Cultural Reflections On Our Trip to Kansai

Kinkakuji, The Golden Pavilion, built at the end of the 14th century

Just got back from a trip to Kansai Japan, thanks to my good friends at Hawaiian Airlines who were kind enough to invite us on the Osaka inaugural flight. Boy did we pack in some fun in just 24 hours! We left on 7/12, arrived late afternoon on 7/13, and returned to Hawaii the evening of 7/14.

On the evening that we arrived we met up with a local friend and headed out for Osaka’s delicacy okonomiyaki at a restaurant called Chigusa. While we munched on delicious okonomiyaki and gulped down Yebisu beer, a large group of folks who also were on the inaugural flight, walked by the shop. We had just enough beer buzzing in our brains to get their attention and coax them in.

What’s special about this group is there were celebrities among them, including Mark Yamanaka (4-time Nahoku Hanohano Award winner), KHON newscaster Ron Mizutani with his crack videographer Greg Lau, not to mention local DokoGa TV stars Pali and Sachi Kaaihue.

After stuffing ourselves, we pleaded with the proprietors to open up an okonomiyaki restaurant in Hawaii. (And if they are so bold as to open one in Hilo, I promise to be a joren or “regular customer”.)

By the time we left, our new friends were raving about the food as well, while Greg Lau shot video footage of the chef preparing the dishes.

Our friend Nakki on the left and Mark Yamanaka at the next table to the right; Ron Mizutani’s at the far left and Pali and Sachi with their backs to us

The next day we headed to Kyoto for a tour of the ancient capital. (As fate would have it, most of our new okonomiyaki buddies joined the tour as well.) The trip brought back a flood of memories in college studying Japanese history and cultural attitudes toward religion. This was a transitional phase in my life. And as I learned more and more about traditional Japanese spirituality, the culture gaps that separate Japan and the West grew before my eyes. It was mind-blowing to someone who had never considered alternative cultural takes on spirituality and reality in general. It took years to piece together a coherent picture of Japanese attitudes toward religion.

Born Into Shinto

My first son was born in Japan. He was my in-laws’ first grandchild so this was a big deal for the Ishiyamas. Japanese mom-in-law was so excited that she decided to have my boy baptized at the neighborhood Shinto Shrine. This was her big chance to show off her new grandson to the family!

And show him off we did. Took him down to Kinomiya Shrine in Atami for his Miya Mairi (“Shrine visit”), where a Shinto priest performed the baptism ritual, basically chanting and swinging a tamagushi (a Shinto offering made from a sakaki tree branch and decorative strips of paper). At the appropriate time we carried our son forward to the altar where I bowed my head and prayed for the ceremony to be over soon (just kidding). For our trouble we were rewarded with a cup of rice wine. This was my favorite part of the ceremony. (I’m not kidding about this.)

In retrospect, the only person who seemed to take the Shinto ritual seriously was the priest.

Well, when my Irish-Catholic mother found out that her grandson had been baptized in the “heathen religion” I had some explaining to do. Did my best to communicate that it was just a custom in Japan, more of a show than serious religious practice. My strategy was to downplay the religious dimension, something I could do without having to tell a single lie. To further placate mom, I assured her that had my Japanese mother-in-law known how important it was to her, she’d have gladly arranged to have the baptism performed in a Catholic Church. This was true as well, although Japanese mom-in-law would probably have done both Shinto and Catholic ceremonies.

Needless to say this explanation went over like a lead balloon. Mom was disturbed enough about all this to “threaten” to arrange a hasty Catholic baptism when we weren’t around. Her “threat” was based on the false assumption that I’d object to this proposition. Truth is, if a Catholic baptism would have made mom feel good about it, then she had my unconditional blessing. The way I figured, if we could baptize my son in as many religions as possible, we’d have all our spiritual bases covered.

Since we’re on the topic of baptism, here’s an interesting cultural fact: the function of baptism in Shinto is not the same as in Christianity. Christianity assumes the existence of original sin, the notion that babies are born impure. The logic behind the Christian baptism then, is to wash off that “dark spot” that comes with our inherently defective souls.

Not so in Shinto. The assumption Shinto starts from is that all babies are born “pure”–then of course it all goes downhill from there. Factor in the belief in the existence of rogue evil spirits floating around the living world looking for vulnerable babies to infect, and the whole ritual makes sense: Shinto baptism is designed to ward off these evil spirits so the child can remain pure.

