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date: 28 June 2022

Religious Responses to the 2011 Tsunami in Japan

Abstract and Keywords

Scholars have recently begun synthesizing data on the massive aid response by religious organizations after the March 11, 2011, compound earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disasters in northeast Japan. This article begins with a summary of recent statistical assessments that detail how much money religions raised, the kinds of material aid they provided, and the numbers of volunteers they mobilized. It then provides two contrasting ethnographic case studies of grassroots-level religious responses that reveal aspects that do not fit a statistical framework. The article highlights the importance of reading ethnographic accounts in combination with quantified data about Japanese religion to complicate reliance on assessments provided by institutional administrators in order to better understand how aid efforts take shape in local communities.

Keywords: Japan, religious organizations, Buddhism, disaster, tsunami, Great East Japan Earthquake, New Religion, humanitarian, ethnography, Soka Gakkai, Pure Land Buddhism

Introduction: The Reassuring Status of Statistics

The last few years have seen a massive surge across the world in emergency aid funding. According to the Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), which reports on humanitarian agencies, aid funding has expanded tenfold since the turn of the millennium to a 2014 figure of US$156 billion. Aid funding has risen tremendously in Japan; Japanese contributions comprised an estimated US$992 million in 2014, up from US$206 million ten years earlier.1 This jump is attributable in part to long-term Japanese engagement with United Nations (UN) agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and other influential international aid providers that are guiding this international rise, but also to domestic attention to communities devastated by the March 11, 2011, compound earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disasters—an event that has come to be known as “3.11.”

Japanese rescue and relief providers that mobilized after 3.11 joined an international community of activists who are now expected to not simply supply services but to also self-report what anthropologist Sally Engle Merry terms “indicators”: data points that render complex social phenomena into simplified numerical representations.2 In response to inexorable demand for performance evaluation, aid providers supply indicators that translate humanitarian responses into a language familiar to administrators, thereby reassuring corporate, governmental, and individual donors that their money is advancing an enterprise coherent with market-based benchmarks. By regularly publicizing detailed figures for fundraising, amounts and values of material goods dispatched, and numbers of volunteers mobilized—along with numerical representations of more difficult-to-quantify undertakings, such as assessments of care provided to survivors—aid activists “convey an aura of objective truth and facilitate comparisons.”3 Emerging from the upsetting disarray of disaster’s aftermath, quantified summaries of on-the-ground humanitarian responses comfort donors with news that rescue and reconstruction are in the hands of competent practitioners who communicate in a twenty-first-century technocratic idiom of hard data and fiscal responsibility.

Statistical measurements of aid mobilization after 3.11 indicate that relief and reconstruction initiatives launched by religious organizations made up a significant portion of the humanitarian response to the compound earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disasters. Japanese religious activists mobilized en masse to aid survivors and care for the dead. They were among the first on the scene after the tsunami hit, opening their temples, shrines, churches, and other facilities to refugees as they dispatched volunteers to search mountains of wreckage for bodies and provide crucial emergency supplies for those left alive. And, long after most government agencies and other aid providers wrapped up their operations in northeastern Japan, religious practitioners continue to serve afflicted communities. As they devised post-3.11 care initiatives, Japan’s religious institutions understood the need to communicate in the accepted language of quantified statistics in order to be accepted as legitimate aid contributors. In particular, Japan’s religious groups understood the need to conform with non-religious institutional expectations to overcome long-standing stigma in Japan surrounding the category “religion” itself—a distinctive challenge I will discuss later in this article. Religious groups have consistently presented their post-2011 practices and beliefs as “safe”: media reports on religion after 3.11 celebrate contributions by priests and lay activists who appear eager to leave behind sectarian identity as they reformulate centuries-old ritual and doctrine into therapy, grief care, and other practices that project modern relevance, while Buddhist, Christian, and New Religions’ institutional headquarters supply masses of data in self-generated reports and survey responses that frame clerical and lay volunteer disaster relief in terms coherent with corporate and governmental standards.

Statistical accounts of religious mobilization after 3.11 are valuable. They confirm that aid contributions by religious organizations comprised a significant percentage of the total rescue and relief response, and they guide researchers toward an understanding of the impressive range and scale of activities religions carried out in the disasters’ aftermath. However, these data-oriented accounts must be challenged by reading them in tandem with grassroots-level accounts that complicate numerical indicators. Researchers cannot gain perspective on how religious practitioners in the field provide aid, why they do so, and how these aid initiatives actually play out over time in disaster-stricken communities unless they look beyond narratives provided by institutions that are wary of creating a negative public image.

Disaster researchers frequently point out that statistics-oriented accounts of humanitarian aid tend to elide or erase survivors’ perspectives. Local knowledge of the disaster that does not accord with institutional summaries can be left out of published accounts, even ones that include stories from the field, and longitudinal views of catastrophe from the point of view of survivors who remain on the scene long after humanitarian organizations conclude their interventions tend to encompass opinions and activities that escape statistical summaries.4 By taking into account unresolved conflicts and subtleties inherent within ethnographic accounts of nonelite aid providers and recipients, one can attempt to reframe “official” disaster narratives in ways that better reflect the complex reality of those who still live with the disaster years after the initial catastrophe. Reframing accounts based on bottom-up rather than top-down perspectives undermines easy reliance on statistical measures and calls into question both the apparent naturalness of the categories employed by organizations as well as what appears to be a built-in imperative to represent humanitarian mobilizations as statistically verifiable successes.

In this article, I survey the most recent scholarly findings on quantifiable dimensions of religious aid response to the 2011 disasters and summarize what these numbers tell us about religious mobilization after the tsunami. I then discuss two ethnographic case studies that complicate the picture of post-3.11 religious mobilization created by aggregate data. The first case introduces activists from the Buddhism-based New Religion Soka Gakkai who have been living since 2011 in temporary housing units in rural Miyagi Prefecture, and the second describes trauma experienced by priests in a tsunami-ravaged Jōdo Shinshū (True Pure Land) Buddhist temple in the city of Sendai.5 These two cases exemplify nonelite religious responses to 3.11 that are not adequately summarized by survey results and do not fit neatly into the kinds of post-2011 narratives that now dominate media and academic discourse.6 By considering micro-level details of local Soka Gakkai members and the struggles of temple Buddhist priests alongside survey data provided by sectarian leaders, readers can think about strategic ways to read statistical representations in light of local knowledge in order to understand how aid mobilizations work in practice.

Quantifying Religious Responses to the 2011 Disasters

On March 11, 2011, at 2:46 p.m., Japan was hit by the largest earthquake in its recorded history. The 9.0 tremor struck 129 kilometers off the coast of Miyagi Prefecture and triggered a tsunami that peaked at over 40 meters and extended as far as 10 kilometers inland. Thousands of square kilometers of the coastal regions across northeastern Honshū (Japan’s largest island) were devastated, with damage concentrated in Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima Prefectures. Most famously, the earthquake and tsunami triggered meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO)’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plants, a debacle that has devolved into history’s worst nuclear disaster. As of May 2015, Japan’s National Police Agency places the number of dead and missing (presumed dead) at 18,475.7 Damage from 3.11 is still being quantified. In excess of 400,000 homes were damaged or destroyed, and more than 400,000 people were temporarily displaced. Tens of thousands may never return to their homes, and in early 2015 just over 200,000 people were still registered as refugees, according to Japan’s Reconstruction Agency, a government ministry created to address post-2011 recovery.8 3.11 also devastated livelihoods: the World Bank estimated 3.11’s immediate damage at US$235 billion, making the compound disasters the most expensive in history, even before factoring in the long-term effects of the Fukushima meltdown.

