Globalization, New Religions and the Contemporary Re-Imagining of Japanese Identity

John Clammer

(Photo by coward_lion)

Social scientists are wont to announce “crises” in the societies that attract their scholarly attention. While it might be stretching the evidence a little too far to suggest that contemporary Japan is in a state of crisis, it would certainly not be untoward to argue that Japanese society in the first decades of the new millennium faces unprecedented challenges, parallel in their magnitude to the vast shifts in social structure and images of self-identity that accompanied the opening of the country after the Meiji Restoration and the defeat of 1945. This has triggered, as might be expected, considerable soul-searching, both within and without, of Japan’s possible immediate and long-term futures.

Many turn of the century events have contributed to this need for soul-searching: the collapse of the “bubble economy” of the 1980s and 90s, (a period when Japan was announced as “Number One” by academic and popular pundits and when the world flocked to Tokyo and Osaka to discover the magical ingredients of the “Japanese miracle”); the great Hanshin earthquake, Tohoku disasters and the utter unpreparedness and logistical and administrative disarray of the government that these so starkly revealed; the Aum Shinrikyo cult’s gas attack on the Tokyo subway system that shocked the world; a series of brutal murders of children, including one perpetrated by a child only a little older than his victim; the drawing of Japan into both UN peacekeeping operations in Cambodia and elsewhere and latterly into both the Gulf War and the US led occupation of Iraq. All of these events and more have thrown open a new round of the self-questionings that accompany major seismic shifts in Japanese society, in the past mostly occasioned by outside forces, but this time, while encapsulated within the bigger framework of globalization, by events within Japan itself.

These new and mostly unexpected events and the debates that they have triggered – including discussions about the long taboo possibility of revising the (US imposed) postwar “Peace” Constitution, the legitimacy or wisdom of sending armed Japanese troops abroad or participating in even UN sanctioned peacekeeping (PKO) activities, the effects of Japanese ODA, local attitudes to the presence of large numbers of illegal (and legal) foreign workers in the country for example (Mori 1993, Shimoda 1994), are layered on top of older but still smoldering debates about Japanese postwar identity. Here I will argue that it is exactly at this intersection of the “global and the local” that new imaginaries are emerging and that the dynamics of this interface provide important clues as to the ways in which contemporary and emergent Japanese society might be thought about, and shaped, in the coming years and decades.

There are a number of ways in which this interface of local and global events and identities—this opportunity for self reinvention—could be, and to some extent already has been, utilized. The movement for historical revisionism and its associated and seemingly eternal use of nihonjinron literature and theory is one prominent example (Dale 1995). Another has been the preliminary attempts to chart the relationships between the penetration of globalized economic forces and transformations of Japanese emotional life (Clammer 2000a). In this chapter, however, I will examine an arena less understood in terms of its role in the redefinition of Japanese identity. A growing literature is charting the expansion and impact of the Japanese shin-shukyo or “New Religions” abroad (eg Clarke and Somers 1994), and indeed they have become, along with Japanese technology, popular culture, food and fashion, a major export to much of the rest of the world, having had an especially notable impact in Europe, North America, Latin America and parts of Southeast Asia where there are substantial Chinese populations (eg Clammer 2000b, Hamrin 2000). And while a great deal of scholarly and popular attention has been paid to the New Religions within Japan—not surprisingly given their visibility and collectively very substantial membership figures—little has been paid to the nexus formed by the interface of their expansion overseas and the internal transformations that this new internationalism is having upon Japanese imaginaries within the country.

The internal imaginaries of the members of most contemporary nation-states, and Japan is certainly no exception, are increasingly made out of the intersection between the internal and the external. The “imaginary community” so tellingly described by Benedict Anderson, is no longer confined to the boundaries of individual territories. Of course in reality they never were and patterns of colonialism, trade, the expansion of the missionary religions, migrations and wars have long ensured that cultures mix and that hybridity, even if a new term, is not a new reality. Globalization, however, has intensified this process and speeded it up to an unprecedented degree, and has accelerated mutual flows of influence. As the Japanese religions have set about expanding into the world, so their experiences and images of the world have flowed back into Japan, presenting a variety of alternative identities and worldviews. This essay, however, is not a study of the ways in which globalization has changed the New Religions per se, but of the ways in which that interaction with an international environment has provided a foundation for new imaginaries to emerge, and with them new images of Japan’s future and place within future forms of international community.

