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Transculturation and Religion: Religion in the Formation of Modern Japan


Japan began forming a modern culture when it came into contact with the West. Then the Portuguese brought matchlocks to Japan, and Francis Xavier brought Christianity. In the nineteenth century, Japan underwent crucial development as a result of exchanges with the West, and this development has continued to the present with ongoing cultural contacts.

This was not the first time that Japan borrowed from other cultures. Yet Japanese borrowing in the modern period was much different from Japanese contacts with Chinese and Korean civilizations between the fifth and thirteenth centuries. In the case of these earlier contacts, because seafaring voyages were full of danger, the oceans surrounding the Japanese archipelago provided a buffer zone. Moreover, the cultures and civilizations of China and Korea, imbued with Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist philosophies, were not as aggressive as modern Western powers, armed with steam ships, modern military forces, modern capitalism, and imperialist tendencies. As a result, Japanese assimilation of Chinese and Korean civilization was more gradual, gentler, and more deeply penetrating.

Guns and Christianity

As mentioned, Japan's contact with the West began around the time when Portuguese merchants drifted ashore a southern island of the Japanese archipelago in 1543. The matchlocks they brought with them were mastered quickly, reproduced in large quantities by native craftsmen, and spread quickly and widely throughout the country. These guns not only changed military tactics but also transformed the structure of castles and other fortifications. Eventually, Oda Nobunaga (15341582), Toyotomi Hideyoshi (15381598), and Tokugawa Ieyasu (15421616), successive unifiers of the country, used such guns quite successfully in battles to unify the country.

The Catholic Church began missionary activities in Japan when Francis Xavier and other Jesuit priests arrived in 1549 on Kagoshima to evangelize in western Japan. In the beginning, Christianity was well received by warlords and later the Tokugawa shogunate. Portuguese merchants began international trade with Japan, followed by the Spanish in 1580, the Dutch in 1609, and the British in 1613. Japanese mercantile ships, which had trading abroad since the middle of fourteenth century, continued trade with China, Korea, Formosa, the Philippines, Java, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Thailand. Japanese leaders were interested in new information about Europe and the outside world, and in new scientific and technical knowledge, including knowledge about imported European firearms. Since Catholic missionary activities and the merchant trade were intimately connected, many warlords interested in the profits of trade readily converted to Christianity.

In 1587 Hideyoshi banished the missionaries and prohibited the Christian faith among the warlords. But only a few missionaries left Japan, and those who remained successfully propagated Christianity among the masses, gaining as many as 700,000 devotees by the early seventeenth century, more than two times the population of the capital city of Kyoto at that time. Later the Tokugawa shogunate, perceiving the colonialist interests of foreign powers and fearing uprisings among the masses, started to ban the Christian faith by issuing successive ordinances in 1614, 1616, and 1623. During this time the government destroyed churches, deported missionaries, and tortured and executed defiant Christians. All the Christian warlords but a few famous converts renounced their faith.

Some Christians went underground and maintained their faith for generations until the reopening of the country in the nineteenth century. Underground Christianity, separated from the Catholic orders, became indigenized and syncretized with folk Buddhism for outward appearances. The virgin Mary was amalgamated with Kannon (Avalokiteś-vara), Buddhist goddess of mercy, and called "Maria Kannon."

After the Shimabara uprising of Christians, in which forty thousand people fought on the Christian side, the Tokugawa government, in 1639, took the extreme measure of closing Japan to all foreign trade. The only exception was trade with the Dutch, who did not engage in any missionary activity, at the port of Nagasaki, from then on the only port officially open for international trade and exchanges. The Tokugawa feudal regime thus started the policy of seclusion, which was to last for 260 years.

