White Without Privilege

This morning, I went to the jinja near my office to pay my respects to the kami. There happened to be a Japanese woman paying her respects at the same time, and as I stepped back to leave, she turned towards me and murmured (in Japanese) “Wonderful!”.

I assume that she was referring to the way I had followed the correct etiquette. It is, after all, extremely unlikely that she was referring to my appearance. On the other hand, would she have felt the need to say anything had I not appeared white? I rather doubt it.

That doubt is the defining experience of not having white privilege.

“White Privilege” is a term used to describe the unearned entitlement of white people. It seems to have been coined by Peggy McIntosh in a paper entitled “White Privilege and Male Privilege” in 1988, and an excerpt from that paper, called “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” is widely available online. This idea has recently become popular in the phrase “check your privilege”.

White people in the UK clearly have white privilege; white people in Japan do not. First, I want to defend the second half of that assertion. Then I want to discuss some of the implications I have drawn from my personal experience of having white privilege, and then not having it.

McIntosh’s article gives a convenient list of 50 privileges that come with being white. Many of them are not available to white people in Japan. For example, the first one is “I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.”, which is impossible for white people here. Similarly, number 6 is “I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.” Er, no. Or 21: “I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.” I’ve been explicitly asked to do that; it is part of the job description of the Kawasaki City Representative Assembly for Foreign Residents. Or 38: “I can think over many options, social, political, imaginative or professional, without asking whether a person of my race would be accepted or allowed to do what I want to do.” No. And, of course, number 50: “I will feel welcomed and “normal” in the usual walks of public life, institutional and social.” Welcome, possibly. Normal, definitely not.

More generally, “white privilege” is often described as the privilege of having your race not matter. People do not see your race, they just see a person. That is emphatically not the case in Japan; I am a white person first, and whatever else I may be after people have got to know me a bit.

Unless everyone describing “white privilege” online has the concept completely wrong (and they don’t), I lost my white privilege when I came to Japan.

What lessons do I draw from this experience?

First, it is very hard to notice white privilege if you have it, because there is nothing to notice. That is the point. Your race just doesn’t come up.

Second, all white people in the USA have white privilege. It doesn’t matter how poor you are, or how much you suffer discrimination in other ways, your white skin still means that you have white privilege.

Consider President Obama. He clearly has vastly more privilege than the overwhelming majority of white US residents. He is the president. But they have white privilege and he doesn’t. No-one asked whether people were opposed to Dubya because of his race; people do ask that about Obama. (It is worth noting that, if I became prime minister of Japan, people would wonder about the influence of my race. See also point 38, above.) “White privilege” may not have been the best name for the issue, because the connotations of “privilege” are a bit more positive than what it actually gets you.

Third, however, white privilege really is a benefit. It is wearing and stressful to stand out all the time, to constantly be wondering whether people are judging you on your race, to constantly have to wonder whether your race will cause a problem.

That is even true when you do not really face any racism. I don’t think that there is a significant amount of racism directed against white people in Japan. I’ve encountered almost no personal racism, and there are too few white people for systemic racism to be anything more than an unintended side effect of other policies. Nevertheless, the lack of “yellow privilege” is a problem.

There are two points arising from this.

First, I think the loss of white privilege is what makes some white residents of Japan think that there is a lot of racism directed against white people here. It’s uncomfortable, and it involves things that are called racism back home in the USA.

Second, I don’t think it is racism even in the USA. It is entirely understandable that people of colour would think that it was, because it is impossible, in their experience, to separate it from the racism that they do experience. However, the issues are separable, and white people in Japan get the loss of white privilege without the racism. I think the people who see this as racism are mistaken, albeit for understandable reasons.

That has a couple of practical consequences.

Me and my family, all in kimonos, at a jinja.

