From Studies in World Christianity 6 (2000), pp. 38-58.
Though I have lived here for sixteen years, Japan has not become mundane, has not lost the freshness and strangeness that give an indefinable tang to each day. Here I should like to sound the impact of this milieu on my notions of Christian identity and of the nature of religion. The subjective cast of such a sounding can hardly be palliated by displays of historical scholarship or sociological methodology, and I can only concede that when I speak of `Japan' I am picking out `a certain number of traits' and `deliberately forming a system from them' (Barthes 1994:747). Yet the `Japan' thus constructed seems to bristle with valuable lessons for Christian theology.
(1) The Strength of the Conventional
The first lesson I draw is a demystified insight into the conventionality of things, coupled with a deep respect for the conventions. Custom and convention form the central fibre of Japanese religious culture. Even the religious fanaticism that has emerged in certain periods and sects can often be channelled into the fairly harmless outlet of compulsive ritual gestures. The deadly intensity of dogmatic strife, recurrent in the West, has no counterpart in Japan, where religion is far less a matter of beliefs than of practices, and demands not a total commitment to truth but a compliant participation in the rituals of the group. In Europe the religious person brandishes ultimate certitudes, in Japan he or she goes along with the way things are done. In Europe religion is a radical surrender to the absolute; in Japan it is an adroit management of the relative. European thinkers have wrestled long and hard with the problems of theodicy, navigating between the abysses of fatalism and rationalism; Japan has eschewed this obsession with metaphysical coherence and ultimate grounds.
A Japanese tempering of Christianity would bring a toning down of massive claims, a new modesty and lightness in handling the constructs of creed and ritual. The moral, dogmatic and sacramental structures of Christianity have been absolutised, as embodying a permanent and universal cosmic order. But if we recall that they are human inventions, born in specific times and places, then we may reappropriate them in a demystified style. As ritualisations of human activity, orienting it to God as the source of its ultimate significance, the Jewish Torah, the Christian sacraments and all other such religious patterns of behaviour emerge from within that everyday human activity, shaping it in forms and conventions that become symbolically expressive of human finitude and hope. The claim that they are revealed from above has to be cashed in terms of their concrete historical formation.
`Revelation' can be taken to mean the emergence of ultimacy within a given tradition of conventional representations. It does not consist in new information or the happening of a supernatural event that cuts across the normal unfolding of the human quest of ultimacy. There are revelatory breakthroughs or thresholds within the laborious development of a tradition of religious words, concepts, stories and practices, privileged moments when things click into place, when there emerges a luminous perspective that both perfects the previous religious framework (through clarifying the ultimate sense of its conventional designations) and exceeds it (through an immediate tasting or touching of ultimacy that shows up all the conventions of discourse as "mere straw"). Most religious activity consists in a scrupulous tending of the language and practices that have served as vehicles of such revelatory breakthroughs. But even the most hallowed traditions may need to be overturned when they grow stale or archaic. Religious authority may absolutely forbid any tampering with the sacred vehicles: not a jot, not a tittle may be altered. Yet conventions remain intrinsically subordinate to the ultimacy to which they are supposed to keep us attuned. It is the name of the ultimate significance of the Torah that Paul can radically redefine its status; the same is true of Luther's rethinking of the sacraments. Breakthroughs to ultimacy can lead to a prophetic overhaul of the pre-given conventions, in that their merely functional status becomes apparent. Or the efficacy of the conventions may lead to their being seen as ultimate themselves, so that they are tenaciously conserved even when they have outlived their usefulness. This absolutisation of the conventions is a confusion of means with ends. Between iconoclasm and rigidity, Japan suggests a middle path in which the conventions are cherished, but in full awareness of their merely conventional status.
Japanese religion is deeply impregnated with a Buddhist sense of the conventional status of all language and thought. Religious ideas are samvrti-satya (screening, world-ensconced truth) not paramartha-satya (ultimate truth). Hence arises a sense that the substance of religion is its functionality, that religion is exhaustively defined by the salvation it brings, salvation in the sense of health and wholeness (Greek soteria, Latin salus) here and now. Shinto is devoid of eschatology and celebrates the present instant (naka-ima, `middle now'), and Japanese Buddhism carries over this focus on the present `thusness' of things. The eschatological elements in Japanese Buddhism tend to reduce to the ideal of `becoming a Buddha in this very body', stressed by the most powerful of the early Japanese Buddhist founders, Kobo Daishi (Kukai 774-835).
Japanese religion forswears the ambition of a direct raid on the ultimate. Ultimacy is a quality of the conventional, an adjectival rather than a substantive reality. And to tend the conventional with diligence is the best way to be attuned to this gracious ultimacy. Shinto does not articulate ultimacy or lay stress on it, for its values are vital rather than dogmatic. Japanese Buddhism uses such words as nirvana, buddha-nature, emptiness and enlightenment freely, but again without heavy emphasis. The Buddhist tendency to de-absolutisation, to relinquishment of clinging even to "ultimate realities", is carried through as a practical wisdom in Japan. The idea that all beings are already fundamentally enlightened took deep root in Japanese Buddhism, creating a pervasive optimism that made it less urgent to cling to salvific ultimates. The frenetic urgency of so much Western religious discourse seems from this vantage point to be a displacement of the absolute onto the conventional, a failure to bask in the enlightenment one already securely enjoys. To sit in meditation is already to be enlightened, according to Zen master Dogen (1200-1253). Since one already has the ultimate, one can sit back and cultivate the conventional, as the best means of remaining attuned to that gracious reality which cannot be directly articulated. Dogen teaches that when one lives, one must live to the full and when one dies, one must die the full. Outside the precincts of the Zen hall this ideal of living fully in the present and devoting oneself entirely to the task in hand is the secret of Japanese energy and enthusiasm. One does not cling to one's life; one lives it intensely. One does not devalue one's life; one lives it detachedly, in a spirit of play.
