Religion: Posts

Robert Ellwood discusses the new edition of Introducing Japanese Religion

With the new edition of Introducing Japanese Religion now available, we had a chat with author Robert Ellwood to find out more about the book.

1. What makes Introducing Japanese Religion stand out from the competition?

This book provides a sense of the aesthetics and practice of Japanese religion, both philosophically and in popular practice, as well as offering merely historical and descriptive accounts. For this reason it begins with two chapters that present, in the first, an overview of the subject discussing reasons for studying Japanese religion. Students are offered tools, based on Joachim Wach's three forms of religious expression (theoretical, practical, and sociological), for use in religious studies generally; they are applied then to Japan. Included in this survey is a discussion of what religion means in Japan – not necessarily the same as in American or European culture – and why many Japanese insist they, and Japan generally, are not religious.

The second chapter imparts vignettes of a diversity of Japanese religious places and activities, from the Daijosai or imperial accession ceremony to Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples of various traditions, Nichiren shoshu chanting, Tenri city, and the Christian martyrs' monument in Nagasaki, to give a sense of the diversity, and one hopes the fascination, of the subject. Here and throughout the book, political issues, however controversial, are not overlooked, including court cases concerning the Daijosai of the present emperor, Akihito, in 1990 in relation to separation of religion and the state, and the politically charged Yasukuni shrine to Japan's war dead. The role of religion in the nineteenth century modernization of the nation, and in the Japanese imperialism of the World War II era, is critiqued.

Throughout, Introducing Japanese Religion relates the subject to popular life, such as belief in ghosts, mizuko kuyo or services for aborted fetuses, and the personal-endurance and cooperative strands in the culture past and present. Especially in the last chapter, on recent and contemporary religion, the book refers to the relation of religion and mythology to those aspects of popular culture that have had a world-wide impact, like anime and manga (animated movies and comics) and Sony and Nintendo video games, which should interest students.

At the same time, formal teaching and ritual are not overlooked. There is a unique section giving the basic history and teachings of Buddhism, especially the Mahayana form in which it came to Japan, for the benefit of students who have not studied it before but need to know the basics in order to understand it in Japan. Ways in which Japanese cinema as well as art, including the martial arts, can aid in getting at the Mahayana mentality are suggested.

Then, major Japanese schools like Shingon, Tendai, Pure Land, Nichiren, and Zen are interpreted through combined expositions of their teaching, practice, and cultural impact through vehicles from the Tale of Genji to tea and haiku. Schools of Shinto, from the nationalistic kokugaku to the more peaceful shingaku ("heart learning") are described too. Students are assisted by study questions and summaries.

To the best of my knowledge, there is no comparable book on the subject which offers as comprehensive and in-depth presentation of Japanese religion for beginners as this.

2. What has changed in this edition?

There is a more extended discussion of the meaning of religion in Japan, especially the view of Ama Toshimaro that Japanese see their religion, if so it is called, as "natural" in contrast with the "revealed" religion of Christians, Muslims, and others.

In addition, the new edition offers new material on popular religion, particularly in relation to death and funerals. This is very important in Japanese religion, since many Japanese have little formal relation to religion except for funerals and memorial services. New material describes typical funerals. We also meet itako or shamanistic mediums, getting to know their training, initiations, performances, and yearly assemblies on Mt. Osore in northern Japan – and read an account of a séance the author had with one, in which the spirit of my recently-deceased grandmother was evoked. We observe offerings at Sai no Kawara sites, largely outdoor shrines where the bodhisattva Jizo is worshiped to assist departed children cross the river separating this world from the next. We encounter namahage, mysterious new years' visitors who bang on the door in certain northern communities. We join vicariously in the midsummer Obon dances, when the departed are welcomed back for visits.

Above all, the new edition presents material on the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster of 2011 and its relation to religion. We see how various religious spokespersons interpreted the tragedy, how religious groups responded to the need for help and why Buddhist priests were often not able to volunteer to help survivors, the numerous funerals and need for spiritual counselling which kept priests busy morning to night and sometimes beyond, and accounts of ghosts of those lost in the events.Above all, there is the question of the overall impact of the disaster on spiritual mentality.Some commentators have thought that Fukushima reversed the secularism, materialism, and isolation of individuals allegedly on the increase prior to 2011; sales of religious books did go up after the tragedy.

The new edition updates and edits throughout.A list of electronic as well as print resources is now given for each chapter.

