Fiction: Japanese Fiction and Religion

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Like its Western counterpart, modern Japanese fiction is predominantly secular. Despite the ostensibly heavy Buddhist overtone in premodern Japanese literature, modern Japanese fiction reflects the rapid westernization and modernization brought on by the Meiji Restoration (1868) and betrays a deliberate break from the premodern when literature was at times used as a vehicle for conveying Buddhist thoughts and teachings. Modern Japanese fiction, in its predominantly introspective mode, can be seen as an extended quest for a god that is not there rather than a testimony of religious faith. Ichirō in Natsume Sōseki's (18671916) The Wayfarer (Kōjin, 19121913) is the prime example of the frustrated spiritual quest of a modern intellectual. In a moment of existential angst, he proclaims that the three choices open to him are "religion, suicide, and madness" and proceeds to hover in a state of mental breakdown, knowing in fact that religion as a choice was foreclosed to him. Another character who personifies the futile quest for solace in religion is Sōsuke in Sōseki's The Gate (Mon, 1910) who, in a moment of intense guilt and spiritual exhaustion, knocks in vain at the closed gate of a Buddhist temple. It is as if the modern ego is told to look somewhere else for spiritual redemption, if such an option exists at all.

To recognize the difficult and elusive relationship between religion and modern Japanese fiction from the onset is not to deny the relevance of a religious quest in writers ranging from Kitamura Tōkuku (18681894) to Kunikida Doppo (18711908) in the Meiji era (18681912), from Arishima Takeo (18781923) to Miyazawa Kenji (18961933) in the Taisho era (19121926), and from Endo Shūsaku (19231996) to Sono Ayako (b. 1931) in the Shōwa (19261988) and Heisei (1988) eras. In the following sections, we will examine some representative works in the different eras and explore the following aspects: the intellectual and spiritual reaction generated by the encounter between a pantheistic mode of religion (Shintoism and the legendary gods in the Kojiki [712]) and a monotheistic mode; the interpretation and exploitation of Buddhist imagery and shamanism; and the intersection between religion and modern Japanese fiction.

Meiji Era

The Japanese government lifted the ban on Christianity in 1873, and many Meiji writers absorbed the influence of Christianity in various degrees as part of the drive for "Enlightenment and Civilization" (bunmei kaika ). Among them, Kitamura Tōkoku, Shimazaki Tōson (18721943), Kunikida Doppo, and Tayama Katai (18711930), all Christian converts in their youth, contributed significantly to the Meiji literary movements of Romanticism and Naturalism. Tōkoku was baptized by Iwamoto Yoshiharu (18631942), the founder and editor of Jogaku Zasshi, a women's magazine whose goals and contents were defined by his Christian faith and idealism. While Tōkoku kept his Christian faith throughout his short life, shifting from Presbyterianism to Quakerism, he was soon disenchanted with Iwamoto's moralistic and utilitarian view of literature and religion. In 1893, along with Tōson, Hoshino Tenchi (18621950, also a Christian convert), Hirata Tokuboku (18731943), and Togawa Shūkotsu (18701939), Tōkoku separated from Jogaku Zasshi and founded Bungakukai, one of the most influential literary magazines in the Meiji era. Bungakukai carried a terse announcement that summed up the break between literature and Christianity: "Literature is literature and religion is religion. Bungakukai is made up of a group of people with literary aspirations; they are not necessarily religious adherents. Furthermore, it is not limited to Christians or to Christian beliefs" (Brownstein, 1980, p. 335).

Disappointment with the external trappings of the church led Tōkoku toward a more internal form of Christianity, and his spiritual quest is evident in his essays and poetry. In "Essay on the Inner Life" (Naibu seimei ron, 1893), he argues that "The great difference between the cultures of the East and West is that in one there is a religion which preaches life and in the other there is not" (Mathy, 1964, p. 102). Perhaps in reaction to centuries of feudalism marked by an underevaluation of the individual and an overevaluation of society, Tōkoku celebrates love (rabu ) in "The Pessimistic Poet and Womanhood" (Ensei shika to josei, 1892): "Love is the secret to life. Only after love came into being did human society exist" (quoted in Keene, 1987, p. 195). But above all else, Christianity provides Tōkoku with a language for a new poetics. He defines "inspiration" as an aspect of the Divine (shin ), and, in Tōkoku's view, as one enters the Divine, language and self dissolve into a state of the sublime (Brownstein, 1990). Thus, Christianity provides a context and language for Tōkoku and his contemporaries to define spiritual freedom, love, and aesthetic and poetic ideals crucial to Japanese Romanticism.