The Madhyamaka philosophy of the Three Treatise school, one of the first forms of Buddhism to be introduced into Japan, views attachment to views, dogmatic certitudes, subtle conceptual distinctions as treacherous screens against insight into the thusness of things. Zen accentuates this scepticism towards conceptual and dogmatic construction. Western dogmatism and conceptual confidence seems clamorous and barbaric when it breaks in on such a milieu; this is especially true of the current puritanical ideologies of `political correctness'. Liberation theology has not flourished in Japan, partly because of the murkiness of Japanese politics, partly because of the dominance of the unspoken and the cult of harmony in Japanese life, which makes it difficult to bring lurking prejudice out into the open. But perhaps liberation theology could learn from Japan's rather sceptical attitude to ideologies and activism. To tend a garden, or to pursue some other `way' of cultivation with diligence, is seen as a pursuit having its end and value in itself. Christians could accept this as a perfectly valid contribution to the Kingdom of God, for all its apolitical character. It is a salutary warning against over-rationalised and pragmatic views of human activity and against the Pelagian drivenness of many activists.
Westerners are irritated by the lack of passion with which Japanese respond to their political and religious convictions. Rather than see this as signifying an underdeveloped sense of the transcendent or of democratic liberty and justice, we might consider that the quizzical Japanese response shows up an element of delusion in our Western securities. All views are misleading and inadequate, so one aims at a harmonious consensus between them or at a serene co-existence. Attachment to views has never been unmasked as a vice in the West, where both conservative and liberal thinkers constantly seek to convert and conquer those who differ from them.
Just as the messianism and millenarianism of the Buddha Maitreya, which entered Japan in the early sixth century, has been quite diluted there, despite the rich variations to which this cult gave rise (see Sponberg and Hardacre 1988:171-284), Christian eschatological urgency risks falling flat in a Japanese milieu that may accept it as at best a useful convention. One recalls the troubling image of the apostate Jesuit in Endo's novel:
This country is a more terrible swamp than you can imagine. Whenever you plant a sapling in this swamp the roots begin to rot; the leaves grow yellow and wither. And we have planted the sapling of Christianity in this swamp... In Japan our God is just like that butterfly caught in the spider's web: only the exterior form of God remains, but it has already become a skeleton... The Japanese till this day have never had the concept of God; and they never will... There's something in this country that completely stifles the growth of Christianity (Endo 1969:237, 240, 241, 243-4)
Perhaps as Christianity discovers the conventionality of its own constructions it can better adjust to Japanese functionalism and conventionalism, and thus express its message in terms more intelligible to Japan.
(2) The Domestic Sacred
When religious convention is cherished, the sacred is not expected to invade our life from outside. Rather, the sacred is secreted within the domestic everyday. It is true that fearful gods, demons and spirits have played a great role in Japanese religious consciousness. The gods have a fierce aspect (ara-mitama) as well as a harmonious one (nigi-mitama). Superstition has not always been a harmless enhancement of everyday life. It has been mentally obnubilating and socially destructive. Much suffering was inflicted, even in recent times, by the `cold and implacable ostracism' of families supposed to be working magic through fox-spirits. Yet even `the misery perpetrated by these obstinate beliefs' (Blacker 1986:57-8) has only the proportions of village small-mindedness or a family nightmare, rather than the cosmic, impersonal character attained in western terrors of predestination and damnation.
Indian Buddhism offered a comprehensive philosophical account of the nature of reality as a whole, and was thus well equipped for its career as a universal religion. In China it was brought down to earth and cashed in terms of here and now benefits, ranging from the physical and political to the attainment of enlightenment or buddhahood in this very existence. When Buddhism came to Japan, a culture that has had no Axial breakthrough to absolute universal principle, it was further softened and humanised. While the cosmic immensities of its Indian origins were commemorated in the giant statue of Vairocana Buddha at Todai-ji in Nara, Buddhism accommodated itself to the Japanese stress on domestic values and to the local world of family and village.
The Mahayana insight that samsara is nirvana, that is, that one discovers nirvana in uncovering the ultimate emptiness of this dependently arisen world, is simplified in Japanese culture. The world is impermanent (mujo), a floating world (ukiyo), and that impermanence itself is its grace. Buddhism does provide a profound ontological underpinning; one can see Japanese lightness as a Zen enactment of impermanence, non-substantiality, non-clinging. But this is a rather diluted Buddhism, in which the cosmic vastitudes of the Kegon Sutra, the stunning paradoxes of the Diamond Sutra, the vision of absolute emptiness in the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras, are all toned down and domesticated.
The Japanese Buddhist schools show relatively little creative innovation at the level of conceptual construction. Inventiveness is seen rather in the practical and aesthetic reshaping of the details, the adjustment of the imported faith to the already very rich landscape of indigenous folk religion, the cashing of the great banknotes of Buddhist cosmology in the endless small change of a thousand rituals. Even visionary reformers such as Kukai, Honen (1133-1212), Shinran (1173-1262), Dogen and Nichiren (1222-1282) end up stressing particular practices of recitation, meditation or monastic routine. Around these practices shimmer cosmic implications, and these will be spelled out in more speculative texts, such as Shinran's Kyogyoshinsho or Dogen's Shobogenzo. Yet even these texts do not present tightly ordered systems comparable to those of Nagarjuna or Asanga in India, Chih-i or Fa-tsang in China, but rather mull over the utterances of predecessors within their respective traditions.
All the Buddhist schools in Japan, both those imported during the Nara and Heian periods, and the new schools of the Kamakura period, subsist against the quiet background of religious feeling which is built into Japanese culture and aesthetics. This constant, charming background murmur, this elusive, pervasive fragrance, is difficult to make the focus of explicit attention. It is a sense-surround effect, which academic accounts of Japanese ideas and customs rarely capture, and which is best exhibited in art and literature. In Japan there is no fixed borderline between the religious and the aesthetic, and this allows the sacred to insinuate itself into all departments of life, not as a disruptive theophany of the wholly Other, but as a familiar quality of the domestic environment. As the sacred is domesticated, the domestic is sacralised. Japanese homes still have characteristics of sacred space; you leave your shoes at the door; the kamidana (Shinto god shelf) and butsudan (family Buddhist altar) combine the presence of deceased relatives with that of gods and boshisattvas. The cosiness of the Japanese family is reproduced in Japanese religions. In Tenri, the city which is the headquarters of the new religion, Tenrikyo (derived from Shinto), visitors are greeted with the words `welcome home'.
