Imagining Japan: The Japanese Tradition and its Modern Interpretation / Edition 1 available in Paperback
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By Robert N. Bellah
University of California PressCopyright © 2003 Robert N. Bellah
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IntroductionThe Japanese Difference
Understanding Japan has preoccupied Japanese intellectuals for centuries and Westerners ever since the discovery of Japan in the sixteenth century. In the recent past the effort to understand Japan, variously to imagine it, has become, if anything, more frenetic than ever. If one is overly influenced by the welter of popular publications coming from within or outside of Japan on this subject, then one will be tempted to adopt either the latest Japanese self-interpretation, which comes in several closely related versions, but which can be summarized under the common term nihonjinron (the discourse about the Japanese), or one of the several Western interpretations that emphasize the exotic nature of Japan or its formidable combination of "tradition" and "modernity," views that are closely related to "Orientalism." These usually turn out to be not two temptations but one, for both of them emphasize Japanese uniqueness, Japanese exceptionalism, or Japanese particularism.
Although much of this writing is superficial, it is not my point that either the Japanese or the Western versions are wholly mistaken. Much contained in them is undoubtedly true. Nor does the weakness of this literature derive only from the fact that it emphasizes uniqueness but lacks a comparative perspective. There often is a comparative perspective but comparisons are used only to show how different Japan is, and has always been, from everybody else. It will be one of the purposes of this Introduction to locate Japan within a comparative spectrum, and not outside it; for the Japanese, like all peoples, are indeed unique, but they represent a set of possibilities within the normal range of human culture and society.
Although I will discuss some of this recent literature in this Introduction, the essays collected in this volume are largely concerned with an earlier period. The Japanese or Western "discourse about the Japanese" of recent years has taken place within a relatively benign international atmosphere in which Japan is considered an advanced industrial society and accepted as such in a variety of international organizations. During the 1980s there was some talk in the West of the Japanese threat to dominate the world economy for its own exclusive advantage, but since the collapse of the Japanese bubble economy at the beginning of the 1990s, there has been much less talk of that sort. If anything, Japan has been treated as something of an economic basket case, which should get its act together in order to emerge from its economic doldrums. None of this is particularly frightening, though the pressures are real enough.
The period with which most of the chapters in this volume are concerned was much more ominous: the years before and after 1945, the defeat of Japan at the end of World War II and the first occupation of Japan by a foreign military power. In that period Japanese identity was a matter of life and death, and the ways in which Japan was imagined were strongly contested. Watsuji Tetsuro and Ienaga Saburo, the figures treated most extensively in this book (in Chapters 2 and 3, respectively), though they wrote about many of the same subjects, could hardly be more different in their assessment of the Japanese tradition. Much recent nihonjinron literature reiterates, often with less subtlety and insight, what Watsuji had already said in the 1930s and early 1940s and much of the criticism of it reiterates what Ienaga said in the late 1940s and the 1950s. Maruyama Masao, treated briefly in Chapter 4, which is devoted to him (I will have more to say about him later in this Introduction), enormously influential in the decades right after 1945 but largely ignored today, is perhaps the most penetrating mind to appear in twentieth-century Japan and has his own interpretation of the Japanese experience. The issues with which the essays collected in this book are concerned, then, are still very much on the table in Japan and the world today, but Japan has not produced intellectuals of the stature of Watsuji, Ienaga, and Maruyama in recent years.
Before I turn to the main task of this Introduction, namely, to develop a comparative framework adequate to make sense of Japan, it may be helpful for me to make a brief autobiographical digression, especially since many readers will think of me primarily as a student of American society and religion and have no knowledge of my prior interest in Japan. I might begin by mentioning the connection with Japan of one of my best-known contributions to American studies, namely, my 1967 essay, "Civil Religion in America." The first version of what was to become that essay was delivered as a Fulbright lecture in the Spring of 1961 during my Fulbright year in Japan, soon after the Inaugural Address of John F. Kennedy, which plays a significant role in the essay. It was not an effort to speak to an American audience, but rather to explain to the Japanese, who had been so sternly lectured to by the Occupation authorities on the critical importance of the separation of church and state, why no American president could be inaugurated without mentioning God in his inaugural address. So my first tentative approach to American studies was from the point of view of Japan, and some acute reviewers have seen an East Asian perspective in all my work on the United States, work that emphasizes informal thought and practice as much as legal and institutional structures.
My doctoral dissertation, which was completed in 1955 and published in 1957 as Tokugawa Religion, was an effort to think of Japan not as "different" or the "Other" in any absolute sense, but as sharing similarities and differences with other modern societies in a comparative framework. In the first chapter of the book I used two sets of what Talcott Parsons called "pattern variables," a scheme that he developed from Max Weber's typology of social action, to describe Japanese society as characterized by the pattern variables of particularism (as opposed to universalism) and achievement (as opposed to ascription). By particularism I meant that in Japan considerations of relational context usually took precedence over considerations of abstract and universal principle. And by achievement I argued that in Japan persons were evaluated more in terms of what they could do than of what status they occupied. The latter point was more controversial than the former in terms of the general understanding of Japan, particularly in the Tokugawa period when social status was of great importance. But I argued that in the actual practices of life achievement was highly valued. As an example I gave the instance of a peasant boy, Tomita Kokei, who, when starting off from his home to attend the Confucian school in Edo, heard footsteps and turned around to see his mother running after him. He asked what was the matter and she replied, "If you do not succeed you need not return home." Since I described American society as characterized by the pattern variables of universalism and achievement, I was arguing that Japan was at this most general level as similar to as it was different from my own society.