Kunikida Doppo was a leading voice in Naturalism (shizen shūgi, 19061910), a literary movement marked by an intense inward search for the individual in the form of the confessional novel (watakushi shōsetsu ). Unlike Tōson in Spring (Haru, 1908) and Tayama Katai in The Quilt (Futon, 1907), who wallow in their own sins and confessions, Doppo considers his role as a poet to be a heaven-sent mission. "I am to a be a poet of God," Doppo declared, and one of his famous poems begins: "Freedom is found in the mountains and forests./As I recite this verse I feel my blood dance./Ah, freedom is found in the mountains and forests behind" (1897) (quoted in Keene, p. 231). Like many of his contemporaries, Doppo experienced some ambivalence with his adopted faith, and his works betray not so much the influence of a monotheistic culture as the romantic notion that he is an instrument through which the splendor of God's creation is conveyed. He says that the aim of his work is "to describe with my pen all that my independent soul has been able to learn, observe, and feel" (1893) (quoted in Keene, p. 233).

Like Tōkoku, Doppo is under the heavy influence of the English Romantic poets, and his fiction is a testimony of the magnificence of nature. "Old Gen" (Gen-oji, 1897) captures a Wordsworthian stormy sea, while "Unforgettable People" (Wasureenu hibito, 1899) resembles a painted scroll of impressionistic scenery in which human existence is marked by its insignificance and randomness. In his later works, such as "The Bamboo Fence" (Take no kido, 1908), Doppo shows a great capacity to understand human suffering and despair.

In the historical context of scientific and social enlightenment and technological advancement after 350 years of feudalism and isolation, the Nietzschean modern man in Sōseki's fiction remains skeptical of religion, and the rational physician/scientist in Mori Ōgai's (18621922) fiction (e.g. Kompira, 1909) doubts yet fears the power of folk religious practices. These texts are moral inquiries into the soul of the modern individual: What becomes of him or her when the whirlwind of change brought on by modernization creates a spiritual vacuum in which old Confucian morality and feudal order are swept away while a new morality and a new faith is not in sight? What happens when the individual commits a grave sin? Unlike Dostoevsky, for whom, according to R. B. Blackmur, "a true rebirth, a great conversion, can come only after a great sin" (quoted in Irving Howe, Politics and the Novel, 2d ed. [New York, 1987], pp. 5556), Sōseki knows no such religious assurances, so he would eliminate his protagonists before they commit a potential crimefor example, Takayanagi in The Autumn Wind (Nowaki, 1905)or condemn the sinner to face the dark abyss of his guilt and choose deathfor example, Sensei in Kokoro (1914).

Izumi Kyōka (18731939) explores the religious imagination from a purely aesthetic angle by tabbing into a twilight zone populated by divine beings, ghosts, and monsters in his fiction, including The Holy Man of Mount Kōya (Kōya hirjiri, 1900). If a religious imagination is marked by an ability to envision a world other than that which one inhabits, then the twilight world in Kyōka's fiction expresses that imagination most eloquently. In "The Taste of Twilight" (Tasogare no aji, 1900), Kyōka speaks of a "twilight" aesthetics in which day meets night and engenders a subtle dimension beyond ordinary sensations, an otherworldliness in which modern individuals come in contact with their innermost being and experiences a sense of wonder and mystery.

TaishŌ Era

Arishima Takeo received his early education in a mission school, attended Sapporo Agricultural College (founded by the Christian educator William Clark), lodged with Nitobe Inazō (a renowned Japanese Quaker), and became a close friend to a disciple of the samurai-Christian preacher and pacifist Uchimura Kanzō. An intensely spiritual and sincere Bible-reading Protestant Christian, Arishima eventually bent under the puritanical and austere ideals he imposed on his life, and his encounter with the poetry of Walt Whitman made him long for individual liberation and personal independence. A Certain Woman (Aru onna, 1919) is "an attack on conventional Christians" (Strong, 1978, p. 18) and an exploration of human nature in the raw. True to his Protestant upbringing, Arishima shows a moral imagination that is strictly confined to a puritanical dimension; after the rejection of Christianity, the fate that awaits his heroine is moral and physical degeneration, sin, and death: "She was not a woman any longer, only a nameless, grotesque, animal contorted with suffering" (p. 380). Like the protagonist in The Descendants of Cain (Kain no matsue, 1917), there is no atonement after the fall.

