History of the Vedanta Society of Japan
The Centre, started in 1958 and affiliated to the Ramakrishna Mission in 1984, is located in Zushi, about 50 kilometres southeast of Tokyo. Centre activities include the holding of regular spiritual services in the shrine, celebrations, discourses and retreats in and outside the Centre. There is also a library and books are published in Japanese. The Centre also publishes a Japanese-language, bi-monthly magazine, Fumestu no Kotoba (The Universal Gospel).
Origin and Growth
Japan, with its beautiful landscape of seas, mountains and forests rich in flora and fauna, is wonderfully picturesque. Although geographically located in Asia, it is situated far enough from the mainland to have escaped involvement in many of the continent's upheavals, yet, it is close enough to have richly benefitted from continental Asian cultures.
Japanese culture has been largely influenced by China and to a lesser degree by Korea, as well. Religiously, Japan has been greatly influenced by India through both China and Korea. In the modern era, Japan was nudged into the process of modernization by Europeans in the nineteenth century and later by the United States in the twentieth century. But through this entire process, Japan has assimilated these influences to fit into its own traditions and suit its own needs. Despite the onslaught of westernization, many cultural traits and traditions remain wholly Japanese. Some of these older traditions hold great sway over the psyche of the people and Japan can, at times, appear to be an insular nation to outsiders.
At this point, a very brief view of Japan's religious traditions will give readers a better understanding of the spiritual environment into which the Ramakrishna Movement was ushered into modern Japan.
Shintoism, the native religion of Japan, preaches the worship of nature, of ancestors and of the emperor, who is believed to be of divine origin. All these, but especially the worship of the emperor, have contributed to the proverbial patriotism of the Japanese. Confucianism, which spread to Japan from China, taught such moral values as respect for elders, self-discipline, and performance of one's duty with utmost devotion. Buddhism, which entered Japan in the 6th century AD from India through China and Korea, enriched the religious ideas and practices of Japan and contributed to various aspects of the nation's culture.
At the outset, Japan, like many countries where Buddhism had taken hold, witnessed a great many monks willing to renounce hearth and home and devote themselves entirely to spiritual practice. Over the centuries, long-established centers of ecclesiastical training focused on philosophical wisdom, strict moral discipline and mystic ceremonies, but their systems of hierarchy and collusion with seats of power had a corruptive effect. Occasionally, dissatisfied monks would leave to preach new tenets, some of which developed into new branches of Buddhism, such as occurred around the year 1200.
The end of the 12th century found great upheaval with the establishment of a new military government at Kamakura. This was not a mere political change, but a revolt by the warrior and peasant classes against the over-refinement of the aristocracy. It was a time of social, moral and religious upheaval as well, and a new "easy method" of salvation called Amita or Johdo Buddhism was proposed by a monk named Hohnen. This tenet taught that simple faith in Buddha's grace was all that one needed to cross this ocean to the "Johdo" or "Pure Land" and required only the chanting the Lord's name.
Later, theoretical arguments over whether one's own spiritual effort was in itself a denial of Buddha's grace gave way to even "easier" methods such as taught by Shinran and Nichiren. Shinran declared simply, "Neither virtue nor wisdom, but faith." He discarded his monastic robes, married, and taught that faith itself was Buddha's free gift to all. Many converted to these "easy" paths and ever fewer seekers sought salvation through monastic life.
Throughout these periods of political and social change, however, Buddhism persisted and received state patronage throughout most of the Middle Ages. Then, in 1868, it was permanently and violently replaced by Shintoism as the state religion with the onset of the Meiji Restoration era. After centuries of being in favour, Buddhism suddenly lost its position and Buddhists were subjected to severe torture and humiliation by the government and its most zealous supporters. Buddhist monks, who had lived lives of celibacy according to monastic traditions, were forced to marry in order to bring them in line with the practices of Shinto priests. The properties of Buddhist temples and monasteries were confiscated, temples were demolished and their scriptures burnt.