3. What do you hope resonates with the reader?

Responses may differ between students and other readers of Japanese descent, for whom much of it may be familiar, and those for whom it will present a religious world very different from what they are used to, even exotic. Either way, though, I hope this book makes Japanese religion a colorful and fascinating area of study, yet one inhabited by real human beings with the same questions and problems as all of us, including the need for family and community bonds yet also for a sense of inner liberation. In the many forms which Japanese religion has taken, we see these issues symbolized and dealt with in a variety of ways, yet all ones with which, I trust, we can resonate as fellow human beings. If so, we resonate not only with Japanese religion, but with a feeling for the deep meaning of religion generally. Like them or not, we may even understand our own culture's religious traditions better as well.

4. Can you tell us what sparked your own interest in the religions of Japan?

Although I have always had an interest in different cultures, my interest in Japan and Japanese religion specifically began when, after attending an Episcopal seminary and spending a few years as a parish clergyman, I became a Navy chaplain and happened to be sent to Okinawa and Japan. This experience awakened in me both an interest in Japanese religion and in new ways of looking at religion generally, both of which I try to expound in this book. In the book itself the two queries are described in these words:

“My own understanding of the general nature of religion, as over against particular religions, was greatly enriched by my first encounter with Japanese religion, which was also my first encounter with religion outside the basically Judeo-Christian culture of North America and Europe. It was when I was a chaplain with the U.S. Navy in the early 1960s, and was sent to Okinawa and Japan. Though I had only limited understanding of their meaning, I was struck by the atmosphere and color of Japanese religious sites: the rustic grace of Shinto shrines, the deep peace and soft glowing light of Buddhist temples, even the white robes and quiet power of the noro, or shamanesses, of Okinawa. On occasion, I was thrilled by the lively energy of matsuri, the festivals associated with Shinto shrines, with their drums, their sacred dances, their processions with the mikoshi or palanquin containing the kami-presence. I could not help wondering how all this related to the religious world with which I was familiar. 

I then read a book by Mircea Eliade, the distinguished historian of religion. Emphasizing the phenomena of religion – what appears, what is seen and done – this writer pointed to the way cultures everywhere separate off sacred space and time. This is the space within the church or shrine or temple, where one almost instinctively thinks and acts in special, reverent ways. It is the time of festivals, whether Christmas or Hanukkah or the Shinto matsuri, which likewise feels different from ordinary workaday time. If you are at all like what Eliade called homo religiosus, a traditionally religious person, being inside a church or temple just doesn’t feel like being on the street or in a factory, and Christmas morning, or New Year or matsuri-day in Japan, just doesn’t feel like an ordinary Monday morning. To me, this was a way of thinking about religion that cuts through starting with doctrine – we believe this, those people believe that. Instead, this approach, technically called phenomenological and structuralist, looks for what appears” in the practice of religion, then goes behind them to ascertain what the basic patterns or structures are, and what worldview underlies it all. 

This perspective was, and is, especially important in coming to grips with Japanese religion. Western Christianity tends to start with belief, at least in theory. In Japanese religion it is above all the sacred space and time kind of experience, most often at the Shinto shrine or Buddhist temple, that comes first. It then takes account of the family and community bonding of which shrine and temple can be the hub.”

5. How do you envisage Introducing Japanese Religion being used in courses in the field?

This book is intended as a primary textbook in its field.Thus in a course on Japanese religion, it would be the main required text, though there might be others offering translated readings from original sources or material on more specialized topics, like Japanese Shinto or Buddhism. In a course, say, on religions of East Asia it might be a required text along with comparable books covering Chinese and Korean religion. In a course on Eastern or world religions generally, it might be a recommended supplemental text. In any case, students should find the summaries, bibliographies, and study questions in this book very helpful.

Conversely, in a course generally on Japanese history or culture, I can see Introducing Japanese Religion as a supplemental text, required or not, covering that important aspect of the topic.

6. Can you sum up the book in one sentence?

Introducing Japanese Religion endeavors to present the colorful appearance and history, together with the ideas, practice, and social life of the religion of Japan, in one volume.

  • Introducing Japanese Religion

    2nd Edition

    By Robert Ellwood

    Now in its Second Edition, Introducing Japanese Religion is the ideal resource for undergraduate students. This edition features new material on folk and popular religion, including shamanism, festivals, and practices surrounding death and funerals. Robert Ellwood also updates the text to discuss…

    Paperback – 2016-02-19
    World Religions