Saturday 30 August 2003

You can put your god over there…

Years ago, while waiting at a bus stop outside a Hungry Jack’s hamburger outlet in downtown Sydney, I found myself standing next to a young Asian woman holding a thick Bible and wearing a badge on which was inscribed, in white letters on a black background:


I’d seen hundreds of young Mormon men over the years, in their short-sleeved white shirts and black trousers, with identical Bibles and similar badges—particularly around the entertainment district where I was waiting for the bus—but Sister Nakajima was the first Japanese Christian I’d ever encountered. I’ve often wished I had overcome my reticence and asked about her religious faith. My feeling of being in the presence of a freak (in the sense of “an eccentric, peculiar, or unorthodox person”) was nothing more than an expression of the widely-held belief in the incompatibility between Christianity and the Japanese Weltanschauung.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines “worldview” as:

  1. The overall perspective from which one sees and interprets the world.
  2. A collection of beliefs about life and the universe held by an individual or a group.
    In both senses also called Weltanschauung.

I chose the original German word rather than its English equivalent because its “weight” seems to better express the idea that the Japanese do see and interpret certain aspects of the world differently. (So do the Kurds and the Peruvians, you might say, and I agree—but we’re discussing religion and the Japanese willingness to accept different religious traditions is unusual, if not unique.)

I thought of Sister Nakajima of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints when I read Burningbird’s essay, Shinto Commandments, itself a response to Joi Ito’s entry, The whole “there is only one God and my God is the best” thing…, in which Joi wrote:

As we Shintos like to say, you can put your god over there next to our other gods. While you’re at it, why don’t you get off your high horse and quit defining Good and Evil as Us and Them.

Burningbird concluded her discussion of Chief Justice Roy Moore’s granite statue of the Ten Commandments in the rotunda of the Alabama Supreme Court building by saying:

All in all, I like Joi’s Shinto beliefs, with the concept of there being room for all gods. Yeah, hard to fight about that one.

I like Joi’s Shinto beliefs too, as does my friend Natsuko who, as she was eating the last of her pancake stack in my garden this morning, said: “I’m not religious, that wasn’t part of my upbringing, but I do believe in supernatural beings. And it suits me to know that there are gods everywhere—in these plants and stones, in this pancake and that unko.” (The unko in question being a lump of dried cat shit that Reimi had neglected to cover with soil.)

But it’s not just the animist belief that there are gods everywhere that I like. It’s the fact that Japanese “religious” belief encompasses Buddhism and Confucianism as well as Shinto. As Edwin O. Reischauer explains:

Since Shinto was unconcerned with the problem of the afterlife that dominated Buddhist thought, and Mahayana was no exclusive, jealous religion but throughout its spread easily accommodated itself to local faiths, Buddhism and Shinto settled into a comfortable coexistence, with Shinto shrines often becoming administratively linked with Buddhist monasteries. The Japanese never developed the idea, so prevalent in South and West Asia as well as the West, that a person had to adhere exclusively to one religion or another. Premodern Japanese were usually both Buddhists and Shintoists at the same time and often enough Confucianists as well.

“Hard to fight about that one”, said Burningbird, which is precisely the point. For me, the defining characteristic of Christian and Islamic religious belief is sectarianism, not just the bigoted conviction that “there is only one God and my God is the best” but “although we both believe in the same God, my way of expressing that belief is superior to yours.” When I was a child, this kind of partisan adherence to one Christian denomination or another was still common, although not as deeply entrenched as it was before World War II when it was impossible if you were a Catholic to get a job in certain department stores or Government departments.

Whatever the faults of the Japanese—as Charlie Whipple correctly points out in Joi Ito’s comments, “If ever anyone defined things in terms of ‘us and them,’ it’s the Japanese”—religious bigotry isn’t high on the list. (Christianity was ruthlessly suppressed by the Tokugawa shogunate in the late 16th and early 17th century only because the imported religion was seen as a grave political threat.)