But my effort to characterize Japan in terms of sociological variables was only introductory to the main purpose of the book, which was to argue that, though there was nothing like the Protestant Reformation that could have inaugurated modernity in Japan, there were functional equivalents of aspects of Protestantism that made the Japanese more capable than most other non-Western societies of responding effectively to the challenge of modernization when it came. In this case, where I was extending Weber's argument on religion and capitalism beyond what he had written, I was not arguing for Japan's uniqueness, but for some basic similarities to the West. It was just concerning this point that Maruyama Masao believed I had gone too far. Maruyama, Japan's leading social scientist at the time, criticized me for eliding too easily the differences between Japan and the West and for being insufficiently aware of the negative aspects of the Japanese tradition, and of Tokugawa society in particular. I will return to some reconsiderations of the Tokugawa period below.
My view of Japan in comparative perspective was developed further in a series of lectures that I delivered at International Christian University in Tokyo in the spring of 1961 under the title "Values and Social Change in Modern Japan," in which I developed a more critical perspective on aspects of the Japanese tradition, partly in response to Maruyama. In those lectures I described a series of Japanese efforts to attain a transcendental perspective, beginning with Shotoku Taishi in the seventh century, continuing with the major figures of Kamakura Buddhism in the thirteenth century, especially Shinran and Dogen, touching on Tokugawa Confucians such as Ogyu Sorai, and concluding with Christians since the Meiji period, particularly Uchimura Kanzo. I pointed out how in each case the moment of transcendence was quickly submerged. The particularistic "ground bass" of Japanese society that I had described in Tokugawa Religion reasserted itself, soon drowning out the transcendental melody that had appeared in the upper register. I did not use the term nonaxial, which S.N. Eisenstadt would use in his book Japanese Civilization, but the germ of that idea was present in those lectures. Although a comparative framework is implied in all the essays contained in this book, none of them returns to a consideration of a basic framework for thinking about Japanese culture and society in a comparative perspective as did Tokugawa Religion and "Values and Social Change in Modern Japan." I want to use the rest of this Introduction to develop such a framework.
Modernity and its Precursors
In both popular and scholarly discourse the distinction between societies that are "modern" from those that are "traditional" is hard to avoid, yet the current usage of the modern/traditional dichotomy is so riddled with untenable and unexamined presuppositions that it is virtually useless. The stereotypical contrast of a rapidly changing modernity with a stagnant and unchanging traditional society, an idea that, unfortunately, owes more than a little to Max Weber, is surely wrong. But something about modernity makes it different from earlier social conditions, and it has been sociology's task from the beginning to try to explain what that something is. It would not be an exaggeration to say that sociology began as an effort to explain modernity to itself. In so doing it was necessary for the founders of sociology-certainly for Marx, Weber, and Durkheim-to think systematically about what came before modernity in order to understand how modern societies are different from all preceding ones. Weber's notion of a development from societies based on kinship and neighborhood, through societies organized by bureaucracy or feudalism, to modern capitalism was a version of a story told in different ways by Marx and Durkheim as well. Coming out of this sociological tradition, my own effort to situate modernity in relation to what preceded it was first set forth in my 1964 article on religious evolution.
In my version, drawing directly from Weber, religion played an important role in the emergence of modernity. Weber began his study of religion in 1904 with his famous The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. It is clear, however, that we must consider not only that essay but the place of the Protestant ethic argument in Weber's work as a whole. He believed that ascetic Protestantism was an indispensable catalyst for the emergence of a new form of society that he called "modern capitalism"-but which he saw as a new kind of civilization, not just a new kind of economy. Although circumscribed markets had existed for millennia within what Randall Collins calls "agrarian-coercive societies," never before the Reformation in the West had ideological, political, and economic resources crystallized to form such a new kind of civilization. Once established, however, capitalism became a worldwide phenomenon, even though taking different forms in different civilizational areas. Thus Protestantism, though occurring in only one tradition, was, indirectly but crucially, an indispensable precondition for the cross-cultural emergence of modernity.
In searching for the root causes of modernity and why it arose first in the West, Weber embarked on the most ambitious set of comparative studies ever undertaken. In the course of his study of the great traditions he came to believe that religious events in the first millennium b.c. were of critical importance. Within each of the world religions that emerged at that time arose prophets or saviors who radically rationalized previous forms of what Weber tended to call "magical religion." In each case the emergent figure (Confucius, the Buddha, the Hebrew prophets, Socrates, Jesus) preached a systematic form of ethical conduct quite different from the diffuse ritual and sacramental practices that preceded them. By calling these new symbolic forms "rationalized" Weber was pointing to the fact that they were more coherent, more cognitively and ethically universalizing, more potentially self-critical (reflexive), and more disengaged from the existing society than what preceded them. Karl Jaspers, Weber's close friend and student, called the period of the emergence of these religions, the first millennium b.c., the "Axial Age." S.N. Eisenstadt speaks of the world religions as axial religions and of their related civilizations as axial civilizations. If one follows Weber's argument that religion is the indispensable catalyst for the emergence of modernity, as I do, then one can see that the axial religions, even though they emerged millennia before modernity, were its indispensable precondition.
In my 1964 article I proposed a simplified way of looking at the shape of religious evolution. I argued that whereas tribal and archaic religions were primarily this-worldly in orientation, which is what Weber, perhaps unwisely, meant by the word magical, the axial religions were world-rejecting (and thus, for Weber, crucially, magic-rejecting), although they differed as to whether this rejection was to be worked out within the world (ethically), or as far as possible outside the world (mystically). It was the leverage of axial religion in a transcendental reference point, outside the world so to speak, that made it possible to criticize and in principle to revise the fundamental social and political premises of existing societies. Whereas in tribal and archaic societies self and society were seen as embedded in the natural cosmos, the axial religions and philosophies made it possible in principle for the self to become disembedded from society and society from the given world of nature.
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