Daily challenges survivors continue to face are more difficult to measure. In recent years, most devastated communities have replaced roads and buildings washed away by the tsunami, and popular and political attention has shifted away from focus on trauma to celebrating visible signs of recovery. Yet hundreds of thousands continue to struggle with the aftereffects of the disasters: bereaved, displaced, financially compromised, at high risk for suicide and other dangers, thousands of those afflicted by the compound disasters continue to suffer as popular concern wanes.

Japan’s religious activists responded immediately after the disaster, and they remain sensitive to the long-term needs of 3.11 survivors. However, in spite of the efforts of hundreds of religious organizations that mobilized thousands of volunteers and gathered billions of yen’s worth of aid, and continue to do so years after the initial calamity, religious responses to 3.11 have received comparatively little public notice. This is because a considerable stigma clings to the label “religion” (Jp. shūkyō) in Japan today. In a 2008 survey of Japanese people’s religious attitudes conducted by the popular daily newspaper Yomiuri shinbun, only 26.1 percent of respondents reported that they “believed in religion,” while 71.9 percent asserted that they did not.9 People in Japan are particularly nervous about religious organizations: fewer than 10 percent of Japanese respondents to the 2010 World Values Survey claimed to trust religious groups, placing Japan at the lowest level of trust in religions of all nations.10 However, even as people in Japan overwhelmingly reject religion, many of them take part in activities and maintain dispositions that can be called religious. In the same Yomiuri shinbun survey in which more than seven out of ten respondents claimed to not believe in religion, almost three out of four visited a Shinto shrine or Buddhist temple at the New Year, almost half affirmed that they did not believe that the Japanese people’s religious spirit was weak, and a similar number claimed that they wanted a religious funeral ceremony when they died.

Buddhist denominations and other Japanese religious organizations are reporting drops in parishioners, particularly in depopulating rural areas, and recent years have seen a corresponding drop in the numbers of scholarly and popular publications on the topic of religion in Japan.11 Despite these declines, thousands of Buddhist, Shinto, Christian, and so-called New Religions groups remain active in Japan, some with millions of adherents.12 Religious engagement also perseveres outside institutional frameworks in difficult to quantify ways: Japanese attitudes reveal a persistent extra-institutional concern for ritual, ties to ancestors, interest in matters beyond the human realm, altruism, and other evidence of a willingness to accommodate ideas and practices many outsiders would argue make up components of religion. These conflicting survey results also indicate that questions about “religion” evoke unresolved, contradictory sentiments in many people in Japan.13

Given religion’s discordant Japanese identity, it should not surprising both that 1) religious organizations provided significant levels of aid after 3.11, and 2) this contribution, with the exception of a few initiatives, went largely underreported and, when publicized, was greeted by the Japanese public with limited enthusiasm. Tens of thousands of volunteers mobilized by hundreds of religious groups have contributed to community reconstruction in transformative ways, but only a few examples of this religious response deemed palatable to the religion-wary Japanese public have received consistent media and scholarly consideration. While presentations of post-disaster religious innovators as altruistic have produced a positive new religion narrative, the full range of religious responses to the 2011 disasters has largely escaped notice. Numerous grassroots-level efforts that do not fit easily into a modern vision of religion have eluded public attention even as these initiatives shape local communities in the disaster-ravaged region.

A few activists have been particularly successful in publicizing religious contributions to recovery after 3.11. Inaba Keishin at the University of Osaka, along with Kurosaki Hiroyuki at Kokugakuin University and other colleagues, organized the Faith-Based Network for Earthquake Relief in Japan, which began to post a steady stream of newspaper articles on religious activists and reports issued by religious organizations on Facebook days after the tsunami. Data gathered by these scholars has also been plotted onto a Google Maps platform ( that presents a spatial representation of aid, destruction, loss of life, and other data connected to temples, shrines, churches, and a number of New Religions facilities, and recently Inaba and others have been advocating government agencies to integrate religious facilities into plans for future disaster relief mobilization.14

Reporters for Japan’s major broadcasters and daily newspapers recapitulate data provided by these sources and from a related initiative called the Japan Religion Coordinating Project for Disaster Relief (Shūkyōsha Saigai Shien Renrakukai), known as the JRPD in English. Since April 2011, the JRPD has organized regular seminars at the University of Tokyo’s Young Buddhist Association at which representatives from religious aid providers and academics who are invested in presenting Japanese religions as altruistic contributors to Japan’s post-disaster social welfare share information on relief activities. Most JRPD presenters and attendees are highly educated Buddhist priests, Christian clergy, religion scholars, and a few representatives from New Religions that enjoy a reputation for contributing to social causes. Meanwhile, in Sendai, the largest city close to the quake epicenter, religious activists in the disaster area organized the Kokoro no Sōdanshitsu, the “Consultation Room for the Heart,” a collaborative project that saw representatives from religious traditions cooperate with psychologists, hospice caregivers, suicide prevention specialists, social workers, and other non-religious aid professionals to address the needs of the living and the dead left in the wake of the tsunami. The Kokoro no Sōdanshitsu led into a number of interconnected projects, most prominently Tōhoku University’s Department of Practical Religious Studies, which offers a new ecumenical program certifying religious aid workers as Rinshō Shūkyōshi, or “interfaith chaplains.”15 Data gleaned from JRPD reports, the Tōhoku University–affiliated programs, and from online and published resources produced by disaster policy committees organized by religious sects (mostly Buddhist groups, Christian churches, and New Religions) comprise the majority of information on post-3.11 religious aid initiatives. These reports form the basis for most media reportage on religious responses to the 2011 disasters. And, in keeping with growing international expectations, it should come as no surprise that these reports find purchase in part because they present statistical data and otherwise employ language that translates beyond the sphere of religion into policy, economics, medicine, and other “legitimate” areas.

Assessing Data on Religious Mobilization after 3.11: Fundraising

Aggregate data on religious mobilization after 3.11 have only recently been made available. The most comprehensive analysis of how much aid religions provided, how much money religious groups raised, how many volunteers they mobilized, how many refugees they housed in their facilities, and other quantifiable dimensions of the religious response immediately after March 11, 2011, appears in a lengthy September 2014 paper for the Japan NPO Research Association authored by Okamoto Masahiro, professor at the faculty of law at Kwansei Gakuin University.16 This report relies principally on information provided by eighteen major Japanese religious organizations in response to surveys carried out, with assistance from the Japan Non-Profits Organization, by the Buddhist newspaper Chūgai nippō, which published results between January and February 2013.17 These eighteen religions comprise only a fraction of the total number of religious institutions in Japan, yet they are predominantly large and influential groups that claim approximately 51 percent of Japan’s adherents. The religions with comparatively few parishioners included in this survey, notably the Catholic Church and the United Church of Christ in Japan, launched post-3.11 aid initiatives that equaled or excelled those overseen by religious organizations with much larger Japanese memberships.