Prosperity amidst Seclusion

Several external factors made possible the long, peaceful seclusion of Japan. Vast oceans lay between Europe and Japan. At the time the center of political and economic power in Europe was shifting from Spain and Portugal to England and Holland, and this affected the ability of these counties to develop colonial empires. Also, the industrial revolution had not yet taken hold in Europe. Later, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when steam ships and the accelerating industrial revolution enabled Western countries to project power all over the world, Japan was revisited, this time by the fleets of various Western nations to force open its doors. The vast oceans were no longer a barrier to Western civilization. The oceanic space was becoming domesticated more and more by the power of capitalism, colonialism and imperialism as well as the science and technology of the West.

Domestically, the Tokugawa regime carried out an apt set of policies to order society and stabilize the country. It established a rigid social hierarchy consisting of four main social classeswarriors, farmers, artisans, and merchantsand prohibited upward mobility. In another important policy it confiscated weapons, allowing only hunters to use firearms and only warriors to use swords. And it rigidly regulated Buddhist temples and Shintō shrines. On Buddhist temples it imposed the temple parish system (jidan seido ). This policy required individuals to be certified by their local Buddhist temples not to be a member of the "evil religion" Christianity.

Neo-Confucian philosophy provided the Tokugawa regime with a powerful political ideology, with distinctions of rank and status, for ruling feudal society. As a result, Confucian studies prospered under the patronage of the shogunate and many daimyo. The regime used neo-Confucian philosophy to regulate all Buddhist temples and Shintō shrines and suppress underground Christians. The Bureau of Buddhist Temples and Shintō Shrines organized Buddhist temples, in sectarian divisions, into a hierarchy of a central temple on top and more local temples further down. Temples thus functioned as a bureaucracy to control the spiritual life of the people. The government also banned new doctrines and interpretations in Buddhist and Shintō communities. Though the Tokugawa government recognized Buddhist sects as official religions, Buddhist priests thus lost their religious freedom and spontaneity. Young novices trained as priests at head temples, upon completing their training, went back to local temples to teach children Confucian ethics and the Analects. The official schools of the clans (hankō ) and the many private temple schools (terakoya ) greatly contributed to the prevalence of literacy among the populace in Tokugawa period (16031867). With its power to proscribe sects, the regime controlled the scope of activities of the temples.

The Tokugawa government, by establishing the peace and making life secure, encouraged the growth of industry and commerce, as well as the development of a transportation system centered around the waterways of sea, rivers, and canals. Within the feudal social-class system there developed a mercantile economy with currency and credit, and this encouraged the production of various agricultural and industrial commodities within the country. People were already consuming such commercial products as cotton, sugar, silk, and tea, all of which had a foreign origin. These commodities became important trade goods when Japan resumed trading with Western nations: Japanese imported cotton products and sugar and exported silk and tea.

Japanese Thought

The neo-Confucian school not only synthesized the concept of li (reason, principle) with the Great Ultimate, material forces (qi), human nature, and the mind; in Japan it also later equated li with the Way of the Gods (the literal meaning of "Shintō"). Joseph Kitagawa points out that since warrior-administrators translated philosophical ideas into practical measures for governing the country, the Tokugawa regime tended to be free from Chinese models. Since neo-Confucianism provided the ideological foundation of the regime, this school produced many famous scholars.

Equally important was the Wang Yangming school, which interpreted li as identical with the mind and viewed each individual mind as the manifestation of the Universal Mind. Though the regime did not support the Wang Yangming school, the idea of moral cultivation based on the Universal Mind appealed to many Japanese and gave rise to many important social reformers. Mind Learning (Shingaku), a popular version of Confucianism with Shintō and Buddhist elements, taught commoners the importance of disciplining the mind with simple, easy-to-understand language.

Besides these three schools of Confucianism, a variety of other schools of learning thrived during the Tokugawa period. Ancient Learning (Kogaku) advocated directly studying the texts of Confucius and Mencius. This gesture of returning to origins by reading the classical texts was a radical criticism of the neo-Confucian and Wang Yangming schools as later departures from the original Way.

