The Creation of Identity and Community in Print

In his chapter ‘Piety in Print’, DuBois uses the Shengjing Times as a case study to trace the development of religion in print, as controlled by the Japanese, in Manchuria/Manchukuo. He argues that the images of religion presented related to both social trends and political needs, and the images tended to mirror the larger aims of Japan in the region. In his analysis, he refers to the theories of nationalism and community building of Anderson and Weber, which both include the role of print journalism/language in developing identities, ideas, and community. DuBois notes there is a key difference between their two theories however, turning on the question of whether mass media reflects existing identities or creates new ones:

‘In other words, the former [Anderson] shows publications expanding to fit the contours of an existing community, the latter [Weber] shows them creating a new one’.[1]

DuBois concludes that even at its most propagandistic, the paper was never able to simply impose its ideas onto its readership and that its later propagandistic messages probably ‘changed fewer minds than Weber’s example would suggest’.[2] Rather, the paper reflected existing identities, adhering closer to Anderson’s theory, due to newspapers being a product to be consumed and discarded at will and its readership holding the ability to simply disagree with its contents. This is illustrated best in the Shengjing Times’s attitude towards religious practices which promoted superstition; its theme of anti-superstition in its early publications (1906-1924) appealed to an intellectual readership and the iconoclastic May Fourth generation. DuBois argues that it was this image of religion the paper provided that was most successful, because it was a message its readership was keen to hear. Here we see the paper appealing to the pre-established intellectual community of ideas which subscribed to ideas of anti-superstition and anti-religious vision of social progress.

Perhaps Weber’s theory of community and identity building is instead demonstrated in the ‘revolution plus romance’ literary genre of China which appeared in the first half of the twentieth century. In his chapter ‘Revolution of the Heart’, Haiyan Lee provides a critical genealogy of sentiment and highlights the transformations of love as a concept of social and cultural life in twentieth century China. Through this literary genre, we see love used as a discursive technology for constructing individual and collective identities by the KMT and CCP, and literature participating ‘in (re)defining the social order and (re)producing forms of self and sociality’.[3] Love was supplemented to the revolutionary agenda, argued to threaten revolution and diminish revolutionary zeal. The genre therefore was able to use the concept of ‘love’, popular as a symbol of freedom, autonomy, and equality among the May Fourth generation, in order to promote the collective over the individual and further the revolutionary agenda.

Both the Shengjing Times and the Chinese literary genre of ‘revolution plus romance’ serve to illustrate the potential language has in the creation of identities and communities. While the Shengjing Times reflected existing identities and formed a community of readership based upon them, the Chinese literature aimed to form new identities aligned to the revolutionary movements. Overall, both demonstrate the use of language to further political agendas, and as case studies indicate both Anderson and Weber’s theories as feasible.

[1] Thomas David DuBois, Empire and the Meaning of Religion in Northeast Asia: Manchuria 1900-1945 (Cambridge, 2017), p. 87.

[2] Ibid., p. 107.

[3] Haiyan Lee, Revolution of the Heart: A Genealogy of Love in China, 1900-1950 (Stanford, 2010), p. 7.

Understanding the rules of the ‘Gender Game’.

‘The study of gender has contributed greatly to our knowledge of history while challenging preconceived notions of sociocultural phenomena and processes in Japan and elsewhere’[1]

Sabine Frühstück’s ‘Recreating Japanese Men’[2]analyses the contrast between sex and gender, while shedding light on how gender has formed masculine and feminine ideals within Japanese history. However, Anne Walthall who has written the first chapter ‘Do Guns Have Gender’ manages to differentiate these gender ideals of masculinity and femininity through Japan’s history of weaponry.

Whether it be a samurai’s sword or a solders gun, there has always been a sense of masculinity attached to the objects. Through this a formation of social hierarchy was created which enabled men to establish their status and class depending on the craftmanship of the gun. Anne Walthall gives a balanced analysis of both men and women and their relationships with weapons, allowing a more in depth understanding of how masculinity affected both genders.

Although swords were considered the soul of a samurai, guns co-existed with the blade as a means of aiding in battle and for hunting. However, for women guns were used as further attempt to isolate them from warfare. Walthall explains further insisting that women within Japanese history were able to learn to wield daggers, but this was used more as a cautionary purpose rather than establishing a fairer groundwork between men and women in warfare. This becomes more evident regarding guns and the lack of involvement of women. They could hold one, but shooting one was considered too masculine for them. This was also attached to gift giving, which men were more likely to receive a weapon as a gift, whereas women would be gifted art and literature.