In the broad canon of Japanese fiction, perhaps Miyazawa Kenji possesses the most creative religious imagination. As Giles Gunn pointed out, if "what typifies religious man's experience of the sacred, of that which he takes to be of the essence of life, is its 'otherness,' its differentiation (though not necessarily alienation) from his own mode of being" (1975, p. 107), then Miyazawa's poetry and tales reveal a special ability to access this "otherness." A devout Buddhist of the Nichiren sect who recites the Lotus Sūtra daily, Miyazawa wrote tales (often featuring animals and nature and written in the guise of "children's stories") that are meditations on birth, suffering, sorrow, death, and rebirth. The mysterious "A Stem of Lilies" (Yomata no yuri, posthumous) is itself a Buddhist fable, while the description of dying in "The Bears of Nametoko" (Nametoko no kuma, posthumous) explores the dimension of "otherness" when death bodies forth in life. Embedded in Miyazawa's tales is poetry whose piercing beauty introduces an epiphanic moment of wonder and amazement, as in the following from "The First Deer Dance" (Shishi-odori no hajimari, 1921): "Now the sun's behind its back,/See the leafy alder tree/Like a mirror crack/And shatter in a million lights" (in Once and Forever, translated by John Bester, 1997, p. 54). Miyazawa's indebtedness to Christianity is also evident in the description of a transcendental world in his famous The Night of the Milky Way Express (Gingatetsudō no yoru, posthumous) and the nighthawk's transfiguration and ascension to heaven in "The Nighthawk Star" (Yodaka no hoshi, posthumous). Miyazawa also alludes to Japanese folklore, legends, myths, and ethnographical studies to create a cosmology distinguished by its structural beauty and integrity as a profound alternative reality.

ShŌwa and Heisei Eras

The atrocity and calamity of the Fifteen Years' War (19311945), ending in the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, stirred up feelings of guilt, incomprehension, and pain, compelling a whole generation of writers to embark on soul-searching literary journeys to understand what Ibuse Masuji, in "The Crazy Iris" (Kakitsubata, 1951), called a "crazy age." The list of Christian writers is substantial, ranging from the famous and prolific Endo Shūsaku, Ariyoshi Sawako (19311984), Inoue Hisashi (b. 1934), Miura Ayako (b. 1922), and Sono Ayako, to the serious and contemplative Shimao Toshio (19171986) and Shiina Rinzō (19111973) (Gessel, 1982, pp. 437457). Some writers handle religious themes and issues directly in their works, while some refer to Christianity only at an oblique angle. Some texts are hopeful and optimistic (Shiina) while others have a darker shade of sin and guilt (Shimao). Endo Shūsaku is most forthright about his identity as a Catholic author and consistently thematizes Japanese church history in his fiction, earning himself the appellation of the "Graham Greene of the East." Francis Mathy points out that Endo contrasts a pantheistic Japanese world that is "insensitive to God, sin and even to death" to the monotheistic Christian world of the West that affirms the judgment and salvation of a supreme being. In some texts, Christianity is swallowed up or transformed in the metaphorical swamp that is Japanfor example, Yellow Man (Kiiroi hito, 1955), Silence (Chinmoku, 1966)while in others, such as Wonderful Fool (Obakasan, 1959), Christ-like characters appear to lift others out of the non-Christian mud swamp (Mathy, 1992). Endo's description of Christ in A Life of Jesus (Iesu no shōgai, 1973) is a sad figure to whom "a yellow man" can relate to, much like the earthy figure of the Virgin Mary in "Fumie," whom illiterate Japanese peasants worship. Despite his tremendous output as a writer on religious themes, many of Endo's works use church history as a pretext for telling exotic tales with the suggestion of a distorted form of Orientalism and are wanting in theological or spiritual depth.

Among Catholic writers in the Shōwa era, Sono Ayako is noteworthy for the spiritual strength, humanity, and sincerity in her work. Sono received seventeen years of Catholic education at the Sacred Heart Girls School and College, and the strength of her faith is revealed in her boldness in creating intelligent, humane, yet fundamentally questioning characters who challenge the certitude of a divine order. In doing so, she posits a world of incertitude in which believers and nonbelievers alike have to struggle to make sense of suffering and death that often elude understanding. In Watcher from the Shore (Kami no yogoreta te, 19791980), Dr. Nobeji, a gynecologist whose work in artificial insemination, delivery, and abortion forces him to confront life-or-death decisions daily, finds himself struggling to understand the will of God. Without providing comforting answers to moral issues raised in the novel but adhering to a sympathetic treatment of the protagonist's incertitude, Sono forces the reader to reflect upon faith and moral judgment in an imperfect world. Sono's tremendous output in fiction and essays is a continuous quest of the place of humanity in the larger scheme of God.

