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"Wild Geese" by Kano Sanraku (late 1500s)

Preparing the Field for Secularity in Medieval Japan

This essay makes a strong case that the social, political, economic and ideological developments that accompanied the transition from the Heian (794–1185) to the Kamakura period (1185–1333) generated epistemic and social structures of a longue durée that remained permanently available as a resource for a Japanese form of secularity.

In sociological theories, secularisation is often seen as the result of historical processes that initially took place in Europe and in Europe alone. Secularisation in other regions is said to be merely due to the influence of “the West.” Generally speaking, the term secularisation refers to a process of change in the relationship between the religious and the non-religious – usually to the detriment of the religious. In any case, secularisation presupposes a distinction between the religious and the non-religious. We refer to this binary distinction as “secularity.” 

Secularisation has always been closely linked to modernisation. The origin of both processes is assumed to be bound in the “West”, so that modernisation, just like secularisation, in non-Western societies is usually equated with “Westernisation.” And yet it is obvious that secularisation and modernisation occurred much more quickly and comprehensively in some societies than in others. The breath-taking speed of economic and technological modernisation in Japan since the late 19th century has driven both Japanese and Western sociologists and historians in the 20th century to search for functional equivalents to the “Protestant ethic” in Japanese history. Max Weber had famously assumed that a certain mentality was a precondition for unleashing the enormous economic dynamism that eventually gave rise to the capitalist economic system and a process of rationalisation that was rendered as “secularisation” (a term Weber never used) by later interpreters. Weber saw a strong affinity between a Protestant ethic, which was determined by the desperate search for the certitudo salutis, the certainty of salvation, and the “spirit of capitalism.” Eventually, however, the Protestant ethic lost its spiritual foundation, and what remained was a secularised version of the capitalist ethos.

In his Wirtschaftsethik der Weltreligionen, Weber himself had searched for the reasons why a modern capitalist economy could apparently only develop in those parts of Europe and in North America, which were dominated by “ascetic Protestantism.” Like Weber, the vast majority of Japanese and Western sociologists and historians came to the conclusion that although isolated ideas can be traced in Japanese intellectual history that could be considered functional equivalents for Protestant ethics, these ideas failed to gain epistemic dominance. Accordingly, Western influence was needed to set a process of modernisation and secularisation in motion. 

Robert Bellah, for example, has suggested that the Japanese lacked a concept of transcendence. This, however, was the prerequisite for a distancing from the world, a distinction between religious and non-religious spheres and thus for a secularisation that enables non-religious spheres of society such as the economy to develop freely according to their own logic. Although the “axial religion” of Buddhism, which dominated Japanese culture for centuries, had a very strong concept of transcendence, according to Bellah, “the note of transcendence was soon lost. It was drowned out by the ground bass, so to speak, of the Japanese tradition of this-worldly affirmativeness, the opposite of denial” (Bellah 1991: 119).

But what does the “note of transcendence” have to do with “modernisation” and in particular with “secularisation,” which in classical sociological theories is seen as an inevitable concomitant of modernisation? In very simplified terms, the idea of a strong transcendence has two decisive consequences: 

(1) The idea of a world beyond the one we live in makes it possible to take a (fictitious) external observer’s point of view from which the world can be critically observed. The world and society are no longer without alternatives. They can be seen as inadequate and thus in need of change. This creates the possibility of active social reformation and dynamic development up to the point of modernisation. 

(2) The strict distinction between transcendence and immanence creates free spaces for autonomous development on both sides of the binary. In terms of social structure, the distinction is typically manifested in the form of a differentiation between spiritual and temporal power, each with its own means and purposes. These concede each other extensive autonomy with regard to the execution of their specific tasks. This division of labour facilitates social differentiation and the dynamic development of autonomous social spheres. At the end of this development, according to sociologist Niklas Luhmann, stands the functional differentiation of society into “autopoietic” subsystems. Functional differentiation is in turn considered the only one of the three dimensions of secularisation identified by José Casanova that is largely undisputed in sociology today.

