On Nov. 10, Ichiro Ozawa, secretary general of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, dropped a bombshell in a speech he made atop one of Japan’s most sacred mountains, Mount Koya, in Wakayama Prefecture.

The temple on that mount was founded in the ninth century by the great monk Kukai (774-835), who was buried there. The doctrines of the Shingon (True Word) school of Buddhism he established, though known for their asceticism, are also notable for their tolerance and benevolence.

In his speech there, however, Ozawa saw fit to declare that Christianity was “a self-righteous religion that excluded other religions.” Islam was somewhat better, he claimed, but “it too excludes other religions.” Unsurprisingly, given the setting, he had fulsome praise for Buddhism, which he deemed “magnanimous.”

The fallout was immediate. The Nihon Kirisutokyo Rengokai (Japan Christian Federation of Churches) issued a protest the very next day that branded Ozawa’s comments as exhibiting “a one-sided understanding (of Christianity).”

Vociferous objections were also heard from people in the West, not least in the Readers in Council letters section of The Japan Times, criticizing Ozawa for prejudice and for overlooking some allegedly mean-spirited aspects of Buddhism.

But what are we to understand from Ozawa’s pronouncement from on high — and how does it illuminate the Japanese outlook on faith?

Firstly, though, a not insignificant semantic observation.

Ozawa’s remarks were subtly mistranslated in the English-language media coverage, which rendered the Japanese word haitateki that he used as “exclusive.” While not technically incorrect, this gives the impression that he was labeling Christianity and, to a lesser extent, Islam, as considering themselves to be faiths above others — in some sense the holiest of the holy.

Certainly, there are adherents to all religions who think “theirs” is the best — far too many, if you ask me. But to give him his due, Ozawa was casting no such barbed aspersions at the world’s two most popular religions. In the Japanese nuance undoubtedly understood by his audience, in fact, he was stating his belief that those two religions were “not able to encompass” other religions. On the other hand, according to him, Buddhism is an inclusive religion as its fundaments of faith do not exclude those holding other religious beliefs, too.

As for the comment about Christianity being “self-righteous,” if this means that many Christians see themselves occupying the world’s moral high ground, then it doesn’t seem to me to be such a radical overstatement. More than a few fistfuls of politicians from so-called Christian countries have claimed and now claim the moral high ground for their homelands, and many have justified policy by employing some biblical reference.

Here’s another nit to pick with the pronouncement’s translation in the English-language media.

Ozawa was quoted as saying that “European and American societies are at a dead end.” The word he used was ikizumatteiru, which is closer in English meaning to “being deadlocked” or “at an impasse.” This leaves room for them to extricate themselves — if not, I would presume, by converting to Buddhism. “Dead end” is too strong, too unforgiving for the Japanese original.

Nuances apart, however, can it be true that “Islam could be ideal, Christianity may be cool, but Buddhism is better”?

It is true that devout Buddhists generally withheld support for Japan’s 15-year era of brutal militarism across the Asia-Pacific region that ended in August 1945. In fact, their support, when it came at all, was largely engineered through a Buddhist establishment that was both suppressed and tightly controlled.

Shinto, however, was used as the legitimizing spiritual basis for Japan’s aggressive empire building. Shinto ritual was evoked to give Japan’s militarism a kind of spiritual endorsement — just as Christianity, Islam and Judaism have been and are being used to justify some nations’ transgressions on the territories of others.

This former identification of Shinto with the warlike state remains potent in the national memory. That is why there were protests on the recent occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Emperor’s enthronement, since associated Shinto trappings smacked of that past religious endorsement of monarchial authority.

But there were Buddhist groups that were gung-ho for the empire, and Ozawa would do well to recall them. The mass organization Kokuchukai (National Pillar Association), affiliated with the proselytizing Nichiren Buddhist sect, preached all-out aggression — linking patriotism to piety and slipping Buddha, as it were, into the backpacks of troops marching off to war.

Many people, intellectuals among them, fell for this type of “muscular” Buddhism that is intrinsically inimical to the true doctrine of that faith — much as warmongering is to the all-forgiving tenets of Christianity or to the value Islam places on human life.

I guess it just goes to show that, with any religion, there’s many a slip between the gentle cup of peace and the coarse lips of assault.

Mainstream Japanese Buddhism has at its core a current of tolerance as, I believe, do all religions. Shinto, though, is not an ethical faith so much as a body of animistic philosophies and spiritual rituals that help Japanese people come to terms with the forces of nature. You often see a Buddhist altar in a Shinto shrine; but I have never seen a crucifix in a synagogue, or a copy of the Torah in a mosque. This does not make one religion better than the other, but it does explain what Ozawa meant by the adjective haitateki — in terms of Christianity “excluding other religions.”

And what about his remark that European and American societies are at an impasse?

Well, this sounds eminently appropriate as a description of where American and some European societies stand today: deadlocked, damned if they do change and damned if they don’t. I would, however, include Japan in the category of deadlocked states — and indeed Ozawa identified the half-century of rule by the recently ousted Liberal Democratic Party as having brought Japan to just such an impasse. Yet can three months of DPJ rule already have dragged Japan out of that gloomy plight and into the light? God forbid that Japan, with its more “magnanimous” spiritual base, would be found in the company of other more “self-righteous” nations.

The above discussion of Japanese people’s attitudes toward their faith and that of others in no way comprises a defense of the secretary general of the DPJ in his new-found elevation within the nation’s ruling party — glory such as he has sought over his 40-year Diet stint as a member of more than one party. After all, if his remark comparing Buddhism with other religions does not itself demonstrate self-righteousness, then I don’t know what does.

But what’s new about shallow generalities issuing from the lips of politicians the world over? And if Ozawa was seeking the vote of heaven by pontificating in the holy precincts of Mount Koya, at least he went to the right place.

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