And if I really want to stand out…

I think that members of minorities need to suck this up and deal with it. If you are a visible minority, you will stand out, you won’t find members of your race around all the time, and people will take actions and ask questions based on your race. That isn’t racist. It’s just a fact of your situation. If you can’t cope with it, move somewhere where you are not a visible minority. If you decide that moving is harder than dealing with it, that is an important discovery. Thinking of it as racism is a mistake, because it just increases your hostility to the society you live in, for no good reason.

What’s more, I don’t think it can be changed. I am never going to fade into the background into Japan. It doesn’t matter how accepting of white people the Japanese are, or how much they treat me just like a Japanese person. I will always look different, and thus be memorable, and inspire questions and comments that would not be inspired by someone who looked “normal”.

The other side of the coin is that it is stressful, and it is pleasant to deal with people who don’t seem to take your race to be a defining issue, and don’t say anything to draw attention to it.

So, if you’re a white American, you’re quite right that it isn’t racist to ask someone where they came from, or how they got into needlepoint, or gaming, or whatever. On the other hand, if one of the reasons you are interested is because you don’t see many non-white people in that context, it is considerate to not ask, at least not at first. If you’ve been sharing a hobby with someone for a while, it’s natural to swap stories of how you got into it. It’s not a natural question the first time you meet, for someone you’d expect to be in the hobby. (It is notable that the only white Shinto priest in Japan says that he got into Shinto because he thought the shoes were cool. To me, that sounds like the response of someone who has been asked that question too many times.)

It’s important to remember the difference in perspective. There are very few white people with a deep interest in and knowledge of Shinto. A Shinto priest could easily go his entire life without meeting one, so of course I’m interesting, and priests I meet tend to be curious about why I’m involved in Shinto. On the other hand, I am always a white person with a deep interest in and knowledge of Shinto when I meet a Shinto priest, so I get it almost every time. It’s like making a joke about someone’s name — even if it is funny, they have heard it lots of times already. (Unless they only changed their name a few minutes earlier and have been in your company ever since, so you know you’re the first person to do it.)

Let’s summarise.

  • White privilege is a real thing, and not having it is a genuine source of stress and discomfort.
  • White people do not necessarily have white privilege; it depends on their society.
  • If some white people have white privilege in a particular society, they all do.
  • The discomfort resulting from not having white privilege is not the result of racism.
  • Nevertheless, a lot of groups do suffer both racism and the lack of white privilege.
  • White people in Japan do not have white privilege, but neither do they suffer from racism.
  • It is not racist to do the things that cause stress and discomfort to people without white privilege.
  • It is, however, considerate to avoid doing them.

Creative Commons Licence
White Without Privilege (excluding the photograph) by David Chart is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. I have, by request, reformatted the essay as a PDF file, containing only the CC licensed material. The Creative Commons License allows you to copy and distribute the essay for any purpose, as long as you do not alter it. That means that you are clearly allowed to distribute copies to students in a university setting, which is what I was asked for.

Television Appearance Details

The page for my television appearance is online at last. It has some details about the programme, so feel free to take a look if you are interested.

The programme is half an hour long, and will be broadcast six times over the course of 24 hours on July 16th GMT. The times are on the programme’s page, and people in the UK should not forget to adjust for summer time; the 08:30 showing will actually start at 09:30.

So, how can you see it? This page gives instructions for seeing it on television. It does rely on you having an appropriate cable or satellite service, but the quality will be best if you can see it on an actual television. (Alas, a larger screen will be able to do nothing to mitigate the fact that I am in it.)

If that isn’t an option, you can also watch it online, on the NHK World homepage. There are also iOS and Android apps that allow you to watch it on appropriate devices.

Let me know if you have any questions about how to watch it.

“Right Wing”

In mid-December, a new right wing government was elected in Japan. Some people have even described it as “far right”. So, now it’s in office, what has it done?

The first concrete policy announcement was a ¥20 trillion (about $200 billion) spending package to boost the economy, with an emphasis on public works, such as reconstructing Tohoku, improving the earthquake resistance of schools, and testing and repairing ageing infrastructure.

