In a 1974 movie called The Yakuza, it is claimed that the Japanese do not believe in a heaven or hell. Granted, the film’s story/screenplay was written by three non-Japanese (Paul Schrader, Leonard Schrader and Robert Towne) but The Yakuza seems authoritative where Japanese culture and history are concerned. I mention this at the outset because most Westerners know little about the Japanese except what they learn via cinema and television. Another reason I mention it is because non-Japanese “experts” have a habit of making bogus generalizations similar to the one above.
An effective antidote to misrepresentations of this type is Masaharu Anesaki’s “History of Japanese Religion” (1930). Though it emerged from the first half of the twentieth century and is somewhat antiquated in places, it provides readers with a rich and epic picture of Japan’s religious story.
As presented by Anesaki, Japanese religion is shown to be as diverse as it is profound. He approaches his subject, not as an aloof outsider, but as a historian who is himself religious (Buddhist). As such, his observations are consistently insightful and yet critical when necessary. There is nothing partisan about him. For example, his treatment of the Christian presence in Japan is conveyed in a fair and sympathetic manner. Readers learn about the introduction, growth, and eventual destruction of Christianity under the Tokugawa Shogunate during the 1600s. ‘Thus was established,’ Anesaki writes, ‘a reign of national seclusion lasting over two centuries, certainly due to the “evils” of Kirishitan [Christianity] but more to the caprice or cowardice of a tyrant.’
His book introduces readers to an impressive array of religious figures, some of whom have about them a distinctive glow of holiness. The ones that stood out for me are Hōnen (1133-1212), the great founder of Japan’s Pure Land Buddhism; Nakaye Tōju (1608-48), a Confucian who was called “the Sage of Ōmi”; Kino (1756-1826), a non-denominational religious teacher and prophetess; Kurozumi Munetada (1779-1849), a Shinto teacher whose religion ‘verged on monotheism pure and simple’; and Ryōsen Tsunashima (died 1908), a Christian mystic. There are many others who are noteworthy, but these struck me as especially attractive or intriguing.
Anesaki concludes his history on a somewhat pessimistic note. The organized religious bodies of his era—in particular, Christian, Buddhist and Shinto—are subjected to a measure of sharp and no doubt deserved criticism. For example: ‘The missionaries who still play an integral part in many of the Churches are often too much representative of their respective nationalities; they identify their own national manners, habits, even prejudices, with the Christian religion’.
However, the overall effect of “History of Japanese Religion” is positive. From no other source have I gained such a clear and comprehensive description of its titular subject. Moreover, Anesaki’s book excels not only as an instructive historical guide but as an affirmation of the human need for religious purpose.