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THE INVENTION OF A NEW RELIGION

By B. H. Chamberlain

EMERITUS PROFESSOR OF JAPANESE AND PHILOLOGY AT THE IMPERIAL UNIVERSITY
OF TOKYO, JAPAN 1912


Transcriber's Notes: A few diacritical marks have had to be removed,
but Chamberlain did not use macrons to represent lengthened vowels.
What were footnotes are numbered and moved to the end of the relevant
paragraphs.





THE INVENTION OF A NEW RELIGION (1)

(Note 1) The writer of this pamphlet could but
skim over a wide subject. For full information see
Volume I. of Mr. J. Murdoch's recently-published
"History of Japan," the only critical work on that
subject existing in the English language.

Voltaire and the other eighteenth-century philosophers, who held
religions to be the invention of priests, have been scorned as
superficial by later investigators. But was there not something in their
view, after all? Have not we, of a later and more critical day, got into
so inveterate a habit of digging deep that we sometimes fail to see what
lies before our very noses? Modern Japan is there to furnish an example.
The Japanese are, it is true, commonly said to be an irreligious people.
They say so themselves. Writes one of them, the celebrated Fukuzawa,
teacher and type of the modern educated Japanese man: "I lack a
religious nature, and have never believed in any religion." A score of
like pronouncements might be quoted from other leading men. The average,
even educated, European strikes the average educated Japanese as
strangely superstitious, unaccountably occupied with supra-mundane
matters. The Japanese simply cannot be brought to comprehend how a "mere
parson" such as the Pope, or even the Archbishop of Canterbury, occupies
the place he does in politics and society. Yet this same agnostic
Japan is teaching us at this very hour how religions are sometimes
manufactured for a special end - to subserve practical worldly purposes.

Mikado-worship and Japan-worship - for that is the new Japanese
religion - is, of course, no spontaneously generated phenomenon. Every
manufacture presupposes a material out of which it is made, every
present a past on which it rests. But the twentieth-century Japanese
religion of loyalty and patriotism is quite new, for in it pre-existing
ideas have been sifted, altered, freshly compounded, turned to new uses,
and have found a new centre of gravity. Not only is it new, it is
not yet completed; it is still in process of being consciously or
semi-consciously put together by the official class, in order to serve
the interests of that class, and, incidentally, the interests of the
nation at large. The Japanese bureaucracy is a body greatly to be
admired. It includes most of the foremost men of the nation. Like the
priesthood in later Judaea, to some extent like the Egyptian and Indian
priesthoods, it not only governs, but aspires to lead in intellectual
matters. It has before it a complex task. On the one hand, it must make
good to the outer world the new claim that Japan differs in no essential
way from the nations of the West, unless, indeed, it be by way of
superiority. On the other hand, it has to manage restive steeds at home,
where ancestral ideas and habits clash with new dangers arising from an
alien material civilisation hastily absorbed.

