Tragedy and Crisis Outside the Christian Context

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  March 15, 2011 — 45 Comments

With the world’s focus turned to Japan as it deals with the aftermath of a cascade of earthquakes, a massive tsunami, and dangerously damaged nuclear reactors, press and commentators are starting to touch on the question of religion, and how belief is informing Japanese reaction to these events. However, this approach as been somewhat tentative so far, partly because we’ve been riveted by the immediate disaster response, and partly because Japan’s religious makeup is so very different from that of the United States and other Western nations. In Japan, Christianity is a tiny minority, while religions like Shinto and Buddhism dominate, and several smaller syncretic faiths thrive. In addition, Japan is highly secular, with few of the culture war issues that seem to constantly haunt us.

Rescue workers in front of a Shinto shrine. Photo: Reuters/Damir Sagolj

Rescue workers in front of Shinto shrine. Photo: Reuters/Damir Sagolj

CNN was one of the first mainstream news outlets to foray into how religion interacts with these current events, with Religion Editor Dan Gilgoff exploring how Japanese faiths confront tragedy.

“Japanese are not religious in the way that people in North America are religious,” says John Nelson, chair of theology and religious studies at the University of San Francisco. “They’ll move back and forth between two or more religious traditions, seeing them as tools that are appropriate for certain situations. For things connected to life-affirming events, they’ll turn to Shinto-style rituals or understandings,” Nelson says. “But in connection to tragedy or suffering, it’s Buddhism.”

Next to weigh in is USA Today, with religion reporter Cathy Lynn Grossman focusing on the role of tradition, and how Japanese Buddhism isn’t necessarily the Buddhism many Americans would be familiar with.

“Such talk of gods and hell kings doesn’t sound like the meditative Buddhism better known in the West, cultural anthropologist John Nelson said. He’s an expert on Shinto and Buddhist shrines and chairman of the department of theology and religious studies at University of San Francisco […] “Japanese Buddhism is similar to Western religions with deities that can be petitioned and can intervene in worldly affairs, and there are many mechanisms to appeal to them, to pray for miracles,” he said.”

Andrew Sullivan at The Atlantic points to a short essay by former Anglican priest and journalist Mark Vernon, who meditates on the difference between the Shinto and Christian responses to natural disasters.

“In Christianity, human beings are at the centre of nature: creation is for humanity, along with other creatures, and it’s humanity’s task to care for it. Hence, in part, the offence we feel when nature turns against us. In Shintoism, nature is recognised as infinitely more powerful than humankind – as in the wave – and that humankind is in nature with the permission of the gods but with no particular concern from the gods. Shinto rituals show respect for the gods of nature, befriending the enormity of the forces, if you like.”

From there we have many smaller nods and mentions, the Telegraph explores the “tradition of rebuilding the great Shinto shrines,” the Washington Post evokes the image of a woman praying at “a small Shinto-inspired shrine to her ancestors,” while ABC News noted that local funeral homes “volunteered to provide traditional Shinto rites to the dead, donating white shrouds and cremating the bodies,” before becoming overwhelmed by the demand. Disappointingly, the Religion News Service’s coverage has so far been disproportionately focused on Christian reactions to the tragedy. One hopes that more robust reports on Shinto and Buddhist perspectives are forthcoming.

As things progress, we can hope that a larger sense of the importance of ancestor worship, tradition, the divine within nature, and the multiplicity of spiritual beings within Japanese culture will shine through in future aftermath coverage. In this disaster there is a rare opportunity to understand how a culture outside the Christian context grapples with universal questions and problems. Religion journalists should rise to this occasion, and minority faiths in the West should ask for the true diversity of faith in our world be accurately and fairly covered.

In one final related note, I also want to point to an article up now at PNC-Minnesota, where Hawaiian Pagan Lamyka, a former resident of Japan, is interviewed about how Hawaii’s experience with the tsunami triggered by the Japanese earthquake was, in her opinion, ignored in favor of California by the media.

“Hawai’i is seen as ‘foreign’ by many Americans, as evident by people’s reactions to the President coming here for holidays.  We’re never included in national dialogue, probably because it’s incredibly obvious that we shouldn’t be part of the USA to begin with.  Hawaiians have been protesting since being illegally usurped, fighting for our rights since statehood, and continue to fight for sovereignty rights denied to us.  We’ve had protests here numbering from 50,000-60,000 but never once made national news like in Wisconsin.”

Yet another perspective that should likely get more attention by the mainstream media. Do check out the entire article, and share your perspective.

ADDENDUM: You can find resources for donations here, and here.

Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • One question I have: how many of the articles about Shintoism and Buddhism are being written by actual practitioners? Surely it can't be THAT difficult to find a Shinto practitioner or Japanese Buddhist who speaks English, or to find a Japanese/English translator. While I have no particular problem with the linked stories, I would much rather have a Shintoist or Buddhist tell me how these faiths are dealing with and interpreting this tragedy.

