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In-depth The Shifting Landscape of Japanese Religion
The Japanese World View: Three Keys to Understanding

Yamaori Tetsuo [Profile]


A distinctively Japanese view of life and death has persisted since ancient times, despite overlays of imported culture and religion. The distinguished religious studies scholar Yamaori Tetsuo looks at the physical and environmental roots of this world view and its distillation in Japanese religion and mythology.

In order to fully grasp the Japanese view of life and death, one needs to approach it from several different angles. In the following, I explore three keys to the Japanese world view: the physical environment and landscape in which this view evolved; Japanese polytheism, particularly in contrast to the monotheism of the West; and the conflation of Japanese myth and history.

The Three-Layered Japanese Archipelago

Some time ago, a Japanese advertising agency put together a video of the Japanese archipelago filmed from a Cessna at a height of 3,000 meters. The video covered the entire country in the space of about an hour, starting from Okinawa in the south and zigzagging northward to Hokkaidō. I was astonished at the landscape it revealed. After leaving behind the large expanse of water separating Okinawa from the main islands, the film showed an archipelago covered coast to coast with mountain after mountain, forest after forest. The natural environment revealed barely a trace of the rice-paddy agriculture so closely associated with Japanese culture and society. The landscape of forest-dwellers, mountain-dwellers, and coastal peoples continued on and on, as far as the eye could see.

I realized soon enough that this was basically an illusion created by distance. Had the Cessna been flying at 1,000 meters, one would have been able to see Japan’s farm belts, such as that of the Kantō Plain. Filmed at 500 or 300 meters, the video would have clearly revealed its modern urban centers and industrial districts.

Then it dawned on me then that the topography of the Japanese archipelago consists of three strata overlaid on one another: the landscape of Japan’s ancient mountain and forest dwellers, the landscape of its rice-growing agricultural society, and finally the landscape of modern industrial society. Moreover, each of these strata is embedded in the Japanese psyche, shaping our world view in important ways. At the very bottom is the forest-dwelling Jōmon culture; in the middle is the agricultural Yayoi culture; and floating on the surface are the attitudes and values of modern industrial society. This three-tiered physical and psychic structure is what gives us the capacity to react flexibly when confronted with crises like the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, and the strength to accept and persevere in the face of nature’s senseless death and destruction.

Living with Impermanence

The great natural scientist and essayist Terada Torahiko (1878-1935) examined the Japanese approach to life and science in relation to the physical environment of the Japanese archipelago in two essays written in the 1930s: Tensai to kokubō (Natural Disasters and National Defense) and Nihonjin no shizenkan (The Japanese View of Nature). Noting that the scale of destruction from natural disasters increases as human civilization progresses, Terada pointed out that the magnitude of the threat from such natural disasters as earthquakes, tsunami, and typhoons was much greater in Japan than in Europe. He went on to posit that centuries of experience with such disasters had nurtured among the Japanese a tendency to submit to nature instead of resisting it and to apply the lessons of nature to their own lives. Accordingly, natural science in Japan had come to focus more on accumulating the kind of empirical knowledge people needed to adapt to natural forces than on conquering those forces, as in the West. The key point here is the formative impact of a natural environment that was far more capricious—sometimes violently so—than anything the majority of Europeans ever experienced.

Terada also drew a connection between this periodically threatening natural environment and the Buddhist concept of mujō, or impermanence. As Terada explained it, the experience of repeated earthquakes and typhoons nurtured an awareness of mortality and the transience of all things.

Of course, the concept of mujō, or anicca in Pali, originated in India with the teachings of Sakyamuni (Gautama Buddha), who preached that all the things of this world are transient, that everything with physical form eventually perishes. The most basic teaching of Sakyamuni was that all of us must die.

But the doctrine of anicca underwent an important transformation after Buddhism was transplanted to Japanese soil. Along with a sense of transience, the natural environment also fostered a comforting awareness of the cycle of the seasons and the rebirth that invariably follows death. Flowers bloomed in the spring, leaves turned color and fell in the autumn, freezing winds swept the trees bare in the winter. But invariably the old year gave way to the new, and spring arrived once again. The knowledge that sunny days inevitably followed cloudy ones gave people the strength to live from day to day. Armed with this awareness, they learned to face life with grace and patience, flexibility and fortitude, and to face impending death with quiet acceptance, returning to the earth to become one with nature again.

Intuitive Polytheism

Another way to understand the Japanese world view is through the lens of religion—specifically, the difference between the Japanese religious sensibility and Western monotheism.

In the autumn of 1995, I visited Israel for the first time, following in the footsteps of Jesus of Nazareth. Wherever I went in the region, I saw around me a vast expanse of desert, and I found myself growing increasingly uneasy. It seemed that there was nothing on this earth that one could hold onto. It was a far cry from anything I had felt while reading the Bible in the comfort of my own home. One day, as I was traveling along the Jordan River toward the holy city of Jerusalem, I had an epiphany. At that moment I suddenly understood the psychology that caused a desert people to seek comfort in a single absolute, eternal good—a feeling that it was impossible to live a single day in this bleak landscape without belief in the existence of one supreme God abiding on high. I became convinced that the belief system that is Judeo-Christian monotheism has its roots in this landscape and this need.

On my return flight, I felt an immense sense of relief as the islands of Japan loomed into view. The acres of deep-green forests, the rolling mountains with their lush vegetation and their rivers flowing to the sea, were truly a sight for sore eyes. I found myself picturing all the bounty of the mountains and the oceans. I could almost hear the sound of clear flowing water and smell the flowers that bloomed from season to season. I felt attuned to the ancient poets of the Manyōshū and the mountain dwellers of yore. What need had they of some supreme good dwelling high above in the heavens? They saw around them a world that provided comfort and refuge for all living things. Every forest and meadow overflowed with tokens of divinity. The voices of the dead echoed through the mountains. Surely it was the temperate climate and lush natural environment of the Japanese archipelago that fostered the intuitive religion” that is Japanese polytheism.

In many ways, the difference between Western and Japanese attitudes boils down to this difference between a religion that one believes and a religion that one feels. For example, the concept of the individual, translated ko in Japanese, strikes me as part and parcel of the Western monotheistic belief system—a world of autonomous human beings, each nurturing a belief in an absolute and eternal good existing in heaven on high. It seems to me that the basic meaning of “individual” and “individuality” derives from this relationship between the human and the divine.

In the indigenous Japanese vocabulary, the closest thing to the word ko is hitori—a single person, alone. Japanese literature and lore are filled with references to hitori stretching back more than a thousand years, whether they emphasize the desolation of solitude or the pleasures of sleeping alone, the smallness of the self in a vast universe or a consciousness that expands to fill the cosmos. Hitori evokes far deeper nuances, more varied and complex imagery than the foreign import ko. And at the heart of these nuances and imagery is the keen Japanese awareness of impermanence and mortality.

  • [2014.04.07]

Religious studies scholar and writer. Born in San Francisco in 1931. Graduated from Tohoku University in 1954, where he majored in Indian philosophy. Has been director of the International Research Center for Japanese Studies (Nichibunken) and is now professor emeritus of Nichibunken, the National Museum of Japanese History, and the Graduate University for Advanced Studies. Author of Shi no minzokugaku (Ethnology of Death), Kindai Nihonjin no shūkyō ishiki (Religious Attitudes in Modern Japan), and other works.

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