Down to the year 1888, the line of cleavage between governors and
governed was obscured by the joyful ardour with which all classes alike
devoted themselves to the acquisition of European, not to say American,
ideas. Everything foreign was then hailed as perfect - everything old and
national was contemned. Sentiment grew democratic, in so far (perhaps it
was not very far) as American democratic ideals were understood. Love
of country seemed likely to yield to a humble bowing down before foreign
models. Officialdom not unnaturally took fright at this abdication of
national individualism. Evidently something must be done to turn the
tide. Accordingly, patriotic sentiment was appealed to through the
throne, whose hoary antiquity had ever been a source of pride to
Japanese literati, who loved to dwell on the contrast between Japan's
unique line of absolute monarchs and the short-lived dynasties of China.
Shinto, a primitive nature cult, which had fallen into discredit, was
taken out of its cupboard and dusted. The common people, it is true,
continued to place their affections on Buddhism, the popular festivals
were Buddhist, Buddhist also the temples where they buried their dead.
The governing class determined to change all this. They insisted on the
Shinto doctrine that the Mikado descends in direct succession from the
native Goddess of the Sun, and that He himself is a living God on earth
who justly claims the absolute fealty of his subjects. Such things as
laws and constitutions are but free gifts on His part, not in any sense
popular rights. Of course, the ministers and officials, high and low,
who carry on His government, are to be regarded not as public
servants, but rather as executants of supreme - one might say
supernatural - authority. Shinto, because connected with the Imperial
Family, is to be alone honoured. Therefore, the important right of
burial, never before possessed by it, was granted to its priests.
Later on, the right of marriage was granted likewise - an entirely novel
departure in a land where marriage had never been more than a civil
contract. Thus the Shinto priesthood was encouraged to penetrate into
the intimacy of family life, while in another direction it encroached on
the field of ethics by borrowing bits here and there from Confucian
and even from Christian sources. Under a regime of ostensible religious
toleration, the attendance of officials at certain Shinto services was
required, and the practice was established in all schools of bowing down
several times yearly before the Emperor's picture. Meanwhile Japanese
polities had prospered; her warriors had gained great victories.
Enormous was the prestige thus accruing to Imperialism and to the
rejuvenated Shinto cult. All military successes were ascribed to the
miraculous influence of the Emperor's virtue, and to the virtues of His
Imperial and divine ancestors - that is, of former Emperors and of Shinto
deities. Imperial envoys were regularly sent after each great victory
to carry the good tidings to the Sun Goddess at her great shrine at Ise.
Not there alone, but at the other principal Shinto shrines throughout
the land, the cannon captured from Chinese or Russian foes were
officially installed, with a view to identifying Imperialism, Shinto,
and national glory in the popular mind. The new legend is enforced
wherever feasible - for instance, by means of a new set of festivals
celebrating Imperial official events.

But the schools are the great strongholds of the new propaganda. History
is so taught to the young as to focus everything upon Imperialism, and
to diminish as far as possible the contrast between ancient and modern
conditions. The same is true of the instruction given to army and navy
recruits. Thus, though Shinto is put in the forefront, little stress
is laid on its mythology, which would be apt to shock even the Japanese
mind at the present day. To this extent, where a purpose useful to
the ruling class is to be served, criticism is practised, though not
avowedly. Far different is the case with so-called "historical facts,"
such as the alleged foundation of the Monarchy in 660 B.C. and similar
statements paralleled only for absurdity by what passed for history in
mediaeval Europe, when King Lear, Brute, King of Britain, etc., etc.,
were accepted as authentic personages. For the truth, known to all
critical investigators, is that, instead of going back to a remote
antiquity, the origins of Japanese history are recent as compared
with that of European countries. The first glimmer of genuine Japanese
history dates from the fifth century AFTER Christ, and even the accounts
of what happened in the sixth century must be received with caution.
Japanese scholars know this as well as we do; it is one of the certain
results of investigation. But the Japanese bureaucracy does not desire
to have the light let in on this inconvenient circumstance. While
granting a dispensation re the national mythology, properly so called,
it exacts belief in every iota of the national historic legends. Woe to
the native professor who strays from the path of orthodoxy. His wife
and children (and in Japan every man, however young, has a wife and
children) will starve. From the late Prince Ito's grossly misleading
"Commentary on the Japanese Constitution" down to school compendiums,
the absurd dates are everywhere insisted upon. This despite the fact
that the mythology and the so-called early history are recorded in the
same works, and are characterised by like miraculous impossibilities;
that the chronology is palpably fraudulent; that the speeches put
into the mouths of ancient Mikados are centos culled from the Chinese
classics; that their names are in some cases derived from Chinese
sources; and that the earliest Japanese historical narratives, the
earliest known social usages, and even the centralised Imperial form of
Government itself, are all stained through and through with a Chinese
dye, so much so that it is no longer possible to determine what
percentage of old native thought may still linger on in fragments here
and there. In the face of all this, moral ideals, which were of common
knowledge derived from the teaching of the Chinese sages, are now
arbitrarily referred to the "Imperial Ancestors." Such, in particular,
are loyalty and filial piety - the two virtues on which, in the
Far-Eastern world, all the others rest. It is, furthermore, officially
taught that, from the earliest ages, perfect concord has always
subsisted in Japan between beneficent sovereigns on the one hand, and
a gratefully loyal people on the other. Never, it is alleged, has Japan
been soiled by the disobedient and rebellious acts common in other
countries; while at the same time the Japanese nation, sharing to some
extent in the supernatural virtues of its rulers, has been distinguished
by a high-minded chivalry called Bushido, unknown in inferior lands.