The sacred, even at its most intense, is a presence distilled from familiar spots, from quiet groves or graveyards. The sacred is diffused, and though sacred and profane retain their constitutive opposition in particular contexts (once the sumo pad is purified, no woman may tread on it), nonetheless the sacred and the everyday permeate each other more freely than in the West. Japanese perceptions of the sacred are always functional to an interpersonal situation and evaporate if taken out of that situation. The fit space for the sacred is the village rather than the polis, the restricted cadre of Noh and the tea ceremony rather than the temples and amphitheatres where grandiose sacrifices and tragedies were enacted in Greece, the tidy compass of edifying tales rather than the great sprawl of Indian epic or biblical history. Modesty of scale does not exclude a proliferation of often terrifying fantasy in Japanese folktales, or such extreme performances as human sacrifice, the burial alive of miko to guarantee the stability of dams (hito-bashira). Japanese kami have a rather unnerving capacity for possessing women, using them as their shrines, as seen in the experience of the foundresses of Tenriky・and Omoto or the careers of blind girls trained as mediums in northern Honshu (Blacker 1986:120-1, 130-3, 142, 147). The narrative of the origins of the Kumano Shrines (Nagao/Mitsuhashi 1983:8-28), though it takes the unpretentious form of a folk tale or fairy tale, has grandiose mythic motifs, such as the miraculous birth of a divine child. Nagao and Mitsuhashi even try to invest it with all the theological weight of the Christian doctrine of the Atonement. Such tales begin as myths, then become legend, then katarimono (heroic tales), and finally mukashibanashi, tales of long ago (see Miyake 1994:135-72). But even in their guise as myths they do not strive after the cosmic sweep of patriarchal mythic constructions such as those of the Vedas or ancient Greece.
This modesty of scale matches a lightness and fragility in the Japanese sense of worldhood, which makes it ill-suited to heavy philosophical and theological interrogation. Such interrogation would trample on the delicacy of a world that shows itself only in concentrated moments, in lyrics of extreme brevity and suggestiveness, in art or calligraphy born of a fleeting occasion and that is more performance than monument. Even the densely allusive Noh-plays focus on a single highly-charged moment; they do not project a wide-ranging vision of fate, cosmos, ethics, politics and history as Greek tragedy aspires to do. The tentacular, paratactic character of the Japanese language lays it open to the registration of fleeting mood, whereas the sterner syntax of Sanskrit, Greek and Latin promoted the erection of more forbidding systems of thought. Japan, a farm and family centered island country, sustained a widely diffused high culture, creatively transforming every tradition its received. It did this by reliving and reshaping the traditions, rather than by any ambitious project of philosophical rationalisation and reprocessing.
Christianity can adjust to this modesty of scale by rediscovering its own local character, the way that it is actualised as a series of local performances by small communities, and by recontextualising its vast proud claims to universality. Buddhism has already given the lead in showing how sweeping universal directives can be given body in carefully tended local traditions. These local formations are not mere variants or supplements, or experiments with local colour, to be assessed from the higher vantage of the pure universal itself. Rather they are the only form in which the tradition, Buddhist or Christian, concretely exists, and a diminution of their local character would not raise them to the universal but merely enfeeble them.
(3) The Power of Ritual
Many have noted that ritual `pervades Japanese life - all segments of its society (including its officials), both ancient and modern - more so than does religious doctrine' (Plutschow 1990:ix). The dependable rituals of daily life that keep grossness at bay are one of the supreme amenities of Japan. Western thinkers may be tempted to dismiss such phenomena as of no intellectual interest. Ritual seems to have little to do with thought: `Does not to think mean to disengage oneself from what is stereotyped, repetitive, fixed in advance, the very traits with are characteristic of rite?' (Malamoud 1989:6). Plotinus declared, `It is for those august beings to come to me, not I to them', and John Toland saw rites as `bearable nonsenses' (Schmidt 1994:121), echoing Calvin's judgment on the English liturgy as tolerabiles ineptiae. Rituals are mere conventions, and that seems to render them inessential and insubstantial.
But a new significance accrues to ritual when we begin to realise that the more substantial activities of life and thought turn out to be conventions too. If I, as a visitor to the Soto Zen temple in Sugamo, Tokyo, wash the knee of the statue of Kannon (Kuan-yin) in search of healing for my own knee, I objectify my ailment and insert it into a symbolic fabric. The pain is eased by being interpreted, by being reconstructed as an element in a wider context, with which it enjoys a meaningful connection. This religious acting-out positions me and my knee themselves as conventional constructs, and attunes us to the ultimacy lodged within the conventional. The ultimate is not the statue or the bodhisattva it represents; these, too, are conventional constructs. The ultimate is what these conventions indicate, and indicate all the better in view of their manifest conventionality.
To engage in ritual behaviour is to embrace conventionality as the very fabric of life. The calming effect of ritual, the suspension of the stress of constant doubting and questioning, produces a distinctive wisdom, in which Japan shines, an awareness that we are always playing with conventions, even in the most sober routines of work or of scientific thought. Ritual is a recognition of our bodiliness, our mortality, our social insertion; it focusses our existence not only in subjective recollection but also in an objective patterning of space and time, making for an integral spiritual being-in-the-world. But it is also a lightening of these heavy realities, placing our bodies and our mortality within symbolic patterns that confer conventional meanings on them, as pieces of wood acquire conventional meanings on a chessboard, so that all of life becomes a meaningful game.
Perhaps the following statement on ritual needs to be modified by an emphasis on conventionality:
The self is not utterly unique and self-generated, and it cannot control life as it wishes. This is no doubt one of the deepest reasons for the common resentment of ritual: it locates and imprisons us in a particular reality whose consequences can no longer be avoided... In the specificity of the wedding ritual and its implications, the singular and immortal youth... must become merely one of many mortals who have passed this way before. The autonomous and infinitely free self is transformed ritually into `groom' (remorselessly implying the series `father,' `grandfather,' and dead `ancestor'). The ritual makes him take his place in the cycle of the generations... He becomes what he had always undeniably been, a bodily, mortal being. Through ritual, the self is discovered as a public, external reality, which can be known only through perspectives mediated by others and especially by transcendent others: the self is something already determined and presented, which can be understood above all and most truly in the ritual act itself. (Zuesse 1987:406-7)
There is an essentialism of the self here, which misses the degree to which ritual is a conventional construction of selfhood, a creative game in which a community takes the biological givens and weaves from them a fabric of roles and relationships that varies from culture to culture. Ritual convention is easily absolutized, as the rules of a game come to seem sacrosanct. Culture is mistaken for nature. The ritualistic pluralism of the modern world and particularly of Japan can make rites seem inept and arbitrary if one holds to the old essentialism that would have rites directly reflect invariant natural processes and relations. If ritual is brought closer to art, as an inventive activity of celebration and interpretation, it does not lose the gravity of its existential content, but it is now an enhancement of life and is no longer experienced as forcing life into a mould.
