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Rebirth and Revolution – Engaged Buddhism in Japan: A Conversation with Jonathan Watts

Engaged Buddhism can be understood as a fusion of the Buddhist teachings with social activism and compassionate action to address the suffering of individuals and communities. Yet more than this, engaged Buddhism is founded on the understanding that the Buddhist path is not solely a personal quest for enlightenment, but is a practice through which individuals actively contribute to the well-being of society, recognizing that spiritual awakening and social transformation are as interdependent as existence itself, and that true compassion and wisdom are embodied in, manifested through, compassionate action.

In Japan, engaged Buddhism emerged in the modern era as a desire for change in response to tectonic social shifts post-World War Two. Perhaps some of the more well known socially engaged figures of Japanese Buddhism to outside observers include the Soka Gakki International founder and peace advocate Daisaku Ikeda (b. 1928), and Nichidatsu Fujii (1885–1985), Buddhist monk and founder of the socially active Nipponzan-Myohoji order.

Rooted in the country’s rich and ancient Buddhist heritage, engaged Buddhism in Japan has evolved into a growing response to the pressing social issues faced by contemporary society; a guiding force bridging spiritual practice and societal transformation. Yet engaged Buddhism in Japan, much like the broader landscape of Japanese Buddhism, has a complex and nuanced topography that is frequently misunderstood.

The veteran socially engaged Buddhist and Buddhist scholar Jonathan S. Watts has taken up the formidable and unenviable challenge of dispelling this confusion through a meticulously researched and in-depth analysis in two volumes titled Engaged Buddhism in Japan, the culmination of 16 years of engagement with socially engaged Japanese Buddhism 

Jonathan began working at the headquarters of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB) in Bangkok in 1990, shortly after graduating from Princeton University with a BA in comparative religions and political science. At INEB, he was mentored by the renowned exemplar of engaged Buddhism Sulak Sivaraksa.

After relocating to Japan in 1993, Jonathan worked in a variety of Buddhist settings that included 19 years at the research institute of the Jodo-shu denomination in Tokyo, the last 16 years at the Kodo Kyodan Buddhist Fellowship, and the last 14 years at the Zenseikyo Foundation and Rinbutsuken Institute for Engaged Buddhism, a non-sectarian foundation formed in the post-war area that is training Buddhist chaplains. He has also taught contemporary Buddhism in Japan and Asia at Keio University since 2008. 

Having spent the last three decades immersed in the international engaged Buddhist movement, Jonathan has worked closely supporting the development of engaged Buddhism in Japan and the Japan Network of Engaged Buddhists (JNEB). He helped form the INEB Think Sangha, an engaged Buddhist think tank, in 1996, and became member of INEB’s Executive Board in 1999.

Buddhistdoor Global sat down with Jonathan to find out more about engaged Buddhism in Japan and the newly released Engaged Buddhism in Japan.

Volume One of Engaged Buddhism in Japan, subtitled An Engaged Buddhist History of Japan from the Ancient to the Modern, explores some of the key historical themes that make Japanese Buddhism so unique and difficult to understand—even among the international Buddhist community. This first volume also provides a critical and comprehensive account of engaged Buddhism in the modern era, which has until now never been properly documented. Volume Two is subtitled Contemporary Exemplars from Intimate Care to Social Ethics, and takes on the task of profiling a cross section of new and dynamic engaged Buddhist activities of Japan in the 21st century Japan.

Engaged Buddhism in Japan, Volume 1: An Engaged Buddhist History of Japan from the Ancient to the Modern is now available worldwide, published by Sumeru Press in Canada, and distributed through mainstream channels. There is also a special run being printed in Thailand, organized by INEB, to ensure that these books are more easily obtainable and affordable to readers in South and Southeast Asia. Volume two is scheduled to be released in September 2023.

Jonathan S. Watts. Image courtesy of Jonathan Watts

BDG: What inspired you to take on a project as in-depth and ambitious as Engaged Buddhism in Japan?

Jonathan S. Watts: Coming to Japan from Thailand in the 1990s was sort of like being sent to the Alaskan tundra in terms of engaged Buddhism—there was not much of an engaged Buddhist movement active at the time. I was working at the Jodo-shu research institute, where we ended up writing a book on end-of-life care. But otherwise it was mostly translation work. It was here that I was introduced to Rev. Shojun Okano in about 2004, and he wanted to produce a book on engaged Buddhism in Japan that was comprehensively and responsibly executed. We felt that previous articles and books in the Anglophone sphere were not properly done—painting the Soka Gakkai and/or Rissho Kosei-kai movements as the face of engaged Buddhism of Japan, which we felt was not properly contextualized. 

