Religion and tragedy in Japan


Some news stories are just too big to fathom.

The September 2001 terrorist attacks. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The Haiti earthquake just last year.

And now -- once again -- a disaster of unimaginable proportions unfolds in Japan.

This is GetReligion, so you know the question we're going to ask: Any religion ghosts?

Well, Japan isn't an overly religious nation, right? Kudos to religion editor Dan Gilgoff for tackling that question head-on in a piece on "How Japan's religions confront tragedy":

Proud of their secular society, most Japanese aren't religious in the way Americans are: They tend not to identify with a single tradition nor study religious texts.

"The average Japanese person doesn't consciously turn to Buddhism until there's a funeral," says Brian Bocking, an expert in Japanese religions at Ireland's University College Cork.

When there is a funeral, though, Japanese religious engagement tends to be pretty intense.

"A very large number of Japanese people believe that what they do for their ancestors after death matters, which might not be what we expect from a secular society," says Bocking. "There's widespread belief in the presence of ancestors' spirits."

In the days and weeks ahead, huge numbers of Japanese will be turning to their country's religious traditions as they mourn the thousands of dead and try to muster the strength and resources to rebuild amid the massive destruction wrought by last Friday's 9.0 magnitude earthquake and resulting tsunami.

The CNN piece does an excellent job of explaining the role of Japan's predominant religious traditions amid tragedy. I do wish, however, that the report had included some specific statistics concerning religious groups in Japan.

I was pleased to find that kind of detail in a nice story by USA Today religion writer Cathy Lynn Grossman headlined "Japanese look to ancient traditions for strength":

When uncounted thousands have died in a disaster such as last week's earthquake and tsunami, where will the Japanese people find spiritual strength?

Experts on Japanese culture say they'll find it in the critical, comforting rituals of religion.

They will rely on centuries-old traditions of a distinctive Buddhist culture and the ancient Shinto beliefs of their earliest people. Japan is 90% Buddhist or Shinto or a combination of the two, with young urban Japanese more inclined to have drifted from religious attachments.

In a related blog post, Grossman concludes:

Everyone prays.

From my own work with The Christian Chronicle, I know that there are Christians in Japan. But how many? Religion News Service steps in with that piece of information:

Churches and Christians in northeastern Japan, the most heavily affected area, are still out of contact days after the disaster.

Studies estimate that 2 percent of Japanese are Christian, with the vast majority practicing Buddhism and the indigenous Shinto religion.

As you would expect at this stage in the disaster, CNN, USA Today and RNS all rely mainly on experts to explain what Japanese believe and how they practice their faith. It'll be interesting to see if the media follow up with firsthand accounts of survivors and the role of religion in their lives.

These are my initial thoughts on the religion coverage of the Japan disaster. If you have other ideas or questions -- or links to other stories -- I invite you to share them in the comments section.

For coverage of an altogether different nature, there's this ABC News interview with Rob Bell. I liked how Joshunda Sanders of the Austin American-Statesman described the interview:

George Stephanopoulos awkwardly tries to get him (Bell) to say whether or not Japan suffered an earthquake because Buddhism and Shintoism is practiced there and they're all condemned to hell.

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