Wielding of guns was considered a further development to a man’s maturity and masculinity. This, therefore, connects back to the introduction within the text, which is co-authored by Sabine Frühstück and Anne Walthall in which they highlight the connection between maturity and masculinity, which added to the masculine hierarchy within society. ‘Rural social mechanisms were hierarchically structured to produce men whose superior masculinity was based on their maturity’[3].  By pursuing skills and activities which would better themselves, while boosting this sense of masculinity, this was considered further developing their masculinity. This was applied to all men no matter their status or class. Therefore, not being able to wield a gun was considered a lack of development and their roles could be put into question.

‘Not all shoguns mastered this weapon, proof that their gender identities had to be constructed and remained unstable’[4]

This attachment of masculinity to objects and mannerisms was one of the root causes of excluding women from society and forming a stronger sense of control over feminine roles. This masculine attachment to guns was also added to the functions of family’s, which meant that fathers were likely to hand down their guns to the sons. This perhaps was not the same as a Samurai handing their son the family sword in hopes that they would take on the same route, but to push them further into a masculine role. Walthall draws upon historian Amy Ann Cox analysis on the values of masculinity to better understand why Japanese men associated their masculinity with guns. This was because guns represented the same values such as freedom, independence and liberty.

Therefore, what Walthall is trying to argue is what defines masculinity and how it can be manipulated into society to ensure it’s hierarchy. By attaching masculine values onto weaponry and behaviours that allow them to display power, it creates an unbalanced platform between men and women. Although Walthall highlights her intentions to focus on guns and status within the Tokugawa period, there is more that can be uncovered regarding Japan and its depictions of femininity and masculinity, which therefore, paved the lives of men and women. By just looking at guns Walthall has managed to breakdown the foundations of masculinity because the weapon became ingrained within the masculine etiquette, allowing it to manipulate Confucian teachings and Japanese culture.

Furthermore, although guns provided a variety of new skill to Japanese men and enabled them to use this within battle, what Walthall really does is present an underlying argument which highlights to absence of women in many areas of Japans society during the Tokugawa period. Her focus on guns enabled her to uncover Japans Confucian education, politics and warfare, therefore, Walthall has perhaps unintentionally brought a new understanding of how masculinity had been crafted and branded on to mannerisms and objects to ensure the silence and absence of  Japanese women within important areas of their society.

[1] Sabine Fruhstuck, Recreating Japanese Men (University of California Press, 2011) p.3.

[2] Sabine Fruhstuck, Recreating Japanese Men (University of California Press, 2011).

[3] Sabine Fruhstuck, Recreating Japanese Men (University of California Press, 2011) p.6.

[4] Sabine Fruhstuck, Recreating Japanese Men (University of California Press, 2011) p.21.


The Capitalism of Christianity

The opening of Japan in the mid 1800s resulted in an intellectual exchange between Japan and the “Western” world as Western countries vied to establish ties with Japan and to exert their own cultural influence on the country.  While the general model for imposing cultural conventions is through capitalist systems, Christian influences took a different approach.  The prevalence of capitalism in the nineteenth century permeated all aspects of life in the United States and many European countries, including missionary work.  H. B. Cavalcanti uses the case of American missionaries in Latin America to demonstrate that even religion could be commodified and used as a means of exerting capitalist influences on other countries.  He describes the competition between American Christian denominations which “competed openly in the American religious market, vying for ‘shares’ of the country’s faithful (Finke and Stark 2000). Once those churches established foreign-mission programs, it was only natural that they tried to reproduce in host countries similar market conditions to the ones enjoyed at home.”[1]  While the spread of capitalism in the nineteenth century seemed to be an unstoppable force which, among its other political, economic, and social consequences, effectively exported Christianity globally, this was not the case in Japan.

Instead, the diplomatic relations between Japan and Russia led to a transnational exchange of ideas which led to the emergence of a form of religious anarchy.  Sho Konishi argues that this cultural exchange was highly influenced by the popularity of Russian literature translated into Japanese.[2]  Populist Russian literature introduced new, and complemented existing solutions to “social problems” which both countries were facing in the aftermath of their revolutions.  A running theme in translations of Russian literature was that “‘society’ began to be defined in this context as a problem of unfettered capitalism.”[3]  The socialist and anarchist themes in Russian literature built off pre-existing anarchist traditions in Japan, creating an anti-capitalist base among Japanese intellectuals.

This Russian translation culture was not only anarchist in nature, but Christian as well.  Konishi uses the popularity of Leo Tolstoy in particular to illustrate this fact.  Just as “Tolstoy became a dangerous apostate of the Russian Orthodox Church, he was gaining a widespread religious following in Japan, where many regarded him as a prophetic religious thinker and a saint.”[4]  But, the Christian ethic which was popularised by Tolstoy does not conform to either the typical Western Christian theology or the methods of its dissemination.  Instead, “The resulting conversions to what was called ‘Tolstoyan religion’ (Torusutoi no shūkyō) or ‘religious anarchism’ (shūkyōteki anākizumu) in Japan occurred in the total absence of the converter, that is, without a missionary or church institution.”[5]  Unlike the missionary organisations which operated in other countries, Christianity in Japan was not the result of capitalist systems imposing religious doctrines, but a unique religious theory which rejected the very idea of capitalism.  This “religious anarchism” was both a political stance and a utopian dream for a future universal human religion.


