Fall 2009/Winter 2010
Takeshi Umehara, director general of the International Research Center for Japanese Studies in Kyoto, is Japan’s most famous philosopher, controversial for his idea of Japanese “uniqueness.” Umehara, also a playwright, is author of such books at The Concept of Hell, The Exiling of the Gods and Japan’s Deep Strata.
Back in 1990, I sat down with him in his office amid the bamboo forests that cover the hills surrounding Kyoto to get an Eastern view of the theme raised by Western thinkers from Arnold Toynbee to Lewis Mumford: the central role of the religious imagination in the rise and fall of civilizations.
Here, he sets out his ideas in an essay tracing his disillusionment with Western philosophy and his rediscovery of Japan’s Shinto roots. Our conversation follows.
Kyoto—The experience of losing the war in 1945 brought to Japan a sudden collapse of the value structure that had supported and guided it in the past. It was probably then, for the first time, that the Japanese were capable of understanding the nihilism of European existentialism.
In the immediate postwar period, young intellectuals like myself understood—on the basis of our personal experience—what this philosophical position meant. Having had the experience of the death of those around us, and having faced almost certain death ourselves—particularly with the horrifying specter of the nuclear holocaust at Hiroshima and Nagasaki—we simply could not place any faith in a secure life. I devoured the works of Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger and spent my youth filled with doubts and anxieties. Like so many others, consciously or unconsciously, I became an existentialist who could not place my faith in any claim to objective values, including those of the traditional Japanese moral code.
Yet, as I married and became established, and as Japan itself began to get back on its feet, I started to feel that I could not continue living by staring into the void. I began to feel that I could not survive by a philosophy that emphasized the uncertainties of existence. Since the latest thinking in the West offered only this emptiness, perhaps, I began to think, there were certitudes of great import for all of humanity to be found hidden in the culture and religious history of Japan that survived all around me.
First, I became interested in the teaching of the various sects of Japanese Buddhism—teachings that became part of our mental makeup without being a part of our conscious thought.
Then I began to study Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan. It was at this time that I came to believe there was something in the Shinto religious orientation of Japan, rooted in its ancient cultural origins, that could offer a philosophy of existence that fundamentally differed from the inevitable dead end of European thought. Further, through my research on the religions of native Japanese tribes, Ainu and Okinawan, I found common elements peculiar to both Japanese and to Shinto.
For a variety of reasons, little was taught in our universities about Japan’s cultural origins. Ever since the Meiji period, Japanese academic circles had regarded mastering the theories and scholarly disciplines of the advanced European countries as of the utmost importance. Additionally, during the nationalistic prewar days, fears that the sanctity of the nationalistic polity would be desecrated—a polity that consisted of chauvinistic State Shintoism linked to the notion of divine rule by the Emperor, or tenno—independent research into traditional Japanese topics was severely constrained.
Frankly, I had an allergic reaction to Shinto for many years, due to my bitter memories of chauvinistic State Shintoism linked to the war. And, precisely because of the close link between State Shintoism and the war, the American occupiers after the war harbored no enthusiasm for the recovery of Japan’s cultural identity.
Even as Japan’s economic recovery took on the sheen of world-class might, our cultural recovery lagged far behind. Although I have now been pursuing my research for years, it was not until the Nakasone government in the mid-1980’s that the first major institute—the International Research Center for Japanese Studies—was established in Kyoto to delve fully into the founding truths of Japanese culture.
My hope now is to discover in the cultural origins of Japan not only a new value orientation, which would benefit us as we forge the values our children can live by in the 21st century but also a contribution to the whole world of humanity of a new value orientation that suits the postmodern age.
Japan’s Pride | If Japan’s civilization has any value, it rests in the fact that it retains the strong imprint of the forest civilization of its origins, the civilization of hunting and gathering. Two-thirds of Japan is covered by forests, and about 40 percent of the total area is growing in its natural state without human intervention. No other major industrial nation today can boast such a large share of forest land. This is a feature peculiar to Japan. I believe we should be more proud of our forests than of anything else, and that we must continue to treasure them.
There are two historical reasons why Japan has so much forest land left. One is that farming came to our country relatively late: only about 2,300 years ago. Japan basically became an agricultural nation during what we call the Yayoi period, which began about three centuries before Christ, and lasted for about six hundred years. Before the Yayoi period, the Japanese—like people in other countries in early times—were hunters and gathers or, it might be more accurate to say, fishers and gathers. And it appears that the fishing and gathering culture was particularly highly developed in Japan. Evidence for this is found in the earthenware that has been excavated in Japan, some of which has been scientifically dated as twelve or thirteen thousand years old. Together with some earthenware that has recently been found in Siberia, this is the oldest anywhere in the world.