The funeral of emperor Showa exhibited the discretion of a sacred ritual which is but one step away from the polite rituals of daily life: `A ceremony which may well have been seen as religious by members of the Shinto establishment, and visiting religious specialists, could thus be presented to the outside world, if necessary, as purely ceremonial in a secular sense' (Hendry 1996:301). Conversely, Roland Barthes noted that Japanese politeness is a religion, in the sense that it contains something sacred (ib., 287). Rational customs and hygiene flow over into purely superstitious observances (never serve the rice in a single helping, etc) with no clear border to differentiate the former from the latter. The sensuality of the hot springs is an aesthetic continuation of highly ritualised daily hygiene, which is equivalent to godliness, not just `next to godliness' in the Japanese psyche. A high virtue in the Shinto world is to be kiyoshii - pure, clean.
In Greece, too, table manners and the sacred joined hands: after the feast of the opening of the jars (pithoigia) during the Anthesterion, the wine would not be touched for several months until spring - such restraints are of the essence both of ritual and of etiquette. Similarly, in ancient India there was an elaborate system of taboos surrounding leftover food: `As often happens in the case of alimentary prohibitions, a casuistry developed with a view to preventing the fear of pollution from turning into phobia which would paralyse all activity, especially ritual activity' (Malamoud 1989:16). Yet stretching behind these practices in Greece and India are the lofty cosmic perspectives of Axial civilisations, whereas in Japan any such background remains dim and vague, and the everyday detail of the rituality is foregrounded. Westerners would override such details to tackle the big questions, but Japanese are sceptical about such overleaping of the conventional. The cultivation of custom has kept Japanese civilisation in touch with abiding values for thousands of years. Any pretentions of philosophy or science or religious absolutism to reveal a shorter way to these or deeper values will be taken with a pinch of salt.
Japanese society is knit together by the force of custom. Westerners seek rational grounds for moral obligation, or at least some mysterious `moral sense'; but in Japan the sufficient ground for ethical behaviour or even heroism is the awareness that `this is the way things are done'. Duty rests less on proven principles than on conventions. Psychologically, the binding force of convention is just as strong as that of principle. In the West convention is systematically questioned in light of principle, with largely destructive results. Just as neoclassical poets like Ben Jonson play with conventions, and that play of conventions is itself the poetry, so Japanese life is a constant play of conventions, and that play itself is the only approximation to ethical or religious ultimacy. The Westerner in Japan may relish a lightening of the burden of principle, and may elude the equal burden of convention that the Japanese labour under. It is the gap between the two moral orders that makes Japan a paradise for escapists.
The frontiers between moral duty and etiquette are not easy to draw in Japan. The maintenance of etiquette is a major duty of the entire society. Japan is a land of masks; all recognise the distinction between polite surface tatemae and the underlying honne. This leads to great tolerance of hypocrisy or at least to a toning down of the contrast between hypocrisy and integrity which is so strong in Western moral rhetoric. The culture of the mask has much to be said for it.
Japanese are well aware that something which may appear superficial and unnecessary has a much deeper structural function... Surfaces do matter... You shouldn't play with rituals. Masks are never simply mere masks... There is nothing liberating in this typical Western gesture of stealing the masks and showing the true face. What you discover is something absolutely disgusting. (Slavoj Zizek, interview with C-Theory on the Internet)
Great significance attaches to surface gestures in Japan; one's deep convictions about truth are of less importance than one's conformity to social convention:
The officials kept insisting to the Christians that to trample on the fumie [image of Christ] was no more than a formality. All you had to do was to put your foot on it. If you did that, nobody cared what you believed. (Endo 1969:190)
Christians can meet this situation by placing ritual at the forefront of their mission. The campaign against the fingerprinting of Koreans focussed on a ritual rather than on the big issues of human rights, on the tatemae rather than the honne, to considerable effect. To substitute quietly eloquent gesture for blatant slogans, to deal skilfully in conventions rather than pretend to name the absolute, is the oblique strategy Christianity should follow in Japan. That obliqueness espouses the contours of Japanese space. Nor is it a false mask for the Christian. Obliqueness may suit the Gospel better than the straight lines of dogmatic tradition, linking up with the delicacy and discretion of the parables of Jesus.
(4) The Play of the World
The Japanese language is not hospitable to abstraction, and Japanese religions also forswear the nebulous for attention to precise details. Japanese sensibility cherishes the little things of everyday life, not straining beyond them to philosophic import as even lyric poets do in the West, but letting them be, and breathe, in their modesty, their silence.
Most of the recurrent objects in Basho's poems are the typically sacred Japanese things: rice, tea, sake, radishes, pines, morning-glory, the moon. He is content to name these familiar realities, to appreciate them in their being, with no effort of reflection and no radical questioning of their ontological status. These cherished familiar things quietly gather about themselves the whole play of the world. Rice is drawn from a cool, dark store-place, from the depths of the earth; it tells of the changing seasons and the open sky; it is produced by mortals, as a high achievement of their civilisation, and shared by mortals as the center of their life together; it is a gift of the gods, surrounded by mild taboos (the necessity, drilled into children, of eating the very last grain) - as in the case of the pitcher described by Heidegger, the fourfold of earth, sky, mortals, gods, is brought into play about the thing. The ceremony of cooking and eating rice honors the thing so as to let it unfold world. One dwells within a world thus ritualised, and feels no need to get beyond it to a transcendent realm.
In the West this natural sense of the sacredness of daily life has been lost. It takes a poet to wonder at the being-there of common things. `Da erglanzt in reiner Helle/Auf dem Tische Brot und Wein' (Trakl). True, in France wine and other such commodities add distinction to life, the little rituals that surround them are the tiny details that signify civilisation. In all countries there are cherished familiar homely things which reassure as a familiar icon does. Nonetheless, these are considered to belong to the secular sphere. In the religious sphere, the things may become sacred, but only as assumed into a sacramental system, as symbols of the transcendent. This dualism has not taken hold in Japanese culture.
