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Havlicek, Jakub: Imagining Religion in Japan: Transformations of the Category of 'Religion' in the Japanese Context. In: Kemeneva, S. P. - Pakhomov, S. V. (ed.) Seventh International Conference on Oriental Studies (Torchinov Readings): Metamorphoses, June 22 - 25, 2011, Part II. St. Petersburg: Saint-Petersburg State University, Faculty of Philosophy, Department of Eastern Philosophy and Cultural Studies. Institute of Oriental Manuscripts. Saint-Petersburg Philosophical Society, 2013, p. 143-150. ISSN 2306-8183 Please let me know If you quote this paper (



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J. Havliek IMAGINING RELIGION IN JAPAN: TRANSFORMATIONS OF THE CATEGORY OF RELIGION IN THE JAPANESE CONTEXT The main idea of this paper consists of justifying the usefulness of the general term of religion for the purpose of the scholarly analysis of various phenomena we encounter in the context of Japanese society and culture. Over the last decades, the scholars in the eld of the social sciences are turning their attention to the history, preconditions, methods and theories of their respective disciplines. The scholars critically treat various theories, methods, general terms and concepts applied in social sciences. The post-modern, de J. Havliek, 2013



constructivist critique leads to many important and stimulating discoveries of the biases, prejudices and implicit inuences underlying many scholarly accounts on cultural and social phenomena. Nevertheless, it may quite easily result in confusion and misunderstanding, and sometimes even in questioning or in denying the relevance of scientic study of social phenomena. Similar development can be observed also within the eld of the academic study of religions, and some distinguished authors are led to the conclusion that the consistent critical approach to the study of religions must result in the abandonment of the term religion for the purpose of a responsible scholarly analysis (e. g. [Fitzgerald 2000]). Historians, anthropologists and sociologists of religions attempt to show how the discipline of the academic study of religions and the very notion of religion itself develops in the context of Western1 thought (e. g. [Asad 1993; Dubuisson 2003; Smith 1998]). This leads to the question if and how we may apply the Western theories and categories to the cultural and social phenomena encountered in non-Western, e. g. Asian societies and cultures. The application of terms, theories and categories of the Western science to the phenomena observed in non-Western cultures becomes an easy target of criticism as a form of a deplorable ethnocentrism or cultural and scientic imperialism2. Jonathan Z. Smith [1998] describes the changes of the meaning of the term religion, and he follows its development in the particular historical
The basic argument of this paper can be summarized as follows: the conceptualizations and theorizing together with the responsible and cautious simplications inevitably accompany the process of any scientic treatment of the so called social reality. The author is aware of the various questions connected to such terms as Western, Eastern, Asian, and even Japanese. None of these should be understood automatically as a monolithic, homogenous entity. Some inspiring suggestions concerning the uncritical application of such concepts can be found in the critical reaction to Samuel P. Huntington`s The Clash of Civilizations [1996] by Edward W. Said [2001]. 2 The critique of modern science has a long and interesting history and its proponents are far from representing the unanimous collective for the summary of the anti-science camp see: [Brown 2004]. I propose to call the most radical critique of science the post-modern epistemological criticism. It claims that 1) the scientic knowledge and the scientic truths are mere social constructs as well as the so called reality (extreme anti-realist stance), that 2) the modern science and the concepts of scientic truth legitimate the oppression and exploitation of nature and humans, and therefore 3) the science does not differ from ideology. A good example of this nihilist approach to science is represented by: [Hamm 2005].