Such is the fabric of ideas which the official class is busy building
up by every means in its power, including the punishment of those who
presume to stickle for historic truth.

*****

The sober fact is that no nation probably has ever treated its
sovereigns more cavalierly than the Japanese have done, from the
beginning of authentic history down to within the memory of living
men. Emperors have been deposed, emperors have been assassinated; for
centuries every succession to the throne was the signal for intrigues
and sanguinary broils. Emperors have been exiled; some have been
murdered in exile. From the remote island to which he had been relegated
one managed to escape, hidden under a load of dried fish. In the
fourteenth century, things came to such a pass that two rival Imperial
lines defied each other for the space of fifty-eight years - the
so-called Northern and Southern Courts; and it was the Northern
Court, branded by later historians as usurping and illegitimate, that
ultimately won the day, and handed on the Imperial regalia to its
successors. After that, as indeed before that, for long centuries the
government was in the hands of Mayors of the Palace, who substituted one
infant Sovereign for another, generally forcing each to abdicate as soon
as he approached man's estate. At one period, these Mayors of the
Palace left the Descendant of the Sun in such distress that His Imperial
Majesty and the Imperial Princes were obliged to gain a livelihood by
selling their autographs! Nor did any great party in the State protest
against this condition of affairs. Even in the present reign - the most
glorious in Japanese history - there have been two rebellions, during one
of which a rival Emperor was set up in one part of the country, and a
republic proclaimed in another.

As for Bushido, so modern a thing is it that neither Kaempfer, Siebold,
Satow, nor Rein - all men knowing their Japan by heart - ever once allude
to it in their voluminous writings. The cause of their silence is not
far to seek: Bushido was unknown until a decade or two ago! THE VERY
WORD APPEARS IN NO DICTIONARY, NATIVE OR FOREIGN, BEFORE THE YEAR 1900.
Chivalrous individuals of course existed in Japan, as in all countries
at every period; but Bushido, as an institution or a code of rules,
has never existed. The accounts given of it have been fabricated out of
whole cloth, chiefly for foreign consumption. An analysis of medieval
Japanese history shows that the great feudal houses, so far from
displaying an excessive idealism in the matter of fealty to one emperor,
one lord, or one party, had evolved the eminently practical plan of
letting their different members take different sides, so that the family
as a whole might come out as winner in any event, and thus avoid the
confiscation of its lands. Cases, no doubt, occurred of devotion to
losing causes - for example, to Mikados in disgrace; but they were less
common than in the more romantic West.

Thus, within the space of a short lifetime, the new Japanese religion
of loyalty and patriotism has emerged into the light of day. The feats
accomplished during the late war with Russia show that the simple ideal
which it offers is capable of inspiring great deeds. From a certain
point of view the nation may be congratulated on its new possession.

*****

The new Japanese religion consists, in its present early stage, of
worship of the sacrosanct Imperial Person and of His Divine Ancestors,
of implicit obedience to Him as head of the army (a position, by the
way, opposed to all former Japanese ideas, according to which the Court
was essentially civilian); furthermore, of a corresponding belief that
Japan is as far superior to the common ruck of nations as the Mikado is
divinely superior to the common ruck of kings and emperors. Do not the
early history-books record the fact that Japan was created first, while
all other countries resulted merely from the drops that fell from the
creator's spear when he had finished his main work? And do not the later
annals prove that true valour belongs to the Japanese knight alone,
whereas foreign countries - China and Europe alike - are sunk in a
degrading commercialism? For the inhabitants of "the Land of the Gods"
to take any notice of such creatures by adopting a few of their trifling
mechanical inventions is an act of gracious condescension.

