Mixed blessings

15 July 2017

9:00 AM

15 July 2017

9:00 AM

Japan is the only developed country where people openly espouse two distinct and incompatible religions at the same time — Buddhism and Shinto. The Japanese go to Shinto shrines for weddings and children’s celebrations. They go to Buddhist temples for funerals. Shinto shrines are sometimes found within the precincts of Buddhist temples, and vice versa, so it’s possible to beseech Buddha and the fox god in the same ten minutes.

To confuse the picture still further, Japan is one of the most secular places on Earth: atheism is practised simultaneously with the other mutually incompatible religions. My Japanese wife, for example, visits and prays at temples and shrines, but in all other respects takes a scientific attitude to the world (and is trained in medicine). Temple- and shrine-going are deeply embedded in Japanese daily life, and the myriad places of worship are well-maintained and prosperous. I have never seen a temple or shrine undergo the fate of a church in the West; that is, to be ‘repurposed’ as an art gallery, puppet theatre or café. Such an idea is very odd.

Other developed countries practise religious pluralism, whereby incompatible religions tolerate one another, but the case of Japan is different: toleration is not the same as actual belief.

Because religious syncretism is seen as natural and normal, Christianity too has been allowed into the mix. When a couple get married, they do so first at a Shinto shrine, and then, very often, after a costume change, in a Christian ‘chapel’. But there aren’t enough real priests or real chapels to cope with the demand, so 99 per cent of Christian-style wedding services are done with a ‘fake priest’ in a ‘fake chapel’. Sometimes the fake priests are western English teachers looking to make some easy money. When my son (age 20) went to Japan to study this year, I gave him a clerical collar as a leaving present. I wasn’t entirely joking.

The congregants on these occasions are usually unaware that they are not in the presence of a real priest, and are touched that someone has traversed the oceans to minister to them on their big day. But they wouldn’t care, particularly, if you told them it was all a big fake. The Christian wedding service is an event that nods at the power and beauty of Christianity but does not involve any specific dogma on which the congregants need base any action.

I spoke to a ‘fake priest’, Andrew Nowak, of Czech-English descent, born in London and working in Kyoto as a teacher. I asked him if he ever felt afraid he’d be found out. ‘Yes, the first time I did it. But I soon realised there was nothing to worry about,’ he said. ‘It was like being an actor. I just needed to look serious and say the words.’ Was the wedding service in Japanese? ‘Of course in Japanese, otherwise no one would have understood me.’ Silly question. OK, what did he say? ‘Well, do you take this man to be your lawful wedded husband, do you take this woman to be your lawful wedded wife? To have and to hold, to the exclusion of all others? The real reason is to enable the bride to wear a big white dress.’

The same attachment to the cultic objects and rituals of Christianity is found at Christmas, which the Japanese celebrate with extreme enthusiasm. The best Christmas decorations I’ve ever seen were in Tokyo. On Christmas day, families share a ‘Christmas cake’, which is a bit like a Victoria sponge with strawberries on top; and they form long queues to buy Kentucky Fried Chicken, which is a Christmas dish. Colonel Sanders does look a little like Father Christmas, if you’re Japanese. At Christmas, statues of the Colonel are dressed up in Santa costumes. Boys and girls go on dates with one another, lick chicken fat from their fingers and enjoy the decorations. It’s a romantic day.

There’s no denying that Japan went through an intolerant patch when it came to Christianity. The Tokugawa shogunate invited Christians to stamp on the image of Jesus or face execution. Since the mid-19th century, however, tolerance and a certain amount of pick’n’mix have been the rule.

What lessons does this hold for us in the West? Unfortunately, in this age of violent cultic antagonism, probably none. There would seem to be little hope that we can reshape Abrahamic monotheism to acknowledge that contradictory faiths are equally true and, crucially, equally worth practising. We are stuck with what we have, unless some future genius of syncretism, a Gurdjieff or a Bahá’u’lláh, succeeds in reconciling Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

Japan was lucky enough to start with the right religion, Shinto polytheism. (Poly-theists always have less trouble absorbing new credos. Witness Rome, which absorbed the cults of Cybele, Mithras, Dionysus and others, baulking at Christianity only because it refused to give the Roman deities and the emperor their due.) Then, around 550ad, Japan absorbed a missionary philosophical faith, Buddhism, which happened to be fine with polytheism. Then, finally, in the postwar period, Japan was able to reshape itself using Christian-derived individualist capitalism, Hollywood and Coca-Cola.

This couldn’t have been done with the same results in any other order. It makes Japan the unique, fascinatingly contradictory and harmonious place it is today.

My son still hasn’t used the clerical collar. But if he stays on in Japan after his studies, he may come to recognise that his twin birthrights as an Englishman are Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) and administering the sacraments.

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