Okamoto’s report provides an unprecedented level of detail as it lays out lucid summaries of the Chūgai nippō data. He pays particular attention to aspects of religious aid responses that connect with recent political, journalistic, and scholarly concern with religions’ qualification as kōeki hōjin, or “public interest juridical persons,” a largely tax-exempt legal status that religions in Japan have been forced to defend in recent years.18 The eighteen groups surveyed claimed a total of just under 16.3 billion yen (~US$140 million) collected for emergency aid by the end of 2012. Religions themselves provided 42 percent of the total, while 12 percent was contributed through related organizations, and 46 percent was made up of donations from individuals who contributed to religions’ fundraising campaigns. Religious fundraising constituted a substantial portion of post-3.11 donations: the Japan Business Federation (Keidanren) estimated that corporations donated approximately 100 billion and individuals a total of 120 billion yen by March 2012.19 The amounts gathered by each religion varied considerably and did not necessarily correspond to the size of the group. For example, the Catholic Church, relying upon its tradition of charitable giving and impressive ability to mobilize aid via Caritas Internationalis and its other global charities, gathered donations totaling 2.25 billion yen, the largest amount of any religion. This exceeds the 1.8 billion yen gathered by Rinzai Zen’s Myōshinji sect or the 1.01 billion collected by the Jōdo Shinshū Honganji sect and was raised in spite of the comparatively tiny number of Japanese Catholics (fewer than half a million parishioners).

Ways in which Japan’s religions organized their aid drives and distributed funds also varied considerably. Jinja Honchō (the Association of Shinto Shrines), for instance, devoted all but approximately 10 million of its 1.5 billion yen relief fund to internal matters, dedicating money to shrines and ujiko (Shinto shrine parishioners) in the disaster area and focusing in particular on reconstructing the 309 shrines that had been partially or completely destroyed by the earthquake and tsunami. By contrast, Soka Gakkai, the Buddhism-based lay organization that is Japan’s largest New Religion, funneled all funds it solicited through its post-3.11 relief campaign (540 million yen) to the Japanese Red Cross Society and other external aid providers. Soka Gakkai has gained an overwhelmingly negative public image since the postwar decades for its exclusivist beliefs, proselytizing campaigns, and affiliation with the political party Komeito. As part of an attempt to forestall popular suspicion of its relief efforts, Soka Gakkai urged its members to donate to non-religious aid providers, and its administrators designated reconstruction of Gakkai Culture Centers and other facilities as a category separate from charitable giving. Most other religions in the survey carried out a mix of fundraising for infrastructural repair, aid to adherents, and extra-religious initiatives.

Material Aid Distribution

Disaster relief is not only measured in yen. Religious aid providers emphasized their material donations, focusing in particular on how quickly they were able to dispatch food, water, shelter, portable toilets, and other essentials to desperate communities. A distinctive aspect of post-3.11 religious material aid transport was the inclusion of religious artifacts among the emergency goods listed by some of the groups. For example, the Sōtō Zen sect apportioned just over 180 million yen’s worth of goods to its relief effort. These goods included 32 prefab shelters, 4 large stoves, and 4 large pots for communal kitchens worth 80 million yen, while almost all of the remaining 100 million yen’s worth of materials comprised a mix of religious and non-religious essentials, including 15 large scrolls bearing images of the sanzonbutsu (three revered buddhas), 18,060 trifold portable images of the same figures, incense for memorial services, as well as Geiger counters, liturgies, juzu (prayer bead rosaries), and changes of priestly clothing: all supplies required by priests and parishioners in disaster areas to carry out funerals and memorial services, at times in irradiated zones.

Supply deliveries listed by Nichiren-shū (the Nichiren sect) consisted solely of religious goods—3,000 juzu and 3,010 small honzon (objects of worship)—and almost all of the other Buddhist denominations included at least some religious implements in their shipments. Overall, there is a notable divide in supply delivery between temple-based Buddhist sects and New Religions: older groups that can evade religion’s stigma through reassuring associations with “tradition” or “culture” appeared confident in equipping their emergency responders with liturgical implements, while chronologically new organizations that generally suffer from a more negative public image than their older counterparts assiduously avoided distributing religious items, most likely in attempts to forestall accusations that they were using 3.11 as an opportunity to missionize. New Religions appeared particularly sensitive to this issue: Konkōkyō only listed Geiger counters and industrial cleaning supplies; Shinnyo-en sent food, medicine, communications equipment, and other essentials required by their volunteer organization SeRV (Shinnyo-en Relief Volunteers); Tenrikyo dispatched its specialized Tenrikyo Disaster Relief Hinokishin Corps to work on infrastructure renewal; and Soka Gakkai specified 641,700 separate relief items dispatched by the end of May 2011 to serve the needs of more than 5,000 refugees housed in 42 of the organization’s Culture Centers, none of which were religious goods.

Volunteer Mobilization

Difficulties arise in verifying the number of volunteers overseen by religions. Each group in the Chūgai nippō surveys reported different types of data, and some neglected to keep reliable records of how many volunteers took part in relief efforts, what they did, where they were dispatched, how much time they devoted, and other key factors. The total number of volunteers mobilized by religions in the year after 3.11, as tabulated by Okamoto from the surveys and supplemented by his own research, stands at 100,881. This number only includes data from fifteen of the eighteen religions, and other caveats must be considered. Some of the religions supplied detail on numbers of people in specific communities and the types of activities they undertook. Konkōkyō, for instance, provided round numbers: it dispatched 4,500 of its total 6,950 volunteers to Ishinomaki City in Miyagi Prefecture to clear mud and feed refugees, while 100 of its adherents in Kobe prepared insect repellent and cleaned photographs retrieved from ruined communities.20 Other religions were meticulous and even circumspect about the numbers they publicized. Jōdo Shinshū (True Pure Land) Buddhism’s Ōtani sect established the Shinshū Ōtani-ha Genchi Saigai Fukkō Sentā (Shinshū Ōtani Sect Local Site Disaster Recovery Center) at one of its kindergartens in Sendai, from which it dispatched 5,422 volunteers to communities across the disaster zone by the end of 2012. Staff at the center feared their volunteer figures might be used for propaganda purposes, as recorded statistics have an inherent tendency to inflate when they include volunteer programs that did not produce results.21 For this reason the center only publicized net, not gross, volunteer statistics: they erased data for relief efforts they felt did not produce measurable benefits. Other groups were less modest about the large numbers they shared, or neglected to keep records at all. Taking these vagaries into account, it can still be surmised that Japanese religious groups mobilized a large number of volunteers after 3.11. The Japan Business Federation survey cited earlier recorded a total of 182,000 volunteers registered by June 30, 2011. Religious groups clearly comprised a significant proportion of this movement.

