Buddhism Buddhism and New Religions in Japan (Shinshūkyō)
Erica Baffelli
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 March 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 March 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0172


The term “new religious movements” (NRMs) is an umbrella term used for movements or organizations that are sometimes called “alternative religions,” “nonconventional religions,” or “new religious groups.” The criteria used to define a group as “new” and to distinguish a “new religion” from a “traditional” religious movement or from a sectarian organization are controversial and they change over time. “New” is always a relative term. For example, when does a new religion cease to be called “new”? Some “new” religions are now more than a hundred years old. In Japan, the concept of “new religions” (shinshūkyō 新宗教) was first used after the end of World War II, and the term indicates a number of groups that arose since the mid-19th century. “New religions” is a useful chronological category, but it is important to note that these religious groups are rooted in different traditions and developed a wide variety of teachings and practices. However, some characteristics have been recognized as common to many (if not all) of these groups: the role of a (charismatic) leader; references to different religious traditions; the ability to change quite radically in a short period of time; and the focus on communal activities. The size of “new religions” also varies greatly: some groups claim membership of millions (Sōka Gakkai 創価学会 became one of the biggest organizations in Japan), while other groups only reached a few thousand members. Some of them tried, with some success, to internationalize their messages, and some became dynamically involved in political activities. Several Japanese new religions founded during the 19th and 20th centuries have been located (or locate themselves) in the Buddhist tradition. Some of them, such as Sōka Gakkai, Risshō Kosei kai 立正佼成会, and Reiyūkai 霊友会 are based on Nichiren Buddhism, while others such as Agonshū 阿含宗 and Shinnyoen 真如苑 derive their teachings from esoteric Buddhism. This article will first provide an overview of scholarly debates regarding the definition of NRMs and then focus on some religious groups that are generally considered NRMs (not always without disagreement) and have been situated (or define themselves) inside the Buddhist tradition. Because their roots are from the Japanese religious tradition, most Japanese new religions include elements from Buddhist cosmology and practice. However, this article will focus on groups markedly known as Buddhist. Significant amounts of work on Japanese new religions have been produced in the 1960s and 1970s, but this article will generally focus on more recent publications in the field.

General Overviews

In a series of articles published by the journal Nova Religio between 2004 and 2005, experts on the field of new religious movements (NRMs) investigated different approaches to and definitions of NRMs. Melton 2004 identifies the “outsider status” as the fundamental characteristic of NRMs. Similarly, Bromley 2004 uses the level of “alignment” with dominant cultural patterns and social institutions as criteria to distinguish between “new religious groups,” “dominant religious groups,” and “sectarian religious groups.” Barker 2004 focuses on the “newness” as an important quality of these groups often associated with other characteristics (such as charismatic leadership). Robbins 2005 proposed a distinction between groups recently emerged (new religions) and groups representing an alternative to dominant cultural and institutional patterns (alternative religions). Finally, Reader 2005 critically evaluates the previous definitions considering other, non-Western geographical and cultural contexts, in which NRMs are found. Reader 1991 and Reader and Tanabe 1998 provide valuable introductions to the study of religion in modern and contemporary Japan. The former uses a series of case studies (from Shinto, Buddhism, and new religions) to investigate religious practices in contemporary Japan, while the latter discusses the concepts and practices of “practical benefits” (genze riyaku 現世利益) as a common religious activity in Japan. Finally, Wessinger 2000 investigates millennial expectations of some NRMs and the reasons for violence associated with them.

  • Barker, Eileen. “Perspective: What Are We Studying? A Sociological Case for Keeping the ‘Nova’?” Nova Religio 8.1 (2004): 88–102.

    DOI: 10.1525/nr.2004.8.1.88

    In this article Barker argues that the utility of the term “new religion” lies in the fact that the “newness” is a significant and defining quality of these groups.

  • Bromley, David G. “Perspective: Whither New Religious Studies? Defining and Shaping a New Area of Study.” Nova Religio 8.2 (2004): 83–97.

    DOI: 10.1525/nr.2004.8.2.83

    Bromley distinguishes between “new religious groups,” “dominant religious groups,” and “sectarian religious groups” using their level of alignment with dominant institutions and cultural patterns.

  • Melton, Gordon, J. “Perspective: Toward a Definition of ‘New Religion.’” Nova Religio 8.1 (2004): 73–87.

    DOI: 10.1525/nr.2004.8.1.73

    Melton argues that new religions are defined more by their “outsider status” than by the characteristics that they share with each other.

  • Reader, Ian. Religion in Contemporary Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1991.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230375840

    Uses a series of case studies to examine the role of religion and religious practices in contemporary Japan (up to the late 1980s).

  • Reader, Ian. “Perspective: Chronologies, Commonalities and Alternative Status in Japanese New Religious Movements. Defining NRMs Outside the Western Cul-de-Sac.” Nova Religio 9.2 (2005): 84–96.

    DOI: 10.1525/nr.2005.9.2.084

    Reader argues that analysis and theoretical discussions based on Western-oriented frameworks are inadequate to provide a definition of new religions in other places such as Japan.

  • Reader, Ian, and George J. Tanabe. Practically Religious: Worldly Benefits and the Common Religion on Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1998.

    An elaborate discussion and analysis of concepts and practices of practical benefits (genze riyaku) in Japanese religions.

  • Robbins, Thomas. “Perspective: New Religions and Alternative Religions.” Nova Religio 8.3 (2005): 104–111.

    DOI: 10.1525/nr.2005.8.3.104

    Discusses the definition of “new religions” and “alternative religions” and focuses on the concept of group’s alignment to dominant sociocultural patterns.

  • Wessinger, Catherine. How the Millennium Comes Violently: From Jonestown to Heaven’s Gate. New York: Seven Bridges, 2000.

    A study of seven religious groups: the Peoples Temple, the Branch Davidians, Aum Shinrikyō オウム真理教, the Montana Freemen, Solar Temple, Heaven’s Gate, and Chen Tao focusing on their “millennial” expectations and discussing the reasons of why membership in some of these sects have led to violence and suicide.

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