Japan’s warm and humid climate produces luxuriant vegetation, which fostered the development of a fishing and gathering culture. This culture was probably at its apex about five and six thousand years ago, just when the farming culture of the Yellow River in neighboring China was rapidly developing.
This early Japanese civilization, which is represented by the earthenware found around the country (particularly in eastern Japan), is called Jomon. I believe that it can be considered a true forest culture, in contrast to the Yayoi civilization that followed it, which was a rice-growing culture. One reason for the persistence of forests in Japan is the fact that the Jomon civilization lasted so long and the introduction of agriculture came at a relatively late date.
Another reason for the survival of Japan’s many forests is the fact that the agriculture that reached Japan’s shores was from the rice-growing culture of China’s Yangtze River basin. This form of agriculture made use only of the plains, leaving the mountains and hills mostly untouched. This is different from the practice of a wheat-growing culture, which also cultivates the slopes. Another point is that the form of agriculture introduced into Japan did not involve the raising of animals on pasture land, which could also have meant cutting down the trees on the hills and mountains.
In my view, Japan’s culture is not unitary, as has traditionally been thought, but binary. It is analogous to Greek culture as viewed by Nietzsche, who analyzed two sorts of elements: the Apollonian and the Dionysian. In Japan’s case, the two elements are the Jomon fishing and gathering, or forest, civilization, and the Yayoi rice-growing, or paddy, civilization. Recently, some physical anthropologists have been advancing the view that the races of people who were the principal carriers of these two civilizations were themselves distinct. They suggest that the forest culture was carried on by an early type of Mongoloid people living in Japan since ancient times, while the paddy culture was the product of a newer type of Mongoloid people who arrived during the Yayoi period. Various research supports this hypothesis, which destroys the traditional assumption that the Japanese come from a homogenous race of farmers.
Shinto: Religion of the Forest | This background has also had a major impact on the shaping of religious thought in Japan. Japan’s major religions are Buddhism and Shinto. Buddhism is known to have come originally from India, passing through China on its way to Japan, but Shinto is generally thought of as an indigenous religion.
Shinto has come to the fore as Japan’s national religion twice during the course of the nation’s history. The second time this happened was in the latter part of the 19th century and the earlier part of the 20th, when it was used as in ideological expression of Japan’s nationalistic philosophy—influenced at that time by European thinking, particularly by the model of Prussia and by Bonapartism.
The previous period of State Shinto, so to speak, was in the 7th and 8th centuries, when Japan first took shape as a nation state. This was the period when the name Nippon was adopted for the country, and the title tenno was first applied to its monarchs; Shinto was the established religion of this new state. Two of its key rituals were harai and misogi. Harai, which may be translated as “purification” or “exorcism,” represented the driving out of elements or persons harmful to the state. Misogi, or “ritual cleansing,” was the forced correction or reform of such harmful persons.
I believe, however, that Shinto originated as a form of nature worship, rooted in the civilization of the forest, and had nothing to do with this sort of nationalism. It is hard to determine exactly what sort of world view was present in the original Shinto, but based on various forms of conjecture, I would suggest that it may have been something like this:
When people die, their souls depart from their bodies and go to the world of the dead. The old Japanese word for conducting a funeral is hofuru, which means to discard or throw away. And the word for corpse is nakigara, which might be translated as “empty remains.” It is like the word nukegara that is used for the cast-off skin of a snake or shell of an insect. In other words, it is something that no longer has any use or meaning. And the ancient practice was simply to leave the remains exposed in the woods or fields, like any other item to be discarded.
The world of the dead in this original Shinto view is located somewhere in the sky. The spirits that go there live in families, just as on earth. Life in that world is similar to life in this world, with the exception that everything there is backward. Here we walk with our feet down, but there they walk with their feet up. Here we dress with the right side of the kimono underneath and the left side on top. There the left side is underneath and the right side on top. When it is morning here, it is evening there; when it is summer there, it is winter there, and so forth.