If we try out Heideggerian ways of thinking about the distinctive possibilities of being-in-the-world that have been created and explored in Japan - the clearing of being (Lichtung des Seins) that has taken place in this culture - we may be able to develop a topology of the distinctively Japanese way of naming and situating `the worlding of world' and `the thinging of things' (the phenomenality of the be-ing of beings). Such an exhibition of the essence of Japanese aesthetic and religious vision would reveal it to be a reserve for human thought comparable to the Greek lighting-up of being. My illustrious semi-compatriot Lafcadio Hearn, who found in Japan the Greek gods he had sought since childhood, is one of many who have beckoned in this direction. But most efforts to articulate these perceptions end up floundering in the generalities and stereotypes of nihonjinron (chauvinistic Japanology) or becoming bogged down in the details of art history or literary history.
Speaking in very general terms, one may say that Japanese religiosity is immanentist to a high degree, tending to curtail dogmatic conviction about transcendent realities and to draw the religious feelings back to the this-worldly realm of the family, the village, local deities, local nature. The economy of virtue and humanity developed within this immanentist horizon has often been admired by westerners, who may conclude tht `Japan has nothing whatever to gain by conversion to Christianity, either morally or otherwise, but very much to lose' (Hearn 1988:xii).
The transcendent, the absolute, has no recognizable place in Shinto representations or practice. In Shinto ritual, there is no transubstantiation that raises rice or sake to a new sacred plane. I surmise that Japanese poets aim less at transforming the natural objects they name, than at elaborating on the collective consensus that has given these things a fixed place within the culture. The epiphany of rice or sake in a haiku is less the shock of the new than a poignant rediscovery of the familiar. The thought of the sacred in Japan is not very dialectical - there is no Blake or Lawrence to discover new sacred dimensions and shatter old idols. Dogen's vision of the Buddha-nature in all things, and his non-discrimination between clean and unclean, is perhaps the most revolutionary thinking of the sacred in Japan. Yet the Zen lifestyle is so blended into the normal domestic one that it becomes an enhanced, recollected version of everyday household ritual. A surplus of non-functional ritualisation gives an extra bounce to cleaning activities in Japan, and this is maximised in the completely non-functional cleaning which is the major work (samu) performed in Zen temples. Everyday activities become do (ways) - swordplay, archery, judo, sumo, ikebana, calligraphy, go - and specifically religious activities - sutra chanting, meditation - are do in almost the same sense. Religion shades off into athletic exercise and athleticism into religion.
The Japanese gods originate as the spirit of a locality, experienced in masked dances (kagura), without a name or identity that can be pinned down. Their vagueness makes them a benign diffuse sense of nature's encompassing sacred presence. Such foundational documents as the Kojiki do not confer memorable individuality on the gods and heroes, but take us through the wonderful or terrifying situations characteristic of folktales. Whereas Greece developed such folk material to the full-blooded plastic and dramatic representation which gives vivid personality to figures such as Zeus, Aphrodite, Apollo, the development of Japanese religious thought leaves the personalities of the gods vague, and tends even toward that pallid routinisation we find in Roman religion. There is no iconography of the Shinto gods (excluding divinised humans such as Sugawara Michizane or Tokugawa Ieyasu, the "seven lucky gods" of far-flung origin, and the fox as image of Inari). "The people have not cared to idolize Kami, even to their spiritual sight" (T. Harada, quoted, Herbert 1967:23). One cannot imagine them being praised in the Greek manner: "All the gods are majestic and beautiful and their beauty is overwhelming" (Plotinus, Enn. V 8.3, trans. Armstrong). The gods are discreet, comforting family presences: "The most characteristic feature of Shinto is a basic conviction that Gods (Kami), men and the whole of Nature were actually born of the same parents, and are therefore of the same kin" (Herbert 1967:21).
Transcendence, divine intervention, divine self-revelation are concepts that never gather force and definition because the initial imagining of the divine is so mild. Or rather the kami are a web of `elusive, enigmatic, heterogeneous' ambivalent and fundamentally amoral forces (Blacker 1986:34), placated by ritual correctness and avoidness of pollution; the pollution, even the abhorred `red pollution' of menstrual blood has no associations of moral guilt (42). The Japanese word for sin, tsumi, originally means pollution.The vertical three-layered universe of the Kojiki is not typical of Japanese religion, which tends to reduce hierarchical structures to an indeterminate landscape of shifting moods. Thus the six realms of Buddhism were never fully integrated into popular belief. Buddhist `heavens and hells, the only destinations of the dead to assume real importance, were projected on to those very mountains which former generations had recognised to be the dwelling-place of kami or the dead' (82).
The Hebrew sublime, the adoration of a holy, transcendent God, creator of heaven and earth, seems to exceed the reach of the Japanese imagination or even of Japanese philosophical reflection as tutored by Buddhism. The distinctiveness of the sense of the sacred in Japan as in Greece is rooted in a distinctive being-in-the-world, affected by the physical environment. To introduce the biblical kerygma into the Japanese world is to risk inflicting brutal cultural damage. Happily, Japan turns a resistant face to the Western mind, steeped in the biblical sense of transcendence and the tradition of discussing the being of God in metaphysical terms. I am mistrustful of the summary judgements which Christians often pronounce on Japanese immanentism, such as the following, from the first book ever written by a Korean on Japanese Buddhism: `The absence of transcendence and negation in Japanese thought in general is not a mere religio-philosophical problem; it constitutes in my mind the core issue, one directly related to the tragic history of modern Japan that culminated in the nuclear holocaust of Hiroshima and Nagasaki' (Keel 1995:7).