    • I doubt you will find a single journalist working for any mainstream media outlet in the English language who is a practicing Shintoist. And as far as Buddhists go, even these will be few and far between, and they will be the kind western "Buddhist" who has little or no idea of what actual Buddhism actually looks like (with Goddesses and Gods and prayers and offerings and all that good stuff).

      • I am not asking for a mainstream journalist who is a Shintoist to write the article. I am asking for someone to interview a Shintoist or a Japanese Buddhist. There's a fairly sizeable Japanese-American community on the West Coast. Heck, with a simple Google search I found Tsubaki America Shrine and Koyasan Buddhist Temple , among others.

        • 1. "how many of the articles about Shintoism and Buddhism are being written by actual practitioners?"

          2. "I am not asking for a mainstream journalist who is a Shintoist to write the article."


  • Kelly Dugery

    "how Hawaii’s experience with the tsunami triggered by the Japanese earthquake was, in her opinion, ignored in favor of California by the media."

    While I was in the Navy I was stationed at Pearl Harbor for 3 years, In 1992 Florida was hit by Hurricane Andrew and Hawaii a few weeks later by Hurricane Iniki (making landfall on Sept 11, interestingly enough). Iniki was the most powerful hurricane to hit Hawaii in recorded history. Over 1400 houses were totally destroyed and over 5000 damaged. Winds as high as 227mph were strong enough as the eye passed over the Island of Kuau'i that asphalt was stripped from road beds and concrete from sidewalks.

    On the islands equal coverage was given to the clean up efforts of following both hurricanes. On the mainland coverage of Iniki was so scant and scarce I would venture a guess that few if any even remember hearing anything about it. The continental U.S. has a longstanding history of ignoring anything that happens to the Hawaiian Islands out side of occasionally showing a few pretty pictures one in a while of lava flowing from Kilauea and into the sea.

    That the mainland press should ignore the affects of the tsunami on Hawaii and focus primarily on California is no surprise to me in the slightest.

    • Wouldn't want to scare off the tourists I guess. *sigh*

      • grimmorrigan

        I lived through Andrew, and watched the coverage of the destruction with the focus only a scared 10 year old could have. I never once, until now heard of Iniki. Gods how I hate our mainstream media.

        • Pax

          Don't hate the mainstream media, find ways to work and act to make it better. Or subvert it…


          • Fire

            Or we could just give the Hawaiians back their stolen sovereignty and go back to just being forty nine states. Dismantle the American Empire? Horrors! 😉

          • Even if you give back the stolen sovereignty, you'd probably have Hawaiians complaining about having statehood stripped away and being made a dependency, or what ever it is like what Costa Rica (Is that they place?) is now. Of course, I've heard they're trying to make Costa Rica join up as the 51st state, so who knows were it goes.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            That's Puerto Rico, in a Commonwealth relationship with the US. Puerto Ricans would likely make a rational judgment, given the choice, as to what they would gain and what they would lost in transitioning to statehood.

            Sentiments on Hawaii might be completely different. The way to find out is to ask them.

          • We haven't just had our country illegally seized by the USA we're also owed back monies–and a lot of those back monies have been owed since BEFORE the illegal annexation. We'd be pretty ok if the USA was forced to pay up what it owes, but that's why a lot of people don't want to support full independence because the USA would just skip out on what they owe.

      • fyreflye


        I couldn’t tell from the posts so far if Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America
        is Buddhist or Shinto. Could you clarify? And if Buddhist, which sect?

  • Anna Helvie

    Kelly, I remember that, because I'd just spent 2 months in Hawaii in the summer of '92 and was back here on the East Coast when those hurricanes hit. You're right; Iniki was a minor blip in people's consciousness.

    I don't blame "people," but this is why we have journalism. Increasingly over the course of many years, I have become dismayed not just at how stories are reported, but how they are ranked and prioritized, with ratings and monetary pressures ever lurking in the background.

    • fyreflye


      Thanks so much! All the Japanese-Americans I’ve met have been either Christians or Jodo Shinshu Buddhists. I didn’t realize there were Shinto shrines outside Japan. Nice web site, too.

    • Well there's another issue to consider. If everyone in the media is white, Christian, male and middle class, then that's the perspective from which the news will be reported. This is why it's so important to have diversity in the newsroom. (And it's also a reason why it's important that Pagans and others who are not adherents of the three monotheistic religions be out of the broom closet and accessible to the media).

      I honestly think that it's not so much a matter of ill intention or financial pressure as it is out-and-out ignorance of alternative points of view and ways of living.

      • Except it's not white, christian, male, and middle class. It might still be "christian" though that's a numbers game, but I see just as many women as men (if not more) writing and speaking the news, and I've seen a fair number of "minorities" doing the same. A good many of CNN and affiliates opinion shows are done by minorities and women (certainly more than are done by white christian men) and even Fox has several women and minorities as reporters and news anchors, and they're starting to give over the opinion shows too. The news media isn't a WASP organization anymore. Fox is owned by the Saudi Arabians, at least in part, so you can blame them for some of what's getting shown on there.