Mobilization on the Ground: An Example of Soka Gakkai Activism in Refugee Housing

This brief overview of statistics reveals that aggregate data cannot be neatly summarized, and that numerical expressions of religious mobilization after the 3.11 disasters should be qualified and contextualized. The best way to deepen perspective on data collected by Okamura, the Chūgai Nippō surveyors, and others—including the surveys of religious attitudes and other statistical information cited at the beginning of this article—is to learn from ethnographic case studies. Here, I present two contrasting examples. One is from Soka Gakkai, which, while massive, still receives comparatively little scholarly attention. The other is from a temple in the Jōdo Shinshū (True Pure Land) Honganji sect, which claims the largest number of parishioners of any temple Buddhist denomination in Japan. Both cases exemplify modest aid initiatives by nonelite activists that were incorporated into aggregate assessments by their parent religious institutions. And both reveal ways summaries produced by institutional leaders must be read in tandem with accounts from ordinary practitioners of how religious disaster responses play out on the ground.

Years after 3.11, coastal prefectures in northeast Honshū still hosts communities of kasetsu jūtaku, temporary housing units, which are homes to tens of thousands of displaced refugees. Some survivors fortunate enough to gain sufficient funds through employment and government relief have been able to rebuild their homes or move away from the disaster zone, leaving behind the rows of tiny prefab units that stand in fields, on abandoned soccer grounds, and beside schools. Those who remain tend to lack the means to leave—primarily elderly, on a fixed income or poor before the disaster, bereft of family who can offer amenable accommodation, too psychologically devastated to get their affairs in order, or a combination of these and other challenges.

Some who have the capacity to leave choose to remain. I have been fortunate to befriend two people who match this description: Masayuki and Kazuyo Oguchi.22 Since June 2011, Mr. and Mrs. Oguchi have occupied one of the 125 two-room prefab apartments that are pressed together in long rows in a kasetsu jūtaku community a short drive from the rocky coast of Miyagi Prefecture. On two occasions, in the summers of 2013 and 2014, the Oguchis invited me into their tiny home in the company of two Gakkai administrators to discuss their experience of the 3.11 disasters and their decision to live on in refugee housing.23 When I visited in 2013, their roughly eighty-square-meter unit was covered in decorations connected to their deep Soka Gakkai faith and their home’s status as a kyoten, a local base for Gakkai operations. Framed photographs of Soka Gakkai Honorary President Ikeda Daisaku and his wife, Kaneko, had pride of place on their walls next to a closed Buddhist altar that served as the center of the single room in which the couple sleeps and eats. Surrounding these images were pictures of flowers, calendars from the Gakkai daily newspaper Seikyō shinbun, colorful photos and articles on the Oguchis cut out from Gakkai publications, and a streamer of small flags from the People’s Republic of China that ran along the top of the living room: visitors from a Chinese university who are associated with one of several Ikeda Daisaku Research Centers in China paid a visit to the housing units, where they were welcomed by a local Gakkai delegation and a meal prepared by Mrs. Oguchi. During my visits, Mrs. Oguchi brought my Gakkai guides and me a steady stream of tea, coffee, cheesecake, and delicious prepared food, displaying a worrying level of generosity for a couple that obviously lived in poverty. Outside, the surrounding community was eerily quiet: only the distant bray of a diesel-powered generator made up for the absence of the ambient hum of modern Japanese towns that is noticeable only when it is gone. Inside the cramped unit, however, the paper-thin walls and creaky floors broadcast every footstep and quiet word from surrounding families. Privacy is completely absent in these homes.

The Oguchis are in their early sixties with seven grandchildren between them, but they are newlyweds, veterans of lives that were tumultuous before the 3.11 catastrophe. They are second-generation members of Soka Gakkai, divorcees who met when they were 2 of more than 2,500 refugees crammed into a cavernous gymnasium in Onnagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, a community near the quake epicenter that was among the hardest hit by the tsunami. Both found their way to the gymnasium after their houses were washed away. Kazuyo had cared for her mother in her home, which was in view of the ocean and only a couple of meters above sea level. After days picking her way through mountains of debris toward where she imagined her mother might have survived, Kazuyo was found freezing by a rescue crew that lifted her by helicopter to the gymnasium. When she learned that her mother was not among the thousands of survivors taking shelter there she collapsed from shock. A fellow Gakkai adherent from the same town, a Mrs. Akimoto, found Kazuyo sitting unmoving. She wrapped her in a child’s blanket, the only possession the Akimoto family had rescued from their own destroyed home. Kazuyo’s mother’s remains were discovered on March 31.

“I lost ten kilos while I was in shock,” Mrs. Oguchi recalled. She talked of her mother, who was eighty-four years old when she was killed. “I could not believe it. How could someone who had persevered through so much die in one instant?” Her mother had joined Soka Gakkai in the 1950s and had been cast out from her community in Kōriyama, Fukushima Prefecture, because of her faith; neighbors pelted her with water and garbage when she came to their homes in attempts to urge them to take part in Soka Gakkai’s chanting practice and to subscribe to the Seikyō shinbun. Kazuyo’s mother endured these humiliations in her role as what Kazuyo described as a bunshin, an “emanation” of Ikeda Daisaku, using the Buddhist term for a provisional form of an enlightened being created to spread the Dharma. “I was not serious about my faith before the tsunami,” she recalled. “But thanks to being raised by a good mother, I feel that there is meaning in her death. I think of her as passing the baton.” After her mother’s funeral, Kazuyo stayed on with the Onnagawa refugees instead of going to live with her daughter in Kōriyama, dedicating herself wholeheartedly to Soka Gakkai aid mobilization.

Conditions immediately after 3.11 in the Onnagawa gymnasium were dire. After a chaotic first few days, the refugees were arranged in rows of 90 centimeters by 2 meters per person, nominally separated from neighbors by cardboard dividers. There were almost no emergency supplies making their way through the ruined roads. People would line up one at a time to get a paltry dinner at 5:00, their only meal of the day; if they did not show up in person, they would not get fed. Kazuyo joined the effort to coordinate with Gakkai leaders elsewhere in Miyagi and in Tokyo to serve survivors’ needs. As they brought in food, Gakkai volunteers also paid heed to the particular needs of these primarily elderly refugees: they shipped in adult diapers, suitable undergarments for elderly women and men, makeup, and other goods that allowed older survivors to regain a modicum of dignity. “Can there really be someone so pure as this?” marveled Masayuki when he saw Kazuyo taking the lead in these activities. “Someone who thinks only of helping others?” Like Kazuyo, Masayuki had converted to Soka Gakkai as a child when his family joined the religion in the 1950s, and while he had taken an active role in the Young Men’s Division years ago, he grew distant from the organization as he descended into circumstances he only hints at in conversation. “I led a really irresponsible life (charanporan na jinsei),” he laughs through a persistent cough; his voice is rough, adenoidal, the ravaged remains of decades of chain-smoking. “Really, to the extent that you’d say ‘Wow! Someone like this exists?’” On March 14, he was approached in the Onnagawa gymnasium by Mr. Akimoto, husband of the woman who aided Kazuyo. Akimoto recruited Oguchi and Kurasaki, another Gakkai man in his sixties, to make a perilous journey by car from the nearby Soka Gakkai center through the rubble to a community hall in the mountains at which 300 refugees waited without food. “We didn’t know if we would make it back. Pipes were broken, waste water poured into the broken streets, there was lots of debris, yet three hundred people were there in the hall.” The three volunteers brought plenty of onigiri (rice balls) prepared by the Gakkai’s Married Women’s Division, yet they felt that partaking of the food themselves would create tensions: at first, the refugees greeted them with suspicion upon learning that they were a rescue envoy from Soka Gakkai. The three were also starving, “but we watched them eat. There were no Gakkai members there.” It is clear that Mr. Oguchi was immediately conscious of the need to project the best possible public image for Soka Gakkai; by not eating any of the food they brought, these volunteers could represent their religion as singularly dedicated to service of others.