[1] H. B. Cavalcanti, “The Right Faith at the Right Time? Determinants of Protestant Mission Success in the 19th-Century Brazilian Religious Market,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 41, no. 3 (2002): 423–38,, 423.

[2] Sho Konishi, Anarchist Modernity: Cooperatism and Japanese-Russian Intellectual Relations in Modern Japan, 1st ed. Vol. 356 (Harvard University Asia Center, 2013),, 95.

[3] Ibid., 74.

[4] Ibid., 93.

[5] Ibid., 95.

Were the Ilchinhoe justified in their support of the Japanese, 1909-1910? A look at collaboration in a colonial setting

In December 1909, the Korean organisation the Ilchinhoe proposed a Japanese-Korean ‘merger’ that they believed would instil new life in Korea as a nation with Japan as its saviour.[1] Instead, the merger is attributed to starting the chain of events that led to Korea’s brutal annexation by the Japanese that lasted thirty-five years.

Yumi Moon’s article ‘Immoral Rights: Korean Populist Collaborators and the Japanese Colonisation of Korea, 1904-1910’ explores the idea that the Ilchinhoe, who are remembered in Korean history as ‘notorious collaborators’, need to be considered in a colonial context so that their actions may be explained.[2] This blog post will consider if Moon’s article provides justification to the Ilchinhoe’s support of the Japanese in the lead to up the annexation of Korea in 1910.

To understand why the Ilchinhoe collaborated with the Japanese, Moon urges historians to avoid contemporary moral views as it becomes a ‘major hindrance’.[3] Historians need to consider the setting and conditions of those who are being colonialised so they can grasp why certain groups chose to work with those who are doing the oppressing.

 So, for the context of Korea and the Ilchinhoe, Moon places a great emphasis on the point that the Ilchinhoe movement was populist. She quotes Margaret Canovan, writing, ‘Populists claim legitimacy on the grounds that they speak for the people: that is to say, they claim to represent the democratic sovereign’.[4] Therefore, the Ilchinhoe were doing what they believed was best for the Korean people. They viewed Korea as a ‘backwards’ nation while Japan was a “civilising’ empire’ that could protect Korea’s prosperity.[5]

Looking at the Ilchinhoe’s view with a contemporary mindset will result in a negative judgement of the group. However, using Moon’s argument that the colonial context must be considered allows for one to see that the Ilchinhoe genuinely believed they were doing what was best for Korea. Their logic was ‘Independence through dependence’, and that Korea needed to understand what it was and wasn’t capable of so that Japan could guide them as a ‘friendly ally’.[6] The Ilchinhoe always advocated for the rights of Korean people and did not wish for Korea to lose its independence; what they wanted was for Japan to revitalise their government.

In the end, the Japanese used this to their advantage and were able to annex Korea with ‘relatively little bloodshed’ thanks to the Ilchinhoe’s collaboration efforts.[7] Moon’s final argument urges an understanding that the Ilchinhoe, the colonised, had no agency or control over how the Japanese, the colonisers, acted. Ultimately, the Ilchinhoe may have had good intentions that they believed represented what the Korean population wanted but were misguided in trusting the Japanese. Japan ended up ignoring what was proposed in the merger and used it as proof that Korea was not able to be independent at all which led to the annexation.  So did Moon’s article justify the Ilchinhoe’s actions and shed a more positive light on their organisation? That depends on how naïve one would believe the Ilchinhoe were in thinking the Japanese wouldn’t take complete control over Korea. However, Moon does provide substantial evidence that suggests their collaboration was in the Korean people’s best interest.

[1]Carl Young, ‘Eastern Learning Divided: The Split in the Tonghak Religion and the Japanese Annexation of Korea, 1904-1910’ in Belief and Practice in Imperial Japan and Colonial Korea ed. Emily Anderson (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), p.93

[2] Yumi Moon, ‘Immoral Rights: Korean Populist Collaborators and the Japanese Colonisation of Korea, 1904-1910‘, The American Historical Review 113:1 (2013), p.20

[3] Ibid. p.22

[4] Ibid. p.27

[5] Ibid. p.33

[6] Ibid. p.32

[7] Ibid. p.42

The creation of modern Japanese science fiction through utopian fiction and the Second World War


Today, East Asian, and especially Japanese, science fiction and popular culture is immensely popular in the West. As Bolton, Scicery-Ronay Jr., and Tatsumi point out, this wave of science fiction from Japan was reliant on newer forms of communication, like television, video games, etc., while also being prominent in more traditional forms such as books.1 However, the cultural explosion happening in post-war Japan did not happen in isolation. According to Yoriko Moichi, Japanese utopian (and dystopian) literature is heavily influenced by Western utopian literature introduced after the Meiji Restoration and the subsequent opening up of Japan.2 Moreover, the modernisation and industrialisation happening in Japan both after the Meiji Restoration and after the war also impacted the post-war boom of science fiction. Lastly, the horrors of the Pacific War itself also helped to cement more dystopian and moralising science fiction at the forefront of the post-war movement, which then resulted in the initial popularisation of Japanese science fiction in the West.