The second concrete policy announcement was a rise in the top rate of income tax from 40% to 45%, and in the top rate of inheritance tax from 50% to 55%, with the explicit goal of reducing income inequality in society.

Just like the UK Conservatives or US Republicans, then. Right? Really?

Earthquake

I see that today’s earthquake has also made the international news. We’re all fine. We felt it, and it was long, but it wasn’t that strong here. Much smaller than last year’s. NHK are still broadcasting tsunami warnings for Tohoku, though.

Residence Card

Today I went to the immigration office to exchange my Certificate of Alien Registration for a Residence Card. The system for foreigners resident in Japan changed in July, and everyone needs to change to a Residence Card. They don’t need to do it immediately, but it’s not entirely clear when they should. If you have a limited-term status of residence, it is clear; you will get the Residence Card when you renew or change your status of residence. For permanent residents, however, the deadline is July 8th 2015, or possibly when your Certificate of Alien Registration expires, if that is earlier. The secretariat of the Representative Assembly was told the first, and one of the representatives the second. The secretariat are trying to get an authoritative answer, but in the meantime my Certificate of Alien Registration was getting rather close to expiring, so I decided to get it changed now.

This was remarkably little trouble. You can download the application form, and it’s extremely short and simple; basically just your name, date of birth, sex, address, nationality, and Certificate of Alien Registration number. The form is in English and Japanese, just like all the other immigration forms. You have to attach an ID photo in a standard size and format, and take the form, along with your CAR and passport, to the local immigration office. This is the only possibly bothersome part of the process, as you have to go to the office in person. We happen to live quite close to the office, so it takes me less than an hour door to door, but if you lived on the Ogasawara Islands you would have to get a boat for about 24 hours each way. On the bright side, if you have permanent residence, the Residence Card is valid for seven years, so you don’t have to do it very often.

I was in the office for about half an hour, which included reissuing a revised card because the first version didn’t display my address in exactly the same way as the CAR. I’ve had problems with that in the past; some places are very picky. That means, of course, that some of the picky places have the CAR version, so I want a piece of official ID with the same address on it. The whole process was extremely efficient, and there is no fee.

This is typical of my experiences with Japanese immigration. If you are in the country legally, they seem to be efficient and even helpful. (When I moved during my application for permanent residence, they phoned to check and sent me the form to report my change of address before I’d got round to them on my list of places to notify.) The various procedures also seem to be significantly cheaper than those in other countries. (Free, for example.) Japan might have fairly strict standards for who they will let in, but the immigration office gives the impression that they actually want the people who do meet the standards in the country. Actually, I’ve got that impression from just about everyone.

If you’re a permanent resident of Japan and haven’t changed your card yet, now might be a good time, but the year end rush will start soon. My experience suggests that going at a quiet time will ensure a very quick visit to the office, so I guess that means avoiding year end, the beginning of the academic year in March/April, and the other student visa period in September/October. However, now that re-entry permits are unnecessary, year end and the summer might be quieter than they used to be.

I certainly do not recommend waiting until July 2015. I suspect the offices will be really, really busy then.

Hallowe’en Tree

A Hallowe'en Tree. Like a Christmas Tree, only darker and with more pumpkins.I don’t know. It’s only the middle of September, and the shopping centres already have their Hallowe’en Trees up.

Hang on a minute…

This is the first one I’ve seen in Japan, but for all I know they’re really common.

In other news, I continue to be really busy, which is why there are still very few blog entries from me.

Published in Japanese

Well, it’s been a while since I wrote anything here. I’m not dead; I’m just busy at work, and I’ve managed to sustain daily posts to my Japanese blog, so this one has been a bit (OK, a lot) neglected. I wouldn’t put any money on this post being the start of a trend, either.

The point of this post is to brag.