On March 16, Oguchi joined the other Gakkai refugees in the gymnasium in reacting with profound emotion to the message from Ikeda Daisaku to the disaster survivors published that day in the Seikyō shinbun; Gakkai administrators distributed copies to the approximately 100 Gakkai members then living in the Onnagawa gymnasium, and Oguchi once again joined Akimoto and Kurasaki in rescue missions to other refugee centers, this time delivering easy-to-read large-print photocopies of Ikeda’s message to elderly Gakkai member survivors along with food and other emergency supplies.24 “I am sixty-three years old now,” he told me in June 2013. “At sixty-one, I realized [Ikeda]-sensei’s greatness (subarashisa).” It was impossible for the Gakkai members to carry out their regular chanting practice—a twice-daily recitation of sections of the Lotus Sūtra followed by repeated invocations of namu-myōhō-renge-kyō (the title of the Lotus, known as the daimoku)—in the gymnasium. Masayuki, filled with renewed purpose, made a habit of joining Kazuyo in climbing the hill behind the gym early each morning to chant namu-myōhō-renge-kyō toward Onnagawa. The two focused their daimoku on everyone in Onnagawa achieving jōbutsu, the realization of buddhahood. They became a couple, joined their two tiny cardboard-partitioned sections of the gymnasium floor into one, and began working together in Gakkai relief activities that eventually shifted from emergency aid to long-term relief projects.

After Kazuyo and Masayuki moved into their temporary housing unit in June 2011, they launched into a busy schedule that combined aiding local residents, members and non-members alike, with intensive Soka Gakkai engagement. As they continue to participate in regional aid initiatives, they hold regular meetings in their tiny home; their housing complex is home to four other Gakkai households and eight people they call rikaisha, literally “people who understand,” a term they use to describe readers of the Seikyō shinbun. The local members gather for study meetings, chanting sessions, and other events, and they commute frequently into Onnagawa and other Miyagi communities. “Around here, unless you have a car, you can’t carry out any activities at all,” Kazuyo affirmed. The impoverished couple estimated that they spent at least 30,000 yen (~US$300) on gasoline transporting residents to and from the housing units in their first year, to take part in Gakkai events but also to help non-members visit family, shop, and carry out other life activities—funds they pool from Masayuki’s job as a night watchman for a local business. They told me about how, while driving, they stop to pick up neighbors, driving them back and forth to relatives’ homes. “We do this joyfully,” added Kazuyo, characterizing the financial and time costs they accrue as the price of kōsen rufu, or the spread of Soka Gakkai. Mr. Oguchi expanded on his feelings about money. “For seven years, I ran a pachinko parlor; this shop was swept away by the tsunami. I made a salary of about ten million yen a month, with more than forty million each month in cash bonuses. But I spent it all, and I lost everything before the tsunami…. If money comes into your hand before you even think of it, you have no gratitude, and the things [you buy] do not evoke a sense of thanks. Going hungry as one works and feeling gratitude as one eats—this was not part of my life before.”25 Tears streaming down his face, he declared several times in my conversations with him: “The tsunami, for me, was the best thing that happened in my life.”

The Oguchis have become Soka Gakkai celebrities. They have been profiled numerous times in Gakkai publications, and their home serves as an outreach center well known to the many Gakkai volunteers who continue to make regular journeys to Miyagi Prefecture. Soka Gakkai has incorporated relief efforts pioneered by the Oguchis, and by other Gakkai grassroots-level activists like them, into its carefully administered recovery efforts in the region. After 2011, Soka Gakkai mirrored the Japanese government in designating its efforts in the worst-damaged areas as fukkō 福光 (fortunate light) projects, employing a homophone for fukkō 復興, “recovery,” the ubiquitous term in Japanese governmental descriptions of disaster reconstruction. The Gakkai’s fukkō districts receive special attention from its volunteer crews, and even now on the 11th of each month the Seikyō shinbun publishes reminders about 3.11, ensuring that Gakkai adherents keep disaster victims constantly in mind as they conflate discourse on recovery with an optimistic aesthetic of fortune and light.

To conclude this case study: the Oguchis reveal that religious relief efforts can come about not from rational plans laid out by technocratic experts but as unanticipated consequences, as bottom-up initiatives by practitioners driven by complex combinations of faith and life circumstances. When regional Gakkai administrators learn of these grassroots-level activists, they urge them to expand their scope and integrate with broader institutional mandates. The local activists are celebrated for their efforts, and their contributions comprise contributions to a synthetic institutional narrative promoted in the hopes of fostering a positive public image for the group. But the difficulties endured by local members like the Oguchis are not conveyed by this narrative, nor are their contributions to relief and reconstruction. The impact of their personal transformations in the wake of the tsunami—certainly on Soka Gakkai members, but most likely also on families outside the group and on the temporary housing community to which they have dedicated themselves—defies this kind of summary.

Additionally, what the Oguchis said and how they expressed themselves did not cohere neatly with a satisfying narrative arc of ruination leading into spiritual renewal that is common in member testimonials promoted by Soka Gakkai administrators. As the Oguchis spoke to me of their experiences with the tsunami and its aftermath, strong emotions rose to the surface easily and often. They derive joy from their daily work, and they clearly place a great deal of importance on their new, elevated role within Soka Gakkai, but years after 3.11 they remain fragile, prone to expressing profound grief. Unlike many survivors who have moved into reconstructed homes or far away from the disaster area, the Oguchis never escape the voices of the bereaved infiltrating their home at all hours, and they themselves are still visibly distraught. They shed tears of joy at having rediscovered their faith by gaining purpose in aiding others after the tsunami, but speaking with the Oguchis, hearing their anguished stories, and witnessing their wrenching mix of gratitude and sorrow, one might think the tsunami swept through weeks ago, not years. Summaries of their aid efforts do not convey this lingering trauma, nor do they do justice to the layers of life experiences that may explain why the Oguchis remain in their tiny temporary housing unit.

Complicating Quantification: A Buddhist Temple in the Disaster Area

Twenty minutes by train and taxi from downtown Sendai, two kilometers from the Pacific Ocean in what was once a suburban neighborhood, sits the Jōdo Shinshū (True Pure Land) temple Jōdoji. The temple is home to the Reverends Tetsuei and Nana Muromachi, a husband and wife in their mid-forties who are both ordained priests in Jōdo Shinshū’s Honganji sect. Attached to the temple’s modest main prayer hall is a two-story building with rooms for community events on the ground floor and living quarters for the Muromachis and Tetsuei’s parents above. Tetsuei’s father, now in his mid-eighties, retired as the temple priest a number of years ago, and the Muromachis’ son, their only child, attends university in faraway Kyoto. The only other resident is a miraculous survivor of the tsunami: a small, excitable dog that arrived on March 11, 2011, when he floated into the ruins of the temple atop a sofa. The Muromachis were unable to find the dog’s original owners, so now he lives with them.

