sabato 22 ottobre 2011

shintoism, zen buddhism and violence

The rise of militarism, nationalism and the process of “westernization” under Emperor Meiji (1868–1945) were accompanied by the official separation of Shinto, the indigenous, animistic religion of Japan and Buddhism (shinbutsu bunri) and by a nationwide campaign to eject foreign religions from the country.
However, in practice, given the overriding goal of infusing a heterogeneous population – national unification was only achieved during the Meiji Restoration – with a sense of social cohesion in the face of Western influence, the future of the imposed totalizing State religion, called Kokka Shintô, mainly hung on its ability to develop a blend of Shintoism, Zen Buddhism, and Confucianism. Advocates of this newly established political religion sought to bring the Japanese emperor back to the center of the political arena and to turn it into the core marker of Japanese group identity and national essence (kokusui).
At the same time, Shinto-Zen priesthood would function as an extension of the central government, with an enormous liability, ensuring that Japan would be correctly understood as a vehicle for world salvation and that other Asian countries would come to accept the plan of a Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, that is, a racialized “imagined community” dominated by Japan.
The revival of traditional Shintoism was neither a reawakening nor a return to the past, but rather an evolution of pristine cultural forms and the reconstruction of new identities by resorting to historical themes. It served to lend legitimacy to the ruling elite, portrayed as a properly constituted authority which would guarantee the welfare of the whole of society.
The dismissal of the racial equality clause to the preamble of the Covenant for the League of Nations, which had been proposed by the Japanese delegation at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 to undermine Australian and American immigration restriction acts and unequal international treaties, was taken as a denigration of Japan and the Japanese people. The public called for more aggressive and self-assertive domestic and foreign policy, and Kokka Shintô underwent a process of radical transformation. The Depression further intensified a trend hostile to democratic liberalism. In 1930s and 1940s Japan, as in Europe, governments were given full powers to manage the economy and society because ordinary citizens desperately needed to climb out of the Depression. This made their arbitration and dictates on public matters virtually indisputable. In Japan, a country which was heavily dependent on foreign trade, unemployment soared, labor disputes became more frequent and violent and so did anti-Japanese insurgent movements in Korea and Taiwan. Rural debt forced poor tenant farmers to sell their daughters as prostitutes and thousands of small businesses were gradually absorbed by zaibatsu, that is, huge financial combines which pushed for more authoritarian and imperialistic policies.
Accordingly, through its commitment to uphold the good and the righteous society, the Japanese State acquired a strong ethical foundation and was entitled to give moral guidance in public life and see that citizens didn’t swerve from the right path. Prime minister Yamagata Aritomo (1838-1922) stated that the “immutable and incomparable” national system (kokutai) was grounded, historically and spiritually, in the divine essence of the imperial dynasty – the Imperial Way (kôdô) – and of the Japanese islands, as well as in the principle of unity of worship and rule, religion and politics, known as saisei itchi. Adherence to this principle, encapsulated in the word matsurigoto (political affairs), which contains the term matsuri, for religious festivals, involved the merging of state authority (kokkashugi) and ethnic identity (kokuminshugi) (Gatti, 1983).
Because there was no transcendent source of moral authority outside the emperor, there followed that Japanese could not rely on an independent standard of justice, fairness and moral conduct, and nobody would dare to challenge the emperor’s decisions. Soldiers were enjoined to unfailingly obey their superior officers as they would obey the orders of the emperor himself. But because the emperor was infallible, then dutiful soldiers and officers would always be right, no matter how vicious their war tactics and behaviour towards civilians and POWs. That would exclude them from moral responsibility and would assuage feelings of guilt and fear of retribution.
Also, the deeply pessimistic and essentially anti-humanistic anthropology of Kokka Shintô encouraged distrust in people’s independent moral judgment and capacity for free and responsible action. The monopoly of ethical authority that religious leaders accorded to the State caused the legal suppression of pluralist accounts of the good life and the imprisonment and purging of hundreds of opponents. Consequently, historical, political, economic necessities, infused with a religious zeal, overruled any legal constraints and alternative moral views. The Japanese empire was held to be the mundane embodiment of all that was pure, true, good and beautiful. The belief in the ultimate infallibility of the leadership provided a considerable measure of ontological security (Ohnuki-Tierney, 2002).