When I was 14 or 15 I incurred my father’s disapproval by suggesting at the dinner table that one religion was as good as another, that the only important issue was whether or not one behaved honorably. A few years later I might have added that, since the religions of the book appear to exacerbate and alleviate human suffering in roughly equal proportions, the best idea might be to have no religions at all. But since that is unrealistic, the Japanese solution—of believing in multiple gods and allowing Buddhism and Shinto to peacefully coexist—is a fine alternative, particularly since it also subtly underscores the arbitrary nature of religious belief.

I occasionally wonder whether Sister Nakajima remained a Christian, or whether she came to accept, as literary critic Katō Shuichi says of other Japanese Christians who eventually fled the faith, “that Christianity was incompatible with the traditional Japanese sensibilty and world-view”. If so, perhaps she transferred her allegiance to one of the “new religions” that, in Reischauer’s words, “do not cater to the typical Western religious need for individual strength through the establishment of a personal bond with God, but rather to the typical Japanese need for a supportive social environment”.

(Although it’s difficult to take these religions seriously once you’ve seen Itami Juzo’s mordant satire, A Taxing Woman’s Return, in which investigator Itakura Ryoko sets out to prove that the Chief Elder of the Heaven’s Path religion is evading tax on the billions of yen he’s making from donations and land scams.)

Most of the “new religions” are based mainly on Shinto though the biggest, Soka Gakkai, is associated with the Buddhist Nichiren sect. (I wasn’t at all surprised that Joi Ito’s entry about meeting Kenji Yoshigo, the Vice President and Executive Director of the Soka Gakkai Office of International Affairs provoked an avalanche of hostile comments.)

The third volume of Katō’s A History of Japanese Literature offers an extensive treatment of the influence of Christianity on Japanese novelists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Katō describes how, in the years following the Meiji Restoration of 1868 (which replaced the feudal system with a modern unified state), Christian missionaries at the Kumamoto Western School and the Sapporo Agricultural School were able to convert a number of their Japanese students:

Many of the converts that the American Protestant missionaries made were from samurai families, particularly ones who had served the Bakufu or pro-Bakufu domains and resisted the forces of Chōshu and Satsuma. Thus their acceptance of Episcopalianism, the doctrines of the Dutch Reformed Church or another creed was not completely unconnected with their critical feelings towards the new regime. This was not the only reason however. Protestantism must have seemed to provide ‘a window on the West’, not only on western learning and technology but on a system of values that would be effective in the destruction of the values of Tokugawa feudalism. The missionaries emphasized the significance of the allegiance of Japanese to their nation in a period when one of the main problems facing the samurai class was the transfer of allegiance from domain to nation, and thus without being fully aware of it touched upon one of the most sensitive spots of their hearers. Moreover the missionaries, or at least some of them, were dearly men of integrity, dedication and courage. The attraction that their characters had for the young warriors can only have been strengthened by the fact that some of them had experienced combat in the American Civil War.

According to Katō, many of the intellectuals who had converted to Christianity left the church without any great internal drama “quite soon after being baptized”. A few made some considerable efforts to justify their apostasy:

The doctrines of Christianity and the kind of faith it required basically could not coexist with the Japanese world-view. If potential converts did not destroy the latter they could not accept the former. If however it was simply a matter of appreciating the characters of the missionaries or being attracted by western things the ‘converts’ would not have found it necessary to deny the traditional world-view.