All these factors contributed to the degradation of Buddhism in Japan and the Japanese were thus deprived of the guidance and inspiration of a religion based on renunciation, service to mankind and universal love in the name of God. Without such ideals to follow and inspire, no nation, no matter how materially enriched it may become, can have a firm mooring and is bound to drift with a feeling of void at heart.
Although early followers of Christianity suffered from severe persecution from the 16th to early 19th centuries, the religion began spreading throughout Japan in the middle of the 19th century. Today, Christianity has a considerable number of followers and its missionaries has been playing an important role in imparting modern educational practices, especially in providing education to Japanese women.
This is roughly the religious backdrop of Japan towards the end of the 19th century, when Swami Vivekananda made a brief stop-over and visited some of its important cities on his way to the Parliament of Religions in the USA in 1893. Although he probably did not give a formal lecture on Vedanta at that time, he did make an impression on those Japanese who had the rare privilege of meeting him. Observing the resemblance of his face to that of the Buddha, many referred to him as the "second Buddha." Swamiji, in turn, was also impressed by such positive qualities of the Japanese character as patriotism, hard work, power of assimilation, cleanliness and aesthetic sense, to name but a few.
Swamiji later referred to these good qualities of the Japanese to his Indian audiences on a number of occasions. He observed that Indians, especially the nation's youth, would be benefitted by studying secular matters in Japan, just as the Japanese would benefit from the study of Indian spirituality. It was only after Swamiji had become a world-figure in the field of religion by preaching Vedanta in the West that attempts were made by some prominent Japanese, including Okakura Tenshin, Japanese Consul to Calcutta and a renown art critic, to bring Swamiji to Japan to preach his message. One of Swamiji's close American friends and devotees, Miss Josephine MacLeod, had lived in Japan for some time and worked behind the scenes to try and bring this about.
Due to Swamiji's failing health, however, a second visit was never realized, and considering some of the social and political circumstances that prevailed in Japan at that time, the question arises as to whether the country was ready to receive the message of Vedanta from Swami Vivekananda then. In raising this question, it should be noted that with the onset of the Meiji era, the country reversed its policy of isolation and made an all-out effort to transform itself into a modern country following the Western model.
In this process of modernization, Japan replaced many of its age-old systems and values with those from the West. But the country was not satisfied with these changes alone, and began to cherish lofty political and economic ambitions. Japan soon aspired to become a competitor of Western colonization by pursuing foreign policies similar to those of the Monroe Doctrine' adopted by the USA. Such a strategy would serve to both oust Western Imperialists from the Far East and Southeast Asia, while enhancing Japan's own power and influence in the region. As we know from history, these policies led to Japan's unfortunate involvement in the Second World War and, finally, a humiliating defeat. This led the country into a period of deep national frustration.
Hence, one may reasonably ask whether Japan was really of the right mind-set to hear the message of Vedanta during the first half of this century. Nevertheless, after a tragic but temporary set-back, Japan is once again on the global stage as one of the world's economic superpowers, due to hard work, strong determination and the unity of purpose and sacrifice for the country, all of which exemplify the positive aspects of the Japanese character.
Compared with the Korean and Chinese foreign communities, the Indian community in Japan is rather small. Indians began visiting and settling in Japan in the late nineteenth century for job-skill training, business opportunities and jobs. Among the distinguished Indians who visited Japan in the first half of this century were Swami Trigunatitananda and Swami Abhedananda, two direct monastic disciples of Sri Ramakrishna, the great poet Rabindranath Tagore, and two of India's great freedom fighters, Rashgihari Basu and Netaji Subhas Chandra Basu.
In 1931, Romain Rolland's biography of Vivekananda was translated into Japanese and was possibly the first publication of Ramakrishna-Vivekananda literature available to Japanese readers.
An academy for the study of Ramakrishna, Vivekananda and Vedanta, that was started in 1957 by Mr. Narayan Uchigaki in collaboration with some Japanese and Indians near Osaka, became a society around 1960. This society also published some books on Sri Ramakrishna and his disciples. And although the society used to keep in close contact with the Ramakrishna Order, in course of time it stopped that.
