Religion and Religious Identity in Modern Japan
In Japan, Tradition and Modernity Live Side by Side
Japan's Ideological Conflict: Religious Beliefs vs. Modern Lifestyle
There is a growing ideological conflict between Japan’s religious beliefs and its modern, materialist society. In few places in the world do so many values and traditions of the past coexist alongside the ideas and practices of the present. The persisting contradiction between old an new, tradition and modernity, is a defining characteristic of present-day Japan. This chasm between old-world tradition and new-world lifestyle is not without repercussions, effectively creating a schism in the modern Japanese psyche. Japanese beliefs and lifestyles grow increasingly more difficult to mesh, resulting in internal confusion and isolation.
Japan is an island nation with a tightly-knit, homogeneous population (more than 99% is Japanese; the remainder is mostly Korean). It is a nation prideful of both its long, continuous history (a 2,200 year recorded past) and its bountiful culture, replete with deeply embedded customs and traditions. Religion is typically paramount among a nation’s deep cultural practices, and Japan is certainly no exception. Buddhism and Shinto are chiefly practiced within the country. However, these beliefs, which value nature and ancestry and spurn materialism, exist in stark contrast with the modern, consumer-driven society that has grown so rapidly since the 1850s. Today, Japan is the leading industrial state of East Asia and rivals the most advanced economic powers of the West. Only the United States out-produces it. The Japanese people enjoy an unprecedented supply of goods and their many cities (including the sprawling metropolis of Tokyo, home on its own to over nineteen million people) are as modern as any urban areas in the world. In Japan’s industrial and now post-industrial eras, religion’s messages increasingly conflicts with this larger society. Especially in recent years, as the focus within the workplace shifts from the group to the individual, Japanese citizens are faced with an ever more difficult struggle to correlate their religious beliefs with the world around them. Collectively, they will be forced to decide if they will adapt their religion to suit their society, adapt their society to suit their religion, or suffer quietly with their own cognitive dissonance.
The topic of ideological conflicts between Japanese religious belief and its modern lifestyle is one that has rarely been examined in detail. While numerous documentations are available of incidents and protests related to the desire to return to a more traditional lifestyle, these typically exclude any discussion of a broader cultural perspective. When the subject has been touched upon, it is generally paired with a belief in the inevitability of change. In “Japan: a Reinterpretation,” Patrick Smith discusses the societal changes that took place in Japan after World War II, arguing that the nationalistic ideal of group identity, as perpetrated by Shinto, should be (and currently is in the process of being) discarded in favor of a more democratic, autonomous individual identity. He contends that tradition (including religion) must inevitably change. Family, Religion, and Social Change in Diverse Societies devotes a chapter to the examination of the changing role of the family unit (originally the household, or “ie”) in Japanese society and extrapolates that, as industrialization and urbanization have transformed the Japanese family, so too have they transformed the nature of Japanese worship and, as economic changes continue to alter the domestic organization of the society, Japanese religion will also be transformed.
Religion in Japan
In Japan today, religion is freely practiced and, at least in small numbers, a multitude of religions are present. The religious beliefs of Japan’s populace breakdown to 91% Shinto, 72% Buddhist, and 13% other (less than 1% is Christian). Although in the West religious faiths are viewed as mutually exclusive, in Japan it is common for a person to adopt beliefs from more than one theology. The majority of the population therefore is both Buddhist and Shinto. Both of these faiths center upon nonmaterial, group values. Buddhism stresses oneness; people are not isolated, but are instead part of a network of souls. Buddhists traditionally eschew material possessions and strive to reach nirvana, becoming one with the universal spirit and thus throwing off the yoke of their individual identities. Similarly, Shinto beliefs hold that all things possess spirits; Shinto stresses the importance of nature and ancestral bonds. A nationalistic religion, it too values the group over the individual. Buddhist and Shinto beliefs fuse well with one another and, since they have coexisted for more than 1,500 years, much cross-fertilization has occurred between the two religions, resulting in what is often referred to as “Ryobu-Shinto,” or “Double Shinto.” However, many unique traits still separate the two.
Japan is a nation widely associated with the practice of “cultural borrowing.” The Japanese have liberally borrowed culture traits from their geographic neighbors (particularly China) over the course of their history, adapting the traits that suited them while always altering them to make them distinctly Japanese. In this way, the Japanese have acquired many of their defining culture traits, including one of their major religions. Buddhism arrived in Japan in the sixth century. Although it originated in India, Buddhism came to Japan via China and Korea, so much of the religion retained a distinctive Chinese flair (as evidenced still today in the architecture, decoration, and the style of the representations of Buddha and the bodhisattvas found of in many Pure Land temples throughout Japan). The Japanese embraced Buddhism and, by the eighth century, had absorbed the religion so readily into their own culture that it took on a national character and its far-flung roots were all but forgotten.
