‘The Japanese are, it is true, commonly said to be an irreligious people. They say so themselves. . . . The average, even educated European strikes the average educated Japanese as strangely superstitious, unaccountably occupied with supra-mundane matters. The Japanese simply cannot be brought to comprehend how a ‘mere person’ such as the Pope, or even the Archbishop of Canterbury, occupies the place he does in politics and society.”

The above is a fascinating account of the Japanese outlook on religion, as accurate today, to my mind, as it was when Prof. Basil Hall Chamberlain, the pre-eminent British Japan scholar of his day, published it with The Rationalist Press Association of London in 1912.

The Japanese, as of 2007, may not be the only developed nation of people who would call themselves “irreligious,” or, at least, “areligious” (the Chinese are certainly in this category), but they were undoubtedly the first.

Development since the very earliest years of the Industrial Revolution was powered by the Judeo-Christian ethic; and the Europeans in its vanguard were just as keen on converting those they conquered in the name of “progress” as they were in exploiting them.

So it is with the American form of “export democracy,” which combines not only military might but also moral intimidation. Nations in the developing world have to put up with one hell of a package of preaching — about how they should organize their lives — if they want to be on friendly terms with the overarching United States of America.

Follow the preachin’, they are told, or get a thumpin’.

Ever since arriving in Japan 40 years ago this year, I have felt at home, in large part due to the utterly secular attitude of Japanese people. This attitude governs not only ordinary daily life but also public affairs. Japanese private and public morality does not rely on what Basil Hall Chamberlain called “[an occupation with] supra-mundane matters.” (By “supra-mundane matters” he meant matters in the realm of the otherworldly.)

Ridiculed and dismissed

It would be unthinkable for a politician in the Japan of 2007 to make statements such as we have heard in recent years from George W. Bush and Tony Blair about following some divine guide in the decision-making process. A Japanese politician making such pronouncements would be ridiculed and dismissed.

In fact, Japan is the world’s leading, truly secular democracy. Bush may be praying often these days in the Pear-Shape Office (my suggestion for a renamed Oval Office), but matters of faith and concepts of otherworldly spirits play no part in the political decision-making process in his hyper-loyal ally Japan.

But this has not always been the case in the past 150 years. For Japan, too, once chose the course of establishing a national religion — State Shinto — based on pagan rituals and nationalist-spiritual rhetoric. It then used this to fuel the engine of imperialism roughly from 1895, when the Sino-Japanese War ended in victory for Japan, through to 1945, when World War II ended in abject capitulation.

In that period, an entire spiritual “tradition” was created by Japan’s ruling elite in order to mobilize the nation in the cause of empire-building. That “tradition” of Bushido, often termed “the samurai spirit,” was never a philosophy, let alone a practical code of ethics. Shinto was never a religion in the sense of providing a moral guide to behavior. The Emperor had never, until Emperor Meiji was restored to the throne in 1868, been a hands-on unifier of the nation state.

And yet, all of this was promulgated and imposed on the nation as if it had all existed since time immemorial in those very forms. In other words, the Japanese people were hoodwinked into believing that there always had been some spiritual force pushing them toward supremacy in Asia and the Pacific. After several decades — by the mid-1930s, for sure — the once-formidable opposition to this historical mythmaking was crushed. The result: millions of people were killed and maimed in the name of what was no more than the trumped-up trappings of nationalism. State Shinto, Bushido, Emperor-worship — these had nothing whatsoever to do with morality or ethics, Japanese or otherwise. They were a coverup for the greed of the Japanese elite who manipulated the populace for their own aggrandizement.

After the war, State Shinto was defrocked; Bushido was emasculated; and the Emperor went back to being the symbol he had been for centuries. Japan was once again a secular state; and it was in this context that the Japanese people, ever diligent, industrious and civic-minded, rebuilt their nation.

Beacon to the world

I always personally felt that, in this respect, Japan stood as a beacon to the rest of the world: a country that could develop within a democratic system without the mumbo-jumbo of the god-botherers and faith-pushers, free of the rhetoric of moralistic do-gooders with immoral ulterior motives.

But something is changing Japan, leading its people once again into a pseudo-spiritual state of being.

That something is the lofty-sounding but very dangerous rhetoric of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Japan. Of course, it is nothing that appeared miraculously in 2007. It was Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, who held power in the mid-1980s, who set the precedent by challenging the notion that Japan was an evildoer during the war. Abe’s prime ministerial predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, made his official visits to the war-celebrating Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo in order to render worship of the military tradition acceptable to the public.

“What’s wrong with going there?” he often said. “I don’t get it.” But of course he “got it”; he knew precisely what he was doing: relegitimizing Japan’s phony spiritual “tradition.”

And now, Abe, with his education “reforms,” has replayed the patriotic card, the ugly Black Jack of the national pack, in Japan’s schools. (If there ever was a misuse of the word kaikaku [reform], it came with this legislation.) Abe’s shrewd, slogan-inspired policy aim of creating a “beautiful” Japan is precisely in the prewar mold of the ersatz spiritual. By “beautiful,” he means “loyal and patriotic.”

The modern Japanese nation state, founded when the Meiji Era began in 1868, was perverted by military adventurists and self-serving entrepreneurs, resulting in a catastrophic world war.

“Within the space of a short lifetime,” wrote Prof. Chamberlain in 1912, “the new Japanese religion of loyalty and patriotism has emerged into the light of day.”

Japan then created new myths, unleashing the most awful destruction to justify them. Are their leaders going to do the very same thing all over again? I would like to say “god forbid.” But god does not forbid such things. He seems certainly, whatever his chosen guise or origin, to be behind it all the way.

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