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Sunday, April 10, 2005


The God Gap: Japan and the clash of civilizations

Special to The Japan Times

There are many differences between Japan and the West, both historical and contemporary, but there is no gap so gaping and, perhaps, unbridgeable as the "God Gap."

When I first arrived in Japan in 1967, though I could barely speak a word of the language I felt immediately at home. I was happy to be away from the holier-than-thou rhetoric of life in the United States, a country whose instinct for religious intolerance runs deep within the body politic. That instinct is suppressed by laws which at times -- our times included -- are weakened by leaders who equate religious dogma with liberty.

The Japanese, on the other hand, have throughout their history been admirably tolerant of other religions. The persecution of Christians in the Edo Period (1603-1867) is an undoubted stain on this record, yet it was no worse than what European Christians were doing to each other and most everyone else. In addition, the policy had the virtue of excluding Europeans from Japan. After all, their sweet oratory was merely the colonialist's ruse and their Bible's pages reeked of gunpowder. By evading the European God, Japan circumvented the Western dominator.

Now, one topic currently being passionately discussed in Japan's government circles is bunmeikan taiwa (dialogue among civilizations). World cultures, as represented blatantly in our day by their religions, seem to be in the throes of a violent clash. Confrontation leads all too readily to violence; violence to holy destruction.

One of the characteristic features of Japanese society is the avoidance of confrontation -- most Japanese would rather walk away from a conflict than join the fray, and there is a tendency to nod and agree with another's opinion even when it is not shared. This is done out of both an ingrained civility and a commitment to the harmony of the moment over the self-assertion of conviction.

To non-Japanese unfamiliar with Japanese manners or the Japanese love of propriety and decorum over free expression and discord, this avoidance of confrontation can appear suspiciously like hypocrisy. But it is based on an ideal of amelioration: that people of differing beliefs can surely live together if they do not try to impose their faith on each other.

So back to the God Gap, and how it is manifesting itself in Japan and the world today.

Three of the world's major religions -- Christianity, Islam and Judaism -- at present seem to be on a geopolitical collision course. Americans are wont to see through their goggles an armored vehicle with an American at the wheel (and an Israeli as backseat driver) speeding to a disaster scene past roadside bombs planted by Muslims. Muslims see the same weaponized vehicle weaving its way recklessly through crowds of the faithful and itself causing disaster, with innocent civilians being run down at random -- chalked off by America as "collateral damage."

Whatever the metaphor, America today is on a one-nation crusade (with Britain as choirboy and Australia as little page) to ensure that its notion of civilization dominates the world. To George W. Bush, civilization is on the march, with all the backpacks of ammunition that its soldiers can carry. Many Americans see it as their duty to convert the entire world to their own way of life, whether this conversion is to Christianity, "liberty" or, as it is, a smeared combination of the two.

Non-believers in the U.S. are ridiculed and denigrated to the extent that, in some states, belief in Darwinian evolution is seen as seditious. There will someday be a woman president in the U.S. There may certainly be a black, an Asian American or Hispanic American, a gay president. But it is hard to foresee the day when an upstanding atheist moves into the White House.

And what of Japan in all this?

There is no other country in the developed world where this variety of religious intolerance is more alien. As such, it represents the biggest gap in thinking between Japan and the West, particularly the U.S. The Japanese are often described as a people who conform to set patterns of behavior for the sake of civic harmony. They may be outwardly constrained, but they are free to believe in what they wish. Sin does not invade their inner self. Practitioners of monotheistic religions by and large strive to control the individual's consciousness. It can be a sin to entertain an unacceptable thought. You need not act on your "evil thoughts" to be censured. But the Japanese don't generally care what you think, so long as, when in your actions, you dampen your individuality in the interests of social harmony.

It will be very difficult for Japan to become a military power again. It may be equally difficult for the Japanese to exert political influence in Asia in the future.

But in a world where powerful nations see their civilizations in hot pursuit of each other, the deep-seated religious tolerance of the Japanese makes them ideally suited to taking the role of mediator between civilizations.

A true freedom of thought and the tolerance that comes with it cannot be guaranteed by a piece of paper called a constitution if the prevailing attitude in a country dictates dogma. I would sooner trust the tradition of "think and let think" that, over centuries, has become the mainstream of spiritual life in Japan.

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