There is a magazine for English teachers in Japan called 英語教育, which means “English Education”. It has run for years, and apparently can be found in virtually every school in the country. Thanks to an introduction from one of my students, I was asked to write a short article for it, and the article was published in the September issue. It introduces my favourite teaching materials, and I talked about the Guardian Weekly’s Learning English supplement, and the book that the Japan Institute of Logic has coming out from Kenkyusha (a Japanese publisher) later this year. I will be paid a proper rate for this article. (I may in fact have been paid already; I haven’t checked the relevant bank account for a few days.)

The thing that makes this not just another professional publication is the fact that I wrote the article in Japanese. It has been edited, and I need a lot more editing in Japanese than I do in English, but it has not been rewritten or translated. This is my first professional publication in Japanese.

Fortunately, I don’t have to worry about finding my next goal in improving my Japanese. I still need far too much editing.

Proposals on Surveys and Pensions

Oh dear, it really has been too long since I posted to this blog. I’ve just started a new job, at the Japan Institute of Logic, so I’ve been extremely busy. I may have to start tweeting, since they’re supposed to be really short.

Anyway, today we had another meeting of the Kawasaki Representative Assembly for Foreign Residents. There are only two more left, so it was quite important that the process of drafting our proposals for the mayor move forward. While getting a couple of dozen foreign residents together to discuss life in Kawasaki is one of the purposes of the Assembly, its main purpose is to produce concrete proposals for the city government to act on and make life better for the foreign, and Japanese, people who live there. So getting the proposals together is very important.

Obviously, they have to be in Japanese, but fortunately the secretariat does the detailed drafting for us. We decide on the content, they draft something, and then we look at the draft and ask for changes. Last time, we decided on the content of the proposal for a survey concerning the foreign residents of Kawasaki. This would cover such things as experiences of discrimination, problems with services, education, or housing, the distribution of information, and the ways in which foreign residents were participating in civic life. Kawasaki did do a similar survey, in 1993, but nothing large scale has been done since, so knowledge of the current situation is a bit limited. We’re asking for the survey to be done every five years, and to have questions that overlap with similar surveys in other countries (the EU did a big one a few years ago) so that the situation in Japan can be objectively compared with other places. We are, of course, asking that the results be public. The hope is that this data will help the Representative Assembly to address the most important issues, as well as helping other organs of the city government.

Today, we looked at the draft that had been prepared, and asked for a number of changes. Some of them were because we’d changed our minds since last time (the first draft said once every two years, which is a bit much), but most were because we wanted a slightly different emphasis from the way the proposal had been drafted. The changes are pretty straightforward, and all were agreed unanimously, so I think the revised draft will be very close to what we want.

We also discussed the pension problem. As I’ve mentioned before, the Japanese pension system is not very good if you come from a country without a pension treaty with Japan and stay for more than three years, but go home before you retire. This is obviously a problem for people who are working here, and the Assembly addressed it before, in 2003, asking for the amount of money paid back when you leave the country to be increased.

That hasn’t happened, so we agreed to ask again, but also to encourage the conclusion of more treaties with foreign countries, so that more people can take advantage of that and sort out their pensions that way. In addition, since those two points are things that only the national government can do, we agreed to ask the city to prepare multi-lingual and easy-to-understand explanations of the system.

We’ll have the draft to look at next time, so we can get a revised version made before the final meeting. Thus, we’re in good shape to meet the deadline. In fact, we have a rather nice problem, in that it’s not clear that we will need all the time we have for discussion at the next meeting; we finished about 15 minutes early today. The other subcommittee don’t have this problem, shall we say, so it’s going to be a bit tricky to balance the overall running of the final meetings, but I’m sure we’ll manage.

Personally, I don’t expect too much from the pension proposal, although we’ll probably get the multi-lingual explanations. Japan is in the process of reforming the whole pension system anyway, so these problems might well go away and be replaced by different ones. It’s important to remind the decision-makers of the foreign residents, but we’re still a very small group. On the other hand, I very much hope that the survey will happen every five years, because it would provide immensely useful information. If that happens, I’ll feel that my time on the Assembly was very well spent.

