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Interrelationship between Politics, Religion, and Material Things in Japan Essay


Civilization of Man, which has been marked by notable complexity, can be traced back to Egypt, Mesopotamia, India and China hundred thousands of years ago.

All human societies past and present are multi faceted institutions and have set up and nurtured these institutions in attempts to discover themselves and add meaning to their life through establishment of justice and order.

Through them, man has endeavored to find out and comprehend his place, role and destiny in an ever mysterious universe.

Consequently, all spheres of human life in most societies have been and are still largely interrelated to an extent that it is difficult to divorce one societal element from the other despite modern man’s attempts to differentiate political, economic and religious roles and duties of these institutions.

The purpose of this task is to discuss from a historical point of view interrelationship between politics, religion, and material things in Japan.

Japanese cultural conservatism

Japanese culture is very old. Today, Japanese together with Chinese and other Asian people have appreciably succeeded in retaining much of their old age cultural practices.

This is despite the overwhelming European and to some extent Arabic cultural influences that have swept across different continents courtesy of Western colonialism and imperialism during nineteenth and twentieth century. Japanese culture is certainly one of the most conservative in the modern world.

Meyer observes that even if Japan was opened up to the outside world by the United States during mid-1850s, Japan continued to preserve much of its tradition and that its partial isolation led to a relatively high degree of cultural conservatism (9).

In other words, alien cultural and imperial pressures did not manage to influence the Japanese way of life. Instead old ways were preserved along side alien culture.

Meyer asserts that right from the time Japanese started coming into extensive contact with influential foreigners like Chinese and Europeans, they were able to put up with various religious and secular ideologies such as Confucianism, Buddhism, animism, Shintoism and Christianity (9).

Although it is not known precisely whether Japanese comprehended fully the substance of the borrowed foreign ideas, they were cognizant of the differences emanating from foreign ideas (Henning 74).

Therefore, even though external influence left noticeable marks upon Japanese way of life they were able to retain cultural practices that were uniquely their. (Meyer 9). According to Meyer (9), this cultural uniqueness was explicitly manifested in the persistence of simple prehistoric religious beliefs and attitudes and more sophisticated ideologies.

Due to Japanese socio-cultural conservatism, there is an aspect of Japanese historical continuity that has progressed without much interference from foreign cultural influence. However, as indicated above Japanese history has been characterized by the usual borrowing and giving that characterizes histories of other human cultures and civilizations world over Henning (74).

As a result, in the modern Japanese society religion is constitutionally separated from the state, unlike before the influx of western ways when religion and state were not separate. In traditional societies, the interrelationship between politics, religion and material things is more conspicuous as opposed to modernized societies where there is a deliberate and systematic attempt to separate these units of the society.

For instance, in most Western societies and other societies in Africa and Latin America as well as modern Japan that has been assimilated by Europeans through their colonialism and imperialism the state is by de jure separated from religion.

Consequently, although mainstream religious groups reserves the rights to take part in political debates on matters of national importance, there are no religious beliefs and values per se that dictates societal politics in modernized nations.

However, it is noteworthy that there is an unofficial interrelationship between religion and politics in modern societies unlike in traditional societies where the interrelationship is explicitly or tacitly official.

Interrelationship between politics, religion, and material things in Japan

As mentioned earlier, human life is highly multifaceted as manifested by various societal institutions that have come into being slowly over a long duration of time. In Japan politics, religion and material things has for long been interconnected since the entrance of Buddhism in to Japan in approximately 550 CE and before (IIes 173).

According to IIes (173), Buddhism came to Japan alongside the Chinese writing system and numerous statuary and sutras through the three kingdoms of Silla, Paekche and Koguryo.

Buddhism is both a religion and a philosophy. As a philosophy that has swept across much of Asia, it has won followers from kings, courtiers and ordinary people in the same manner (IIes 173).

As a religion and philosophy with elaborate and complicated traditions, it has fine distinctions and a broadly developed way of visualizing the reality, both material and spiritual. Also it has a subtle way of considering the relationship between the human (collectively and individually) and the nonhuman (IIes173).