Among modern Japanese writers, Mishima Yukio (19251970) uses various religious thoughts and iconography most lavishly in his stories. Yet the frequent evocation of religion is for the most part a pretext to summon a remote and exotic other world that provides an alien and fantastical setting for the fermentation of his aesthetic theories. The biblical iconography of the Madonna, Sodom and St. Sebastian in The Confessions of a Mask (Kamen no kokuhaku, 1949) sets up a triadic tension among the purity of spirit, the corruption of flesh, and martyrdom as the ultimate vision of beauty in Mishima's aesthetic world. The references to sacred space in The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji, 1956) and the three holy shrines of Kumano in "Acts of Worship" (Mikumano mode, 1965) are instances in which famous Buddhist and Shintō sites are borrowed as convenient locales for the protagonists to confront their hopeless search for an ever elusive beauty and the all too nagging presence of their selfishness, desires, and physical ugliness or deterioration. The Buddhist idea of reincarnation, so prominent a plot mechanism in his tetralogy The Sea of Fertility (Hōyū no umi, 19651970), is no more than a device for him to indulge in the longing of eternal youth and a beautiful death, a destiny privileged to his chosen casts of iconic references, ranging from the sailor in The Sailor who Fell from Grace with the Sea (Gogo no eikō, 1963) to Joan of Arc and St. Sebastian in The Confessions of a Mask, and Kiyoaki and his reincarnated selves in The Sea of Fertility. To his credit, Mishima's references to Christian, Buddhist, and Shintō thoughts and iconography are articulate and serve as points of interest to the student of religious practices and tradition, most impressive of which being the reference to the five signs of angelic decay in his last novel The Decay of the Angel (Tennin gosui, 1970). Yet the final negation in his last novel of the tenet of suffering and rebirth in Buddhist thoughtideas that underlie the construction of the tetralogytestifies the nihilistic view of a man who is tired of exploiting popular religious beliefs as an excuse for horror and extravagance, and has left not a trace of serious engagement in a dialogue of literature and religion.

Non-Christian Japanese writers also explore religious imagery for various purposes in their texts. Abe Kōbō's (19241993) vision of an apocalypse and a surviving ark of humanity in The Ark Sakura (Hakobune no sakura, 1984) transforms his fiction into a continuous quest of existential meaning in a world without God. Enchi Fumiko (19051986) explores the world of shamanism and spiritual possession in a number of her novels, including Masks (Onnamen, 1958) and A Tale of False Fortunes (Namamiko monogatari, 1965), a theme that ostensibly links her fiction to the phantoms and rituals of the Heian past. However, Enchi's spiritual world is not meant to be a space for philosophical or religious contemplation but a device that effectively ties her to the legacy of the literary past and an excuse to explore the psychology of her female characters. Nakagami Kenji (19461992) wades even deeper into the spiritual realm in such novels as The Immortal (Fushi, 1984) and Gravity's Capital (Jûryoku no miyako, 1981) by setting his fiction in the sacred spaces of Kumano and linking his texts, linguistically and temporally, to the world of the mythical gods in Kojiki. Yet Nakagami uses the spiritual realm fundamentally to create a postmodern space of multiple realities in order to address political and social problems of the discrimination of the burakumin. In that sense, religious imagery is a convenient pretext for Abe, Enchi, and Nakagami to examine existential, feminist, and political issues, while their writings remain fundamentally secular.

In the contemporary literary scene, when the novel has to compete with other forms of more readily consumable media stimulation, a few writers continue to grapple with religious and spiritual issues. Kaga Otohiko (b. 1929), a medical doctor who practiced psychiatry and taught psychology, wrote novels and essays about World War II, including Riding the East Wind: A Novel of War and Peace (Ikari no nai fune, 1982), and death row inmates (Love and Light on the Brink of Death; Letters from Death Row [Shi no fuchi no ai to hikari, 1992]) as a means to understand humanity and come to terms with his faith. Suga Atsuko (19291998) wrote stories and essays that capture the lives of Catholic saints with great persuasion. A simple metaphor in "The Life of St. Katalina" (Shiena no seijo: sei Katalina den, 1957) helps to illuminate the connection between Japanese fiction and religion: "Prepare a secret little chamber in your soul, and enter the chamber when it is ready. Find yourself, and find God" (Suga Atsuko zenshū, 8: 187). If the quest for divine understanding can be undertaken by way of a quest for the self, then the majority of Japanese fiction, itself a continuous process of introspection and reflection, is very close to a spiritual and religious quest, despite its predominant secular nature.

