Let’s Talk about Religion (and a Bit of Anime)!
Okay, so as I mentioned in my last post, I recently watched Noragami. Like many other anime series aimed at teenagers, Noragami is an urban fantasy, one that imbues old myths and traditions (in this case, Shinto gods) with a sense of hipness and adventure. You can see this reflected in the character designs, music and aesthetics, but the overall plot invokes this theme as well. The protagonist is a stray god (or Kami) who strives not to be forgotten by humans, and the heroine is an ordinary high school girl who gradually comes to appreciate the Kami.
Once you dig past all the flashy battles and shonen shenanigans, Noragami boils down to a rather universal dilemma: In this (post)modern world, how do we humans find fulfillment? How do we tell right from wrong? Like Haibane Renmei, which I discussed not too long ago, Noragami is about spirituality, but it isn’t necessarily about religion in the organised sense. Rather, it’s a work of pastiche. That’s why the world it depicts comes across as both familiar and strange, especially to Western eyes.
Other bloggers have dissected a great deal about Noragami through a Christian lens. Once again, I’ll point you to the good folks at Beneath the Tangles for various discussions and links. What I want to talk about in this post is the act of pastiche. How does pop culture (in this case, anime) reinterpret religious motifs? To what end?
Before I can discuss those questions in detail, we need to take a not-so-brief detour and talk about religion itself.
What is Religion?
If you pay attention to dictionaries and encyclopedias, the definition of “religion” has broadened significantly over the past thirty years or so. Most dictionaries described religion solely in terms of devotion to a god or deity, although these days Wikipedia defines religion as “an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to an order of existence.” It’s a much vaguer and more inclusive definition, one that reflects a greater interest and acceptance of world religions.
But for better or worse, “religion” remains a Eurocentric term. Describing a set of cultural practices as a “religion” ascribes them broad similarities with the modern European understanding of Christianity. The term is also inherently political, so broadening the definition allows other organisations to share and contest some of the power and legitimacy held by the dominant religious institutions.
What that means is that while there might be useful reasons to describe Shintoism and Buddhism as religions, it doesn’t capture the full picture of how they function in Japanese society. It’s impossible to pin down religion as a discrete, compartmentalised aspect of the human experience. Religions are constantly changing as they interact with other aspects of society. They cannot be reduced to mere superstition or irrational groupthink, as they are so frequently stereotyped.
That all sounds like common sense, so here’s the important part. If there are multiple religions, there are also multiple secularisms. My idea of secularism would not be the same as a Japanese person’s, because societies tend to define what is “secular” alongside what is “religious”, and neither can be easily separated from “culture”.
For instance, even though I identify as a non-believer, culturally I’m a Catholic and I won’t pretend otherwise. I went to a Catholic school, I attend weekly Bible study meetings, and I have a poster of Jesus in my bedroom.
Moreover, cultures tend to be influenced by the dominant religious ideologies, even in countries with a formal separation between religion and state. People tend to speak of a “political Islam” but not so much of a “political Christianity” or a “political Judaism”, which tends to suggest that the Judeo-Christian worldview is normalised, to the extent that it can masquerade as secular.
Religion in Japan
It’s particularly important to remember that there are multiple kinds of secularisms when talking about Japanese spirituality, because it’s tempting to think of Japan as a country of little religious faith, rather than one of fragmented faiths. The Yomiuri Shimbun has conducted multiple polls over the years, and they all point to a similar conclusion: many Japanese people may practice Shinto and Buddhist customs, but they do not possess much religious faith.
Of course, there’s plenty of ambiguity around what constitutes “religious faith”. In an essay called “Limitations for Measuring Religion in a Different Cultural Context – The Case of Japan“, Kimiko Tanaka argued that the pollsters have been doing it wrong. Because Japanese people tend to associate reliogisity with revealed religions, they typically describe themselves as non-religious. In other words, all that the polls really tell you is that not many Japanese are religious in the Western sense of the word. Tanaka did mention, however, that Yomiuri Shimbun’s 2008 poll had some more nuanced questions, so let’s take a closer look at it:
Do you ever sense in the natural world something that transcends the power of human beings?
|Do not know; No answer||4.5%|
The majority say yes – they do believe in something.
Do you feel a sense of reverence for your ancestors, or not?
|Do not know; No answer||1.5%|
There’s an overwhelmingly high yes response here. This suggests that the high participation rates in Shinto and Buddhist community rituals (78.3% attend the Obon Festival, and 73.1% visit a Shinto shrine at New Year’s) derives from a sense of tradition rather than religiosity.
Reading a little between the lines here, I’d suggest that, broadly speaking, Japanese secularism defines itself mainly by its opposition to the organised religions of foreign tradition. According to this view, the traditions of Shintoism and Buddhism don’t really “count” as religion but rather as a set of philosophies or a way of life.
So yes, religion does in fact have a strong presence in modern Japan, but it tends to be underplayed, not least by the Japanese themselves.
As for anime, it’s tempting to think that they only make use of religious symbols in a superficial way. Even the creators themselves may think that way. (See: The religious symbolism in Neon Genesis Evangelion.) But in reality, one’s understanding of what is “spiritual” is drawn from history and the various religions one has been exposed to, neither of which lend themselves to easy interpretation. I’ve said that Noragami is an example of a work of pastiche, but I also think the concept of “Japanese religion” is pastiche as well, invented to suit political ends.
How Religion was Invented in Japan
First off, a brief primer on the histories of Buddhism and Shintoism in Japan:
Buddhism originated in India and eventually spread to Japan in the sixth century via China and Korea. Japanese Buddhists developed many different sects, which were all very fascinating but I won’t talk about here. It was only during the 1600s that it was legally required for everyone be a parishioner of a Buddhist temple so that no one would convert to Christianity. At this point, families could only belong to one sect, and so the same traditions became entrenched over the generations.
