The People of Japan
Japanese, Religions, History, Religion, Buddhism, Shint
In this faith then, in the spirit of Him who said, "I come not to destroy but to fulfil," let us cast our eyes upon that part of the world where lies the empire of Japan with its forty-one millions of souls. Here we have not a country like India—a vast conglomeration of nations, languages and religions occupying a peninsula itself like a continent, whose history consists of a stratification of many civilizations. Nor have we here a seemingly inert mass of humanity in a political structure blending democracy and imperialism, as in China, so great in age, area and numbers as to weary the imagination that strives to grasp the details. On the contrary, in Dai Nippon, or Great Land of the Sun's Origin, we have a little country easy of study. In geology it is one of the youngest of lands. Its known history is comparatively modern. Its area roughly reckoned as 150,000 square miles, is about that of our Dakotas or of Great Britain and Ireland. The census completed December 31, 1892, illustrates here, as all over the world, nature's argument against polygamy. It tells us that the relation between the sexes is, numerically at least, normal. There were 20,752,366 males and 20,337,574 females, making a population of 41,089,940 souls. All these people are subjects of the one emperor, and excepting fewer than twenty thousand savages in the northern islands called Ainos, speak one language and form substantially one race. Even the Riu Kiu islanders are Japanese in language, customs and religion. In a word, except in minor differences appreciable or at least important only to the special student, the modern Japanese are a homogeneous people.
In origin and formation, this people is a composite of many tribes. Roughly outlining the ethnology of Japan, we should say that the aborigines were immigrants from the continent with Malay reinforcement in the south, Koreans in the centre, and Ainos in the east and north, with occasional strains of blood at different periods from various parts of the Asian mainland. In brief, the Japanese are a very mixed race. Authentic history before the Christian era is unknown. At some point of time, probably later than A.D. 200, a conquering tribe, one of many from the Asian mainland, began to be paramount on the main island. About the fourth century something like historic events and personages begin to be visible, but no Japanese writings are older than the early part of the eighth century, though almanacs and means of measuring time are found in the sixth century. Whatever Japan may be in legend and mythology, she is in fact and in history younger than Christianity. Her line of rulers, as alleged in old official documents and ostentatiously reaffirmed in the first article of the constitution of 1889, to be "unbroken for ages eternal," is no older than that of the popes. Let us not think of Aryan or Chinese antiquity when we talk of Japan. Her history as a state began when the Roman empire fell. The Germanic nations emerged into history long before the Japanese.
Roughly outlining the political and religious life of the ancient Japanese, we note that their first system of government was a rude sort of feudalism imposed by the conquerors and was synchronous with aboriginal fetichism, nature worship, ancestral sacrifices, sun-worship and possibly but not probably, a very rude sort of monotheism akin to the primitive Chinese cultus.9 Almost contemporary with Buddhism, its introduction and missionary development, was the struggle for centralized imperialism borrowed from the Chinese and consolidated in the period from the seventh to the twelfth century. During most of this time Shint[=o], or the primitive religion, was overshadowed while the Confucian ethics were taught. From the twelfth to this nineteenth century feudalism in politics and Buddhism in religion prevailed, though Confucianism furnished the social laws or rules of daily conduct. Since the epochal year of 1868, with imperialism reestablished and the feudal system abolished, Shint[=o] has had a visible revival, being kept alive by government patronage. Buddhism, though politically disestablished, is still the popular religion with recent increase of life,10 while Confucianism is decidedly losing force. Christianity has begun its promising career.
The Amalgam of Religions
Yet in the imperial and constitutional Japan of our day it is still true of probably at least thirty-eight millions of Japanese that their religion is not one, Shint[=o], Confucianism or Buddhism, but an amalgam of all three. There is not in every-day life that sharp distinction between these religions which the native or foreign scholar makes, and which both history and philosophy demand shall be made for the student at least. Using the technical language of Christian theologians, Shint[=o] furnishes theology, Confucianism anthropology and Buddhism soteriology. The average Japanese learns about the gods and draws inspiration for his patriotism from Shint[=o], maxims for his ethical and social life from Confucius, and his hope of what he regards as salvation from Buddhism. Or, as a native scholar, Nobuta Kishimoto,11 expresses it,
In Japan these three different systems of religion and morality are not only living together on friendly terms with one another, but, in fact, they are blended together in the minds of the people, who draw necessary nourishment from all of these sources. One and the same Japanese is both a Shint[=o]ist, a Confucianist, and a Buddhist. He plays a triple part, so to speak ... Our religion may be likened to a triangle.... Shint[=o]ism furnishes the object, Confucianism offers the rules of life, while Buddhism supplies the way of salvation; so you see we Japanese are eclectic in everything, even in religion.
