The Invention of Religion in Japan
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The Invention of Religion in Japan

Jason Ananda Josephson Storm

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eBook - ePub

The Invention of Religion in Japan

Jason Ananda Josephson Storm

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About This Book

Throughout its long history, Japan had no concept of what we call "religion." There was no corresponding Japanese word, nor anything close to its meaning. But when American warships appeared off the coast of Japan in 1853 and forced the Japanese government to sign treaties demanding, among other things, freedom of religion, the country had to contend with this Western idea. In this book, Jason Ananda Josephson reveals how Japanese officials invented religion in Japan and traces the sweeping intellectual, legal, and cultural changes that followed. More than a tale of oppression or hegemony, Josephson's account demonstrates that the process of articulating religion offered the Japanese state a valuable opportunity. In addition to carving out space for belief in Christianity and certain forms of Buddhism, Japanese officials excluded Shinto from the category. Instead, they enshrined it as a national ideology while relegating the popular practices of indigenous shamans and female mediums to the category of "superstitions"—and thus beyond the sphere of tolerance. Josephson argues that the invention of religion in Japan was a politically charged, boundary-drawing exercise that not only extensively reclassified the inherited materials of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Shinto to lasting effect, but also reshaped, in subtle but significant ways, our own formulation of the concept of religion today. This ambitious and wide-ranging book contributes an important perspective to broader debates on the nature of religion, the secular, science, and superstition.

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The Marks of Heresy: Organizing Difference in Premodern Japan

All Southern Barbarians and Westerners, not only the English, practice the heresy [jakyō] that is prohibited in our country. Henceforth, whenever a foreign ship is sighted approaching any point on our coast, all persons on hand should fire on it and drive it off.
On March 24, 1860, the Great Councilor Ii Naosuke was ambushed outside the gates of Edo Castle and brutally assassinated.1 Alongside his decapitated body, his killers left a note accusing him of various crimes, which included allowing “heretical temples” (jakyōdera) into Japan.2 While the larger political circumstances that led to this bloody confrontation have been extensively studied, a scholar might be drawn to the seemingly miniscule details of the wording of the assassins’ manifesto.3 Such a scholar might wonder about the nature of this “heresy”: was it, for example, an unorthodox form of Japanese religion, as the language might seem to imply? On learning that these “heretical temples” were Christian churches, previous scholars have generally interpreted this expression as nothing more than a xenophobic outburst and moved on.
And yet, this term for heresy, jakyō, and related semantic variants (including jashūmon, jasetsu, and jahō) are not merely found in one isolated instance.4 They permeate Edo and Meiji-period Japan in ritual manuals, doctrinal debates, geographies, and newspapers. This language also shaped policy debates, diplomatic exchanges, manifestos, and laws; it provided the unifying rationale behind acts of violence including the burning of books, torture, mass executions, and murders. The word “heresy” itself did not kill but clearly inspired the hermeneutic configuration that attempted to inscribe these massacres with meaning.5 We cannot make sense of the councilor’s assassination, for example, without examining this terminology in detail. To call it xenophobic is not enough. To say that these assassins hated Christianity is not enough. On the contrary, to call Christianity a heresy is precisely to deny its foreignness, to fail to acknowledge its true difference. The key to this seeming contradiction is to understand what it meant to think of Christianity as a heresy.
The Great Councilor’s crime, referred to in this section of the assassins’ manifesto as permitting the incursion of “heretical temples,” was his signature of a treaty guaranteeing that “Americans in Japan shall be allowed the free exercise of their religion, and for this purpose shall have the right to erect suitable places of worship.”6 The men who murdered Ii Naosuke tried to justify their acts with this document, and it is tempting to say that they were opposing freedom of religion. But why then did the killers not refer to Christianity as a religion, or anywhere mention religion directly in their manifesto? The answer lies in the fact that in some important sense, the concept “religion” was not available to them.
The assassins, like their contemporaries, understood Christianity according to the legacy of European missionary activity in the sixteenth century. As a result of these encounters, Japanese intellectuals classified Christianity in terms of the preexisting category of heresy. Put differently, they described Christianity not as a foreign religion but as a deviant version of Japanese practices. Christianity’s place in the horizon of categories was clear: the bloodstained manifesto grouped Christianity with forbidden Buddhist sects, and this classification was the norm in Tokugawa Japan, not the exception. Although the word “religion,” did appear in the Harris Treaty (1858), Japanese translators seem to have understood the term mostly as a polite euphemism for an evil Euro-American cult. In their interpretation, American religion and the Japanese jakyō (heresy) were initially synonymous.
As discussed in the introduction, the main features of the concept of “religion” were not formulated in Europe until the seventeenth century. Indeed, it was the early encounter between cultures lacking a concept of religion that laid the groundwork for the development of the concept in both cultures. In Japan a modern concept of religion developed in the nineteenth century, only somewhat behind America and Europe, and was absent in preceding periods. This chapter traces the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century encounters between Europe and Japan, focusing on the language of heresy. I sketch out two interconnected rubrics for negotiating cultural difference before religion. I identify one as hierarchical inclusion, a set of discursive practices that organize difference under a totalizing framework to bridge apparent difference, and thus effectively deny difference. The second rubric I call exclusive similarity, which I use to describe those acts of othering that work by excluding on the basis of reputed similarity, not difference. In this later mode, difference is also disqualified, but in this case by representing divergent positions as aberrant imitations. I argue that between these two modes, Japanese thinkers already had in place sophisticated strategies for the interpretation of difference before formulating a modern concept of religion. Put differently, I demonstrate that despite the presence of Christianity it was not necessary to formulate a new concept of religion, because preexisting language of Buddhist deviance was ready at hand.

