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Havlicek, Jakub: Imagining Religion in Japan: Transformations of the

Category of 'Religion' in the Japanese Context.
In: Kemeneva, S. P. - Pakhomov, S. V. (ed.) Seventh International
Conference on Oriental Studies (Torchinov Readings): Metamorphoses,
June 22 - 25, 2011, Part II. St. Petersburg: Saint-Petersburg State
University, Faculty of Philosophy, Department of Eastern Philosophy and
Cultural Studies. Institute of Oriental Manuscripts. Saint-Petersburg
Philosophical Society, 2013, p. 143-150. ISSN 2306-8183
Please let me know If you quote this paper (havlicek.mail@gmail.com)




June 22 25, 2011


St. Petersburg

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J. Havliek
The main idea of this paper consists of justifying the usefulness of the
general term of religion for the purpose of the scholarly analysis of various phenomena we encounter in the context of Japanese society and culture.
Over the last decades, the scholars in the field of the social sciences are turning their attention to the history, preconditions, methods and theories of their
respective disciplines. The scholars critically treat various theories, methods,
general terms and concepts applied in social sciences. The post-modern, de J. Havliek, 2013


constructivist critique leads to many important and stimulating discoveries

of the biases, prejudices and implicit influences underlying many scholarly
accounts on cultural and social phenomena. Nevertheless, it may quite easily
result in confusion and misunderstanding, and sometimes even in questioning
or in denying the relevance of scientific study of social phenomena.
Similar development can be observed also within the field of the academic study of religions, and some distinguished authors are led to the conclusion that the consistent critical approach to the study of religions must
result in the abandonment of the term religion for the purpose of a responsible scholarly analysis (e. g. [Fitzgerald 2000]). Historians, anthropologists and sociologists of religions attempt to show how the discipline of the
academic study of religions and the very notion of religion itself develops in the context of Western1 thought (e. g. [Asad 1993; Dubuisson
2003; Smith 1998]). This leads to the question if and how we may apply the
Western theories and categories to the cultural and social phenomena encountered in non-Western, e. g. Asian societies and cultures. The application
of terms, theories and categories of the Western science to the phenomena observed in non-Western cultures becomes an easy target of criticism as
a form of a deplorable ethnocentrism or cultural and scientific imperialism2.
Jonathan Z. Smith [1998] describes the changes of the meaning of the
term religion, and he follows its development in the particular historical
The basic argument of this paper can be summarized as follows: the conceptualizations and theorizing together with the responsible and cautious simplifications
inevitably accompany the process of any scientific treatment of the so called social
reality. The author is aware of the various questions connected to such terms as
Western, Eastern, Asian, and even Japanese. None of these should be understood automatically as a monolithic, homogenous entity. Some inspiring suggestions concerning the uncritical application of such concepts can be found in the critical reaction to Samuel P. Huntington`s The Clash of Civilizations [1996] by Edward
W. Said [2001].
The critique of modern science has a long and interesting history and its
proponents are far from representing the unanimous collective for the summary
of the anti-science camp see: [Brown 2004]. I propose to call the most radical
critique of science the post-modern epistemological criticism. It claims that 1) the
scientific knowledge and the scientific truths are mere social constructs as well as
the so called reality (extreme anti-realist stance), that 2) the modern science and the
concepts of scientific truth legitimate the oppression and exploitation of nature and
humans, and therefore 3) the science does not differ from ideology. A good example
of this nihilist approach to science is represented by: [Hamm 2005].