To quote but one official utterance out of a hundred, Baron Oura,
minister of agriculture and commerce, writes thus in February of last
year: -

That the majesty of our Imperial House towers high
above everything to be found in the world, and that
it is as durable as heaven and earth, is too well
known to need dwelling on here...... If it is
considered that our country needs a religious faith,
then, I say, let it be converted to a belief in the
religion of patriotism and loyalty, the religion of
Imperialism - in other words, to Emperor-worship.

The Rev. Dr. Ebina,(2) one of the leading lights of the Protestant
pastorate in Japan, plunges more deeply still into this doctrine,
according to which, as already noted, the whole Japanese nation is, in a
manner, apotheosised. Says he: -

Though the encouragement of ancestor-worship cannot
be regarded as part of the essential teaching of
Christianity (!), it (3) is not opposed to the
notion that, when the Japanese Empire was founded,
its early rulers were in communication with the
Great Spirit that rules the universe. Christians,
according to this theory, without doing violence
to their creed, may acknowledge that the Japanese
nation has a divine origin. It is only when we
realise that the Imperial Ancestors were in close
communion with God (or the Gods), that we understand
how sacred is the country in which we live. (Dr.
Ebina ends by recommending the Imperial Rescript on
Education as a text for Christian sermons.)

(Note 2) We quote from the translation given
by Mr. Walter Dening in one of the invaluable
"Summaries of Current Japanese Literature,"
contributed by him from time to time to the
columns of the "Japan Mail," Yokohama.

(Note 3) "It" means Christianity.

It needs no comment of ours to point out how thoroughly the nation
must be saturated by the doctrines under discussion for such amazing
utterances to be possible. If so-called Christians can think thus, the
non-Christian majority must indeed be devout Emperor-worshippers and
Japan-worshippers. Such the go-ahead portion of the nation undoubtedly
is - the students, the army, the navy, the emigrants to Japan's new
foreign possessions, all the more ardent spirits. The peasantry, as
before noted, occupy themselves little with new thoughts, clinging
rather to the Buddhist beliefs of their forefathers. But nothing could
be further removed from even their minds than the idea of offering any
organised resistance to the propaganda going on around them.

As a matter of fact, the spread of the new ideas has been easy, because
a large class derives power from their diffusion, while to oppose them
is the business of no one in particular. Moreover, the disinterested
love of truth for its own sake is rare; the patience to unearth it is
rarer still, especially in the East. Patriotism, too, is a mighty engine
working in the interests of credulity. How should men not believe in a
system that produces such excellent practical results, a system which
has united all the scattered elements of national feeling into one
focus, and has thus created a powerful instrument for the attainment of
national aims? Meanwhile a generation is growing up which does not so
much as suspect that its cherished beliefs are inventions of yesterday.

The new religion, in its present stage, still lacks one important
item - a sacred book. Certain indications show that this lacuna will be
filled by the elevation of the more important Imperial Rescripts to that
rank, accompanied doubtless by an authoritative commentary, as their
style is too abstruse to be understanded of the people. To these
Imperial Rescripts some of the poems composed by his present Majesty
may be added. In fact, a volume on the whole duty of Japanese man, with
selected Imperial poems as texts, has already appeared. (4)

(Note 4) For over a thousand years the composition
of Japanese and Chinese verse has formed part of a
liberal education, like the composition of Latin
verse among ourselves. The Court has always
devoted much time to the practice of this art.
But the poems of former Emperors were little
known, because the monarchs themselves remained
shut up in their palace, and exercised no
influence beyond its walls. With his present
Majesty the case is entirely different. Moreover,
some of his compositions breathe a patriotism
formerly undreamt of.

