“God, Buddha — where are they?” asks Aera magazine.
At the Cafe de Monku, is one answer. It’s a good name for an establishment set up by monks for the airing of monku (complaints). Its very existence (in Hanamaki, Iwate Prefecture) is suggestive of a populist turn traditional religion has taken over the past few years. It didn’t begin on March 11, 2011, but the cataclysms of that day — earthquake, tsunami, nuclear meltdown — certainly gave it impetus. Do monks and priests, intermediaries between humanity and god, demean themselves and their office by taking daily life seriously? In settled times, maybe; in catastrophic times, maybe not. And so a woman in her 70s, for example, seeks and receives priestly consolation at the cafe, soft jazz music in the background, for her broken-down washing machine — not that it’s her only problem: She is one of 10,000-odd people in Hanamaki still stuck in temporary housing nearly six years after one of the most shattering days of modern times.
Among Aera’s cluster of articles is one titled, “Do today’s Japanese need religion?” Its author is the eminent novelist and essayist Hiroyuki Itsuki, who wrote in his 1998 nonfiction book “Tariki”: “The troubles of daily life often attack in an uninterrupted flurry, one after another. … Anxiety and restlessness, self-hate and unfocused anger, apathy and resignation, mark our days.” We see at a glance that his is not a buoyant outlook. Tariki means “the strength of another.” His point is that our own merely human strength (jiriki) is inadequate, given what we have to cope with.
Yes, he was saying then, we do need religion; and now, 19 years later, at age 84, he’s still saying it, expressing his thought in the luminous image of moonlight seeping through clouds to light an otherwise pitch-black mountain path skirting an abyss, a fatal fall a single misstep away. The path is life; the moonlight, religion.
Tariki has roots 1,000 years deep. Ancient priests roamed the land preaching, for the first time, to the common people, asking only one thing of them: not learning and arcane ritual but simple faith, to which Amida, the “Buddha of boundless light,” would joyfully respond with salvation — eternal life in the jeweled “Western Paradise.” It’s a touching and naive vision, which faded in the pitiless glare of modern “realism.” The Meiji Restoration of 1868 raised the state to religious status. Fighting and dying for the state became a religious practice, a form of prayer — which the gods answered, in due course, with the carnage of World War II.
When it ended at last, the Japanese, speaking generally, had had their fill of religion. Let materialism reign. Materialism was life; religion was death. Not to everyone, of course. To this day, top government leaders defy national and international public opinion to visit Yasukuni Shrine, the wartime heart and soul of divine militarism.
That aside, postwar life was materialist, and it was good. At least it felt good. Its current twilight, says Aera, moves many to nostalgia. At its height, it was simple and (deceptively, perhaps) full. You worked hard at school, passed rote-learning tests, got into a respected university, made useful connections, joined a respected corporation and prospered. The corporation demanded a lot in return — unquestioning, unwavering devotion — but most people gave it willingly.
Then things went wrong. The economic bubble burst in the early 1990s. A “religion” called Aum Shinrikyo went on a terrorist rampage in 1995; two years later, the Great Hanshin Earthquake devastated Kobe; in 2011, the Great East Japan Earthquake devastated Tohoku. You didn’t need to see the hand of God in all this to wonder whether forces other than economics, crackpot theology and geology weren’t at work. Religion is not always dogmatic certainty; it can feed also, maybe better, on unanswered, unanswerable questions.
Is Japan on the cusp of a religious revival? If so, says Aera, there’s nothing feverishly revivalist about it; it’s more a quiet, humble reopening of old questions once deemed settled by science, mathematics, economics.
Keep in mind, notes professor Yoshinori Hiroi of Kyoto University’s Kokoro Research Center, that there are many more Shinto shrines in Japan (80,000-odd) than convenience stores (50,000-odd). Maybe if you compared the respective number of visitors, shrines would come up short. Still, Hiroi observes among his students a growing interest in “matters related to life and death” — what they are, how they should be confronted, what is meant by “the good life” and “a good death.” The theme recurs lately, he says, in graduate theses. They are religious questions, to the extent that they are not economic ones. If economic, the good life is the prosperous life and the good death is an expensive funeral. The complacent ’80s might have accepted that; the disruptions since have exposed it as hollow.
Hollowness is a vacuum we must fill. “Everything you can imagine is real,” said Pablo Picasso. Everything? Are there no illusions to lead us astray? There are, he might reply — but they are real. He couldn’t have known “virtual reality” as we know it, but intuitively he may have known a form of it. As with virtual reality, so with dementia, writes Hiroi in Aera. A technological revolution spawned and expands the former; a demographic revolution — the developed world’s rapid aging, Japan’s in particular — breeds the latter. Both, says Hiroi, blur reality and sharpen illusion, merging the two into one, creating a space where, if anime characters are real and the visions of dementia patients with a corroded sense of personal identity scarcely less so, so can gods be — gods as our remote ancestors knew them, or gods as only 21st-century mankind can (but doesn’t yet) know them.
Some futurists foresee human immortality — in the flesh or as bits and bytes on software now in embryo. Be that as it may, its time is not yet. Itsuki, no futurist in that sense and looking much less far ahead, sees something that we can all see if we look: a “big death” coming, a great dying off as postwar baby boomers, now entering their 70s, reach the end of their life spans. Children, fewer in number than ever but no less impressionable, will see it, and be jolted into questions, like, “Where do we go when we die?” They won’t get answers because there are none — but, says Itsuki, “something may well sprout in their consciousness.” What? The next vision of (the) god(s)?
Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan” and “Other Worlds.”