Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Robert Ellwood Introduces Japanese Religions

Robert Ellwood has been writing on religion and religious movements for quite some time. I recently contacted him about his new book Introducing Japanese Religion (Routledge, 2007). He agreed to an interview through direct responses to my questions as well as exccerpts from his book.

Morehead's Musings: Dr. Ellwood, thank you for agreeing to discuss your new book from Routledge as part of their World Religion Series. What was it that led you to have an interest in Japanese religions, and then to agree to write this introduction to the topic for the publisher?

Robert Ellwood: It was observation of Japanese religion as a Navy chaplain, asking inner questions about how to understand both Shinto and Buddhism, and my own Christian faith, in the same world; reading Eliade, which gave me a new way of looking at it than just the "these people believe this, we believe that" kind of approach, but also finding common structures of sacred and profane space and time (which my rather ritualistic Episcopal church certainly had like the Japanese, with their colorful festivals and richly set-apart temples and shrines). So, not wanting to stay in the Navy the rest of my life and having nothng better to do, I decided to apply for graduate work in History of Religion at the University of Chicago, where Eliade then was. As for this particular book, written long after I retired in 1997, that was because Charles Prebish (he is now at Utah State, incidentally) unexpectedly me to write an online text on Japanese Religion for a series is editing under the JBE (Journal of Buddhist Ethics) aegis; they also have an arrangement with Routledge for simultaneous hardcopy versions of the same book. I decided to accept.

And an exerpt from Introducing Japanese Religion on this question:

"My own understanding of the general nature of religion, as over against particular religions, was greatly enriched by my first encounter with Japanese religion, which was also my first encounter with religion outside the basically Judeo-Christian culture of North America and Europe. It was when I was a chaplain with the U.S. Navy in the early 1960s, and was sent to Okinawa and Japan. Though I had only limited understanding of their meaning, I was struck by the atmosphere and color of Japanese religious sites: the rustic grace of Shinto shrines, the deep peace and soft glowing light of Buddhist temples, even the white robes and quiet power of the noro, or shamanesses, of Okinawa. On occasion, I was thrilled by the lively energy of matsuri, the festivals associated with Shinto shrines, with their drums, their sacred dances, their processions with the mikoshi or palanquin containing the kami-presence. I could not help wondering how all this related to the religious world with which I was familiar.

"I then read a book by Mircea Eliade, the distinguished historian of religion. Emphasizing the phenomena of religion -- what appears, what is seen and done -- this writer pointed to the way cultures everywhere separate off sacred space and time. This is the space within the church or shrine or temple, where one almost instinctively thinks and acts in special, reverent ways. It is the time of festivals, whether Christmas or Hanukkah or the Shinto matsuri, which likewise feels different from ordinary workaday time. If you are at all like what Eliade called homo religiosus, a traditionally religious person, being inside a church or temple just doesn't feel like being on the street or in a factory, and Christmas morning, or New Years or matsuri-day in Japan, just doesn't feel like an ordinary Monday morning. To me, this was a way of thinking about religion that cuts through starting with doctrine -- we believe this, those people believe that. Instead, this approach, technically called phenomenological and structuralist, looks for "what appears" in the practice of religion, then goes behind them to ascertain what the basic patterns or structures are, and what worldview underlies it all.

"This perspective was, and is, especially important in coming to grips with Japanese religion. Western Christianity tends to start with belief, at least in theory. In Japan religion is above all the sacred space and time kind of experience, most often at the Shinto shrine or Buddhist temple, that comes first. It then takes account of the family and community bonding of which shrine and temple can be the hub."

Morehead's Musings: You discuss a variety of elements in the religious mix of Japan, including Shinto, and various forms of Buddhism. To many Westerners Japan might look more secular than religious. Can describe how all of these influences come together to form the religious mix of this interesting country?