As interesting a religion as Shinto is, even more interesting is Japanese attitudes toward religion in general. Foreigners in contact with Japan are often confused when they see Shinto Shrines and Buddhist temples standing alongside each other enjoying a seemingly harmonious coexistence.

We turn to history for answers.

Buddhism Comes to Japan

Kiyomizu Buddhist Temple, built in the 8th century; the complex also houses Jishu Shinto shrine, built in honor of Okuninushi, the god of love.

In the 6th and 7th Centuries, China was at the top of its game, the most advanced civilization on earth at the time. This was China’s golden age, when it cast a cultural shadow over most of Asia, including Japan.

Buddhism’s initial introduction to Japan was said to have come via Korea. The official story has a Korean delegation arriving in Japan in the 6th century bearing gifts for the Emperor, offerings that included a bronze Buddha statue and other religious objects. To sweeten the deal they also threw in some Buddhist sutras and a letter exalting the almighty Dharma.

Just imagine the reaction from the Japanese Emperor when the Korean delegation sprung this on him. As the story goes, the Emperor balked at first, but somehow civility ruled the day and he graciously decided to accept the gifts–even had a temple built to house the sacred objects.

Unfortunately this coincided with an epidemic, a development Japan’s rulers blamed on the indigenous spirits’ (or “kami”) displeasure with the foreign religion. Thinking it was a spiritual Trojan Horse they took action: all Buddhist objects were unceremoniously thrown into a canal and the new temple destroyed.

In light of this unfortunate turn of events it’s amazing that over the next half century Chinese Buddhism still managed to gain a foothold in Japan. Perhaps the Japanese Powers-That-Be concluded the kami were angry for a different reason? Or that the Korean version of Buddhism had bad mojo? More likely they believed that Chinese culture was just too cool not to emulate.

Whatever the reason Japan turned to China for inspiration. Numerous Japanese envoys, priests and students visited the continent to study China. Awed by China’s thriving civilization, they asked themselves, “Why can’t we?”

From “Japan: A Country Study”, Library of Congress:

Shotoku Taishi (A.D. 574-622)… recognized as a great intellectual of this period of reform, was a devout Buddhist, well read in Chinese literature. He was influenced by Confucian principles, including the Mandate of Heaven, which suggested that the sovereign ruled at the will of a supreme force. Under Shotoku’s direction, Confucian models of rank and etiquette were adopted, and his Seventeen Article Constitution (Kenpo jushichiju) prescribed ways to bring harmony to a society chaotic in Confucian terms. In addition, Shotoku adopted the Chinese calendar, developed a system of highways, built numerous Buddhist temples, had court chronicles compiled, sent students to China to study Buddhism and Confucianism, and established formal diplomatic relations with China.

Numerous official missions of envoys, priests, and students were sent to China in the seventh century. Some remained twenty years or more; many of those who returned became prominent reformers.

Here we see Japan’s early infatuation with the Middle Kingdom, to the point that they systematically start “importing” Chinese Buddhism along with the writing system and Confucianism. This is the first time in Japan’s recorded history of the country deliberately and systematically importing culture, art and technology from abroad. It’s a pattern that would repeat itself throughout Japanese history.

The More Gods the Merrier!

When Japan’s rulers decided to adopt Buddhism they had a dilemma: how to keep the indigenous Shinto believers and Buddhists from stepping on each other’s toes, spiritually speaking of course. The “solution” that evolved over time was simple and uniquely Japanese: make the two religions compatible then allow everyone to be both Shinto and Buddhist!

As you might expect there was initial resistance to the foreign religion. But the Japanese are nothing if not practical, as demonstrated by the harmonious Shinto-Buddhism coexistence that eventually evolved. It didn’t hurt that Shinto was polytheistic, meaning the Japanese had relatively little resistance to inviting more gods to the party. Hey, the more gods the merrier!

Here’s a concrete example of Japan’s practical side when it comes to religion: Shinto wasn’t very fond of death. It was much more suited to rituals related to happy, this-worldly events like birth and weddings.

But death was dark and messy business. It went against Shinto’s love of purity, not to mention that Shinto didn’t take the afterlife seriously to begin with. (The afterlife concept that Shinto did have was a dark vision indeed, an underworld called yomi, not unlike the Western concept of Hades.) It’s not hard to imagine how unsettling it must have been for Shinto believers to stare into the cosmic abyss and see nothing but darkness. Shinto was more than happy to stay focused on this world and let Buddhism deal with the scary stuff.