Founded by Siddhartha Gotama around 500 B.C., Buddhism is based upon what he called the “Four Noble Truths.” The first noble truth, Dukkha, says that life is full of suffering. The second noble truth is Samudaya; it states that people’s suffering is caused by their desire for things. It is greed and self-centeredness that bring suffering, because desire can never be satisfied. The third noble truth, Nirodha, says that it is possible to end suffering if one is aware of one’s desires and puts an end to them. This can open the door to lasting peace. The fourth noble truth, Magga, is the noble truth of the path. According to Magga, one can reach a new awakening by changing one’s thinking and behavior. This awakening, known as the Middle Way, can be reached through Buddha’s Eightfold Path (which is also called the Wheel of Law); its eight steps (often represented as eight spokes of a wheel) are right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right work, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. By following them, one can bring an end to his or her own karma and be released from the cycle of rebirth). A set of laws, known as the Five Precepts, also govern Buddhist thought. The Five Precepts, as Arquilevich describes them in World Religions, are:
1. do not harm any living thing
2. do not steal; take only what is given
3. avoid over-stimulation
4. do not say unkind things
5. do not take alcohol or drugs
Although the basic tenets of Buddhism remain the same, how it is practiced varies widely. Within Buddhism, there are many different branches; the most common in Japan are Mahayana and Zen Buddhism. Mahayana, although divided into many schools (the “PureLand” sect is prevalent within Japan), uniformly emphasizes scriptures and bodhisattvas, which are deities (or saints, depending on the sect) that are believed to help practitioners enter nirvana. In contrast, Zen stresses that only direct experience can lead to enlightenment. Practitioners meditate to increase awareness and purify their minds. Zen finds expression in many forms throughout Japan, including martial arts, gardening, poetry (most notably, the haiku) and the minimalist aesthetic characteristic in Japanese art.
Shinto is the native religion of Japan; early Shinto mythology indicated that the Japanese were descended from divine beings; this civil religion helped fuel nationalistic fervor during World War II. After World War II, the state religion was abolished and Shinto became a matter of personal choice. Today, many Japanese may not necessarily practice Shinto as a religion, but still, often almost unconsciously, incorporate its customs and traditions into their daily lives.
Shinto is basically the worship of, or paying of reverence to, all things in nature, including one’s ancestors. Often defined as an animistic, in Shinto, all things, both animate and inanimate, have their own kami (spirits or gods). Traditionally, the line between the living and the dead (kami) is permeable. Kami are worshipped at shrines, represented by a distinctive gate, or torii. Today, there are over 100,000 Shinto shrines scattered throughout Japan. Shinto’s general principles are known as the “Correct Way.” Essentially, practitioners seek to enhance the way of the kami by being grateful for the kami’s blessings, devoting themselves to ritual practices, seeking to serve the world and other people, leading a harmonious life, and praying for national prosperity and a peaceful coexistence with the rest of the world.
Central to Shinto is the belief that community life and religion are one; the greatest personal destiny is one that is merged with the greater destiny of the nation. This link can be traced to feudal times, and the concept of one’s “ie,” or household. The ie was the key unit of Japanese society. More than just a family, it was defined primarily by participation in the ie economy, and unrelated persons could be adopted into it. Furthermore, an ie continued through succeeding generations, including not only living members, but also dead ancestors and unborn descendants. A village was a group of ie. Even commercial enterprises were organized as ie. In the ie, one learned to embrace group identity and suppress the self. This concept of Japan as a single community of ie, or a “family-state,” remained essential to the Japanese paradigm until 1945.
In the past, Japan’s religious beliefs successfully reinforced the ideology of its society. At the very heart of Buddhism is the belief that human misery comes from the desire for things. In order to achieve inner peace and, eventually, enlightenment, one must deny the pleasures of the senses. In modern Japanese society, these pleasures are abundant and, despite the current economic downturn, still easily affordable. In any major Japanese city, one can find a plethora of restaurants, coffee shops, video and pachinko (gambling) arcades, karaoke parlors, towering department stores, hostess bars (for female companionship), nightclubs, massage houses and public baths. Although Buddhism discourages the consumption of alcohol, the Japanese certainly do imbibe. Beer can typically be purchased from vending machines along many urban streets! In Japan’s former, traditional agrarian society, “right thought” and “right action” came far more easily. Today urban dwellers (the majority in Japan) typically partake in modern conveniences and diversions without much thought, frequently while still espousing religious beliefs their actions flagrantly contradict.
