Thoughts on Buddhahood, alliances, and polite fictions
Posted by ampontan on Friday, November 20, 2009
“At eighteen our convictions are hills from which we look; at forty-five they are caves in which we hide.”
- F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Bernice Bobs Her Hair”
BY NOW, the world knows that Ozawa Ichiro, Secretary-General of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, beclowned himself last week when he held forth on global cultural and religious matters to reporters after a meeting with Matsunaga Yukei, chairman of the Japan Buddhist Federation in Wakayama.
Mr. Ozawa asserted that Christianity is “exclusive and self-righteous” and that Western society is “stuck in a dead end” (or “has reached an impasse”, depending on the translation.) He added that “Islamism is also exclusive, although it’s somewhat better than Christianity”.
That the man who controls both the Japanese government’s ruling party and the Diet seems to know so little about the world outside East Asia is disquieting. Did he not learn that America exists because it was originally a haven of religious freedom? Does he not realize how secularized Western society has become? Is he unaware that the continued Islamification of Europe will alter the face of that continent within a generation?
And where did he get the idea that Islamism is less exclusive than Christianity? It isn’t the Christians who treat non-believers as infidels to be given the choice of death or dhimmitude if they don’t convert. It isn’t the courtrooms in Christian countries that give more weight by law to the testimony of believers.
This is not to defend Mr. Ozawa—ignorance is ignorance, after all—but his is not an isolated example. More than a few politicians from the Liberal Democratic Party also exposed their breeches after their climb to the top of the greasy pole. But it’s rare for the politico in any country to have more than a rudimentary knowledge of people and events overseas. U.S. President Barack Obama, for example, thinks the people of Austria speak a language he refers to as “Austrian”. We should have learned by now that the political class devotes its time and energy to schmoozing and outsources the rest to their aides, speechwriters, or the Foreign Service.
The infotainment media worldwide bears a heavy responsibility for this ignorance. The Japanese media’s presentation of conditions overseas is kiddie-pool shallow and usually consists of little more than the superficial translation of a few newspaper or television reports. Meanwhile, the overseas media’s offerings on Japan are filled with enough bologna to launch an international chain of delicatessens.
What he also said
But the spitballers and peashooters missed several comments by Mr. Ozawa that are even more worthy of interest. For example, he also said this at his Wakayama press conference: “Modern society has forgotten or lost sight of the spirit of the Japanese people.” And most interesting of all: “Buddhism teaches you how humans should live and how the conditions of the mind should be from a fundamental standpoint.”
People also seem to be overlooking more of the Ozawa Analects delivered at a press conference on Monday this week, and at another meeting last week on the 11th. None of those bon mots seem to be in wide circulation in English, perhaps because they offer no diversion for the coffeehousers.
During his Monday press conference, Mr. Ozawa not only refused to apologize for or retract his comments, he also gave us further insight into his personal philosophy:
“The Eastern view is that humankind is one of the workings of eternal nature, while Western civilization believes that human beings are of the highest order as primates.”
“(In the Buddhist worldview) people can become Buddhas during their lifetime, and when they die, everyone achieves Buddhahood. Do any other religions allow for everyone to become divinities? I expressed the basic differences in religion, philosophy, and view of life.”
He also quoted Sir Edmund Hillary, the man who gave as his reason for climbing Everest, “Because it was there”:
“Western civilization believes that (everything) exists for human beings, even nature. But Everest is worshipped as a sacred mountain by the people in the region where it is located. Most Asians do not have the idea of trying to conquer it.”
“Both you and I can attain Buddhahood when we die.”
Who knew that the master practitioner of Chicago-style politics in Japan was such a spiritual being at heart?
To be fair, this is nothing new for Shadow Shogun V.2. He has spoken in the past about the importance of symbiosis (kyosei) between person and person, country and country, and people and nature. There seems to be a streak of Buddhism in Mr. Ozawa that informs his views on government, and it ranges from foreign affairs to environmentalism.