And Buddhism was happy to oblige, filling the void with its very own turnkey set of funeral rituals, concepts of an afterlife–not to mention that cremation just made darn good sense in light of Japan’s scarcity of land.

One of the big attractions of Buddhism (other than the implied endorsement from China) was the perceived “magical powers” it brought with it. This gave the Japanese court a new means of curing disease, manifesting rain, or growing abundant crops. Somehow they convinced themselves that Buddhism’s magic was real, because it gained a solid foothold and endured well into the 19th century. Even today it endures, in a secular sort of way.

What’s interesting, certainly through a Westerner’s monotheistic lens, is that Buddhism had no aspiration to replace Shinto. As a religion that favors harmonious coexistence, Buddhism had no qualms about recognizing the local Shinto “kami” as manifestations of the Buddha. Shinto didn’t mind this arrangement either, and they lived happily ever after. Well, almost. But we’ll get to that.

The Hybridization of Buddhism and Shinto

Indeed this harmony-driven approach to assimilating Buddhism with indigenous Shinto paved the way for the development of “Shinbutsu Shugo”, or the “hybridization” of Buddhism and Shinto. By the 8th Century the Japanese were already building Shinto Shrines and Buddhist Temples within the same complexes, and in ensuing centuries, the two religions gradually created a symbiotic relationship. Interesting to note that what came to be known as “Shinbutsu Shugo” in the 17th century, actually evolved long before the Japanese created a word for it.

Now try to envision this in the West: consider the notion of building churches and mosques in the same complexes, with both religions practiced by the same congregation? Hard to imagine indeed, as monotheism, by nature, tends toward exclusionism.

What’s fascinating is that the spread of Buddhism happened in a “top-down” fashion, not unlike policy deployment within Japanese companies today. Buddhism became the rage with the ruling elite starting with Prince Shotoku (574-642), eventually trickling down to the Warrior class and commoners in the Midde Ages.

In the Middle Ages the trickle down effect turned into a raging flood. Zen appealed to the warrior class due to its practical, this-worldly nature. Meanwhile, Medieval monks traveled about Japan spreading the word to the illiterate masses, a development greatly facilitated by the roads built and improved by the Kamakura Shogunate (a new reality that allowed greater control of Kyoto and other distant cities and prefectures, literally paving the way for increased travel and contact among the isolated prefectures throughout a country with roughly 70% of its landmass covered in mountains). By the end of the Muromachi period (1333/4-1573), Buddhism was thoroughly entrenched among the commoners in Japan.

The Buddhism-Shinto Divorce

Buddhism was practiced freely in tandem with Shintoism until the late Edo/Early Meiji period when the whole hybridization concept was reversed through “Shinbutsu Bunri”, a law forbidding the amalgamation of the two religions. The purpose of the separation was twofold: to weaken Buddhism and its immense economic and social power, and at the same time strengthen the cult of Shinto, a move that eventually fueled Japanese nationalism and further legitimized the restoration of the Emperor to his “rightful” position as Head of State in 1868 (if not in reality then symbolically). No surprise the anti-Buddhist movement was led by Confucian, Neo-Confucian, and Shinto scholars, the very folks who benefited the most from Buddhism’s demise.

But the Shinto-Buddhism divorce realized only limited success. While it did weaken Buddhism, it survived the divorce. The enduring legacy of Shinbutsu Bunri is it created the Japanese perception today that the two religions are not the same.

Attitudes Toward Religion in Modern Japan

Today Japan is, for the most part, a secular society. And yet while most Japanese will tell you they are not “religious”, they still like to keep alive their religious traditions. Even more interesting is that they like to celebrate non-Japanese religious traditions as well (commercially of course). And celebrate they do! For example, when you get married in Japan today you are allowed to be a Christian, at least for a day–forever if you’re so inclined. They’ve also managed to turn Christmas into a big commercial success.

Last I checked Christian doctrine doesn’t condone practicing more than one religion. But this doesn’t stop the Japanese from doing it. And it’s a clear reflection of religious (and economic) attitudes that survived to present-day Japan: it allows and encourages the Japanese to celebrate Shinto, Buddhist and Christian holidays.

To keep this information straight in your head I leave you with the following popular Japanese adage:

In Japan you’re born into Shinto, get married a Christian, and die a Buddhist!

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2011

One response to “Cultural Reflections On Our Trip to Kansai

  1. Aloha Tim! Very educational post. Mahalo. Strikes me that “common sense” seems to be the key theme running through the Japanese approach to religions. Which makes total sense!

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