Project Canterbury

The Japanese Mind and Anglican Catholicism
By John T. Sakurai

American Church Quarterly volume 27, 1930

pp 427-435

SEVERAL years ago, Mr. Takanobu Murobushi, a well-known Japanese writer, published an essay entitled Bunmei No Botsuraku (The Decline of Civilization). He went to' Europe to study social problems, spending about two years, but during the study he lost his conviction of the truth of the current Socialism of which he had been an ardent advocate. As soon as he returned home, he devoted a whole year to preparing an essay, the title of which I have just mentioned. In that essay, he says, "There can be no culture without Religion and Art. The age in which Religion and Art are at high-tide is an age of culture." However his tone is pessimistic and gloomy like his mind, which has experienced a great disillusionment in European countries. "It is foolish to say," he writes, "that we still have religion. Religion has passed away with the Middle, Ages. I should say with Strauss, Haben wir noch Religion?" In Europe he saw, with great wonder and admiration, magnificent Gothic cathedrals as the embodiment of the religious aspiration of the mediaeval Christians. He failed to perceive vital power in the existing religion. According to his opinion, "The existing religion is not real religion, but rather practical ethics. Modern art is not the expression of aesthetic vitality, but rather of mechanical production." He proceeds, ''Modern civilization is the civilization of science, gold, and the devil. And in the midst of this civilization, the human soul has been feeling thirsty for a long time. The bourgeois imagines that he is rich, possessing money, material, power and the achievements of science. That is his religion--materialism. Materialism is a dreary religion. Science is a cold religion. And materialistic civilization has robbed the Life from man, from the world, and from God." The author looks back to the age of Gothic architecture in which Religion and Art had found a perfect unity. He cries like a prophet, "Return to the Gothic. Revive the original spirit of the Gothic art." The readers of this article will be amused to find the writer thus addressing his own countrymen as if they were Western people. By education he was thoroughly Westernized, but having been disappointed in the Western material civilization, he has turned to the Oriental culture with a fresh interest, and has published several essays since he wrote "The Decline of Civilization." At any rate, he believes that without religion human life is dead, and a true society is impossible. According to him, as to Carlyle or to St. Simon, the old religion is dying and the new spiritual power which he wants has not yet appeared.

His first essay since his return from Europe received a warm welcome as soon as it appeared, and has been widely circulated among young educated people. In Japan, many educated people of today do not profess any particular religion. They are not indifferent to religion, as some superficial observers think. Religion, or rather religious sentiment, is still, as it has ever been, the very life of the people. Although Japan has been completely and thoroughly transformed in the past sixty years by the influence of Western civilization, the culture of the oldest empire has not died out. The spirit of the old Japan still haunts the hearts of the majority of the people, inspiring them to high ideals and warning them against materialistic civilization. In order to know the Japanese mind which appears to the Westerners mysterious, we must go back to the old religions of Japan. In doing so the reader will get for himself some idea as to what kind of Christianity appeals most to the Japanese mind.

The mystery of the Japanese mind is found, I think, in their attitude toward Nature. To them Nature is neither monotonous nor wild, but it is, as it has ever been, dear and living to them. I should say that to them Nature can see, listen and speak. It is very hard to realize such a sentiment in this country, especially in a commercial or industrial town. But it is possible in Japan to be enraptured by the beautiful scenery and to listen to Nature. Even an illiterate woman can enjoy a clear moon for hours, doing nothing but thinking of her absent husband or children who see the same moon somewhere on that night. She may recollect her girlhood, when she enjoyed the same moon with her parents, sisters or brothers. And folklore or poems which she heard often may come back to her memory. To the Japanese who love Nature, poetry and symbolism more than any other peoples, even a pine tree, or a wild flower, or a cuckoo has some meaning. You might say that nature-worship is a very primitive religion, yet Shintoism was a natural product of the Japanese people.

The people, to whom everything appeared living, could not draw any clear line between the present and the next worlds. They could not see their forefathers in the flesh, but their souls were, they believed, always near to them. Lafcadio Hearn writes in one of his books (Japan, p. 149):

"In Old Japan, the world of the living was everywhere ruled by the world of the dead--the individual, at every moment of his existence, was under ghostly supervision. In his house, he was watched by the spirits of his fathers; without, he was ruled by the god of his district."