Yoroki argues that the bleak science fiction created right after the war was dystopian because the war made a utopian society impossible to imagine, and that the futuristic and industrial science fiction literature of this period was ‘a little light weight’.3 This may be so, but the science fiction that was created as a direct result of the war did not only appear in traditional literature but also in the newer ones, thus resulting in a post-war dystopian culture which proved to be immensely influential. The most obvious example of such a post-war work of science fiction is the 1954 film Gojira, or Godzilla, King of Monsters!, which opened the floodgates for the subsequent popularisation of Japanese science fiction in the rest of the world. There is little doubt that Gojira is a representation of the horrors endured by the Japanese towards the end of the war. The monster is even awakened from his sleep by American nuclear testing in the pacific, alluding strongly to wartime America and its nuclear bombs. The film is also a strong critique of U.S.-Japanese post-war relations where Japan is being coerced by, and also collaborating with, the monster from the sea.4


The massive popularity of dystopian science fiction in new mediums in the years after the war thus led more of it, and more of it being exported to other parts of the world. With the technological and economic advancement of Japan in the 1970s and 80s the genre evolved into a more futuristic one, but there was still a strong dystopian element to it, as can be seen in famous an influential works such as Akira (1982/1988) and many others.5 Today, the world of Japanese-inspired science fiction is, of course, not always dark and dystopian, but much of it – and maybe the best of it –have strong dystopian elements. Thus, the utopian literature popularised in Japan after the Meiji restoration in conjunction with the horrors of the war and subsequent introspection in Japan created an initially distinctive, and highly influential genre of science fiction which has subsequently been hugely popular across the world on a plethora of different media.

  1. Bolton, Christopher, Csicery-Ronay Jr., Istvan and Tatsumi, Takayuki, Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams: Japanese Science Fiction from Origins to Anime (Minneapolis, 2007), p. vii. []
  2. Moichi, Yoriko, ‘Japanese Utopian Literature from the 1870s to the Present and the Influence of Western Utopianism’ Utopian Studies 10, (1999), pp. 90-91. []
  3. Ibid., p. 95. []
  4. Igarashi, Yoshikuni, Bodies of Memory: Narratives of War in Postwar Japanese Culture, 1945-1970 (Princeton, 2000), pp. 115-118. []
  5. Bolton, Scicery-Ronay Jr., and Tatsumi, p. ix. []

Music and the 1942 symposium: a Kyoto School microcosm

In July 1942, about half a year since the attack on Pearl Harbor and the advent of total war, there was arranged a symposium titled ‘Overcoming Modernity’ where members of the Kyoto School and other Japanese thinkers of various kinds wrote essays on, and discussed, how Japan was to overcome modernity. The symposium largely failed to come up with many concrete answers to the problem since the discussions largely ended up focusing on the semantics of the problem posed and other details. Indeed, the leader of the two-day roundtable discussions, Kawakami Tetsutaro, began the conference by admitting to the ambiguity of the theme of the symposium.1 One sub-theme discussed in the first day of the conference was the role of Japanese music in overcoming modernity. This sub-theme is perhaps the most unique one discussed at the symposium, but it also encapsulates many of the larger themes of the conference and of the Kyoto School in general.

The symposium at large was in agreement that Japan had a particular ‘spirit’ or ‘nature’ which made it stand out from the rest of the world, and that this spirit had been contaminated by outside cultures over many centuries. The way of overcoming what they saw as a Western-dominated modernity was to restore this Japanese spirit, not by going backwards but by going forwards.2 This somewhat paradoxical way of seeing the historical progression of Japan is furthermore mirrored in a fundamental paradox of the Kyoto School thinking as illustrated by the founder, Nishida’s combination of Eastern philosophical traditions and more modern Western methodological philosophy,3 which ended up creating a school which was both fundamentally critical of Japanese and Western philosophy, ideology and culture.

This is where the discussion on the role of music in the overall Japanese spirit comes in. The most prominent talker on this topic was Moroi Saburo, a ‘composer and music theorist’.4 Like most other participants of the symposium Moroi argued that the impure modernity was a thing that had to be overcome by finding the true Japanese spirit, which was to be done by creating something new for the future, inspired by both the traditional Japanese and by the Western. In terms of music, Moroi sought to create a new style of music which maintained the Japanese spirit and at the same time incorporated certain elements from Western music.5 This was because Moroi saw modern Japanese music as corrupted by Western influences, but he thought that certain elements of Western music would be useful if combined in the right way. What he specifically admired about Western music was the spirituality of it.6 Thus, in order to find the true Japanese music to compliment the true Japanese culture and spirit there had to be created a new kind of music, combining traditional Japanese music (which focus on narrative) and Western music (which mas more focused on feeling), which would then assist Japanese society in general to overcome modernity.