National Learning (Kokugaku) was born as the antithesis of Chinese Learning, specifically the school of Ancient Learning, which advocated returning to classical Chinese texts. The school of National Learning created a tradition of textual criticism for the interpretation of Japanese classical texts that did away with all Chinese influences on the interpretation of Japanese texts. The most outstanding scholar of National Learning was Motoori Norinaga (17301801), who studied the Kojiki (Records of ancient matters), which is written in manyōgana (Chinese characters used phonetically). As is often pointed out, he tried to return to the world of meaning revealed by the ancient text itself, to grasp the meaning of the text by directly participating in it without any intervening Chinese influences and by living it as the Way of the Gods. Motoori deciphered and interpreted the Kojiki as sacred. Motoori's scholarship came to be accepted by Shintō theologians as the foundation of Shintō theology and, together with the scholarship of Hirata Atsutane, one of Motoori's posthumous disciples, laid the foundation for later nationalist Shintō movements during the Meiji period (18681912).

Dutch Learning (Rangaku) was primarily the learning of Dutch medicine. Dutch Learning produced such positivistic spirits as Yamawaki Tōyō, who studied the internal organs of the dissected body, and Maeno Ryōtaku and Sugita Genpaku, who not only examined the anatomized body but also translated a Dutch book on anatomy as Kaitai shinsho (New anatomy).

A positivist attitude can also be observed in the social reformer Andō Shōeki (d. 1762), who criticized traditional Confucian and Buddhist thinking as artificial and asserted the importance of learning directly from nature. For Andō, everyone must return to the Way of Nature (or the Life of Nature) by partaking in production, that is, agriculture. Nature is not an object of observation or contemplation, but what life partakes in. "By human participation, the True Way of Life reveals itself as the Truly Wondrous Way of Life." "Farmers cultivate land, weave cloths, eat simple food, wear simple cloths, selflessly and self-containedly. They are the direct children of Nature" (Shizen Shin-ei-do, vol. 4, pp. 57-69). Andō repudiated the feudalistic social hierarchy of Tokugawa society as artificial and to be avoided.

These schools of learning sought to return to the old, that is, to go back to origins in classical texts or back to original paradigms, and realize them here and now, or they sought to prove texts in a positivist spirit. These traditions later became the basis for responses to Western civilization, whether the response be to introduce a new approach, to appropriate critically, or to oppose.

The Tokugawa period also witnessed the development of popular arts, such as painting, woodblock prints, poetry, Kabuki theater, and puppet theater (Ningyō Jōruri). Each of these genres responded to the imaginary needs of the people in highly creative ways. These arts were sustained by wealthy merchants living in urban centers and later spread to local villages.

The Rise of Religious Movements

The Tokugawa regime rigidly controlled and manipulated the Buddhist sects and Shintō shrines as official religions. Institutional forms of religion, when they emerged, were suppressed and went underground during the Tokugawa period. Having lost freedom and mobility within the feudal parish system, Buddhism and Shintō, as institutions, lost their religiosity and degenerated into funeral services and administrators of ancestor veneration, respectively.

But various important folk religious movements emerged spontaneously from the lower strata of society. One such movement was large scale pilgrimages, which often undercut feudal space boundaries. There were mass pilgrimages to the Grand Shrine of Ise, repeated every sixty years, which developed into the Anything-Goes Dance (Eejanaika Odori), in which the masses, dancing and singing, went toward Ise. Other pilgrimages were the Pilgrimage to the Eighty-Eight Sacred Places of Shikoku (Shikoku Henro) and the Pilgrimage to the Thirty-Three Sacred Places of Kannon in Western Japan (Saigoku Junrei). All of these pilgrimages expressed a yearning for a worldly paradise apart from the realities of the contemporary world.

Three religionsKurozumikyō, Tenrikyō, and Konkōkyōemerged from the villages toward the end of the Tokugawa period. These popular religions became the prototypes of new religions in modern Japan. Each of these religions was based upon the religious experience of its founder and sustained people with simple but universal teachings.

