Socio-religious Networks of Support in Contemporary Japan: Mutual Assistance in Local Congregations of Risshō Kōseikai

Aura Di Febo is a Doctoral Candidate at the University of Manchester. She is interested in the social dimension of Japanese New Religions, and at present she is conducting research on the social welfare activities promoted by the lay Buddhist movement Rissho Koseikai.

At present Japan is facing a number of pressing social issues, among which problems related to the rapid aging of the population undeniably represent the most serious. Demographic aging has become a major political priority particularly since the 1990s, due the combined effects of the impressive growth in the demand for social services and a progressive decline in the capacity of families to satisfy the caring needs of their elderly. While recent years saw a tremendous expansion in private, market-based provision of institutional care and social services, the assistance currently offered by public and private actors fails to address the totality of citizens’ needs, in both quantitative and qualitative terms. In particular, the tendency of professional providers, such as home-helpers and certified caregivers, to prioritise instrumental needs of care recipients over issues of emotional wellbeing, isolation and social exclusion, combined with the decline in the caring role of the family, has opened a gap in terms of expressive functions of care which other actors are called to tackle. These circumstances encouraged a progressive expansion and diversification of sources of social services, marked by an increasing relevance of local actors as non-state providers of social welfare and care. Within this context, religious organisations as well have assumed a pivotal role as alternative safety networks for their members. Here we will look in particular at the locally-based system of informal care provision implemented by the Japanese lay-Buddhist organisation Risshō Kōseikai, focusing on its interaction with the broader framework of social welfare provision. I will argue that engaging in Japan’s economy of care provided Kōseikai practitioners with an opportunity to negotiate their position vis-à-vis other institutions involved, and carve a space for the religious community within contemporary Japanese society.

Kōseikai welfare

Risshō Kōseikai is a lay-Buddhist organisation originally derived from the Nichiren school of Japanese Buddhism, centred on the teachings of the Lotus Sutra and practices of ancestor veneration.[1]  Starting from the 1960s, the organisation became increasingly involved in social activities on local, national and international scale. Practitioners’ engagement in social service and community volunteering on the local scale was fuelled in particular by the launch of the civic movement “Akarui shakai-zukuri undō” (Brighter Society Movement, Meisha for short) in 1969. Another fundamental development was the introduction, in 1972, of training courses in social welfare directed at the central administration and missionary leaders of local congregations.

During the 1990s, the growing concern for the caring needs of the elderly population, together with the progressive diversification of the issues faced by members, led to the institution of a position specifically in charge of social welfare within local congregations, called “social welfare specialist” (shakai fukushi senmon tantōsha). These developments contributed to the institutionalisation of pre-existing patterns of mutual assistance at local level, resulting in the creation of a safety network structured along two axes: a vertical line following the hierarchy of missionary leaders, and a horizontal line centred on the specialist team trained in social welfare. The system was aimed at securing the wellbeing of members by taking care of their religious needs alongside more pragmatic issues, but also expected to extend beyond the congregation, to address the local community at large. Elderly care in particular was set as the main priority for activities conducted on the local level.

In relation to the broader welfare system, Kōseikai care was defined in primarily residual terms, as addressing societal needs left unanswered by other actors. Emotional care in particular is deemed of paramount importance within Kōseikai-promoted activities, and represented the main societal need perceived and tackled by members, who sought to address the deficiency in expressive functions of care stemming from the combination of the decline in the caregiving role of the family and the tendency of formal providers of care to prioritise instrumental – bodily – needs of recipients. Home visits to vulnerable members of the congregation, notably elderly members or couples living alone, represented the main means adopted to address expressive demands, by providing companionship and emotional support through techniques of “active listening” (keichō). In addition, these visits fulfilled also more practical functions, serving to watch over (mimamori) and secure the safety and wellbeing (anpi kakunin) of care recipients.

Social welfare counselling (shakai fukushi sōdan) was the second major stream of engagement. Welfare specialists commonly held counselling sessions in the church premises, which aimed at offering advice and information on social security schemes, care services, and generally facilitating access to available resources. This service was meant to address another significant gap in social care provision, namely difficulties in accessing social services resulting from the fragmented nature of Japanese welfare system, which rests on the intersection among many different schemes and subsystems. In this respect, social welfare specialists fulfil a “bridging” role (hashiwatashi), mediating between people in need and relevant institutions, including public administration, care facilities, social welfare councils, and NPOs.

Negotiating a role in Japan’s economy of care                          

While Kōseikai’s residual approach to care provision is tightly related to its conception of salvation ,and the marked missionary value attributed to social activities, it could be argued that filling the gaps in the welfare system provides the religious organisation with an opportunity to carve a space for itself within Japanese society, by renegotiating its role and position vis-à-vis other institutions involved. Based on the social needs and gaps in service provision that they addressed, Kōseikai members articulated the role of the religious community in terms of either complementarity or continuity with the other major providers of care, notably family, market and the state.

Firstly, the religious community was placed in terms of direct continuity with the family, identified as the main repository of caring duties toward the elderly. Social care activities were primarily framed as supporting and integrating kin-provided assistance, which could imply offering practical and emotional support to family members caring for an elderly, but also taking over familial obligations – i.e. substituting the family – in the case of the absence of kin, such as with lone elderly with no family or whose relatives lived far away. In relation to state- and market-based care, instead, the role of the religious community was defined in terms of functional differentiation. While practitioners commonly refrained from tasks attributed to public actors and professional providers, primarily due to practical limitations stemming from legal constraints or a general lack of specialised knowledge and expertise, in existing gaps in formal provision of assistance they found potential venues of intervention. Addressing emotional needs left unanswered by professional caregivers, and offering assistance with navigating the system and helping disadvantaged categories to navigate the system and access social services allowed to frame Kōseikai-sponsored services in terms of complementarity with state- and market-based care.

The possibility to carve a new role for religious organisations through social care activities appears particularly significant in the Japanese context, marked by a strong social mistrust toward religion. In this respect, social care activities could be said to offer Risshō Kōseikai and its grassroots members an opportunity to renegotiate their position in society and advocate the possibility, for religion and religious institution, to fulfil a positive social role.

Written By: Aura Di Febo

Image By: Aura Di Febo


[1] For a comprehensive overview of the organisation see, accessed 06/12/2018.

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