Visit Tohoku! Hiraizumi

Last weekend, we went on another trip to Tohoku, this time to Hiraizumi, in Iwate Prefecture. Hiraizumi was the base of a powerful regional family in the twelfth century, and is particularly famous for its Buddhist temples and gardens. Indeed, in June those sites were registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a bit of good news that was particularly welcome at the time.

The soba on the table, with Mayuki peering through the handle of one of the bowls

Wanko Soba

We travelled up by shinkansen and train, as usual, and Mayuki seems to have got to like the shinkansen. Our only plans for the first day were to eat and take it easy at the hotel, so that’s what we did. First, we ate “wanko soba” at a restaurant near the station. That’s noodles in very small bowls — 24 of them. The idea is that you can have different toppings with each bowl, so you also get a big tray of toppings. After we’d eaten, we went to the hotel.

We stayed at Musashibo, and I was quite impressed. The accommodation is nice, and it is a hot-spring hotel. The baths are indoors, and while you wouldn’t go there just for the baths, they are good. One has the hot water coming out between rocks (probably artificially placed), while the other has a view of the mountains. Men and women swap between the baths each day, so if you stay overnight and take a bath in the evening and the morning, you will be able to see both.

The food was also good. The morning buffet was fairly standard, but nice, and the Japanese evening meal was very good. Yuriko commented that the menu was rather different from the areas around Tokyo or Kyoto, and it was true; we got the regional cuisine. There were the standard elements (rice, raw fish, tempura), but also a number of unusual vegetables and other items. One that Yuriko passed on was a tiny whole crab, cooked in its shell. You were supposed to eat the whole thing so, based on my principle of trying anything once, I did. It was fine, actually, although I don’t think I’d specially order it. We had ordered the children’s meal for Mayuki, and although she fell asleep at the table on the first night, she really enjoyed it on the second.

What really impressed me, though, was how they handled a foreign visitor. They are obviously set up for foreign guests, with translations on most of the signs and English meal tickets, but the receptionist was very apologetic as she handed me an English ticket, remarking (in Japanese) that I obviously didn’t need one. Based on the brief panicked “meal ticket, meal ticket” that I heard as I was filling in the register, I guess that they had misplaced the Japanese ones… I did get a Japanese one for the next day. She also asked whether I was living permanently in Japan, and when I said I was, she said “That’s fine, then”. The law is that when a foreigner without a permanent Japanese address stays at a hotel, the hotel must note the passport number. However, if the foreigner is resident in Japan, that’s not necessary.

This impressed me because, not only were they ready to handle foreigners who couldn’t speak Japanese, they were also ready to deal, in Japanese, with foreigners who could. In other words, they were adaptable. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to have an English web page, but if you use English on their enquiry form, I suspect they’ll find a way to manage. (From the top, name, name again (Japanese people put the reading in here), phone number, email twice to confirm it, and then the content of what you want to ask.)

Another thing that Mayuki seems to really like is the onsen, hot spring baths. As soon as we got to the hotel, she wanted to go to the onsen. Yuriko wanted to go for a walk, so she went with me, and then again with Yuriko later. She also went with me both mornings, and with Yuriko on the second evening. Unfortunately, there is no family bath at the hotel, so we couldn’t all go in together; Mayuki wanted to, but she accepted that we couldn’t when we explained. Yuriko did wonder how long she could keep going into the men’s bath with me; I think the official upper limit is twelve (the end of elementary school), but, at any rate, it’ll be fine until she starts school.

On our full day, we went to visit the World Heritage Sites. The first visit was a bit delayed, because Mayuki hadn’t had enough breakfast, and so was hungry and fractious. We stopped for a snack outside the gates, and Mayuki was a lot better after that.