context nding out the denition and understanding of the term religion to be closely connected to the history of Western, European thinking. The word religion has a long history and the modern meaning of the word religion is based on Judeo-Christian thought, deeply inuenced by antique Greek and Roman philosophy. Its application to the phenomena encountered in the nonWestern context can be observed approximately from the 16th century, when the Europeans begin to explore the foreign, exotic cultures and societies. The notion of religion, used to describe mainly the ritual duties and obligations of the Christian monastic orders [Ibid.: 269270] becomes a universal category applied to non-Christian phenomena. The travelers and conquerors use the word usually as a general term for rituals, ceremonies, feasts, sacrices, idolatry, or even customs based on some doctrinal system [Ibid.: 270]. The Protestantism with its emphasis on belief adds another important ingredient to the understanding of religion. The doctrines and practices as the main attributes of religion are supplemented by faith or belief [Ibid.: 271]. If we take into consideration the classical sociological denition of religion by mile Durkheim, the inspiration by European intellectual history seems to be obvious: We have arrived, then, at the following denition: a religion is a unied system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and surrounded by prohibitions beliefs and practices that unite its adherents in a single moral community called a church ([Durkheim 2001: 46], italic in the original text). There are all conventional or traditional constituents of religion within this denition: a unied system (i.e. doctrines) of beliefs (the element of faith) and practices (rituals and ceremonies). They are then related to the sacred things even though Durkheim attempts to explain the term, the application of the word sacred can be seen as problematic for its rather vague meaning. Durkheim is interesting in the social functions of religion and it is not surprising that he regards religion as a collective, social activity forming a community of followers or believers, the church. Nevertheless it doesnt mean that Durkheim misses the point in his attempt to dene religion nor that the religion cannot be dened. It is obvious that any denition of religion cannot reect the entire social and cultural reality and the abundance of denitions of religion clearly demonstrates we are about to deal with a very complex, multiple-layer phenomena. Jonathan Z. Smith mentions a work by James H. Leuba, who lists more than fty de



nitions of religion and according to Smith [1998: 281] it proves only one single fact: the religion can be dened more than fty ways! It is quite natural that Durkheim, together with the dozens of scholars who give the denition of religion1, rely on the previous tradition in the understanding of the term and that they are even taking into account the common sense in the understanding of the term. Besides respecting some given principles2, the process of dening the eld of scientic interest is naturally connected to the social and cultural background. This background can bias the process of acquiring the scientic knowledge if the scholar ignores it, if he or she doesnt take into consideration the overall context of his or her fundamental principles, methods and theories it is rather simple to reveal this or that term, theory or method as being biased. However it doesnt imply that one should avoid using them, as some post-modern thinkers suggest, and the deep knowledge of the background must be encompassed methodologically within the scholarly work itself. Any responsible scholar probably wouldn`t deny the importance of the deep knowledge of the history of key terms, methods and theories within the eld of his or her studies, but it doesnt imply at all we should avoid them because they are biased. In the context of religions in Japan, the critique of the term religion appears e. g. in a brief paper by Richard W. Anderson [1991]. He responds to an essay by Ian Reader [1991a] on the practice of buying, inscribing and offering of the ema (), votive tablets on which the people write their wishes and prayers to the kami () and buddhas. Anderson argues that Japanese people deny describing their activities in shrines and temples as religion, shky (), or belief, shink (), preferring such words as fzoku (), shkan (), kansh () or shzoku (), that means custom, habit, manners, or life patterns [Anderson 1991: 369]. In other

1 For a brief but highly informative survey of the topic of dening religion see: [Arnal 2000]. 2 The principles of the scientic work in social sciences consist of a complex issue themselves and they are subject to change in the course of the history of knowledge. Nonetheless, the modern science based on the rationalistic tradition of the Enlightenment can be simply understood as the process of progressive approaching of the objective truth, even though its methods changes through time. The notion of objective truth (harshly denounced by the post-modern epistemological criticism) is understood as evidentially supported belief; even though what is or is not accepted as evidence varies see: [Kitching 2008: 125126].

