Mono: It exists in the Japanese deep awareness.

December 22, 1998 Rev.
Yoshinobu Miyake
President, RELNET CORP.

I am going to attempt a comparison between what lies at the root of the religious awareness of Japanese and Westerners. Let us take as an example the missile attacks launched by the US and the UK on Iraq.

All we need to do is to consider the televised speech made by President Clinton from the White House on December 16th, in which he addressed the American people (and the people of the entire world). His logic was of this order, namely: ' Iraq's weapons of mass destruction are a threat, and so we have hit them before they could be used.' However, Clinton made no reference to the fact that the United States has hundreds of thousands of nuclear weapons -- which Iraq does not possess -- and thousands of times more biological and chemical weapons than Iraq has. Instead, he persisted with the logic that America's weapons of mass destruction are weapons of justice; those of Iraq are weapons of injustice. One could even read his words as implying that 'Christian weapons are weapons of justice; Islamic weapons are those of injustice'. Again, he wound up his speech with the words that wind up all presidential speeches: 'God bless America!' Of course, on the Iraq side, Saddam Hussein's televised speeches for internal consumption conclude with such phrases as 'Allah is great. May Allah protect Iraq.'

To the mind of a Japanese this is all very bizarre. Is it not the case that Judaism, Christianity and Islam all worship the same sort of absolute deity; that all are based on divine revelation? You have there a structure in which people use their one, true God to proclaim their own righteousness. In order to proclaim that one's cause is indeed just, a standard for measuring justice is called for. That standard is of course the truth. And unless one establishes that the precondition for truth is God, then the argument collapses. The schema, then, is this: that justice equals the truth which equals God. This is none other than idealism. There is, however, a striking slippage here between this structure and social reality. In reality, there is no such thing as one, unique justice (identifiable as such under any and all circumstances). It is conceivable that, in certain circumstances, even the crime of murder, prohibited though it is by the ethical laws of many nations, may become an imperative.

The opening words of St. John's Gospel in the New Testament offer the best example of the idealism of Christianity. 'In the beginning was the word. The word was with God. The word was God. All things came into being through the word.' This offers an extraordinarily neat fit with the Semitic linguist region in which Judaism, Christianity and Islam emerged and, thereafter, with the situation in the region of the Indo-European languages where these religions subsequently spread.

On the other hand, people belonging to the East Asian cultural sphere, as represented by China, Korea and Japan, used the ideographs known as kanji as the basis for their civilizations. I do not know how many kanji you know, but the kanji for mountain, river, tree and eye, say, are a pictorial rendering of natural phenomenon. It is clear, in other words, that 'things' exist in East Asia before words. In our cultural sphere, abstract ideals are less important than concrete 'things' and 'forms'. Naturally, if we take the case of kami, the Japanese word for a sacred, spiritual being, kami have no existence unless they adopt a form. So it was that, in Japan, a variety of natural phenomena were rendered sacred and became kami. Let us, for the moment, refer to the religion based on this sort of thinking as 'Shinto'. It goes without saying that, in the world of Shinto, truth exists everywhere, and so is always relative; as a consequence there can be no absolute justice deriving from these kami. It is relatively easy, therefore, for a society to emerge in this cultural context that does not judge others since there is not justice; and that is accommodating and relatively free of conflict.

Deepening one's understanding about these animistic 'things' is the short cut to deepening one's understanding about Japanese culture. There are many adjectives in Japan to which the word 'thing' (mono in Japanese) attaches itself; but the difficulties of translating them into English are very considerable. Mono-kanashii, mono-sabishii, mono-kurushii, monomonoshii. The Japanese have assumed a very great deal of interest in these mono 'things'. Over a long period of history, Japanese literature has produced many masterpieces: Taketori 'Mono'gatari (the Bamboo-cutter's Tale); Ise 'Mono'gatari (Tale of Ise); Genji 'Mono'gatari (Tale of Genji): Konjaku 'Mono'gatari (Tales of things past and present); Heike 'Mono'gatari (Tales of the Taira family) are among them. The theme concealed within each of these is 'telling about the thing'. That is what 'mono gatari' literally means.

The Bible typifies what we might call the 'mono-linear world view' (the idea that there is a purpose in the world, a beginning and an end). But this is quite obviously a 'deviation' from the logic of the cyclical structure of nature, according to which an array of living organisms have intertwined and, over long periods of time, established a sort of 'dynamic stability'. It goes without saying that the world idealized by Shinto, a religion of 'things', is going to be diametrically opposed to that of Christianity. By 'thing' or 'mono' I do not, of course, mean the 'matter' that, according to Western dualism, constitutes the opposite of the 'spirit'. 'Things' themselves, in the sense I use the term here, embrace life; life is integrated to them. Perhaps, I should stick to the Japanese word 'mono' and abandon the word 'thing' since it is liable to cause confusion. Anyway, the point I make is that there is a perceptible continuum between the life of 'mono' or things and our own human lives.