Japan’s major religions remain firmly at odds with this modern (“Western”) lifestyle. Japan’s rapid modernization, and “Westernization,” has not occurred without resistance. There has been a backlash, especially among rural citizens fearful of losing their traditional ways of life. In fact, the corruption wrought by modernization is a common theme in popular Japanese anime films such as Akira, Princess Mononoke, and Spirited Away.
The roots of this ideological conflict lie in a long-standing distrust of modernization. In the early 1600s, Japan adopted a policy of commercial isolation in order to retain its national autonomy. To assure its freedom from all foreign influence, it curtailed all foreign trade in favor of domestic development, remaining isolated from the rest of the world for a period of over two hundred years. However, when Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in Japan in 1853, intent upon forcing the Japanese into both trading with the U.S. and granting it fueling rights in the port city of Nagasaki, the Japanese had little choice but to make concessions. Perry delivered his letter of demands to the emperor and, when he returned the following year for the emperor’s response, the might of his naval fleet assured Japanese capitulation. This marked the beginning of a new era in Japanese history. The sight of Perry’s modern fleet, coupled with various gifts he had brought to give them, including a miniature locomotive, spurred Japan’s industrialization. Exposed to this new technology, the Japanese, great cultural borrowers, quickly modernized their country, becoming both an industrial and imperial power in their own right by 1900.
After Commodore Perry’s visit, dramatic changes occurred in Japanese society. Following a decade of controversy over the management of foreign relations, in 1868, the Meiji restoration began, abolishing the samurai class and adopting a national policy of expansionistic militarism and swift modernization. The Meiji period launched Japan on the road to modernization, developing a sound technological base for modern industry. By the 1880s, Japan was erecting factories, assembling steamships, conscripting an army, and preparing a parliament. However, though the Japanese excelled at their new task of modernization, they entered this period of rapid transformation under duress. As unwilling trade partners with the West, industrialization was rather unceremoniously thrust upon them. To protect their country from Western powers, the Japanese had quickly realized that modernizing was their only viable option. Although forced to embrace industrialization out of necessity, the Japanese still harbored distrust for the West and for the modernization that accompanied it. The Meiji restoration was a time of great upheaval and change; during much of the Meiji restoration, Buddhism was suppressed and the nationalist overtones of Shinto were emphasized to promote production.
Portrait of a Subculture
The Modern Contradiction
Japan’s modern contradiction was born in this era. Although the Japanese embraced the modern, they did so without any real conception of what it meant to be part of a modern nation. Japan’s citizens dutifully accepted their new role. However, privately, they began to note an inconsistency between the Meiji ideal and the reality of their new, modern life. As citizens publicly strove to better the new Japan for their emperor and their nation, privately they began to strive for themselves. As it grew less clear what it meant to be Japanese, the individual began to emerge from the group in society. Critics, such as the novelist Soseki Natsume, began to condemn the selfishness developing in modern society. These were the seeds of Japan’s modern theological dilemmas.
The distrust of modernization and the conflict between individual and group ( or “ie”) identity remained visible in Japan throughout the twentieth century, becoming especially conspicuous after the Japanese loss of World War II. After the war, newly humbled by an inconceivable and devastating defeat, the Japanese began to reexamine themselves. Much of Japan was in rubble, having suffered numerous bombings (including, of course, the two atomic bomb strikes); it had been stripped of its colonies, was forced to renounce the divinity of its emperor, and was under the occupation of a foreign power (the United States) that would subsequently write a constitution for it and establish its new government. Clearly, the Japanese people had much to reevaluate. During these post-war years of reconstruction, a debate developed over “shutai-sei” (loosely translated as “selfhood”). To achieve shutai-sei, one had to discard all old conventions, such as traditional societal duties and the suppression of the individual for the sake of displaying consensus. Shutai-sei therefore was essentially the establishment of an autonomous identity. Prior to the late 1940s, this conception of individuality was socially unheard of. The Japanese, despite any private qualms, had remained resolutely steadfast in their lack of a public self; the thoughts and values they expressed had always been the thoughts and values of their community. For a brief time, this new conception of shutai-sei entered mainstream Japanese consciousness in the late 1940s, advocating the cultivation of an autonomous self. “Modernists” who supported this new Japanese ideal such as the influential thinker Masao Maruyama, argued that it was the inability of the Japanese to make subjective judgments that had allowed them to accept the wartime dictatorship that would lead them to ruin. These modernists advocated two new forms of autonomy: individual and social. They advanced these forms of autonomy in opposition to the old notion of community. The Modernists argued that belonging to the group offered no identity or free will; the Japanese citizen that abandoned group tradition in favor of individuality was the new, democratic type needed to sustain a democratic nation.