In fact, it makes one wonder if he and Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio are political and religious soul mates of a sort. We already know about Mr. Hatoyama’s family heirloom philosophy of yuai. Indeed, the man whose ideas were the inspiration for yuai once wrote (emphasis mine):
“The chaos of modern politics will only…find its end when a spiritual aristocracy seizes the means of power of society: (gun)powder, gold, ink, and uses them for the blessing of the general public.”
Here’s the latter day spiritual aristocrat explaining his support of suffrage for foreigners with permanent resident status:
“The Japanese archipelago is not only a Japanese possession. The Japanese are more infused with the Buddhist spirit than anyone else in the world, so why do we not allow foreigners to participate in local elections?”
Giving expression to that Buddhist spirit, he added:
“The earth is for all people who live with gusto. The same is true for the Japanese archipelago. It is not just for all human beings. It is the possession of animals, plants, and all creatures.”
Is there any other government among the world’s economically advanced nations in which the two most important figures talk this way? Had George W. Bush used his Christian beliefs to justify or elaborate the reasons for his policy decisions while head of government, he would have been pilloried in the U.S. for mixing church and state. That would have been followed by a global epidemic of tongue-swallowing. Meanwhile, the Japanese merely roll their eyes over yet another mention of yuai and say, “That’s Yukio.” Mr. Ozawa’s observations are considered unremarkable.
That brings us to another underreported Ozawa comment. The day after his Wakayama press conference, Mr. Ozawa addressed the closing assembly of the third Japan-China Exchange and Discussion Mechanism in Tokyo, of which he is the chair. The top-ranking representative from China was Wang Jiarui, the Chinese Communist Party International Department Minister.
He got all cosmic on us then, too:
“I am convinced that both countries can cooperate and work together in the 21st century to achieve an epochal partnership in the history of humankind in both political and economic terms, as well as in terms of culture and civilization and the global environment. This will enable the world to prosper in peace and stability, and human beings to live together and coexist with each other.”
Mr. Ozawa was not just whistling Dixie for his Chinese guest. He has long been open about his pro-Chinese sentiments while coming as close to anti-Americanism as any mainstream Japanese politician who wishes to hold power dares.
The DPJ Secretary-General has been the leader of a citizen exchange group called the Great Wall Project since 1986, when he was still a member of the LDP. He plans to lead a delegation of the group to visit China again this year. It will be their 16th trip, though this one is being conducted under the auspices of the DPJ. During a visit in late 2007, he was so obsequious to his hosts it even angered some members of his party. (They have since split.) At about the same time, he purposely kept then-American ambassador Thomas Schieffer waiting for 30 minutes before deigning to meet with him and discuss his party’s approach for global anti-terrorism efforts. China was the first country he visited after being named head of the DPJ for the second time in 2006.
Mr. Ozawa and Mr. Wang go back a long way. Their last meeting was in Tokyo in February, when Mr. Ozawa created a minor stir by telling him that he has always had a “special feeling of closeness with China”. As he was then still head of the DPJ and in line to become prime minister after the next lower house election, he promised Mr. Wang that relations with China would be given a special emphasis in a DPJ government. That same month Mr. Ozawa made his more publicized observation that the Seventh Fleet was the only American military force that needed to stay in Japan, and that the country should instead focus on closer ties with China and South Korea to deal with regional issues.
He met with Mr. Wang for 75 minutes during the latter’s February visit, but could spare only a half an hour for American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Meanwhile, Mr. Wang’s meeting with then-Prime Minister Aso Taro lasted 60 minutes.
Ozawa The Sinophile
Mr. Ozawa comes by his Sinophilia honestly. At the start of his national political career, he became attached to Tanaka Kakuei, who was the Big Enchilada of Japanese politics for the better part of two decades even when he wasn’t serving a term as prime minister. It was Mr. Tanaka who spearheaded the drive to recognize mainland China when the nation’s political class was split 50-50 on the issue, achieving his objective in 1972. He long worked to improve Japanese-Sino relations and formed close personal ties with members of the Chinese ruling class.
For their part, the Chinese always considered Mr. Tanaka a friend, and that friendship extends to his daughter Makiko, who briefly served as Foreign Minister in the first Koizumi Jun’ichiro Cabinet. A chip off the old block, Ms. Tanaka followed her father’s line during her term in office by urging a stronger relationship with China and South Korea and less dependence on the United States. She also disagreed with U.S. policy on Taiwan and tried to steer the Japanese position on that issue on a course independent of the Americans.