Interestingly, this overall criticism, both in the discussion about music and in the discussions in general, came to support a teleological view of history where Japan was seen as destined to be the next great power. Moroi argues that different European countries have, after the Middle Ages, been the leading countries in terms of music, and also art in general, in different decades. Therefore, based upon a nationalist belief in Japanese superiority, it is now Japan’s turn to be a leading country within music and the arts. This belief is also based on a belief in the degradation of Western culture.7 This sentiment of Western deterioration and Japanese progress was matched by other symposium participants. Such a teleological and nationalistic view was exactly what made the Kyoto School, and the 1942 symposium in particular, come under much criticism for being too supportive of the Japanese wartime ideology after the war.8 Then again, the Kyoto School and also the symposium were criticised at the time for not being nationalistic enough.9

Thus, from a symposium which did not deliver many clear answers about how to overcome modernity and the development of the Japanese spirit, the perhaps most niche point of discussion acted as a microcosm for the entire 1942 symposium itself. Japanese music, much like Japan itself, was, in the eyes of the symposium participants, in need of a revival as both had been corrupted by outside – mainly Western – influences. The way of reviving them was, however, not by going back to the originals, but to incorporate specific Western elements. Where the symposium goes beyond the thinking of Nishida, and flirting with a more nationalistic ideology was the teleological conviction held that both Japanese music, culture and empire was due a place in the sun.

  1. Calichman, Richard F., Overcoming Modernity: Cultural Identity in Wartime Japan (New York, 2008), p. 151 []
  2. Ibid., pp. 12-13 []
  3. Davis, Bret W., The Kyoto School, 9 April, 2019, <> [13 November 2020] []
  4. Calichman, p. 212 []
  5. Ibid., pp. 173-175 []
  6. Ibid., p. 172 []
  7. Ibid., p. 173 []
  8. Davis, 2015 []
  9. Goto-Jones, Christopher, Political Philosophy in Japan: Nishida, the Kyoto School, and Co-Prosperity (New York, 2005), p. 117 []

The American Encounter with Buddhism: What it tells us about Japan and it’s Pursuit of Modernity

In the second chapter of The American Encounter with Buddhism, 1844-1912: Victorian Culture and the Limits of Dissent, Thomas Tweed discusses American engagement with Buddhism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Tweed explains that, “This study analyzes the public conversation about Buddhism (in English) and focuses on Euro-American Buddhists.”1 The author describes a contradictory engagement with Buddhism in America: the chapter starts off with evidence of Buddhism’s proliferation in America, but quickly turns to consider the many factors which limited American support of Buddhism. In addition to shedding light on American reactions to Buddhism, Tweed’s chapter, “Shall We All Become Buddhists?” points to major differences in Japanese and Chinese engagement with overseas populations, and illuminates in particular the Japanese relationship with modernity. 

In his discussion about Asian-American Buddhists, Tweed asserts that “The Japanese provided greater support for their immigrant Buddhist communities than the Chinese. They apparently did so, in part, in response to Christian missionary efforts.”2 As evidence for this assertion, he points to the 1898 decision by the Japanese Jodo-Shin-shu (True Pure Land Sect) to send two representatives to the United States to study immigrant spiritual practices and the subsequent move by the Kyoto headquarters to send two missionaries, officially recognizing the Buddhist mission in America. Tweed’s observations are useful in a discussion of Japanese reactions to Western industrialization and modernization. Just as the arrival of Mathew Perry’s “black ships” in 1854 threatened Japanese sovereignty, Christian missionaries’ attempt to convert Japanese immigrants in America jeopardized the future of one of the major Japanese religious traditions. Japanese powers intervened to preserve Pure Land Buddhism in America and therefore prove that it was a religion suited for the modern age. Tweed points out that as opposed to Japanese powers, the Chinese did not send missionaries to their American immigrant communities.3 The resulting poor adherence to Buddhism that Tweed notes among Chinese-Americans mirrors China’s failure to institute the systematic program of modernization undertaken in the Meiji era in Japan.  

