Robert’s blog

We haven’t really covered a whole lot in class thus far, so not really sure where I am going with this. Since I don’t have any answers yet, let me just post some of the questions upcoming.

I have heard Japanese religious practice referred to as “sporadic”. If it is important, how could it be sporadic? and if not, why do it at all? I am very interested in the idea of religious syncretism in Japanese religiousness, as my own personal faith is quite syncretic. While I find an interesting parallel in Catholicism counting those baptized, and Shinto counting all those in the region of a given shrine, I am interested in finding out how much deeper this goes. In particular, I am told that much of Japanese society is based on the idea of giri, or obligation. Where do your obligations to a family religion that you may not personally believe in start and end? And are there problems in blending one’s personal religion and one’s family religion? I love the idea of orthopraxy in Japanese religions vs. the orthodoxy we usually hold so dear in the West. As a philosopher, I am primarily interested in orthodoxy, but I know from my studies in Hinduism under Dr. Brackett that the distinction is not always so clear. I also look forward to learning about new religions in Japan; how they came about, and what some of them believe and practice.

My interest in Japanese religion (shukyo) has twofold roots. First of all, as a philosopher, I am interested in the philosophical underpinnings of the various strains of Buddhism, and I am almost totally ignorant of Shinto. Second, however, I hold a strong interest in the Japanese martial arts, having studied gosoku-ryu karate and also judo. It is my understanding that both Shinto and the Zen strain of Buddhism have influenced these practices, but I want to learn how so, and if my beliefs about these things in particular are anywhere in the neighborhood of accurate.

I look forward to the journey this semester!


The thing which strikes me most about our course text on the Classical period is how much we don’t know.  Yoshida Kazuhiko, in the Classical period reading, spends more than a little time refuting faulty scholarship, but admit that she (or he, it is not apparent to one unfamiliar with Japanese names) does not necessarily have conclusive answers.  Dr. Michael Roemer, our professor, postulates that this is largely due to the lack of extant records of the time, a result of the natural problem of firefighting that arises when most of the buildings are made of wood.  Having said that, the authors do report much useful information on the periods in question.

Buddhism probably came to the land of Wa (what was later called Nippon, and is now called Japan) around the mid-sixth century CE, an influence from China via Korea.  538 and 552 are postulated as possible dates, but these specific dates are based on texts from much later. (Swanson & Chilson, 145) The Buddhism of this time in Japan is referred to as Asuka Buddhism, named so for the temple ruins of the period located near Asuka.  These are probably remnants of family temples of the ujizoku, or aristocratic class. (S&C, 146)

Yoshida also contests the existence of Shotoku Taishi, largely considered to be a founder of Japanese Culture.  Yoshida dates most of the texts regarding Shotoku to around the same period as the Nihon shoki (a particular Japanese historical document), that is, around 720 CE. (Matsumura Kazuo in S&C, 139; S&C146, 147)

State Buddhism begins around the time of the Nihon shoki, in that the first royal temple is established at that time, under the rule of Jomei.  Subsequent rulers continued this trend.  It is at this time that the name of the nation changes from Wa to Nippon, under the rule of tenno, or emperor, Jito (who was, incidentally, female; apparently the term tenno is gender-neutral).  Between the royal temple building projects and the spread of ujizoku temples, Buddhism rapidly spread throughout Nippon, gradually becoming accessible to the common people.  (S&C, 147, 148)  Around this same time, the state began to adopt policies to specifically promote Buddhism.  The state incorporated Buddhism fully into state ceremonies, and also regulated religious ordination. The copying of Buddhist scriptures was also state-funded. (S&C, 149, 150)

Jingi (religious rituals) in state-supported Buddhism differed in Nippon from those in China.  One, the Japanese did not draw a distinction between the rituals pertaining to heavenly deities and earthly ones.  Two, the Japanese had rituals pertaining to imperial ascension.  Three, the Japanese included rituals pertaining to oharai, a term that the author unfortunately fails to define (I shall look that term up later, when I am at the university library, and append it to this paragraph).  Also of particular importance, the Japanese reject the Chinese idea of “the mandate of heaven” (that the gods install the rulers), instead adopting the idea that the royal family is descended from the gods. (S&C, 150, 151)  Thus, even at this early stage, political and religious structures are becoming entwined.