Responses to Foreign Civilizations

In Japanese contacts with the Chinese and Korean civilizations in the fifth to ninth centuries, Kitagawa finds a threefold response: a welcome introduction, integration and assimilation, and rejection or transformation. This threefold process greatly enriched indigenous culture and tradition through the assimilation and integration of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism. These contacts even stimulated the native religious tradition to develop Shintō and gave birth to many new religions, including indigenous forms of Buddhism. By this contact, Japanese culture and society was greatly enriched.

Prior to direct contact with modern Western powers, various aspects of Tokugawa feudal society were becoming modern. But the need to modernize took on a whole new meaning and urgency after Japanese contact with the West. When Portuguese traders and Jesuit Catholicism arrived in Japan, in the initial phases they were welcome. Later on in the historical process, however, Western culture could not be assimilated or integrated well because the Catholic Church demanded wholehearted allegiance and the Western powers had aggressive colonial interests. Thus, in a natural response, the Tokugawa regime rejected Western culture and Christianity except for Dutch trade, although many fragmental influences from Western culture remained.

The second cycle of contact with Western civilizations began in the late eighteenth century. Since 1792 Russians repeatedly sent diplomatic missions and battleships to Japan asking for the opening of trade. In 1808 England sent a battleship to Nagasaki to take over the Dutch trading base there. And when a team of administrators representing various clans visited Shanghai at the time of the Opium War (18401842) to investigate, they observed China succumbing to British military power and discovered that most of the East Asian coastal regions except Manchuria, Korea, and Japan had been colonized. Fearing Western colonialism, they felt the need to build up power to protect Japan. Many Dutch schools of medicine and schools of the feudal clans were soon transformed into naval strategy research institutes and naval academies. Then, in 1853, the four "black ships" led by Commodore Matthew Perry, with their powerful cannons, appeared off the shore of Japan and asked for the opening of Japanese ports.

The regime was forced to make treaties with the United States, Holland, England, France, and Russia on unequal terms, granting extraterritorial rights and giving up the right to levy tariffs. To avoid colonization and attain equilibrium with the Western powers, leaders felt the need to plan for enriching the nation and building up defenses. The whole country was divided into two factions: one for the shogunate and the other for the emperor, one for opening the country to foreigners and the other for excluding foreigners. The peaceful country, suddenly surrounded by the powerful military powers of the West, was thrown into an unprecedented crisis. Thus began a new cycle of contact with the West. It was the beginning of the perpetual fast changes in life and society that have continued into the twenty-first century.

Out of the crisis, people searched for a new unity and new order for the nation and ultimately chose to reinvigorate the country by reverting to the ancient ideal of an emperor-centered religious, political, and national polity. The design of the Meiji imperial regime was to construct a modern nation-state by negating the recent past (the feudal Tokugawa tradition) and restoring the monarchical rule of the eighth century, centered on the traditional Japanese notion of a sacred emperor at the top of all hierarchies. This was another phase of traditional Japanese "immanent theocracy," to use Kitagawa's term. Meiji leaders followed the ancient model of unity of religion and state (saisei itchi). In this new regime, the former social hierarchy of warrior, farmer, artisan, and merchant was eliminated, and all the people were now treated equally as the subjects of the semidivine emperor.


The modernization of Japan was not imposed on the Japanese people from the outside by colonialism. Rather, it was what the Japanese were determined to accomplish to overcome the disequilibrium of Western and Japanese power. A basic strategy of the regime was to use the Japanese spirit and Western knowledge (wakon-yōsai). Learning the knowledge of the West was the secret to equalization and rectification of the power imbalance.

Recognizing that the Western powers would not revise the unequal treaties, Japanese leaders adopted various elements of European jurisprudence in the French, German, and English codes. This produced contradictions, since French codes were progressive and the German codes were conservative. Etō Shinpei (18341874), one of the chief designers of the modern state in the early stage of its formation, highly appreciated the French civil code, especially on the rights of the people, and incorporated aspects of the French code into the Meiji civil code. The Meiji code also had to embrace incoherences due to differences of culture and society.