Whenever he meets with the Chinese, Ozawa Ichiro insists that he is simply following the lead of Tanaka Kakuei. He likes to quote former Chinese Premier Zhou En-lai on the subject, saying that the people who drink the water of a well should always remember the people who dug it.
While perhaps not as blatantly pro-Chinese as Mr. Ozawa, Mr. Hatoyama is clearly intent on steering Japan on a course closer to Asia than the United States (the emphasis is mine again):
The one important thing now is the spirit of yuai in foreign relations, which I have devoted the most attention to since becoming party president. That is to say, the yuai spirit elevated France and Germany, which constantly fought each other, into the EU, which does not have wars. I think that is by no means impossible to achieve in East Asia. First, cooperation between Japan and South Korea is extremely important, and then we can add China. If necessary, we can have the Americans join. I’m saying that an East Asian entity, the concept of an Asia-Pacific mechanism, is important. That’s why I said the early creation of a free trade agreement between Japan and South Korea is critical.
Try this on for size: If Buddhism indeed informs the perspective of both Mr. Ozawa and Mr. Hatoyama, might it be one factor underlying DPJ positions regarding political circumstances in Japan, East Asia, and the alliance with America?
For example, both men strongly support suffrage in local elections for foreign nationals who are permanent residents. In practice, that means the people born and raised in Japan of Korean ancestry who have chosen to retain Korean citizenship. Supporters of the measure hide behind the euphemism of “permanent residents”, but their meaning is clear. Openly advocating the vote for that particular group would ensure focused opposition because the zainichi could easily obtain Japanese citizenship, and because of the size and outspokenness of Chongryun, the pro-North Korean organization in Japan.
Is it possible that their position is a statement of East Asian solidarity based on their expressed cultural and religious perspectives?
Certainly some, if not most, members of the Liberal Democratic Party understand and share these Buddhist sentiments. It is also certain that somewhere in both the Ozawa and Hatoyama homes there is a kamidana, a small Shinto altar/shrine (usually on a shelf) to honor the family guardian deities.
Yet one seldom hears the LDP politicos express such explicitly Buddhist sentiments. They are more likely to talk of Shinto, and that offers an intriguing contrast between the parties. Explaining the relationship between Shinto and the Japanese would be like trying to explain the relationship between fish and water, but to put it briefly, it consists of two strains. One involves community-based customs and attitudes that have existed as long as there have been Japanese, and the other resembles an organized religion associated with the imperial line. These strains have repeatedly interacted and diverged over the centuries, but when today’s politicians speak of Shinto, it is not tantamount to a referral to the state-established variety that lasted from the Meiji Restoration in 1868 to 1945. That was just one chapter of a much longer history.
On the other hand, despite its immense impact on the country, Buddhism is an import that arrived from China via the Korean Peninsula. In fact, it was subjected to attack at the beginning of the Meiji Restoration just for this foreignness.
Thus, the visits of prime ministers Suzuki, Nakasone, and Koizumi to the Yasukuni shrine, and the visits of prime ministers Mori and Abe to the Meiji shrine, might be viewed mainly as an expression of national identity. The invocation of Buddhism by Mr. Ozawa and Mr. Hatoyama, in contrast, would therefore seem to be expressions of regional identity.
Some in the media compared Mr. Ozawa’s observation about Buddhism and Western religions to former Prime Minister Mori Yoshiro’s controversial statement to a Shinto group that Japan is a “kami no kuni”, centered on the Tenno (Emperor). That Japanese sentence is impossible to translate in a meaningful way in English, however. Without background knowledge, the Western conception of “divinity” will prevent those in the West from understanding the meaning when they read the commonly used translation of “Japan is a divine country.”.
It might be that Mr. Ozawa’s claim that “Modern society has forgotten or lost sight of the spirit of the Japanese people” sprang from a similar source within. It’s just that Mr. Mori’s approach was from a Shinto perspective, while that of Mr. Ozawa is from a Buddhist perspective.