IIes observes that Buddhist religion and philosophy suggests that there is an interconnectedness of all things, material and immaterial and the fundamental equation of all things with each other (173).

Essentially, Buddhism is a philosophy which seeks to set free its followers from suffering that is brought by desire. According Buddhist teachings, this desire originates from insistence of individual desires (IIes173).

Reader points out that Buddhism has been closely related for protracted periods of Japanese history with the state (6). Reader further states that Buddhism functioned nearly as a pillar of the political system from its initial coming into Japanese society, up to the time during when it functioned as a virtual system of local government and control during the Tokugawa period (Reader 6).

However, it is important to note that other Japanese religions such as Shintoism has had a close relationship with the state during different periods in the history of the Japanese society. For instance, from 1868 to1945, State Shinto was a chief ideological support of the militant and imperialist nationalism (Reader 6).

According Yewangoe (112), the relationship between religion and the state during different regimes in the history of Japan became even more strengthened when Buddhism became the state religion during the Koryo dynasty between 918-1392 A.D. When Buddhism was instituted as the state religion, monasteries became affluent.

Yewangoe (113) points out that numerous commercial factors such as usury-lending money at interest, financial and material gifts from nobles and the court, the advantage of tax exemptions among other favorable commercial factors contributed to their unmatched economic prosperity.

Yewangoe further notes that the connection between the congregation (Sangha) and the ruling class continued to be close even after Mongol invasions during the reign of the Koryos (113).

On one hand, the aristocrats supported the Sangha with material things, while the Sangha provided the aristocrats with a variety of ritual services like prayers for rain and good harvest. In addition, religion was an important unifying factor of the Japanese society. In fact, political leaders were the leaders of both the worldly and the sacred spheres of life (Yewangoe 112).

Evidently there was a conspicuous interrelationship between politics, religion and material things that, as illustrated above, necessitated by interdependence between the religious and political spheres of the traditional Japanese society.

Reader (6) points out that it is the 1946 Constitution, which was operationalised by the American-dominated Occupation government that officially ruined interrelationship between politics, religion, and state in Japanese history.

This interrelationship was approved and cemented by Buddhist philosophy which proposed fundamental interconnectedness of everything and the basic equality of all things with each other. The kings, monks and the ruled recognized and appreciated interrelationship of all things- material and immaterial-as taught by their Buddhist religio-philosophy.

The Sangha thus depended up on the aristocrats who were the owners of material wealth while the aristocrats looked up on the Sangha for the equally and needed important ritual services from the Sangha. All things were equally important and needed by all in order to experience an all round and meaningful life.

According to Reader (6), in this close relationship between religion, politics and the state, the state stood by and supported particular religious practices, which in return gave support and approved moral acceptance of the state by the common citizens. The relationship between religion and state served as a unifying factor for national unity and development of a sense of national awareness (Reader 6).

Buddhists practiced Takuhatsu which refers to a give-and-take exchange between individuals (monks, aristocrats and laymen) and citizens in which all gives and receives.

The redistribution involved not only alms-gathering of money and material things for the disadvantaged groups of people in the society but also a major element of the living custom of making the temple a “field of merit” to which individuals could give by planting and cultivating and from which they could gain by reaping.

In simple terms, Takuhatsu had always been part and parcel of a ritual gift exchange. It was also a necessary social organization in Buddhist world for maintaining the social connections between the monastic and the ordinary community both of whom were givers and receivers of an important transaction of material goods, spiritual and magical power.

The giving of material things such as clothes, food, medicine and other important items to monks in exchange for getting the gifts of dharma and obtaining merit was seen as an equal barter of gifts, with both parties having significant interests in the exchanged “objects”.

The ritual swapping over of gifts between the monks and the laymen, who were both givers and receivers was seen to be of equal intensity, value and importance. The monks and the ordinary men gave or received religious or material gifts which in their eyes and comprehension were of equal value.