When the recent President of the Ramakrishna Order, Swami Ranganathanandaji, visited Japan in 1958 on a lecture tour sponsored by the Indian government, he inspired a few, including Japanese professor Nikki Kimura and Mr. V. S. Rao, to form a society to study and preach the ideas of Vedanta and Ramakrishna-Vivekananda. Accordingly, the Vedanta Society was formed in November 1958. Prof. Kimura, Professor Emeritus of Kisshyo University, had lectured at Calcutta University for some time, as he had lived in India for 22 years and was proficient in Bengali. An admirer of the Ramakrishna Mission, Kimura became the newly formed Society's first president, while Mr. Rao, a retired Indian officer of the British Indian Army who had settled in Japan in 1953, became the first secretary.
On May 2, 1959, the Society was formally inaugurated by Swami Nikhilanandaji, head of the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York on his way back to New York from India, at a public meeting attended by Sir C.P.N. Singh, the Indian Ambassador to Japan, and some Japanese scholars. Swami Ranganathanandaji was not only the inspiration behind the Ramakrishna Movement in Tokyo, he also impressed the Indian government enough to release an annual grant to the Society for its activities. This grant, which was a substantial amount in those days, brought great financial relief to the fledgling Society.
The Society then began translating Ramakrishna-Vivekananda literature from English into Japanese, publishing a magazine and organizing talks by the monks of the Ramakrishna Order. Members would also meet regularly and undertake some spiritual programmes. Mr. Lokumal K Chellaram, a Hong Kong-based Indian businessman and Chairman of the Chellaram group of companies, made a lump-sum donation of $5,000. This and other donations from the local Indian community were utilized to purchase a small plot of land and erect a little house in Zushi, a small, coastal resort town some 50 kilometres southeast of Tokyo in 1970.
With the construction of "Holy Mother's House," Mrs. Haru Nakai, a devotee of great resolution who had joined the Society in 1960 and dedicated her life to its cause, began living there. Holy Mother's House also accommodated the devotees and monks of the Ramakrishna Order visiting Japan. Swami Bhaswarananda of the Vedanta Society of Seattle, USA visited the Japan Society quite often in the 1970s and it was on these occasions that members got an opportunity to mix closely with a monk of the Ramakrishna Order and learn more about the Order's ideals and objectives.
A second, larger building, that was to become the Centre's Ashrama and main campus in later years, was built in 1978. This site is a ten-minute walk from Holy Mother's House and the land purchase and construction were made possible by lump-sum donations from Mrs. Nakai and Mr. H.R. Gajaria, as well as contributions received from Japanese and Indian devotees and well-wishers. During the first visit of Swami Bhuteshanandaji, then Vice President of the Order, the new Ashrama was consecrated on May 7, 1978 in the presence of a large gathering.
Swami Bhuteshanandaji visited the Japan Centre many times after that, but on his last visit in 1990 he came in the capacity of President of the Ramakrishna Order. His spirituality, erudition, keen sense of humour and, above all, his extremely loving nature, had a tremendous impact on all who meet him and he drew members from far and near from across Japan. His discourses, private spiritual instruction, and especially his holy and loving company, were quite moving and fascinating and a good number of the Society's members took initiation from him.
Thus, the visits of Bhuteshanandaji helped the Japanese devotees to identify themselves not only with the local Centre, but with the Ramakrishna Order. Many of them started visiting Ramakrishna Mission Centres in Calcutta and Headquarters at Belur Math, becoming more familiar with the Ramakrishna Math and Mission. All these activities helped pave the way for the affiliation of the Vedanta Society of Japan to the Ramakrishna Math in 1984. Mr. S. Rao, the original founder and secretary of the Japan Society, played a key role in the direction and running of the Society, through all its ups and downs, for the more than two decades since inception to eventual affiliation with the Mission.
Swami Siddharthananda was the first monk assigned as president of the Vedanta Society of Japan by the Order in June 1984. In the capacity of secretary to Swami Bhuteshanandaji, Swami Siddharthananda had visited the Centre twice before and had met the members. As such, a rapport already existed between him and the Japanese devotees, making his transition somewhat smoother and his stay in Japan that much easier. Thus, the long-cherished desire of Swami Vivekananda to do something for Japan, expressed on the very day that he passed away, was finally fulfilled more than eighty years later.