Both the adoption of Western ideas about Chinese-Americans and the copying of certain Western elements of Buddhism that Tweed observes also represent manifestations of Japan’s pursuit of modernity. Although they largely arrived after the Chinese, “Japanese immigrants, often repeating American criticism of the Chinese, tried to distinguish themselves from the “lower class” Chinese who seemed unable to assimilate.”4 This adoption of western beliefs allow Japanese-Americans to elevate themselves to a status above Chinese-Americans, and therefore separate themselves from a “less developed” nation. In addition, Tweed comments that “A limited amount of Americanization and Protestantization also occurred in Japanese Pure Land Buddhist communities before World War I.”4 The construction of Buddhism along Western lines demonstrates Japan’s attempt to Westernize within the traditional Japanese framework of Pure Land Buddhism. Modern Western powers attained global primacy through intense industrialization and a Christian civilizing mission, Japan sought to do the same by utilizing the discursive tradition made available by Buddhism. 

This pattern is indicative of the new conceptualization of religion which emerged in mid nineteenth century Japan “as both transcending the profane society and responsible for improving and ‘civilizing’ its mores.”5 Religion was now seen as a force separate from the state, that could be used as a tool in Japan’s civilizing and modernizing mission. The Japanese policy regarding Buddhism in America mirrors the propagation of Christianity as a “civilizing religion” by Western powers and is a reaction to the introduction of Western modernity which reached Japan, along with Perry’s ships, in 1854. 



Tikhonov, V. M, Social Darwinism and Nationalism in Korea – The Beginnings, 1883-1910: Survival as an Ideology of Korean Modernity (Brill, 2010). 

Tweed, Thomas, The American Encounter with Buddhism, 1844-1912: Victorian Culture and the Limits of Dissent (UNC Press Books, 2005). 



  1. Thomas Tweed, The American Encounter with Buddhism, 1844-1912: Victorian Culture and the Limits of Dissent (UNC Press Books, 2005), p. 38 []
  2. Ibid., p. 36 []
  3. Ibid., p. 35 []
  4. Ibid., p. 37 [] []
  5. V. M. Tikhonov, Social Darwinism and Nationalism in Korea – The Beginnings, 1883-1910: Survival as an Ideology of Korean Modernity (Brill, 2010), p. 113. []

‘Truth’ in Muso Soseki’s ‘Sermon at the Dedication of Tenryu-ji Dharma Hall’.


Muso Soseki’s sermon reveals a Truth exclusive to Zen Buddhism. In Western thought, Truth is often presented as something concrete and revelatory, which reveals the inner nature of someone or something. It is seen as an explanatory interpretation with a finite definition as it sheds light on something which was unknown. Furthermore, Truth in the West is revealed by presenting one’s inner nature to others and granting permission of access.[1] However, in Muso Soseki’s sermon, and other teachings of Zen Buddhism, Truth is presented as personable and flexible. It is not revealed outwardly to others but guarded as something personal and exclusive.

‘I join with my true master…and with all the others throughout infinite empty space…’.[2]

Truth is first discovered within the self, and then shared within the protected community of Zen masters and their disciples. In this quote, Soseki presents the concept of the self, or ‘I’, with a connection to the ‘true master’. This suggests that primarily, an awareness of self is needed to facilitate a connection with the Zen community and reveal the Truth. Consequently, Truth in Zen Buddhism is discovered within one’s being and can only be found through introspective thought and awareness. Truth is envisioned as the essence of thought, indicating that its personal nature lies in its abstract properties and can only be discovered when a true understanding of the self is obtained. This contrasts to a Westernised view of Truth as something given to and shared with others. In conflict, Soseki sees Truth as something you present to yourself, and not others.

Building on the personal nature of Truth, Soseki demonstrates that Truth is not something that is concrete, but mutable depending on the context and recipient. ‘All the others’ implies that Truth has multiple avenues, perspectives and identities. Here, Soseki creates an image of the unity of minds. An individual’s personal Truth combines with all Truths in a mystical environment of non-thinking to discover the ultimate Truth. Other Zen teachers, particularly Dogen also saw the mutable nature of Truth, as he believed reality is a series of individual and personal delusions we impose on the self. For example, Dogen’s use of the Mountain Sutra exemplifies that reality can have multiple meanings and possibilities. ‘One must not doubt’ that the mountains walk just because they do not walk like humans.[3] Therefore, Truth has no limits, only endless possibility and flexibility of the individual mind.

Soseki implies that ‘All Truths are the same Truth’.[4]

Soseki encourages a correspondence with the intellect of self, and the intellect of the higher, greater truth of the Buddha; ‘the same Truth’. As such, after Truth is established within the individual, it can be shared in a personal experience with a Zen master. This view of Truth reflects the importance of the master-disciple relationship within Zen practice. This relationship is guarded by the Zen emphasis on an ancestral lineage which descends from Shakyamuni himself. Zen teaching is limited to those who have a claim to this lineage and as such, the nature of Truth is shared and protected within this community. Both master and disciple engage in ‘katto’ together, in which both internalise their thought within the self, but also become entwined in the Boddhidharma.[5] This process of realisation is achieved through a Truth which is not concrete but acts as the fusing of two minds. As such, the Truth of Soseki’s sermon is not finite, but part of a cyclical existence multiple Truths form the higher Truth of the Buddha. This idea of Truth is dramatically represented in the example of Huike, who cuts his arm off in a physical donation to the community.[6] This demonstrates a literal investment- his Truth is a part of him which must be physically dedicated to his master and the Zen community. In his conclusion, Soseki proclaims: ‘Look! Look! Shakyamuni is here right now on top of my staff’.[7] The Truth he has inherited from his master is literally present on his person. Truth in Zen Buddhism is personal, introspected and fuses with other, flexible Truths to form reality.

