Religion is a cultural phenomenon and institution that involves specific behaviors and practices. Religion has been present for a great deal of human history. Religion is concerned with beliefs. Belief is a powerful tool in a person's life. People live their lives in conjunction with and in support of their beliefs. There are ways to interpret and pinpoint the ways in which religion and beliefs manifest in a culture. This paper will contemplate Japan and religion. The paper will consider what religions are present in Japanese history. With specific focus on Confucianism, the paper will ask if Confucianism is the major religion of Japan; whether it is or not, the paper will render an understanding as to why.
Confucius, an important figure in Chinese history, created Confucianism. Confucius was a political figure, educator, and founder of the Ru school of Chinese thought (Stanford: 2006). Other great figures in Chinese thought have compared the influence of Confucius on the East to that of Socrates on the West (Stanford: 2006). His thoughts, his words, and his insights became a model by which many people integrated into their lives. His influence was not only felt by the Chinese; again, Confucius influenced the East in general. His philosophies focus upon how one should live life, how one should interact with others, and the parts of society in which one should participate. Confucius taught that people are responsible for their actions and how they treat the other people who populate life. He saw an individual's existence minute in comparison to the movements of the universe; nonetheless, individuals retain power over their goals and deeds.
The tone of Confucianism is one that is peaceful and cooperative. In addition to accountability and responsibility, Confucianism stresses the importance of compassion and loving others. Practicing compassion and love humbles the spirit and inhibits the ego from growing excessive. Confucius would have not approved of boasting or hyperbole when referring to oneself. This is a tradition that additionally values family and self-discipline. Confucius claimed that the content of his messages were not his own, but were old practices learned from ancestors and antiquity (Stanford: 2006). He valued self-restraint and respect. Confucianism further emphasizes respect for one's family members as well as for one's superiors. These beliefs are very deeply rooted in position and status in society, as reflected in the practices and behaviors of many Asian cultures influenced by Confucianism currently.
Confucianism is concerned with political struggles and figures, too. He believed that the practice of self-discipline must extend to those who govern the people. He believed that those who govern should care for the people with love and maintain sincere concern for their well being (Stanford: 2006). Perhaps because in Confucius' time, there was political strife and collapse, that his views toward society and governance are idealistic with altruistic threads. Perhaps he hoped for a future where his philosophies were put into practice and proved effective for the country on a national level and the people on the individual level. For Confucius, truly effective leadership came from those who retain a sort of moral virtue (Stanford: 2006). He connected the practice of ancient Chinese rituals to the maintenance of this governing virtue. Confucius concluded that when these rituals were performed with sincerity and accuracy, generated a magical quality of their own; evidence of the magic substantiated a leader's virtue and therefore, ability to lead in general (Stanford: 2006) Leaders could maintain or build the virtue or moral character necessary to be an ideal leader by learning and practicing ceremonies and rites practice by their great ancestors. Learning is crucial to successful leadership and successful society:
Persistent and sustained study is advocated in Confucianism. It in interesting; in contrast to other religions who put stock and credibility in things such as intuition, natural talent or ability and faith in those, Confucius did not concur. Confucius was a strong advocate for long, careful study. For him, that was the only way to acquire real knowledge upon a subject (Stanford: 2006). It is a fine line for a follower to walk: to study carefully and diligently, yet not study so much to become excessively reflectively or contemplative -- these are the instructions of Confucianism. Confucius, like ancient Greek philosophers and other Eastern philosophers such as Buddha, pose questions to followers and come upon lessons of life through discourse. This, too, was a form of valuable education for Confucius. Furthermore, Confucius was concerned with a person having a moral education as well as a formal one. Again, when he lived, Confucius perceived a lack of moral conscience in society; thus, his teachings reflect the times and conditions in which he lived as he imagined and shaped a better future.
Ultimately, the goals of Confucianism are lofty, yet somehow attainable, if in degrees and not extremes. A goal of Confucianism included creating individuals (men) who were articulate and well rounded. He knew that society needed people who were not superficial or shallow. In some ways, he simply wanted to return to a time when people said what they meant and meant what they said -- when actions aligned with words and both were productive and not self-serving (Stanford: 2006).
Evidence of the practice of Confucianism in Japan dates back to the 12th century. Confucian philosophy in Japan has been a major factor, arguably the most determining factor, of early-modern and modern worldviews held by Japan (Stanford: 2008). Scholars contend that the Confucian legacy manifest in Japanese science, religion, humanities, and even linguistically. The Japanese word for college or university, daigaku (?
), comes from the title of a Confucian book, Daxue (The Great Learning), which was known to be the "gateway to learning for adults." (Stanford: 2008)
The Chinese writing system was brought to the Japanese around the fifth century. It was centuries later that the Japanese adapted and widespread literacy proliferated. As the Japanese read and applied Confucian concepts to their country, it was a time of transition. Various Japanese clans formed a central government near the old capital, Kyoto, and the nearby cities of Osaka and Nara. Literacy gave the Japanese access to literature and ideas. They read the works of Confucius. They changed their society and modeled social and political orders after structures outlined in Confucian texts. Confucian texts provided the Japanese with the social constructs, relationships, and social behaviors that are widely practiced today and are part and parcel of Japanese culture. (Kasulis: 1998) The Japanese took away many of Confucius' ideas about interaction and social life and implemented them in their changing cultural landscape. Relationships and duties were clear and outlined five basic dyadic relations: master/servant; parent/child; husband/wife; elder sibling/younger sibling; and friend/friend (Kasulis: 1998). People in higher social positions take care of those in lower ones; in return those in lower positions are bound by loyalty to their superiors. Thus, every person has a place; every person is cared for. In every Japanese social situation and interaction, there is a version of these relationships in place and those in their positions behave accordingly. The Japanese though did not specifically show interest in full adaption of Confucianism; they seem to do with Confucianism what they do with many foreign cultural items: they take what they find useful from it, alter it to make it Japanese, and proceed in a better position from which they began. From fashion, to religion, to music trends -- the Japanese adapt foreign cultural artifacts, "Japanize" them, and move forward.
Confucianism contributed to Japan's modernization during and after the Meiji Restoration (1868). The modernization of Japan came about due to an extended series of events, but one important encounter came with Commodore Matthew C. Perry. He was the first Westerner Japan encountered for many years. Upon his arrival, the Japanese understood clearly what ways in which Western culture and military capacity advanced beyond theirs. Thus the thrust to modernize was a necessity of survival as those who do not change with the times are destroyed by them. Confucian "served to cultivate academic brains" (Horie: 1962). This was a time of supreme change in Japan. People needed to be prepared to learn vast quantities to catch up and surpass cultural competitors. Confucianism provided a logical philosophy of education and a method of pedagogy that was conducive to the culture. Moreover, Confucianism made possible the "acceptance of Western Learning." (Horie: 1962) This again, was crucial in the Japanese making strides in cultural progression. Finally, as Confucianism was so deeply rooted in Japanese social relations and politics, the Japanese put "nationalism in Confucianism." (Horie: 1962) Horie explains that the Japanese
"approach to the Western sciences was nationalistic in the sense that they attached primary importance to the national interests; and this is what was systematically and logically advocated by Confucianism. It may be true that the Japanese people are nationalistic by nature, but it was through Confucianism that such nationalistic thought was developed into a systematic ideology." (Horie: 1962)