The pool at the heart of the garden, with a leaning rock standing in the middle

Motsuji Pure Land Garden

The first proper stop was Motsuji. All of the original temple buildings here have burned down, but the garden has been preserved, in part, and in part restored based on archaeological evidence, so the garden is the main attraction. It was designed to call to mind the Pure Land of Amida (Amitabha), and while my Buddhist theology is not good enough to comment on how far it succeeds at that, it is certainly a beautiful garden. It is centred on a large pond, and as you walk around it, the view changes. The weather was changeable while we were there, including a heavy shower, so the changing skies also contributed to its attractions. I wasn’t sure how good it would be before we went, but it is a wonderful place.

Mayuki is hopping down a path in the garden at Motsuji

Look! A pine cone!

Of course, I’m not sure how far Mayuki appreciated its sublime beauty. She certainly enjoyed playing with us as we walked round, and as the rain finished and the sun came out she did stop and watch the light sparkling on the water with us. The Buddhist halls also caught her attention. She’s more used to shrines, and temples are rather different in their construction and impact. She liked the statue of the supposed founder of the temple (he might have actually founded it, but I gather that the evidence is not great), and prayed at one where we stopped to get out of the rain. Naturally, she prayed Shinto-style, but I’m sure that’s OK.

Then we went to Chusonji. We had lunch at the rest house outside the entrance and, unusually for somewhere in Japan, I don’t recommend it.

A view of mountains and fields, from a mountain

The view from the top of the mountain

Chusonji is spread out across a mountain, so the path up to it is quite steep. Mayuki decided that it looked a bit too steep, and decided that she wanted to be carried. Very soon I am going to give up climbing mountains while carrying her, as she is really getting rather heavy, but not quite yet. However, the view from the top of the mountain makes it worth it. This is actually the view from a cafe at the top; if you’re visiting, I’d recommend waiting until you get here to eat. We didn’t actually try the food, but the staff were nice, and the view is as you can see.

Buddhism is, of course, a religion that rejects worldly things, and values poverty and austerity. Naturally, then, the main attraction at Chusonji is a gold-plated temple, Konjikido. This was built in the early twelfth century, and has managed to survive all the vicissitudes since then. It is now housed in a very solid concrete building, protected by glass, and looks likely to survive for some time longer. It is quite impressive, but I have to confess that I don’t particularly like gilded buildings. It’s not the expense; I do like the ones that are lacquered. There’s something about the colour and the effect that just doesn’t appeal to me.

Mayuki getting water from a rock basin in front of a thatched Noh stage

Purification and the Noh Stage

After the gold-plated temple, we visited the shrine on the mountain top, Hakusan Shrine, where the tutelary deity of the complex is enshrined. The most notable feature of the shrine precincts is a large, thatched Noh stage, which is a National Important Cultural Property. It is still used for Noh Performances. The shrine itself is quite small, although there was a priest present, so I was able to get a Goshuin. There was also a set of twelve small shrines to the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac. Since Mayuki and I are both boars, we went to that shrine to pay our respects together.

Mayuki was agitating to go back to the hotel by this point, but Yuriko wanted to quickly visit the museum. At first I didn’t want to, but I gave in, and it was a good choice. The museum contains a lot of Buddhist images, and one of them is a standing wooden statue of Thousand-Armed Kannon. As soon as Mayuki saw it, she was hooked. “Hasn’t it got a lot of hands!” she said, and refused to go and look at anything else. In the end, I stayed with her while Yuriko looked at the rest of the museum, and we bought her a postcard of the statue when we left to go back to the hotel.

On the way down the mountain, Mayuki fell asleep riding on my shoulders, so I had to take her down and carry her with her head on my shoulder, which is more effort. I was thus quite tired when we got to the bottom, but we made one more stop before returning to the hotel. This was at a lacquer-ware shop that has been in the town for some time. Their traditional product is called Hidehira ware, named after one of the twelfth century nobles of Hiraizumi, and uses red, black, and a gold-leaf diamond design. They also have a number of newer designs, some of which were very nice; wooden cups with lacquered interiors, for example. In the end, though, we bought a pair of traditional soup bowls and some chopstick rests. We’ve already used the bowls, and they’re very nice.

