according to research by Tokyo professor of religion Nobutaka Inoue, only ten percent of college students in Japan will affirm that they are religious.

Given those numbers, one might conclude that Japan is not a religious country. But Governor Ishihara’s outburst and the rapid response by religions in Japan tell a different story. The resources available within Japanese religious traditions inform Ishihara’s pronouncement of the tsunami as “divine punishment,” and they inspire thousands of clergy and lay adherents to devote themselves to the this-worldly and transcendent salvation of suffering people.

More generally, the spirit of community, resilience, and an obstinate refusal to give up in the face of adversity speaks to the country’s legacy of self-cultivation, communitarianism, and self-sacrifice in the interest of social improvement—all qualities that can be characterized as “religious.” It is this legacy that will underlie the unflagging commitment of people in Japan to the rebuilding effort in the years ahead.