Practical Religious Studies

The profession of spiritual care worker (rinshōshūkyōshi) was established at Tohoku University

The Department of Practical Religious Studies was established at Tohoku University in 2012, in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. At the time religious professionals actively participated in the relief and support efforts in the disaster-stricken area. But the attention of the public gravitated towards players involved with administration, medical care and welfare, the volunteers who hastened to the scene from all over the country, and towards those preachers who mingled with other aid workers in hopes of bringing disaster victims into their new flock.
Indeed, reading prayers and chanting sutras when required, or lending an ear to grieving victims might count as a part of “mental health care” in a broad sense. But religious workers must not engage in preaching and propaganda or impose their values on people when they participate in such public activities.
We thought of a new type of religious worker who, upon adopting this essential minimum of manners and learning how to provide care to people, goes on to operate not only at disaster sites, but in hospitals and welfare facilities. We called this new type the ‘spiritual care worker’ (rinshōshūkyōshi as a term corresponds to the notion of ‘chaplain’ in Christianity).
The Department of Practical Religious Studies has been providing education and training to religious professionals from all over Japan since 2012. By 2016 it had trained 152 spiritual care workers. Many universities followed suit, and courses for religious professionals specializing in mental health care, that is, spiritual care workers, have been opening in various parts of the country.
The department also holds lectures on thanatology, spiritual care, grief care, and psychology of religion, as well as practical religious studies, which are included in the Tohoku University curriculum. Finally, in 2017 we started a certificate program (Spiritual Care Worker Education Program) open to both religious professionals and regular students.