‘Religion and Social Welfare in East Asian Contexts’ – a Research Roundtable Review

In this piece, Aura Di Febo provides a review of a recent research day titled: ‘Religion and Social Welfare in East Asian Contexts’ that was jointly organised by the Centre for Religion and Public Life with the East Asian Studies department at the University of Leeds. 

On 1st March, the Centre for Religion and Public Life and East Asian Studies held a day-long research round-table aimed at exploring the role of religion and social welfare in the East Asian context. Religious groups and teachings have long played an important role in social welfare, with significant amounts of education, medical care, and social services being provided to the general public by religious organisations. In many ways, the East Asian context offers a stark contrast to dominant European welfare models in the lack of uniformity within the region. Yet, there remain some common cross-national characteristics, including low public expenditure on welfare; adoption of a facilitating role by the state; the central role of the family and community in informal provision of assistance, rooted in strong and pervasive cultural-religious values stemming from Confucianism, Islam, Buddhism and Christianity. This research day featured presentations from a range of scholars working across the region (including Chinese and Japanese contexts) to discuss changing discourses and patterns based on ongoing innovative empirical projects and fieldwork with different religious traditions.

Dr. Jane Caple (University of Copenhagen) opened the discussion by unpacking notions of welfare and virtue in contemporary Tibet. Drawing from her extended ethnographic fieldwork on Buddhist communities in the Tibetan platter, she examined the impact that socio-economic transformation, cultural change and politics of welfare had on ideas of wealth, virtue and the social good. In relation to religious activities and practices of giving more specifically, she unpacked different and competing ideas of welfare within the community. While recent years were marked by an increasing engagement of Buddhist monks in community development and welfare activities, practitioners did not always agree with these developments, Caple reported. At times traditional forms of religious giving (e.g. funding the construction of a temple) in their quality of merit-making actions were seen as more valuable to the community.

In her presentation, Hollie Gowan (University of Leeds) offered some of the insights emerged from her doctoral research, which investigates the intersection of gender, religion and volunteering in contemporary China. Her paper focused on the accounts of women working for religiously inspired charitable organisations, most notably the Buddhist NGO Tzu-chi. Based on the notions of ‘goodness’ articulated by her participants in interviews, Gowan suggested that narratives of social welfare promoted by Tzu-chi provided women with a space of legitimacy where they can gain social recognition in compliance with the limits prescribed to their sex. For these women, volunteering and ‘being a good Tzu-chi member’ turned into a means to be acknowledged for their efforts and skills, whilst conforming to cultural values, social expectations and politically constructed gender roles.

Aura Di Febo (University of Manchester) presented some of the findings from her PhD thesis, centred on the social welfare activities of Risshō Kōseikai, a Japanese lay-Buddhist organisation. Di Febo drew from her ethnographic data on practices of informal provision of care implemented by the organisation in the Tokyo metropolitan area to discuss their intersection with the broader framework of Japan’s social welfare system. The key concept behind Kōseikai’s engagement was the idea of filling the ‘gaps in the system’, i.e. address the needs left unattended by other formal or informal providers of care. While practitioners conceived these efforts as a form of missionary practice, Di Febo suggested that social care activities also served to carve out a space for Kōseikai as a religious organisation, and renegotiate its position within contemporary Japanese society. The outcome of this negotiation, however, was only partially successful.

Further insights on the Japanese context were offered by Dr. Takahashi Norihito (Tōyō University, Japan), who discussed the support activities for foreign residents and asylum seekers promoted by religious organisations in Japan. Takahashi reported that religious organisations are involved in a wide range of relief activities, including livelihood aid, legal counselling, assistance with bureaucratic practices and promotion of intercultural exchange and inclusivity. The case-studies presented (a Catholic church and a Muslim organisation), however, offered a glimpse into the many obstacles faced by religious organisations, including formal constraints related to Japan’s immigration law, the constitutional principle of separation between religion and the public sphere, ethnic and religious discrimination, practical limitations and difficulties in gaining cooperation from state and local communities.

Dr. Caroline Fielder (University of Leeds) added to the discussion on the complex relationship between state, religion and society with her paper on charitable organisations in China. In recent years, the Chinese state increased opportunities for the intervention for religiously inspired organisations in social welfare provision. Religious groups have assumed growing relevance in fostering social inclusivity for vulnerable groups. However, Fielder argued, the spaces where these organisations operate are made ‘fragile’ by the relative lack of regulations defining them. This ambiguity may give religious organisations some leverage to ‘push the boundaries’ in the planning, promotion or implementation of their activities, for example in terms of articulating their religious connotation. The lack of regulations, however, puts religious groups in a risky position, exposed to accusations of illegitimacy.

Overall, the presenters drew attention to the multi-faceted and shifting definitions of social welfare and ‘goodness’, and the ways in which these are put into practice by various actors in different socio-cultural contexts. They highlighted how theoretical conceptions and practical circumstances of social welfare provision (or lack thereof) opened potential spaces of action for religious actors, creating both obligations and opportunities for intervention. Within these spaces, religion can play a role in the promotion of collective good. At the same time, social welfare becomes also a site for the remaking of institutional boundaries and the redefinition of social roles and personal identities.

This research day laid a stepping stone to a more in-depth exploration of these dynamics and further collaboration between the Religious Studies and East Asian Studies departments at the University of Leeds. As commented by Dr. Caroline Starkey, member of the Centre for Religion and Public Life and co-organiser of the event: “Our aim for the research day was to cement the positive relationship between the CRPL and EAST, where we could come together and discuss themes and topics of mutual interest to us both. The research day meant we were able to think across a range of East Asian contexts, giving us a space to discuss similarities, differences and synergies. By creating this space, we were able to learn a lot from one another and we look forward to working together in the future on possible publications and research projects.”

Written By: Aura Di Febo

Image Credit: Hollie Gowan

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