Robert Ellwood: a) Most Japanese will say they are not religious and Japanese has virtually no religion, despite appearances. This is because to them religion means a revealed religion demanding exclusive faith and commitment, which they think many other countries have, but not Japan. b) Yet they do practices that look religious, but they think of them as just honoring natural stages of life, like birth, marriage, death, or festivals that go with the seasons, or shrines and temples of exceptional beauty or even power -- but to them this is "natural," not religion in the sense they think other countries have it. I think the views of Ana on this in the attached are very insightful. What all this does is challenge one's definition of religion. And also of secularism. c) Religion versus secularism is then in the eye of the beholder. Not too many Japanese are personally devout in the western sense of the term, yet "religion" is present everywhere, even where it is not here. Businesses and factories very often have Shinto shrines on the wall or even the roof, and Shinto priests routinely perform blessing and purification ceremonies on the premises. The mighty Toyota Corportation has a shrine in its headquarters park to the god and goddess of metal; it would be hard to imagine even a Christian equvalent at General Motors. It's just different. d) Most Japanese have a relation to both Shinto and Buddhism; the idea that religion ought to be rigorously logically consistent is alien; different traditions have a place in different areas of life, and in any case ultimate truth is beyond words. And religion is situational, like courtesy a matter of the right thing at the right time, with the right people; it doesn't have to the logically consistent, any more than half of what we do and say on an average day probably is; that's all part of the homey, family, community character of religion in Japan.

Introducing Japanese Religion excerpt:

"Some years ago, when I was studying in Japan, my wife and I leased a house which belonged to a Japanese professor teaching in a technical field for a year at a university in Mississippi. We exchanged correspondence on matters relating to the maintenance of the house, and finally the Japanese visitor in America asked me what I was doing in Japan. I said I was doing research in Japanese religion; he replied that was an odd thing to do, since most Japanese have no religion. Surprised, I responded mentioning all the temples and shrines, the ceremonies and festivals, I saw all around that seemed to be religious. He answered those are not religion, just folk customs.

"Obviously a problem had arisen as to what one means by "religion." I finally realized the other was undoubtedly thinking in terms of the Japanese word shukyo, usually used for religion in modern translations, but literally meaning the "teaching of a sect," such as a particular school of Buddhism. There is, significantly, no Japanese word meaning everything the hard-to-define word “religion” can indicate in English -- though as W. Cantwell Smith has pointed out, our usual view of "a religion" as a separate, optional, detachable part of a culture, and of there being several different "religions" around, is a modern concept, and a modern use of the word, in all cultures. (In medieval Europe "religion" meant following a rule like a monk's.)

"My Japanese correspondent, then, thought that one was not religious unless one consistently followed the doctrine and practice of a particular sect, and he rightly judged this was not the case with Japanese. (In Mississippi, he said, people really were religious. They were members of, and regularly attended, a particular church, most often Baptist; even the state legislature might debate whether certain proposals were in accordance with the Bible.) But this was not how I, as a historian of religion, had been trained to think about the subject: I was more inclined to look for religious "phenomena" -- sacred spaces, sacred times, rituals and pilgrimages -- and I saw them everywhere.

"Fully to answer the question of whether the Japanese are really religious one needs to think of religion in a way different from how many westerners think about it. Here is a country in which the great majority of people have a relation to both Shinto and Buddhism, typically considering that Shinto has to do with the joyous occasions of this life, Buddhism with the ultimate mysteries of the universe and what happens after one dies. “Born Shinto, die Buddhist,” they say.

"So it is that Shinto matsuri or festivals are celebrative community affairs with a carnival atmosphere, marriages are often solemnized in Shinto shrines, and newborn children presented to the kami of the family shrine. Funerals and memorial services, on the other hand, are likely to be under Buddhist auspices, with interment perhaps on the local temple grounds. Probably most people would not think of Shinto and Buddhism as inconsistent with each other; as we have seen, certain medieval systems of thought made the kami local guardians or manifestations of the more cosmic buddhas. Confucian family and ethical values can be a powerful gird underlying them both. The Christian holiday of Christmas, at least in its Santa Claus, gift-giving aspect, is popular, as are Christian-style weddings, though most Japanese are not Christian.

"Is all this religion, folk customs, or what? Does it really matter what we call it? From the point of view of Japanese culture, perhaps it does not. Japan has been called kotoba ga aganu kuni, the country where words need not be spoken, where indirect hints and wordless understandings often suffice, and not everything needs to be named or categorized.