words, he gives priority to emic1 approach to the phenomena in question and takes into consideration the statements from within the examined cultural environment. In conclusion Anderson recommends not to classify the practice connected to ema as religious: Many of the people inscribing the ema do not judge it a religious activity, the temple or shrine does not view it as a religious activity, and we should not [Ibid.: 372]. Ian Reader responds by a brief account [Reader 1991b], where he acknowledges the importance of the emic approach to the phenomena in question. Nonetheless, he claims that one needs to consider the overall context of the examined phenomena and that the notion of belief cannot serve as the condition sine qua non of religion. If the examined activity takes place in a religious centre, a shrine or a temple, and if it includes specic forms of behaviour, offerings and prayers to the kami and buddhas, it can be classied as religious [Ibid.: 375]. As Reader also points out, the notions of custom or habit play an important part in the religious behaviour [Ibid.]. As we have seen above, the historical development of the term religion in the Western environment includes the element of custom (cf. [Smith 1998: 270]). Ian Reader and George J. Tanabe in their account on religious practices in Japan solve the putative dilemma of emic and etic viewpoint in suggesting two aspects of religious belief, cognitive and affective [Reader, Tanabe 1998: 126136]. As they remark, the Japanese noun shink has a wide range of meanings, from belief or faith to religious custom or practice [Ibid.: 129]. If the belief is positively afrmed, intellectually articulated and based in the knowledge of doctrines or teachings, Reader and Tanabe call it cognitive belief, whereas the emotionally based tendency to take an attitude or to rely on a practice that is not rationally explained can be called affective belief [Ibid.]. As Reader and Tanabe put it: The distinction between affective and cognitive, forced and articial it may be, does allow for an explanation of the often heard report that people sincerely purchase amulets but do not really believe in them: they are engaging in a customary practice with affective sincerity but not cognitive belief [Ibid.].
The terms emic and etic comes from the linguistic anthropology and were conceived by Kenneth Pike. Emic description prefers the viewpoint of the members of the studied community, etic perspective is based on categories independent of the culture in question and prefers the viewpoint of the scholar studying the alien culture see: [Duranti 1997: 172174].



In this context it is useful to mention another ascertainment by Jonathan Z. Smith who writes on the concept of religion: <> while there is a staggering amount of data, of phenomena, of human experiences and expressions that might be characterized in one culture or another, by one criterion or another, as religious there is no data for religion. Religion is solely the creation of the scholars study. It is created for the scholars analytic purposes by his imaginative acts of comparison and generalization ([Smith 1982: xi], italic in the original text). From this statement one can easily conclude that the concept of religion is a mere construct and it is designed to impose Western category to non-Western, in our case on the Japanese, cultures and societies in order to exploit them and make them subordinate to our concept of reality. I am positively sure that is not J. Z. Smith`s point, but other authors come exactly to this point (e. g. [Dubuisson 2003]). Nonetheless, the things, as always, are far more complex than they appear to be. As Michael Pye nds out [Pye 1994], the concept of shky cannot be easily dismissed as a mere Western import. In the context of Japanese thought Pye shows that the critical thinking on religion and the concept itself can be traced at least to the rst half of the 18th century, and therefore it would be improper to consider it an import emerging after the intensive contacts of Japan with the West at the second half of the 19th century, as e. g. Timothy Fitzgerald [2003] and other authors (e. g. [Kisala 2006]) suggest. Ian Reader in his reply [Reader 2004] to Timothy Fitzgerlads paper [Fitzgerald 2003] goes even further than M. Pye, and nds the roots of the concept of religious and secular as early as in the 8th century. According to Reader, the word shky is derived from Chinese Buddhist terminology and appears in the Japanese documents as early as in the Tenpy () era (729749) [Reader 2004]. The use of the term religion cannot be simply avoided in our accounts of Japanese culture and it is impossible to consider the concept as a mere Western import. We may ask who (and by what authority) can decide that the concept of religion cannot in any sense be considered an emic category? Moreover, there is another, maybe quite surprising but logical consequence of the post-modern approach to the notion of religion. My argument is simple: from the perspective of post-modern deconstructionism and cultural relativism denying the possibility of using the term religion in the Japanese context, the scholars behave no less manipulatively than their opponents. As the logical consequence of favouring the emic approach the 148