Difference Denied: Hierarchical Inclusion

And when they heard our cause, which seemed to the [Japanese] priests [Pg., bonzos]to be in accordance with the divine attributes of their “Dainichi,” they said to the Padre that although we have different terminology, [different] languages and habits, the essence of the law professed by them and the Padre was identical.
In 1551, Ōuchi Yoshitaka (1507–1551), the daimyo of Suō, donated a Buddhist temple to a group of foreigners. Stating that he approved of the “monks who have come from the western regions [India] to spread the Dharma of the Buddha [Buppō],” Yoshitaka forbade his subjects from taking any action to harm the foreigners; he even suggested that he might reciprocate by sending his own Buddhist monks as ambassadors to India (Tenjiku).7
At first glance we might think, as Yoshitaka did, that this diplomatic moment had the potential to mark the beginning of an Indo-Japanese exchange united in pan-Buddhist fraternity. After all, the Rinzai Zen priest who served as Yoshitaka’s advisor had concluded from his interview with these Indian monks that they not only came from the holy land of the Buddha’s birth, but that they were also proponents of a well-recognized sect of Japanese tantric Buddhism, the Shingon school.8 This opinion was confirmed when monks of the Shingon sect met with the Indians and recognized their common cause.9
The Indians also seemed to share the Shingon sect’s primary object of devotion. The Indian monks themselves reinforced this interpretation, as according to their Japanese translator, they had come to Japan on a mission to promote reverence for the Cosmic Buddha (Dainichi Nyōrai).10 Having been granted permission to preach in the daimyo’s capital city, the leader of the foreigners summoned people to worship by calling out a newly learned Japanese phrase “Dainichi o ogami are!” (Pray to the Cosmic Buddha!)
Initially, all seemed to go well. But only a short time later, the foreigners changed their message. They began shouting “Do not pray to the Cosmic Buddha!” And they started preaching that “Dainichi should not be honored as God, and that the Shingon sect, like all the others, was a fraudulent law and an invention of the devil.”11 From this time forward, the foreigners repeatedly asserted that they were not members of a Buddhist sect and that the subject of their rites was not the Cosmic Buddha, but something or someone called Deus whose name and essence were fundamentally unique and untranslatable.12
The foreigners were not in fact Indian Buddhists. Their leader was the Basque cofounder of the Jesuit order, Francis Xavier (1506–1552), and he was from India only in the sense that he had recently passed through the Portuguese Indian colony of Goa. He had come not from the land of the Buddha’s birth, but from the European kingdom of Navarre, and his message was that of Roman Catholicism, not tantric Buddhism.
In asserting that Deus could not be translated, Xavier seemingly closed off possibilities for Buddhist-Christian synthesis. He further alienated many of his Buddhist allies with his fierce criticism of the Shingon sect. Nevertheless, the question remains: how could Catholicism have been mistaken for Buddhism in the first place? Xavier’s Japanese companion Anjirō often gets the blame in ways that call to mind the Italian expression “traduttore, tradittore” (translator-traitor). For it was Anjirō, a native of Kagoshima and occasional pirate, who, after fleeing a murder charge and finding himself in Malacca, joined the Jesuit mission and served as their interpreter. In his translations, Anjirō equated heaven with the Buddhist pure land (jōdo), hell with the Buddhist underworld (jigoku), angels with the deities of the Brahma-Heaven (tennin), and, most problematically, God with the Cosmic Buddha (Dainichi).13
More than a hundred years of mission history has, in general, faulted Anjirō for his ignorance and his “failures” as a translator.14 Granted, Anjirō’s illiteracy and his truncated understanding of both Buddhism and Christianity limited what he could do. Yet, Anjirō’s translations were not hermeneutically arbitrary or naïve. We do not know how much Anjirō understood of his original Shingon Buddhist sect. Nevertheless, his untutored renderings are strikingly in keeping with Shingon interpretative strategies and one can see evidence of this in his reading of Christianity. After all, it was the founder of the Japanese Shingon sect, Kūkai (774–835), who wrote the following:
Mañjuśrī asked the Buddha: “Bhagavat, by how many names have you turned the wheel of Dharma in our world?” The Buddha said: “I have called myself empty, being, suchness, dharmatā, permanence, impermanence, god, demon, mantra, and great mantra. In such a way, by means of hundreds and thousands of koṭis of names, I have benefited living beings.” When the meaning of this is fully grasped, how can there be discord between [different] schools [of thought]?15
The position articulated here represents a mode of reconciling difference similar to that advocated by Anjirō. It suggests that translation can bridge divergence. Any conceptual or ideological position can be reconciled through a hermeneutic reduction to an incarnation of the Buddha; that is, God could be just another name for the Cosmic Buddha.
I want to emphasize that this is not naïve synthesis, nor is it the production of some kind of harmonious compromise. Instead, this model suggests an asymmetrical technique for reconciling difference that I call hierarchical i...

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