context finding out the definition and understanding of the term religion to
be closely connected to the history of Western, European thinking. The word
religion has a long history and the modern meaning of the word religion
is based on Judeo-Christian thought, deeply influenced by antique Greek and
Roman philosophy. Its application to the phenomena encountered in the nonWestern context can be observed approximately from the 16th century, when
the Europeans begin to explore the foreign, exotic cultures and societies.
The notion of religion, used to describe mainly the ritual duties and obligations of the Christian monastic orders [Ibid.: 269270] becomes a universal
category applied to non-Christian phenomena. The travelers and conquerors
use the word usually as a general term for rituals, ceremonies, feasts,
sacrifices, idolatry, or even customs based on some doctrinal system
[Ibid.: 270]. The Protestantism with its emphasis on belief adds another
important ingredient to the understanding of religion. The doctrines and
practices as the main attributes of religion are supplemented by faith or
belief [Ibid.: 271].
If we take into consideration the classical sociological definition of
religion by mile Durkheim, the inspiration by European intellectual history seems to be obvious: We have arrived, then, at the following definition: a religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred
things, that is to say, things set apart and surrounded by prohibitions beliefs
and practices that unite its adherents in a single moral community called
a church ([Durkheim 2001: 46], italic in the original text).
There are all conventional or traditional constituents of religion
within this definition: a unified system (i.e. doctrines) of beliefs (the element
of faith) and practices (rituals and ceremonies). They are then related to the
sacred things even though Durkheim attempts to explain the term, the application of the word sacred can be seen as problematic for its rather vague
meaning. Durkheim is interesting in the social functions of religion and it is
not surprising that he regards religion as a collective, social activity forming
a community of followers or believers, the church.
Nevertheless it doesnt mean that Durkheim misses the point in his attempt to define religion nor that the religion cannot be defined. It is obvious
that any definition of religion cannot reflect the entire social and cultural
reality and the abundance of definitions of religion clearly demonstrates we
are about to deal with a very complex, multiple-layer phenomena. Jonathan
Z. Smith mentions a work by James H. Leuba, who lists more than fifty defi-



nitions of religion and according to Smith [1998: 281] it proves only one
single fact: the religion can be defined more than fifty ways!
It is quite natural that Durkheim, together with the dozens of scholars
who give the definition of religion1, rely on the previous tradition in the understanding of the term and that they are even taking into account the common sense in the understanding of the term. Besides respecting some given
principles2, the process of defining the field of scientific interest is naturally
connected to the social and cultural background. This background can bias
the process of acquiring the scientific knowledge if the scholar ignores it, if
he or she doesnt take into consideration the overall context of his or her fundamental principles, methods and theories it is rather simple to reveal this or
that term, theory or method as being biased. However it doesnt imply that
one should avoid using them, as some post-modern thinkers suggest, and the
deep knowledge of the background must be encompassed methodologically
within the scholarly work itself. Any responsible scholar probably wouldn`t
deny the importance of the deep knowledge of the history of key terms, methods and theories within the field of his or her studies, but it doesnt imply at
all we should avoid them because they are biased.
In the context of religions in Japan, the critique of the term religion
appears e. g. in a brief paper by Richard W. Anderson [1991]. He responds to
an essay by Ian Reader [1991a] on the practice of buying, inscribing and offering of the ema (), votive tablets on which the people write their wishes and prayers to the kami () and buddhas. Anderson argues that Japanese
people deny describing their activities in shrines and temples as religion,
shky (), or belief, shink (), preferring such words as fzoku
(), shkan (), kansh () or shzoku (), that means custom, habit, manners, or life patterns [Anderson 1991: 369]. In other

For a brief but highly informative survey of the topic of defining religion see:
[Arnal 2000].
The principles of the scientific work in social sciences consist of a complex issue themselves and they are subject to change in the course of the history of knowledge. Nonetheless, the modern science based on the rationalistic tradition of the
Enlightenment can be simply understood as the process of progressive approaching
of the objective truth, even though its methods changes through time. The notion of
objective truth (harshly denounced by the post-modern epistemological criticism)
is understood as evidentially supported belief; even though what is or is not accepted
as evidence varies see: [Kitching 2008: 125126].


