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Anti-Religious Tendencies in the Spiritual Climate of Japan PDF Print E-mail

Hisayoshi Watanabe
Kyoto University

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Tokyo, Japan May 23-25, 1998

Being Japanese, I may not be in a position to diagnose the disease, as it appears to me, of the Japanese as a whole today. But it seems to me that the recent moral degeneration of the Japanese, especially the young, has rendered it clearly observable and palpable and more easily analyzable as a case of collective disease. It is of uncanny significance that this seems to be common to all the advanced countries today, though I will focus here on the circumstances peculiar to Japan.

All Japanese who are or pretend to be solicitous of the recent moral aberrations of both the young and the adult join in a unanimous cry for some remedy to be applied immediately. But honestly they are doubtful of the possibility of any such “remedy,” being in reality at a loss what to do. The question is whether such people consider themselves to be exempt or whether they feel themselves responsible and deeply involved in it. The nature of the matter is too deep to admit outsider-consciousness.

That the mentality of a people as a whole is not in good health means that they are religiously suffering, whether or not they grant it to be a religious matter or whether they are professedly religious people or atheists. Most Japanese today are so prejudiced and so unimaginative that they cannot imagine that the root of the incredible juvenile delinquency of recent days is to be sought in the religious dimension. I mean by the term religious something more than is usually and erroneously implied. It seems to me that the very concept of religion needs first of all to be redefined to suit our need to cope with our present urgent problems. To say there is need for religion today is to say there is need for a structural change in our mental attitude, a new paradigm, an innovation of the philosophy according to which we live our life, consciously or unconsciously.

But people generally, especially the Japanese, have as yet biased and perverted notions of religion and show poor judgment in regard to our most crucial, and therefore religious, questions. This came to the fore in Japan when the Aum Shinrikyo outrage provoked criticisms of our country. The general reaction among outsiders was surprise, indignation, and clever analyses and conjectures as to the socio-psychological motives of the perpetrators. What made me uneasy, and what was most significant, too, was that most of them pretended to be superior to religion. They are certainly superior, as we all are, to criminals and degraded religion, but they cannot possibly, as we all cannot, be superior to a passion for religion as such.

They were blind, furthermore, to why such a religious group had to arise from among the young. The Aum members had certainly taken a wrong turn and proved to be a murderous group. But critics generally failed to see the fundamental craving of the young to get out of the spiritual aridity of the present-day groping in the dark. They failed to see that we all are responsible, collectively, for this spiritual illness, and that those young people were an inflamed part of our own sickened body. The critics accused those enthusiasts of being antisocial. They would not admit that any innovating movement could not but be antisocial, thought it had to be spiritually so and not physically. Unfortunately, the Aum youth were led to believe in a violent revolution, like that of communists.

The Aum incident, therefore, was a case of false religious awakening within a religiously diseased community. It was itself a symptom of the disease and not the cure of it, as they might have meant it to be. It must itself be cured, but obviously not by a surgical operation or any symptomatic treatment but through a constitutional innovation of our whole community, which means a true religious awakening of us all.

Paradoxical though it may sound, it must be religion—religion redefined, renewed, and powerful—that can cure religious troubles, be they independent insurrections or interreligious strife anywhere in the world. That this simple, though paradoxical, fact eludes the critics is itself the greatest symptom of the malady; it shows how people nowadays live in a materialistic world where it would simply be absurd to suggest a spiritual remedy. Some better social critics may be aware what it is that we stand most in need of today, but even such people are probably shy of the word religion, because, as things are now, it is likely to cause suspicious feelings in the minds of the public. It would be about the last word they would like to put on their tongues.

Thus, we must face the fact undauntedly that what is most hated is what is most needed, and this contradiction more or less exists even within an individual person. We wonder on occasion if we can speak of religion without jeopardizing our fame and status as intellectuals. It seems to me, then, that our first duty is to make clear what religion really is, to rid the concept of its old flavor and to extricate the public’s delusions and misconceptions.

I suspect this conceptual renewal of religion is already going on, however gradually and secretly, at the same time as the concept of science is being redefined through the discussion of paradigms, started by Thomas Kuhn. The discussion of religion, therefore, seems to me no longer possible or desirable without reference to science, and that makes our task much easier. When altered conceptions of science and of religion meet to form one integrated perspective of reality, and become widely accepted as common sense throughout the world, there would be nothing for us to do, nothing for us to fight against to vindicate religious freedom or religious education.

What Japanese people think about religion may be fairly different from what monotheistic peoples do. Until some years after World War II—around the time new religions began to appear—the Japanese in general had thought of religion as belonging solely to old people preparing for death or as something remembered for funerals and anniversaries. Although this view of religion suffered some change with the advent of new religions, educated people mostly thought themselves above religion, as if it were proof of their being intellectual. Such an attitude was encouraged by the Marxist ideology that continued to be triumphant among educated classes for some forty years after the war. Marxism in Japan was and still is a bit different from that of European countries and America: Once freed from wartime repression, it met with no obstacles. Thus it spread and was almost made inviolable among intellectuals, because we had no defense, called Christianity, in the form of a pre-existing philosophy.

