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Wednesday, April 12, 2000

The wellspring of pacifism in Japan

PROPHETS OF PEACE: Pacifism and Cultural Identity in Japan's New Religions, by Robert Kisala. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1999, 242 pp., $24.95 (paper).

The so-called Peace Constitution is a defining feature of modern Japan. In the aftermath of World War II, Japan has perceived itself, and has been perceived internationally, as a nation devoted to peace, both constitutionally and ideologically.

Nevertheless, the implications of this "pacifist" position are open to debate. What Japan can do as a "peaceful nation" in terms of its contribution to regional and international security, and how it can act as a good global citizen, is complicated by the country's commitment to a broadly defined state of peace, and more than a few attempts have been made to allow for a more liberal interpretation of the critical Article 9.

Debate over this article of the Constitution is all too familiar. Debate over the implications of the pacifist position in the context of new religious movements in Japan is less so, but this book by Robert Kisala, fellow of the Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture, highlights aspects of these movements and provides a fresh perspective on questions that are of more general moral, ideological and constitutional concern: what it means to advocate peace and how new religious movements in Japan can contribute toward a better understanding of the moral and political implications of taking a pacifist position.

As Kisala points out, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been the defining influence on the Japanese psyche in postwar years. Yet the way these events are remembered has clouded comprehensive examination of the moral, political and strategic implications of pacifism.

"Prophets of Peace" is influenced by Kisala's own belief in the positive role religion can play in helping shape public debate on moral issues in society. He is a Catholic priest. The "New Religions" he refers to date from the mid-19th century, and emerged against the backdrop of Japan's modernization.

Kisala identifies three waves of new religious groups. The first emerged in the 19th century, with the religions involved generally based on the Shinto or folk-religious traditions of rural society. The second emerged in the aftermath of World War II; the movements were urban, lay Buddhist and offered a sense of community and a means of performing rituals for those lost in the war. The third wave emerged in the 1970s, and the emphasis of such movements was on spiritual practices.

Common to all three waves, Kisala contends, is a worldview based on the popularization of common Confucian principles. The world is seen as an interconnected whole, and activity at one level will affect all other levels. Changes within the individual are therefore perceived to have a profound impact on the family, community and ultimately the universe.

Kisala points out that this worldview is not normally conducive to social activism, since such activity is generally based on the belief that social structures are at least in part accountable for individual suffering. But he suggests that there are other ways in which aspects of the doctrine and activities of these groups can motivate positive action for social change. Indeed, it is precisely these aspects that he feels have not received the attention they deserve.

Kisala chooses a cross section of New Religions for his study. They include more obscure groups such as Nipponzan Myohoji and Shiyodan Hoseikai, as well as well-known mass movements like Soka Gakkai and Rissho Koseikai. In each case, he explores the group's response to Japanese militarism in the years prior to 1945 and their peace activities in the postwar period, with the ultimate goal of identifying the concept of peace that motivates and directs their activity.

Strictly speaking, the pacifist position allows for no compromise on the principle that human life is not to be taken under any circumstances. Historically, however, this position has been tempered by "just war" theories, which counter that there are some circumstances under which it is justifiable to take a life (for example, in the name of the preservation of "justice").

In popular thought, "pacifism" is often taken to incorporate the just-war theory. There is a presumption against the use of force, but it is acknowledged that there are some circumstances in which use of force is necessary. According to Kisala, this view is taken by many people in Japan today, yet it is confused by a national ideal of Japan as a pacifist nation in the strict sense. Constitutional debate is largely structured around attempts to clarify whether or not Japan can maintain an absolute pacifism or should recognize some point at which the use or threat of force is justified.

Kisala identifies several problems in Japan, among them "an uncertain cultural identity, the inability to deal in any realistic way with their own actions in the war, and an unreflective pacifism." Key to all of these problems is, he argues, the problem of pacifism, or more properly, the view of Japan's postwar mission as a pacifist nation.

"Postwar pacifist rhetoric," he says, "with its facile dismissal of all reasons for war, has made any rational explanation for Japan's actions untenable." It has increasingly become a problem for Japan to maintain a strictly pacifist position. This was shown all too clearly in Japan's response to the Persian Gulf War.

It is Kisala's view that Japan should recognize pacifism as an ideal rather than as a politically and strategically tenable position, and in so doing "open up the possibility of a realistic appraisal of security needs and Japan's role in international arrangements to fulfill those needs."

Nevertheless, he argues that absolute pacifism should remain as "a powerful witness" in society, a tool to keep justifications for war in check, so to speak, but it must be seen as having only "witness value." Religion, he argues, can and should play the role of witness.

Kisala is idealistic about the role that religion can play in society, and quite possibly unrealistic about the role that the New Religions can play in Japanese society. Such movements are clearly, and often justifiably, viewed with a degree of suspicion here. But a little idealism can go a long way in terms of provoking debate, and this, more than anything, is the contribution Kisala's book might make in this current climate of change.

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