You all know that the Japanese are rather adept at making concrete objects. One cannot understand, say, Japan's post war economic growth without taking into account the religious zeal with which Japanese set about making things. Indeed, there may not be that many nations anywhere in the world whose people are quite as adept as the Japanese are in this regard. At the same time, however, Japanese are painfully inept in the realm of the abstract. Philosophical dialectics is a case in point; so, too, is the development of computer software, say, and again financial information that, in a flash, makes its way around the world. Japanese genes somehow exhibit symptoms of rejection when confronted by these and other abstract matters.

It was in 1549 that Christianity arrived in Japan. Japan has now already had some 450 years of Christian history. But throughout this period, and despite the best efforts of missionaries, despite, moreover, the great influx of Western cultural and its after facts, Christian converts have never exceeded one per cent of the population. It is hardly surprising. For unless Christianity abandons its absolute monotheism, its focus on supernatural, divine revelation, how can it ever be accepted by the Japanese who religious culture is typified by its rendering sacred the 'things' of nature?

I have had no time to discuss the matter here, but Buddhism, born in India, was widely accepted in Japan. The reason why Buddhism was able to sink its roots into the soil of Japan is quite simply that Buddhism, over a period of a millennium and more, abandoned all that constituted its Buddhistic essence, and trans-modified itself into a faith in Japanese 'mono'. If you doubt my theory, you need only cross over to South East Asia and compare the Buddhism there with that in Japan. You will notice immediately that they are quite different. It is hardly necessary to add how un-Buddhist is the Japanese Buddhist practice of heredity.

It is my belief that anyone with an interest in Japanese religion, anyone, indeed, with an interest in Japanese economics, politics, or even science and technology, must deepen their understanding of the Japanese sensitivity towards mono, those life-embracing 'things' that define Japanese culture.

Finally, allow me to say a few words about the religious group of which I am a member. It is my understanding that you have all learned something about Japanese history and Japanese religions. I will not reiterate what you already know. Instead, I would like you to look at the handout you have there in front of you. You will see that my religion, Konkokyo, was founded in 1859. Amongst the traditional Japanese religions, Konkokyo is the newest alongside Tenrikyo, founded in 1838. Konkokyo was founded a mere 9 years before the Meiji restoration, which marked Japan's headlong rush into modernization, in the sense that the term is understood in the West. This was the very same year in which Charles Darwin published his Origins of Species, which laid the foundation for the theory of evolution. The year 1859 was squarely in the era when the processes of modernization, the proliferation of science, the end of myth, the growth of capitalism and imperialism were all in full swing on the world's stage.

It may be said that Konkokyo -- we may include Tenrikyo here too -- was the first creed in the history of Japanese religious thought to have alighted upon the idea of the individual. Until this point, traditional shrine-based Shinto functioned as a means of maintaining local communities, through the connection it confirmed of uji-kami, or tutelary deity, and uji-ko, or shrine parishioner. Buddhism, for its part, served to maintain the 'family' system, through the parish temple and parish household connection that was a consequence of the Edo regime's temple registration system. In other words, the this-worldly or, indeed, spiritual needs of the individual which, in origin, should be sought in religion were only compensated for by groups like the Yamabushi existing on the fringes of the state system of control. Tenrikyo and Konkokyo were founded by individual commoners who quite lacked the learning of Buddhist priests, say. Nonetheless, they succeeded in cutting off from traditional local communities and from the family -- as it was understood in Edo Japan -- those diverse individuals who came seeking help from the founder. This they achieved by leading the faithful to a discovery of what it meant to be individual. They succeeded finally in reconstructing a universal relationship in which the individual was bound by his relationship to God as the off-spring of God. In this sense, the achievements of both religions in terms of Japanese cultural history are very considerable.

It is noteworthy that Konkokyo, for example, was blessed not only with 'modernity' or enlightenment, at least in the sense of those terms as used in the West, but also with elements of that peculiarly Japanese notion of animism. (This notwithstanding the fact that Konkokyo is a 19th century creed.) The animism I refer to is none other than the mono or thing that I have already discussed. The Konkokyo Compendium of Daily Prayers, the Haishishu as it is known, was completely revised as recently as 1983, but it still cites the following at its opening: 'The light of the sun in heaven and the cultivation of the earth: these things shall not pass away, however much time may pass; these things shall always endure, even as the years come and go. As long as life endures betwixt heaven and earth, all of creation shall enjoy life; As long as truth endures between heaven and earth, all things shall be in harmony. Let us worship and let us praise Tenchi-Kane-no-Kami as the wondrous manifestation and the wondrous working of the universe.' In other words, the opening prayer holds that all 'mono', all things, share in life, and that the form of their harmonious functioning and indeed that functioning itself are none other than God.

Even in the new version of the Compendium of Prayer, revised for the end of the 20th century in which materialism dominates all, we Japanese are still obsessed with mono. Allow me to repeat that this mono is something altogether different from the matter that is differentiated from the spiritual in Western dualism. Mono for the Japanese is a concept that embraces the totality of life; it is something which exhibits a power in excess of that which appears to be merely material.