If Christian thinkers engage the texture of Japanese religious aesthetics and aesthetic religiosity, they may temper and refine their own Christian vision while at the same time beginning an acculturation of the Gospel to Japanese culture. Older missionaries claimed that Christianity can enter Japanese life only by radically reshaping Japanese culture as Hellenistic culture was reshaped by the early church (see Offner/Van Straelen 1963:267). One recalls General MacArthur's expectation that Christianity would `fill the spiritual vacuum left in the Japanese life by the collapse of their past faith' (Hardacre 1989:135). Today, we might entertain the reverse expectation: a renewal of Christianity by transplanting it in the Japanese milieu. This would demand letting go of traditional Christian identities, something Japanese Christians who have found in their Western faith a freedom from the constraints of Japanese culture might find particularly difficult to do. Moreover, it presumes that Japan is not a total blank nor a climate intrinsically hostile to the ultimate truths of Christianity.
This new modesty in our approach to a non-Christian culture entails that we rethink the more aggressive approach that the early church took to Hellenistic culture. The resemblances between Japanese religiosity and the Hellenistic religiosity with which Christianity had to deal in the early centuries is striking. Paul Knitter claims that the syncretistic religion of that time cannot be compared with modern religious pluralism, and that the early church's rejection of religious pluralism back then `was more a matter of orthopraxis than orthodoxy' (Knitter 1996:71). In fact the early Christians did make an effort at pluralistic dialogue with Judaism and Hellenism. But Judaism was too quickly subordinated and subsumed and paganism too quickly denounced; the polemic against idolatry in particular showed little sensitivity to the human and religious riches of Greek polytheism. There is some fanatical intolerance built into the foundations both of Judaism and of Christianity, and this must be retrieved and healed as we learn to practise a more generous conversation with the religious other.
The negotiation between Japanese sacrality and biblical transcendence can be smoothed by recalling the economy of the relations between Israel and the religious cultures surrounding it. Antonius H.J. Gunneweg points out that the patriarchal narratives point to a pre-Israelitic, pre-Yahwistic polytheism, whose gods were only retrospectively identified with Yahweh; that the story of Joseph depends on the international phenomenon of Wisdom literature; that the tales of desert wanderings go back to local stories about particular oases; that Sinai is but one of the many holy mountains of old religious lore; that the Law revealed there has close connections with common oriental law and may be identical with the law of Canaan; that the cult of Israel exhibits many parallels with Canaanite and other oriental religions; that the temple of Solomon followed foreign models; that the Jerusalem priesthood and monarchy derive from old Canaanite sources; that Israel's historicisation of the Canaanite calender by linking it to historical events of salvation conversely brings salvation history back to the cyclic annual recurrence of mythical time; that the parallel between the exodus and the cosmic mastery of chaos in the creation myth is but one example of this (Gunneweg 1983:211-24). Such was the practice of inculturation in ancient Israel. But inculturation cannot proceed in this blind, instinctive, and violent way today. It has to adopt the sophisticated and self-conscious attitude of a civilisation which is exposed to secularism. To simply add Japanese ornament to Christian liturgy, or to take over the sacred mountains of Japan as locales for Christian prayer, are questionable strategies, for the biblical word and reflection on it are the only guarantor of convincing liturgical action. We can best engage with Japanese religion through scholarship and philosophical critique, not by adding its forms arbitrarily to those of the biblical kerygma and its sacramental enactment. Japanese elements are adopted only because they have objective sense and value in themselves, not merely as cultural trappings; the integration of meditation, Buddhist philosophical analysis, gestures, music, language in the liturgy would be a real improvement on the pallid translatese which has prevailed. Similarly, Christian morality could not be brought into direct conjunction with oriental codes of morality; rather the two traditions must meet against the background of our shared secular culture, with its concern with human rights and global responsibility. The challenge of interreligious encounter, against the modern secular background, is that both traditions must present their fundamental orientation and so are sent back to their sources in order to retrieve that orientation in an ongoing process of critical regrounding.
The rhythms and the atmosphere of a mythic cosmos are far more present in Old Testament religion than we often realise. What distinguishes Israel is the critical discernment it brings to the traditions it has received from elsewhere (though similar efforts of discernment can be discerned in other oriental religions, as Gunneweg remarks). In Japan, Christianity, like Buddhism before it, could bring to the Japanese cultural and religious milieu a critical relativizing, inspired by the vision of the transcendent God and of the relations of created and sinful humanity to this God. In return, the Japanese milieu can temper and revise our traditions about God and humanity.
(6) Maternal Divinity
The Japanese equivalent of the creation narrative is the tale of a mother, Izanami, sister-consort of Izanagi. Fifteen gods are listed before this pair, but the effort to find a deep metaphysical cosmogony in those obscure names is unconvincing (see Herbert 1967:234-51). After a less successful initial attempt, spoilt because Izanami improperly speaks out of turn in their sexual ritual, the couple give birth successively to fourteen islands of Western Japan and to thirty-five gods, including those of the sea, rivers, wind, trees, mountains, plains. The last of these, the god of fire, is fatal to Izanami. Thus at the origins of the Japanese cosmos we find not an all-powerful supreme being, but a mother who dies in childbirth and who is bitterly mourned by her spouse. The image of creation as a mother giving birth to islands is also found in Polynesian myth (Matsumae 1977:18). One imagines an early Japan, basking in the atmosphere of the Pacific, unaffected by the massive impact of China. Okinawa, annexed by Japan only in the nineteenth century, seems to have retained this kinship with other Pacific islands.
Sixteen more gods are born of the blood of the fire-god, killed by his father, and another twenty-six on the occasion of Izanagi's self-purification after a visit to the underworld, a place of pollution, in search of Izanami. From his left eye comes the sun-goddess Amaterasu, who rules the heavenly world, from his right eye the moon-goddess Tsukuyomi who rules the underworld (and who never becomes very important in the life-loving Japanese mythological imagination), and from his nose the storm-god Susanoo who rules the sea. All this is a later genealogy connecting previously independent figures (Matsumae 1977:43). Susanoo throws a tantrum, wanting to go the land of his mother (sic), Izanami, thus angering his father. Izanagi expels Susanoo, but it is Izanagi who henceforth disappears from the scene, leaving the Japanese mythological landscape without a father-figure. Nishida Nagao tries to see in Susanoo's descent to the underworld a manifestation of God's infinite love (Nishida/Mitsuhashi 1983:117), but it seems clear that Susanoo is the antipodes of an infinitely transcendent Father.