But are the New Religions the best route to uncover these new imaginaries? An argument could certainly be made that fixing upon the older nihonjinron debates or taking up issues of citizenship and gender (e.g. LeBlanc 1999) would provide more suitable avenues to approach Japanese identity politics. Certainly they are equally valid approaches, but here I wish to build on the observations of Iida Yumiko that the appearance of Aum Shinrikyo, and by implication other Japanese New Religions (JNRs), of which Aum was an extreme and violent exemplar, was of central significance. She argues that “In the Japan of the late 1990s, the spectre of an inarticulate, free-floating desire for identity seeking a concrete foundation upon which to fix ideal meaning appears to be intensely present. Put differently, modern Japan suffers from a seriously troubled state of intersubjective meaning in which the ‘superstructure’ is no longer capable of bonding the Japanese subject to a vision of collective unity. By promising its followers an identity and goals and an appealing collective imaginary where life was filled with meaning, the cult was able to establish a sub-nation within Japanese society” (Iida 2002: 244). This provides us with a clue to the complex dynamics which underpin new religions’ use of their followers’ need for identity, dynamics which I shall attempt to unpack in the following pages. It also should alert us to the fact that different levels or aspects of identity – citizenship, gender, political affiliation, economic status and so on are intertwined in complex ways, and, in modern Japan religious identity is an important but neglected part of this identity package. It should also impress upon us the notion that the identity politics of Japan is highly plural—there being many strategies through which to build alternative expressions of collective membership and relationships with the outside world, and certainly not only one Japanese national model.

The Peace Paradigm

In his study of pacifism amongst the JNRs, Robert Kisala notes that a common platform of many of them, regardless of the specific underlying religious tradition out of which they have emerged, is a common preoccupation with peace-promoting activities. While a level of social welfare and civic volunteerism is found in many of the new religions, it is, he argues, in peace activities that a major expression of their social concern is found (Kisala 1999: 4). He also correctly points out, without pursuing its implications, that the social ethics of the JNRs points to their role in Japanese identity politics, since not only does their membership encompass a substantial number of Japanese citizens, but they effectively act as social movements, whether or not they identify themselves as such. In his sample of five JNRs of varying sizes and histories, (Nipponzan Myohoji, Rissho Koseikai and Soka Gakkai representing the Buddhist camp, Shuyodan Hoseikai and Shoroku Shinto Yamatoyama in what he terms the “folk-religious” or essentially Shinto category, and Byakko Shinkokai as an exemplar of the “spiritist” groups), all place peace promoting activities at the center of their missions. Byakko Shinkokai is well known internationally for its main activity of erecting “peace poles” and distributing stickers inscribed with the “peace prayer” beginning with the phrase “May peace prevail on earth”, Myohoji for its erection of Peace Pagodas in Japan and around the world, Rissho Koseikai and Shoroku Shinto Yamatoyama for the pursuit of a specifically religious approach to world peace through inter-religious dialogue and cooperation and Soka Gakkai through its peace teachings and development and education work overseas.

While in each case there is a link between the religious doctrines of each religion and its peace activities, there are also good sociological reasons to stress this particular approach. As noted briefly above, in relatively conformist Japan, social activism does not have a strong pedigree, and the civil society or NGO sector is weak compared with many other democratic nations. A peace agenda as a basis for a social platform however has two major strengths in Japan: firstly, as Michael Pye notes in his study of Byakko Shinkokai (Pye 1994), the peace agenda allows JNRs to develop an international identity by linking themselves to a central world issue, while secondly, it allows JNRs to pursue a legitimate local identity by drawing upon what some have argued is the central historical trauma of modern Japan: the Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Such events, burnt deeply into the Japanese national psyche, have allowed indigenous peace activists to place themselves at the symbolic center of both international and domestic peace promotion activities. In representing themselves as victims of the world’s only use of atomic bombs in warfare, activists can both claim an international legitimacy and play upon a major trope of postwar Japanese life, a sentiment still alive and well as signaled by the massive public protests against the Japanese government’s support for the US led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Thus JNRs are mostly two-faceted entities: on the one hand naturally directing much of their attention to their natural constituency of supporters or potential supporters—the domestic Japanese population—and on the other seeing themselves as having a world mission centered on the promotion of peace. Even the smaller groups such as Shuyodan Hoseikai, with a largely domestic base and little of the international reach of large organizations such as Soka Gakkai, have devoted themselves to the establishment of world peace as their primary objective, while, significantly, falling back on such prewar terms as hakko ichiu, (the whole world under one roof), to describe their mission of making Japan the center of world civilization, (not this time through colonialism and conquest, but through peace and a universal brother-and sisterhood led by Japan with its war-renouncing constitution) (Kisala 1999: 13). It is to this new agenda, and its implications for new Japanese imaginaries under globalization that I will now turn to examine in greater detail.

In his study of Byakko Shinkokai, Michael Pye notes that “Much of the interest in the study of major religious traditions lies in the relationship or tension between universalist claims and local, particularist identity-creating forms” (Pye 1994: 78). While the world religions have all of course made universalist claims, (while always in practice being expressed in concrete, particularist local forms), this is true of new religious movements too. In fact their late appearance on the stage makes it even more imperative that they demonstrate themselves to be something more than a syncretic blending of already existing ideas, and one major way of doing this is to promote a universalist agenda. As religions have attempted to recommend themselves beyond their original geographical or ethnic base, there is a strong tendency for even very old established religions to be pushed in this direction. As Tibetan Buddhism has spread through the post-Chinese occupation Tibetan diaspora and has begun to attract a substantial following in the West, so its paramount leader, the Dalai Lama, has moved from being a particularistic primate to a world figure, actively lecturing and publishing around the world not on the technicalities of his brand of Buddhism, but rather on issues facing the members of modern industrial consumer societies and on world problems of war, peace, conflict resolution and ecology (e.g. Tenzin Gyatso 2000). The local becomes legitimized through its ability to relate itself to the global, something as true of new religious movements as it is of ethnic and minority movements and social movements which attempt to establish their local claims through appeal to the universal declaration of human rights.

