Value system and Japaneseness

Conflict among value systems

20 years have already passed in the third millennium and we are still confronted with endless conflicts between various human groups. Despite a wise man's prediction, history of conflict did not end after the Cold War. Different types of conflict are instead spreading over the world in incredibly cruel ways. At the same time we increasingly feel the limits of our planet in accommodating a rapidly growing population who consume more resources than ever. In reality, we should not waste time in fighting among ourselves but work together to find the way in which all human beings, living in about 200 different nations and an even greater number of ethnic and social groups, can survive our generation. We are now risking the basis for our existence.

Of course, world political and intellectual leaders are trying hard to find answers to such problems. However, I sometimes feel that the opinions represented there are too much constrained by the Western thinking. The West has dominated the world since the Age of Discovery or the time of Christopher Columbus and in particular since the time of Colonialism and Imperialism. The most serious conflicts which are now going on in the world, seem to be brought about by Western expansion into other civilizations.

It is also noticeable that the most serious conflicts occur among three major religions, Christianity, Islam and Judaism and constitute the major threat to the whole globe.
As a man from a non-monotheist civilization, I sometimes suspect that monotheism might essentially lack tolerance and be the real source of unending conflicts. Of course, many intellectuals of the monotheist society do indeed advocate tolerance, but meanwhile the people from their own society do not want to turn their left cheek when their right cheek has been struck. They instead appear to try to impose their own norms or standards on other people' behavior. Maybe they believe that they have a universally valid yardstick and that it is their duty to extend the values entrusted to them by their God. I feel this occurs not only in the political and economic arena but also - and more essentially - in cultural and ethical areas.

It is obvious that Muslims are not good at changing their society and assimilating the input from Western style modernization. Their pride seems to make them the least good at adapting to foreign "hegemony". I realize that they strongly believe in the supremacy of their own values or religion and cannot make any compromise in this regard. In contrast to them, non-monotheists are easy-going about ultimate values. As I understand it, people in the Far East in general think that they are in a give and take relationship with gods. The ethics for regulating the relations between humans are not given by gods but are taught by wise persons like the great Confucius. As their teachings are directed to the management of human relations in this world, people can be extremely flexible and pragmatic in adapting to new influence from outside.

Adaptability and loss of intellectual autonomy

Among the non-monotheist nations, Japan is not an immediate neighbor to China, but lies in the periphery of the Chinese civilization. Therefore, Japan had learned to adapt to the norms set by the great power China, while keeping its own identity, before it became exposed to the industrialized West in the mid 19th century. Therefore, Japan could rather easily keep up with the change of political constellation by that time and could quickly catch up with the Western countries in making a prosperous country, compared to its neighboring countries such as China.

But, this ability of Japan to adapt has brought about some negative consequences as well. Japan is often said to keep its traditions despite its success in industrialization. I think this observation is unfortunately somewhat superficial. During the course of modernization, Japan gave full play to its adaptability and as a result lost many traditional virtues, and among others its own good judgment. (*) Maybe the threat from the West to its security was so enormous that the adaptation had to be thorough and drastic. But, it is regrettable.
Japan was much influenced by China, but it was not a vassal country. Therefore, although it had to adapt to the hegemony of China, the power center in the Far East, it had its own norms and standards for behavior.
Though Japan had a slogan "Western technology in Japanese spirit" in the Meiji Period (1868-1912), it has by now totally lost its intellectual autonomy and is satisfied with participating in the games in accordance with the rules set forth by the Western world.
Intellectual leaders accept the Western or American norms, and worship them, and try to do their best under them. In many cases, they establish their position in Japan as an obedient agent for foreign authority.

It is strange that Japanese people cannot evaluate their compatriots on their own judgment, but instead need the recognition implicit in the Nobel Prize or Oscar Award. I also doubt the universality of the Olympic Games, which are enthusiastically accepted by the vast majority of the Japanese people.

On the other hand, the same intellectual leaders explain to foreigners that Zen, Noh, Genji-monogatari(*), Bushido(**) and the Tea Ceremony represent the Japanese spirit. It is understandable that they have to sell Japan in a way the Westerners would be most happy to accept. In this way Japan can be best evaluated by the West, as they are acting within the Western value system. However, as a result, foreigners and even Japanese people themselves come to have an image of Japan, which is in reality nothing but a distorted picture of Japan and Japaneseness. They have damaged the natural development of our society. A typical example is the development of traditional Japanese culture. For example, Kabuki was forced to keep the purity of tradition and the potential for further developing tradition was snatched away.
"Genji-monogatari" is said to be the world's first novel written by a noble woman Murasaki Shikibu in the 10th century.
"Bushido" is the way of samurais.

Japaneseness in religion

Before going into the argument on "Japaneseness", I want to make a reservation concerning the scope of the Japanese people. Japan is said to be a highly homogeneous country. However, it is not completely homogeneous. We should not forget the ethnic identity of the Ainu. The independent development of the Okinawan history and tradition should also be respected. There are Korean minorities as a result of the Japanese colonial rule over Korea and there are also historically discriminated groups of people such as Eta. We have to keep in mind their existence, while we concentrate on the majority of the Japanese people and their culture.