The Reverends cared for their devastated community even as they struggled to rebuild Jōdoji. The family was fortunate that the tsunami only reached the top of the temple’s ground floor, allowing them to take refuge in their second-floor living quarters; a visible waterline still stains the pillars in every part of Jōdoji. Almost all of the surrounding houses were washed away. Wreckage from these homes flooded the temple and attached hall, ruining the entire structure and knocking down the graveyard. Tetsuei’s mother discovered two bodies trapped under a car smashed against the main altar. In all, Jōdoji confirmed that seventy-five parishioners perished in the tsunami. Seven more went missing; two were confirmed dead by DNA evidence performed on remains in early 2012, and no news was received about the remaining five.

After 3.11, Jōdoji transformed into a center for funerals and a repository for remains. Displaced parishioners who would have ordinarily taken ashes home from crematoria or placed their loved ones in a grave sought aid from the Reverends Muromachi, who offered to preserve remains at Jōdoji for no fee. As part of its reconstruction, the temple transformed a small pagoda on its grounds into a collective ossuary that serves as an “eternal memorial grave” (eitai kuyōbō) in which remains from graves destroyed by the tsunami are now combined with those of disaster victims. All of these deceased will receive memorial prayers as long as the temple exists. In constructing this ossuary, “We copied [sect founder] Shinran’s grave in Kyoto,” Tetsuei admitted frankly.

In conversation, both of the Reverends were remarkably blunt about their personal and vocational struggles after the tsunami.26 When I met with them for the first time a little over a year after the disaster, they were glad to see that the temple had once again become a regular gathering spot for parishioners. Shortly before our first meeting, members of the temple’s Fujinkai (Women’s Association) had held their monthly gathering over tea, a lively event at which survivors who once walked from their nearby homes were now bused in from temporary housing units, rented apartments, and relatives’ houses. “When they come together like this you see their faces as they were before the disaster.” Tetsuei’s face clears when he describes this but otherwise expresses anguish as we talk. A Jōdoji parishioner purchased a twenty-nine-person microbus for the temple, providing these funds before repairing his own home. Jōdoji could not afford to replace their vehicles, and Tetsuei was initially unable to face the shock of the disasters or the daunting burdens of reconstruction. He fell into a deep depression after the tsunami and was unable to carry out memorials for the dead or keep up with regular ritual responsibilities, much less deal with assessing damage to the temple and its environs. “We care for parishioners, but no one cares for the priests,” Tetsuei stated as Nana nodded. I heard this sentiment repeated by numerous religious caregivers in the disaster-afflicted region: priests and lay religious leaders who were traumatized by 3.11 worked to aid others while they went without much-needed aid themselves. I asked Tetsuei if he conceived of events like the Women’s Association tea party and other gatherings as innovative forms of therapeutic care akin to the widely publicized initiatives in development at nearby Tōhoku University. He prevaricated, seemingly uninterested in these kinds of labels. “I don’t have the energy to tell people what they should do.” He then laughed self-consciously and barked, “I’m the one who wants care!”

As someone who shares the same traumas, Tetsuei and Nana serve their parishioners as peers. They stressed to me that they never offer opinions about what parishioners say, even when they express anger about what they see as the unjust workings of karmic causality. At times, visitors to Jōdoji have cried out, “There is no god, there is no Buddha!” Tetsuei and Nana respond by saying, “Yes, everyone has thought this way.” Their family creates an atmosphere that allows local residents to come spend time on their own terms. “It is all right to slander the Buddha, no matter how many times. This is a particular aspect of Jōdo Shinshū. Amida Buddha’s compassion keeps finding a deeper and deeper place within you, never letting go.” Tetsuei paused as he reflected on his interactions with the adherents who come regularly to the temple: “When they gather each month on the 13th, each person notices that she is not the only one suffering, but they are unlikely to speak out about their frustrations and anger during the tea party. These feelings come out in one-on-one discussions. It would be good to reach a point where people could speak openly about these feelings, be able to say to one another ‘yes, I too feel this way.’ We’re not at that point yet.”

At the monthly Women’s Association gatherings, the Reverends deliver an ominori (dharma talk), parishioners receive prayers and talismans, and they take time to enjoy one another’s company. Throughout our conversations, the Muromachis returned to the topic of Jōdoji’s permanence. Local residents can move elsewhere—indeed, in the years after 3.11, many of the temple’s 250 or so parishioners hesitated to return to the land where their homes once stood—but because of laws governing religious juridical persons, it is close to impossible for a Buddhist temple to change its location. “We reassure the parishioners that no matter the course you decide, Jōdoji will remain here, come what may,” Tetsuei asserted. And then he paused for a long spell. “Really, we want to escape, too. To a place where a tsunami wouldn’t hit.” He and his wife looked at one another and laughed cathartically, sadly.

Salvation came to the priest: soon after he learned of Jōdoji’s destruction, a friend of the Muromachis, a fellow Honganji sect priest living in the northern island of Hokkaido, arrived with a crew of volunteers who learned of Jōdoji’s plight through the Hokkaidō Shinshū Shien Netto (Hokkaido True Pure Land Buddhist Aid Network), an online mailing list established right after 3.11. These volunteers set up a work camp outside the ruined Jōdoji complete with an outdoor kitchen and set about clearing mud and debris before methodically replacing flooring, walls, doors, and roof tiles. On March 11, 2012, Jōdoji marked the first anniversary of the disaster; the ceremony was held outdoors, but the prayer hall was close to being rebuilt, and parishioners moved inside weeks later. “After one year, looking at photos of before and after the disaster, I could not believe the amount of repair. It was the work of strength from many hands of friends. If I were alone, there is no way I could have done it,” Tetsuei reflected. The Muromachis give little credit for Jōdoji’s transformation to their denomination: their sect established the Honganji Boranteia Sentā (Honganji Volunteer Center) in Sendai, and some center crews did come pitch in at Jōdoji, but the Reverends regarded this initiative as frustratingly hampered by bureaucracy. “If my friend from Hokkaido had not simply taken matters into his own hands, nothing would have happened here,” Tetsuei asserted. After Jōdoji was repaired by fast-acting volunteers who did not defer to high-level administrators, the Honganji sect listed the temple as successfully repaired and removed it from the list of disaster-area institutions that required sustained attention from sect headquarters or the regional support center.