At the time Rev. Okano proposed the book I was busy with other projects, so Rev. Okano agreed to hire me. Rev. Okano is the head of Kodosan, a small Tendai-based denomination, and they have a small research institute, like a lot of Buddhist denominations do. I was working in the Jodo-shu Pure Land one, so I went to work for Rev. Okano on a part-time basis, then about four years ago I went full time. 

The overarching purpose of this project was to write a “good” book about what’s really going on in Japan in terms of engaged Buddhism. The second purpose was to document what’s going on in Japan at the grassroots—not merely following the activities of the big organizations. And thirdly, the aim is also to actually promote engaged Buddhism, which is something in which both Rev. Okano and I strongly believe.

I started working there in 2006, and we just began diving in. Basically, Kodosan’s approach is founded on the Four Noble Truths and by extension looking at what’s the real root of the suffering of the Japanese people. A lot of engaged Buddhism up to that point in Japan had been overseas aid and charity work—Cambodian refugee camps, and things like that. But by 2006, Japanese society was starting to fall apart: it was the eighth year in a row of more than 30,000 suicides nationally, so that was one of the first issues we picked up on, and over the years developing the JNEB web presence—reporting and translating basically anything and everything, writing articles about what is going on in Japan. We did a lot of suicide prevention at the beginning, and then the Fukushima disaster happened, and a range of other things, and I was pleased to notice a new kind of engaged Buddhist movement developing in Japan with some real substance.

Ironically, the COVID-19 pandemic provided a sort of respite from working as an activist, and I had the last two years to begin finally bringing the book together.

One of the big issues for me, coming to Japan from Thailand, was that I couldn’t initially make head nor tails of Japanese Buddhism, as I think is the case for many people: there are no monks, and the priests have wives, and they drink alcohol, so what’s going on here? And then I’d go to INEB meetings and people would ask me: “Jon, what’s going on with Japanese Buddhism?” “We can’t understand!” “Explain this and explain that.” 

Even within East Asia, the Koreans and Taiwanese couldn’t understand it. And that’s part of the reason why this book has become such a large volume with a lot of historical information: because I felt that these themes had to be written about—not only to understand Japanese Buddhism, but to understand the history from an engaged Buddhist perspective. The way I define engaged Buddhism is that it has its perennial aspects, going back to the time of the Buddha, but if you really want to define it, it’s something that begins in the colonial period as a response to colonialism in Asia. 

I did a lot of research on engaged Buddhism as it developed in Japan from the late 19th century. As a result, the first third of Volume One is a history of Japanese Buddhism with an engaged Buddhist slant. The second part is from the beginning of the Meji period, which is 1865 up to World War Two, and then the third section is postwar up to 1998, when suicides in Japan started to become a serious issue and we entered this new era known as the “disconnected society” (mu-en shakai) of social withdrawal and isolation, which is very different from prosperous postwar Japan.


BDG: Is it fair to say that the last third of Volume One covers engaged Buddhism as we would recognize it today?

JSW: Insofar as engaged Buddhism in Japan has been written about, yes. Although we’re still comparing 1998 with 2023. The people who may know a little about engaged Buddhism in Japan, they tend to think about these new religious groups, such as Soka Gakkai and Rissho Kosei-kai. But I think their activism, while still ongoing, is very much rooted in that prosperous postwar period because most of their work focuses on peacemaking and international peace.

There’s one group, the Nipponzan Myohoji, who really walk the walk in terms of engaged Buddhism and they have been there from the beginning in Japan, although they’re a very small Buddhist community and don’t really have a comparable level of funding, so they’re not very well known. 

BDG: What were some of the most significant challenges faced by socially engaged Buddhist priests in redefining Japanese Buddhism?

JSW: In many ways, I think, socially engaged Buddhism is a way to redefine Buddhism in the modern era. It’s one of the aspects I look at when I teach: socially engaged Buddhism is not only a movement for becoming involved with society; it has also been an internal reform movement. When you see INEB’s founder Sulak Sivaraksa talk, he’ll criticize traditional Thai Buddhism. Similarly, the influential and innovative Thai monk Buddhadasa Bhikkhu was very critical of traditional Thai Buddhism, which he saw as needing to be updated to make it relevant for the people.