"Ama Toshimaro has argued that the reason the Japanese, though they may take part in many apparently religious activities and may even profess a spiritual sensibility, do not like to call themselves or these practices religious is because, in their view, that would commit them to a particular teaching – while for them all these are just something “natural,” part of being Japanese, even just part of being human or of nature itself. Practices from the first shrine visit to a Buddhist funeral are to them “natural religion,” not religion in the revealed sense they think obtains in certain sects, or in certain other countries. “Natural religion” seems most comfortable, and what is more natural than a “homeland of the heart” and its sacred cycles?"

Morehead's Musings: You also describe the impact of other religious ideas in Japan such as Christianity and Confucianism. Can you share some examples as to how these shaped the cultural consciousness?

Robert Ellwood: I hope the following excerpt covers Christianity sufficiently. Confucianism is not a formal religion even in the sense it was in traditional China, with its Confucian temples and rites, yet is the basis of Japanese traditional ethical and moral values, and probably still impacts the consciousness of the average Japanese more deeply than anything else in moral terms: values like reciprocal obligation, loyalty, respect for parents, etc. The lotus pond of Japanese religious diversity can be thought of as surrounded by a steel wall of Confucian ethics.

Introducing Japanese Religion excerpt:

"We may note that contentment with “natural religion,” together with a deep sense of family and community identity, helps explain why Christianity and other missionary religions have not been particularly successful in modern Japan. In general, Christianity is respected, but it is extremely difficult psychologically for Japanese to break with family and community, with traditional shrine and temple symbols of identity, to become something else. Polls have indicated that while formal, committed members of established Christian churches are no more than one percent of the population in the early twenty-first century, a percentage several times higher considers themselves Christian in some informal, personal sense.

"Indeed, one significant and characteristic modern Japanese movement has been Mukyokai or “No Church” Christianity, founded by Uchimura Kanzo (1861-1930). It has no formal doctrines, services, liturgies, sacraments, or clergy, though it embraces pacifism, and was a center of resistance to Japanese militarism during the 1930s and 40s. Adherents meet for Bible study and quiet prayer. Its some 35,000 followers include a good number of intellectuals and academics. The movement spread to Taiwan and Korea; Ban Ki-moon, the Korean diplomat elected Secretary-General of the United Nations in 2006, is a “No Church” Christian."

Morehead's Musings: Scholars are talking increasingly about the influence of Japan on global popular culture through things like manga and anime. How do you see these exports transmitting Japanese spiritual, mythical, and religious themes to the rest of the world?

Robert Ellwood (from book excerpt): "As manga, anime, and Japanese computer games take hold on one continent after another, pushing out other vehicles of popular culture like British music groups or Hollywood movies, no doubt they are increasingly shaping the inner consciousness of their generation around the world. Therefore it is important to appreciate the worldview that underlies these media of popular culture. In doing so we will find themes and figures stepping out of the pages of Japanese mythology and religion now going global.

"At first one may find, say, global Nintendo a depressing thought, since it some eyes the games, like manga, seem to involve little more than obsessing with mindless, comic-book-level sex and violence. But that is not quite the case. The do tell stories, they create alternative worlds, they provide models for oneself – just as do traditional religion.

"Four motifs from traditional Japanese religion suggest themselves in a close examination of the anime, manga, and Nintendo universe. First: the idea of a separate, magical reality which one can enter by a few definite, as it were evocational, gestures which transport one from the everyday to the alternative reality. As we have seen, such special, sacred times and places are very important: the matsuri, the sacred mountains of the yamabushi, the mandalas of esoteric Buddhism, the Pure Land, the Zen garden. . . entered through the magic portal of a certain chant, mudra, or method of meditation.

"Second, in this set-apart world, spirits and supernatural realities are very much alive. Ghosts, kami, and the sort of powers evoked in martial arts are part of the other side, calling forth an atmosphere of wonder and dread, where anything-may-happen, however glorious or horrible. (One may also notice the frequent appearance of robots, which may suggest an over-regulated society in contrast to the world of wonder.)