What is particularly noteworthy about Shinto is that this view of the afterworld contains no vision of heaven or hell. Nor is there any figure who passes judgment on people after they die. In the Shinto view, almost everybody gets to go to the afterworld. In some cases, the soul may refuse to go because it remains too attached to the world of the living, and, of course, if a person has been too evil while alive, the ancestral spirits may refuse to welcome that person’s soul. In cases like these, the priest conducting the funeral must make doubly strong invocations to be sure that the soul actually makes it to the other world.
All the souls that reach the afterworld become Kami. The word Kami in this context is generally translated as “god” with a small g, but actually it refers to any being that is more powerful than normal humans. For example, snakes, wolves, foxes and other animals that often harm people are also considered to be kami.
Thus, in the Shinto view, the souls of the dead go to the afterworld, where they live with their families more or less as they lived on earth. Furthermore, the two worlds—the world of the living and the world of the dead—are not cut off from each other. There are four Buddhist memorial days during which the spirits of the departed return to the world of the living: at New Year’s, at midsummer, and at the equinoxes in spring and fall. They spend about three days with the families of their descendants, who wait on them and then send them off on their return journey to the afterworld. By waiting on the spirits of their ancestors during these four annual visits, the people of this world ensure that these spirits will look after them for the rest of the year.
After living in the other world for a time, the spirits of the dead are reborn in this world. When a child is conceived, the representatives of the ancestors on both sides of the family get together and decide whose turn it is to go back. The spirit of the person so selected then returns to the world of the living and slips into the womb of the mother, where it enters the unborn child.
Shinto Influence on Buddhism | What I have been describing are the beliefs of the Japanese before the arrival of Buddhism, but these beliefs continue to live among the Japanese of today. Most people in Japan are both Shintoists and Buddhists. To the Japanese mind, there is nothing contradictory about this. In general terms, rites relating to the dead are the province of Buddhism, while the rites of the living are the domain of Shinto. More specifically, Buddhist rituals are used for funerals, anniversary memorial services, and the services for the dead that are conducted at New Year’s, midsummer, and the equinoxes. Shinto rituals are used for weddings, birth celebrations, and shichigosan, the special celebrations for boys at ages three and five and for girls at ages three and seven.
Originally, of course, all these rites must have been Shinto, but when Buddhism appeared on the scene, it took over the central rites, namely, those relating to the passage from this world to the next. It is hard to trace the way Buddhism changed after being introduced to Japan, but it seems fair to state that the Buddhism that developed in Japan and won the belief of the Japanese people is a religion quite different from that originally created in India by Sakyamuni Buddha and his followers.
In the Buddhism of Gautama, the world is seen as a place of suffering. Human beings, and in fact all living creatures, are reborn each time they die, and thus they must face a perpetual cycle of pain. According to the teachings of this creed, the reason humans are trapped in this unending cycle is because of their passions. This requires a life of following the commandments, meditating and learning. Through such a life, a person can hope to attain a state of quiet enlightenment, or nirvana, that will make it possible to leave the world of suffering forever. Buddhahood, in other words, means breaking free of the cycle of reincarnation.
In this form of Buddhism, only human beings are candidates for Buddhahood. And even for humans, the only way to become a Buddha is through religious training (including mortification of the senses) and study. But after being introduced into Japan, this religion changed dramatically. In contrast to the original teaching, which held that only a minority of people were eligible to become Buddhas, the religion as it developed in Japan gradually widened the scope of potential Buddhahood to encompass all human beings and ultimately even nonhumans. Around the 10th century, an influential school of thought arose that proclaimed, “Mountains and rivers, grasses and trees, all can become Buddhas.” This school of thought has formed the basis for the various forms of Buddhism that have evolved in Japan since then, though the methods that are prescribed for attaining Buddhahood—such as chanting and meditation—differ from one sect to another.
Another feature of Buddhism in Japan is the common practice of giving posthumous religious names to dead people. This, in effect, certifies that the deceased person has become a Buddha. Even in today’s Japan, people often refer to the dead as Hotoke—Sama, or Buddhas. In other words, the Buddhism that has taken root in Japan seems to have been influenced by the traditional Shinto belief that all people become Kami (gods) when they die.
Another interesting parallel between Buddhism in Japan and the original Shinto beliefs is to be found in Jodo Shinshu, or the True Sect of the Pure Land, which was founded by Shinran in the 13th century and continues to be one of the main sects. Shinran preached the value of two types of eko, or transferences of one’s virtue to others for the attainment of Buddhahood. One, called oso-eko, means that a Buddhist devotee calling Amitabha’s name at the deathbed could attain Buddhahood by being reborn in the Pure Land, or Amitabha’s paradise, after his or her death. This was preached by Honen, Shinran’s teacher, in the 12th century. In addition to this, Shinran stressed the other type of eko called genso-eko, which refers to the return of a dead person to this world from the Pure Land in order to save others.