Japan started modernizing not only in jurisprudence but also in many other areas of culture and society. Japan adopted many Western institutions, such as government offices, a solar calendar, police, an army, a navy, railways, gaslight, a postal system, electricity, compulsory education, banks, a parliament, and a constitution.

These measures for Westernizing Japan were accompanied by a policy of enlightenment and civilization (bunmei kaika ), which promoted Western culture and civilization in all aspects of life and society, from modern Western sciences and rationalism to people's hairstyles and Western-style clothes. Japanese intellectuals translated many works of Western philosophers and scientists, starting with Darwin, Mill, Huxley, and Spencer and following with Voltaire, Rousseau, Descartes, Kant, Shopenhauer, Hegel, Spinoza, Locke, Hume, Nietzsche, W. James, Dewey, Bergson, Sartre, and Heidegger. They also translated many novelists and poets, such as Shakespeare, Goethe, Maupassant, Tolstoy, Ibsen, Dostoevskii, Hemmingway, Kafka, Zola, Heine, and Baudelaire. Many of these works were accepted as new paradigms in their genres.

As for policies toward religion, the Meiji government, like the Tokugawa regime, required religious registration. However, in place of Buddhist temples, the Meiji government required every Japanese subject to register at the local Shintō shrine. The architects of the Meiji government took the Western model of Christianity as the unifying force of the nation-state and modified it so that the Shintō pantheon of spirits (kami) served as the religious foundation of Japan, and they attempted to make Shintō the state religion in Japan. After encountering criticism and resistance from various sectors, other religious groups in Japan, and international societies, the government relaxed this religious policy.

During the formation of modern Japan, Japanese intellectuals absorbed Western ideals, rationalism, technology, and economic systems. Many young students and bureaucrats were dispatched to Western countries to study Western laws, institutions, sciences, and technologies. The Japanese government invited and employed many foreign advisors, professors, technocrats, and specialists to establish and develop a modern nation-state with industrial capacity and military strength.

Cultural Values and Criticism

To say the least, Western notions of science, which were based on the diversification of knowledge into various branches, had a strong impact on the minds of Japanese scholars, who had been accustomed to a holistic approach to learning. Within the Western sciences, for instance, religion was separated from all other branches of knowledge, such as politics, economy, culture, society, philosophy, mathematics, and physics. In the holistic orientation of the Japanese tradition, in contrast, Chinese Learning, National Learning, and Dutch Learning did not have clear divisions of knowledge. Therefore, for Japanese, being educated in the new tradition of Western sciences often meant exposure to an entirely new cultural and epistemological orientation based on a different set of values. This orientation required Japanese to evaluate Japanese and Western values against each other before accepting Western orientations and integrating them into Japanese culture. Japanese culture had to adjust itself to these new concepts and ideas. How to adapt Japanese culture was always open to criticism.

One such critic was Okakura Tenshin (18621913), an art critic and leader in modern Japanese art circles. Before the Russo-Japanese War, Okakura criticized Western colonialism and imperialism, saying that Asia is one. In the year after the war (1906), he also criticized "moderns" who judged the Japanese victory in bloody battles over Russia as "civilized" and who regarded such peaceful pastimes as the tea ceremony and other aesthetic activities as "barbarian." Okakura's critiques were published in English in London; the former was written in India, and the latter in Boston. He knew the problems of the East and the West, of Japanese culture and Western culture, because he lived in and knew both worlds.

Another critic was Minakata Kumakusu (18671941), a folklorist and natural historian. Minakata protested against the government's policy of consolidating Shintō shrines throughout the country to clear virgin forests belonging to the shrines. The government undertook this measure to create land for increased farm production and further industrialization. This measure, begun in 1906, met vehement criticism from Minakata, who had returned to Japan after a long sojourn of research in the United States and England. The policy was abandoned in 1915.

