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The bell tolls a hundred and eight times: Impermanence, ‘Religion’ and the Land of the Rising Sun

If man were never to fade away like the dews of Adashino, never to vanish like the smoke over Toribeyama, but lingered on forever in the world, how things would lose their power to move us! The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty.

So go the opening lines from section seven in Essays in Idleness written by the fourteenth century Japanese Buddhist priest Kenko in a state of idle contemplation. Sharp awareness of one’s mortality accompanies the aesthetics of beauty in a rousing call to revel in the impermanence of life. Contemporary Japan while far removed from a past of asceticism preached by this initiate of the Buddhist path, still preserves the tangible testaments of piety in museums and the temples to be stared at in wonder, curiosity or fascination.

In Tokyo’s National Museum, statues sculpted from wood sit and stand with the same look of melancholy and meditative composure on their faces as they did a thousand years ago in a future beyond the imagination of their sculptors. This aesthetics of beauty, an expression of religion devotion, manages to also survive in contemporary Japan despite (or perhaps precisely due to) the humdrum typical of urban and consumer societies throughout the world. Politics, wars, and natural disasters have not disturbed the longevity of wooden structures and objects composed paradoxical by mortal hands with a look of impermanence.

So much is taken for granted in how ‘religion’ is written, spoken and argued about and there is a real need to make what it supposedly signifies more open to the free flow of human agency in different societies and communities past and present alike. What could be described as religious life in contemporary Japan couldn’t be more dissimilar on the surface from its counterpart in the Middle East, North and Europe with their historic and bureaucratic institutions such as the Ministry of Muslim Religious Endowments, established national churches tied to the state and a theocracy in the heart of a European capital, the Vatican.

Modernity’s arrival on the shores of Japan, a process given life by the enterprising efforts of a rising political elite focused on state-building in the face of a growing foreign presence (greater US interest in the country and the Opium Wars in neighbouring imperial China leading to the British colonial conquest of Hong Kong). The invention of religion in the period popularly known as the ‘Meiji Restoration’ created a national religion in the form of Shintoism that joined together existing elements (local folklore, sects, practices, shrines and beliefs) around a central organising principle: a divine emperor in the land of the rising sun belonging to a historic line of ancestors descended from the gods.

Notwithstanding the later break between state and this national religion in Japan in the aftermath of the Second World War, the recent past persists in ways that shape the responses of Japanese women and men to the often tempestuous winds of (post)modernity. In this new century, when the revival of religion in global affairs is presumed, the visibility of religion in Japan appears to mark it from other parts of the world. Economic globalisation and cultural conservatism according to Bryan S. Turner have created a relatively homogeneous society in Japan, due to demography, without the stark presence of a multiculturalism and the diversity of religions that it would engender.

What also makes Japan seem exceptional in religious fervour is the particular manifestations of seasonal festivities in a modern urban and consumer society. New Year’s Eve is a widely anticipated event that ushers in the coming year as a rite of passage for one’s destiny or in more mundane terms, a positive year for one’s family, social and professional life. A visit to Tokyo’s historic Jindai Ji temple, the bell tolls a hundred and eight times beginning from midnight here and elsewhere in Japan, shows the mixture of festive cheer, family outings and intense meditation. In this environment, religious practice as a commodity to be consumed does not erode the personal significance that augments the social ties of family and friendship or allows an individual to undertake a journey of soul-searching.

Religious phenomena may indeed be subject to market forces (the believer as ‘consumer’ and religions as ‘firms’) as Rodney Stark has argued but this does not in any way underplay the sense of profundity (even existential drama) in acts of devotion in the most allegedly irreligious of contexts. In discussions of a general character that employ terms such as ‘society’ or ‘religion’, one can very easily fall in the trap of overlooking the individual who is seemingly submerged in a sea of homogeneity. Religious devotion hints at the fragility and uncertainty of human existence even in Japan where a consumer culture of conformity unceasingly makes a din and obscures the impermanence of the moments that animate life. 

Mohammed Moussa has been awarded his doctorate on renewal in the Islamic tradition at the University of Exeter, Exeter and recently completed a postdoctoral research fellowship at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. He is a Muslim Institute Fellow and is now based in Istanbul. One of his chief interests, among many, is the Arabo-Islamic heritage as part of a broader and richer experiment called humanity.