Policies like these enabled the general practice of ancestor worship, but it was Neo-Confucianism that actively encouraged it during this period. Neo-Confucianism, a revival of classic Confucianism, was imported from China and adopted as a guiding philosophy. There’s a lot of debate over whether Confucianism should be considered a religion; my take is that is one, and that it takes the form of ancestor worship in particular. Towards the end of the Tokugawa period (that is, towards the end of Japan’s self-imposed isolation from the rest of the world), Neo-Confucianism and Shintoism became popular in tandem, and after the Meiji Restoration in 1868, they dethroned Buddhism as the official state ideology.
Shintoism began (and, in many ways, still remains) as folklore, with no real unifying elements between local customs. The Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, the earliest compilations of Japan’s oral history, made out that all of Japan was united under the Yamato race, but that’s mostly propaganda. Still, by using the myths from the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki as a foundational text, the Meiji government was able to construct a national religion. Amaterasu, who was relatively obscure until then, was promoted to the most important of Kami, and naturally, the Emperor was her direct descendant.
This was done to for three main reasons: to legitimatise the Emperor, to unify Japan and to resist Western imperialism. It was around this time that the Japanese word for religion (shūkyō 宗教) was coined as a translation for the English word, so you can see that the invention of religion was a direct response to Western pressures.
Because Buddhist principles clashed with the new national myths, the Meiji state outlawed Buddhism. But Buddhist customs were so ingrained at every level of society by this point, so that didn’t really work. What happened instead was that Buddhist beliefs were suppressed and Buddhist monks lost work, but the general Buddhist way of life continued.
So the Meiji state ended up pulling a different tack in order to separate Shintoism from Buddhism. In 1889, the Meiji Constitution enshrined freedom of religion:
Japanese subjects shall, within limits not prejudicial to peace and order, and not antagonistic to their duties as subjects, enjoy freedom of religious belief.
– Meiji Constitution, article 28
At the same time, the Emperor was “sacred and inviolable” (article 3), so any religion was fine and dandy as long as it did not get in the way of Emperor worship. In that way, the Shinto state became above religion – it became the natural order of things.
After World War II, U.S. intervention dismantled the Shinto state. Shintoism retained its status in society as “the natural order of things”, but it lost its nationalistic and militaristic elements. Or perhaps you could say those aspects were sublimated. The Yasukuni Shrine remains controversial to this day because it links Shinto and ancestor worship directly with Japan’s imperial past.
Thus, you can see how religion and politics have always been closely intertwined in Japanese history. Shintoism and Buddhism are conceived as formal religions when it suits political ends; otherwise they’re not really religions.
To interpret this cynically, it’s a case of having one’s cake and eating it too. Japan is oh-so-unique and secular and accepting of different religions. No religious wars in Japan, amirite? No hate against Muslims either, just for the record.
However, to be fair, some of the modern antipathy towards organised religions may stem from the sensational Tokyo gas attacks in 1995, which were carried out by Aum Shinrikyo, a religious cult. At the time, the media tended to conflate “religion” with “evil cults”, and this attitude probably still has appeal today.
(My fellow aniblogger ZeroReq011 is writing a paper about anime influenced by Aum Shinrikyo, so you should ask him if you want to know more about the subject.)
At any rate, the important takeaway is that religion has always been important in Japan, even if that may not seem obvious at first glance. Because religion itself is constructed and in a constant state of flux, anime depictions of religion also tend to come across as messy. It’s no surprise that it’s not immediately obvious to the viewer how an anime would reflect the roles of Buddhism, Shintoism, Christianity and other religions in Japanese society today. I’d argue that the very fact that it’s not obvious points to the extent to which religion and secularism go hand in hand.
Modern Religions and the Struggle to Keep up with the Times
Finally, getting back to Noragami…
What made the show particularly interesting to me, especially in the early episodes, was how it depicted a Kami’s struggle to stay relevant in modern times, when everyone seems not to care about religion. Even though I just spent a whole essay arguing that religion has been instrumental in forming the Japanese cultural identity, it’s true that active religious participation has been on the decline since the end of World War II.
Like other anime which depict the struggle of Japanese folklore figures to modernise (e.g. Pom Poko, Natsume Yuujinchou), there’s a hint of nostalgia for the days of yore. But Noragami is mostly concerned with updating the Kami and showing them off as hip and cool, and I have to say Adachitoka really succeeded there.
To me, it seems the rise in popularity of young adult fantasy stories reinterpreting traditional Japanese myths has coincided with a general spiritual revitalisation. New Kami are getting invented every year, and spiritual Power Spots are all the rage. But that’s something I need to research further before I can draw conclusions about it.
The other aspect of Noragami that was really clever and on-point was its depiction of Kami (especially Yato) as money-crazed. It’s a nod to how darned commercialised Shintoism is. There’s a Japanese saying that goes like this: 苦しい時の神頼み, which I’ve seen translated as “Danger past, god forgotten”. People basically pray when they want something, which is why Tenjin, the Kami of scholarship, is a hit with struggling students and has chain shrines all over the country.
Superficial as this all may sound, the characters do eventually find deeper connection through their commercialised rituals:
So yeah, Noragami is a pretty neat showcase of the ambivalent role of religion in a seemingly secular society, along with the perennial search for something genuine.
Posted on June 11, 2015, in Editorials and tagged aum shinrikyo, buddhism, haibane renmei, haiyore nyaruko-san, jesus tatsuya, natsume yuujinchou, neon genesis evangelion, Noragami, pom poko, Puella Magi Madoka Magica, religion, shinto. Bookmark the permalink. 43 Comments.