Though individuals raised severe criticisms of the direction of modernization at critical junctures in modern Japanese history, Japanese commoners often meekly accepted policies for Westernizing the nation. The Japanese tended to embrace recklessly the ideals of modern Western civilizationsrationalism, industrialization, capitalism, progress, and developmenteven when such ideals were incompatible with traditional Japanese values.

The Impact of Modernization on Religion

During the past 150 years, Japanese society has undergone many radical cultural and social changes involving all aspects of life. Included here are such great transformations as the overthrow of the feudal Tokugawa regime; the establishment of the modern Meiji imperial state; the rapid introduction of policies to modernize in the fields of government, law, education, technology, and culture; the development of capitalism; colonialist and militaristic involvement in Asia; the Sino-Japanese War (18941895); the Russo-Japanese War (19041905); the further development of industry and capitalism; greater economic and military involvement in Asia; the Second World War (which ended in Japan's defeat); the U.S. occupation; postwar modernization and democratization; and phenomenal economic growth. These rapid changes in society brought forth serious existential crises, including the disintegration of traditional communities and values, along with new types of human alienation and identity crises.

Modern Western concepts and views of religion were introduced in the early Meiji period into Japanese universities, which in themselves were modeled after Western universities. The Japanese word shūkyō was coined to translate the Western notion of religion, and when the word was applied to Japanese religionlike institutions, it often created problems. Buddhists, for instance, were uncomfortable with the theistic connotations of the word. Followers of other Japanese religions found their own problems. Because of its amorphous conception of the sacred, the Japanese indigenous religion Shintō does not fit well into the category of religion. Moreover, many studies of Japanese religion completely ignore the whole folk-religious tradition, a strong undercurrent of Japanese religious culture, because none of these folk religions had coherent, systematically articulated doctrines comparable to the Western ideal, Protestant Christianity.

Japanese religions responded to the changed intellectual climate. Shintō was now a state religion and took on all the trappings of state ideology. The elite Buddhist sects busily readjusted themselves to Western influences and the new political and social situations surrounding them. The True Pure-Land Sect was foremost in these attempts. It sent young students to study at Oxford University (where Max Müller was) and at other European institutions even before the Meiji Restoration in 1868. This sect drafted a constitution and experimented with a parliament even before the governmental did. It appropriated ideas of Western philosophy to develop its doctrines. The Zen Sect also actively developed its scholarship. In the process, elite Buddhist sects rediscovered the importance of the doctrines of their founders in the Kamakura period (11851333). Yet these sects were still bound to the powerful remnants of their hereditary parishes, inherited from the Tokugawa period. Thus these established religions, Shintō and Buddhism, developed doctrinally but remained aloof from the religious needs of the people. Christian sects, which were treated as an "evil religion" during the Tokugawa period, became tolerated and resumed their activities, but never became as potent a force as before.

New Religions

Western civilization thrust itself upon Japan in an age of imperialism. To survive, Japan absorbed Western ideals, rationality, technology, and economic systems. Thus did the Japanese elite seek to emulate and overcome the West. And yet they also sought to distinguish Japan from the West. This is important to note, because Japan, despite all the evidence to the contrary, is still presented as a homogeneous culture with little or no individuality. This notion of a homogeneous culture owes much to sudden contact with the West and to the Meiji effort to create a modern state to rival Western powers by forming a new political center consisting of a people united under an emperor.

The political myths created by the Japanese elite notwithstanding, Japanese commoners displayed their individuality in new religions. While the established religions and their leaders were busily trying to adjust to ongoing changes and remained aloof from the religious needs of the common people, new religious movements emerged spontaneously from the lower strata of society. The established religions tended to accept government policies, but there were signs of resistance among many of the new religions. But as soon as these new religions were more or less established within society, other new religions would emerge from lower strata of society or from the fringes of established new religions. The emergence of new religions has followed this general historical pattern up until the explosion of new religions in the 1990s, including Aum Shinrikyō, which in 1995 released Sarin gas in Tokyo subways during the morning rush hour.