words, he gives priority to emic1 approach to the phenomena in question and

takes into consideration the statements from within the examined cultural environment. In conclusion Anderson recommends not to classify the practice
connected to ema as religious: Many of the people inscribing the ema do
not judge it a religious activity, the temple or shrine does not view it as a religious activity, and we should not [Ibid.: 372].
Ian Reader responds by a brief account [Reader 1991b], where he acknowledges the importance of the emic approach to the phenomena in question. Nonetheless, he claims that one needs to consider the overall context
of the examined phenomena and that the notion of belief cannot serve as
the condition sine qua non of religion. If the examined activity takes place
in a religious centre, a shrine or a temple, and if it includes specific forms
of behaviour, offerings and prayers to the kami and buddhas, it can be classified as religious [Ibid.: 375]. As Reader also points out, the notions of
custom or habit play an important part in the religious behaviour [Ibid.].
As we have seen above, the historical development of the term religion in
the Western environment includes the element of custom (cf. [Smith 1998:
Ian Reader and George J. Tanabe in their account on religious practices
in Japan solve the putative dilemma of emic and etic viewpoint in suggesting two aspects of religious belief, cognitive and affective [Reader, Tanabe
1998: 126136]. As they remark, the Japanese noun shink has a wide range
of meanings, from belief or faith to religious custom or practice
[Ibid.: 129]. If the belief is positively affirmed, intellectually articulated and
based in the knowledge of doctrines or teachings, Reader and Tanabe call it
cognitive belief, whereas the emotionally based tendency to take an attitude
or to rely on a practice that is not rationally explained can be called affective
belief [Ibid.]. As Reader and Tanabe put it: The distinction between affective
and cognitive, forced and artificial it may be, does allow for an explanation
of the often heard report that people sincerely purchase amulets but do not really believe in them: they are engaging in a customary practice with affective
sincerity but not cognitive belief [Ibid.].
The terms emic and etic comes from the linguistic anthropology and were conceived by Kenneth Pike. Emic description prefers the viewpoint of the members of the
studied community, etic perspective is based on categories independent of the culture
in question and prefers the viewpoint of the scholar studying the alien culture see:
[Duranti 1997: 172174].


In this context it is useful to mention another ascertainment by Jonathan Z. Smith who writes on the concept of religion: <> while there is
a staggering amount of data, of phenomena, of human experiences and expressions that might be characterized in one culture or another, by one criterion or another, as religious there is no data for religion. Religion is solely the
creation of the scholars study. It is created for the scholars analytic purposes
by his imaginative acts of comparison and generalization ([Smith 1982: xi],
italic in the original text). From this statement one can easily conclude that
the concept of religion is a mere construct and it is designed to impose
Western category to non-Western, in our case on the Japanese, cultures and
societies in order to exploit them and make them subordinate to our concept of reality. I am positively sure that is not J. Z. Smith`s point, but other
authors come exactly to this point (e. g. [Dubuisson 2003]).
Nonetheless, the things, as always, are far more complex than they appear to be. As Michael Pye finds out [Pye 1994], the concept of shky cannot be easily dismissed as a mere Western import. In the context of Japanese
thought Pye shows that the critical thinking on religion and the concept itself
can be traced at least to the first half of the 18th century, and therefore it would
be improper to consider it an import emerging after the intensive contacts of
Japan with the West at the second half of the 19th century, as e. g. Timothy
Fitzgerald [2003] and other authors (e. g. [Kisala 2006]) suggest.
Ian Reader in his reply [Reader 2004] to Timothy Fitzgerlads paper
[Fitzgerald 2003] goes even further than M. Pye, and finds the roots of the
concept of religious and secular as early as in the 8th century. According
to Reader, the word shky is derived from Chinese Buddhist terminology
and appears in the Japanese documents as early as in the Tenpy () era
(729749) [Reader 2004].
The use of the term religion cannot be simply avoided in our accounts
of Japanese culture and it is impossible to consider the concept as a mere
Western import. We may ask who (and by what authority) can decide that
the concept of religion cannot in any sense be considered an emic category? Moreover, there is another, maybe quite surprising but logical consequence of the post-modern approach to the notion of religion. My argument is simple: from the perspective of post-modern deconstructionism
and cultural relativism denying the possibility of using the term religion in
the Japanese context, the scholars behave no less manipulatively than their
opponents. As the logical consequence of favouring the emic approach the

scholars are, more or less implicitly, embracing the notion of unique Japanese
culture with some exclusive characteristics: religion cannot be found in
Japanese culture since it is a typical feature of our, Western culture, and to
be Japanese means to be non-religious! From this point of view the work of
some post-modern thinkers paradoxically relies on the colonialist thinking of
the 18th and 19th century, the very thinking that the post-modern scholars are
so harshly criticising (cf. [Kitching 2008: 124126]).
The social sciences need general terms and concepts and the term religion is a generic term applied in the study of culture and in the academic
study of religion under severe theoretical and methodological precautions.
Without a doubt, the emic perspective constitutes an important element in
studying a foreign culture, but it would be incorrect to consider it the very
basis of the scholarly approach to a foreign culture. It is obvious that the
perspective of the academic study of religions, of sociology or anthropology
comes from the Western environment, but it is adopted in and it interacts
with the non-Western environment. From this point of view, the general concept of religion should be maintained for the purpose of studying Japanese
culture. It helps us to delimitate the field of our interest in order to better
understand the phenomena we are about to encounter.


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