Therefore—speaking very broadly and generally—could the emphasis on Buddhism as opposed to Shintoism by the two DPJ leaders be one way they differentiate themselves from the LDP, intentionally or not?
The New Komeito political party is widely assumed to be the political arm of the Soka Gakkai lay Buddhist organization. An enigma for many Japanese was their willingness to form a coalition government with the center-right LDP, despite a center-left outlook that includes pacifist tendencies and a program calling for more social welfare benefits. A relatively high percentage of the Soka Gakkai membership consists of Japanese-born Korean citizens, most of whom would welcome the chance to vote in local elections, a policy the LDP opposes. It would seem that New Komeito and the DPJ would be natural allies.
Yet Ozawa Ichiro is known for an intense dislike of New Komeito that dates back at least to his days as head of the Liberal Party, when they were in a coalition government headed by the LDP under Prime Minister Obuchi Keizo. No one seems to be able to explain it, or at least they aren’t trying to explain it in public.
Is it possible that Mr. Ozawa’s dislike of New Komeito stems from a belief that their backers represent a divergent sect of Buddhism whose beliefs have been used for nationalist aims in the past? (Soka Gakkai claims it is based on the teachings of Nichiren. See this previous post for a brief discussion of the influence of Nichirenists on early 20th century Japan.)
The factual or interpretive accuracy of the Ozawa/Hatoyama cosmology is not the point in any of these matters. Nor is it important whether Buddhism was their point of departure for reaching the political position of regional identity, or whether they started from an awareness of regional identity and then employed Buddhism as a justification. What is important is whether they sincerely believe it, and whether they act on those beliefs.
But Mr. Hatoyama in particular must weigh his public statements carefully and engage in polite fictions, because telling the truth would be asking for trouble both at home and abroad. There is a long-standing debate in Japan whether it should align primarily with the West or with East Asia. Those who favor alignment with the West consist of several elements, including people who think China and the two Koreas will never take Japan’s interest into account in any regional grouping. Mr. Hatoyama’s calls for an East Asian entity are sufficient to arouse their opposition.
These folks are well aware this ground has been covered before. In a 1973 interview with Time magazine, Tanaka Kakuei felt compelled to reassure his visitors that “the U.S. comes first.” After his now notorious article in the September issue of Voice, portions of which were translated into English and published in the New York Times, Mr. Hatoyama has been similarly compelled to reassure contemporary Americans that the U.S. still comes first.
That’s what he says. In his article, Mr. Hatoyama wrote that America is waning and China is waxing. He also wrote that the U.S. is seeking to maintain its dominance, and China is seeking to attain dominance as it becomes economically powerful. He claims that an East Asian entity would be the best way to keep Chinese ambitions in check, bring order to their economic activity, and defuse nationalism in the region. It is perhaps an irony that the U.S. government pre-Obama sought to do something similar through a strategy of simultaneous engagement and balance, though more through friendship than through marriage.
Unfortunately, Mr. Hatoyama is all too sincere in these beliefs, which suggest a level of ignorance similar to that of Ozawa Ichiro’s views on international religion and culture. It is not enough to note that the Chinese naturally assume that regional dominance and hegemony is their national birthright. One has to realize the term they use for themselves is “the flower in the center of the universe”. Mr. Hatoyama is never going to change that, no matter how willing he is to share his cookies and milk.
And his view of the European Union is a mirage. The EU has had little to do with preventing another continental war, for which Europeans thankfully no longer have the stomach. Instead, it has evolved into an oppressive, top-down meddling behemoth of a bureaucracy that is a multinational Kasumigaseki times ten. Czech President Vaclav Klaus calls its governing principle “post-democracy”: “where there is no democratic accountabiity, and the decisions are made by politicians, appointed by politicians, not elected by citizens in free elections.” That sounds like just the sort of thing a spiritual aristocrat could sink his teeth into.
Too much Hatoyama honesty causes too many problems for Japanese-American relations, but we can be frank: some contemporary Americans make too much of themselves for what their ancestors did and act as if they are owed eternal subservience.