It is important to note that women play a large role in Japanese Buddhism of the classical period, much more so than what we are accustomed to seeing when we read of Christian religious orders in medieval Europe.  According to the Nihon shoki, the first person in Yamoto to be ordained was a woman (Yamoto is a particular geographic region of Japan).  Nuns were numerous, and participated in official state ceremonies.  Many female emperors, empresses, and other notable royal and aristocratic women actively supported Buddhism.  This begins to change in the late eighth century, with the establishment of the juzenji, ten male monks that held sway over Buddhist affairs at court.  The establishment of thejuzenji lays the foundation for later sectarianism in Japanese Buddhism. In short, events of the Classical period lay the foundation for what will become Japanese religion. (S&C 145, 146)

Wow, that’s just the Classical period.  Once I blog about the Medieval period and early and late Modern periods, I’ll be caught up to the rest of class!  Ah well, every journey begins with a single step.  One thing I am beginning to see though, is that I may have to get a Japanese-English dictionary, as I am only approximate in my understanding of many terms that the authors use and do not define.  In this reading alone, oharai is undefined, and the author is not very clear about what the Nihon shoki is, other than a Japanese historical document.  Also, I am deriving solely from context that Yamoto is a place name, and that ujizoku means roughly “aristocrat”.

My Exciting Third Blog Entry!

I was a part of the group in the Fall 2010 RELST 390 class that gave five presentations to two local high schools on aspects of Japanese religiousness. Our first presentation was on Japanese creation mythology. The challenge here was to be adequately informative to a group of high school students while engaging their interest; in other words, we had to teach them without boring them.

My portion of the first presentation was to demonstrate and display the web site that others in our class have presented. Since our presentation was in part about the principal deities of Japan, I chose to focus on presenting the material on the website about Ise shrine, which is particularly important to Amaterasu the sun goddess, and Yasaka shrine, which is important to several kami, but most importantly to Susa-no-o, the trickster deity. I also focused on the Gion festival, which is centered on Yasaka shrine.

Ise is unusual in that it is completely torn down and reconstructed every 20 years, in a sort of purification rite. Most of the lumber from the old building is used in lesser shrines throughout Japan. The story of Yasaka shrine centers on a myth about Susa-no-o being ritually carried about the city of Kyoto as the culmination of a purification ritual to rid the city of a plague in the 9th century. The festival is the annual reenactment of that event.

Others involved in that presentation focused on defining myths, particularly creation myths; a brief retelling of the primary creation myth of Shinto; a feminist take on the Japanese creation myth; a look at social structures in Japanese creation myths; and a look at the significance of incest in the Japanese creation story. And of course there was candy. If I learned nothing else from these presentations, I learned that kids will speak up if candy is involved.

I learned a few other things, too. Never wing it; always have notes prepared no matter how well you think you know the material. If you are winging it, don’t change the order of what you are teaching. This second problem would have been avoided if I had just followed my notes. There were positive lessons too. If you have learned the material, trust yourself. You probably know the subject material better than those you are presenting to. Fortunately for us, we weren’t presenting to a group of religious studies professors; but even if we had been, we got the material 99% right, and did so in an acceptable timeframe, while avoiding the mile-long stare of boredom from any of the high schoolers we were presenting to.

We did a second presentation on a different subject, but more about that in my next blog.

1 Response to Robert’s blog

  1. Doc Roemer says:

    You have some great thoughts here. I wish you had more blogs like this.

    btw, oharai is simply translated as ‘purification’ and is often associated with Shinto rites.

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