But the simple desire for universalization does not necessarily bring about its realization, and those JNRs that have stayed closest to their Japanese roots, (Byakko Shinkokai, Omotokyo, PL Kyodan and Tenrikyo for example), have been the least successful in going global. Soka Gakkai on the other hand, by stressing its Buddhist universalism while simultaneously downplaying its specifically Japanese characteristics, has been very successful in its internationalization efforts. Studies of Soka Gakkai and Tenrikyo in Singapore for example show clearly how one has flourished and rapidly gained members, while the other languishes as a small minority religion with few local adherents despite quite a long history of missionary and cultural work in a small society quite used to high levels of religious pluralism (Clammer 2000b and Hamrin 2000).

In the case of the Byakko (“The White Light Association”) we see an essentially spiritualist movement centered on the figure of its late founder Goi Masahisa to whom believers direct petitions and receive help, and who continues to write letters from the ‘other side’ and to reply to those addressed to him; the title of whose biography (Ten to chi o tsunagu mono or “The man linking heaven and earth”) suggests his role as a karmic mediator. The syncretic nature of Byakko theology and its concern with purification rites demonstrates its continuity with many other JNRs. But its emphasis on the peace prayer rather sets it aside, or at least locates it within those JNRs that have made peace activities an essential aspect of their larger identity on the world stage. For the prayer is accompanied by no political action to actually promote such peace, but it is, in Pye’s interpretation that “..the search for world identity in the form of the prayer for peace of the world may be understood as a ritualized means of coping with the fact, bitterly experienced, that Japan is not alone in the world” (Pye 1994: 85). The peace prayer then operates at two levels—as a route to meditation, (and no doubt a genuinely meant and felt sentiment for world harmony), and as a vehicle of collective identity in which Japan is located centrally, or even first amongst, the family of nations. Universalism can thus be expressed from within the comfort of a very Japanese religious setting, one which moreover contains few, if any, actual foreign members. A strong local identity can then be reconciled both with a genuine desire for world peace, and a reassurance that through the divine interventions of Goi-sensei, Japan is at the center of a new, but this time spiritually-led, world order.

While Byakko represents a small movement in terms of its numerical strength, and with none of the missionary thrust in local languages, or even in Esperanto, of Soka Gakkai and Omotokyo or the inter-religious harmony activities of Rissho Koseikai, it is structurally similar to these larger JNRs in its basing a universalist vision of a peaceful and religiously led world community, with Japan as the country of peace as the leader, in very particularistic local Japanese religious practices, something that can also be seen very clearly in the teachings and practices of the Shoroku Shinto Yamatoyama amongst others. It is just this conflation of Confucian based ideas of benevolence and moral self-cultivation with Shinto ones of ethnic superiority that Kisala dubs a “civilizational” approach to peace and to Japan’s place in the world order. In Nipponzan Myohoji, for example, the founder Fujii Nichidatsu, whose later ideas on peace were decisively influenced by two meetings with Gandhi, began from a position with three main elements: Japanese ethnic and cultural superiority, the national mission of spreading the benefits of (Japanese) civilization, and Buddhism (of which Japan had the purest examples of the Mahayana tradition) as the basis of peace. Internationalism in the JNRs, therefore, can be seen as largely focused on the promotion of these precedents, although in publications designed for external consumption these aims are not made so explicit, carefully disguised in the language of peace. Indeed, historically the JNRs have been associated with right-wing, or at least right of center, politics, (Komeito, the party currently part of the ruling LDP led coalition, having its origins in Soka Gakkai), despite the strong initial influence of the forms of Christian Socialism that were evident in the late Meiji period, but which themselves tended to be rapidly assimilated into a nationalistic Japancentric worldview.[i]