So if – as Shmuel Eisenstadt and Johann Árnason (2003) in agreement with Bellah suggested – the “axial religion” of Buddhism was “de-transcendentalized,” “de-universalized” and thus “de-axialized” in Japan and the “ground bass […] of this-worldly affirmativeness” prevailed, the question arises as to why the modernisation and secularisation of Japan unfolded so rapidly nevertheless. Were there indigenous resources whatsoever to draw on and which have accelerated the process of modernisation and secularisation? Or is the process simply based on a particularly successful copying of Western models? 

I contend that the Japanese in the 19th century were well prepared to separate religious from secular matters and thus created a specific form of secularity. The distinction between a secular and a religious sphere of social action – in modern diction – has a long history in Japan. Powerful conceptual resources were available that greatly facilitated a “religionisation” of Buddhism and a “secularisation” of politics, economics, law, etc., under global conditions – thus paving the way for a culture-specific form of “secularity” in modern Japan. 

I venture to suggest that social, political, economic and ideological developments that in 12th through 14th century generated epistemic and social structures of a longue durée that remained permanently available as a resource for a specific Japanese form of secularity. To support this thesis and at the same time operationalise “secularity,” I will focus on some developments commonly associated with secularisation: disenchantment, rationalisation, individualisation and social differentiation.

As to disenchantment – understood in a strictly Weberian sense as “the elimination of magic as a means of salvation” – we see a clear trend within the increasingly influential Pure Land tradition of Japanese Buddhism that emerged around 1200 to reject “salvation by works” (Werkheiligkeit) and by ritual activities. In the eyes of such influential thinkers as Hōnen (1133–1212) and Shinran (1173–1263), regarded as the founders of the largest Buddhist tradition in Japan by far, prayers and rituals could help to achieve this-worldly benefits at best and were therefore not regarded as activities based on the Buddha Dharma. The way of the Buddha, they claimed, is only concerned with salvation – and salvation solely depends on the grace of the Buddha Amida.

The only thing that a person longing for salvation could do, was to firmly believe in his/her sinfulness and utter inability to liberate him/herself by his/her own power and to completely rely on the salvific “other power” of the Buddha instead. This clearly entails an individualisation and a confessionalisation of religiosity, since salvation requires personal faith, confession and commitment, whereas good works, mediation by priests, and ritual or “magical” means are considered utterly useless.

To the extent that daily conduct was decoupled from the quest for salvation, it could be rationalised in accordance with mundane purposes. Initially, the Pure Land doctrine inspired many of its believers to dismiss all mundane activities. Accordingly, many followers of this doctrine were prone to antinomianism or world-rejection. Eventually, however, the leaders of the tradition, Zonkaku (1290–1373) and Rennyo (1415–1499) in particular, succeeded in domesticating their followers. The general attitude now was to outwardly perform one’s duties in this defiled world and to be an obedient subject of the worldly authorities and abide by the ruler’s law while inwardly longing for salvation by “the other power” of the Buddha Amida as recommended by the Buddha’s law. “Thus,” to say it in Weber’s words, “the goal of religious behavior” was “successively ‘irrationalized’ until finally otherworldly non-economic goals” came “to represent what is distinctive in religious behavior.” Arguably, the disentanglement of economic, intra-mundane goals, activities and values from soteriological, extra-mundane ones facilitated the rationalisation of both spheres, the “religious” and the “secular.”

Corresponding to this, on the basis of a strong dichotomy of transcendence (e.g., the Buddha’s Pure Land) and immanence (the defiled world governed by the laws of karmic retribution), the paradigm of the interdependence of two complementary but clearly distinct nomospheres was established: the nomosphere of the Buddha (represented by Buddhist institutions) and the nomosphere of the ruler (represented by state institutions). The concomitant institutional differentiation of a “religious” and a “secular” power block can be seen as the social-structural corollary of the epistemic structure of the transcendence/immanence binary. The clear distinction between the nomosphere of the Buddha – focusing on extra-mundane salvation – and the nomosphere of the ruler – in charge of intra-mundane benefits – facilitated an autonomous development of the “religious” and the “political” spheres, as it were.  