According to Shinran, this is the sort of act performed by a Bodhisattva, who is a person who seeks to relieve the sufferings of others and save their souls. In other words, through the practice of nenbutsu, or chanting the praises of Amitabha Buddha, a person can go to paradise; being Bodhisattva, however, such a person will not be content to remain there forever but will return to this world to relieve the living of their pain.
Shinran maintained that the true practitioners of nenbutsu were those who would keep returning to the world of the living time after time for the salvation of other humans. This seems quite similar indeed to the Shinto belief in reincarnation. Over the centuries of its evolution in Japan, culminating with the teaching of Shinran, Buddhism developed thinking that was amazingly similar to that of the indigenous religion.
The Eternal Cycle | To sum up, it seems clear that the belief in an eternal cycle of life and death is a basic element not only of Shinto but also of Japanese Buddhism. This is a belief that is surely not just Japanese; it was probably held in common by all human beings during the Stone Age. People who lived in the forest probably developed similar philosophies. The difference in Japan’s case is that this primitive thinking has shown a stronger ability to survive here than elsewhere.
It may be a primitive philosophy, but I believe that the time has come to reexamine its merits. Modern science has demonstrated that all life is basically one, and it has shown that living things and their physical surroundings are all part of a single ecosystem. Further, we have learned that even though the individual dies, his or her genes are carried on by future generations in a lasting cycle of rebirth. Even more important, the human race has finally realized that it can survive only in “peaceful coexistence” with the other life forms of the animal and plant worlds.
Ever since human beings learned how to raise crops and livestock, they have been attempting to control, or conquer, nature. And in the process of this conquest, they have come to see themselves as somehow superior to other living things. We must now reconsider this feeling of human superiority. In order to do so, we need to refer back to the wisdom of the people of the hunting and gathering age that preceded the age of farming and livestock raising.
The Rhythms of History | Arnold Toynbee understood world history as the rise and fall of various civilizations. He placed religion at the center of civilization, because he believed that it is religion that supports civilization. From this standpoint, it seemed to Toynbee that modern Western civilization, which had arisen from Christian civilization but had now weakened, was in grave danger.
I hold a pluralistic view of history, according to which any individual civilization or nation inevitably and repeatedly rises and falls. Any individual civilization necessarily has certain central ideas. When these ideas are valid and effective at a certain stage of history, then that civilization and the nation founded upon its principles are strong and prosperous. When, at another stage, the principles of that civilization go against the movement of history, then that civilization faces a decline. The principles of a single civilization can never be equally valid in all historical situations.
No doubt the nations of Europe, led by the principles of their civilization, have indeed played an overwhelmingly important role in history between the sixteenth century and the present. However, the times have now clearly changed. Nations based consciously or unconsciously on principles other than those of European culture have arisen and are now proclaiming principles that are unique to themselves. Moreover, the times are now such that the United States and the countries of Western Europe are having difficulty forcing the principles of their own civilization upon other nations. What the people of the world need to do under these circumstances is to form a clear idea of what the principles of European civilization really are: to determine what it is about those principles that no longer works in the present and, if civilizations other than that of Europe do indeed have some significance, to judge coolly just which aspects of those non-European civilizations may remedy the defects in the civilization of Europe.
West Meets East | Modernism, born in Europe, has already played itself out in principle. Accordingly, societies that have been built on modernism are destined to collapse.
Indeed, the total failure of Marxism—a side current of modernist society built on warped principles—and the dramatic break-up of the Soviet Union are only precursors to the collapse of Western liberalism, the main current of modernity. Far from being the alternative to failed Marxism and the reigning ideology “at the end of history,” liberalism will be the next dominion to fall.
Since modernism as a world view is exhausted, and now even constitutes a danger to mankind, the new principles of the coming postmodern era will need to be drawn primarily from the experiences of non-Western cultures, especially Japanese civilization.
Hegel regarded Descartes as the founder of modern philosophy with his famous principle cogito, ergo sum—I think, therefore I am. This idea placed man at the center of the universe. Descartes divided the world into two diametrically opposed realms—the realm of the thinking man and the realm of inert matter. He believed that the mind could better control matter through knowledge of the physical principles, or mechanical laws, of the material world. Natural science and technology are the expressions of this new view.
