Connie A. Shemo
The history of East Asian religions in the United States is inextricably intertwined with the broader history of United States–East Asian relations, and specifically with U.S. imperialism. For most Americans in the 19th and into the early 20th centuries, information about religious life in China, Japan, and Korea came largely through foreign missionaries. A few prominent missionaries were deeply involved in the translation of important texts in East Asian religions and helped promote some understanding of these traditions. The majority of missionary writings, however, condemned the existing religions in these cultures as part of their critiques of the cultures as degenerate and in need of Christianity. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the women’s foreign mission movement was the largest women’s movement in the United States, women missionaries’ representations of East Asian religions as inherent in the oppression of women particularly reached a large audience. There was also fascination with East Asian religions in the United States, especially as the 20th century progressed, and more translations appeared from people not connected to the foreign mission movement. By the 1920s, as “World Friendship” became an important paradigm in the foreign missionary movement, some missionary representations of East Asian religions became more positive, reflecting and contributing to a broader trend in the United States toward a greater interest in religious traditions around the world, and coinciding with a move toward secularization. As some scholars have suggested, the interest in East Asian religions in the United States in some ways fits into the framework of “Orientalism,” to use Edward Said’s famous term, viewing religions of the “East” as an exotic alternative to religion in the West. Other scholars have suggested that looking at the reception of these religions through a framework of “Orientalism” underestimates and distorts the impact these religious traditions have had in the United States. Regardless, religious traditions from East Asia have become a part of the American religious landscape, through both the practice of people who have immigrated from East Asia or practice the religion as they have learned from family members, and converts to those religions. The numbers of identified practitioners of East Asian religions in United States, with the exception of Buddhism, a religion that originated outside of East Asia, is extremely small, and even Buddhists are less than 2 percent of the American population. At the same time, some religious traditions, such as Daoism and some variants of Buddhism (most notably Zen Buddhism), have exercised a significant impact on popular culture, even while a clear understanding of these traditions has not yet been widespread in the United States. Some understanding of Confucianism as well has recently been spread through the propagation of “Confucian” institutes in the United States. It is through these institutes that we may see the beginnings of the Chinese government exercising some influence in American universities, which, while not comparable to the impact of Christian missionaries in the development of Chinese educational institutions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, nonetheless can illuminate the growing power of China in Sino-American relations in the beginning of the 21st century.
While the term “East Asian” religions is frequently used for convenience, it is important to be aware of potential pitfalls in assigning labels such as “Western” and “Eastern” to religious traditions, particularly if this involves a construction of Christianity as inherently “Western.” At a time when South Korea sends the second largest number of Christian missionaries to other countries, Christianity could theoretically be defined as an East Asian religion, in that a significant number of people in one East Asian country not only practice but actively seek to propagate the religion. Terms such as “Eastern” and “Western” to define religious traditions are cultural constructs in and of themselves.
The Sōka Gakkai is a lay Buddhist movement, originating in Japan, that bases its religious practice and worldview on the Lotus Sutra-centric teachings of the Kamakura-era priest Nichiren (1222–1282). Following Nichiren, members of the Sōka Gakkai consider the practice of reciting Namu-myōhō-renge-kyō—the Daimoku, or title of the Lotus Sutra—to a copy of a character mandala (Gohonzon) originally inscribed by Nichiren to be the fundamental means for attainment of enlightenment. Also modeling themselves on Nichiren, the membership takes an active interest in the social and political realities of this world. In Japan, this engagement has taken various forms, including electoral support for a political party made up largely of Sōka Gakkai members, and globally, as activities in the fields of nuclear disarmament, sustainable development, human rights education, and humanitarian assistance.
Founded in 1930, the organization was suppressed during World War II. In the postwar era, its rapid growth, driven by a campaign of aggressive proselytization, as well its ongoing involvement in politics, has generated considerable controversy within Japanese society. Even as the organization has matured institutionally, and in its relations with other faith traditions, an exclusive commitment by members to a single faith practice makes it an outlier within the Japanese religious landscape.
The Sōka Gakkai in Japan currently claims some 8.27 million member families, making it the nation’s largest and most active religious movement. Outside Japan, under the rubric of Sōka Gakkai International (SGI), official statistics give membership totals of 1.75 million in 192 countries and territories, with 94 organizations incorporated under local national laws. More than half of the membership outside Japan—slightly more than 1 million—are said to be in Asia and Oceania, with South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore among the sites of large and active memberships. Other countries with significant national movements include Brazil, the United States, India, and Italy.
While the Sōka Gakkai was originally associated with the Nichiren Shōshū sect, long-standing tensions over the respective roles of priesthood and laity came to a head in a decisive schism in 1991, since which the two groups have pursued independent paths. Following the schism, the Sōka Gakkai has given more central emphasis to the “mentor-disciple relationship,” in particular as this relates to the first three presidents of the organization: Makiguchi Tsunesaburō (1871–1944), Toda Jōsei (1900–1958) and Ikeda Daisaku (1928–).