But my conversations with the Muromachis made it clear that the reconstruction of Jōdoji’s buildings should by no means mark its recovery. When I asked about the temple community, the Muromachis spoke of a close friend of theirs named Nobuki. Tetsuei and Nobuki had known one another since they were young, and Nobuki had played a central role in the temple’s community before the tsunami. He attracted youth to Jōdoji by initiating fun activities such as a Bicycle Club that took trips to nearby prefectures and held parties in which child members decorated their bikes with colored paper and streamers and paraded through the neighborhood. Nobuki was at his workplace in central Sendai when the tsunami hit. While he was trapped in the city, the waves killed his parents-in-law, his two young sons (aged four and six), and his wife, who was pregnant with their third child. As repairs to Jōdoji began, Nobuki was one of the most involved of the local volunteers, always smiling and asking after the well-being of other survivors. The Muromachis held a one-year memorial (hōyō) for Nobuki’s family at the temple on March 11, 2012, after which he confirmed that he would reorganize the Bicycle Club, having spoken about this enthusiastically with his father and his childhood classmates who remained in the area.

Shortly afterward, Nobuki attended the reopening ceremony for the local elementary school. Local residents, including Nobuki, had sheltered for months as refugees on its second floor, and his eldest son was to have entered the school as a first-year student. On the day after the ceremony, Nobuki hanged himself in the ruins of his family’s home. The Muromachis broke down weeping as they described the details of their friend’s death to me. They assigned no blame, nor did they condemn his suicide. “He persevered as long as he could,” Tetsuei concluded. “I respect him for this. This is the only thing I can think to say of survivors who have taken their own lives.” He and Nana discovered that Nobuki had visited the family grave the day before; he had left canned drinks for the adults in his family and juice boxes for his children. They calculated that Nobuki took his own life one year to the day after his wife was cremated. “Everyone is too kind (yasashisugiru),” Tetsuei declared after a long pause. “People should cry, they should cry out. It wasn’t just Nobuki in this situation—he wasn’t the only one to have lost family. All the survivors share his pain.”

I visited Jōdoji two more times after my initial conversation with the Muromachis in June 2012—first in June 2013, and for the last time in June 2014. I was able to catch up with Nana and witness the neighborhood around the temple slowly transform from a windswept ruin into a new neighborhood of small farms and suburban homes. But I never spoke with Tetsuei again. Each time I came I was told that he was in bed, either unable or unwilling to speak with me again about the disaster.

Conclusion: Reading Religious Mobilization Statistics against Ethnography

The Muromachis’ experience and Nobuki’s case reveal the need to complicate statistical assessments. Jōdoji is rebuilt, but its priests cannot easily be described as recovered. Nobuki will not number among those killed or lost in the 3.11 disasters, yet his death must be attributed to the tsunami. It is impossible to know how many more deaths like Nobuki’s in the months and years after 3.11 are also directly attributable to the disasters.

Beyond the issue of statistical vagary, data charted by religious organizations and analyzed by scholars and policymakers, no matter how complete, cannot relay the lived everyday reality of aid providers. Statistics do not explain motivations for activists like the Oguchis who willingly endure privation to contribute to aid efforts, driven as they are by a complex fusion of religious mission and personal experiences. And, as the Muromachis’ testimonial makes clear, measuring post-disaster reconstruction is not a straightforward affair. It is now possible to tour the vast area ravaged by the earthquake and tsunami, as well as zones near the Fukushima plants that were previously shuttered and now deemed safe by the Japanese government, to see Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, and other religious facilities that have been rebuilt. However, each of these facilities will have its own story of desperate fundraising for reconstruction, complicated relations with sectarian administration, concern about a future after local residents have scattered, and the enduring quiet desperation of local activists who struggle alongside other survivors.

Attention to religious aid efforts promises to complicate reports provided by religions’ administrative leaders in productive ways. Soka Gakkai celebrates the Oguchi couple for their pioneering grassroots aid, but the precise nature of their contribution to post-3.11 aid efforts cannot be easily summarized; there is a sense that the institution’s refrain of “fortunate light” (fukkō) may be at odds with the anguish that lingers within areas that have received this designation. In general, reports on disaster aid provided by religious organizations reflect the eagerness of these groups to overcome the stigma that clings to religion in contemporary Japan, often at the expense of important nuances. In their efforts to present themselves as nonthreatening contributors to post-disaster reconstruction, religions publicize their altruism and eagerly comply with international norms by providing statistics. In doing so they tend to erase messy details about how these numbers were collated and the traumas their own contributors continue to face.

The case studies introduced here demonstrate that quantified overviews must be combined with ethnographic detail in order to complicate statistics and retain unresolved aspects of post-disaster religious mobilization. Aggregate measurements remain valuable: the survey responses gathered by Chūgai nippō and synthesized by Okamoto demonstrate the tremendous contribution by religion-mobilized activists to the post-3.11 aid response. This contribution has been underreported by the press and largely overlooked by scholars of the disasters outside religious studies, so the more information that is made available on the billions of yen, millions of tons of emergency supplies, thousands of volunteers, and multitudes of care initiatives begun by religious aid activists, the more likely it will be that Japan’s post-disaster religious mobilization will attract a level of attention commensurate with its scale. Attention to statistical measures of religious disaster response also provide a window into strategies religious organizations are now employing to counter prevailing negative public sentiments by demonstrating both the significant quantity of their aid contributions and their willingness to cohere with legitimacy-granting statistical norms.

However, it is only in combination with ethnographic accounts that the depth and significance of these data can be understood. Ethnography returns an important messiness to a picture formed by tidy numbers. Contradictions that persist within religious activists who spend years helping other survivors do not lend themselves to simplification through quantification, but there is a practical value to understanding this messiness on its own terms, as these details are essential to understanding the people who carry out rescue and relief and the impact of their activities months and years after the initial disaster.


(1) See IRIN News, “Where Is All the Money Going? The Humanitarian Economy” (, accessed July 25, 2015.

(2) Sally Engle Merry, “Measuring the World: Indicators, Human Rights, and Global Governance,” Current Anthropology 52, suppl. 3 (April 2011): S83–S95.

(4) Some recent studies that emphasize the limits of statistical measures and demonstrate the value of ethnographic inquiry into post-disaster communities while they consider the central role of religion include Vincanne Adams, Markets of Sorrow, Labors of Faith: New Orleans in the Wake of Katrina (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2013); Michael Feener, Shari’a and Social Engineering: The Implementation of Islamic Law in Contemporary Aceh, Indonesia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014); and Edward Simpson, The Political Biography of an Earthquake: Aftermath and Amnesia in Gujarat, India (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014). For discussions of how disaster narratives are determined by technocratic experts who frequently sideline the perspectives of nonelite survivors, see Gregory Button, Disaster Culture: Knowledge and Uncertainty in the Wake of Human and Environmental Catastrophe (Walnut Creek, Calif.: Left Coast, 2010); and Susanna M. Hoffman and Anthony Oliver-Smith, eds., Catastrophe & Culture: The Anthropology of Disaster (Santa Fe, N.M.: School of American Research Press, 2002).

(5) Soka Gakkai, literally the “Value Creation Study Association,” began in the 1930s as a lay association under a temple Buddhist parent in the Nichiren tradition and is now an independent religion that claims 8.27 million households in Japan. For information on Soka Gakkai and discussions of the category “New Religion” in contemporary Japan, see Levi McLaughlin, “Did Aum Change Everything? What Soka Gakkai before, during, and after the Aum Shinrikyō Affair Tells Us about the Persistent ‘Otherness’ of New Religions in Japan,” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 39, no. 1 (2012): 51–75. Jōdo Shinshū (True Pure Land Buddhism) is Japan’s largest temple-based Buddhist denomination. For discussions of its origins, its founder Shinran (1173–1263), and its development into a powerful organization see James C. Dobbins, Jōdo Shinshū: Shin Buddhism in Medieval Japan (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2002). For a recent, approachable study of Japanese Buddhism that surveys Jōdo Shinshū to the present and places it in a broader context, see William E. Deal and Brian Ruppert, A Cultural History of Japanese Buddhism (Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2015).