The debate over shutai-sei was short-lived, collapsing by the end of the decade and the Japanese, for the most part, returned to their old notions of community. But just as modernists were criticizing Japanese society for being steeped in tradition, others were blaming the nation’s failings upon modernization. Novelists such as Noma Hiroshi and Yukio Mishima emerged after World War II, giving voice to previously unspoken criticisms of both Japan’s militarism and the shallow modernity of Japanese society. Mishima, whose works embodied many Buddhist ideals and often bordered upon nihilism, was very outspoken in his criticism of modern society, advocating a return to the traditions of the past. In fact, in 1970, Yukio Mishima tried to start a rightist uprising, taking the Director General of the Eastern Sector of the Self-Defense Forces as a hostage. When he failed to rally support for his cause, he decided to proclaim his dissent by committing public suicide by ceremonial seppuku (a self-willed ritualistic act of annihilation born of samurai tradition).
In Hiroshima, the unfortunate recipient of the first atomic bomb attack during World War II, atomic bomb victims have been united in their vocal criticism of Japan’s modernization. They argue that it was their government’s modernization, and its ensuing expansionistic war to further its own industrialization, that brought the atomic wrath of the United States upon them.
Although temporarily set back by wartime destruction and the consequences of military defeat, Japan soon recovered, emerging again as a world power, though this time an economic rather than a military one. Its strength now derived form its productivity, in the past few decades Japan has focused upon becoming superior in its technological advancement. Rural Japanese have found this encroaching modernity especially threatening to their ways of life. When Tokyo’s Narita airport was constructed, violent protests erupted. The Japanese government decided to build Narita airport in the village of Sanrizuka, expecting that farmers living there would relocate to “make way for progress.” Immediately, the farmers organized to resist, and they were soon joined by students from Tokyo. The students saw the airport in geopolitical terms (this coincided with the Vietnam War), while the farmers refused to leave the land that had nurtured generations of their ancestors. Their vehement complaints were fueled by long-held beliefs anchored in the Shinto tradition and were directed toward modernization itself, as a force that remains a constant threat to long-held Japanese culture and traditions, stripping Japan of its national character. These rural protestors were not easily assuaged, and today, when visiting NaritaAirport, at Terminal #2, one can still see a field of mulberry trees in the middle of the tarmac, the land of one farmer who still refuses to give up his land.
Isolation in Modern Japan
Japan’s slow erosion of the group identity has been expedited in the past few years by the loss of lifetime employment. Many Japanese businesses, although initially constructed to follow a mutually beneficial, group structure, have abandoned lifetime employment in recent years as the Japanese economy has soured, often laying off employees within a year or two of their retirement. Causing an alarming spike in the urban homeless population, these practices have denigrated the group, forcing employees to think of themselves as individuals and plan for their own survival at the expense of all others. Today, small subcontractors employ about two-thirds of Japan’s manufacturing workforce. Few Japanese (only about 20%) actually enjoy corporate benefits. The wages of the salary-man are still idealized and aspired to, but are less and less frequently attainable. Increasingly, the result of Japan’s stalling economy is a cut-throat job market that breeds disillusionment and alienation.
Today, for many Japanese, there is an increasing sense of isolation and ambivalence toward belonging to the group. Particularly within the past decade, the conflict between person freedom and community identity has increased markedly. Smith suggests the need for “an internal reform of the psychological structure of society,” redrawing the line between the public and private self so that Japanese individuality becomes more openly visible. He assets that the Japanese have been “seething” below the surface of their society for a very long time, but only now is this conflict between the traditional group persona and individuality reaching the surface. The disintegration of group values is a gradual process, but is clearly visible in Japanese institutions such as schools, neighborhoods, and businesses. The loyal and dedicated corporate samurai is now only a ghost of the past. Having become the West’s equal in material terms, Smith reasons that Japan’s technological accomplishments, like Commodore Perry’s ships a century and a half before, will act as a catalyst for societal change.