Apart from a minority, best represented by Uchimura Kanzō, who lived his entire life according to (his interpretation of) the Christian doctrine, most Japanese writers “converted” to Christianity as a means of furthering their literary careers. Many of these, including Shimazaki Tōson, Masamune Hakuchō, Kunikida Doppo, Tayama Katai and Iwano Hōmei, were associated with Japanese naturalism. Coming from either rural or minor samurai families, they moved to Tokyo where they were soon attracted to the Protestant church, “the organization directly connected with western language (English in their case), thought and literature.” Whereas government officials and state university graduates such as Natsume Sōseki and Mori Ōgai received scholarships to study in England and Germany for four and five years respectively, Tōson and Hakuchō spent similar periods as members of the Protestant church:

Doppo, Tōson, Hakuchō and Hōmei were all baptized before they were twenty but none of them remained in the church for more than five years. The church opened a window on the West but it is probable that the essential parts of the faith—righteousness defined through a relationship with a transcendent absolute and salvation through Christ—would not have been convincing for these young writers whose ambition it was to be true to themselves.

Katō suggests that the Christian religion, in addition to providing an introduction to English and western culture, also offered the young writers a sense of community which relieved them from the isolation of Tokyo whilst providing an alternative to the bureaucratic advancement from which they were excluded.

They had to seek their own identity either within themselves or as part of a group which was neither the family they had left nor the power structure of the state. The Protestant church, preaching as it did the salvation of the individual, must have seemed to offer them a basis for their search for identity as independent personalities.

Eventually, however, they were disappointed by “all the ceremonies and forms” of the church which expected them to carry out God’s will whereas they “had hoped that it would give them the means to express themselves”.

It did not take them long to find that their hopes were misplaced and that they could also avoid isolation by becoming members of another group, made up of writers. Thus it is not surprising that Tōson and Hakuchō began to write seriously and vigorously at the same time as they left the church and that as soon as they began to write they gathered colleagues to form literary groups.

While the samurai converts in the previous generation had seen Christianity as providing a theoretical rationale for their political objectives, the naturalist group converted (temporarily) for utilitarian reasons. As I have already noted, four of the five writers left the church within five years. The other, Masamune Hakuchō, had originally converted because of a dangerous illness, as he explained in his book Ikiru to iu koto (To Be Alive):

When people are gravely ill they are in a mood to appeal to any god or buddha; at that time I had come into contact with Christianity so I was in the mood to pray to the Christian God.

Towards the end of his life Hakuchō wrote: “I imagine that at the hour of my death I will either chant [the Buddhist invocation] Namu amida butsu or murmur the name of Christ”.

In fact, he died “with the name of Christ on his lips” but, as Katō explains:

The motivation for his return to Christianity was primarily his desire to appeal to “any god or buddha” and the choice of god was secondary.This attitude is basically the same as the Japanese of ancient times who would pray to a range of Shinto and Buddhist deities when they faced danger. From Nihon ryōiki to Shasekishū and Shingaku the ordinary Japanese has not felt any need to make a choice between Buddhism and Shinto; both were accepted. When Hakuchō returned to Christianity it was not with the expectation of being judged by a transcendent power but rather with the hope of salvation, not looking for an ultimate manifestation of righteousness but ‘a place of freedom from care’ and a Christ whose mercy would be not unlike that of Amida. Hakuchō was perhaps closer than any other author since the Restoration to the traditional world-view of the Japanese masses. Christianity did not change Hakucho; Hakucho modified Christianity.

There is nothing new in this—the Japanese willingness to absorb and modify foreign cultural influences started in the third century AD with the adoption of Korean agricultural practices and intensified in the sixth century AD when the Japanese began a sustained borrowing of Chinese technology and institutional values that lasted for nearly two hundred years. A similar process occurred after the Meiji Restoration when the Japanese government “dispatched students abroad to acquire new skills and hired Western experts at great expense to come to Japan”. The Japanese created a bicameral government with a House of Peers similar to the British House of Lords and a House of Representatives elected by a tiny group of male taxpayers. They adopted a system of medicine based on German practice as well as a court and legal system based first on French then later on German models. The Japanese Navy was modeled on the Royal Navy, the Army followed the Prussian example. In 1894-95 Japanese forces easily defeated China in a war over the control of Korea and ten years later inflicted a humiliating defeat on Russia, again over who would control Korea. In a period of only fifty years, Japan had transformed itself from a feudal backwater to a modern industrial state.