Under the religious policy of the Meiji government, Shintō shrines were elevated to the status of the official state religion. After Buddhist, Christian, and liberal scholars resisted and criticized this move, the government eventually designated Shintō as a national cult rather than as a religion. By this move, all Shintō shrines were transformed from places of veneration to nonreligious places of national rituals. Buddhism lost its status as the state religion, which it had enjoyed during the Tokugawa period, but it remained an established religion supported by hereditary parishioners. During the Meiji period, three newly formed religions and some syncretic folk-religious associations were officially recognized as Shintō sects. Within the framework of Meiji imperial Shintō, all religious groups were officially recognized and tolerated.

By the policy of enlightenment, various age-old folk-religious practices, including yin-yang divination calendars, magico-religious practices, and symbolism, were suppressed as superstition, evil religion, and even licentious worship. All religionsBuddhism, Christianity, and the new religionscompromised with the ideology of a sacred emperor to survive in the framework of Meiji policy toward religion.

One of the most far-reaching influences of the enlightenment policy of the Meiji was that religion disappeared from the public domain. Religion became a private matter within a secular, modern state, although a sacred and inviolable emperor ruled over it. Politicians did not confess their faith, and schools and universities did not teach religion as a core subject.

Many students and scholars went abroad to study Western sciences and philosophy. After returning to Japan, many became leading intellectuals, civil servants, and political leaders. As Uchimura Kanzō states, the Japanese accepted Christian civilization but not Christianity itself (Questions and Answers on Christianity ). Soon intellectuals found themselves in an intellectual climate in which they could not be persuasive unless they could skillfully manipulate modern Western scientific concepts. Even Buddhist scholars (figures such as Kiyosawa Manshi, Kimura Taiken, and Nishida Kitarō) had to use Western philosophical and scientific concepts to articulate their doctrines and ideas. For this reason, various sciences, including folklore and the study of religion, have had to follow modern Western models devoutly until into the twenty-first century. Despite this tendency, some thinkers also developed profound and articulate critiques of the West, as can be seen in the work of Okakura Tenshin, D. T. Suzuki, Nishida Kitarō, Nishitani Keiji, and Yanagita Kunio. Except for Nishida, all of these men were directly exposed to modern Western civilization, and all were aware of the need to straddle the two worlds.

The intellectual climate for novelists was similar to that for philosophers. Both Natsume Sōseki (18671916) and Mori Ōgai (18621922) were well versed not only in Chinese and Japanese literature, but also in Western languages and literatures. Sōseki expressed concern about the impossible task of synthesizing the enlightenment spirit of the externally imposed (the Western) and the spontaneous spirit of the indigenous. For him, "An enlightenment that was triggered from the outside was unknown until recent times. We must catch up with the West. But by incorporating the external, we become anxious and fret over it." Mori wrote, "The new Japan is in the midst of a whirlpool in which Eastern culture and Western culture are coming together. There are some scholars who stand in the Eastern, and others who stand in the Western; both stand on a single leg. This age calls for scholars who stand firmly on two legs."

The TaishŌ Intellectual Climate

The internal conflicts and agonies observed in novelists and philosophers of the Meiji period became weaker among intellectuals in the post-Meiji period, that is, after the Russo-Japanese War. In that war Japan struggled to defend itself against Russia's powerful military expansion with colonial intent. Japanese victory meant that it succeeded at building a strong nation by Westernizing, and that Japan was now a player in the power game among the world powers over East Asia. Although Japan had succeeded in its struggle for treaties ending extraterritoriality and allowing it to impose tariffs, it now had to contest with the world powers in a struggle for survival. After the Russian revolution in 1917, the First World War ended.