Susanoo also makes a lot of trouble for his sister, Amaterasu, who withdraws into a cave, plunging the world in darkness. This cosmic crisis is solved by a playful strategy: The domestic character of Japan's founding myths, drawn from the world of children, a pre-Oedipal world, reveal a soft core which the later overlay of Confucian and military culture could never remove. A haughty big sister and a naughty little brother are the supreme gods in the Japanese pantheon.
Amaterasu, seen from the seventh century as the ancestress of the imperial line, is the personification of the maternal. Consider the experience of Kurozumi Munetada (1780-1850), founder of the Kurozumikyo (a Shintoist sect):
While he thus worshipped, he felt the rays of light and life-giving warmth fill his breast and believed that the sun-spirit (yo-ki) had completely possessed him. His long illness seemed to vanish like the morning dew before the rising sun, and his whole nature thrilled with inexpressible joy and gratitude. He believed firmly that he had attained oneness with Amaterasu-O-Mi-Kami, the source of universal life, and at the same time that he had realized his ideal of becoming a god while yet alive (ware iki-nagara ni shite kami). His life ideal was attained not by avoidance of doing conscious wrong, by self-exertion or introspection as he had formerly imagined; but by inspiration and ecstatic experience through the grace of the Sun-Goddess. (Hepner 1981:63)
Here we have a step back from moral and societal constraints to a pre-Oedipal narcissistic oceanic identification with Mother. `The world view of the Japanese new religions conceives of the individual, society, nature, and the universe as an integrated system vitalized by a single principle' (Hardacre 1986:12).
The harmony (wa) that is a central Japanese value is grounded in the sense that gods, humans and the natural cosmos are connected by intimate family bonds. Japanese life opens onto the natural cosmos with an intimacy and harmony that survives even today - temples, shrines, hot springs are built into natural settings; even in Tokyo the murmur of the cicada pervades the flimsy dwellings (whose inbuilt obsolescence is in the old tradition of Japanese architecture), and the trembling of the ground beneath reminds one that human habitation is a fragile perch within the cosmic environment. Zen Buddhism is usually practised in settings open to the natural environment; even in Tokyo a temple garden, the natural texture of the wood, the pure sound of the bell, give to zazen the feel of a return to nature, a participation in a totally interconnected cosmos. But all other forms of Buddhism also preserve a connection with nature, as do the Noh plays, which are impregnated with a Buddhist sensibility, while at a more primordial level representing `concealed shamanic rituals' (Blacker 1986:31). The land of Japan itself is figured as a maternal presence. `The view that the entire geographical setting of Japan and the Japanese landscape are themselves sacred, is affirmed through early sacred texts such as the Kojiki' (Reader 1994:188). Today this survives in pragmatic amalgamations with the spectator culture of tourism: `Tourists, as they ascend Fuji, can now take a bus up to the fifth station before walking up to the tenth station at the top, and in doing so can find some sense of continuity with the ascetic ascents of the past' (192).
The Christian sense that `all is grace' has a correlative in the Japanese sense of the gift. No country has made so elaborate a ritual of the giving and receiving of presents, reflecting a sense that all is gift. Yet all is fragile, too. The Buddhist emphasis on impermanence chimes well with indigenous Japanese sensibility, bathing classical Japanese literature in the mono no aware (the pathos of things), which can lead to sentimentality, but also to a discreet and appreciative handling of life's precious moments. This chimes in turn with an attitude of compassion, embodied in the bodhisattvas Kannon (`she who sees the cries of the world') and Jizo, patron of women and babies (especially the mizuko, miscarried or aborted children), and guide of travellers. Like everything else in Japan, the sentiment of pity is held within civilised bounds and tends to have a domestic rather than cosmic field of operation. The gentle, compassionate aspects of the Lotus Sutra (especially the chapter known as the Kannon Sutra) are what most chimes with the spirit of Japanese Buddhism. This Sutra presents a compassionate, fatherly Buddha, who helps his children attain salvation by an ingenious deployment of skilful means.
The ingenious climax of Endo's novel gives a hint to a rethinking of God and Christ for the Japanese: the protagonist is forced to step on the fumie in order to release Christians from torture:
How his foot aches! And then the Christ in bronze speaks to the priest: `Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world' (Endo 1969:271).
One can understand the identification of a group with its totem from the Japanese attitude to rice. Harrison's remarks are suggestive: `You abstain from your totem as a rule because of its sanctity, i.e. because it is a great focus of mana; you eat a little with infinite precautions because you want that mana and seek its multiplication. This double-edged attitude to things sacred lies at the very foundation of the ideas both of sacrament and sacrifice' (Harrison 1977:124). Totems create chauvinistic and exclusive communities: the mana of the human group is felt as continuous with that of the plant or animal group (126) and foreign groups are identified with foreign totems (bata-kusai, `smelling of butter'). To be sure, this notion of totems and this unitary conception of sacrifice are old-fashioned (Detienne/Vernant 1979:7-35). At least it can be said that the care surrounding rice suggests a sacral ordering of the social that in other cultures is expressed in different kinds of taboo-formation.
The homa (J. goma) or sacrifice by fire, derived from Vedic foundations, was practised by Buddhists since at least the sixth century. The conservativism of ritual assured its survival in Japanese Buddhism. The objects of sacrifice are a great variety of alimentary and vegetable products, which are entirely consumed in the fire. The sacrifice is made even to exalted figures such as Kannon, Sakyamuni, and Amitabha; it is a ritual meal in which they are fed.. The ceremony includes meditative interiorisation, the `inner homa'. For the performer, a sacrifice of self is the heart of the ritual (Strickmann 1996:337-47):
Homa can be observed everywhere. In certain Japanese temples it is performed daily, in others monthly, and in still others yearly. It is generally performed by a solitary officiant, and there is normally no congregation... It is only in its most acclimatised manifestations that the homa becomes a public spectacle: a great bonfire is lit outdoors, often ending with an ordeal of walking on the burning embers. (51)
The survival of the rite was facilitated through its codification in manuals under the influence of the Chinese bureaucratic tradition (which was especially strong in Taoism, with its sacrifices of written paper). It is squared with Buddhist orthodoxy through its linkage to canonical scriptures, especially the Mahavairocana-s釦ra (J. Dainichi-kyo), and the exclusion of animal victims. Japanese flexibility about the threshold between sacred and secular is seen in the way this esoteric rite is linked directly to contemporary Japanese life. Little sticks (gomagi) carrying written requests are thrown in the fire; this is the real raison d'être of the ritual in Japanese society today (368), and no doubt the reason for its adoption in new religions such as the Agon-shu and the Shinnyo-kyo (where the officiant is a woman, the daughter of the founder). Without such domestication the homa could be `a frightening and sinister event' for non-Buddhist Indians (479).