(6) Not all academic and media treatments sanitize accounts by grassroots-level religious activists. For informative examples, see Jonathan Watts, ed., This Precious Life: Buddhist Tsunami Relief and Anti-Nuclear Activism in Post 3/11 Japan (Yokohama: International Buddhist Exchange Center, 2012). Discussion of a wide range of other publications that include valuable on-the-ground perspectives appears in Levi McLaughlin, “Hard Lessons Learned: Tracking Changes in Media Presentations of Religion and Religious Aid Mobilization after the 1995 and 2011 Disasters in Japan,” Asian Ethnology 73, no. 1 (forthcoming 2016).

(7) Data on 3.11 casualties and other damage is updated routinely by Japan’s National Police Agency, accessible here: (accessed May 21, 2015). See also Jeff Kingston, Natural Disaster and Nuclear Crisis in Japan: Response and Recovery after Japan’s 3/11 (London: Routledge, 2012); Tom Gill, Brigitte Steger, and David H. Slater, eds., Japan Copes with Calamity: Ethnographies of the Earthquake, Tsunami, and Nuclear Disasters of March 2011 (Bern: Lang, 2013).

(8) The Reconstruction Agency maintains a document databank at (accessed May 21, 2015).

(9) The results of this survey are reproduced at (accessed May 21, 2015).

(10) Summaries of these data extrapolated by Honkawa Yutaka at Alpha Social Science Inc. from the 2010 World Values Survey can be found at (accessed May 21, 2015).

(11) For recent data on temple closings, sectarian responses to rural depopulation, and related issues, see Sakurai Yoshihide, ed., Hokkaidō no kaso / kamitsu mondai to shūkyō shisetsu (Sapporo: Hokkaidō Daigaku, 2011), and Inose Yuri, “Kyōdan no iji / sonzoku to shōshi kōrei shakai: shinkō keishō ni chakumoku shite,” Gendai shūkyō, March 2014, 140–58. For a discussion of the steady decline in scholarly and popular publications on religion, see Horie Norichika, “Shinsai to shūkyō: fukkō sezokushugi no taitō,” in Shinsai to shimin 2, ed. Nitagai Kamon and Yoshiwara Naoki (Tokyo: Tōkyō Daigaku Shuppansha, 2015), 215–233.

(12) The Japanese Ministry of Education’s annual religion survey provides an incomplete list of the country’s religious organizations that tallies just over 182,000 temples, shrines, churches, and other institutions that qualify as shūkyō hōjin, or “religious juridical persons.” The survey Shūkyō nenkan (“Religion almanac”) from the years 1995 to present is available at (accessed May 21, 2015).

(13) There is a considerable volume of recent research on how the category shūkyō (religion) took shape in modern Japan and how the legacy of its importation in the midst of Japan’s transformation into an imperial power continues to shape Japanese attitudes. See Shimazono Susumu and Tsuruoka Yoshio, ed., “Shūkyō” Saikō (Tokyo: Perikansha, 2004), 189–253; Jason Ānanda Josephson, The Invention of Religion in Japan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012); and Trent Maxey, The “Greatest Problem”: Religion and State Formation in Meiji Japan (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2014).

(14) See for the Faith-Based Network for Earthquake Relief in Japan, and for the Japan Religion Coordinating Project for Disaster Relief. See also the site for the journal Shūkyō to shakai kōken (Religion and Social Contribution) for related publications: (all accessed May 21, 2015).

(15) Rinshō shūkyōshi translates literally as “clinical religious instructor.” For information on Tōhoku University’s rinshō shūkyōshi training see (accessed May 21, 2015). See also Levi McLaughlin,“What Have Religious Groups Done after 3.11? Part 2: From Religious Mobilization to ‘Spiritual Care,’” Religion Compass 7/8 (2013): 309–25 and McLaughlin, “Hard Lessons Learned.”

(16) “Okamoto Masahiro, Higashi Nihon daishinsai ni okeru 18 shūkyō kyōdan no hisaisha / chi shien katsudō chōsa ni tsuite: chōsa hōkoku ni, jakkan no kōsatsu o kuwaete” [An Investigation of Major 18 Religious Organizations’ Disaster Relief Activities for the Great East Japan Earthquake Victims and the Disaster-Struck Areas: Findings and Some Discussions], JANPORA: Japan NPO Research Association Discussion Papers, March 2014, available at (accessed May 21, 2015).

(17) The eighteen religions surveyed (using their Japanese titles): Tendai-shū, Kōyasan Shingon-shū, Shingon-shū Chisan-ha, Shingon-shū Buzan-ha, Jōdo-shū, Jōdo Shinshū Honganji-ha, Jōdo Shinshū Ōtani-ha, Rinzai-shū Myōshinji-ha, Sōtō-shū, Nichiren-shū, Jinja Honchō, Kōnkōkyō, Shinnyo-en, Risshō Kōseikai, Katorikku Kyōkai, Nippon Kirisuto Kyōkai, Tenrikyō, and Sōka Gakkai.

(18) For discussions of legal and political battles that erupted over proposed revisions to Japan’s Civil Code in the mid-2000s and defenses put forward by Japan’s religious groups, see Rinshō Bukkyō Kenkyūsho, ed., Naze jiin wa kōekisei o towareru no ka (Kyoto: Hakubasha, 2009), and Kenkyūsho, ed., “Rinshō bukkyō” nyūmon (Kyoto: Hakubasha, 2013).

(19) The Keidanren report is available at (accessed May 21, 2015).

(20) Edward Simpson observes that figures cited in the wake of disasters, particularly those that deal with the cost of reconstruction, indicate that people tend to think in round numbers at these junctures. See Simpson, Political Biography of an Earthquake, 29.

(21) Staff at the center emphasized this point to me in an interview on June 19, 2014.

(22) All names in both case studies are pseudonyms.

(23) Information in this case study is drawn from interviews on June 6, 2013, and June 17, 2014. Quotations come from the June 6, 2013 interview.

(24) Seikyō shinbun claims a circulation of 5.5 million copies daily, the third-largest of any newspaper in Japan. For a concise discussion of Soka Gakkai media and the importance members place on their newspaper, see Levi McLaughlin, “Sōka Gakkai,” World Religions and Spirituality Project, Virginia Commonwealth University, (accessed July 25, 2015).

(25) Pachinko is a mechanized pinball gambling game machine. Pachinko parlors, which are ubiquitous throughout Japan, generate trillions of yen in annual revenue, earnings that fall into a legal gray area frequently associated with organized crime.

(26) Quotations in this section are derived from an interview with the Muromachis at Jōdoji on June 12, 2012. “Jōdoji” is a pseudonym.