With the full-time presence of a resident monk, the Society's membership soon saw a sea of difference between the management of the Society before and after the posting. Leadership naturally fell to the resident monk, whose first duty was to streamline activities according to the traditions and ideals of the Ramakrishna Order. This was no easy task.
The Swami rose to the occasion and introduced the routine lifestyle of an Ashrama, including spiritual programmes of meditation, evening services, etc. Regular birthday celebrations of the great trio of the Order, the Buddha and Jesus Christ were introduced. Discourses, retreats and private interviews began. The publication of new titles was undertaken and sales systems were greatly improved. Through these activities the Centre witnessed a steady flow of visitors. Some even lived there to derive the benefit of the Ashrama atmosphere and to help the Swami run the Centre. Most visitors were, of course, Japanese, but the Swami kept in close contact with the Indian community as well. Many of these contacts proved to be of great help to the Society.
Being fully convinced that at least a moderate understanding of the Japanese language was essential in preaching and running the Centre, the Swami paid great attention to learning Japanese and, in course of time, acquired some mastery of the language. Unfortunately, his Japanese skills would never be fully utilized for the cause of Vedanta, as his health began to fail, and after nearly a decade of pioneering work, he left the country in December of 1993.
Swami Medhasananda, the current head, took charge of the Center that same December and carried on the activities of his predecessor. In the midst of carrying on these duties, however, the Swami continually pondered ways to spread the message of Ramakrishna-Vivekananda to an even wider Japanese audience. It was then that a unique opportunity arose. It turned out that the very year of his posting coincided with the centenary of Swami Vivekananda's visit to Japan. The Swami seized on this auspicious opportunity to celebrate the centennial of Vivekananda's visit to Japan to present Swamiji's message on a larger scale.
An organizing committee consisting of Japanese and Indian devotees and well-wishers was formed, with the Indian Ambassador chosen as chief patron. This committee set about making preparations for a large public celebration to be held in a rented hall in Tokyo. Encouraged by the success of this event, it was decided that a public celebration of Swamiji's birth be held each year, and the event has been quite well received each year since then.
A growing number of local residents are becoming aware of these celebrations through the media, as some newspapers have shown special interest in the programme. Talks on Swamiji's ideas on various aspects of life are given by prominent Japanese scholars and visiting monks of the Order. Seminars on the harmony of religions and attractive cultural programmes that include musical performances have been drawing large numbers of Japanese. A special issue of the Vedanta Society of Japan's magazine is published containing the teachings of Ramakrishna-Vivekananda, and the sale of Vedanta and Mission literature at these celebrations are also effective in reaching out to people.
The number of talks given both in and outside the Centre have steadily increased and occasional public talks in different cities around Japan have begun. Though the number of members of the Vedanta Society of Japan (Nippon Vedanta Kyokai) and subscribers to the bi-monthly magazine is still relatively small, but the number of Japanese who have become acquainted with the names of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda and have studied some of their works is growing.
In 1995, a one-hour interview on "Sri Ramakrishna and the Harmony of Religions" with Professor Tsuyoshi Nara, former professor of Tokyo Foreign Language University, was broadcast on the nation's public broadcast network, NHK. This same programme was re-broadcast twice on later dates, which also greatly helped to make the Japanese aware of the message of Vedanta as propounded by Sri Ramakrishna. Additionally, Japanese books on Ramakrishna-Vivekananda and Indian religions have been published by sources other than the Vedanta Society. Visits to India by Japanese who have come into contact with the Mission are increasing as well. All of these efforts are contributing to making the names of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda more familiar in Japan.
The ‘Holy Mother’s House’, about which we have already mentioned, was recently rebuilt to accommodate guests and to provide space for storage of books and parking of cars. This new building was dedicated in January 2005 in the presence of many devotees and members who had come from different cities of Japan. The event was held in connection with the 150th birth-anniversary year of The Holy Mother, Sri Sarada Devi. The Society also released two of its new publications, the Japanese translation of The Life of the Holy Mother by Swami Nikhilananda, and The Gospel of Holy Mother on this occasion.
