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This picture shows the Dalai Lama comforting a young boy who lost his parents to the tsunami in March, 2011 in Japan. Several weeks after the huge earthquake hit Japan, I attended the memorial service for the victims at a Japanese Pure Land Buddhist temple in Los Angels. There, one priest introduced a story about a little brother and sister, who lost their parents by the Tsunami. According to the priest, after the disaster the children kept asking their grandparents where their father and mother were. The grandparents did not know what to say. Just like this photo, a Pure Land priest of their family temple vicariously taught the children that their parents were in the Pure Land, so there they could see the parents again when the time came.
These stories always remind me of my childhood. When I was seven years old, my mother died of cancer. I will cite my description of the incident from “Spiritual Autobiography” that I wrote in the Psychology of Religion class.
In later years, my father would often tell me and my sister that until the very last moment she could talk, my mother kept saying, “I do not want to die. I have to take care of my children. I am so worried about them.” At her funeral, the Pure Land Buddhist priest of our family temple said, “Your mother goes on living in your heart. So you do not have to feel lonely.” Since then, it became my habit to think whether I might disappoint her doing something wrong if she were alive when I reflect upon my deeds. Besides, every time I faced difficult time, I thought of my mother, who could not live even though she wanted to. Each time my memory of her helped me out. Last year I became the same age as her when she passed away. Becoming the same age as she, I realized how tough it was for her to leave us. Today as well, I truly appreciate her affection to us till the very end of her life. In this sense she does stay alive in my mind.
(Full Text: http://americanobotsuraku.blog132.fc2.com/blog-entry-62.html )
Religions play a crucial role in life-shifting events such as losing parents. Likewise ethnic identity functions in a psychologically reassuring way in turmoil (Erikson, 1993). In other words, social identity, including ethnicity, is sensed as a crucial element of the identity when it is threatened. The elements which engender the ethnic identity vary depending on individuals and groups. For example, religion played a powerful role in Islamic terrorist attacks to reassure their social identity in the face of war against the U.S.A. On the other hand, before and during WWII in Japan, family bonds were a key element to reassure the ethnic identity among the Japanese people. For example, as seen in their last letters, many young Japanese officers and soldiers who engaged in suicidal missions conveyed their apology to their parents for not fulfilling filial piety. Accordingly, religions for the Japanese people appear to function as media that provide bonds between family members as the Japanese—deceased or alive—rather than itself as the final object of a religious belief.
In the book, This Precious Life (Watts, 2012), a Buddhist priest explained that Buddhist temples played a significant role in reproducing the social identity of the people in the region Soma. For generations, his temple tightly held people together in the area. Historically, in the Soma area the ruling clan did not change at all from the Kamakura period to the end of Feudalism at the Meiji Revolution in 1871, while in others places it was not uncommon for the ruling clans to be replaced from time to time by the central government or simply by civil war. Thus, as the priest points out, the traditional role of Buddhist temples as a hub to connect people is well preserved in this domain. Likewise, mainly in the Edo period, social identity of the Japanese ethnic was formed through religion in other regions as well.
After the Meiji Revolution, as the central government of Japan imported new technologies and thoughts from the Western countries, the Japanese society was rapidly modernized under the influence of Western values. Japan became the first Asian nation which had a modern constitution. Nevertheless, strong influence of the traditional Japanese family system remained, that is, Ie-seido. For the Japanese people, a family’s lineage had been the fundamental unit which provided social, economic, and religious bonds among the group members, and which reproduced their social identity. Ie-seido legally continued until the end of the WWII when the Meiji Constitution was replaced with the new constitution.
As mentioned above, at the end of the WWII, the Japanese military willingly adopted suicidal tactics in many battlefields. One of those by airplanes is well-known as Kamikaze Special Attacks. Many of the last letters which these officers and soldiers wrote are still preserved in museums or by individuals in Japan. For example, the bereaved family members of Naval Lieutenant Commander Tatsuji Nakanishi, keeps his last letter written to his parents. He died at the age of 22 in a Kamikaze attack around the area of Okinawa in April, 1945. In this letter he first conveyed his deep worry about his parents’ sorrow in losing him. In the following sentences, however, he confidently pledged to his parents: “I will not die. I am sure to come back to the Yasukuni Shrine, I am sure to come back to the Gokoku Shrine, and I am sure to come back to you, Father and Mother, when you sleep.” Gokoku shrines, which name literally means “Shrine of National Guard,” were built in each prefecture, and Yasukuni Shrine was the head of those national Shinto shrines. As many other officers and soldiers’ last letters represent, Shinto shrines provided “a place” for the war dead and the bereaved families to meet again rather than facilitating extreme nationalism. This is a remarkable finding because it is not uncommon that a countries’ nationalism peaks during war time. It is interesting that revering familial ancestors was also practiced among the Japanese-Americans in the U.S.A. who were sent to concentration camp during WWII. The Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo displays a small Buddhist altar which a Japanese family enshrined beside their bed in the camp.
The Last Letter of 18 year old Kamikaze, Human Torpedo Kaiten
Eirei-tachi no isho
In fear of such fearless actions of the Japanese soldiers based on their religious beliefs, when WWII was over, the Headquarters of the Allied Occupation of Japan implemented “reform” to neutralize the religions of the Japanese (Woodard, 1972). One of the symbolic revisions is changing the names of holidays in Japan. For example, the venal and autumn equinoctial festival days--Mar. 21 and Sep. 21 respectively-- were renamed “Shunbun-no-hi” and “Shubun-no-hi.” Traditionally, these holidays were called “Higan.” Higan is a Buddhist term which literally means “the other shore.” It implies the place where deceased people live. Thus, to avoid association with such religious belief, the holidays’ name was altered to more neutral one as “Spring/Autumnal Equinox Day.” Woodard (1972) reports in his book that official documents and testimonies suggest that the Headquarters of the Allied Occupation of Japan even attempted to Christianize the Japanese.
