Negotiating Religion in Secularised Domains: Religiously Inspired Social Care in Japan

In this post, Aura Di Febo details how religious actors in Japan employ strategies of ‘reflexive secularisation’ in order to spread religious values in secularised public spaces.Aura Di Febo PIC

Shukyōsei [omote ni] dashite wa ikenai,” or, “Religiosity cannot be brought out [in public].”

This was one of the expressions most frequently heard during my fieldwork. My fieldwork focuses on social welfare and care activities promoted by a Japanese new religious organisation (shinshūkyō), Risshō Kōseikai. This movement was founded in 1938, originally stemming from the Nichiren Buddhist tradition and primarily focusing on the teachings of the Lotus Sutra and ancestor veneration. Since the 1960s, the organisation has become actively involved in social activities on the local, national, and international scale, ranging from peace work and interfaith dialogue to environmental campaigns, community service, and social care provision.[1] These activities are understood as a form of missionary practice, which in Kōseikai is conceived in very broad terms as any action directed at saving people and creating a better society. When engaging in social activities outside the congregation, however, members expressed a common concern about overtly showing religiosity, stemming from formal and conventional constraints circumscribing the public presence of religion in Japan.


Any discussion of religion in Japan implies several problems of definition associated with the very word “religion” (shūkyō), resulting from the process through which it was constructed as a category through diplomatic negotiations between Japan and Western powers in the latter half of the 19th century. As discussed on this blog by Jason Josephson (The Paradoxes of Secularism in Contemporary Japan, published on October 13, 2014)[2] and Mitsutoshi Hori (Are There ‘Religion’ and ‘the Secular’ in Japan?, published on July 9, 2018),[3] the notion of religion was initially modeled on Christianity, and the Western modern conception centered on belief. This conception of religion as circumscribed to the private domain of individual interiority, further consolidated in parallel with Japan’s modernisation, and its exclusion from the public sphere, was ultimately formalised with the promulgation of the Postwar Constitution in 1947 which ratified the principle of separation between state and religion in uniquely strict terms.

In reality, however, these developments did not produce a univocal understanding of religion, nor its clean-cut separation from the secular, but rather the emergence of multiple blurred boundaries between religion and contiguous semantic fields such as “ethics,” “culture,” and “customs.” In particular, the conventional definition of “religion” as an exclusive commitment to a specific set of beliefs and practices has influenced the implementation of the constitutional principle of separation, which has been conventionally interpreted as prohibiting the promotion of a specific religious institution or tradition in the public sphere, while non-denominational and customary forms of religiosity are partially tolerated (Mullins 2012, Nishimura 2016). For religious actors, the blurred divide between prohibited and accepted forms of religious expression turned into an opportunity, opening potential venues of negotiation where they could pursue missionary goals in compliance with existing constraints.

In relation to social welfare and care, probably the simplest and most concise articulation of the exclusion of religion from the public sphere can be found in a general ban over “religious activities” (shūkyō katsudō) and religious discourses (shūkyō hanashi) stated by the regulations of social welfare councils. Kōseikai members complied with the rule by abstaining from overt manifestations of religiosity, which involved avoiding direct references to their religious affiliation, beliefs, and practices in a form of what Isaac Gagné (2017) called “reflexive secularisation.” Although these principles were unanimously accepted by Kōseikai members volunteering in public spaces (e.g. care facilities) and professionals in the field, both religious and nonreligious actors struggled to clarify what this rule actually meant. At times, the distinction between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour was articulated alonga thin line between religion and ethics: some representatives of social welfare councils, for example, suggested that discussing one’s faith in terms of ethical principles did not constitute a violation. Non-denominational forms of religiosity were also partially tolerated. Although professional social workers and caregivers unanimously condemned the promotion of a specific religion or religious institution, i.e. proselytization, discussing customary practices or well-rooted beliefs (e.g. ancestor worship) was generally associated with cultural traditions and customs, and thus not regarded as equally problematic.


The ambiguous differentiation between prohibited and accepted forms of religious expression in the context of social welfare and care resulted in the emergence of “grey areas” located between the conventional understandings of “religion” and “secular,” where nonspecific or more subtle forms of religiosity could be tolerated. For Kōseikai members, these “nonreligious” spaces created opportunities to provide spiritual guidance and convey teachings and practices in forms deemed acceptable by society. Nekoda (F, 72), one of my participants, was well aware of the prohibition to explicitly discuss Kōseikai beliefs when volunteering in care facilities. Nevertheless, she felt the need to transmit at least the ethical principles stemming from this religious worldview. Since “religious expressions could not be used,” it was necessary to find other ways to convey these concepts. Nekoda did this by reformulating doctrinal content into “common” terms that “everyone could understand and agree with,” which primarily implied avoiding Buddhist lexicon. Basically, Nekoda carried out an act of recategorization, which removed Kōseikai values from the domain of religion by separating ethical components from their religious foundations, and relocated them into the secular field of “morality.”

Similar strategies were implemented by Amano (M, 69), another member serving as a community volunteer. While he acknowledged the prohibition to engage in religious activities in public spaces, in his understanding the definition was limited to active proselytization, i.e. trying to persuade someone to join a religious organisation. Other manifestations of religiosity, instead, were seen in a different light. In particular, Amano firmly believed in the importance of spreading the teachings, which he regarded as an essential part of his missionary practice, and he was motivated to do so also through social care activities. Sharing religious notions, he argued, became possible if one resorted to “expedients,” which in his case consisted of translating religious content into the more neutral forms of “life advice” and using nonreligious language to avoid direct references to Kōseikai.


These two examples from my fieldwork show how practitioners took advantage of the blurred boundaries between prohibited and accepted forms of religious expression to pursue their missionary goals. Strategies of ‘reflexive secularisation’ were used to spread religious values in society through their recategorization within secular fields, allowing practitioners to partially convey the teachings and provide spiritual guidance in the form of ethical norms of behaviour. These strategies, however, seemed bound to result in a compromised negotiation: the need to detach these concepts from their religious foundations undermined the value and perceived effectiveness of missionary practice. This was stressed by Nekoda, who pinpointed a difference in “depth” (fukasa) between religion and ethics. The process of negotiation, moreover, was not unidirectional: the need to comply with constraints informing the domain of social welfare and care in Japan led practitioners to adopt a more fluid conception of missionary practice, which prioritised spreading Kōseikai values and “teaching a way of living” over the acquisition of new converts. The case of Kōseikai shows how negotiating “religion” in public spaces in Japan turns into a multidirectional process, not limited to the transmission of religious concepts and practices in nonreligious terms, but also shaping members’ own interpretation and implementation of religious practice.

[1] For further details on Risshō Kōseikai see the profile compiled by the author for the World Religions and Spirituality Project, available at (accessed 31/10/2018).




Gagnè, I. 2017. “Religious Globalization and Reflexive Secularization in a Japanese New Religion.” Japan Review 30: 153-177.

Mullins, Mark R. 2012. “Secularization, Deprivatization, and the Reappearance of ‘Public Religion’ in Japanese Society.” Journal of Religion in Japan 1(1): 61–82.

Nishimura, Akira. 2016. “Are Public Commemorations in Japan Post-Secular?” Journal of Religion in Japan 5: 136-152.

Aura Di Febo is a PhD candidate in Japanese studies at the University of Manchester. Her main research interest lies in Japanese new religions, and more generally the changing presence of religion in contemporary Japan. Her doctoral thesis focused on the social welfare activities promoted by the lay Buddhist organisation Risshō Kōseikai as a means through which religious institutions and practitioners negotiated and adapted their beliefs and practices in response to shifting social circumstances and newly emerging challenges.


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