Kokka Shintô reinscribed emotional attachment, spiritual yearning, and an idealistic sense of citizenship in a society in which citizens were expected to put their own interests and rights after the interests of their community. “Empowered” and highly motivated individuals would counter the iron cages and the amoral social atomization of liberal-capitalist Western modernity. Shinto Zen doctrine of political and ethical absolutism offered the millenarian promise of an alternative, re-moralized modernity and of a collective, mundane salvation, involving the redemption of the national community from an alleged fallen state. Behind these ostensibly noble pursuits, however, lay an invidious condescension for real people and their shortcomings, as well as the willingness to employ all possible means to shape and discipline the new Japanese man and the new Japanese society: including the abolition of pluralism, social conflict and fundamental rights, and the obliteration of all the forces and obstacles that could presumably undermine the moral fiber of society (Maruyama, 1969).
The dramatic predicament of the samurai caste is also worthy of careful consideration. Thousands of trained killers found themselves unemployed and devalued when Meiji reformers initiated sweeping changes in the dominant value system and social conventions – according to the motto fukoku kyōhei, that is, “enrich the country, strengthen the military” – and removed the ban against intermarriage between members of the upper and lower classes. Former samurais realized that the only way to retain their privileged position was to anchor their social status to a biological, and therefore unalterable, standard of distinction: one could only be born with the skills of a samurai. The shift towards an ideology premised on the natural causation of social inequalities and an emphasis on the biological and hereditary determinants of human behavioral traits exerted a major influence on the development of Kokka Shintô. At the same time, loyalty, obedience, fearlessness, self-discipline, self-sacrifice, and honor, that is to say, the keystones of Bushido, “the way of the sword”, the samurai warrior class’ code of conduct, were incorporated into the national ethos.
As a result of these developments, Kokka Shintô was shaped in such a way that it would not serve the interests of a democratic society, but of an autocratic warrior oligarchy captivated by the aesthetic appreciation of violence, death, and martyrdom. The same caste that had cynically exploited Japanese peasants for centuries resorted to indoctrination and propaganda to achieve the same results during the industrial era. Incidentally, it is worth asking whether Japanese nationalism was really so widespread under the Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1867), given the massive effort on the part of the Meiji government to instill nationalism in the larger population. After all, when Commodore Perry’s crew went ashore, on July 14, 1853, ordinary people welcomed them; instead, it was the samurais who felt threatened and intimidated and took an aggressive stance (Duus, 1988).
Kokka Shintô was also the outcome of the inability and unwillingness of the Japanese ruling classes, raised in a society where ethical universalism never really took hold, to critically incorporate Western values and concepts and suppress a rigid and atavistic system of frozen hierarchies which hampered upward mobility. In this sense, Meiji reformism was less a spiritual revolution than a deft strategy deployed by a pre-modern élite haunted by a siege mentality vis-à-vis the alleged Western threat, to transcend modernity by protecting the old system, while at the same time fashioning a modern, industrialized nation that could compete with Western powers for hegemony in the Far East. These reformers saw Western modernity as at once necessary and polluting and Western-style education as imparting knowledge that would shape “shallow, cosmopolitan-minded persons.”
A nationalistic and authoritarian government was the answer to a demand for a distinctive Japanese transition to capitalist modernity, that is, an alternative modernity that would preserve uncontaminated the essence of traditional Japanese culture and spirit (yamatodamashii). Japan was to become modern without simultaneously becoming Western, that is, without losing its cultural spirit and authenticity (bunka seishin), and its exceptionalism and uniqueness.