Intellectually, instead of agonies over how to maintain Japanese identity in the face of the Western onslaught, Japanese now faced the influences of Marxism, nihilism, and vitalist philosophy. This new intellectual climate, stemming from the thought of Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Henri Bergson, reflected contemporary Western social and political crises. Also swirling about in the atmosphere of the Taishō period (19121926) were liberalism and democratic thought, which helped give rise to movements for people's rights and socialism.

Soon, social, political, and economic crises visited Japan, and the newspapers frequently carried news about socialist movements. The novels of Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, who committed suicide by taking poison, represented a contemporary Japanese world reflecting the apocalyptic vision of the Western world. Nishitani Keiji, a leading philosopher of religion in twentieth-century Japan, stated that when Japanese intellectuals became aware of the crises of the West from Western philosophers and novelists, they attempted to go back to their own tradition, but when they tried to rediscover it, they also became aware that their own tradition had already partially broken down. To overcome this crisis, Nishitani thinks, "the Japanese have to overcome a double nihilism, for one aspect of the problem is a Western crisis, and the other aspect is a Japanese crisis."

The Postwar Period

Japan's defeat in the Second World War and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki terminated Japan's colonialist and imperialist ambitions. During its occupation of Japan, the United States imposed on Japan a new constitution instituting democratic reforms, disarming the nation, separating church and state, radically revising the civil codes, giving the emperor the status of symbol of the nation.

Thus began another phase of the radical transformation of Japan due to contact with the West. Japan started to rebuild its country as a modern democratic, secular state by further Westernizing and rationalizing its institutions, but since the new structure of the state was imposed by an external force, many problems arose. In postwar Japan, many new religions again spontaneously emerged. Almost all of these new religions emphasized the veneration of ancestors by focusing on the form of the family altar, the proper way to hold services, the meaning of ancestor spirits, and so on. The United States sponsored a reform of the civil code along liberal Western lines that ensured the rights of every individual in the family at the risk of the continuity of the family. In reaction to this drastic change in the structure of the family, these new religions attempted to ensure the continuity of the family and family ties.

Mishima Yukio

An outstanding postwar critique of Japan's Westernization is found in the life and work of the novelist Mishima Yukio (19251970). Mishima wrote many creative novels in the literary style of twentieth-century Western literature. He also wrote many important essays before he committed suicide in the traditional samurai style of slitting his bowels. He wrote, "A characteristic of contemporary culture is probably that many different illusionsincluding ideals, norms, and ideologiesthat had inspired people toward life have broken down. The idea of the absolute was lost, and people are forced to face naked life as materialistic and naturalistic, deprived of all designs. This is the cause of the irredeemable nihilism of today." When any community is eroded by other culture, its rules and customs break down, and the community gradually falls apart morally and spiritually. In such circumstances, life destroys itself, whatever efforts may be tried to fulfill life.

Mishima was desperately warning against the tendency of life to destroy itself in Japan's headlong effort to Westernize and modernize. When he criticized the Japanese emperor for proclaiming that he was a human being, not a living kami, he also pointed out the contradiction of modern constitutional emperorship. For Mishima, it is impossible to Westernize the sacred; the sacred cannot be embodied within the framework of a Western secular nation-state.

See Also

Buddhism, article on Buddhism in Japan; Buddhism, Schools of, article on Japanese Buddhism; Domestic Observances, article on Japanese Practices; Fiction, article on Japanese Fiction and Religion; Folk Religion, article on Folk Buddhism; Japanese Religions, article on Popular Religion and article on The Study of Myths; New Religious Movements, article on New Religious Movements in Japan; Politics and Religion, article on Politics and Japanese Religions; Shintō.


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"Transculturation and Religion: Religion in the Formation of Modern Japan." Encyclopedia of Religion. . (June 27, 2019).

"Transculturation and Religion: Religion in the Formation of Modern Japan." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Retrieved June 27, 2019 from

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