Religion intersects with modern Japanese fiction in various ways and serves, on the one hand, as a channel for a new poetics, a romantic quest for individual liberation, and moral inquiries, and on the other hand, as a pretext for generating exotic modern tales. There is no master narrative that governs the relationship between religion and modern Japanese fiction, but perhaps the following scene of mass cremation in Ibuse Masuji's Black Rain (Kuroi ame, 1966), a novel about the aftermath of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, expresses most eloquently the place of religion in modern Japanese fiction. As the protagonist Shigematsu wanders among the mounds of dead bodies, the only expression that comes to him, an atheist who survived the atomic bomb and finds himself acting as a surrogate priest to offer prayers for the dead, are words from the Buddhist "Sermon on Mortality": "Sooner or later, on this day or the morrow, to me or to my neighbor. So shall the rosy cheeks or morning yield to the skull of eventide. One breath from the wind of change, and the bright eyes shall be closed" (Black Rain, 1988, p. 277). Religion intersects with modern Japanese fiction most intimately in addressing the spiritual need to understand the mystery and inscrutability of life and death, and a larger force that exists beyond humanity.


Most criticism that deals with modern Japanese fiction does not touch upon religious issues, so the reader who wishes to make further religious inquiries might prefer to read the works of fiction mentioned with special attention to their religious implications. Those who wish to pursue the study of Christianity and Japanese fiction are advised to read the articles by Brownstein, Mathy, and Gessel quoted in the article. Further adventures in reading will include exploring the works of the list of Japanese Christian authors quoted in the article as well as the following works of fiction: Natsume Sōseki, Ten Nights of Dream (Yume juya, 1908) (deals with "other worlds"); And Then (Sore kara, 1909) (a near religious quest of love and beauty by an atheist); Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, "The Man from the West" (Saihō no hito, 1927) (an attempt to understand the relevance of Christ); "Death of a Martyr" (Hōkyōjin no shi, 1918) (a dramatic account of the life of a saint); Shiga Naoyo, "At Kinosaki" (Kinosaki ni te, 1917) (a meditation on life and death); A Dark Night's Passing (An'ya kōro, 19211937) (note especially the divine revelation in nature towards the end of the novel).

Some of the most thought-provoking and valuable studies on religion and literature do not mention Japanese fiction at all but provide important background in exploring modernity, literature, and religion. These include:

Gunn, Giles. The Interpretation of Otherness: Literature, Religion, and the American Imagination. New York, 1975.

Keene, Donald. Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature in the Modern Era. New York, 1987.

Strong, Kenneth. Introduction to A Certain Woman, by Takeo Arishima. Tokyo, 1978.

Journal Articles

Brownstein, Michael. "Jogaku Zasshi and the Founding of Bungakukai." Monumenta Nipponica 35, no. 3 (1980): 319336.

Brownstein, Michael. "Tōkoku at Matsushima." Monumenta Nipponica 45, no. 3 (1990): 285302.

Gessel, Van C. "Voices in the Wilderness: Japanese Christian Authors." Monumenta Nipponica 37, no. 4 (1982): 437457.

Hagiwara Takao. "Innocence and the Other World: The Tale of Miyazawa Kenji." Monumenta Nipponica 47, no. 2 (1992): 241263.

Hagiwara Takao. "The Bodhisattva Ideal and the Idea of Innocence in Miyazawa Kenji's Life and Literature." Journal of the Association of Teachers of Japanese 27 (April 1993): 3556.

Mathy, Francis. "Kitamura Tōkoku Essays on the Inner Life." Monumenta Nipponica 19, nos. 1/2 (1964): 66110.

Mathy, Francis. "Shūsaku Endo: Japanese Catholic Novelist." America 167, no. 3 (1992): 6671.

Nakamura Mariko. "Novelists of Integrity: Nogami Yaeko and Kaga Otohiko." Japanese Studies 20, no. 2 (2000): 141157.

Sono Ayako. "Drifting in Outer Space." Translated by Robert Epp. Japan Christian Quarterly: An Independent Journal of Christian Thought and Opinion 38 (1972): 206215.

Angela Yiu (2005)