This sense of isolation stands at diametric odds with Shinto’s linkage of all Japanese (both living as dead) as one ie. In the 1980s, this isolation reached a new height when the new generation emerged in Japan: the shinjinrui; this term described Japanese who seemed to be apart from other people. This generation was the first to know nothing of the post-war strife, having grown up in a time solely of affluence. It is a generation, with which one can draw many parallels to its American counterpart, “Generation X;” it spent rather than saved, and acknowledged no obligations to or affinities with the Japanese society into which they emerged. This was a modern, apathetic generation that reflected the changes that their society had already passed through. Although older Japanese worried about the effect of the shinjinrui, ultimately, their concern has dissipated, and the shinjinrui has been reduced to a marketing niche.
The increasing isolation in Japanese society can also be observed in a more extreme form in the phenomenon of otaku. "Otaku" is a Japanese word for a new cultural group which emerged in the 1970s. The otaku are widely regarded by Japanese society as alienated, anti-social, introverted and selfish young people who stick to computers, comics, and anime imagery without any real communication or social activities. They are generally considered by their elders to be demented outsiders who border upon the sociopathic; this view is fueled, in part, by the highly publicized case in early 1990s of a otaku serial killer in Tokyo, Tsutomu Miyazaki, who raped 4 children and ate parts of their bodies. Many newspapers reported his arrest with an impressive photo taken in his small room where thousands of videotapes and comics are piled up to its ceiling, hiding almost all walls and windows. Consequently, many people, including leading journalists and politicians, began to think of otaku culture as a symbol of pathological problems in the young high-tech generation filled with sexual and violent imagery. This subsection of society reflects the most exteme departure form group identity.
As Japanese society grows increasingly more advanced and postmodern in its outlook, the rift between its old-world Buddhist and Shinto traditions and the fast-paced, materialistic, and often disaffected lifestyle of its citizens grows alarmingly wider. As societal changes become more obvious, a religious backlash has grown against the corruption of modern society, most visibly seen in the controversial Buddhist/Hindu cult, Aum Shinri Kyo (Supreme Truth), responsible for the subway gassing in 1995. This group, a doomsday cult that expected the evil of the world would cause an apocalypse in 1999, revered Shiva as their chief god and practiced ancient yoga and Mahayanist Buddhist teachings. The group's ultimate aim, to save all living things from transmigration, was somehow linked to their atrocious acts. Sokka Gokkai, (Value Creating Society) is a less sinister but far more powerful Buddhist organization that has been around for decades; it has its own political party and claims 8 million members in Japan and 300,000 in the United States. Unlike Aum Shinri Kyo, whose members wore flowing robes and lived in compoundsone can scarcely pick Soka Gakkai members out of a crowd. A cross section of the group would include members from every tier of Japanese society -- from salarymen to housewives to university students. A high percentage of members are said to be former rural residents who moved to the cities. Experts on Soka Gakkai say the sect's recruiters play on the uprooted feelings and loneliness common to such people. Practitioners believe that chanting a simple prayer -- Namu myoho renge kyo, or I take my refuge in the Lotus Sutra -- will bring spiritual fulfillment and improve society. In its appeals to potential converts, Sokkai Gakkai adds that chanting will also bring material rewards. The sect's own far-flung holdings include prime real estate, a nationwide chain of pub-restaurants and a publishing unit. With over $100 billion in assets, has been accused of heavy-handed fund raising and trying to grab political power.
Neck and Neck
An Uncertain Future
Urbanization, industrialization, and modern transportation and communication together rapidly changed the Japanese way of life; the effect of these developments being felt not only the cities, but also the countryside. However, still buried beneath Japan’s new exterior are deep-seated customs and institutions of traditional Japanese culture, including its politics, religion, and family life. Japanese society continues to struggle to adhere to the concepts of personal loyalty and obligation that have been a tradition throughout the ages. Buddhism and Shinto once reaffirmed the national group identity of Japan; they now only whisper a shallow echo of their former message. However, if Japan has indeed been seething for a long time, it may be in part because seething below the surface is what the Japanese are comfortable with. The Japanese have been suppressing themselves for a long time, and the seeds of their modern malady were planted in the Meiji restoration. Cognitive dissonance is practically a defining feature of the modern Japanese psyche. Although change is inevitable in all societies, the Japanese are masterful at holding it off, balancing it with tradition. Tradition and ritual are still deeply ingrained. For the foreseeable future, the Japanese will likely continue to cling to the visible symbols of their religious traditions, while the real changes continue to occur below the surface.
Just Plain Awesome
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© 2013 Alisha Adkins