Cultural Identity and Modernization in Asian Countries




Any attempt to discuss cultural identity and modernization in Asian countries should begin with the question of the role of religion in social modernization. The religions of Asia have given fundamental support to the traditional culture which is seen to foster ethnic consciousness among the people. I believe one efficient method of comparative analysis of religion and modernization in Asian nations is to employ the key concept of "secularization" in the sense of institutionalization or "secularity" in the sense of value, prefaced, of course, by a discussion of its applicability.

The value of applying this concept of "secularization" has been established through extensive interdisciplinary use in discussions of western-European modernization and religious institutions. I think it is also an appropriate key to understanding the role of religion in Asian societies encountering the historical realities of modernization, which is closely identitied with "Westernization."

It is my hope that this session will serve as a forum for the pursuit of the questions of the incidence of religious change in Asia that might be called "secularization"; how the implication (evaluation) of "secularity" in the religious world might function or change in the process of modernization; and how such cases in Asia might compare with European history. The important point to make here is to avoid beginning a conceptual investigation before inspecting the facts, but to begin with some heuristic effort to find our real epitomes in terms of such expression. Even if we are hampered by some discrepancies in our references, we should not hesitate to keep examining these differences in results, for those very differences can lead us to a better understanding of the structural relationship between religion, or sacred values, and modernization.

The purpose of this session is not to develop a theory of secularization. Its true purpose is first of all to clarify changes in religion and sacred values and their place in Asian society, as a premise for examining the possibility of cultivating a viable national identity which will enable us to deal successfully with today's process of modernization in Asia.

To further this purpose, I have chosen to approach the basic structure of Japanese religion as a "religion of communities" in heuristic terms. I will focus on two main reasons for its continuity: (1) the Japanese Buddhist interpretation of "secularity" and (2) the nature of the "profane" as opposed to the "sacred" in Japanese community life as well as in tradition communities maintaining religio-political autonomy. In conclusion, I will attempt to apply the concept of "profanation" to interpret the process of the weathering of the Japanese traditional community in modern Japan, which structure can yet be seen in the numerous new religious and secular organizations.

1 Religion of communities

Japanese religion can be viewed basically as a "religion of communities" throughout pre-modern history. By "community," I mean a collectivity founded on certain principles of kinship and neighborhood. In ancient times, it was a religion of clan groups (uji and hara). In the middle ages, the religious integrity of collective settlements (mura) gradually replaced the clan group. Nevertheless, the tradition of the kinship system was still alive on the symbolic community level. For example, ujigami[Glossary: ujigami], a generic name for clan gods, was still used to refer in general to the guardian gods of local communities as well as to the ancestral deities of extended families. Throughout Japan's pre-modern history, political power was always based on confederations of clans. Aristocrats and warriors showed rather strong tendencies to clan society, while the structure of the lower classes revealed a strong principle of neighborhood.

Therefore, only religious traditions born from the womb of these communities, or those of foreign origin approved by these communities, could take root in this country. Robert Redfield's theory regarding the formation of national culture in archaic agricultural communities proposes complementary configuration of "great tradition" and "little tradition." I believe this theory might be applied gainfully to an inquiry into the formation of national culture in general as well as the basic features of cultural developments in pre-modern Japan. In a broad sense, we can find several cases in cultural history revealing a refined orthodoxy at the political center as a "great tradition," around which many local cultures coexist as "little traditions," all enjoying mutual exchange. The advanced culture of mainland China and Korea was introduced into this central "great tradition" of clan society in Japan. It then went through a process of transformation as it was diffused throughout the "little traditions" which characterized each local community.

The same was true of religion. Shinto originated in the complementary exchange of myth and ritual between the "great" and "little" traditions, that is to say, between the clan cults, centering around the imperial court, and the community cults, based on kinship by proximity. In order for Buddhism to be accepted in Japan, it had to be adapted to the ancestral cults for the dead of the local community, going beyond the status of institutionalized religion for the protection of the state. The harmonious fusion of Shinto and Buddhism, called shin-butsu shugo, was nothing but a two-storied structure for assimilating Buddhism, with its concept of honji-suijaku[Glossary: honji-suijaku_setsu] (the prime entity and its manifestations), into community religion. A few Buddhist sects once thrived outside communities in the middle ages, but they soon ceased their aggressive activities, partly suppressed by military powers and partly weakened by their own institutionalization. Some were absorbed into the "great tradition," but most became part of the "little tradition" of local community religion.

Pre-modern Japan as viewed in this light might thus be characterized by a continuing religion of communities, but no enduring example of a community of religion is found to remain.

In my opinion, there are two reasons for this: (1) Japanese Buddhism never insisted on the type of strict distinctions between secular and sacred demanded, for example, by Christianity; (2) it was the nature of the traditional community in Japan to maintain religio-political autonomy throughout the country's pre-modern history.

