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10-08-2015, 23:23

Religion and Culture

The sense of racial and cultural pride that characterizes contemporary Japan is rather different from Japanese attitudes at the beginning of the Meiji era. When Japan was opened to the West in the nineteenth century, many Japanese became convinced of the superiority of foreign ideas and institutions and were especially interested in Western religion and culture. Although Christian converts were few, numbering less than 1 percent of the population, the influence of Christianity was out of proportion to the size of the community. Many intellectuals during the Meiji era were impressed by the emotional commitment shown by missionaries in Japan and viewed Christianity as a contemporary version of Confucianism. Today, Japan includes almost 1.5 million Christians along with 93 million Buddhists. Many Japanese also follow Shinto, no longer identified with reverence for the emperor and the state. As in the West, increasing urbanization has led to a decline in the practice of organized religion, although evangelical sects have proliferated in recent years. In all likelihood, their members, like those belonging to similar sects elsewhere, are seeking spiritual underpinnings in an increasingly secular and complex world. The largest and best-known sect is the Soka Gakkai, a lay Buddhist organization that has attracted millions of followers and formed its own political party, the Komeito. Western literature, art, and music also had a major impact on Japanese society. Western influence led to the rapid decline of traditional forms of drama and poetry and the growth in popularity of the prose novel. After the Japanese defeat in World War II, many of the writers who had been active before the war resurfaced, but now their writing reflected their demoralization, echoing the spiritual vacuum of the times. Labeled apure, from the first part of the French après-guerre (postwar), these disillusioned authors were attracted to existentialism, and some turned to hedonism and nihilism. This “lost generation” described its anguish with piercing despair; several of its luminaries committed suicide. For them, defeat was compounded by fear of the Americanization of postwar Japan. One of the best examples of this attitude was novelist Yukio Mishima (1925–1970), who led a crusade to stem the tide of what he described as America’s “universal and uniform ‘Coca-Colonization’ ” of the world in general and Japan in particular.3 In Confessions of a Mask, written in 1949, Mishima described the awakening of a young man to his own homosexuality. His later novels, The Thirst for Love and The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, are riveting narratives about disturbed characters. Mishima’s ritual suicide in 1970 was the subject of widespread speculation and transformed him into a cult figure. One of Japan’s most serious-minded contemporary authors is Kenzaburo Oe (b. 1935). His work, which was rewarded with the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1994, presents Japan’s ongoing quest for modern identity and purpose. His characters reflect the spiritual anguish precipitated by the collapse of the imperial Japanese tradition and the subsequent adoption of Western culture—a trend that, according to Oe, has culminated in unabashed materialism, cultural decline, and a moral void. Yet unlike Mishima, he does not seek to reinstill the imperial traditions of the past but rather wants to regain spiritual meaning by retrieving the sense of communality and innocence found in rural Japan. In Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness, a collection of four novellas, Oe describes the fascination of Japanese children when they first saw a black American soldier held in captivity at the end of World War II. Initially viewing him as an intimidating oddity, the children eventually accept him as a human being, admiring his powerful body and sense of joy in being alive. Haruki Murakami (b. 1949), one of Japan’s most popular authors today, was one of the first to discard the introspective and somber style of the earlier postwar period. Characters in his novels typically take the form of a detached antihero, reflecting the emptiness of corporate life in contemporary Japan. In The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1997), Murakami highlights the capacity for irrational violence in Japanese society and the failure of the nation to accept its guilt for the behavior of Japanese troops during World War II. Since the 1970s, increasing affluence and a high literacy rate have contributed to a massive quantity of publications, ranging from popular potboilers to first-rate fiction. Much of this new literature deals with the common concerns of all affluent industrialized nations, including the effects of urbanization, advanced technology, and mass consumption. One recent phenomenon is the so-called industrial novel, which seeks to lay bare the vicious infighting and pressure tactics that characterize Japanese business today. A wildly popular genre is the “artmanga,” or literary cartoon. Although most manga are meant as pure entertainment, author Michio Hisauchi presents serious subjects, such as Japanese soldiers marooned after the war on an island in the South Pacific, in Japan’s Junglest Day, a full-length novel in comic book form with cartoon characters posing philosophical questions. There were many women writers during early Japanese history, but they have labored under many disabilities in a male-dominated society. Japanese literary critics, who were invariably men, accepted “female” literature as long as it dealt exclusively with what they viewed as appropriately “female” subjects, such as the “mysteries” of the female psyche and motherhood. Even today, Japan has separate literary awards for men and women, and women are not considered capable of abstract or objective writing. Nevertheless, many contemporary women authors are daring to broach “male” subjects and are producing works of considerable merit. Other aspects of Japanese culture have also been influenced by Western ideas, although without the intense preoccupation with synthesis that is evident in literature. Western music is popular in Japan, and scores of Japanese classical musicians have succeeded in the West. Even rap music has gained a foothold among Japanese youth, although without its association in the United States with sex, drugs, and violence. Although some of the lyrics betray an attitude of modest revolt against the uptight world of Japanese society, most lack any such connotations. An example is the rap song “Street Life”: Now’s the time to hip-hop, Everybody’s crazy about rap, Hey, hey, you all, listen up, Listen to my rap and cheer up. As one singer remarked, “We’ve been very fortunate, and we don’t want to bother our moms and dads. So we don’t sing songs that would disturb parents.”4 No longer are Japanese authors and painters seeking to revive the old Japan of the tea ceremony and falling plum blossoms. Raised in the crowded cities of postwar Japan, soaking up movies and television, rock music and jeans, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s, many contemporary Japanese speak the universal language of today’s world. Yet even as the Japanese enter the global marketplace, they retain ties to their own traditions. Businesspeople sometimes use traditional Taoist forms of physical and mental training to reduce the stress inherent in their jobs, while others retreat to a Zen monastery to learn to focus their willpower as a means of besting a competitor. There are some signs that under the surface, the tension between traditional and modern is exacting a price. As novelists such as Yukio Mishima and Kenzaburo Oe feared, the growing focus on material possessions and the decline of traditional religious beliefs have left a spiritual void that is undermining the sense of community and purpose that have motivated the country since the Meiji era. Some young people have reacted to the emptiness of their lives by joining religious cults such as Aum Shinri Kyo, which came to widespread world attention in 1995 when members of the organization, inspired by their leader Asahara Shoko, carried out a poison gas attack on the Tokyo subway that killed several people. Such incidents serve as a warning that Japan is not immune to the social ills that currently plague many Western countries.