Fundamentally, this situation is not much different even now, though after the fall of the Soviet Union it has been undergoing a change. Whether that change is called slight or considerable depends on how we look at the situation, and this seems to me very important, for Marxism nowadays can be detected everywhere in disguise. The fact that Marxism has been naively accepted as science, just as it was publicized to be, only shows that the Japanese have never really learned not only what religion is but what science is.

When the Western sciences were introduced to Japan after the Meiji restoration, it was more or less as completed, independent disciplines divorced from the religious quest with which they were originally one in Europe. This was unfortunate, because it engendered our easy belief in science as the sole respectable method of inquiring into reality. This belief may exist in Europe and America, too, but in Japan it has been aggravated because of the lack or weakness of traditional philosophy. There certainly are religions in Japan, and the people are very religious-perhaps more than others. But the Japanese in general have never looked for or accepted religion as a system of philosophy or a theological explanation of the universe.

Such a soil was favorable for science to grow, there being nothing to check it, as has been shown in our considerable success in scientific-technological areas, but it also was favorable for what may be called a cult of science to grow and even to strangle religion to death. The matter was aggravated by the introduction of Marxism, which found its way quite free of obstacles, thus penetrating the heart of Japanese intellectuals. Thus, it will be easy to see how Japanese atheists or materialists are somewhat different from those of Europe and America. They are atheists or materialists without being aware of it, and even when they are aware of it, they are free from the slightest guilt; they even take pride in it.

A paradise for Marxism is a paradise for Darwinism. The hot debate over Darwinism, usual in America and elsewhere, can never happen in Japan; people usually will look blank when engaged on that topic. They were either clearly or vaguely taught at school to think in a Darwinian way and have never questioned it since. This does not mean the Japanese are stupid or non-religious. It means they are culturally conditioned to be contemptuous or shy of such a big theological question as the existence of God or of any transcendental power, divine Creation, the cosmic blueprint, or even the origin of one’s own self. They are taught and trained to be interested only in “scientific” speculation.

Therein lies the difficulty of religious education in Japan. Though the Japanese may have passed the stage in which religion was regarded as a placebo for old people to allay their fear of death, a number of professed communists, and a greater number of unprofessed or unconscious communists, willingly stick to the old picture of religion and try to utilize it for political or personal interests. It must be stressed that communists are not always identifiable as such. A number of factors help them boost anti-religious feelings: 1) People are usually lazy and prefer to sleep with old and distorted images of anything than be awakened from them; 2) there is still an atmosphere of what may be called leftist ascendancy and public respect for leftist thoughts; 3) the all-too-eloquent evidence of religious degeneration in the Aum Shinrikyo incident lingers in their minds, as do transgressions of other religious groups; and 4) most powerfully, the constitution explicitly prohibits religious education in public institutions.

Such factors combine to brew up what may be called an anti-religion syndrome. It may be said, in passing, that these communists and quasi-communists are self-made victims, as well as authors, of this unhappy situation, just as the Aum transgressors may be called both victims and representatives of Japan’s spiritual degeneration. I say it because Japan is now looking for some remedy for the previously unheard-of juvenile and adult delinquency. It feels that some durable moral principle must be established and suspects that there must be religious support for that principle. For it is evident even to casual thought that a moral education that is not based on religious education is impossible. Though it may be my fancy, it seems to me more and more Japanese are coming to realize that truth, however grudgingly.

On the other hand, we have to face the ever more influential communists, who have been and still are openly against moral education, because it must presuppose religion, which they make out to be the most dangerous thing in the world. Will they concede that religion in the abstract is necessary, but say that each specific religion is dangerous? Or will they choose another alternative: that old religions must be encouraged and new ones discouraged and destroyed as “cults?” What will they say about movements like ours, and the general tendency toward unification of the world’s religions? Or about the renewing concept of religion itself, and the proposed need for the universally agreed philosophical basis of human beings, from which morality and ethics should spring?

All these seem to me a question of imagination—how deeply, how holistically, and how prospectively one can think of the reality in which one is living. I do not think the Japanese are a people of such poor imagination as to suppose that the world will be better off without any religious basis of life, as the communists and communist-led people have tried to have us think. Recently in Japan there is much flurried talk about “the education of the mind,” but this gets nowhere without talk of what the mind is. And who can offer a convincing picture of the mind? Certainly not materialists, or even psychologists, because the mind must be captured holistically, not as a separate phenomenon, if it is to be realistic. Where else but in the religious dimension can it be sought? This simple fact, to which we have strangely been kept blind, now seems easier to accept through what is called a “paradigm shift,” an innovation of the frame of thought much talked about and now widely accepted among scientists and philosophers.

As I have argued, circumstances in Japan are a little different from those in other countries. Nonetheless, I suppose what I have said is more or less applicable to the rest of the world. And, I presume to say, it can be considered in our worldwide fight to defend religious freedom and in enlightening, rather than fighting against, those forces in the world that are so grievously deluded as to limit it.