In last three years the Japan Centre has produced CDs on the Vedic Mantras, Srimad Bhagavadgita, and guided meditation (in Japanese and English), some of which are in constant demand. The Centre has also launched a Japanese and English website and has been publishing a bilingual (Japanese and English) newsletter, The Vedanta Kyokai, delivered via Internet email since April 2003. These activities are positively helping to familiarize the movement further in an highly advanced country like Japan where use of modern gadgets is quite common.
Another phenomenal development observed in this country at the start of this century also has relevance for this movement. Hundreds of 'Yoga' (Hathayoga) centres have sprung-up like mushrooms across Japan that, like those in some other foreign countries, are primarily interested in physical health only. Recently, some of these centres are now showing genuine interest in meditation for mental peace and spiritual uplift. At the request of such groups, the swami is currently holding spiritual discourse sessions for them, with guided meditation as an important element.
Considering that it would be most appropriate for the Japan Centre to take the initiative in spreading the Vedanta movement to its neighbouring countries, the swami of the Japan Centre has begun visiting South Korea and the Philippines in recent years, being invited by interested individuals to give discourses to groups that they have organised. As a consequence, while preparations are afoot to start a private Vedanta Society in the Philippines very soon, there is also a bright chance of launching a Vedanta Society in South Korea in the near future.
Impact of the Movement
In Japan, growth of the Vedanta Movement is slow but steady. Generally speaking, the Japanese people are not particularly interested in religion even though many of them visit temples once in a while and perform religious rites on traditional occasions. The Japanese are liberal in the sense that they perform rites and visit places of worship of both Shinto and Buddhist religions. For example, marriages are held according to Shinto rites, while funerals are conducted according to Buddhist rites. These activities, however, are more about following Japanese traditions than a right spiritual understanding.
The Japanese have experienced both the bitter and sweet fruits of a modern, materialistic civilization over the past 100 years. And having realized the positive and negative sides of modernization, an increasing number of Japanese, including the youth, are now searching for something to fill the spiritual void. Some intellectuals and leaders of society in Japan who have been indifferent to religion are slowly realizing the positive role religion plays in society. They are becoming cognizant of the fact that unless people are educated as to what does and doesn’t constitute genuine religious ideas, the possibility of fake religious leaders misleading, cheating, and causing great harm to the innocent will always remain. Vedanta, as preached by Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda, is gradually being recognized as a modern, scientific, and universal religion, as perfectly suited to the needs of the Japanese people as it is to any nation of the modern world.
Japan’s spiritual seekers who have had an opportunity to go through some Ramakrishna-Vivekananda literature such as Ramakrishna no Fukuin (The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna) or Swamiji’s Karma Yoga, have confessed quite frankly that these are the very works they have long been desperately searching for. They have said that they not only received new insights, but the reading of such books provided them with a better understanding and appreciation of their own religious faiths.
All these factors are paving the way for a glorious future for Vedanta in Japan. Vedanta, as a path of God-realization through the transformation of one’s character and mental and spiritual orientation, cannot, of course, be accomplished overnight. In much the same way, Vedanta cannot be expected to sweep across Japanese society overnight either. Observation of the Japanese character has shown, however, that it is equally true that once the Japanese understand how Vedanta can bring real good and happiness into their lives at both the micro and macro levels, more and more will come to embrace it.
Vedanta can be expected to grow steadily in Japan, but it will not do so at the expense of the country’s other religions. Those who were otherwise atheists or agnostics will come, in ever greater numbers, to accept Vedanta as a source of their mental, moral, and spiritual well-being. Again, those who hold religious beliefs but still feel a void in their hearts will come to accept Vedanta as a philosophy that will bring them the peace and joy of an inner life by helping them to better understand and practise their own religion. Such has been the case with the people of various nations of the world, and it is hoped the same will happen in Japan as well.