What emerges, as Kisala fully documents, is a cultural complex with a set of interestingly interconnected facets: a right-wing (or totally apolitical) political stance; an anti-Americanism fueled by fears of the erosion of Japanese cultural identity by Hollywoodization, and a view of globalization as consisting essentially of US cultural hegemony; a strong internationalism centering on the promotion of world peace; and a distinctively Japanese concept of that peace. This concept of peace can be further broken down by seeing it as consisting of: an amalgam of moral cultivation; a “civilizational” approach to international stability; a strong dose of post A-Bomb victimology; and a spiritual view of world salvation, based for example in the case of Byakko Shinkokai on the idea that the peace prayer links the individual to spiritual forces that enable the overcoming of karma and hence the spiritualization/salvation of all mankind (Kisala 1999, pp.126ff). The structure of this complex is then informed by Occidentalism or “reverse Orientalism” (Kisala 1999: 159) in which the spiritual East is contrasted with the materialistic West in particular ways such as appeals to the Atomic bombing as conferring on Japan a unique moral status as the center of world peace in the postwar era; or where a strong continuity with traditional Japanese nativism is emphasized; or, lastly, where a strong element of religious syncretism is combined with a basically spiritual view of humanity’s salvation and remaking. This cultural complex can be thus seen more accurately as a national mission, and not just for smaller JNRs, but as Kisala shows, also in the larger examples such as Soka Gakkai and Rissho Koseikai, in which the view of Japan’s uniqueness and unique role in the world represent a kind of globalization of nihonjinron, or its translation into a higher register. And if we were to stop at this point this is what we would be essentially left with—that these new religions expediate a cultural and moral superiority on behalf on a Japanese national project which mirrors nihonjinron. And here lies the fundamental weakness of both Pye’s and Kisala’s otherwise ethnographically detailed and insightful pieces:—their analysis needs to be taken much further in order to understand the complex global influences and local transformations which contextualize them. While accepting the claims of both Pye and Kisala that the JNRs do indeed provide a unique path into the understanding of contemporary Japanese identity, I will now set out to demonstrate that their basic paradigm needs to be transformed if emergent Japanese imaginaries are to be grasped in full.

Imagination, Memory, Identity

In the broader sociology of Japanese society, religion plays an ambiguous role. In a society that rather proudly announces itself as highly secular, very large numbers of people quietly participate in Buddhist or Shinto rituals, a large if indeterminate number of people belong to the JNRs, and Christians, while statistically a very small minority, have a major impact through their educational, medical, and social welfare activities and have historically had substantial influence on Japanese thinking and politics, especially in relation to the origins of socialism in Japan (Clammer 1997). The temples and shrines that abound in Japan’s historic cities, (Kyoto, Nara and Kamakura especially), are sites of pilgrimage as well as tourism, (and the two are in practice often mixed), the festivals, or matsuri, of virtually every Japanese neighbourhood are well attended and supported, the building of a house requires the intervention of Shinto priests, and amulets and charms are bought in large numbers from the little shops that are to be found in every major shrine. But while religions form this deep substratum of Japanese society, they are rarely very visible or socially activist. This is true insofar as it goes, but it occludes another important aspect of Japanese religion—its identity creating capacities. The eschewing of obvious activism by religious organizations in a country in which the state has historically tended to aggrandize social and political intervention and policy to itself (hence the weak NGO sector) makes sense, but it obscures the other more subtle ways in which religion works in Japanese society. In the post-bubble economy and society the JNRs are repositioning themselves around a set of agendas which, I will argue, operate essentially through a politics of identity, rather than through a politics of activism, something that has considerable significance in the discussion of Japan’s possible futures.

These agendas have a number of common elements, all drawing on cultural imaginaries that relocate Japan as central to the emerging world order. The first of these elements is ecology. Even as Shinto is attempting to reinvent itself as the new ecological religion (International Shinto Federation 1994), so too both the JNRs and established sects of Buddhism are stressing not only their own ecological relevance, but also the organic links between this position and what are seen as traditional elements of Japanese culture, a culture seen as being uniquely nature-oriented in its inspiration and expression (Clammer 1995 pp. 59-81). So even as the peace paradigm provides one vehicle for JNRs to promote a quietly non-controversial social platform, so too does the ecology paradigm allow the representation of Japan as a center of the new thinking, uniquely qualified by its nature-centered culture on the one hand and its post Atomic bombing peace-centered culture on the other. And indeed this is not simply wishful thinking: Japanese Buddhism has long promoted the idea of the potential Buddhahood of all things, including what anthropocentric humans rather arrogantly refer to as “nature” (LaFleur 1974), and while the atomic bombings have promoted a fairly extensive victimology, they also act as a kind of memory-base, a primal trauma, since when Japanese society really has been in many respects “different”.

The “memoryscapes” of Hiroshima and Nagasaki do indeed provide a kind of founding-myth for a new self image of Japan. Even as many self images of Israel are founded on memories or representations of memories of the Holocaust, so too are many aspects of post-war Japanese identity emergent from the memories or representations of the bombings. While there is always the danger of such “memories” being co-opted by the state, those very memories also possess subversive power. As Lisa Yoneyama phrases it “Insofar as nation-states continue to exist as institutional entities, and their apparatuses of knowledge continue to interpolate their subjects, nationalization remains a powerful force in shaping our memories, knowledge and representations. Residues of Hiroshima’s catastrophe are constantly in danger of being recuperated for the establishment of coherent national narratives and identities. Nevertheless, these shards of memory, as traces, also carry the power to obstruct that same process” (Yoneyama 1999: 217). The peace paradigm that Kisala identifies is not itself simply nationalistic. It also represents a negotiation with the traces of memory that subvert that very nationalism, and from which the experience of a particular locality becomes the basis for a new internationalism. The apparently apolitical nature of most JNRs then needs to be interpreted with some subtlety, for their seemingly right-wing orientation can be more accurately seen as a mixture of:- reversion to a contemporary form of the “national learning” of the 18th Century, the current expression of 1940s “overcoming modernity”, and a subversion of the conventional materialistic politics that dominates Japanese society, both by replacing it with a spiritualized mirror of itself and by relocating Japan at the center of a kind of emergent “new age” world culture.