Thus, in extracting what they needed from Christianity then casting the religion aside, the Japanese naturalist writers were following long-established and successful precedents.

I once asked Natsuko why she thought that Japan, alone amongst all the countries of Asia, had been able to industrialize so quickly and with relatively little internal disruption. She thought for a while and answered, “I think it’s because we Japanese don’t really believe in anything.”

She wasn’t actually saying that the Japanese don’t have strongly held beliefs since that clearly isn’t true. Like everyone else, the Japanese believe in many things. Rather I think she was suggesting that the Japanese have a more flexible attitude towards belief, that they are the kind of people who say: “You can put your god over there next to our other gods. And if we think your god might be useful, we’ll adopt that god too—but only after we’ve transformed it into something quintessentially Japanese.”

It’s this flexibility (or pragmatism) that is, I suspect—at least for those of us who are not fundamentalists—extremely appealing.

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Probably the first Christian I met who helped me understand that there was something more to the religion than dogma and exclusivity was a Japanese woman I met at a Zen temple in Kyoto.

After sitting zazen together on evening, she invited me out for a cup of hot chocolate and a chat. Upon learning that I was staying at a youth hostel-cum-inn in a room with 20 other people, she invited me to stay with her in her tiny Kyoto apartment. I stayed there for nearly three weeks, trading lodging for some English lessons, cooking an occasional meal, and getting an up-close insight into the congruities between the teachings of Sakyamuni and Jesus.

She was not an evangelist, she was a person who lived out her faith in action. I gassho in gratitude for the doors of understanding she opened for me.

Posted by Pascale Soleil on 31 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Um, when you say "Bible" there at the beginning, you mean "Book of Mormon," right? I had a proselytizing Chinese Mormon girlfriend when I was in Taiwan (she'd converted her entire family and tried to do the same with me), and I can assure you there's a big difference. It's also not a simple matter to refer to Mormons as "Christians"; they emphasize the connection (and are currently trying to get people to say "Latter-Day Saints" rather than "Mormon"), but if you pay any attention to doctrine the two faiths are not all that compatible. After all, Moslems revere Jesus too, but that doesn't make them Christian.

Posted by language hat on 31 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

As we've come to expect from you, a wonderfully written, gentle piece. It threw some light on what for me is a dark subject, religion.

Great to have you back and thanks for the changes in the RSS feed.

Posted by Marius Coomans on 31 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Endo Shusaku came to my mind while reading
your interesting post.
Found this article concerning Christianity in
Japan and Endo's writing on this subject.
I think among Japanese Catholic writers Endo Shusaku presented this cultural dissonance most eloquently and passionately.

Posted by Fung-Lin Hall on 31 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Jonathon, eloquent and subtle as always. Nice the way of treat American ideology so gently but with the deftly, like a surgeon.

I wonder about the "commanding heights." When we have many gods, do we still have commerical logic and industrial reason, the ends/means math of business plans, profits, and measurable results. We might well vote out Bush and Co, and we might vote in a pluralist again, like Clinton, but I wonder if we will ever have a god, even a Jesus, who can displace the reason the MBAs, the money changers in our temple?

Our Fundamentalits take their religion seriously, as do the Mormons, but what we take most seriously is getting ahead and the religion of success. That is the operative religion, not one that Jesus would recognize though it is preached in his name.

Posted by The Happy Tutor on 31 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Pascale, I've experienced similar kindness from "strangers" in Japan who, for reasons I've never been able to fully understand, reached out and welcomed me into their lives. I guess I'm curious about how the Japanese woman you met in Kyoto saw her religious practice and whether you discussed it with her. My instinct is that she had created a typically Japanese amalgam of Buddhist and Christian beliefs and practices, but I could be completely wrong.