True, there were also countervailing tendencies and alternative world views. A large proportion of Buddhist thinkers instead propagated a monistic worldview according to which the distinction between the intra-mundane and the extra-mundane, between suffering within the cycle of birth and death and liberation from that cycle was ultimately illusory. 

Whether “the Japanese tradition of this-worldly affirmativeness” was actually as dominant throughout history, as Bellah claimed, is certainly debatable to say the least. But even if Bellah was right, we must concede that epistemic and social resources for secularity were available as early as in the 13th century. Secularity in the sense of “interrelated epistemic and social structures in which given social configurations are conceptually cast into a binary taxonomy in terms of classifying things as either religious or nonreligious” had become a viable option.

In fact, when in the 19th century in the process of building a modern nation-state the relationship between religion and the state had to be renegotiated, Buddhist thinkers in the so-called True Pure Land tradition, which was not only the largest tradition but also the intellectually most productive one, resorted to the paradigm of the interdependence of the Buddha’s nomosphere and the ruler’s nomosphere quite naturally. 

Furthermore, I assume that “secularisation” presupposes the “religionisation” of given socio-cultural formations. The process of a “religionisation” of Buddhism had already been prepared by various state measures in the Edo period (1603–1868). For the purpose of a complete control and instrumentalisation of Buddhism by the state, a comprehensive “denominationalisation” as well as a reinforcement of confessionalisation and individualisation of Buddhism took place. Individual affiliation to a Buddhist temple with a clear denominational identity was compulsory, but the state’s measures to verify confession implicitly presupposed an individual decision of conscience. The lack of actual freedom of confession stood in a strange tension with the principled recognition of the individual and conscientious character of the confession. In any case, in the 19th century it was easy to declare affiliation to Buddhism (or to Christianity, which was legalised in 1873) to be an individual decision of conscience and thus a private matter (which it had not been in the previous 250 years!). A privatisation of religious affiliation as a voluntary confession of an individual can be seen as a prerequisite for secularity in a modern understanding.

In summary, it can be said that in asserting the organising principle of secularity as a prerequisite for being acknowledged as a modern nation-state in global modernity, the Japanese could draw on endogenous epistemic and social structures with a long history without major difficulties. Prior trends towards disenchantment, rationalisation, individualisation, confessionalisation, social differentiation and so forth facilitated the establishment of a specific form of secularity in the late 19th century. 

This does not mean that there have not been frictions and tensions in the creative appropriation of Western ideas of an appropriate differentiation between the religious and the secular in modern nation-states. For instance, the status of Shintō is the subject of long-lived constitutional debates still today: Is Shintō the primary religion of Japan or a kind of non-religious national cult to which the privileges and restrictions of religious corporations codified in the constitution therefore do not apply? Shintō thus proves to be a socio-cultural formation that eludes the binary scheme of religious-secular – even if the problem of classification is in fact less an epistemological than a political one.

The example of Japan shows that antecedent forms of secularity can also be found outside Western cultures and in pre-modern times. And yet, the historical conditions and corresponding path dependencies vary greatly from civilisation to civilisation, so that a multiplicity of secularities can be found in global modernity that cannot simply be viewed as deficient variants of a prototypical Western secularity (whatever that might be).

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Preparing the Field for Secularity in Medieval Japan

This essay makes a strong case that the social, political, economic and ideological developments that accompanied the transition from the Heian (794–1185) to the Kamakura period (1185–1333) generated epistemic and social structures of a longue durée that remained permanently available as a resource for a Japanese form of secularity.

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Some narratives about secularization and modernization processes which include pre-modern history still tend to postulate a trajectory of an early emergence of secularity in Europe, particularly in the form of a separation of church and state beginning during the European Middle Ages. But more recent findings suggest that medieval Christian Europe remained quite comparable to other cultural constellations: Rather than a secular sphere, political dynamics produced demands for the de-politicization of religion, or at most, situations and social spaces of ‘neutrality.’

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The Irrationality of Religion revisited

If religious norms are considered to be rational, how are they different from secular ones? This essay revisits this question through the prism of the Jewish discourse of the reasons for the commandments.


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