The rational liberalism of the West wholly embraces the Cartesian world view that made the individual—the thinking self—absolute, endorsed man’s total mastery over nature, and recognized only the existence of mind and matter. Nonhuman life was left entirely out of this picture.
Marxism adopted Descartes’ idea of the relationship between man and nature in a more exaggerated and crude way, seeking only to increase productive capacity by ruthlessly exploiting nature, extolling class hatred and harnessing man.
Guided by Cartesian philosophy, the modern world is wiping out nonhuman life and threatens to bring death to the human species as well. Is it so hard today to see that modernity, having lost its relationships to nature and the spirit, is nothing other than a philosophy of death?
Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky very seriously considered the Europe of their time to be in the “age of the death of God” and lamented that Europe was surely courting grave danger. I believe that their concern is now realized .No matter how tenaciously humans cling as individuals to the “self,” in the end this “self” is limited and destined to die. And if there is nothing beyond death, then what is wrong with giving oneself wholly to pleasure in the short time one has left to live? The loss of faith in the “other world” has saddled modern Western society with a fatal moral problem.
Modern Western civilization arose from Christian civilization. In Catholic Christianity, human beings go after death to purgatory where they await the Second Coming of Christ. At the end of time, Christ presides over the Last Judgment and decides the fate of each person: either to fall into everlasting Hell or to receive eternal bliss in Heaven. In other words, the soul of a person lives on even after death until the Last Judgment, when it is consigned either to Heaven or to Hell.
Modern European civilization rejected this concept of life after death as an unscientific delusion. Thus, people ceased to believe in the afterlife and took it that victory is possible in this present life only. It is thanks to so powerfully realistic an outlook that Westerners have conquered the world in modern times.
Because it successfully modernized without losing its soul, Japan is perhaps better positioned than other non-Western cultures, such as the Indians, who benignly dwell in the forests of South America, to offer guidance to postmodern man. In a sense, we have modernized while still preserving old principles, just as we became a ritsuryo society—a society of laws—through the Chinese influence in the 7th and 8th centuries.
Japan’s ancient, non-modern societal principles apply to art and culture as well. It is these ancient principles that I propose as Japan’s postmodern contribution. The first principle is a horizontal one – “mutualism,” or the ethics of interpersonal responsibility.
The second is a principle of vertical, or generational, responsibility born of the concept of “cyclicity” in time. This means that human society does not progress, as modernity would have it, or regress. Rather, the same spirit repeats itself in a continuous cycle of life, death and rebirth.
Such a view implies a responsibility to all the inhabitants of eternity because the other world is a living reality. It implies an ethic of being the custodian of the continuity of life instead of a one-shot plunderer during a brief episode of mortal splendor. In the Japanese imagination, the other world is present in every moment.
Mutualism | Tetsuro Watsuji, the Japanese philosopher, does not see ethics from the standpoint of the individual as modernism does, but rather from an interpersonal standpoint. His views reflect the mainstream beliefs of contemporary Japanese culture.
Watsuji has formulated a philosophical system that centers on the relationships of family, nation and society. In Japan, the word ningen, which means “person,” originally meant “between people.” Watsuji’s fundamental belief is that ethics do not originate in individuals but between people. Of course, this way of thinking comes from Confucianism; ningen is actually a Confucian word. The ethical foundations of Confucianism concern “devotion to one’s master and dutifulness to one’s parents.”
Quite obviously, such an ethics would support a feudal structure. Watsuji, who was strongly influenced by Immanuel Kant’s modernistic concepts of personality, thus does not place the ideas of loyalty and learning at the center of ethics. He gives more weight to horizontal rather than vertical relationships, proceeding from couples and families to the nation and society. Relationships are emphasized more than anything else. “Harmony,” first identified as the principle behind Japanese society by the great thinker and politician of the 10th century, Shotoku Taishi, is still today considered to be of supreme importance. In effect, whoever breaks ranks is censored by the silent majority in the name of equilibrium in the community.
Neither modern nor feudal and far from individualistic, the Japanese ethos is a modernistic transfiguration of Confucianism. Or rather it is modernism that has undergone a great transformation on Japanese soil.
Modern ethics, which make individualism the absolute value, have now reached their limit, causing us to forget that our essential responsibility is not self-expression or personal freedom but passing on life to posterity.