scholars are, more or less implicitly, embracing the notion of unique Japanese culture with some exclusive characteristics: religion cannot be found in Japanese culture since it is a typical feature of our, Western culture, and to be Japanese means to be non-religious! From this point of view the work of some post-modern thinkers paradoxically relies on the colonialist thinking of the 18th and 19th century, the very thinking that the post-modern scholars are so harshly criticising (cf. [Kitching 2008: 124126]). The social sciences need general terms and concepts and the term religion is a generic term applied in the study of culture and in the academic study of religion under severe theoretical and methodological precautions. Without a doubt, the emic perspective constitutes an important element in studying a foreign culture, but it would be incorrect to consider it the very basis of the scholarly approach to a foreign culture. It is obvious that the perspective of the academic study of religions, of sociology or anthropology comes from the Western environment, but it is adopted in and it interacts with the non-Western environment. From this point of view, the general concept of religion should be maintained for the purpose of studying Japanese culture. It helps us to delimitate the eld of our interest in order to better understand the phenomena we are about to encounter.
BI BLI OGRAPHY Anderson 1991 Anderson R. W. What Constitutes Religious Activity? (I) // Japanese Journal of Religious Studies. 1991. Vol. XVIII. No. 4. P. 369372. Arnal 2000 Arnal W. E. Denition // Guide to the Study of Religion / Ed. by W. Braun, R. McCutcheon. London, New York: Continuum, 2000. P. 2134. Asad 1993 Asad T. Genealogies of Religion. Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore, London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993. Brown 2004 Brown J. R. Who Rules in Science. An Opinionated Guide to the Wars. Cambridge, London: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Dubuisson 2003 Dubuisson D. The Western Construction of Religion. Myths, Knowledge, and Ideology. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. Duranti 1997 Duranti A. Linguistic Anthropology. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Durkheim 2001 Durkheim . The Elementary Forms of Religious Life / Tr. by C. Cosman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. Fitzgerald 2000 Fitzgerald T. The Ideology of Religious Studies. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.


Fitzgerald 2003 Fitzgerald T. Religion and the Secular in Japan. Problems in History, Social Anthropology, and the Study of Religion // Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies. Discussion Paper 3 in 2003. 10 July 2003 // [URL]: (04. 05.2011). Hamm 2005 Hamm B. Cynical Science: Science and Truth as Cultural Imperialism // Cultural Imperialism. Essays on the Political Economy of Cultural Domination / Ed. by B. Hamm, R. C. Smandych. Peterborough, Plymouth: Broadview Press Ltd., 2005. P. 6076. Huntington 1996 Huntington S. P. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996. Kitching 2008 Kitching G. The Trouble with Theory. The Educational Costs of Postmodernity. Crows Nest: Allen and Unwin, 2008. Kisala 2006 Kisala R. Japanese Religions // Nanzan Guide to Japanese Religions / Ed. by P. L. Swanson, C. Chilson. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2006. P. 313. Pye 1994 Pye M. What is Religion in East Asia? // The Notion of Religion in Comparative Research. Selected Proceedings of the XVI IAHR Congress / Ed. by U. Bianchi. Roma: LErma di Bretschneider, 1994. P. 115122. Reader 1991 Reader I. Letters to the Gods. The Form and Meaning of Ema // Japanese Journal of Religious Studies. 1991. Vol. XVIII. No. 1. P. 2350. Reader 1991b Reader I. What Constitutes Religious Activity? (II) // Japanese Journal of Religious Studies. 1991. Vol. XVIII. No. 4. P. 373376. Reader 2004 Reader I. Ideology, Academic Inventions and Mystical Anthropology. Responding to Fitzgeralds Errors and Misguided Polemics // Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies. Discussion Paper 1. 3 March 2004 // [URL]: (04.05. 2011). Reader, Tanabe 1998 Reader I., Tanabe G. J. Jr. Practically Religious. Worldly Benets and the Common Religion of Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1998. Said 2001 Said E. W. The Clash of Ignorance // The Nation. 2001. Vol. 273. No. 12, October 22. P. 1113. Smith 1982 Smith J. Z. Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1982. Smith 1998 Smith J. Z. Religion, Religions, Religious // Critical Terms for Religious Studies / Ed. by M. C. Taylor. Chicago, London: The University of Chicago Press, 1998. P. 269284.

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