"Third, sex and violence are thoroughly mixed in with the beauty and terror, often in wild and grotesque forms. As Susan Napier has acutely observed in her study of anime, this is not unlike the world of Shinto. Shinto myth, and above all the matsuri or festival, do not merely present some impossibly transcendent kami-realm, but mix the human with the divine till they're virtually all one. The festival (like the myths) may contain phallic, violent, ribald, comic, eating, and excessive drinking themes that sometimes disconcert outsiders. But the Shinto idea is that these are all part of life, whether human or kami. By bringing them into the pure space of the shrine and the matsuri it is shown that in their inner nature they can be unpolluted, as pure as anything else in its own nature. To be sure, Japanese pop media certainly contains repellantly unwholesome, even sadistic, material. Yet there is a nonwestern cultural context into which some of this, insofar as it is merely frank and fun and not degrading, can be put.

"Fourth, let's note that the central, saving figure in many of these vehicles, perhaps especially anime, is often a shojo, young girl. The only comparable western fairy tale heroine I can think of is Dorothy in L. Frank Baum's modern classic, The Wizard of Oz. But in Japan a female figure with special powers, seemingly weak but in the end able to redeem the situation, takes us back to Amaterasu and the ancient shamaness, up through certain samurai tales to anime like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke.

"These productions of the great animator Miyasaki Hayao splendidly exemplify all these features. Take Spirited Away (2001), Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi in Japanese (the last word, kamikakushi, is translated “spirited away,” but could literally be “hidden by the kami.”). While moving from one town to another, the family of a young girl, Chihiro, gets lost and finds its way into a community of gods and spirits, centered around a bath-house where kami go to rest and purify themselves. We are immediately reminded of the importance of the public bath in Japanese society, and of washing and purity in Shinto ritual. Chihiro has to work in the baths, but her real challenge is to rescue her parents, who have been changed into pigs by over-eating in a “free” restaurant in this kami-town (karma? the Circe myth from the Odyssey?), and to find their way out. All this she does in the end.

"Another Miyazaki anime, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, though not set in Japan but in a fantasy-land (nor is she the Nausicaa of the Odyssey), is still another film by this great creator centered on a strong, heroic young girl.

"Princess Mononoke (1997), put into late samurai days, when guns were beginning to come into Japan, essentially tells the story of supernatural guardians of the forest (Mononoke means woodland spectre or ghost, even monster) who battle against the humans in “Irontown” trying to exploit nature's resources and destroy it, making firearms. San (Princess Mononoke, the Princess of the Spirits) is a human girl raised by wolves but, like a shamaness or kami, close enough to the woods to be on its side. She thinks she is a wolf, rides a wolf, and is a leader of forest spirits. San meets a human boy, Ashitaka, who befriends her and convinces her she is human too. Finally, after terrible battles, they create harmony between humans and the forest. But San returns to the forest; Ashitaka helps rebuild the town, but says he will come to visit her. Here is a separate supernatural world, full of wonder and violence, which one can enter; a young girl at the center; and a modern ecological theme.

"Mononoke-hime (Princess Mononoke) has (like Spirited Away and Nausicaa) determined women as focal figures on both sides: Lady Eboshi is the ruler of factory-like Irontown, San of the wild. In a Japanese way, the struggle is not represented as dualistically good versus bad as a western parable of the human destruction of nature might be. Lady Eboshi does indeed want to destroy the forest and kill its kami, the Spirit of the Forest (Shishigami), for the sake of industry. But she can also be kindly. She rescues lively girls from brothels, as well as heavily bandaged lepers who make guns for her fighters, and she treats both better than they had been before. Mononoke loves the forest, but has too indiscriminate a hatred for all humans. Creatures change sides and character more than once: the true enemy is always hatred and anger, which can turn anyone on either side into a demon. The real background is the unpredictible wildness of nature as it is, the real victor is life itself, which goes on despite total war and destruction – like Japanese life after 1945.

"Some might see an odd Shinto versus Buddhism theme in the movie. A major troublemaker is Jigo, a plausible but scheming monk who is too clever by half, and has his comeuppance at the end, while Shishigami, clearly one of the kami from the primieval world, manifests simple nobility. But although the Buddhist cleric who is not all he should be is a familiar figure in Japanese literature old and new, one should not read too much into a film meant to be mainly entertainment. All the same, this film hints at the recent, “post-Aum” [shinrikyo now Aleph] trend away from Buddhism, toward other, especially primordial, sources of Japanese spirituality."

Morehead's Musings: Dr. Ellwood, once again, please accept my thanks for promoting your new book, and the fascinating topic of Japanese religion and popular culture.

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