This description seems to me too vivid, but I cannot deny the existence of such sentiment in old Japan, and even today, in the majority of people, somewhat modified.

It is no wonder that the Shintoistic doctrine of the future life remained undeveloped until the middle of the eighteenth century. Another striking feature of Shintoism is that the religion has provided no moral code. But Shintoism is not non-moral. Motoori, a famous Shinto scholar in the eighteenth century, thought that moral codes were good for the Chinese whose inferior nature required such artificial means of restraint. Hirata, his disciple, denounced systems of morality as a disgrace to his countrymen. Their idea is to rely solely on the promptings of conscience for ethical guidance.

However, consciousness of guilt and uncleanliness as things displeasing to the gods and ancestors appeared in Shintoism from the very beginning. Misfortune and calamity were regarded as punishment for guilt, and purification of the community as well as the individual developed into elaborated ceremonies. Physical impurity as well as moral impurity were intolerable to the gods. Spotless cleanliness has been required by the rites of worship in the shrine, in the person of the officiant and in the house which has its own family shrine.

Shintoistic conceptions are, I think, the foundation of the Japanese mind which has been developed by the influence of Buddhism and the Chinese philosophy of life.


The fundamental idea of Buddhism is to attain to the perception of the Absolute, raising one's self above worldly things. To use a Buddhist expression, it is to attain to Enlightenment, or Buddhahood, making one's self free from the transitoriness of this world. Buddhism does not deny the actuality of phenomena as phenomena, but it denies their permanence. Appearances are true only to our imperfect senses. They are transitory manifestations of the only permanent Reality. The knowledge of the Absolute is possible only to those who have reached Enlightenment. He who has attained to this stage is able to see that the distinctions, which ordinary men make between things--for instance, life and death--have no real existence in being. In order to attain to perfection, one must know the truth, and the truth will show him what is right, and by obedience to the right he can escape from suffering and enter bliss. However, the truth cannot be perfectly conveyed by imperfect human language. He must learn the truth by contemplation.

The metaphysics of Buddhism may be too deep for the common people. To such people the transitoriness of life and the doctrine of re-incarnation are simple enough. People have lived millions of times in the past, and they are likely to live again millions of times, unless, and until the soul reaches to the state of perfection. All conditions of each rebirth depend upon past conduct. This is the work of Karma, which you might call for convenience, the mysterious energy of life. The doctrine of Karma, which runs all through Buddhist thought, on its better side means that this universe is under the law of cause and effect.

To the Japanese love of Nature, Buddhism was not antagonistic. The constant change of nature had already reminded the people that the universe is under law, against which a human being has no power. The fatalistic idea in Buddhism furnished a sense of calm trust in Fate, a quiet submission to the inevitable, disdain of life, and friendliness with death. Again, the doctrine of rebirth made the people more friendly with Nature. Know the truth, trust in Fate, detach yourself from the world, and attain to the higher destiny, these are the great contributions which Buddhism made to the religious life of the Japanese.

Buddhism was introduced to Japan in A.D. 538 and became the established religion under the reign of Empress Suiko (A.D. 593-639). However, the real progress of Buddhism was promoted by the heroic work of monks whose scholarship and sanctity of character were outstanding. Like the Christian monks of the West, these Buddhist monks were the pioneers in missionary, educational and philanthropic work. Fine arts and architecture were also greatly developed by their hand. The decline of Buddhist monasticism was followed by a Buddhist "Protestant" movement in the thirteenth century. Against this movement the newly introduced Zen Shu, or the "Contemplation" sect, took a most important part in influencing the Samurai class. Curiously the rise of the No, or the music drama, Chanoyu or the tea ceremony, landscape gardening, and the art of arranging flowers, owe their origin to Zen Buddhism.

The commemoration of the dead is inconsistent with the original Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhism introduced and developed requiem services before it reached Japan, either through the influence of Chinese ancestor-worship, or through contact with Christianity in the northern borders of India, within the first few centuries after Christ. At present the most important function of Buddhist ministers in Japan is to take funerals and to officiate at the memorial services for the dead. Almost every Buddhist keeps the week-mind, the month-mind, and the year-mind of the dead, and abstains from meat and fish on these days.