LH, thanks for setting me straight about the Bible vs. the Book of Mormon and, more specifically, for making me aware of the differences between Mormon and traditional Christian beliefs, which are neatly summarized on this BBC page:

Marius, it strikes me as interesting that you describe religion as a "dark subject" given that your Dutch ancestors, along with the Spanish and Portuguese, brought Christianity to Japan.

Fung-Lin, thank you for the pointer to the essay on Endo Shusaku -- it's the best introduction to his life and work I've seen. I did read a number of his novels in English translation about ten years ago. The two I still remember are "Silence" and "When I Whistle". When I was in Kyushu in 1997, I visited a hot spring area where Christians were said to have martyred by being boiled alive in the thermal pools and I immediately recalled the religious persecution portrayed in "Silence".

Tutor, you're right to ask "if we will ever have a god, even a Jesus, who can displace the reason the MBAs, the money changers in our temple?" While watching a TV program about Soka Gakkai, the most popular and influential of the Japanese "new religions", it occurred to me that their teachings greatly resemble the "prosperity preaching" that has taken hold in many evangelical Christian churches. That wealth is the sign of a true person of faith is indeed a popular doctrine, although not universally accepted:

Posted by Jonathon on 31 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

From what I understand of Eastern and Western religions (although the 3 big ones, Christianity, Islam & Judaism aren't really Western, but Midddle Eastern), the Eastern religions aren't really religions, but more like philosophies. At least they are in their strict forms. I don't know about Shintoism, but I understand Buddhism and Confucianism to be philosophies, and not about gods. Thus, a person can hold more than one of these philosophies at a time.

However, Western religions, being about God, if they have different understanding of God, then they inherently contradict each other. A person cannot possibly (or at least logically) adhere to more than one of these religions at a time. The most he can do is agree to disagree with a person of another religion.

What this really means is that one can be Buddhist, Confucianist, and Christian at the same time, assuming that one's Buddhist leanings are of the strict kind. If one believes in the Buddhist kind of reincarnation, then that probably conflicts with Christian belief.

I have to add, however, that Mormons are not Christians. Their belief of God contradicts the Christian belief of God. Thus one cannot be Christian and Mormon at the same time.

I'll also have to add that a Japanese Christian can't be that odd a sight, since St Francis Xavier landed in Japan and had a big influence there.

Posted by Timothy Tan on 31 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I'm struck by a number of things here.

To Timothy Tan's comment: I agree, I've always felt that Buddhism was not a religion but a philosophy (I know next to nothing about Shinto, really, so I'll reserve any observations there.)
I'm just wondering - after reading Joi Ito's post linked above - if the signifcant difference between the two (religion/philosophy Christianity/Buddhism) lies in the fact that, as Ito suggests, Buddhism has no Satan.

There always seems to me to be a direct link between the the narrow mindedness of a religion or denomination or sect and the size of their Devil.

Also, I'm wondering - and I'm taking a completely sideways glance at this - if there might not be some connection between a people's pragmatism and their geography. The thought struck me as you wrapped up Jonathon, that the pragmatism of the Japanese is very similar to the pragmatism of the British - as a kind of 'national philosophy', if you'll forgive the awkward term

The Japanese living independently next to giants China and Russia.

The British (and I'm speaking of the Brits and not just the English) existing next to a sprawling Europe - an expanding Rome, the threat of Germany, and so on.

Small island nations with dense populations. I suppose I'd have to test that notion elsewhere. I'm wondering if the national philosophy of New Zealand is any more 'practical' than that of Australia, say.

I guess what I'm maybe taking away from this discussion is this: any organized unit of people - nation, state, religion, corporation, or as the Happy Tutor has read into this - America: The Religion of Successful Fundamentalism - to be 'decent' needs to absorb as much as conquer.

I'm not much on (or much good at) generalizing but I'm wondering if pragmatism isn't in and of itself more decent than any deism.

Excuse the imprecision in my choice of words. It's early.

Posted by Brian on 31 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour