Doc Roemer’s blog

Welcome to my blog! I’ll be updating this throughout the semester to comment on what it’s like to teach Japanese religions.

You can also see my blogs during our 2-week trip to Japan this summer @ jpnreligions.wordpress.com.

Michael K. Roemer, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, Ball State University (jpnreligions@bsu.edu)

8/25–Today’s topic: what is religion in Japan like?

Our reading was the first chapter (p. 3-13) from Swanson and Chilson’s co-edited Nanzan Guide to Japanese Religions (2006, Hawaii UP). The chapter is by Robert Kisala, and the students were put into groups to discuss their interpretations/thoughts on the readings. I asked the students to come up with one description of Japanese religiousness per group based on the readings and/or based on their personal experiences in Japan (recall, 3students and I spent 2 weeks shrine- and temple-hopping in July; also 2 other students spent spent time in Japan studying the language and culture).

They noted: 1) most Japanese do not trust organized religions; 2) most religiousness focuses on orthopraxy (simply, “right practice”) as opposed to orthodoxy (“right belief”)–that is, rituals tend to be more important and common than beliefs/faith; 3) the general Japanese interpretation of “religion” and “atheism” vary from our understandings (in the US, for example); 4) religious affiliation is rare.

We meet again Friday to continue this introductory discussion. In the meantime, the students are also setting up their blogs and getting familiar with our Website and Second Life. Lots going on as we start the course…

8/27 Day 3–Topics: Blogging, Fallacies, & Realities

Today, we spent about 20 minutes working out some of the kinks that come with using technology in a class. Focus: blogging and using WordPress (which I do recommend).

Our next topic was “fallacies about religiousness in Japan.” I asked the students to jot down some of what they used to think religiousness/religions in Japan was/were like–before they learned the truth. They paired up to talk about these, then I asked for some volunteers. One interesting fallacy was that all Japanese are Buddhist (now they know very few even consider themselves members of any religion–I’ve found close to 10% (Review of Religious Research 2009 50(3):298-320); Kisala and others say closer to 30% (see 8/25 p. 6) [footnote: a key difference is that the data I used, Japanese General Social Surveys, distinguishes between “personal religions” and “family religions”. I also found that about 30% of the sample claimed religious affiliation when you include “family” and “personal” together.] Another fun fallacy was that all Japanese Buddhist monks are ‘bad-ass’ (in part because of their shaved heads–which I happened to agree is a good judge of bad-assness) (now they know that many priests in Japan are not too different from others–most eat meat, marry, drink alcohol, etc.). A third myth was that most Japanese are religiously devout (now they know that even how we measure “devout” creates problems when talking about religiousness in Japan in comparison to the US).

Afterwards, I asked for one more key characteristic (see 8/25 above) of Japanese religiousness (not a fallacy), and they offered ‘syncretism‘. In this case, syncretism refers to the blending and simultaneous practicing/believing of multiple religions and religious traditions. We talked about the phrase “born Shinto, marry Christian, and die Buddhist” (see e.g., Kisala p. 3) as one example of syncretism experienced by many Japanese. This syncretism has deep historical roots in Japan, and we’ll get into this more over the semester.

8/30–“Deconstructing ‘Japanese religion'”

The article we discussed today was Isomae Jun’ichi’s “Deconstructing ‘Japanese religion’: A Historical survey” in the Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 2005 (32/2):235-248. I’ve hyperlinked the journal because it is (arguably) the top journal in the study of Japanese religions, and it’s articles are accessible for FREE! It is a fantastic resource for anyone studying/teaching about religiousness in Japan.

The beauty of Isomae’s (pronounced Ee-so-mah-eh) article is that it breaks down (“deconstructs”) the historical, social, and linguistic meanings of the term “Japanese religion.” The article is a balance of complex analysis and straight-forward historical explanations. So, it provides good substance for discussion in an undergrad or grad course. Some of the main points the students focused on in our discussion were:

1) the differences between “Japanese religion” (Nihon no shūkyō, 日本の宗教) and “Japanese religiousness” (Nihon no shūkyōteki na koto, 日本の宗教的なこと) AND how most Japanese call what they do “traditions” (dentō, 伝統) or “customs” (shūkan, 習慣) ;  2) whether Shinto is an “indigenous” religion;   3) the lack of trust most Japanese have towards organized religions (but the significant cultural influence Shinto and Buddhism, especially, still have);  4) problems concerning Buddhism’s image as “funeral Buddhism” in Japan;  and 5) conceptualizations of guilt and sin in Japan vs. the US.

Shūkyō is a highly complicated word, and its meaning(s) is/are greatly influenced by socio-historical events that have given it a rather pejorative meaning in Japan. We will talk more about this concept throughout the semester.

9/9

Presently, the class is taking a historical approach to the study of religion. We are still using the Nanzan Guide (see above). We have covered the ancient and classical periods, and tomorrow we address the medieval period. Next week, we’ll discuss (you guessed it) the early modern, modern, and contemporary periods.

What the students are saying is that these chapters are dense. They are full of information and citations–a bit overwhelming for the students who have had no exposure to Japanese religiousness before this class. The benefit, though, is that in this class we are trying to get the big picture–right now focusing on historical developments–while still having access to the details. These chapters give students resources for doing deeper research for other projects they will do in this class (e.g., research essay and glossary for the website). In the meantime, I am asking them to focus on getting the main points or main developments (a skill quite useful in any class).

Key points we highlighted from Yoshida Kazuhiko’s chapter on Classical period religion (pp. 144-162) are from p. 159: 1) formal development of Buddhist sects or schools in Japan; 2) “the system of regulations for official monks and religious ranks was established”; 3) the use of Buddhist rites as “state ceremonies”; and 4) the “amalgamation of kami and buddhas”.

Yoshida does an excellent job describing many of the theories within the academic study of religions in Japan and how many have been rebuked or strongly weakened by more recent scholarship. The most surprising, perhaps, is the claim that the legendary Prince Shotoku (you know, the author of the “17 Article Constitution”–the famous document that first prescribed a combination of Buddhism, Confucianism, and “native” Shinto ideas for the people of Japan) appears to be a legend and nothing more. While this argument is not so new (Yoshida cites works from the past 60 years, p. 146), it is a great learning tool to show students how scholars are still questioning what was once considered the most basic of “facts” from early Japanese history.

10/25 Common characteristics of Shintō

(The following is a list of characteristics of Shintō the students discussed today in class. Main source was Norman Havens’ chapter on “Shinto” in the Nanzan Guide to Japanese Religions 2006, pp. 14-37)

  • Precautionary (against evil, bad things/events, illness, etc.)
  • Reactionary (historically, it has evolved/developed in reaction to the introduction or expansion of Buddhism, Westernization, etc.)
  • Social control/social structure (used by shrines and government at different times to control behaviors and thoughts)
  • Nationalism / Japanese religion (is it “indigenous”? while there are some features of Shinto that appear to have been around since what we think are its origins, it also includes a great deal of non-native influences (e.g., Buddhist, Confucian, Taoist). We see this in certain myths, the promotion of the building of permanent shrines for kami, etc. Shinto and Buddhism, especially, have a long history (over a millennia) of being syncretized (see shinbutsu shūgō below)
  • Ties to the emperor and the imperial system
  • Rituals (orthopraxy) more important/common than beliefs, especially doctrine-based beliefs or theologies (orthodoxy); but we also discussed how there is some variety within these rituals that indicates that “orthopraxy” might not be the most appropriate term. It is clear, though, that rituals are central to Shinto
  • Localized (one explanation for why Shinto lacks a unified system of well-known beliefs (not well-known among common people, other than general beliefs above)—e.g., ujigami (clan kami)
  • Removed from the public / secret (e.g., few allowed in the honden—main sanctuary where kami are called down—and few know what the sacred object (shintai 神体) that represents the kami is)
  • Kami (most are Japanese, except for James Watt and Thomas Edison and some who are Japanized versions of Chinese and Indian deities—know of any others?)
  • Evolving (like all religions, it is a human religion—run by humans), so it is ever-changing, as are humans
  • Cyclical (until recently (20th century) based on an agrarian calendar with much attention to requests for good harvests (now also business, etc) and thanks for good harvests (now also business, etc)

What I didn’t get to talk about that I thought I might was:

Sects, branches, variation within Shinto over its history (e.g., State Shinto, Yoshida Shinto, Ise Shinto, Kokugaku)

Daijōsai as an example of Shinto’s secrecy / “mysteriousness”/ distinction between emperor rites and commoners (see Blacker, C. 1990. “The Shinza or God-seat in the Daijōsai: Throne, Bed, or Incubation Couch?” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 17(2-3):179-197 and Ellwood, R. 2008. Introducing Japanese Religions, New York: Routledge pp. 23-25).

Vocab today

shinbustu shūgō 神仏習合—historical syncretization of Shinto and Buddhism (from introduction of Buddhism in 6th century C.E. to today—though, legally Shinto and Buddhism were separated in the Meiji era (1868-1912)).

ujigami 氏神—local kami; clan kami

shinza 神座 –“landing spot” / “god-seat”: for kami; sacred place where they are called down to (recall kami must be called to be addressed via prayer or offering; they are not “housed” in the same spot permanently)

mikoshi 神輿—portable, temporary shrines for kami. Used in Shinto festivals

shimenawa しめ縄—ropes with zigzag patterned white papers hanging from them–to indicate sacred space or a sacred object.

11/8/2010            Topic: “Folk religions”

In today’s discussion I broke the students into four groups to discuss Ian Reader’s chapter from the Nanzan Guide on “folk religions” (pp. 65-90). Each group had a different focus (numbered below). The information below is based on how each group interpreted Reader’s claims/comments concerning the study of folk religions in Japan.

1. Two major shifts in the academic study of folk religions:

A. 1. (p. 66) the old way—‘real’ religion was seen as doctrine-based

Otherwise, it was not considered ‘real’ religion

(e.g., “religion” vs. “superstition”, “customs”, “traditions”, “primitive”)

–Folk religions were seen as the latter (e.g., superstitions, etc.)

2. the new way—folk religious practices and beliefs are now seen as valuable and important in our understanding of Japanese religions and religiousness; they are no longer viewed as ‘inferior’ forms of religion or religiousness

3. Other differences:

–focus of study used to be more on localized and somewhat isolated events/topics

–Japanese folk religions were seen as “unique” aspects of Japan

–MORE RECENT studies see folk religion as broader concepts/ideas/topics/experiences/etc. (and not limited or unique to Japan)

B. The second major shift was a change in terminology: minkan shinkō民間信仰 (66), which focuses on “belief” or “faith” (shinkō 信仰), to minzoku shūkyō 民族宗教 (70), which uses the word shūkyō, or religion—the same word used to describe Buddhism, Shinto, etc. This semantic distinction further exemplifies the significance of folk religion studies in Japan by equating it more with other religious traditions.

2. Examples of syncretism (folk religions and Buddhism)

(p. 74) the boundaries between the two are fake/forced (in part based on a Western-centric approach to the study of religion (aka, the “Protestant assumption”))

a. mortuary rites (Buddhism and folk religions intersecting)

b. calendrical rituals

(p. 70) “the only religious system [in Japan] is the festival calendar” (Reader cites Embree’s 1939 seminal study)

3. Folk religion in modernity

a. Now, scholars are studying rural and urban examples (diviners, shaman healers, etc.)

4. Explaining “Japanese religion”

Here, Reader reiterates some of the points from his co-authored book Practically Religious (1999, Hawaii UP, with Tanabe) to discuss Japan’s so-called “common religion” (82). A common, uniting factor of this “common religion” is genze riyaku 現世利益 (this-worldly benefits). Several students in my class picked up on this as a common thread that unites Buddhism, Shinto, folk religions, and new religions of Japan.

We will return to these topics for further discussion Wednesday.

11/8/2010            Topic: “Folk religions”

In today’s discussion I broke the students into four groups to discuss Ian Reader’s chapter from the Nanzan Guide on “folk religions” (pp. 65-90). Each group had a different focus (numbered below). The information below is based on how each group interpreted Reader’s claims/comments concerning the study of folk religions in Japan.

 

1. Two major shifts in the academic study of folk religions:

A. 1. (p. 66) the old way—‘real’ religion was seen as doctrine-based

Otherwise, it was not considered ‘real’ religion

(e.g., “religion” vs. “superstition”, “customs”, “traditions”, “primitive”)

–Folk religions were seen as the latter (e.g., superstitions, etc.)

2. the new way—folk religious practices and beliefs are now seen as valuable and important in our understanding of Japanese religions and religiousness; they are no longer viewed as ‘inferior’ forms of religion or religiousness

3. Other differences:

–focus of study used to be more on localized and somewhat isolated events/topics

–Japanese folk religions were seen as “unique” aspects of Japan

–MORE RECENT studies see folk religion as broader concepts/ideas/topics/experiences/etc. (and not limited or unique to Japan)

 

B. The second major shift was a change in terminology: minkan shinkō民間信仰 (66), which focuses on “belief” or “faith” (shinkō 信仰), to minzoku shūkyō 民族宗教 (70), which uses the word shūkyō, or religion—the same word used to describe Buddhism, Shinto, etc. This semantic distinction further exemplifies the significance of folk religion studies in Japan by equating it more with other religious traditions.

 

2. Examples of syncretism (folk religions and Buddhism)

(p. 74) the boundaries between the two are fake/forced (in part based on a Western-centric approach to the study of religion (aka, the “Protestant assumption”))

1. mortuary rites (Buddhism and folk religions intersecting)

2. calendrical rituals

(p. 70) “the only religious system [in Japan] is the festival calendar” (Reader cites Embree’s 1939 seminal study)

 

3. Folk religion in modernity

1. Now, scholars are studying rural and urban examples (diviners, shaman healers, etc.)

 

4. Explaining “Japanese religion”

Here, Reader reiterates some of the points from his co-authored book Practically Religious (1999, Hawaii UP, with Tanabe) to discuss Japan’s so-called “common religion” (82). A common, uniting factor of this “common religion” is genze riyaku 現世利益 (this-worldly benefits). Several students in my class picked up on this as a common thread that unites Buddhism, Shinto, folk religions, and new religions of Japan.

 

We will return to these topics for further discussion Wednesday.

11/10    Common characteristics of Folk Religions

Today, the students were divided into 2 groups. One group read pp. 66-73 in H.B. Earhart’s Japanese Religion: Unity and Diversity (2004, 4th edition, Thomson/Wadsworth). The other half read part of H. Miyake’s chapter (pp. 79-84) in Religion in Japanese Culture (1996, Kodansha, N. Tamaru and D. Reid, eds.).

They read these passages individually then discussed their readings as groups. After these group discussions, we came together as a class and came up with the following list of characteristics of “Japanese folk religions” (in no particular order).

EARHART

p. 66—“native or indigenous folk religion is the sum of all the unorganized beliefs and practices of ancient Japanese religion”

–several students wondered, “why ancient’?” no examples in this passage that support this claim (in fact he uses examples of contemporary kamidana and butsudan rituals)

–unorganized as key characteristic (outside of institutionalized or organized religion)

p. 69 “informally in family, village, and occupation…to transmit to the next generation by word of mouth and through direct examples”

p. 71 great deal of SYNCRETISM

p. 68 “[religion, including folk religion] is never a static element but rather an active process that is altered as it received and transmitted”

–no text/doctrine, so folk religion is malleable

–folk religions “form the living fabric of Japan” (p. ?)

MIYAKE

p. 79 [an example of a folk religion is] “something transmitted as a matter of custom by people bound together by a community or kinship ties”

–like Earhart claims folk religions have “neither doctrines nor organization”

–“greatest emphasis not on ideas but on rituals…[and] immediate concrete benefits”

gives genze riyaku (this-worldly goods/benefits) as an example

–also “…into which elements from Shinto, Buddhism, Daoism, yin yang…” therefore, constantly evolving and has aspects of regionalism, localism (variation based on location) (see also p. 81)

–p. 82,3 worship of kami and buddhas/ancestors are common aspects of folk religion (goes so far as to say that these have “no connection with institutional religion”)

Questions that arose (and that require more thought):

–what’s the difference between Shinto and folk religions?

–why do scholars organize their study of Japanese religiousness by dividing it into categories such as “Buddhist”, “Shinto”, “folk religions”, etc, when so much of what they say claims that such categories are misleading and—to an extent—forced?

 

Michael K. Roemer, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Religious Studies                    Department of Philosophy & Religious Studies, NQ 211, Ball State University, Muncie, IN  47306    Email: jpnreligions@bsu.edu

To learn more about me, see jpnreligions.weebly.com/dr-roemer.html

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