As it is unfair to hold contemporary Japanese responsible for their ancestors’ behavior, it is just as unreasonable to remain in liege to America for its past behavior. Yes, the Japanese did what they did, and the Americans did what they did, but Imperial Japan and the U.S. of the 1940s no longer exist, and the world is a much different place. It is as if the Americans perceive a Japanese and Western European failure to pledge emotional and financial fealty as ingratitude.
Christopher Preble, writing on the Cato Institute’s blog, recently expressed this idea:
From the perspective of our allies in East Asia (chiefly the Japanese and the South Koreans), and for the Europeans tucked safely within NATO, getting the Americans to pay the costs, and assume the risks, associated with policing the world is a pretty good gig.
Mr. Preble needs to pay more attention to the details. In 2002 Japan’s contributions represented more than 60% of all allied financial contributions to the US, and covered 75% of the USFJ’s operating costs. That contribution has declined somewhat since then, but it is still substantial. He also overlooks the risks Japan faces if the American military were to use its locally based forces to intervene in a Chinese attack on Taiwan, for example. Does he think the Chinese would consider those bases in Japan to be off-limits for retaliation?
To those Americans who would complain that the Japanese are using the Peace Constitution as an excuse, it might be asked: Just whose idea was that anyway? Americans wanted to create a pacifist culture in Japan after the war, and they succeeded. The legal basis for the Japanese state does not come in a ring binder whose leaves are to be inserted or removed on the whims of politicians in another country according to the circumstances of the day.
And that brings us to the ultimate in polite fictions—unless you’re certain that the United States would come to the aid of the Japanese if the latter were attacked. There is speculation from U.S. sources now circulating in the Japanese media that an American military response would be a 50-50 proposition at best.
Former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo called for an end to the post-war regime. Would it not be an irony if his political foes in the DPJ were the ones to achieve it?
But why stop there? Isn’t it high time the Americans moved on from the post-war paradigm as well? Everyone might be better off by letting the neo-Buddhists in the DPJ start the process of Japan seeking a new equilibrium on its own. Owing to its history, Japan is unlikely to ever be wholly aligned with either East or West. And owing to its history, that might be the best course for all concerned, because it’s uniquely positioned to serve as a bridge between both.
In that event, the key for the Japanese would be to remain aware that lurking in the shadows of the shining path is the resentment from both for belonging to neither.
* Some Japanese worry that the DPJ approach will cause the U.S. to move toward the Chinese at Japanese expense. Surely they are forgetting the traditional Chinese outlook toward foreign affairs and other countries. Now that the Chinese are reverting to their default attitude, it would seem that Japan doesn’t have much to worry about.
* Here’s a link to a review of the book Zen at War by Brian Victoria, which describes Zen Buddhism’s intellectual and emotional contributions to the Japanese war effort. The review is worth reading for that reason, despite the self-indulgent prose and the swallowing whole of the claims in Iris Chang’s book. The reviewer also claims the book could never have been written in Japan, and he has a point. The Japanese would not have failed to mention that the Tokugawas used the requirement for families to register with Buddhist temples as a weapon to eliminate Christianity. Nor would they have failed to mention that since the warrior class initially popularized Zen in Japan, it would have been natural for some Japanese Zen Buddhists to get behind the war in their own way. The reviewer also seems to think that “it could happen again”, which is just silly.
* The Time magazine interview with Tanaka Kakuei contains this passage:
“In the big cities, the left tends to support academic men. They usually are not very hardworking, but for some reason they appeal to people, especially since they don’t wave the red flag of their socialist and Communist sponsors but the green flag [of the fight against pollution].”
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
* When I taught adult English classes years ago, I liked to do quick surveys of my students to find out what religions they professed to believe in as part of the classroom discussion. About 1% of Japanese are Christians, but historical factors boost that to about 5% in Kyushu, and a slightly higher percentage than that show up to study English on their own time and dime.
I asked students to raise their hands when I mentioned a religion. Almost no one raised their hand when I asked if they were Shinto. Almost everyone raised their hands when I asked if they were Buddhist.
* The quote at the top of the post refers to the behavior of everyone mentioned in the post itself.