        Make of that what you will.

  • Star Foster

    Posts like this are why I love The Wild Hunt.

    • Pax

      Blessed Be and Amen and pass the Pens and notepads Sister!!

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    I have to disagree with Lamyka. I have relatives in California and was scanning the news for tsunami-related word from that state, and found that most of the coverage was about Hawaii. (My folks are OK.)

    I do confess, however, that I had never heard of Hurricane Inika prior to Kelly's post.

    • In that last sentence is my point. I was glued to the networks because of the seriousness of it all. I don't know what stations you were watching but if what you say is accurate then good for them doing their job.

      • Baruch Dreamstalker

        I daresay each of us was looking for news about a particular state and impatient with anything else. I certainly was aware that Hawaii was in greater jeopardy, being closer to the source.

  • Lynda McCann

    I'm a U.S. 40+ year member of the Soka Gakkai International, a Japanese Nichiren Buddhist sect. The SGI community centers have mobilized to offer shelter and assistance to affect areas in Japan. I invite you to read of the SGI relief efforts in Japan by going to the the following links:

    March 13:
    March 14:
    March 15:

    You may also read of prior SGI relief efforts in other countries by viewing this page:

    • Hey I know you guys! Is anything being done up at the Pupukea temple or the Pali one in Hawaii?

  • Nick_Ritter

    "Shinto rituals show respect for the gods of nature, befriending the enormity of the forces, if you like."

    I have to say, "befriending the enormity of the forces" sounds very much like my approach.

  • Thank you for a wonderful article. I too would like to see more depth of coverage on the issue; this is a good start!

  • I believe Star was going to do an interview of some sort with Rev. Koichi Barrish of the Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America; she emailed me and asked me for contact information. I'm actually a member of the shrine and Rev. Barrish has been sending out emails to the membership — needless to say, he's been extremely busy and feeling a little overwhelmed because of the huge connection our shrine has to the main shrine (our shrine's parent, as it were) in Ise and other shrines around Japan with which our shrine has connections.

  • Wes Isley

    Thank you, thank you for these insights into Japanese culture and religion–I've been wondering how they are dealing with this situation. Also thanks for the info on Hawaii–as always, enlightening!

  • Somehow I don't think we'll see a great influx of evangelical missionaries under the guise of "helping" like there was in Haiti.

    • I caught the 700 Club yesterday (don't ask) and "Operation Blessing" is already there.

      • Oh, dear gods… It makes you wonder if the aid that they are actually providing (what's actually getting done under the guise of "helping") is worth the indignity of missionaries and conversion, or outweighed by the enormity of the bull—- "in the name of the lord." I only hope they can be strong in the face of this insult to their injury.

        • The Japanese people are a hardy, innovative lot, so I wouldn't fret too much. 🙂 They'll accept the case of water and Bible, thank them for it, drink the water and figure out how to turn the Bible and remaining bottles into a new tech toy 😉

  • chuck_cosimano

    Speaking from a standpoint of near total ignorance, I would guess that culture is a strong reason why you won't get actual practitioners speaking very much. In that regard, Japanese culture is the opposite of American. The Japanese do not, as a general rule, like to draw much attention to themselves while an American cannot keep his mouth shut.

    • Chuck, I get your point, but you're not being entirely fair to Americans/Europeans. It's not that we can't keep our mouth shut, it's just that our culture as a rule is in a way the opposite of Japan's. For them, it is Clan above everything, followed by the Individual (hence they're introducing themselves with their clan name, then given name) Where as in Western culture, we place the Individual above the Clan. Hence why an American will speak his mind, for it reflects foremost on that individual, where as a Japanese person would not, because their words reflect The Clan foremost.

      The two ways are different, but equal. Do not be caught in the trap of believing that "not being able to keep your mouth shut" is a bad thing. Sometimes it is best to speak your mind, than to hold your tongue.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    The Get Religion blog is covering the journalistic aspects of this question.

  • Ceinan Kimbrough

    A small connection to this post on a blog from a Buddhist Japanese American person, with family in Sendai area.

    Not much, but it lets us gain a true perspective of Faith in the last paragraph.

  • Fedelynn

    Lovely and very interesting article. Linked it on my Facebook. Thank you for this.

  • I wish I would've known my interview had been mentioned on the Wild Hunt but I do appreciate that it's contents have given people a chance to view the world in a new way. I think that I'll definitely be looking forward to more growth by the Pagan Newswire Collective, and bringing Fact back into the news not fear.

  • Thank you, I'll look up what they're doing.

  • soaddictive1988

    I found very emotional composition about the tragedy of the Japanese people from the Ukrainian musicians