Monday, March 8, 2010

Review of 14th Shinto Seminar at Kashima Shrine - part 1

This is Dr. Trouble talking...

Intro to this report is here.

When a Biologist attends a Humanities symposium

The 14th Shinto symposium was held in honor of Kashima God (Takemikazuchi). Since I hold a PhD degree in bioscience, all the conferences I know are related to life sciences, and are a lot different from “Shinto and Bushido”. In Kashima, there was no DNA, molecular genetics, cell biology, blah blah, blah…

And what annoyed me the most at this event was the fact that I couldn’t figure out, from the speeches, what bits and pieces had already been known for a long time and what ideas were new. We did not see any pretty pictures in PowerPoint presentations marked with shining green or red laser pointers on a big screen…

Here, I just wanted to mention that I’m going to review this meeting from a “hard science” researcher’s point of view. OK? So if that’s clear, let’s proceed.

“Fu-do (風土)” written by Tetsuro Watsuji, a philosopher

The first speaker was Professor Kanno (a Buddhist monk with a shaved head, wearing a suit) from Tokyo University. The title of his talk was “Nature, Shinto, and Bushido”. He first described the influence of weather on ancient people’s perception of nature. Actually, he referred to Tetsuro Watsuji's (和辻哲郎) book(s). That guy was a philosopher and a historian and got his PhD in literature in 1932 at the age of 43. He was also a tutor of the current Empress, Michiko, when she was engaged to Akihito (based on Wiki Japan). Since I am lazy below is a copy&paste from Wiki regarding Watsuji’s major achievement.

Watsuji's three main works were his two-volume 1954 History of Japanese Ethical Thought, his three-volume Rinrigaku (Ethics), first published in 1937, 1942, and 1949, and his 1935 Fudo. The last of these develops his most distinctive thought. In it, Watsuji argues for an essential relationship between climate and other environmental factors and the nature of human cultures, and he distinguished three types of culture: pastoral, desert, and monsoon. (The French philosopher Montesquieu had developed a theory along similar lines, though with very different conclusions.)

Prof. Kanno’s talk consisted mostly of introducing Watsuji’s work with some of his own comments on it. He started his speech by saying that all human activities at any level are merely attributed to the exchange of materials between individuals and nature. Without any involvement with “Fu-do” (surrounding environments) no human life is achieved, meaning all human activity relies on the surrounding nature. Very true, and I agree with it.

He went further explaining three types of cultures in the world: pastoral (= Europe, for instance), desert (Mid-east, for example), and monsoon (South East Asia, with Japan included). Watsuji came up with this idea while stopping at a variety of harbors on his study trip to Germany, Prof. Kanno explained.


Keywords on different types of climates are shown in Table 1. (click on image to enlarge)

His point was that because monsoon climate is fertile enough to supply water to rice fields thanks to frequent rains, most Japanese find divinity in almost everything, but then the weather becomes unpredictably uncontrollable and that makes people come to terms with nature which has no apparent “law and order” and accept it as it is.

Note that typhoons may or may not land in Japan at the time of harvesting rice. God only knows. Therefore, this monsoon-type climate has a strong affinity to the Shinto principle, Prof. Kanno concluded.

In other words, “People grown under different climates find it hard to understand Shinto.” In another words, he thinks that “there is no room for religions which originated in other types of climates to be included in Japan”, Prof. Kanno added and was laughing when he said it… 

We get to watch a martial arts presentation as part of the seminar

Samurai in Christianity, but not in Bushido

I was not happy with such an exclusive attitude and one Japanese writer’s name came to my mind - Shusaku Endo (遠藤周作). He was a Christian who had a unique but controversial opinion on Jesus from Nazareth.

Remember that we had converted some Samurai to Christianity back in the 16-17th centuries. Ukon Takayama (高山右近) and Harunobu Arima (有馬晴信) were the “last converted Samurai”, who were sent to Manila, or executed, respectively.

Well, Prof. Buddhist monk very conveniently did not mention them and their religious persuasion – Christianity, because this fact cancels out his theory.

Remember the title of the seminar? Yep, “Shinto and Bushido”. And according to Prof. Kanno, there is no need to have non-native religions in Japan. Which is kind of ironic, when you consider the fact that he himself is a Buddhist monk.

The story continues in part 3…

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