I must limit my discussion of the influence of Chinese philosophers upon the Japanese mind to a few lines. I shall simply say that they have expressed in "words" the ethical teaching which had already been practiced by the Japanese as a matter of course. The study of the Chinese classics was greatly popularized in Japan during the Shogunate of the Tokugawa, by its peculiar policy towards all existing religions, because of the power behind these religions. Among the Chinese schools of Philosophy, Confucianism became the most important in that period. Every teacher seemed to be ashamed at not being versed in the teaching of the great philosopher of the Oriental Stoicism.


Now let us turn to the contact of Christianity with the Japanese mind. The impressions of the first Christian missionary to Japan, St. Francis Xavier, are worth noticing. He was greatly disappointed by his Hindoo converts in India, but his venture to the virgin soil of Japan was well rewarded. He wrote to the Society of Jesus at Goa, a few months after his arrival in Japan at Kagoshima, that most of the people could read. "They listen with great avidity to discourse about God and Divine things, especially when they can well understand what you say. Of all nations I have ever seen I cannot remember ever to have found any, either Christian or heathen, so averse to theft." He was well pleased with the great desire of the Japanese for learning and religion. "The Japanese are very curious by nature, and as desirous of learning as any people ever were. So they go on perpetually telling other people about their questions and our answers. They desire very much to hear novelties, especially about religion."

He found that "the Japanese are led by reason in everything more than any other people, and in general they are insatiable of information" (at Cochin, 29 January 1552, to the Society in Europe). That is why he wrote to Ignatius, on his return to Cochin, that he "should send there persons of great excellence and eminent both for virtue and learning," while he did not require great learning of the missionaries to India. For this latter purpose, "There are many unlearned though prudent men who possess good judgment." In the same letter to Ignatius he wrote:

"As far as I know the Japanese nation is the single and only nation of them all which seems likely to preserve unshaken and forever the profession of Christian holiness if once it embraces it; but this will doubtless not be without great sufferings and heroic conflicts on the part of the preachers of the Gospel." (at Cochin, 29 January 1552).

His conviction on this point was not betrayed when later, thousands of Japanese Christians suffered martyrdom with Samurai spirit during the severe persecutions. A great many Christians who managed to escape the hand of persecutors secretly continued their faith without priests, under the continued severity against Christianity which lasted over two hundred years. When French priests came to Nagasaki and built a church in 1865, they discovered some three thousand eight hundred Christians within a few months. And the priests found that they knew as much Christian doctrine as the average French peasant.

During the nineteenth century, after the removal of the traditional law of Christian prohibition in 1873, Christian missions were greatly favored because of the advanced civilization of the West, and the fanatical Westernizing movement in Japan. Through the influence of Western civilization, Japan has been thoroughly and completely changed. She has become one of the "civilized" countries of the world. All the educational work is under the control of the government, and six years of elementary education has been compulsory for many years. At present it is almost impossible to find people under fifty years of age who cannot read. The great majority of the people enjoy newspapers which devote considerable space to foreign telegrams, domestic political affairs, fiction, book reviews, fine arts reviews, domestic science, and advertisements of new publications. High class magazines which often publish essays of over thirty pages, written by outstanding persons, are widely circulated. All the standard literature of the world has been translated into Japanese. And so every current of thought in the Western world finds its immediate echo in Japan. The Great War has had its effect upon Japan as elsewhere. She has adopted inevitably, an instability in political life, a bewilderment of outlook, and a crop of social problems, the solution of which is difficult to find. Today in Japan Christianity must stand by its own strength. Only that kind of Christianity which appeals most strongly to the people, and develops the religious mind in this age of confusion, will survive.