The clash between the Japanese inner-worldly sacred and biblical transcendence is most dramatic in the case of the doctrine of atonement. The notion that God's honor could be satisfied only by a blood sacrifice has taken deep root in the Christian imagination. Hebrews 9.22 - `without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins' - expresses a principle which was widespread in New Testament times. If this principle has become remote and inaccessible to contemporary people, it is doubly meaningless in a Japanese horizon, where blood is thought of as dirty and contaminating, the very opposite of kiyoshii, as Thomas Immoos points out. Christianity's rhetoric of the Precious Blood, the Blood of God (Ignatius of Antioch), finds little foothold in Japanese sensibility. It is not that the sacrality of blood is incomprehensible, but that the connotations of pollution are so strong. Blood was not positively appropriated in its sacrality; rather the taboo mechanism worked negatively. Butchers became eta (outcasts); and `the taboo against blood is the source of discrimination against women in Japan' (Maketa 1981:52).
Blood was judged to be one source of pollution in this society; consequently, women were viewed as unclean not only at the time of menstruation, but also after childbirth. Shinto priests had to avoid sexual intercourse for fixed periods before officiating in rites. The participation of women in communal religious rituals and their entry into Shinto shrines and sacred places (and, after the entrance of Buddhism into Japan, Buddhist temples) were governed by concerns about pollution. After the 6th century, women gradually faded from Japan's Imperial line, while the profession of shamaness remained an option fro some. Yet, all women continued to carry the stigma associated with their biology. (Watt, section II)
In any case the theological issue is a red herring, if we accept that the point of the Epistle to the Hebrews is `the dissolution of sacrifice as cultic practice and the breaking up of the sacrifice-idea as a soteriological category' (Ingolf U. Dalferth in TRE 25:291-2). Christ's saving death can be apprehended in a different set of cultural representations which do not emphasise the sacrificial spilling of blood.
Watsuji Tetsuro and others have found the theme of a god who suffers, dies and is resurrected, and whose bloodshed brings salvation, in such texts as the engi of Kumano shrine, whose maltreated heroine is forced to climb a hill, hands and feet bleeding, and is decapitated at the summit. Her royal infant nonetheless continues to suckle at her breast, and she undergoes an apotheosis (Nishida/Mitsuhashi 1983:2-60). But the shedding of blood here seems merely a demonstration of her compassionate altruism; the tale bears a strong Buddhist imprint, and the heroine is a self-sacrificing bodhisattva. It is not the blood as such that purifies. The rather macabre story is elevated by being read in this bodhisattva key, but to paint the Christian pattern of incarnation, passion, death and resurrection onto it is a distortion.
Sacrifice in general has been toned down in the East Asian cultural sphere. In China `the disturbing nature of local sacrificial cults of malevolent demons or spirits of the dead that may attract a large and riot-prone following and upset the order of society is clearly evinced... Sacrifice seems to have been viewed as a "law-and-order" problem. At any rate, its practice was restricted by law to the nobility, while the full-scale cosmic sacrifice was the exclusive privilege of the ruler' (Heesterman 1993:84-5). Shinto has offerings of rice and sake - shared as a communion. The emperor performs sacrificial rituals at the beginning of his reign. The Daijosai is an offering of rice and rice-wine to the kami; the emperor partakes of the sacred food. The abundant discussion of this ritual at the beginning of the present imperial reign revealed `subtle and intractable mysteries that lie beneath the seemingly simple surface of Shinto' (Robert Ellwood, quoted, Mayer 1992:70).
At a 'naked festival' near Nagoya thousands of loincloth-clad men splash one another with water and chase the one chosen as scapegoat or pharmakos, throwing him into the river. This lends some plausibility to the Frazerian idea, amplified by Rene Girard, that scapegoat rituals are a domestication of `irrational mass violence against individuals' (McLean 1990:169). Ritual here produces order out of chaos, renewing the life-power (musubi) that has been used up in the year's efforts. Pollution (kegare) is conceived as exhausting the life-power (ki-kareru), so purification revitalises. The classical sense of a festival is preserved, only slightly dinted by the leveling requirements of modern urban order. A festival is `a social-cultural construct involving the periodic assembling of the members of a social group, who observe non-everyday behavior focusing on a sacred symbol, thereby (re)-confirming sensation of community (the intuitive sensation that "we" are all part of the same in-group) which has grown weak in the vicissitudes of everyday life' (Ashida 1994). Yukio Mishima's account of such festivals is worth quoting:
Blue-collar workers from huge factories, bank tellers, construction workers - they have bravely cast aside all clothing in favor of the ancient loincloth, they have reclaimed their right to be living males, they have regained joy, fierceness, laughter, and all the primitive attributes of man. If only for a day, thanks to their healthy young bodies, thanks to our primitive past, they are once again the essential man. (Starrs 1994:15)
The orgiastic and orectic explosion of energy at Shinto festivals may be a happy transformation of archaic forms of Dionysan sacrificial frenzy. The images of white and black horses displayed on panels at shrines on New Year's night are a reminiscence of earlier horse sacrifices, whose purpose was to secure a favorable mix of sun and rain; they retain a pragmatic petitionary function in contemporary Japan, `reflecting the all-encompassing nature of Japanese religiosity, in which all human needs and desires are regarded as legitimate issues for which to call upon spiritual help of the kami and buddhas' (Reader 1991:43).
Sacrifice lies obscurely in the background of Japanese religion. The ritual activities of a sacrificial tinge to be found in Japan today are at the service of vitality and renewal. My impression of Shinto festivals is that they express a pagan openness to life, including the erotic, which has survived less well in Europe because of a one-sided, puritanical proscription of pagan culture. The challenge to Christianity is to put its ritual conventions at the service of the life-energies in the here and now and to restore a full-blooded sense to its language of renewal, purification, communion, so that it can intersect with people's vital instincts.
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