[1] T. P. Kasulis, “Truth and Zen.” Philosophy East and West, vol. 30, no. 4, (1980) p.458.

[2] ((De Bary, William, Sources of Japanese Tradition, Vol.1: From Earliest Times to 1600, New York 2002, p.329.

[3] Heisig, James, Kasulis, Thomas, Maraldo, John, (Eds.) Japanese Philosophy: A Sourcebook, University of Hawaii Press, (2011), p.152.

[4] De Bary, William, Sources of Japanese Tradition, Vol.1: From Earliest Times to 1600, New York 2002, p.328

[5] Heisig, James, Kasulis, Thomas, Maraldo, John, (Eds.) Japanese Philosophy: A Sourcebook, University of Hawaii Press, (2011), p.162.

[6] William De Bary, Sources of Japanese Tradition, Vol.1: From Earliest Times to 1600, (New York 2002), p.329.

[7] William De Bary, Sources of Japanese Tradition, Vol.1: From Earliest Times to 1600, (New York 2002), p.329.


Gender or: How Buddhism Learned to Stop Floating and Love the State

The focus of this week’s readings was on Buddhist world orders, and in particular the way in which the religion – and its followers – oriented themselves within the world. In particular, I wanted to understand how Buddhism was deployed in support of the Japanese state. At a first glance, it seems like such a move is impossible. Buddhism is an other-wordly religion which argues that ‘attachment’ to the material world brings about suffering.1 Nevertheless, Buddhism was used to legitimate Japanese power, the tension between this/other-worldly resolved. In order to understand how this was done, I took a look at several ways in which ‘Buddhism’, as an idea, was reinterpreted and imagined by the state. One such way was through gender. The extract below, from the journal Chūō Bukkyō (1934), demonstrates how Buddhism was reimagined in gendered ways, and how this helped resolved the this/other-worldly tension described.

Through a karmic connection Japan received a daughter from another home as its wife. With a sincere heart this wife worked hard to take care of our home, having children and then grandchildren. Our home, not her original home, has been foremost in her mind. Indeed, from early on, more than a daughter from another home, she has been our wife and mother. (( Ōta Kakumin, ‘Zokuhi zokkai’ in Chūō Bukkyō 18:3 (1934), p. 194 in Christoper Ives (tr.), ‘The Mobilization of Doctrine: Buddhist Contributions to Imperial Ideology in Japan’ in Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, Vol. 26, No. 1/2 (Spring 1999), p. 86 ))

This extract encodes Buddhism with the female gender (‘wife’, ‘home’, ‘children’) contra the Japanese state, which is coded male. This has two effects. Firstly, the term ‘wife’ is used to build a sense of unity between the Emperor’s law and Buddha’s law (王法佛法一如).2 ‘Marriage’ conveys the notion that the Japanese state is in line with the Heavenly Way (天道), and that there is a lot of doctrinal overlap between Buddhism and the state. The emperor, for example, plays the role of the buddha, looking out for his subjects-as-children with the compassionate heart (心). In turn, this gives the state spiritual-legitimacy, with the added bonus of elevating the emperor to an ethereal, buddha-like status.

Secondly, this gendering also imparts feminine stereotypes onto Buddhism, and presents us with an image of the religion as passive and – crucially – subjugated to men.3 This limits Buddhism’s influence within society by channelling its doctrine into areas that are ‘acceptable’ for its ‘gender’, so to speak. Any priests that choose to rebel against the state, therefore, are seen as stepping beyond the boundaries of their ‘gendered’ role. Thus, in siphoning Buddhism’s influence into specific areas, gender imposes boundaries onto the religion so as to limit its power. Buddhists are now no longer unconfined by space and time, like clouds.4 Gender confines Buddhism – and Buddhists – to specific realms that are appropriate and least disruptive to the state.