JNR renderings show Japan as a kind of Tibet. Japan is not seen to be necessarily politically or militarily strong on the world stage (the power of the Japanese global economy tending to be forgotten at this point), but is revealed as a spiritual center, a source of peace-teachings, pacifism, ecological awareness and new internationalism. While Yoneyama speaks of the “feminization of memory” in the contemporary Japanese culture, here we might talk of the “aestheticisation of politics” on a global scale as being the social project of the JNRs. The idea of a “cultural turn” recently so trendy amongst avant-garde social theorists in the West, is old-hat in Japan, and here we see its latest incarnation as Japanese identity being rooted in culture, but with the added twist of that culture (understood in a very traditional sense, rather than as contemporary pop-culture) becoming a world-saving export.

The “anonymous religion” of Japan then conceals and embodies an “anonymous civil society” in which the seeming quietism of the average citizen disguises a substantial level of activism aimed more at subverting conventional politics than trying to gain access to it (LeBlanc 1999). The programmes of peace and ecology then, while they may reflect a Japan-as-promised-land thinking at one level, deeply subvert the isolationism, materialism and ethnocentrsim of mainstream Japanese politics. There is a strong tendency in Japanese studies to see all expressions of Japan-centeredness (as with the whole nihonjinron debate) as expressions of nationalism (an attitude rarely applied however to let us say US, French or Irish patriotism or cultural pride). In fact a much more nuanced approach needs to be taken in which the idea of imaginaries needs to be given a more central theoretical place in the creation of identities.

As I have argued elsewhere in a study of Japanese anti and philo-semitism (Clammer 2001 pp.189-216), a deep theme in Japanese religious/political thought (although often at the fringes) is the redemptive role of Japan in the world order. In this particular version the Jews are either the obstacle to Japan achieving its status as world-saviour by their alleged domination of global economic and political structures, or, as in the Christian Zionism propagated by some of the indigenous Christian denominations (Mullins 1998), that while Christians should strive for the conversion of the Jews, Japan and Israel are somehow linked in a mystic bond in which the divine mission of the two are intimately connected, with some even going as far as to argue for parallels between the Bible and the Japanese classics, or that the Japanese themselves are, or are the descendants of, the lost tribes of ancient Israel. Furthermore, in the writings of the postwar revisionist Mimura Saburo (who himself worked closely with the JNR Omoto-kyo, itself a source of the Mahikari new religion and a fascinating blending of syncretic and spiritualist beliefs and a mission of world transformation through peace), the recognition of the common divine mission of the Jews and the Japanese is the route to world peace (Goodman and Miyazawa 1995: 158). For others at the JNRs/peace/world redemption interface such as the new religion theologian Okusho Kazuo, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were expiatory events that are figures of the opening of the heavenly cave from which in Japanese mythology the Sun Goddess emerged and which herald the unification of the world under Japan’s benevolent tutelage (Okusho 1972).

Buddhism, World Peace and Japan

Despite claims to being a secular society, the Japanese psyche has been deeply molded by Buddhism. Art, architecture, music, calligraphy, ethics, attitudes to nature, conceptions of death, foods and many other aspects of aesthetics and culture find their deepest roots in Buddhism. And while there are many schools of Buddhist “theology” and practice, it is interesting that a number of the most prominent JNRs – Soka Gakkai, Rissho Koseikai and Nipponzan Myohoji especially, as well as long established Buddhist sects such as the Tendai school – draw their inspiration primarily from the Lotus Sutra (the Saddharma-pundarika-sutra or Myoho-renge-kyo in Japanese). The Lotus Sutra, to simplify a rich and complex text, expounds the doctrine of an eternal Buddha working for the enlightenment of all beings over eons of time and interpretations of the sutra have since the 8th and 9th centuries stressed its connections to the welfare of society and the establishment of universal peace (Stone 2003). In one sense then the universalizing mission of JNRs is simply the expression of a Buddhist teaching, revered in China and Korea as well, that has existed for centuries. What has given it a new salience is globalization.