2 The implication of "secularity" in Buddhism

The Japanese word seken is used to refer to the concept of secularity. For instance, Prince Shotoku[Glossary: shotoku_taishi] (573-621), one of ancient Japan's great scholars and statesmen, said of this duality, "The world (seken) is false; the Buddha alone is true." This aphorism is noteworthy as the first expression of the idea of world negation in Japan. Shusseken literally means leaving the word to enter monastic life; its precise equivalent is shukke, which means to leave one's home in order to become a yosutebito, a person who has renounced the world. Needless to say, all these terms originated in the Buddhist idea of world negation. That is to say, Buddhism brought to Japan a worldview that despised social life as a secular and false life. The Pure Land sects which thrived in the middle ages, from the 9th through the 17th century, advocated loathing for this impure world and reliance on a pure land (onri-edo or gongu-jodo). This world was viewed as impure (edo), corrupt (dakuse) and miserable (ukiyo). The literature of the middle ages frequently likens the mundane life (hito no yo) to an empty dream or short-lived foam in a stream, emphasizing its uncertainty.

It is doubtful, however, that this negative view of the secular world permeated the thought of the Japanese people to a very great extent in that period. Saburo Iyenaga, a leading historian of Japanese thought, points out that the idea of negation developed from simple world negation to negation of world-negation, that is, nothing less than the absolute affirmation of the world. The essential principle of the Tendai(Tien-tai) school, which supplied the basic philosophy common to all sects of Japanese Buddhism, is that the Buddha Nature is in all things (issai-shujo shitsu-u busso). In this sense, the secular world as such can be reaffirmed as a world of Buddha Mind. Strictly speaking, of course, such absolute affirmation should hold to a specific state of mind unique to Buddhist practices; but once outside the monastery, it was popularized and reduced to a simple affirmation of secularity. And so we see a change, around the 18th century, in the characters for the word ukiyo, from the compound meaning "miserable world" to a homonym meaning "easygoing world"

Although I have no substantial proof, it is my impression that the Buddhist view of this world as a transient one bred a seemingly inconsistent attitude wherein Japanese tended to resign without reluctance from their attachment to life in spite of their realistic way of life. But many individuals, it seems, adopt such an attitude of world negation only provided that they can be confident either of their honorable sacrifice for the sake of their beloved community or at least that their doing so brings no harm to it.

Thus I conclude that the secular world known in Japan as seken is not quite the same as the one which is held in clear opposition to a religious world.

3 "The Profane" in community life

Failing to discover any conspicuous "secularity" in the worldview of Japanese Buddhism, we must then turn to investigate the nature of the profane aspect of community religion. Such an investigation should also clarify the previously mentioned continuous nature of community throughout Japanese religion, that is, to indicate a structure of religio-political autonomy characterizing the whole traditional community in pre-modern Japan.

Needless to day, archaic clan groups feature a clan head, who assume the supreme authority of religion and policy. In ancient Japan, religious ritual (matsuri[Glossary: matsuri]) was almost equal to administration (matsurigoto). It originated in the kingship of Yamato clan society[Glossary: yamato_chotei]; but even after the political power of the aristocracy was seized by the warrior class, there was in fact little change, although the aristocratic clan system became rather symbolic and that of the warrior class more realistic. Even seemingly secularized political power retained its religio-political autonomy because it depended on the integrated system of clan groups. No militarist government such as the Shogunate in pre-modern Japan ever hesitated to intervene in any religious authority or movement that threatened its autonomy. Every powerful clan to occupy the seat of political power divinized its own ancestors in order to legitimize its position with sacred authority. Secular power itself perpetuated that sacred character. The Tenno system enabled the maintenance of a sacred king symbolically entrusting his sovereignty to powerful clans. Ruling clan groups made free use of both religious authority and political power, as if they were indivisible, in order to keep all religious groups and movements under control. The Tokugawa Shoguns (1603-1867), after their bitter experience dealing with the religious revolts of the Ikko-shu (a Pure Land sect), completely repressed Christianity (which hesitated to go beyond their authority); at the same time, they made use of other Buddhist sects for religio-political control over every class and unit of kinship. Buddhism may appear to have became a state religion as a result, but in fact only kinship aspects of community religion, such as ancestral cult worship, were affected by Buddhist rituals; the religious autonomy of the village community, based on both principles of kinship and neighborhood, never came under control of Buddhist institutions. On the contrary, Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines co-existed in every local community, village or town. Both were accepted insofar as they contributed to community welfare and security within the framework of "little traditions."