Yuriko and Mayuki in front of a large cliff and the river

Geibikei

On our final day, we went on a side trip to Geibikei. This is a river gorge with impressive towering cliffs, but the river itself is very shallow, so you can go up and down part of it on a punt. Unlike Cambridge, you don’t get to punt yourself, but rather go on a guided tour. The punt operators tell you about the river, and the names of the various cliffs, and then you get out and walk past some rapids to see the last and possibly most spectacular cliff. It has a small cave on the opposite side of the river, and apparently if you can throw a small clay ball into it, you get good luck. Mayuki wanted to try, but couldn’t do it. One of the other people on the boat, however, managed to get his in; I think he must have played baseball as a young man. I might have been able to get the ball across the river, but certainly not into the cave by anything other than pure luck.

Mayuki throwing fish food from the boatOn the way back, Mayuki fed the fish. She wanted to feed them on the way out, but we didn’t see any. That was because they were all on the other side of the boat, so when we turned round to go back, there they were. Mayuki had a lot of fun, also telling off the ducks who kept stealing the fishes’ food.

The gorge was spectacular, and because we were on the noon boat, the sun shone into it, so we got reflections off the river onto the cliffs. After we got back, we had lunch at a small restaurant near the boat pier, and I ate river fish, which was delicious. Then we headed back home on the train. Mayuki enjoyed the shinkansen, playing the “piano” on the ledge under the window, but fell asleep on the train home after that. Of course, when we got home, she woke up again, and was lively until quite late.

I really liked Hiraizumi and Geibikei, and I’d definitely recommend them as a destination (although I’m not sure how the people at Geibikei would cope in other languages). Being inland and on very solid ground, both suffered very little from the earthquake. Indeed, according to the young woman at the shop at Geibikei, nothing even fell off the shelves there. So, go and visit.

Hayashi Razan’s “Honchō Jinja Kō” — Shinto Texts Course 7

The summer holiday is over, and yesterday the Shinto Texts course at Kokugakuin University started again, with a lecture on Hayashi Razan’s Honchō Jinja Kō. I am confident that very few of my readers will have heard of either the author or the text, but both were of great significance in the history of Shinto, which is why they were covered in the course.

Hayashi Razan was born in Kyoto in 1583. His academic ability was noticed early on, and at the age of 13 (Japanese style) in 1595 he went to study at a Zen temple, Kenninji. However, he did not take vows as a Buddhist monk. Instead, he encountered some medieval texts on Shinto, and became interested in Japan’s native traditions. He was also, however, a very notable Confucian scholar, and when he was 21 he started giving public lectures on the Analects. This led to him being sued by a representative of a family that had made its living by monopolising Confucian instruction. However, the case was quickly dismissed by Tokugawa Ieyasu, the new shogun. The lecturer, Professor Nishioka, suggested that part of the reason for this was that Ieyasu had risen to be shogun from a fairly undistinguished background, so he was not inclined to support family privilege against ability.

In fact, Razan went on to work directly for Ieyasu, primarily as a Confucian scholar. Because these advisory posts had traditionally been held by monks, Ieyasu directed Razan to shave his head and take a new name, Dōshun, as monks did, although Razan still did not become a monk. Razan was strongly criticised for this by other Confucians. They argued that your hair was something you inherited from your parents, so that shaving your hair off was a serious failure of filial piety. As Razan was employed by the shogun and several important daimyos, and his critics were not, I suspect that he was able to take the criticism fairly easily.

Honchō Jinja Kō, or “Investigation of the Shrines of our Country”, was published some time between 1638 and 1645, although the precise year is unknown. It was divided into three parts, each consisting of two volumes. The first part discussed the shrines in the 22 Shrine System, a late Heian period (eleventh to twelfth century) group of shrines that received direct Imperial patronage and worship. The Grand Shrines of Ise were, of course, the most important of these shrines, and most of the others were around the capital, Kyoto. The second part discussed other shrines throughout Japan, while the third part also looked at legends from various areas.