The question of globalization in relationship to Japan is a complex one with many dimensions, and while Pye sees it primarily as a source of anxiety leading to the questioning of identity, it can also be seen as an opportunity for Japan to draw on its past and to represent it (and its contemporary self) in a new and very different light. The problems of memory and coming to terms with the past that preoccupy the major revisionist thinkers such as Kato Norihiro (Kato 1997) are here recast. The atomic bombings in particular become expiatory events, transforming Japan from belligerent to victim, from warmonger to peace promoter and from a remote closed country on the periphery of the world system to its new center. There are structural similarities here between Japan’s assimilation of postmodernism by claiming essentially that it is nothing new and that Japan has always been postmodern (Miyoshi and Harootunian 1989, Clammer 1995) and the rereading of the history of religion in Japan. As Stone suggests “In claiming that faith in the Lotus Sutra would realize the Buddha land in the present world, Nichiren drew both on perceptions of the Lotus’s magical power as a ‘nation-protecting sutra’ and on traditional tendai doctrine, which asserts the non-duality of subjective and objective realms (esho funi) and the identity of the present, saba world with the Buddha’s Land of Tranquil Light (shaba soka jakkodo) . Nichiren made clear that the nonduality of the self and its environment, or the immanence of the Buddha in the present world, was not a mere matter of metaphysical assertion or even of subjective, personal insight: where people embraced the Lotus Sutra, the outer world would actually be transformed” (Stone 2003: 65). Indeed this argument is taken very seriously in Rissho Koseikai and its teaching that the Lotus Sutra embodies an ideology of peace. In Nipponzan Myohoji the doctrine of absolute pacifism in which Japan would stand as a moral exemplar even if attacked carries this idea even further and includes the idea that while the evil of the atomic bombings, like all aggression, somehow rebounds upon its perpetrators, it is also a sacrifice accepted by the Japanese people who by demonstrating the horror of atomic warfare have saved humanity as a whole from destruction. But whereas most scholarship (Stone’s own excellent essay for example) discuss the ways in which such teachings can lead to a socially engaged Buddhism, little attention has been paid to how these teachings might relate to the issue of identity. We are now in a position to draw these out and to relate them to the double context of globalization and the symbolic management of the past, which equally constitute the framework within which identity issues are being worked out and in which new imaginaries flourish. While religion is only one element of this (the economy, popular culture and environmental issues are clearly others) it does, I believe, provide us with an especially useful key to exploring identity issues in contemporary Japan.

The Dialectics of Globalization

In his book on the relationships between religion and globalization (Beyer 1997), Peter Beyer notes that religion itself is a valuable index of globalization. As religions themselves become globalized in new ways—changing their means of communication to suit new contexts—they on one level pursue universalistic agendas, but on another become a means of expressing what he terms “socio-cultural particularism”, not necessarily in opposition to globalization but in a complex interplay with it (Beyer 1997: 45). In particular with the salience of ethnicity as an organizing principle of the modern nation-state, religion (as in the Balkans, Northern Ireland, the southern Sudan, Indonesia) becomes a way of asserting local identities while exploiting a more universalistic language of identity categories or labels which allows the definition of in and out groups. But while ethnicity is the basis of the self-definition of many modern nation-states (Japan itself being a prime example), ethnicities “are not simply identical with nationalisms” since they leave “room for group culture to enter the globalization picture in other ways than as the legitimating identities of states” (Beyer 1997: 51). This is important for the analysis of JNRs since it allows them to pursue both universalistic and localistic agendas simultaneously, while remaining outside of the state.

The common tendency to see the Japan-centeredness of the JNRs as simply crude nationalism is inadequate. It would be more accurate to see them as trying to define a new sense of identity out of culturally available raw materials in a dialectical relationship with the conditions of globalization. Drawing on a vocabulary of peace and environmentalism is not deception, but represents a genuine attempt to renegotiate the relationship of Japan to the world that both transcends the psychic-spiritual Westernization that many Japanese quite rightly feel that they should defend themselves against, while refusing to equate globalization simply with political-economy. A different model of the world is being proposed, and while it is true that many of this model’s proponents are struggling to detach themselves from a language of ethnocentrism derived from the past, the issues posed are real ones to large numbers of Japanese, for whom, today, any concept of citizenship must include their relationship to the wider world, however mediated.

In an impersonal globalized world in which structural forces appear as oppressive and non-deflectable, ethnicity and religion provide a haven. This I think we already knew, but what is important at this juncture to remember is that these havens themselves are globalized – the universal penetrates the particular even as the particular flavors the universal. Interestingly in his study of religion and globalization Beyer does not discuss Buddhism: the new Christian right, Liberation Theology, new religious Zionism and the Islamic revolution in Iran comprise his empirical case studies, but interestingly he does discuss what he terms “religious environmentalism, although largely from the perspective of Christianity. In that discussion he notes both that ecology has become a central concern for religious movements and that there are close links between religion/ecology and “peace and justice” movements and that in fact under the regime of globalization they are likely to be intimately connected. Beyer suggests that environmental issues concretize the effects of globalization more clearly than other less visible and more diffuse effects. Furthermore “Translated into the terms of the globalization debate used here, the continued elaboration of the global system depends on pursuing the cultural values that resonate with that system. The liberal religious concepts of peace and justice are not, however, simply an accommodating confirmation of emerging global social order. Contained within both notions is the assertion that the injustices are to a significant degree the result of the operation of the globalizing, instrumental systems.” (Beyer 1997: 210). While their goals are not identical, environmental and justice/peace movements are linked, not only by their own internal logics, but also by globalization which provides their common ground of critique. It is not surprising then in the JNRs too that peace/ecology issues are closely related. As George Monbiot has cogently argued (Monbiot 2003), the challenge for the global justice movement is not to overthrow globalization, but to capture it and turn it to humanitarian ends. This too would seem to be the agenda of the JNRs.