Certainly what is needed today is an ethics in which the highest value is placed not on the absolute rights of the individual but on the continuity of life, the continuation of civilization, of the species and the ecological system of the planet itself.
During the past 300 years, the West has built an abundant world based on the domination of nature by thinking man. For most of that period, non-Western man—“the other”—was also subjugated. But the West’s abundance is now threatened by the limits of nature to absorb the consequences of its plunder and by the resurgence, particularly in Asia, of prosperous and competitive non-Westerners.
In these tribal times of postmodern pluralism, we need new principles for the coexistence of all races, North and South. One such principle, which offers an alternative to dominance and submission among human beings, is “mutualism.” In this moment, what principle could be more necessary?
The principle of mutualism is also a necessary ethic between human beings and other living things. The world of the 21st century would do well to adopt the natural mutualism deeply embedded in Japanese civilization. It is expressed in the saying “Mountains, rivers, grass, and trees all attain Nirvana (Buddhahood).” This means that all natural phenomena can become Buddhas because all living things—plants, rivers, trees, animals, and man —are regarded equally.
Cyclicity | Cyclicity, the principle latent in Japanese religion and art, is a concept also shared by the Indians of America. It rejects the idea of breaks in the continuity of time, as with the modernist notion of the avant-garde. Finality is not a dimension of cyclical time.
Time does not begin with creation and end with death. Rather, the structure of time is seamless and recurrent. Life, death and rebirth are part of the same whole, continuous aspects of each other. There is thus a simultaneous sense of temporariness and eternity in Japanese religion and art. Life does not die, it goes on in renewable cycles. Life must be made anew before it becomes old.
For example, the Ise Shrine in Japan is rebuilt once every 20 years. This is the exact opposite of the Western idea of building eternal stone monuments. The renovation of the shrine represents the Japanese belief in renewable cycles: If God’s dwelling is not made new every 20 years, its spiritual power will wither.
The coronation ceremony for Emperor Akihito in 1991 was based on this same idea. The previous emperor’s life had grown old and died. The coronation is a ceremony in which the previous emperor’s spirit is received in the body of the new emperor, giving him spiritual strength.
Haiku is an art that links the passing moment, the temporariness of form, to the eternal cycle of the spirit. The four seasons always play significantly in Haiku, sharply portraying the passages and recurrences of an existence that is continually withering and regenerating.
The principle of cyclicity is also related to the ethic that the continuation of the family is more important than the individual, and the continuation of society and mankind more important than the family. In other words, the ethic of cyclicity is the custodianship of existence.
In Japanese culture, as in Indian cultures, there was the belief that the souls of descendants are the returned souls of the dead ancestors, the same lives passing through different earthly forms. The other world was not divided into Heaven and Hell. All who died lived together, even in the same family units as in this world. This belief appears to have been widely shared across the world well before the foundation of world religions such as Christianity or Buddhism.
Though this belief in a direct ancestor-descendant relationship no longer remains in Japanese culture, relics of it do. For example, the fact that Japanese soldiers in World War II didn’t seem to fear death as much as Westerners and recovered more quickly from the shock of defeat seems to have originated from their belief in the cyclical recurrence of life. Even today, most Japanese subscribe to the optimistic view that after the darkest hour, the dawn is sure to follow.
The immortality of the soul, or the recurrence of life in new forms, has, as I noted earlier, also been confirmed by genetics. Even though an individual dies, his or her genes are carried on by future generations in a lasting cycle of rebirth.
Cyclicity, I believe, is the new clock of postmodern time. French structuralists always cite Friedrich Nietzsche as the first postmodern thinker of the West. He discerned for Western philosophy—and aesthetics—the existential rhythm of “eternal recurrence” that Japanese civilization has long held as a fact of nature. But, imprisoned in the absolute subjectivity of the thinking man, Nietzsche could see only the death of God, not the continual rebirth of life. He couldn’t, so to speak, see the forest for the void, or the grass, animals and other living organisms of the ecosystem.
The central principles of the postmodernist world view, then, are mutualism and cyclicity: mutualism—ethics born out of relationships with the “other” and nature instead of by the self-interest of the absolute individual; and cyclicity—an ethics of generational responsibility born of the belief in continuous rebirth, a belief in the fusion of being and becoming into a time of eternal recurrence. With the scales pulled from its eyes by the dead end of modern philosophy, the West is just arriving at the realization of these truths lodged deep in the recesses of Japanese civilization.