Moreover, the legal background of the Japanese family system was dramatically changed by the new constitution and civil code. Instead, individualism prevailed under strong influence of American culture. Nonetheless, the traditional home rituals for the deceased families did not change rapidly for decades after WWII. In fact, the forms of funerals remain until today. However, Namihira (2004) analyzes that the meaning of these rituals is no longer identical to that of traditions before the Meiji era, in which people obtained secure ties with the community through revering ancestors.
The family bonds as the major element used to unite the Japanese people appeared to shift to other aspects such as sub-cultures in post-WWII era. In the survey I conducted in Project #2 for this class, a female Japanese-American pointed out that now Japanese pop cultures, such as Hello Kitty, Anime, and video games, have a function of recreating popularity of the Japanese (*see appendix). Another female Japanese participant in the survey answered that before the 1970’s, the Japanese people living in America were often looked down as “Jap,” but after 1980’s as the Japanese in America began receiving better acknowledgment, they came to be admired more often. It can be speculated that economic success as a nation in 1980’s positively enhanced the ethnic identity of the Japanese.
Accordingly, it appeared that religious aspects of the Japanese no longer had significant influence on their social identity—until the unprecedented disaster happened in 2011. As introduced in the beginning, Buddhist temples began to take actions to engage in disaster relief. The book This Precious Life reports that some Buddhist monk groups even made a public statement regarding nuclear power plants. In this book, Rev. Toku-un Tanaka advocates: “Religious professinals should all overcome their differences and overcome their different ways of thinking to unite to protect the lives of children” (p.25). In my survey for Anthropology class project #2 as well, several participants pointed out that after the earthquake and tsunami in 2011, they felt more proud of being Japanese because of their perseverance and morality. In fact, it is reported that people all over the world including Americans admired the reactions of Japanese people to the national disaster, such as the people did not riot at all despite such chaotic, distressful circumstances.
Furthermore, in response to the question: “Do you think that identifying yourself with Buddhist helps you to remain Japanese ethnicity?” 8 participants out of 10 agreed that it does (*see appendix). In fact, it is said that after the disaster in 2011, more and more people in Japan started seriously thinking about their own life and death. The media also reports that Buddhism is booming now in Japan more than ever after WWII. A larger scale survey is needed to conclude whether religions revived as a function of recreating the Japanese ethnicity. Nonetheless, it is speculated that apparently more Japanese people became interested in religions with a view to perusing the roots of their social identity.
Social contacts with other groups —and sometimes international interactions including war —shape ethnic identity. Besides, ethnic identity is regarded as a crucial element to reassure the socia identity especially when it is threatened. As discussed thus far, some aspects of the Japanese ethnicity kept changing dynamically in accordance with its dynamic history, especially in modern time. The family system so called Ie-seido was once the dominant factor of re-creating ties among the Japanese people. By interactions with other countries, however, religious aspects of the ethnic identity altered. Nonetheless, it seems that people are pursuing again secure ties with the family—and possibly with the community— through religious identity. Ethnicity is not something that already exists from the beginning, but a product of constant inter-relations with other ethnicities, which never ceases to change its aspects.
Namihira, Emiko. 2004. Nihonjin no shi no katachi: dentō girei kara Yasukuni made. Tōkyō: Asahi Shinbunsha.
Eriksen, Thomas Hylland. 1993. Ethnicity and nationalism: anthropological perspectives [...] XD-US. London [u.a.]: Pluto Press.
Watts, Jonathan S. 2012. This precious life: Buddhist Tsunami relief and anti-nuclear activism in post 3/11 Japan. Yokohama, Japan: International Buddhist Exchange Center.
Woodard, William P. 1972. The Allied Occupation of Japan 1945-1952 and Japanese religions. Leiden: Brill.
The Survey at Pure Land Buddhist Temple in Los Angels
Male: 4 / Female: 6 Age: 19 -73 Birth Place: Japan, The U.S.A
Q.4 Do you think that identifying yourself with Buddhist helps you to remain Japanese ethnicity?
Strongly Agree <-- 5 4 3 2 1 --> Strongly Disagree
Scale: Agree (5) ß àDisagree(1) -- # of people who answered
(4) -- 4
(3) -- 1
(2) -- 1
(1) -- 0
Most people agreed that being Buddhist comparatively help maintain Japanese ethnicity.
Q.6 How do you think Japanese are seen by other people in American society?
• Some people think of Japanese as model minority.
• Japanese pop-culture has made Japanese more popular.
• In 1970’s Japanese were often called “Jap,” but after 1980’s we came to be praised more often.
• Honest, Trustworthy, Loyal
• Hardworking, productive, persevere
• A race with ethics, Law abiding
• A race with great history
Q.7 How does the reception of Japanese in American society affect the development of your Japanese ethnicity?
• “I am more proud to be Japanese because our culture has many good qualities and more and more Americans admire the Japanese, especially after the earthquake because Japanese persevere and do not riot.”
• “I have been always proud of being Japanese to carry original culture, nationality, religions (Buddhism & Shinto).”
• (As Japanese) being honorable, and accepted to be an asset to the U.S. and their economy.
• The more the Japanese were acknowledged by the American society, the more opportunities we had to introduce Japanese cultures.