At this point we should return to the argument of Yumiko Iida which was referred to earlier. Iida, in a sensitive and articulate analysis of post-war Japanese identity (Iida 2002) is nevertheless fixated on the idea of nationalism as the primary trope with which to explore modern and contemporary Japanese imaginaries of belonging (the subtitle of her book is “Nationalism as Aesthetics”). Iida certainly wishes to move beyond a conventional understanding of nationalism, but the political issue for her is still the basis of identity, as the authors that she chooses to examine reveals. She is concerned with the ways in which Japanese intellectuals have thought about identity, not how the actual producers of culture (amongst I would include the founders and theologians of the JNRs) have actually attempted to negotiate it. She is engaged in other words in a second order debate about what are actually primary existential issues for the actual population. Many of her arguments are nevertheless important, and here I want to briefly consider these in order to further deepen the understanding of the issues of imaginaries and identities that we are both discussing.

While rejecting what we might call a ‘crude nationalism’ model, Iida attempts to situate both nihonjinron and historical revisionism in the context of the socio-economic, political and cultural contexts that have shaped those practices and ideologies in the post-war period. A similar model can be applied to the JNRs, for while I have argued that they cannot for the most part be seen as crude nationalism, they too are situated at the intersection of new political, economic and cultural forces and likewise form the interface between what Iida terms the political-economic and the aesthetic-symbolic realms. While Iida rightly sees the Aum Shinrikyo movement as reactionary and anachronistic, she does also note that in attracting a substantial number of members “Aum Shinrikyo promised two things contemporary Japanese society could not: a collective imaginary where life was filled with meaning, and a vision of an ideal worth living, and indeed, dying for. In a society where the ever intensifying penetration of the structuring forces of technology and rationalism into the remotest corners of life has jeopardized the subject’s access to the empirical realm of life outside consciousness, the subject is left…with ‘no place to hide'” (Iida 2002: 244). This malaise Iida ultimately traces to a breakdown (or hypersuccess?) of capitalism, and its dissolution of political and economic structures, and with them both socio-cultural ones and states of subjectivity. In her view what the revisionists “seek in the knowledge they create is, consciously or not, the reconstitution of a national community in order to ‘repair’ the diffusion of the intersubjective meaning of the Japanese nation, a repair that would, they believe, restore the damaged link between the subject and the society as a whole” (Iida 2002: 245). In a sense the project of the JNRs is similar, but with the very important difference that their vision, even if Japan is at the centre of it, is international and universalistic. Whereas many of the prescriptions of the revisionists are nationalistic, paternalistic and authoritarian, those of the JNRs link themselves to a language which in another context might almost be called “New Age”.

This is a spiritualist universalism drawing on ideas of peace, ecology and anti-materialism; a universalism at once deeply rooted in Japanese culture, especially its Shinto and Buddhist strands, but yet also seeking to subvert both the national project of the main-stream politicians, and that of the revisionists with which it most certainly should not be confused despite their structural similarities. Thus we see an ethical universalism entering the space formerly occupied by what Iida terms the “national/cultural contingency” (Iida 2002; 251). This space is no longer the ‘native space’ of former expressions of nihonjinron, but is an attempt to conserve a cultural heritage not by further localizing it, but on the contrary by universalizing it, and in so doing moving beyond either the nihilistic solution of Aum on the one hand, or the resentment driven solutions of the revisionists on the other.

Rethinking Imaginaries

“Japan” itself is not a fixed entity, but is a construct, the outcome of past imaginaries and subject to revision as new ones and new senses of identity come into play. But to fully grasp this, old mental habits need to be overthrown. Kisala argues, for example, that  “Fujii Nichidatsu and Nipponzan Myohoji make use of the rhetoric of occidentalism to describe their mission of spreading peace: the spiritual East will save the scientific West from destruction” (Kisala 1999: 162). This is not only something of a caricature of a subtle body of teachings, but overlooks the fact that debates within Western social theory have also involved bitter attacks on the scientism of Western world-views and the deleterious effects these have had there on values and subjectivities. Some, such as Zygmunt Bauman, have even said that such values led to the Holocaust, views perhaps fortunately totally unknown within the context of Japanese society (Bauman 1989).

Japan has long been a society engaged on a utopian project—that of making itself a land of harmony and peace. In many ways this project has succeeded remarkably well, but there are deep contradictions between the vision of the politicians and business bosses and those of many “ordinary” Japanese. And by no means have all Japanese been captured by the blandishments of consumer capitalism. There is another dimension altogether, represented both by the JNRs and by the many small communal and educational experiments that dot the landscape. William Kelly has suggested that postwar Japanese society should be read as simultaneously “increasingly homogeneous” and “persistently diverse” (Kelly 1995), a position substantiated in many ways by the discussion here. What is missing is a model of how this logic works itself out in Japanese society.