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Nathan Gardels | How much of the harmonious quality of the Japanese religious practice results from a polytheistic belief in many gods, as opposed to the Western belief, rooted in Judaism, of one God? Is monotheism the cultural root of disharmony?
Isn’t a polytheistic religious orientation better suited to what in the West has been called a postmodern world—a world with plural centers of power, a world of plural truths?
Takeshi Umehara | I think monotheism has served to justify the exploitation and conquest of nature. While the polytheist sees mountains and rivers as gods, the monotheist believes in a single transcendent God and denies the reality of the gods of mountains and rivers, and so is free to exploit nature. I also think monotheism is a powerful spur to the conquest of other human beings.
Historically speaking, after its emergence during the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age, Christian monotheism became the dominant form of religion, the form of religion of the peoples who conquered the world. But as we enter a new age, both Christianity and European society are changing. The Catholic Church, for example, has recently come to value the opinion of Nicolaus Cusanus, who advocates the tolerance of contradiction. The Catholic Church has begun to recognize the existence of other religions. Because they have embraced freedom of religion, modern Westerners are inevitably becoming polytheistic.
Gardels | Obviously, the ideal of the civilization of the forest is at odds with rapid economic growth in Japan and the environmental destruction that growth entails. Even so, Japan is the most energy-efficient and least polluting of all advanced nations. But isn’t there a double standard with respect to the outside world? While 70 percent of Japan remains forested, Japanese timber companies are destroying the Malaysian forests.
Umehara | There is no question that the modern Japanese reality contradicts the ideal I put forward. Unfortunately, my opinion is a minority view in Japan. I ask you to wait 10 years. By then, I will have repeated my ideas again and again, whenever and wherever I have the opportunity to do so.
Civilization began with destroying the forest. King Gilgamesh, a hero of the Epic of Gilgamesh in ancient Sumer (present-day Iraq), had to kill the gods of the forest when he established the first urban civilization 5,000 years ago. It is hard to imagine that the now desolate Cradle of Civilization was once covered with forests.
While searching for economic prosperity, the Japanese have done the same thing, forgetting the value of their own country’s traditional culture. However, I have faith that when this aim has been achieved, the Japanese will gradually reflect upon their conduct and begin to understand how necessary and important it is to preserve the forest, not only in Japan but all over the world.
As I mentioned earlier, rice cultivation is less destructive to nature than wheat cultivation, which is mostly accompanied by cattle farming. In Japan, where the introduction of rice cultivation was comparatively late, its blending with the native forest culture and the hunting and gathering culture created an amalgamation unique to Japan.
Today, Japan’s goal should be to create another amalgamation—a new civilization —that blends the civilization introduced from Europe with the Japanese native culture of the forest.
Gardels | The journalist Ian Buruma has argued that your call for a return to the roots and origins of Japanese culture is little more than a racist belief in the blood superiority of the Japanese people, similar to the Nazi belief in the Volk.
Umehara | I have never advocated blood purity nor the racial superiority of the Japanese people. Habitually, I take a multiracial viewpoint in considering the history and makeup of the Japanese people. I always address issues related to Japanese culture, never blood. In short, I am not a Yamatoist—the national racialists associated with Japan’s World War II chauvinism.
As we’ve discussed, I trace the tradition of Japanese culture to the Jomon culture of some 12,000 years ago among the Ainu and Okinawan peoples. As a matter of fact, Japanese “supernationalists” who have strongly claimed the prewar concept of “blood purity” do not consider the Ainu to be Japanese from the ethnological standpoint. But I, almost alone among Japanese thinkers, say “learn from Ainu culture.” I have advocated and continue to advocate that we learn from the “wisdom” developed in the cultures not only of the Ainu but also of the American Indians, the tribes of Africa, and, indeed, many of the peoples who are today considered “undeveloped.” Hidden in all of their cultures is a deep wisdom that mankind cannot live without coexisting with nature.
I do not, however, advocate giving up modern life and its technologies in favor of a return to a “primitive life.” Indeed, I am saying that we are approaching a point where it will no longer be possible for mankind to live in opposition to nature. By learning more about early civilizations, I believe we can better transform ours from one that uses technology to conquer nature to one that employs technology to coexist with nature.
It is from this point of view—not from the standpoint of racial superiority—that I criticize the man-centered philosophies of modern European civilization.