Professor John Nelson Investigates Declining Japanese Buddhist Membership

Bernadette De Mesa
Contributing Writer

Theology Professor John Nelson thinks there is a crisis of declining membership in Japanese Buddhism.

“There are over 77,000 temples and 2,000 Buddhist priests that have been in Japan for over 1,500 years, so it’s a major social and religious constitution, yet young people are not interested,” said Nelson.

According to Nelson, progressive priests are currently trying to become more responsive about the interests of younger people. They aim to create innovative programs in the temples to attract younger people. These include fashion shows, music concerts including rap and African drumming, theater, programs promoting social justice, and celebrity appearances.

Nelson, the Academic Director of Asian Pacific Studies at USF, received the 2014 Toshihide Numata Book Prize for ‘Outstanding Book in Buddhist Studies’, for his book, “Experimental Buddhism: Innovation and Activism in Contemporary Japan,” in Berkeley on Nov. 14. The title stems from experimental Buddhism because of the ways in which people experiment with Buddhism’s teachings to fit their political agenda.

The Toshihide Numata Book Prize in Buddhism, or “Toshi” Prize, is awarded annually to an outstanding book in any area of Buddhist Studies.  U.C. Berkeley’s Center of Buddhist Studies administers the selection and awards.

Nelson says that it is important for people to know about Buddhism and its declining membership by giving a practical application to the U.S. and the USF community.

“A good way to understand this is by imagining Christian churches in this country closing by 30-40% and that is what is believed to be happening in Japan right now. So how are contemporary men and women to find meaning in their lives?” said Nelson.

Six years of field-work, research, and two trips to Japan every year from 2006-2012 all contributed to Nelson’s new book. He stressed that he is oftentimes misinterpreted as a theologian, but he is a cultural anthropologist because he does fieldwork.

Along with his new book, Nelson teaches theology classes in which they take trips to Buddhist, Chinese, Japanese, or Tibetan temples for the weekend. The overnight retreat takes place in a zen temple in Santa Rosa, where students go out in the community and interact with different cultural traditions.

“I value the learning that takes place through direct experience. That is what matters and is most valuable. Oftentimes students say, ‘Eh, I don’t care,’ but [actually for students] to go into that community and see what it is actually like is a whole different experience [for them],” he adds.

Nelson also spent his sabbatical traveling around the world for seven months. He spent time in Japan, Indonesia, India, Nepal, Turkey, Greece, and Germany visiting small villages and volunteering within the communities.

“Living experience is a great way to educate yourself.  After traveling, I am still hungry for knowledge, experience, and wisdom,” he emphasized.

He recalled a particular instance when he was backpacking in a little island of Indonesia. He volunteered within the Tibetan government in exile, where the community was extremely marginalized.

“It made [me] sad. Tibetan people had to leave because of the Chinese invasion. Oppression is terrible and everyone is depressed,” he adds.

Overall, Nelson hopes to promote the significance of human rights in our own societies through awareness.

For more of Nelson’s seven month journey, take a look at his blog at


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