  1. Rupert Gethin, The Foundations of Buddhism (1998), pp. 70, 73 []
  2. Christopher Ives, ‘The Mobilization of Doctrine: Buddhist Contributions to Imperial Ideology in Japan’ in Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, Vol. 26, No. 1/2 (Spring 1999), p. 85 []
  3. See He-Yin Zhen, ‘On the Revenge of Women: Part 1: Instruments of Men’s Rule Over Women’ (1907) in Lydia He Liu, Rebecca Karl, Dorothy Ko (eds.), The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational Theory (2013) []
  4. Hwansoo Kim, ‘The Adventures of a Japanese Monk in Colonial Korea: Sōma Shōei’s Zen training with Korean masters’ in E. Anderson (ed.), Belief and Practice in Imperial Japan and Colonial Korea (2017), p. 63 []

Ogyū Sorai’s Paradoxes

Confucian philosophy cannot be disentangled from politics. The thinkers we have studied this week, Kongzi (孔子), Mengzi (孟子), Xunzi (荀子), and Ogyū Sorai (荻生 徂徠), all centred their works on trying to define the ‘right’ way to organise and run a society.  In asking these philosophical questions, we can infer that these thinkers were responding to what they perceived to be the decay of society, government – political instability, in short. Indeed, all the authors mention rather explicitly in all of their texts that following their thought will lead to the prosperity and success of their home states.1 In light of this dynamic between philosophy and politics, I think it makes sense to explore how Confucian thinkers tried to turn their philosophical ideas into a practical political policy. In particular, I will focus on the difficulties that come with trying to put ideas into action and will reference Ogyū Sorai as a case study to explore this.

I find Sorai to be an interesting case study because his thought is littered with paradoxes. ‘Paradox’, for my purposes, refers to an inconsistency between a thinker’s philosophical ideals and the actual political policies they promote. I will demonstrate this with reference to one of many paradoxes in Sorai’s thought: his argument for social equality.

‘In formulating the Way, the early kings focused on the problem of bringing peace and security to all-under-Heaven and posterity … Therefore, the early kings followed the mind of all people to love, nourish, support, and perfect one another.2

This extract shows us that social equality is an important part of Sorai’s thought. In arguing that ‘all-under-Heaven’ ought to experience peace and security, Sorai argues that it is the King’s ultimate duty to provide peace and stability to all of his people, irrespective of class. In order to do this, Sorai suggests that the King ought to help ‘all people … nourish, support, and perfect one another’. The King should give everyone a means of satisfying their basic needs, and also a way for them to attain some kind of virtue and act in good ways. Overall, Sorai appears to be using the Confucian belief in equality to argue for the creation of a society that works to benefit all individuals instead the very few.

However, we see this point turned on its head in another part of Sorai’s thought:

‘If the members of the military class lived in the country, they would not incur any expenses in providing themselves with food, clothing, and shelter, and for this reason their financial condition would be much improved … At present, the merchants are in the dominant position, and the military class is in the subordinate position because the military class lives as though they were at an inn where they cannot do without money and must sell their rice in exchange for money with which to buy their daily necessities from the merchants3

Here, we see Sorai contradict himself. He argues that the Samurai and military class ought to be privileged over the merchant class. Sorai argues that the Samurai ought to provide for themselves, not ‘live in an inn’ (i.e. travel around and live off of their income), so that they can reclaim the ‘dominant position’ in society over the merchants. In referring to ‘dominant’ and ‘subordinate’ positions in society, Sorai is telling us that power within a society ought to be hierarchical, not equal, which thus contradicts the sentiments Sorai expresses in the first extract and generates a paradox.

What are the implications that we can draw out from this analysis? One natural thought might be to say that Sorai was generally unsuccessful in turning his ideals into actual political thought. However, I do not think this thought is particularly charitable to Sorai. In this entry, I have only covered one aspect of his thought. Evaluating him, as a whole, would require a detailed analysis of all aspects of his thought. Instead, I think Sorai’s paradoxes demonstrate that philosophical ideas can become muddled when translated into political policy or put into action. This point, I am sure, will become especially salient in weeks to come when we begin to explore Confucian thought historically, analysing the way it influences and is used in historical events.

  1. See Kongzi 2.1, Mengzi 1A7, and Xunzi Chapter 23 in P.J. Ivanhoe; B. W. Van Norden (eds.), Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, Hackett, 2005. For Ogyū Sorai, see W. T. De Bary; C. Gluck; A. E. Tiedemann; A. Barshey; W. M. Bodiford, ‘Ogyū Sorai and the return to Classics’, Sources of Japanese Tradition: Vol. 2: 1600 to 2000, Columbia University Press, 2010 []
  2. Ogyū Sorai, ‘The Sage: Benmei (Distinguishing Terms)’ in W. T. De Bary; C. Gluck; A. E. Tiedemann; A. Barshey; W. M. Bodiford, Sources of Japanese Tradition: Vol. 2: 1600 to 2000, Columbia University Press, 2010, p. 290 []
  3. Ogyū Sorai, ‘The Sage: Benmei (Distinguishing Terms)’ in W. T. De Bary; C. Gluck; A. E. Tiedemann; A. Barshey; W. M. Bodiford, Sources of Japanese Tradition: Vol. 2: 1600 to 2000, Columbia University Press, 2010, pp. 297, 298 []