To get some relief from my insane work schedule, I took some unpaid days off and made plans with The Penpal to go to Izu for the weekend. Our plan was to visit one of The Penpal’s friends, and then stay at a Ryokan (traditional Japanese inn).
The Penpal picked me up in her tiny car at Mishima station. We stopped at a nearby convenience store to get some snacks and drinks for the drive. At this point, The Penpal said that she needed to talk to me about something important. Usually when a girlfriend says that they need to talk about something important, it’s not a good sign. I braced myself for the worst, and then asked what was up.
The Penpal wanted to tell me that she belongs to a church in one of Japan’s New Religions, and was worried what my reaction would be.
In Japan, there are two main religions – Shinto and Buddhism. Many people use some elements from these religions at special occasions, but by and large most Japanese people are not what would be considered “religious”. There are also followers of other world religions (yes, there are Japanese Muslims), but the numbers are small overall.
In addition to the above, there are also a number of New Religions called Shinshukyo 新宗教. Japanese scholars consider any Japanese religion founded since the mid 19th century to be a New Religion. Followers are usually more active in their faith than the typical person on the street. Many, but not all, of the new religions are based on Shinto, Buddhism, or other “old” religions.
Unfortunately, the overall reputation of New Religions was damaged by the 1995 Tokyo Subway gas attacks, which were carried out by members of Aum Shinrikyo. Aum is a new religion church / cult that for some reason felt compelled to release sarin nerve gas into the Tokyo subway system. The attack killed 13 people and injured over 6000. The incident created a lot of apprehension about religion among a population that already was not terribly religious.
The Penpal told me that she belongs to a church with a very long name that is commonly referred to simply as Shinji Kyokai. She explained that her church is an offshoot of Shinto that worships one Goddess in particular, and was absolutely not a cult. She joined the church in University, and very few of her friends and family members know that she is a member.
Other than me thinking that her church was a cult, The Penpal was worried that I would want to break up with her because she belonged to a New Religion. I assured her that I liked her because of her personality, not because of her religion. I told her that I would likely never join her church, and if she was okay with that, I had no problems at all with her choice of religion. She was very relieved.
In the end, I was happy that we talked about it. Just like in the rest of the world, Japanese people have opinions on religion and politics, but most people are very reluctant to talk about either one. Preserving harmony is highly valued in Japanese society. However, in this case talking openly about religion helped us to preserve the harmony in our relationship, and brought us closer together.
(2014 Update) I didn’t write about this at all in my original blog. The Penpal still doesn’t talk a lot about her church with her friends and family for fear of negative reactions. Even though I don’t use her name in this blog, some of the readers know who she is. I checked with her before writing this to make sure she was okay with the topic and that I got the details correct.