Friday, July 29, 2022

Review of Japanese Culture: The Religious and Philosophical Foundations by Roger J. Davies

This book review was written by Eugene Kernes  

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“Chinese influence was a persistent, increasing, and overwhelming factor of early Japanese life starting from the first century BC.” – Roger J. Davies, The Origins of the Japanese, Page 19

“The present is mirrored in the past, and the past exits in the present in the unconscious cultural heritage of a people, in the structure of their social and political institutions, and in the value systems they have created.” – Roger J. Davies, Approaches to Japanese Cultural History, Page 25-26

“Organizationally and ideologically, a number of religions have co-existed since ancient times, and they still remain separate and distinct systems.  On the other hand, when viewed from the participation of the individual, a merger or combination of religious beliefs seems to occur.” – Roger J. Davies, Approaches to Japanese Cultural History, Page 32

Japan’s geographical isolation inhibited development.  Although various ancient migrations made Japan a diverse place, claims would later describe them as a homogenous people.  Chinese influence propelled Japanese development.  Influence which was persistent, increasing, and overwhelming.  Japanese tribes began to forge a centralized state in response to military threats.  Power was concentrated within the military upper class. 

Various religions co-existed in Japanese history, although they remained separate and distinct systems.  In practice, individuals merged or combined the beliefs.  But even while holding multiple religious practices, they would not confuse their ideological associations.  Major cultural eras started with Shinto, then Buddhism, Taoism, Zen, Confucianism, and finally Western ideas.  Japanese culture, as every culture, is influenced by the past.  A heritage that is reflected in the social and political institutions, and value systems.  Creating different manifestations of culture over time, with distinct behavioral patterns and sets of belief.  

The influence of history is complex, for what is written down might not be what actually happened.  History is set down from different perspectives, and with a variety of interpretations.  Japanese culture is unique, like all cultures are unique.  Each culture has similar features, but they are combined in unique ways.  

Japanese Origin:
Geographically isolated meant that Japan could not obtain alternative ways of development.  Japanese life was rudimentary compared to China which was a highly developed civilization.  Within a relatively short time after entering the Bronze Age, Chinese influence propelled Japan into the Iron Age.  China was a major influence on Japan starting from the 1st century B.C.E. 

Japanese people are a composition of various waves of ancient migrations.  Those coming to Japan were fleeing problems from mainland Asia such as hunger, and fear.  Others desired change.  Primary migrants are thought to be Mongol tribes, coming through Korea.  Earliest Japanese religion of Shinto, was heavily influenced by Mongol peoples.  The migrants displaced Japanese archipelago original inhabitants, the Ainu.  During the waves of migration, there was racial and ethnic blending and fusion.  After the 8th century B.C.E., there was no new blood.  Even though the Japanese came from diverse groups, they began to consider themselves as racially distinct and ‘pure’ group.  

Records of earliest Japanese life comes from Chinese Han Dynasty of the 3rd century B.C.E.  During that time, Japan had sharp class distinctions.  Primarily an agricultural and fishing economy.  Many tribal units.  During the 3rd century, the military upper class appears to have concentrated wealth and power, in response to Korean mounted invaders.  State formation in Japan began during the Kofun era, of 250-646 B.C.E.  

Shinto forms the undercurrent of the religious and philosophical belief systems in Japan.  Shinto means “The Way of the Gods”.  Shinto is less about leading a moral or ethical life, but practical concerns of such obtaining food, curing illness, and avoiding dangers.

Within Shinto, every object harbors a spirit, making the object in some way living.  Human and nature are not divided.  They are not distinct or apart.  

Purification rites were needed in daily life.  Purification for the physical and spiritual.  Ritual was meant to obtain a pure state of mind, to make contact with kami and accept kami’s blessing.  Purification was also meant to avoid taboos, such as sources of uncleanness.  

Buddhism seeks a midway between hedonism and asceticism.  Buddhism is very adaptable to the cultural traditions that already exist in a region.  The arrival of Buddhism was not seen as an extension of Chinese power, but of Buddhism’s progress.  

Taoism, along with Confucianism, are the main religious and philosophical traditions of China.  Law of Tao is a regression to the starting point.  Extreme qualities become reversed into their opposite.  Continuous adjustment to the situation.  What matters is the interaction between the factors involved.  A focus on ultimate unity of humans and cosmos. 

Zen is a synthesis of Taoism and Buddhism, called Ch’an in China.  Zen incorporates Japanese traditions into Ch’an Buddhism.  It means meditation.  Unlike Buddhism, guidance and instruction are important.  Zen has Masters which train others.  Training provides the student with focused practice.  Instruction from a Master awakens the Buddha-nature in everyone.  

A philosophy that disdains study, and metaphysics.  Flashes of intuition arise from meditation.  

Confucianism focuses on human society.  Social order based on strict ethical rules.  The social responsibility of societies members.  Defining what appropriate relationships and behaviors were allowed in the society.  Governance of family and state to me done by educated people of superior wisdom.

Western Influences:
Japan purposely isolated itself from the world early 17th century.  For the next two centuries, Japan became culturally homogenous.  Developing a national identity.  During this Edo period, there were four strict classes of warriors, peasants, artisans, and merchants.  Samurai became literate, as did other classes.  Samurai changed their activity to writing with brush, and away from using the sword.  Isolation is usually associated with cultural stagnation, but the peace and economic stability brought with it a cultural explosion. 

Being forced to open, Japan modernized government based on the West.  To acquire technical and bureaucratic skills, Japan sent students to Western schools while hiring Western experts.

It takes more than an understanding of culture to understand a peoples.  Lack of history and politics limits an understanding of Japanese people.  The transitions between philosophies and religions appear not to be disrupting.  Some practices influenced by the culture are described, but not in their diverse applications.  What this book does is provide the undercurrent understanding of the Japanese, but more information will be needed to apply the concepts appropriately. 

Questions to Consider while Reading the Book

•What is the raison d’etre of the book?  For what purpose did the author write the book?  Why do people read this book?
•What are some limitations of the book?
•How did China influence Japan?
•How did Japan’s geography influence development?
•What was Japan’s political circumstance?  How did Japanese state change and why?
•Who were the ancient migrants to Japan?
•What are Japanese religions and philosophies?
•How did the religions and philosophes interact with each other and how were they practiced?
•What is culture and what does culture influence?
•What is Shinto?
•What is Buddhism?
•What is Taoism?
•What is Zen?
•What is Confucianism?
•How did the West influence Japan?

Book Details
Publisher:         Tuttle Publishing [Periplus Editions]
Edition ISBN:  9784805311639
Pages to read:   148
Publication:     2016
1st Edition:      2016
Format:            Paperback

Ratings out of 5:
Readability    5
Content          5
Overall           5