Outer sects and inner secrets

A HISTORY OF JAPANESE RELIGION. Edited by Kazuo Kasahara. ISBN 4-333-01917-6. Japan: Kosei Publishing. 648 pp. 3,900.

Sixteen Japanese scholars of religion and history collaborated to produce this book, and Kazuo Kasahara has adequately edited their contributions into a manageable whole. It is quite a feat to narrate the history of Japanese religion in an omnibus volume without losing the evolutionary thread, and the effort should be commended. But the result is a curious mixture of brevity and mind-numbing detail.

The book's 23 chapters begin with the Jomon Period (ca 10,000 B.C. - ca 300 B.C.) and advance to a startlingly short look at religion today. In between, we see the development of the major Buddhist sects, the evolution of Shinto, folk religions, yamabushi (mountain ascetics) and the coming of Christianity, ending with two very short chapters on new religions and the current state of established religion. This is immense territory to cover and, of necessity, brief stops are understandable, just as excessive lingering can be excused, but here the mixture is frustrating.

The Jomon and Yayoi Period (ca 300 B.C. - ca A.D. 300) are dealt with in just 20 pages. It can be argued that there are no written records and few artifacts to shed light on primitive Japanese religious beliefs. But that situation exists worldwide, and far more is known about, say, European Neolithic religion through comparison and extrapolation.

This paucity of information about potentially one of the most fascinating eras of Japanese religious history is soon forgotten in the following chapters-not only because of solid evidence available to historians but because the reader is inundated with trivial details. The historic trail begins with the introduction of the curiously termed ``foreign deities'' in the founding of Buddhist sects. This term is odd because the authors ignore native religions and spend the entire book explaining these ``alien'' Buddhist doctrines in a totally Japanese sense.

Because of written records, the writers then take flight and overwhelm the reader with detail. One example is the section dealing with Nichiren and the development of various sects after his death. A too-brief explanation of his teachings is hidden beneath dull recitations of who succeeded whom as sect head, the founding of temples, what was published when, etc., without an adequate explanation of these seemingly important tracts. This narration subjugates much of Nichiren's religious innovation to the historical equivalent of a grocery list.

But all is not lost. Much appreciated are insights into folk beliefs, mountain religions and Shugendo, a form of mountain asceticism. These esoteric movements and beliefs have been only lightly viewed, so any new information is welcomed. The sects are difficult to examine because of their secretive nature, but here we are given insight that helps place them in a historical position. We get the gist of beliefs and philosophy, which, though not thorough, is useful, since the sects have long been marginalized. We read, for example, that these sects insist upon learning about plants, mountains and animals, and how to use this knowledge for the betterment of all.

The information here is wonderful and tantalizing. Practice is described, but inner doctrine is not. One must be a believer and an adept to understand the inner secrets, but the outward practices are handily explained. Oddly, these religious beliefs are enjoying a renaissance because of their Japaneseness, their call to the soul and their lack of ideological trappings, so that those who choose to follow the path will succeed without the intervention of a priest or a religious hierarchy. These are the same reasons they enjoyed popularity in the past.

In an account of the history of religion, secular history has a large role and the book provides us with detail and insights. From the Heian Period (794-1185) to the present, we see how governments have treated and regulated religious activities. The control over Christianity has been much commented upon, and is covered here too, but control of other religions is less well known.

Throughout history, government permission was needed for the establishment of sects and temples. Often this involved taxation and land allocation as well as acceptability of government scrutiny. This regulation permeated all activities, from how many priests and temples were allowed, to how education was conducted. If a movement was viewed as beneficial to the government, it was encouraged; if not, it was persecuted not only by physical ways-exile or execution-but also by having revenue cut, among other means.

But the in-depth exploration of these issues is inappropriate in a history of religion. Instead of how politics and society influenced religion, the reverse should be investigated. Philosophical and theological debates throughout history should be highlighted. This book recites events but not their causes. It is all well and good to chart minutely how religion evolved in Japan, but the paramount question of why is barely addressed.

Why were certain sects appealing to some classes but not others? What were the reasons for Christianity's early success in western Japan and failure in eastern Japan? What were the theological reasons behind the splintering of sects?

The answers to these and other religious questions are relegated to second place because of the historical slant and numbing detail. As straight history, this book is acceptable, but as a religious history it is wanting. This may be a case of not seeing the forest for the trees.

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The reviewer is a freelance writer living in Kanagawa Prefecture.(IHT/Asahi: April 5,2002)