We must come to the most important problem of Christianity and the modern Japanese mind. In dealing with this problem, I must limit my discussion to the young people on whom the immediate future of the Empire depends. The majority of Japanese Christians are, we must remember converts, most of whom were baptized between the ages of sixteen and twenty. The psychology of a convert, especially of a man, is quite different from that of a person who was baptized in infancy and who has grown up without having had any vivid spiritual experience. The faith of a convert is unsettled, at least in the first two years, sometimes for several years, during which he often sways from one extreme to the other. He is willing to give up his old customs, friendships, family-ties, even himself, for the sake of his faith. But if his first-hand experience of Christianity is disappointing, he will stop coming to church, although he retains a great admiration for the Person of Jesus Christ. The most important work for missionaries is to train converts rather than to make them. The making of converts can be done by laymen. The neophyte asks many questions, especially about miracles, the doctrine of the Trinity, original sin, redemption by the Blood of Jesus, Eternal Life, the state after death, and so forth. We find that the Japanese mind today is practically the same as at the time of St. Francis Xavier. He does not expect scholarly discourses but simple and clear answers. Yet a simple answer such as "The Bible says so," or "The Church teaches so" does not satisfy him. He asks further. Consequently, mission preaching and Protestant "revival" movements have never been successful in Japan. A friend wrote me a short time ago:

"Take two extreme missions--one is always busy with preaching while the other does not care for 'evangelistic services.' Suppose each mission has fifty members. In the course of three or four years, membership of the former mission will completely change, because such a mission can hold converts only for a short time. The other mission may not grow, but it can hold almost the same members.

The weakness of Protestantism has been recently exposed in Japan from the inside. A prominent Presbyterian minister boldly said, several years ago, at a public meeting in Tokyo that "Protestantism is a sort of sentimentalism which cannot be called a religion." About four years ago, the assistant pastor of the largest Congregational church in Tokyo announced his resignation on conscientious grounds, and began an ascetic life on the outskirts of the city. He has been completely disappointed at the powerlessness of Protestantism, and in his own monthly publication, he writes of the crying need of the Religious Life in Japan. It is really astonishing to find that so many young Protestant ministers have so little conviction in the power of their own religion. Young men tend to react from the Protestant "Social Gospel" to Communism, which is becoming the strongest religion among students in these last few years. It seems to them quite natural to separate from Protestantism which was so closely connected with the rise of Capitalism, and accept instead the gospel of Karl Marx. The doctrine of Communism appeals to their conscience much more than sentimental sermons on Social service. However, if any of them study Marxism one step further, they will find their dissatisfaction with the materialistic atheism which underlies the doctrine. If they are sincere and clever, there must come reaction from Marxism. This time, like the author of ''The Decline of Civilization," they will seek a vital religion which can dominate every department of human life.

A young Churchman who is taking the postgraduate work in the School of Economics of the best university in Japan wrote me, last October:

"I have presented to the faculty a thesis on the early period of the British Labor Movement--Chartism. The study has made me attached to Catholicism from a new point of view."

Catholicism in its "Eastern" form does not much appeal to the modern Japanese, despite its well-balanced theology, and its rich symbolism in the Liturgy. The general impression is, I imagine, that the Orthodox Church lacks, like Buddhism, the vitality necessary for leadership in this age of confusion.

The working system of Roman Catholicism makes a strong appeal to the people. The uniformity in worship and discipline, the visible seat of authority and the heroic work on the part of missionaries are attractive. Her weakness lies, I suppose, along the same lines. People never forget the political power behind the Church which caused the most tragic persecutions in Japan. The Western paganism and pragmatism which run through the system cannot entirely satisfy educated people. The Roman Church appears to them to demand absolute submission. It seems to some of them difficult to become Roman Catholics unless they deny their own conscience.

Anglican Catholicism has gradually captured the mind of many young clergy and laity in Japan, although it is only several years since the movement was actually started. Church people have a great expectation of that movement. The special field for Anglican Catholicism is the reform of the religious education and training of children and young people, together with well-balanced theology and definite discipline. But in making Anglican Catholicism the most vital and sound religion to the people, "great suffering and heroic conflicts on the part of the preachers of the Gospel" are required, as St. Francis Xavier rightly said in the sixteenth century. I have never heard any reasonable objection to the movement from a theological point of view. I have often heard criticism against priests who are too busy with propaganda and controversy. The Church in Japan needs leaders "of great excellence and eminent both for virtue and learning." A most interesting thing for us is to see how the Religious Life can develop among the Japanese. Most of them, both Christians and non-Christians, have felt that the Life of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience must be the ideal state of life for religious ministers.

Project Canterbury