Part of the answer suggested here takes us back to Iida’s notion of resentment. In relation to the revisionists she sees this as a purely negative concept, but it can be read in other ways. As Eric Gans suggests “Resentment may be defined as the scandal of the peripheral self at the centrality of the other which transforms the equality of the original scene of representation into an absolute polarity of significance. It differs from envy in being directed not at contingent but at communally significant and hence ethically necessary differences. It is thus a necessary evil” (Gans 1985: 174). The crisis of subjectivity that Iida announces, then, can be addressed in many ways:- through consumerism, revisionism, nihonjinron, or, as suggested here, through new imaginaries drawing on cultural resources that can be turned to unexpectedly good use when confronting the challenges of globalization. As Kevin Hetherington suggests, while new social movements (amongst which I here include the JNRs) are almost always about identity and are themselves an important form of identity-politics, what is often ignored is their relationship to space (Hetherington  1998: 101). If Jean Baudrillard twenty years earlier characterized or caricatured Japan as a “satellite of the planet earth” (Baudrillard 1988: 79), while it might be going too far to suggest that now the earth is a satellite of the planet Japan, it is certainly true that Japan, or at least many segments of its population, are redefining their relationship to the world. The JNRs are one of the important ways in which they are doing this, for while arguably containing nationalist or ethnocentric sentiments, they also contain one of the few universalistic discourses available in Japanese society.

One of the positive moves in recent social theory has been to emphasize the importance of agency: things don’t just happen to people, people also make things happen. In discussing Benedict Anderson’s now classic view of the nation as “imagined community”, the Southeast Asianist Anthony Milner has argued that “conceptualized” rather than imagined was a better term for the emerging states of Asia: “the concept of imagination tends to disguise the anxiety, the experimentation, the contest and the sheer intellectual difficulty faced by those who relinquished loyalty to their older forms of community and constructed a new form” (Milner 1997: 89). Many Japanese are now in the same position. Not this time a construction of nation out of the local identities of feudalism, but of constructing the post-nation out of the failures of nationalism in the face of the overwhelming reality of globalization. A religious discourse reflecting on the particularities of the local and the universal issues of human survival is one of the major ways in which these new imaginaries are being constructed out of the very subjectivities already deconstructed by capitalism and postmodernism.

So what of the future? In a troubled world facing increasing resource depletion and ecological crises and in which international political stability seems to be an increasingly remote goal, the secularization thesis in general has been proved to be false. In such an environment, the JNRs are likely to take on a new salience and to attract increasing numbers of adherents internationally. As they do so this internationalization of their membership may be expected to lead to the internal transformation of the JNRs themselves. The “inside” and the “outside” of Japan will become less clearly distinguishable. The dangers of resurgent old style nationalism will still be there, especially as energy crises intensify. But the JNRs, with their concern for peace and deepening commitments to environmentalism and development issues are more likely to be a moderating influence or even a transforming one, rather than a contributor to the return to the old patterns.

In this shifting context, I would predict that while membership numbers may not substantially increase given the still quite widespread suspicion of many Japanese towards the JNRs in the wake of the Aum affair, they will prove to be a moral force and voice in a society still preoccupied with economic performance and materialism expressed as hyper-consumption. Alliances are likely to be formed between them as they find themselves less divided by “theology” than by a common commitment to proposing solutions to a deepening planetary crisis. While it is true, as say in Russia, that such a crisis might provide the pretext for reversion to authoritarian and nationalist forms of governance and political culture, the very internationalism of the JNRs will provide an antidote to this possibility. While, for the most part, the JNRs have not been read from the perspective of sociological social movements theory, if they are, as I believe they should be, they appear as examples of creative social movements, now widespread in the world, that increasingly make explicit links between ethics and development (Jasper 1997). They will in any case be a persistent feature of the Japanese socio-religious landscape and new forms of JNR may well appear. They will collectively continue to challenge the social, political and economic consensus on which postwar Japanese civilization has been constructed and will be the imaginative source for experiments in progressive education, ecology, communal living, economic arrangements and culture. Indeed, for Japan as a whole, the big issue will continue to be that of identity and with it a concern for fresh models of citizenship and political participation, particularly as the old Liberal Democratic Party model fades in the face of internal sociological, economic and cultural shifts and as it fails increasingly to address the challenges of a globalized world facing unprecedented challenges and resource crises.

Despite its extensive intellectual culture, one of the few sources for genuinely alternative thinking lies not in Japan’s many universities or think-tanks, but in the reserves of the JNRs, and as such their social and cultural role can only but expand. The future can only be transformed through imagination, and in contemporary Japan one of the richest sources of such imagination lies in the new religious movements. If they themselves are willing to continue to systematically relate their religious teachings to social problems and social transformations we may see their slice of responsibility for shaping Japan’s future increase even further. Their role in configuring a Japan intimately entwined in the affairs and identities of a world community may only just be beginning.


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[i] The writings of the late Tokugawa and Meiji ideologist Okumi Takamasa, (who never became a Christian), are a worthwhile example, (Breen 1996), as are the voluminous writings of Uchimura Kanzo, (who of course did become a Christian).