This would also substantiate the claim that, because of its capacity to amalgamate Western and Eastern cultures, Japan was the only nation that could seriously aspire to the role of Asian leader of a coalition of nations prepared to wage a total war (saishū sensō) against Western colonialist powers. Hence the advocacy on the part of the exponents of the Kyoto school, fascist sympathizers heavily influenced by the German philosophical tradition and by indigenous religious beliefs, of a New Asian Order under Japan’s leadership. The planned New Order would overcome the Western order (kindai no chōkoku) and the attendant individualism, materialism, the commodification of culture, social abstraction, alienation, universalism, international law, state’s neutrality on moral issues, and human rights theory (Harootunian, 2000).
Having said that, judging from the relative lack of media coverage of the philosophical debate on Japan’s role in the process of decolonization of the Far East and on the commonality of Asian peoples, it is safe to assume that nationalism and militarism were a necessary, yet not a sufficient condition, in the rise of Japanese vicious imperialism. Without the Kokka Shintô fundamentalist grounding and its corollary of absolute moral certainty, this doctrine would have almost certainly floundered, for it did not seem to have aroused the interest of the Japanese public or to have helped further Japanese economic interests.

Like today’s Islamic fundamentalism, Kokka Shintô rejected modern secularism, which extolled the value of personal freedom and the inherent worth of the individual over religious faith and collective duties, labeling it a source of incoherent liberal values leading to social fragmentation and atomization, a watered-down religiousness, and political decline. Its militant advocates believed that an uncontaminated cultural and moral authenticity could be preserved in the context of modernity, provided that the manipulative, cosmopolitan Western values were prevented from seizing control of the distinct historical and aesthetic path of Japanese civilization. Culturalism (bunkashugi), as part and parcel of a broader process of redefining what it means to be Japanese through an emphasis on self-affirmation and authenticity, would enable the Japanese to acquire the “modern” without acquiring “the West” as well, and especially the inquisitive “democratic frame of mind” characteristic of an autonomous citizenry. In this way, the Japanese “closed society” would be eternalized and the Japanese would be subsumed by the organic state and submerged by a collective, hyper-ritualized religious practice. The voluntary dissolution of the self to serve the public (messhi hōkō) would secure the attainment of a perfect sense of spiritual integration.
Kokka Shintô did not acknowledge the existence of individual inalienable rights and exalted the well-being of the community above that of individuals, instead of seeing them as complementary. Priority was assigned to moral obligations (giri), over legal obligations (gimu) and rights (kenri). Individual citizens existed for the sake of the nation and of the state-religion, not the other way around, and this reinforced the conception of individuals as mere corpuscles immersed in the eternal stream of history, whereby the past – the ancestral virtues and millenarian traditions of the Yamato race – was projected into the future – the modern manifestation of the same primordial community –, and vice versa (Dale, 1986).
As a response to the “artificial”, heterogeneous, and competitive social milieu of modern urban society, in which ties between individuals are loose and people are held together by personal interest, instrumental rationality, and by the social contract, this self-denying political religion valorized restriction and hierarchy over freedom, and a neo-ruralist, “natural,” organic model of society marked by cultural homogeneousness, cohesion, common objectives, and emotional bonds. The personal and the supra-personal were therefore inseparable and individuals dissolved into the group: loyalty to the group and to one’s own kind came first. Needless to say, the sense of universal indebtedness and responsibility to all other human beings was compromised (Petzin & Ruprecht, 1994). In this “ideal” society, age and kinship would determine a person’s position within an ascribed hierarchy and the strength of the obligation one must have towards his or her group. Stringent moral prohibitions, obliterating the separation of the public and private realms - on the ground that religion is inseparable from law and politics - would make rules to protect individuals from abuse unnecessary: true freedom was reconfigured as voluntary submission to the will of the emperor (Ito, 1998).
At the same time, the institutional indifference to individual circumstances and interests, and the fear of personal liberties, which is so typical of organic conceptions of society, fostered a self-righteous worldview stamped by intolerance and violence, and the crystallization of differences as timeless essences. This at once perversely narcissistic and nihilistic worldview justified killing, mass murder, and the ultimate clash of irreconcilable civilizations, for those who did not belong to the divine, racially and culturally superior Yamato ethno-religious community – i.e. the jama gedō, “unruly heathens” – were impure and corrupted sub-humans.
