Undevotional by temperament, the Japanese have nevertheless accorded a measure of hospitality to the two greatest religions of the world-Buddhism and Christianity. Their own unassisted efforts in the direction of religion are summed up in archaic Shintō. Modern Shintō has been profoundly influenced by Buddhism and Confucianism.
On more than one occasion we have heard a Japanese asked by a European traveller what his religion was,-whether Buddhist or Shintō,-and have been amused at his look of blank perplexity. He could not, for the life of him, make out what the enquirer was driving at. It is the established custom to present infants at the Shintō family temple one month after birth. It is equally customary to be buried by the Buddhist parish priest. The inhabitants of each district contribute to the festivals of both religions alike, without being aware of any inconsistency. They do not draw the hard and fast distinctions with which we are familiar.
Lest such laxity and the use of the epithet "undevotionall," which we have employed above, should mislead the reader, he must remember that devotion and ethics, theology and conduct, are separate things. Because the Japanese seem irreligious, we would by no means be understood to accuse them of being specially immoral. Even the word "irreligious" will be considered by some of those who know them best scarcely to suit the case. The family shrine in every household, the numerous temples, the multitudes who still make pilgrimages,-all these things will be appealed to as proofs that the masses are believers, whatever the intellectual classes may say. In any case, Japanese irreligion differs favourably from the utterly blank irreligion that is flaunted in the modern West. Though they pray little and make light of supernatural dogma, the religion of the family- filial piety-binds them down in truly sacred bonds. The most materialistic Japanese would shrink with horror from neglect of his father's grave, and of the rites prescribed by usage for the anniversaries of a father's or other near kinsman's death. Though unmindful of any future for himself, he nevertheless, by a happy inconsistency, acts as if the dead needed his care. This state of things is not confined to Japan, but characterises the whole Far East, the whole Chinese world. Furthermore-for we have no pet theory to prove, but are inclined rather to view contradiction as of the very essence of the facts of life-it may be alleged, and alleged truly, that the Japanese sometimes contribute large sums and make considerable sacrifices for pious ends. For example, no less than 1,200,000 yen were subscribed in six provinces alone for the benefit of the Nishi Hongwanji temple at Kyōto during the year 1900. On other occasions, not only has money been forthcoming in abundance for the rearing of temples of the favourite Monto sect, but men have given their own manual labour to the task, as something more personal than mere silver and gold. They have even cut off their queues, and the women have cut off their tresses, wherewith to make hawsers to lift into place the timbers of the sacred edifice. We imagine, however, that such zealots belonged almost exclusively to the peasant and artisan classes. The subject is a difficult one. These (perhaps inconsistent) remarks are thrown out merely by way of suggestion, in order to restrain Europeans from judging too summarily of conditions alien to the whole trend of their own experience.
It has often been alleged of late that patriotism and loyalty to the sacred, heaven-descended Mikado amount to a religion in Japan. If we are to accept this statement, one important qualification must be made, which is that the fervour of patriotism and loyalty to the throne, which we see to-day at a white beat, is no legacy from a hoary antiquity, but a quite recent development,- one of the many indirect results of the Europeanisation of Japanese institutions, as already hinted on page 8. It is no ingrained racial characteristic; it is a phase, comparable in some ways to the Puritan fervour which blazed up in England two or three centuries ago, and for a season moulded everything to its own temper. Like the stern enthusiasm of Cromwell's Ironsides, like the fiery zeal of the French revolutionary hosts, like all partly moral, partly political enthusiasms, it arms its votaries, and in fact the whole nation, with well-nigh irresistible might for the time being. It is a highly interesting phenomenon,-admirable in the fearless self-abnegation which it inspires, grotesque in the misrepresentations of history and even of patent contemporary facts on which it partly rests, vastly important in the concrete results which it achieves. New Japan could never have risen and expanded as she has done without some ideal to beckon her onwards; and this Imperialistic ideal was the only one within reach. It has been the lever that has raised her from Oriental impotence to her present rank among the great powers of the world. Whether it should be called a religion is a mere question of how we may choose to define that word. To the present writer, the term "ideal" seems less open to misconstruction.
(See also Articles on BUDDHISM, HISTORY AND MYTHOLOGY, MISSIONS, and SHINTŌ.)
Book recommended - Gulick Evolution of the Japanese, passim, especially Chaps. XXV-XXVIII.