Since Japan started to exist as a state, it has never been ruled by foreign powers except for the American occupation between 1945 and 1951. Therefore, it is natural that Japan has kept its considerable homogeneity. Japan has been a country of the Japanese people. The Japanese language is spoken publicly only within Japan. With their own language the Japanese people cannot communicate with other people. The sea surrounding Japan kept it comfortably independent from the outside world. This made it easier for the Japanese people to develop a culture characteristic of their society. Even now Japan has many unique cultural genres and is creating new areas such as Manga and Otaku. Foreign influences were filtered and transformed into the Japanese context.

I would like to take up here Buddhism as a part of Japanese culture. Buddhism was introduced into Japan (*) and underwent considerable change in the process of Japanization. Among numerous schools or sects of Buddhism, Zen was a relative newcomer and supported by samurais during the feudal period. But, it did not gain the support of the majority of the Japanese people. Therefore, it is hard to say that Zen is the philosophical base of the Japanese culture and its economic success, because the industrial and cultural development in the modern Japan was driven not by a handful of the elite but by the vast majority of citizens.
Japan is not a country of leaders but of ordinary people. It is not a nation based on "high culture" but on the contrary on "pop culture". Therefore, we have to analyze what the vast majority of the Japanese people believed and believe.
Of course, Confucianism and other native philosophies had influenced Buddhism in China, before Buddhism came to Japan.
The most influential sect of Buddhism in Japan is called Jodo-Shinshu(*). This sect sets the worship of Amitabha at its center of doctrine and preaches that everybody can go to Amitabha paradise after death, but only if he believes in Amitabha and recites the mantra "Namu Amida-Butsu"(**). I cannot believe that such a religion can be called Buddhism, if Buddhism should be what the historical Gautama Buddha predicted some 2500 years ago. During the process of Japanization, Buddhism paid much attention to the saving of ordinary people and its teachings became simpler. Jodo-Shinshu is a representative case. But, we have many more examples in the same direction, such as Nichiren-Shu.
In English "True Pure Land School".
In English "Take refuge in Amitabha". The recitation of certain Buddhist phrase is called "nenbutsu" in Japanese. And another influential sect "Nichiren-shu" recites "Namu Myoho Rengekyo", in English "Take refuge in Lotus Sutra". By the way, a believers'organization of Nichiren-Shoshu, Soka-Gakkai, is the parent body for Komei Party, which is now a coalition partner of Liberal Democratic Party.
As far as Buddhism is concerned, we should say that mantra Buddhism is the kernel of the Japanese Buddhism. I feel that Amitabha worship is similar to Jesus worship in Christianity; the selfless worship of a deity is rewarded with a peaceful life in paradise.

Animals, rocks and robots

According to the Buddhist teachings, both paradise and hell are not the end-station, but just another phase for the eternally re-incarnating spirit. The image of Chinese style hell was widely accepted in Japan. However, we still have an expression "beneath grasses and leaves" in relation to our existence after death. There is a vague feeling that dead persons do not go far from us and that they watch over the living members of the family from beneath grasses and leaves. This feeling might go well back into the very ancient time. Japanese people feel that the spirits of our mothers and fathers will not go far away, but stay in our neighborhood or at least come back home at certain occasions, and they incorporated such a feeling into the practice of Buddhism. At both the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, we receive the spirits of our deceased ancestors at home. Now this "O-higan" festival is a part of Buddhist events, but it must have its origin in the native Japanese religion.

It is not correct to say that Japanese people are either Buddhist or Shintoist. We are both. We are also Confucian at the same time. In short, Japanese people are syncretist. Our native religion, Shinto, is a sort of polytheism, which makes it easy for us to accept other gods.

Shinto is also an animistic religion and we feel that spirits haunting us are not only those of dead humans. We see spirits in animals, trees and even mountains or stones. We have a word "mono". Before we came to know Chinese characters, mono was simply mono and it included person, thing and object. Nowadays, we have three different ways of writing "mono". The first one uses a Chinese character "" which means person. The second category uses another Chinese character "" which means thing. Then when we use Japanese phonetic signs and write "" for abstract objects. This means that among these three categories, there is no clear demarcation, but just a gradual and continuous transition.
Of course, it is not difficult to imagine a sort of spirit in animals. The Japanese moreover attribute spirit to trees and plants, and even mountains, rivers and rocks. This can be called animism. But, it does not mean that the Japanese people see spirit in everything, but only in certain objects which have special relation to us. Therefore we build graves for poisonous globefishes and needles, because they have lost their lives or they have worked till they have worn out for the humans.

Simply speaking, the Japanese perception of humans is far from the notion "the lords of creation". This indigenous and ancient perception lies under the behavior of Japanese people even in the time of globalization and post-industrial society. Japanese people are eager to give human names to industrial robots and are enthusiastic in making animation films like "Neighbor Totoro", "Spirited away" and "Astroboy" where humans, robots and spirits are playing together as partners.

I sketched in this essay our religious beliefs and practices. But, this is only a part of our cultural background. I see the need to change the image of Japan from that based on the explanations aiming at selling the image of Japan at a high price in the Western value system as that reflecting reality and truth. When Japan started to compete with the West in the 19th century, the Western value system was highly discriminatory. Under the influence of Darwinism, linear development was assumed and all non-Western culture was evaluated according to that scale. For example, polytheism was, like pentatonic scale, thought to be underdeveloped and primitive. Therefore, our great-grandfathers had to present Japan so as to raise its status. But, now we have more freedom to say things from an independent and objective viewpoint. Our society is different from the Western societies and I would like to recover our own value system.