Today, even though Buddhism remains as one of the main religious movements in Japan, the practice of Takuhatsu has undergone major changes. For example, for the modern Japanese giving money is only justified if it is directed towards accomplishment of existing projects such as renovating temple buildings (Borup172).

Some feel that by giving material things laypersons are taken advantage of in giving a lot than they receive and that their “return gifts” are of non-practical and uncontrollable in nature. Others argue that their gifts do not match up to the dharma and merit-gifts from the monks, thus the donation to the exchange is qualitatively underrepresented.

However, in rural monasteries, vegetables and rice are hitherto objects of contributions, often offering the monks with adequate amounts of food items to provide their own diet.

Nevertheless, giving and receiving gifts is a major component of the modern Japanese Buddhist’s life. With time, checks and balances have evolved and these ensures that selfish monks do not take advantage of unsuspecting laypersons.

In a typical traditional Japanese society, during the long periods of interrelationship between Buddhism and the state including the ruling class, monks and the laymen recognized, all people appreciated and upheld the Buddhist principle and teaching of the equality of all things-spiritual and material alike.

Therefore, everyone came out fairly in the ritual exchange of religious or spiritual gifts from the monks and material gifts from the noble, courtiers and ordinary men. In that Buddhist world everything was equally significant whether material or immaterial for one to experience life fully.

For traditional Japanese, there was no one single structure of the society alone whether political, social or economic that was more important and dominant up on others. Instead, the political, religious and economic structures of the society were equal and equally important to the full realization of life for all including the rulers, monks, ordinary men and the less privileged in the society.

Since operationalisation of the 1946 constitution which is largely based on the American concepts of separation between the state, politics and religion, the traditional Japanese relationship between politics, the state and religion has largely been broken.

For example, Reader (7) argues that although the mainstream religions of Buddhism and Shintoism actively take part in socially-oriented ceremonies and rituals, social change related to constitutional provision of religious freedom together with a progressively more consumer-oriented nature of the modern Japanese society, has motivated an enormous growth in the level of religious choice.

Consequently, there is no opportunity for any religion acquiring a position and status of privilege either at the moment or in the near future. However, it is noteworthy that constitutional separation of religion and state does not signify non-existence of central religious values or meanings that are usually common to a large majority of people in a given society.

It also does not mean that religion does not play a part in shaping the self-awareness or identity of a society and individuals (Reader 7).

Therefore, there is an overall central part of commonly held beliefs, assumptions, customs, practices, expectations and attitudes that carry on the giving of a sense of unity and cultural belonging to majority in Japan up to date (Reader 7). It also shapes and affirms Japanese identity even though the traditional interrelationship between religion and the state has been broken.

Works Cited

Henning, Joseph M. Outposts of civilization: race, religion, and the formative years of American-Japanese relations. New York, NY: NYU Press, 2000. Print.

Iles, Timothy. The crisis of identity in contemporary Japanese film: personal, cultural, national. New York, NY, BRILL, 2008. Print.

Meyer, Milton Walter. Japan: a concise history. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009. Print.

Reader, Ian.”Civil Religion in Contemporary Japan.” The Copenhagen Journal of Asian Studies. 9.94(2001): 6-32. Web.

Yewangoe, Andreas Anangguru. Theologia crucis in Asia: Asian Christian views on suffering in the face of overwhelming poverty and multifaceted religiosity in Asia. New York, NY: Rodopi, 1987. Print.

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1. IvyPanda. "Interrelationship between Politics, Religion, and Material Things in Japan." March 22, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/interrelationship-between-politics-religion-and-material-things-in-japan/.


IvyPanda. "Interrelationship between Politics, Religion, and Material Things in Japan." March 22, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/interrelationship-between-politics-religion-and-material-things-in-japan/.


IvyPanda. 2019. "Interrelationship between Politics, Religion, and Material Things in Japan." March 22, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/interrelationship-between-politics-religion-and-material-things-in-japan/.


IvyPanda. (2019) 'Interrelationship between Politics, Religion, and Material Things in Japan'. 22 March.

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