Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Book Review: Religion in Contemporary Japan by Ian Reader

So, this is one of the books that I'm reading for my Ghibli class (it's so much cooler [and shorter!] to say 'Ghibli class' than Hayao Miyazaki's World class). It's not one of the assigned readings, but it was very helpful for the first paper: Spirituality in Miyazaki's My Neighbour Totoro.

Now, although this book says "contemporary", it was published in 1991, meaning that it's probably written about the time My Neighbour Totoro was being made (the film came out in 1988). So I guess another title we can give it was "Religion in the time of My Neighbour Totoro".

This book is broken into eight chapters, covering not only the two 'main' religions - Shintoism and Buddhism, but also 'newer' religions like Agonshu, as well as the situations in which the Japanese turn to religious practices, as well as how they view religion.

One thing that I thought was interesting was that the author looked at how the Japanese seem to view religion differently from those in Western societies. He made the point that the word 宗教 (shukyou - religion) is a "derived word that came into prominence in the nineteenth century as a result of Japanese encounters with the West and particularly with Christian missionaries, to denote a concept and view of religion commonplace in the realms of nineteenth-century Christian theology but at that time not found in Japan, of religion as a specific, belief-framed entity."

What I understood from this is that all those people going "Japanese people are irreligious" are, to put it simply, using the wrong interpretation of 'religious'. It seems that Japan (and possibly Asia), sees religion differently. Of course, being Christian, I can't actually cite first-hand experience, but I went around asking my Buddhist friends, and it turns out that Vietnam, Indonesia and Japanese Buddhist seem to do things the same way. They go to the temple before events like exams, during occasions like Chinese New Year, etc.

Another, more relevant to Totoro aspect that caught my eye was the possibility of 宗教遊び (Shukyou Asobi) as a tradition in Japan. My teacher gave us a paper on Shukyou Asobi, which basically means the section where religion and entertainment merge. The book mentions that Japan has taken religious festivals such as O-bon and New Year's hatsumode and turned them into entertainment (or festivals). If so, it's interesting to wonder if the spiritual symbols in My Neighbour Totoro (IF there are any, because this is a film set in Japan, so we can't be sure that Miyazaki put in all these stuff on purpose), is merely a continuation of the shukyou asobi tradition.

So is this book going to prove that My Neighbour Totoro has a religious/spiritual agenda? No. No one's going to be able to prove that, because we are essentially imposing an interpretation on the film (I personally don't see the film as a spiritual experience in any way, let alone a religious one, but my teacher did assign the topic, so I just go with the flow). But, it is an interesting look at how religion was viewed in Japan some 20 odd years ago (this year being 2014, so all those looking at this a few years later, just add the numbers up).

If you want to buy this book from Amazon.com, you should totally use this affiliate link. The price doesn't increase, but I'll get a cut of the money.