*****

One might have imagined that Japan's new religionists would have
experienced some difficulty in persuading foreign nations of the truth
of their dogmas. Things have fallen out otherwise. Europe and America
evince a singular taste for the marvellous, and find a zest in
self-depreciation. Our eighteenth-century ancestors imagined all
perfections to be realised in China, thanks to the glowing descriptions
then given of that country by the Jesuits. Twentieth-century Europe
finds its moral and political Eldorado in distant Japan, a land
of fabulous antiquity and incredible virtues. There is no lack of
pleasant-mannered persons ready to guide trustful admirers in the right
path. Official and semi-official Japanese, whether ambassadors and
ministers-resident or peripatetic counts and barons, make it their
business to spread a legend so pleasing to the national vanity, so
useful as a diplomatic engine. Lectures are delivered, books are written
in English, important periodicals are bought up, minute care is lavished
on the concealment, the patching-up, and glossing-over of the deep gulf
that nevertheless is fixed between East and West. The foreigner cannot
refuse the bolus thus artfully forced down his throat. He is not
suspicious by nature. How should he imagine that people who make such
positive statements about their own country are merely exploiting his
credulity? HE has reached a stage of culture where such mythopoeia
has become impossible. On the other hand, to control information by
consulting original sources lies beyond his capacity.

For consider this peculiar circumstance: the position of European
investigators vis-a-vis Japan differs entirely from that of Japanese
vis-a-vis Europe. The Japanese possess every facility for studying and
understanding Europe. Europeans are warded off by well-nigh insuperable
obstacles from understanding Japan. Europe stands on a hill-top, in the
sunlight, glittering afar. Her people court inspection. "Come and see
how we live" - such was a typical invitation which the present writer
recently received. A thousand English homes are open to any Japanese
student or traveller who visits our shores. An alphabet of but
six-and-twenty simple letters throws equally wide open to him a
literature clearly revealing our thoughts, so that he who runs may read.
Japan lies in the shadow, away on the rim of the world. Her houses are
far more effectually closed to the stranger by their paper shutters than
are ours by walls of brick or stone. What we call "society" does
not exist there. Her people, though smiling and courteous, surround
themselves by an atmosphere of reserve, centuries of despotic government
having rendered them suspicious and reticent. True, when a foreigner of
importance visits Japan - some British M.P., perhaps, whose name figures
often in the newspapers, or an American editor, or the president of a
great American college - this personage is charmingly received. But he is
never left free to form his own opinion of things, even were he capable
of so doing. Circumstances spin an invisible web around him, his
hosts being keenly intent on making him a speaking-trumpet for the
proclamation of their own views.

Again, Japan's non-Aryan speech, marvellously intricate, almost defies
acquisition. Suppose this difficult vernacular mastered; the would-be
student discovers that literary works, even newspapers and ordinary
correspondence, are not composed in it, but in another dialect, partly
antiquated, partly artificial, differing as widely from the colloquial
speech as Latin does from Italian. Make a second hazardous supposition.
Assume that the grammar and vocabulary of this second indispensable
Japanese language have been learnt, in addition to the first. You
are still but at the threshold of your task, Japanese thought having
barricaded itself behind the fortress walls of an extraordinarily
complicated system of writing, compared with which Egyptian
hieroglyphics are child's play. Yet next to nothing can be found out by
a foreigner unless he have this, too, at his fingers' ends. As a matter
of fact, scarcely anyone acquires it - only a missionary here and there,
or a consular official with a life appointment.

The result of all this is that, whereas the Japanese know everything
that it imports them to know about us, Europeans cannot know much about
them, such information as they receive being always belated,
necessarily meagre, and mostly adulterated to serve Japanese interests.
International relations placed - and, we repeat it, inevitably placed - on
this footing resemble a boxing match in which one of the contestants
should have his hands tied. But the metaphor fails in an essential
point, as metaphors are apt to do - the hand-tied man does not realise
the disadvantage under which he labours. He thinks himself as free as
his opponent.

Thus does it come about that the neo-Japanese myths concerning dates,
and Emperors, and heroes, and astonishing national virtues already begin
to find their way into popular English text-books, current literature,
and even grave books of reference. The Japanese governing class has
willed it so, and in such matters the Japanese governing class can
enforce its will abroad as well as at home. The statement may sound
paradoxical. Study the question carefully, and you will find that it is
simply true.

*****

What is happening in Japan to-day is evidently exceptional. Normal


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Online LibraryBasil Hall ChamberlainThe Invention of a New Religion → online text (page 1 of 2)