These three religious systems as at present constituted, are "book religions." They rest, respectively, upon the Kojiki and other ancient Japanese literature and the modern commentators; upon the Chinese classics edited and commented on by Confucius and upon Chu Hi and other mediaeval scholastics who commented upon Confucius; and upon the shastras and sutras with which Gautama, the Buddha, had something to do. Yet in primeval and prehistoric Nippon neither these books nor the religions growing out of the books were extant. Furthermore, strictly speaking, it is not with any or all of these three religions that the Christian missionary comes first, oftenest or longest in contact. In ancient, in mediaeval, and in modern times the student notices a great undergrowth of superstition clinging parasitically to all religions, though formally recognized by none. Whether we call it fetichism, shamanism, nature worship or heathenism in its myriad forms, it is there in awful reality. It is as omnipresent, as persistent, as hard to kill as the scrub bamboo which both efficiently and sufficiently takes the place of thorns and thistles as the curse of Japanese ground.
The book-religions can be more or less apprehended by those alien to them, but to fully appreciate the depth, extent, influence and tenacity of these archaic, unwritten and unformulated beliefs requires residence upon the soil and life among the devotees. Disowned it may be by the priests and sages, indignantly disclaimed or secretly approved in part by the organized religions, this great undergrowth of superstition is as apparent as the silicious bamboo grass which everywhere conditions and modifies Japanese agriculture. Such prevalence of mental and spiritual disease is the sad fact that confronts every lover of his fellow-men. This paganism is more ancient and universal than any one of the religions founded on writing or teachers of name and fame. Even the applied science and the wonderful inventions imported from the West, so far from eradicating it, only serve as the iron-clad man-of-war in warm salt water serves the barnacles, furnishing them food and hold.
We propose to give in this our first lecture, a general or bird's-eye view of this dead level of paganism above which the systems of Shint[=o], Confucianism and Buddhism tower like mountains. It in by this omnipresent superstition that the respectable religious have been conditioned in their history and are modified at present, even as Christianity has been influenced in its progress by ethnic or local ideas and temperaments, and will be yet in its course of victory in the Mikado's empire.
Just as the terms "heathen" (happily no longer, in the Revised Version of the English Bible) and "pagan" suggest the heath-man of Northern Europe and the isolated hamlet of the Roman empire, while the cities were illuminated with Christian truth, so, in the main, the matted superstitious of Chinese Asia are more suggestive of distances from books and centres of knowledge, though still sufficiently rooted in the crowded cities.
One to whom the boundary line between the Creator and his world is perfectly clear, one who knows the eternal difference between mind and matter, one born amid the triumphs of science can but faintly realize the mental condition of the millions of Japan to whom there is no unifying thought of the Creator-Father. Faith in the unity of law is the foundation of all science, but the average Asiatic has not this thought or faith. Appalled at his own insignificance amid the sublime mysteries and awful immensities of nature, the shadows of his own mind become to him real existences. As it is affirmed that the human skin, sensitive to the effects of light, takes the photograph of the tree riven by lightning, so, on the pagan mind lie in ineffaceable and exaggerated grotesqueness the scars of impressions left by hereditary teaching, by natural phenomena and by the memory of events and of landmarks. Out of the soil of diseased imagination has sprung up a growth as terrible as the drunkard's phantasies. The earthquake, flood, tidal wave, famine, withering or devastating wind and poisonous gases, the geological monsters and ravening bird, beast and fish, have their representatives or supposed incarnations in mythical phantasms.
Frightful as these shadows of the mind appear, they are both very real and, in a sense, very necessary to the ignorant man. He must have some theory by which to explain the phenomena of nature and soothe his own terrors. Hence he peoples the earth and water, not only with invisible spirits more or less malevolent, but also with bodily presences usually in terrific bestial form. To those who believe in one Spirit pervading, ordering, governing all things, there is unity amid all phenomena, and the universe is all order and beauty. To the mind which has not reached this height of simplicity, instead of one cause there are many. The diverse phenomena of nature are brought about by spirits innumerable, warring and discordant. Instead of a unity to the mind, as of sun and solar system, there is nothing but planets, asteroids and a constant rain of shooting-stars.
|Written By William Elliot Griffis|
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