The process of dehumanization and depersonalisation of the victims was further exacerbated by the primacy of purification rituals in the Shinto religion, which sees dirt, pollution (kegare), and disorder in general as an offence against the cosmic, social, and cognitive order: a transgression of the most sacred boundaries, which cannot go unpunished (Reader, 1991), especially because those who are deemed impure may contaminate others.
In late nineteenth-century Japan, blood (chi, ketsu), became a metaphor for both the transmission of intellectual faculties and physical attributes, and for the perpetuation of the Japanese racial essence. This fascination with bloodlines was certainly encouraged by the Shintoist belief that blood is impure and that anything smeared in blood is tainted. If purity could not be invoked from the outside (divine intervention), it would be obtained by internal cleansing (Reader, ibid.).
Additionally, the tension between predestination and free will has never been resolved in Japanese culture. Akira Kurosawa once observed that the cheerful faces who celebrated the end of the war where the same that gazed at their swords with pleasure only a few hours early, before hearing the emperor’s radio message to surrender. The celebrated Japanese director remarked that he could not quite figure out whether he had witnessed a spectacular display of Japanese adaptability or of Japanese imbecility. Most importantly, he learnt that “without the establishment of the self as a positive value there could be no freedom and no democracy” (Kurosawa, 1982, p. 145).
While a collectivizing agency is a central element of the genocidal logic, another one is fatalism and the attending diffusion of responsibility. Karmic beliefs suppressed independent human agency and gave rise to a proclivity to see the course of human existence as pre-determined by an omnipotent and ubiquitous agency. This led to the neutralization of the moral relevance of individuals and their actions. A fundamentally nihilistic universe was altogether indifferent to the fate of millions of human beings. Accordingly, the Tenno was not expected to show concern for his subjects, nor were his soldiers: if the value of their lives was so minuscule, then the value of enemies’ lives was even more insignificant. Also, because individuals could not escape from their destiny, mass-killing those opponents who interfered with the progress of humankind under the “enlightened guidance” of the Japanese emperor, really amounted to nothing more than fulfilling a higher, absolute purpose, that of removing internal and external pollution. Their humanity was left out of the picture (Victoria, 1997).
As I mentioned before, this moral imperative was strengthened by the belief, conveyed for instance by the Lotus Sutra, that karma (innen) is a substance that can be transmitted through body fluids, like a virus or defective alleles. People are then punished not only for their own sins, but also for those committed by their relatives and ancestors, which are inherited. Hence, obligations of interdependency, especially those related to blood and familial ties, must be accepted unconditionally. A doctrine such as this, which faults the individuals for their actions in previous lives, instead of denouncing the social determinants of injustice and discrimination, is certainly not conducive to feelings of mercy and empathy, or to the promotion of social reformism. In Japan it consolidated the existing order, for iniquities were explained away as the outcome of karmic retribution, and therefore social inequality was defined as the only genuine form of equality (Victoria, 2003).
These tenets also disposed thousands of Japanese soldiers to self-sacrifice for the sake of Japan’s rebirth, for if their destiny was to follow the imperial dictates to the letter, then their duty was to eagerly embrace their own death – and, in desperate circumstances, national salvation through mass suicide – and the death of those who opposed the emperor’s plans. Japanese soldiers would look at themselves through the eyes of the imperial propaganda and of Japanese society and see their deeds and choices as inevitable and transcending good and evil. As a result, decisions concerning the life and death of civilians were morally indifferent, as witnessed by the atrocities committed by desensitized Japanese soldiers during the war, and especially at Nanking, in 1937, when as many as 350,000 Chinese civilians were remorselessly tortured and murdered (Chang, 1997).


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Victoria, Brian, Zen at War, New York, Tokyo: Weatherhill, 1997.

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