Japanese Buddhism, especially the traditional sects, became deeply marginalized in the postwar period, and Japan became a very secular society—I think because of the involvement of religion in the war, many people really lost their trust in traditional religions and Buddhist denominations, and monks began making a lot of money from conducting funerals. A new term emerged: funeral Buddhism. And because of this, Buddhist priests came to be seen in a markedly negative light, just showing up, conducting funerals, and making money, and then driving around in nice cars, drinking, and playing golf. And so engaged Buddhism is, in some ways, also an attempt to reform Japanese Buddhism, to examine this issue of are we going to have a monastic movement again? Are Japanese priest going to try to become monks again? Can you put the cat back into the bag? I don’t think it’s possible.

Basically, 98 per cent of Japanese priest are married, drink, and don’t follow monastic precepts, but engaged Buddhism is a different way of practicing, a lay-bodhisattva way of reviving the monk-hood, which was really in many ways the ancient ethos of Japanese Buddhism from the very beginning—it emphasized the bodhisattva commitment and a more laicized bodhisattva practice that’s not caught up in traditional monasticism. 

Sila can be said to refer to the monastic code of discipline, but sila also denotes virtue and ethics. In classical Buddhism, Theravada, sila can tend to be a negative: don’t do that, refrain from this, but in Mahayana, it’s seen as a positive: what can you do? So this has been a way for priests to try to re-enter society and become respected in society by what they do. 

Engaged Buddhism in Japan, Volume 2 includes all the case studies—you know, the suicide-prevention movement and the priests who do that. They earn huge respect because they don’t get any money for this work. They do it completely voluntarily, operating hotlines and opening their temples to people who are really mentally disturbed. So in many ways, this route is a way to redefine the sanctity of Japanese Buddhist priests, without getting bogged down in this idea that they need to become monks again.

BDG: Can you also speak to the role of gender in this context? How has it played out in Japanese engaged Buddhism?

JSW: Well, this is really still the gorilla in the room, which is going to be a focus of my afterword in Volume Two. There are a lot of women who appear in the second volume as engaged Buddhists, but the gender issue itself is really something that has yet to be directly faced. One of the biggest issues is that most of the Buddhist women in Japan are the wives of priests, and they have a very nebulous, often undefined status because they don’t fit into the doctrine. Japanese Buddhism is stuck in this sort of doctrinal double standard—for the Jodo Pure Land denominations it fits into their doctrine more, but for Zen it doesn’t. So, sort of doctrinally and legally, these women are almost out of sight, although they often run the temples as much as their husbands do. 

I’m hoping that this issue will become the next movement. It’s been interesting, because we can see many Buddhist groups in various countries jumping on the Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs) bandwagon, and it’s a big bandwagon here in Japan. Japanese Buddhists love to jump on social bandwagons, and they’re jumping on the SGDs, many of them completely uncritically, but it can be used as a sort of expedient means because one of the main aspects of the SGDs is gender equality and empowerment. Japan (and South Korea) are ranked low by the World Economic Forum, which conducts a poll as part its annual Global Gender Gap Report, so this is hopefully an issue that is gaining some traction. 

One of the reasons that the Japanese priest system became the way it is was because in the beginning of the Meiji era, the Japanese government wanted to create heteronormative nuclear families for industrialization, and the Buddhist temple was supposed to be a paragon of this heteronormative nuclear family. And because these temples are passed down through male succession, it’s very important for male priests to have a wife and create a male heir. But now there are some priests who are going, “Well, maybe I won’t get married. . . .” And so as we get into this post-modern evolution of Japanese society, the heteronormative nuclear family is no longer standard. I think temples are going to start changing, to reflect this social trend. And I think along with this, we’re going to see the gender issue become more and more prominent.

BDG: So we can expect to see more women becoming leaders in the field and practice of engaged Buddhism?

JSW: Well, I think everywhere, because one of the things that’s happened is that, with the incredibly low birthrate in Japan, there are a lot of temple families with only one child, and it’s a daughter. And sometimes the daughter will marry a man, who’ll then become a priest, but sometimes that doesn’t happen. So in some of the denominations, especially the less monastic-focused, like Zen, the Pure Land denominations, I know a number of temples where the vice-abbot who will now become the abbot is a woman. So more and more women will become abbots, just by default. 

In light of these trends, the sexuality issue and the gender issue is much more open to negotiation in Japan than in much of the Buddhist world—as you know, the Buddhist establishment in Thailand doesn’t even like the idea of bhikkhunis, much less the idea of temples being run by bhikkhunis.

Photo by Ryoma Onita

BDG: Did you see any other emerging trends or potential areas of growth and innovation in this field while you were researching for Engaged Buddhism in Japan?

