Japanese Spirituality

Before diving into spiritualism, I need to discuss the foundation with which spiritualism is build upon in the West and in Japan. And before I get too far it would be appropriate to define what I mean by "the West". For the sake of convenience, when I talk about the "West" I am talking about cultures who embrace and have a rich tradition in or relation to Greek philosophy as a frame work for rationalizing nearly everything (Americas, Europe, parts of Eurasia and the middle east). Okay, so lets get into it.

In the West when we try to rationalize the world around us, we often do so through the lens of Dualism. Dualism is the idea that there are always two opposing or contrasting concepts for nearly everything. For example, good vs. evil, right vs. wrong, man vs. nature, etc. It also explains why westerners, and very much the English language, is geared for discussion and debate. Conversely, pluralism is very dominate in the Japanese world view. Pluralism is the idea that two or more concepts can co-exists without conflict; completely opposite to dualism. You can imagine how different a world view would develop under pluralism when compared to dualism. Now, when I say Japanese rationalize their world through the lens of Pluralism, I understand I am doing a disservice to Japan because I am using a western philosophical term to define an eastern culture's way of thinking...but seeing as I am writing this in English, you could say I have sort of a pass.

If you've read some of my other posts you'd understand that Japanese place a lot of importance on maintaining harmony in society, so it makes sense why pluralism is preferred to dualism because it avoids conflict with its universalist approach to some of life's most controversial questions. On the other hand, in the west we enjoy a good debate or discussion on some of life's important questions, which explains why we think dualistically; it literally sets the stage for debate by pitting opposites against each other. Next I'd like to discuss some of the implications these two types of thinking have with regard to religion and in turn spirituality.

I could easily spend a few posts discussing many of the elements of various religions and how these elements reflect their respective philosophical modes of thinking. But for time and convenience sake, I'd like to focus only on what I think are the most important elements. Perhaps one of the strongest elements that the major western religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) share in common is the idea of exclusivity, or the idea that only their religion is the true religion. This is very much a dualistic approach to religion and almost always results in a 'I'm right, you're wrong' style of conversation. On the other hand, Japanese embrace religions from all over the world. In fact, in Japan there is a saying that Japanese are Shinto when they are born, Christian at their wedding, and Buddhist when they die. Hearing something like this, it's very easy in the West for us to view this universal approach as irrational and just plain confusing at best. However, in Japan it makes perfect sense because the end result is not about who is right or wrong, rather what works best to avoid conflict within a given context. In order for Japan to maintain societal harmony it just happens to be that a pluralistic approach is much more accommodating.

Another element within western religions is the idea that they are faith-based. This means that one must profess a believe in a set of dogmatic principles of a specific religion in order to be considered a true follower. This is also very much dualistic in nature because it implies that a follower must set him or herself apart from other religions by pledging their faith to a single religion. In Japan the concept to believe in something is never used in conjunction with the metaphysical, unless of course a Japanese is talking about a western religion and borrowing terminology from that religion. This could explain why the Japanese in the news article said they are Buddhist or Christian but also said they don't believe in God. Most Japanese would answer this way because to believe in something means to hold a strong position in whatever it is you believe. By holding a strong position you run the risk of creating controversy by stating such a belief in public, which again, would spell disaster in a society that favors harmony.
As seen above, in the West we largely exercise spiritualism through a particular religion that is dualistic in nature with its faith-based approach and exclusivism. Even when we don't, most of us at least stick to a single religion or practice one at a time (Atheism is an obvious exception from all of this). These properties make the religions of the West seem rational and/or orderly, because after all, the West was and still is the pioneer of rationalism with the introduction of Greek philosophy, so even the metaphysical must at least appear rational (this is another post for another time) even though intrinsically it is not. Dualism fits very nicely within the confines of rational thought because it posits a right and wrong view, so it became a very integral part of the way the west views the metaphysical and in turn religion as well. As a result, Westerners tend to think that when people exercise spiritualism in a pluralistic sense it's simply irrational or illogical to do so. I have heard many people refer to this pluralistic approach as a cop-out to life's most important questions, or Japanese just don't take spirituality serious enough. In Japan, it's quite the contrary. Japanese do not try to force rationality into the metaphysical. This allows for the practice of multiple religions at any given time without fear of being viewed as weak, irrational, or indecisive. In fact, if a Japanese strictly adheres to a single religion, it has the opposite effect it does in the west. Typically, strict adherents are view very suspiciously because of their strong views about the way things ought to be.

So if the west uses religion as the primary means with which to exercise spiritualism, what do Japanese use? This is a very tricky, and heavily debated topic within Japanese studies, but there is a general consensus that the culture itself is a means of exercising spiritualism for many Japanese. If you've read my other posts you'd understand just how powerful the culture of Japan is with it's collectivist nature and heavy emphasis on harmony. One could image the huge amount of effort to maintain such a balance within society. For each individual to play their part each and every day in each and every conversation they have is by no means an easy task; it is a huge balancing act. This is often why Japanese tend to refrain from socializing beyond their family or inner circle of friends because anything outside of that requires a degree of mental awareness and caution that, while it maintains harmony for society as a whole quite well, it can be very tiresome and stressful to the individual. This is not the case for everyone by any means, but generally speaking most Japanese prefer keeping conversation, especially lengthy ones for those who are close. 

Navigating and moving about Japanese society is not as simple as talking your way through it like we do in English. Japanese is a very indirect language that requires the use of all four of your other senses to truly understand what someone is saying. So in essence, the every day humdrum of maintaining this harmony with the least amount of stress possible is very much a practice in spiritualism as it requires a huge degree of mindfulness that you hardly see in any other culture. I know what you're probably think, could this massive mental effort really be called harmony? Well, I guess in the big picture, yes, on the individual level, as I mentioned, it can very stressful. But again, it's the collective that matters more than the individual in Japan. But I should also mention that when this harmonious environment is clicking Japanese can actually be a very amusing language to converse in. Conversation tends to be very superficial but it's also very playful.

Mindfulness is very much a means of exercising spiritualism, and it appears that in Japan spiritualism and culture are really thought of as one. When we think of it this way I think a lot of things begin to make sense about the Japanese and the way they perceive life, the afterlife, and religious practice in general. Japanese see it all as an integral part intertwined into every day life instead of something to be dissected from and pondered apart from our daily lives. On the other hand, in the West we tend to separate our daily life's from our spiritual lives. Often times spiritualism is a way to escape the every day hum drum in the West.

This why I love being here. Not because I think the Japanese have got it right, but because virtually everything here is so different compared to where I grew up, yet it works! That's the magic of it all; the fact that we are on on the same adventure we call life, yet our cultures have devised ways of navigating the path in such unique and sophisticated ways. What's more is that these paths are evolving. In the West, mainly Europe and America, we are witnessing somewhat of a shift from Dualism to a more pluralistic view of life's important questions. On the other hand in Japan there is a shift in culture that is very much focused on recognizing the individual. Perhaps this is very much because of the onset of globalism and the invention of the internet. Nevertheless, It will be interesting to see where our paths lay in the coming decades. For all we know they could completely flop or possibly converge. 


  1. Well said, your comprehensive discussion is appreciated.


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