We can get an idea of the importance that Razan placed on various shrines by looking at the number of pages his discussion takes up in a modern edition. The Grand Shrines of Ise unsurprisingly get the most, at 17 pages, but Hiyoshi Taisha, near Kyoto, gets eight and a half, and Kitano Tenmangu, in Kyoto, gets ten and a half. In the second part, the section on Shōtoku Taishi, an early seventh century figure, is six and a half pages long.

Kitano Tenmangu is a shrine to Tenjin, Sugawara no Michizane, a kami of scholarship, so it is, perhaps, not surprising that a scholar like Razan gave quite a bit of space to this shrine. However, in the case of Hiyoshi Taisha, the article is long because Razan uses it as an opportunity to criticise aspects of contemporary Shinto.

Razan was, in fact, highly critical of the current state of Shinto. As is fairly well know, at this period Shinto had a lot of Buddhist elements, and vice versa. Buddhist monks read sutras to the kami, who were often regarded as manifestations of Buddhas or Bodhisattvas, or the Buddhas were regarded as manifestations of the kami, and Buddhist images were sometimes used as the sacred object housing the kami in a shrine. This was regarded as perfectly natural, which is unsurprising because it had at least four or five hundred years of history behind it by Razan’s time. However, Razan pointed out that Shinto kami were originally completely separate from Buddhas, and that some people who venerated the kami had opposed the introduction of Buddhism. Thus, this could not be the original state of things, and therefore, he argued, was not natural. Rather, people had been brainwashed into thinking it was normal because no-one had spoken out against it.

Thus, in the section on Hiyoshi Taisha, Razan was very critical of Ryōbu Shinto, which is either a heavily Buddhist version of Shinto, or a heavily Shinto version of Buddhism, depending on how you look at it. He went beyond that, however, to describe Buddhism as a “religion of foreign barbarians”. That didn’t go down well with Buddhists, and they were apparently still publishing refutations of his claim two centuries later. When, in the section on Yoshida Jinja, he considered Yoshida Shinto, the dominant version at the time, he was no less scathing. While Yoshida Kanetomo, the founder of the tradition, had asserting the primacy of kami over Buddhas, Razan pointed out that he had taken passages from Buddhist texts and claimed them as his own ideas, and that many of the ideas in Yoshida Shinto were Buddhist in origin. He was also highly critical of Shōtoku Taishi, who is famous for, among other things, his vigorous promotion of Buddhism in Japan.

Razan, then, argued strongly for the removal of Buddhist elements from Shinto, on the grounds that they were foreign additions that did not belong in the tradition. One of his students put that into practice a little later, getting the Buddhist elements removed from Izumo Taisha, and the idea was to become very influential, culminating in the 1868 law separating kami and Buddhas, which essentially created Shinto in its modern form. Of course, there was an internal conflict in Razan’s thought. He was pushing for the removal of foreign elements from Shinto, but was himself a Confucian. Confucianism is, of course, not a Japanese school of thought, and no-one in Japan has ever thought that it was. It was, therefore, natural that some people would develop Razan’s thought in the direction of removing Confucian influences as well. That was Kokugaku, or National Learning, the tradition within which Kokugakuin University was founded, and which directly influenced the law separating kami and Buddhas.

The roots of a strong separation between Shinto and Buddhism thus go back at least as far as the seventeenth century, and were already influential, if not mainstream, at that time. I’m not sure whether it can be traced back before Razan; obviously, there are records of people holding this position in the sixth century, but there is probably not a continuous tradition from them to Razan, despite the persistence of a separation between Shinto and Buddhism at the Grand Shrines of Ise. If Razan was responsible for starting the modern form of the idea, then he is arguably the individual who has had the largest influence on the form of modern Shinto.