In Japan, no single religious organization ever managed to maintain any substantial power on a local basis; rather it was, so to speak, taken to pieces and digested by the community religion. The traditional Japanese community created its own religious complex according to is own autonomous principles. Shinto and Buddhism were synthesized into shin-butsu toriawase no shukyo to harmonize with the dual dimensions of the sacred and the profane, the bases of the community's religious life. It is noteworthy that these dual categories were never clearly distinguished except for temporary turns. At one time, the dualism of hare and ke[Glossary: hare_--_ke] was very clear and vivid in Japanese community life. A hare day was a special holiday for public ritual, open to all community members; ke referred to the daily mundane working routine. The community is profane on a ke day, being the world of daily life; but when the day is hare, it takes on a sacred character. The temporal ke renders the inside of the special community profane and the outside sacred; on the contrary, the temporal hare renders the inside sacred while the outside becomes profane. It should be noted here that, in this Japanese dualism, the concept of sacredness rests on the two elements of purity and impurity. In other words, the community on a ke day would live in the profane dimension of daily life in which sacré pure and sacré impure were confused; on a hare day it would make a conscious attempt to keep these two elements separate. Only on such an occasion could such lively festivals be held where a solemn ritual would be followed by some masquerade theatrical event representing the sacred chaos, daring to confuse the two elements. It is my present opinion, however, that so-called hierophanies of spiritual beings visiting the community are most likely to occur in the marginal area between the inside and the outside of the community.

The most important point to be emphasized here is the fact that any traditional community by itself could live an autonomous life in both dimensions of the sacred and the profane, mostly the profane. It follows that the function of such a religion of community must be above all to solicit the safety and welfare of its own. That is to say, the community turns to the sacred dimension to invite both Shinto and Buddhist deities to enrich and ensure the daily, profane dimension of community life.

Secularlity in community religion, then, is nothing other than the daily life of the community; and the welfare of secular life at the community level is the central object for which to pray and express gratitude in this religion. Thus we may conclude that such secularity refers to the profane dimension in the community which will aid in its prosperiry; and further, we may say that it seems to positively affirm the people's daily activities of production. Daily productive work is pursued for the purpose of prosperity in order that the profane might embody the sacred in the coming rituals. In other words, the realization of social welfare and economic prosperity in the community's secular life is the very proof of the sacredness of its religion.

Epilogue: Modernization and Profanation

Modernization in the Meiji period (1868-1912) included the introduction of both modern science and institutions from Western societies, and the traditional character of the community in relation to both religion and society in Japan underwent profound changes. The Meiji government succeeded in establishing a so-called "family-state" which in fact adapted the religio-political autonomy of the clan community to the national level. It accomplished this by reviving the archaic concept of kingship with its strong legitimation power, which made it possible to organize the unified bureaucracy for efficient control over the people. In this process, local community cults were absorbed into the unified order of state cults, and all Buddhist sects that had been deprived of any governmental status assumed religious autonomy as independent institutions, on an equal footing with other religious groups such as Christian sects and new religions. The traditional structure of community religion survived only in the form of state cults at the national level, at least in terms of national law. All other forms of traditional religion (except for shrine Shinto, which was unified into the order of a state cult), were by force of state law dissociated at once from their social bases at the local community level.

The interaction of the sacred and the profane, once unique to community religion, was thus emphasized on a unified scale and applied to the nation as a whole, and as a result, the characteristic system of interaction of sacred and profane within each local community almost disappeared, absorbed into the new national order of shrine observances. But one new and striking phenomenon of this sacralization did emerge: that of the sacred national war. In every international struggle from the conflict with Ch'ing China to the Second World War, Japan's very national entity became sacralized, and all aspects of daily life became parts of the "holy war" in this abnormal state up religiosity.

But needless to say, the most disastrous blow to strike this dual national structure of sacred and profane was the defeat in 1945. Whereas previous victories had tended to strengthen that structure, Japan's ultimate defeat exposed the fallacy of the "Great Festival." The memory of the shock of that profanation of the sacred state is still vivid in the minds of many Japanese today. Voices insisting on the sacredness of Japan's national body now have very little influence, in stark contrast to prewar nationalism. We might well say that it has been more completely secularized in the Western sense than the West, in that it has no transcendent authority such as the Judaeo-Christian God to legitimize its entity. And it is shrine Shinto which has suffered the most serious blow. The social foundation for community religion, which had been gradually weakening since the Meiji period, dissolved almost completely, at least for the first ten years or so after the end of the war. The extensive urbanization and drastic social mobility since the sixties has also hindered attempts to revive the traditional character of the local community.

In this sense, the traditional religiosity of the local community, that is to say, the religious structure of the interaction of the sacred and the profane, has already been so weakened that I believe it might be more appropriate to speak of profanation rather than secularization in reference to developments in modern Japan.