JSW: One of the big themes that I focus on in both volumes is at the core of socially engaged Buddhism, which is working on structural violence and systems change. Most Japanese engaged Buddhism since the end of the war, and even up until now, is what Sulak Sivaraksa refers to as social welfare work or sometimes “goody-goody Buddhism!” Which I think is slightly more of a trend in East Asian forms of socially engaged Buddhism. They do “nice” relief work and aid work, but none of them are speaking out about economic policies or political systems, and things like that, nor are they exploring new forms of social development, like we see in Southeast Asia. That’s a big issue for Japan because the Japanese people, more than any other East Asian nation, tend to bite their tongues and not be vocally critical of the system. 

I look at these issues that began in the Meiji, and I have to wonder: what are Japanese social ethics? They’re not Buddhist, because most people in this country don’t know what the pancasila (Skt., Pali: five precepts) are. People have no idea what Buddhist ethics are. The social ethics here are basically a kind of Confucianism, a very authoritarian kind of Confucianism in which you just follow whoever is the head of your organization, or department, or community. And this is coupled with the perennial theme of Japanese clannishness, in which people are very group-oriented, whereas Buddhist ethics refers to all sentient beings: be concerned not just with people in your own group, but everywhere.

One of the things that’s happened with this sort of collapse within Japanese society—the low birthrate, the high incidence of suicides, and the loss of employment-for-life (now almost 40 per cent of Japanese are part-time workers)—is that everyone is losing their community, so there’s a vital need to go beyond one’s own community. And what we’re seeing with these new engaged Buddhists is that they’re reaching to these people who have fallen through the cracks in society, whom nobody else cares about, and who have been ostracized from their communities. This, then, is a rebirth of a kind of Buddhist social ethics, and part of a big shift toward social justice, another concept that’s traditionally been weak in Japan.

So this is, in my view, the final frontier to give the work that’s being done here even more substance. There’s a lot of really good work being done now, but there’s not much systems critique. We have all these priests working hard on suicide prevention, but nobody is going: “Well, why is everyone so suicidal? Maybe we should work to address the root causes and not only the symptoms.” 

BDG: Can you speak to the message or impact that you hope this in-depth two-volume analysis will have? What would you like people to take away from the stories and insights you share?

JSW: Especially for Volume One, my dedication is to all my INEB kalyana-mitra [spiritual friends] and all their questions about Japanese Buddhism—I hope that this will help to unlock some of those mysteries and also provide a new sense of respect. I was for years one of the many naysayers who thought that Japanese Buddhism was sort of a corrupt train-wreck of alcoholic non-monks. But when we understand the history, we can understand the depth of the reality on the ground. There are still problems, of course, with the fact there are very few monks—there’s nobody like Ven. Pomnyun Sunim in South Korea, for example, which keeps Buddhist priests here from being important social leaders. 

Volume One starts with a vignette of an INEB East Asia meeting, with the Taiwanese and Koreans kind of dismissing Japanese Buddhism. But then they met these priests doing suicide-prevention work, and we spent an evening going on rounds of the streets feeding the homeless, and they were like, “My gosh, our monks can’t get close to the people like this because of the wall that stands between monastics and laypeople.” So the Japanese in many ways have realized what it means to be lay bodhisattvas. I hope that people will come away with a new sense of respect for that. 

And then, of course, I want to offer a deeper understanding of Japanese Buddhism itself, which is quite opaque and hard to grasp from the outside—Volume Two especially explores a number of incredible people doing really great work at the grassroots. The best work is being done at the grassroots, not being cooked up in sectarian headquarters, which can be really tone-deaf, yet they’re the ones who receive a lot of publicity because they have the advertising budgets. 

I hope that, as one of the main purposes of Engaged Buddhism in Japan, the reader can gain a clear sense of the type of engagement of the groups that are more well known—not to deny the good that they’ve done, but rather to gain a little more of a critical perspective on what they’ve done and are doing, and thus understand socially engaged Buddhism a little better for what it stands for: it’s not just social welfare, it’s social transformation. Of course, it’s also about transforming your own place in the world first, as much as it is about going out and helping others.

See more

Japan Network of Engaged Buddhists (JNEB)
International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB)
Engaged Buddhism in Japan, volume 1 (Sumeru Press)

Related features from BDG

Bowing to Ajahn Sulak at 90
The Path of Engaged Buddhism in a Divided World: An Interview with Ven. Pomnyun Sunim
Engaged Buddhism: The Role of Spirituality and Faith in a Divided World
Peace, Planet, Pandemic, and Engaged Buddhism: From a Divided Myanmar to a Divided World
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Buddhism in a Divided World
Compassion and Kalyana-mittata: The Engaged Buddhism of Sulak Sivaraksa

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