(The Grand Shrine at Ise, outlying building)
I know that several people are already skipping over this post at the mere mention of Japan, and I can’t really blame them. In recent years, Japan has become associated with everything from anime to consumerist adaptations of so-called “Zen” simplicity. Every time I post about being a Japanese scholar, I imagine people are rolling their eyes and judging me, and that’s perfectly okay. Just to set the score straight: No, I don’t watch anime. No, I don’t think Japan is some arcane source of Eastern spirituality that is going to save the West from its materialism. Yes, I own a “Zen” mp3 player, but only because I thought it was hilarious!
So, if I don’t think Japan is a magical, mysterious, peaceful place, why do I think it’s important from a religious standpoint? As most of you know, I was Buddhist for several years, but during that time I practiced in the Tibetan tradition, so even back then Japan had little to do with my spiritual path. Now, as an Asatru, I have no direct connection at all to the religions practiced there. However, I still believe that Japan is very important for anyone who has come to a polytheistic/animistic practice, for several reasons:
1) Japan undermines the assumption that monotheism is a more evolved form of religion than polytheism
In The Future of an Illusion, Freud describes the evolution of religious practices, proposing that first humans worshiped Nature, and then they put faces on those natural phenomena and called them Gods, and finally merged all those Gods into a single God that represented the most evolved form of religious comprehension. This myth of religion has been rampant among atheists and Christians alike in the Western world for centuries. At least coming from Freud, all of these categories are marked equally as illusions, but for the so-called “Christian” world, derogatory claims of primitivism have been inseparable from pantheism and animism since the old religions were forcibly disbanded. The word “pagan” means primitive country dweller, after all!
Anyone who has studied the history of religion, particularly the history of Asian religions, will realize how stupid this notion is. Hinduism is probably the most complex major religious system in existence, and traditional Chinese religions started with a semi-monotheistic worldview centering on Tian or “heaven” (天) and moved into a more polytheistic synthesis of ancestor worship, traditional Gods, and imported Buddhism. The short version is, there is really nothing linking monotheism with social development except the incidental spread of Christianity alongside colonization and forced modernization of traditional cultures.
In my opinion, there is no country that proves this better than Japan, a “first world” power that is very much “pagan.” I realize first world is a loaded, and often incorrect term, but let’s put that aside for the moment. The important thing here is Japan is as full of scientific knowledge, higher education, and technological conveniences as any Christian country. Their dominant religion is Shinto, and not for any lack of knowledge or exposure to modern “monotheism.” Although Japan was for the most part under sakoku (closed country) law during the pre-modern period, there was a significant influx of Christian missionaries after the arrival of the black ships in 1854, particularly during the push for Westernization in the 1880s. To this day, many Japanese students attend Christian institutions. (My university in Japan was Catholic!) However, Christians make up less than 1% of Japan’s population. My point being, the Christians came, the Japanese saw what they had to offer, and blatantly rejected it in favor of their old ways.
2) Japan proves that religion and science do not have to be at odds with one another
As I said, Shinto or “the way of the Gods” is every bit as pagan as any reconstructionist or neopagan movement currently in existence in the West. Shinto has a mythology (or, several versions of a mythology dependent on local traditions), nature spirits, shaman mediums, amulets, ghosts, and a plethora of deities. TheKojiki, a collection of stories commissioned by the Imperial household in the Eighth century, tells the story of Japan’s creation after two deities, Izanami and Izanagi, plunge a sword into the ocean and churn it until the islands come into being. I think it’s safe to assume that almost every Japanese citizen, and probably Japanese emigrants now living abroad, are familiar with this story.
Does this mean there has ever been a push to keep scientific discoveries regarding evolution out of schools? No, absolutely not.
Many Japanese have adopted an attitude of peaceful co-existence with religion and science. When I was in Japan, I witnessed people who believe fervently in Darwin’s discoveries visiting shrines to the Creation Deities and saying a prayer in thanks to Them. When asked if they believe these stories really happened, they would shrug and answer 宗教だけだ (it’s just religion). It is not uncommon for Japanese businessmen with M.B.A. degrees from the highest universities to invite priests to purify their company buildings, and my friend, a psychiatrist, admitted to studying for her exams at Kitano-Tenmanguu shrine and carrying anomamoricharm in her car because “it can’t hurt to do it, right?”
Personally, I think this is a healthy attitude regarding religion. It’s unhealthy to turn a blind eye to science because it contradicts a text written thousands of years ago, but on the other hand, saying a prayer or carrying a charm can’t hurt at all, can it?
3) The majority of Japanese emphasize practice and tradition over belief
The myth that dictates religion to be a system of beliefs is a relatively recent one, according to religious scholar and sociologist Clifford Geertz. Geertz argues that scripturalism, or the assumption that answers can be found through belief in the supremacy of a text, developed in response to scientific processes. Instead of finding meaning through participation in a ritual, modern religious thought tends to suggest that one identifies with a religion based on their personal beliefs.
At some point I plan to explain further how I feel that the return of pagan/heathen thought in the West is in opposition to scripturalism and its primacy of beliefs. But for now, I want to highlight the way Japan seems to be handling the issue of faith and religion.
In a survey in the Asahi newspaper a few years ago, readers were asked if they believe in any religion. Nearly 80% said they do not believe in any religion. The survey went on to ask questions such as: “Do you do the hatsumode (first shrine visit of the year)?” and “Do you keep a kamidana (“God shelf” or altar) in your home?” To these questions and others regarding their involvement with religious holidays, omamori, and spirit contact, readers answered with an overwhelming YES.
I know there are many people on here who identify as atheist heathens or atheist druids, and I support this wholeheartedly. Personally, I too started out this way, but because of several things that occurred during rituals and as a result of practices my beliefs have come into fruition. However, I think tradition and a commitment to ancestral practices is reason enough to practice a religion. Maybe the Gods will show Themselves and maybe faith will develop from this, but religion offers much more than beliefs about the origin of the world and the afterlife. Religion is about connection to a tradition, a community, and the simple comfort a life with religious structure can offer. I think this is the most important lesson we can learn from Japanese Shinto:
You don’t have to believe that eclipses are caused because Amaterasu once hid in a cave or that thunder results from Thor fighting Jotuns to realize the importance of maintaining your ancestral traditions.
Obviously I am not writing this to recommend anyone’s conversion to Shinto or pretend that Japan’s religious knowledge is going to save the West. Nor am I delusional enough to say that Japan’s religions are perfect or even close to it. Shinto was also utilized by the Japanese government to foster feelings of ultra-nationalism during the Pacific War, and when I was in Japan I saw several Buddhist monks driving around in Lexus cars bought with alms money. Japan has its religious problems just like everywhere else, and I don’t want to glamorize it in any way. I just want to point out that Shinto is the most similar world religion to the paths of reconstructionism and neopaganism, and we can learn a lot by looking at the ways they have maintained their polytheism and consolidated it with the developments of modern science.
Even after falling away from Japan and Japanese culture as an area of academic interest, I maintain these exact feelings and views. The notion that monotheism is a progressive move from polytheistic traditions has always seemed silly to me (as does the view that becoming or being Atheist rather than religious is the superior stance), and ever since my trip to Japan and my long infatuation with the country and culture, I’ve had great respect for the overwhelming Shinto influence. It is the perfect example of how A) polytheism can go hand-in-hand with educated, technologically-advanced nations, and B) that science and religious or spiritual belief can coexist peacefully.
Thanks for putting it so well. :)