JPRI Working Paper No. 32: April 1997
The Buddha Bites Back
by Murray Sayle

(A talk given to the JPRI conference held at UCLA on December 5, 1996.)

The Japanese village where the Sayle family has lived happily for more than twenty years is, to put it quietly, a quiet place. There are three hundred and fifty houses strung out along a mountain stream, with everything that a family with school-age children could ask for: fresh air, pure water, green forests, a skating rink, a swimming pool, a running track, good neighbors, no pachinko, no game parlor, no karaoke, no cinema and good public schools, all within easy walking or bicycling distance. When some miscreant appears (the other day someone--not a local man, we're assured--held up the Nokyo farmers' cooperative bank about six miles away, fired a pistol shot into the ceiling and made off with six million yen) our resident policeman told us that it was the first genuine crime he could recall in our area. After all this time we still don't own a latchkey to lock up our old wooden house. The great events that have struck Japan in recent years--the Kobe earthquake, Aum Shinrikyo's nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway, the non-stop thieves' chorus of political scandals--all these have passed us by. In fact, when I have to go into Tokyo, only sixty miles or so away, I often feel like a slow country bumpkin lost in the big city, with invisible rice straw stuck in my remaining hair.

True, our village has had seemingly minor outbreaks of something like juvenile delinquency lately, greatly puzzling to our neighbors. One dark night, for instance, some vandal armed with a nail or a sharp stone scratched the English word SEX, in Romaji, on the roof of my wife Jenny's white Volkswagen. Jenny, who actually is English, and who teaches the language part-time in three nearby junior high schools, stoically remarked that at least they had spelled the word correctly. Just the same, in a country in which vandalism has been, until lately, all but unknown, it was unexpected. Then again, our local newspaper has just reported that a senior high school girl in Sagamihara, about ten miles away, had been arrested on suspicion of organizing prostitution among her schoolmates through a telephone dating club run by a suburban yakuza, the money the girls collected being spent on European designer clothes (probably fakes, at that). And Jenny reports a strange outbreak of children refusing to go to school, particularly to junior high school: in one year, out of 150 students, at least a dozen are regularly failing to show up. Japan has no official truancy inspectors; until quite recently, they would have had nothing to do. One neighbor of ours consulted Jenny about her twelve-year-old truant son; how, she asked, do we deal with this problem in our own countries? Jenny questioned the boy's home-room teacher; he said it was the parents' job to get their children to school. The boy's mother said it was his teacher's job. He still doesn't go, and his mother still doesn't know what to do about him. The newspapers report that various unqualified "educators" have actually killed truant children sent to them by parents who believed their claims that special methods, actually sadistic tortures, could induce conformity in rebellious offspring. One of these brutes has just been given six years in prison after five of his pupils died.

Nothing remotely as bad as that has happened in our village. Still, when The New Yorker asked me to write the piece about the Aum Shinrikyo cult that the magazine published on April 1, 1996, I began my research, as I usually do, by asking around the village, before dipping into the bottomless well of disinformation in the cuttings library at the Tokyo Foreign Correspondents' Club. Our neighbors could not, alas, find me any local members of Aum Shinrikyo. Two girls had been sighted changing into Aum robes in the parking lot of our village dress shop; and there had been a semi-permanent roadblock on our closest highway, a possible direct route, more or less, from the cult's headquarters near Mount Fuji (now being demolished) to Tokyo or Yokohama; but no wanted Aum follower had been caught. I had, of course seen young Aum supporters on television during the 1991 election, dancing and chanting the religious name of Aum's semi-blind, bearded founder, Shoko Asahara; and one of them once gave me a leaflet offering a course of breathing exercises, an offer I didn't take up. Not much there to go on. Still, Aum was evidently some kind of religion, and its spiritual content, rather than the latest technology of nerve gas production, seemed to offer the likeliest explanation of why so many young people, many with real intellectual attainments, had joined. My own contact with religion comes from an Anglican-or in American terms Episcopalian-upbringing; but it so happens we have an old Shinto shrine abutting our back garden and two Buddhist temples a five-minute walk away, with smaller shrines and family graves and memorials all around us. And so, with the constant bonging of gongs and processions down our village street, religion is in the Japanese air we breathe.

Why Live in Japan?

This may be the time to explain briefly why a Western couple is raising a family in this rural backwater, surrounded by back-to-back Japanese leading ordinary Japanese lives and, by now, pretty well accustomed to our alien presence. It happened like this. In 1975 Jenny and I were living in Hong Kong, while I covered the last days of the war in Vietnam, my main assignment for the previous decade--mostly for the London Times and Sunday Times, then latterly for the American magazine Newsweek. We had visited Japan on R&R, as vacations were then called, but not to work--journalistically, Japan was not considered much of a story. But we were nonetheless intrigued: so many questions, so few answers. No one, I told Jenny, was ever going to make war like Vietnam again, and no one ever has. Thankful to be still together and in one piece, we thought we'd try the free-lance writing life in some quiet part of a then rising, or re-rising, Asian country. By chance we found an old farm house to rent on a hillside overlooking a hamlet called Hanbara, or Half-a-Field, part of a larger complex with the romantic name of Love River, Aikawa--not quite so romantic to look at, actually, as part of it is a thriving industrial zone built over a former Imperial Army airfield. Still, from high-tech to the backwoods, from microchips to rice paddies, Love River has provided us with our own bonsai version of modern Japan. Like so many future Old Japan Hands we planned to stay for six months; long enough, we thought, to get a handle on everything.

Thirteen years later, we thought we had settled in. By then we had three young children, all born in our local one-doctor hospital, which is run by a now good friend of ours. One by one, the children enrolled at the local schools. I worked on Japanese stories and abroad, mostly around Asia. We collected many books, read some of them, and made copious notes. Jenny started part-time teaching and soon became "Jenny sensei"--the title of respect awarded to Japanese doctors, gangster bosses, politicians and above all, to genuine teachers. Jenny made a program for Asahi TV, using her by then fluent Japanese; a piece of mine was translated for a Bungei Shunju book. We had, we found to our surprise, become minor local celebrities. One old lady, meeting me out on my bicycle (I worked in a mountain hut in those days) asked whether I was the Hanbara foreigner? I said yes, I supposed I was. Then on a night to remember, December 19, 1988, we met an older, more revealing Japan.

THE FIRE was started, we believe, in the children's bunk bed, most likely by a falling reading lamp. Jenny and the children were eating supper (I was in London and came back in the next plane). Japanese rural electrical wiring is still primitive; outages caused by snowstorms and minor earth tremors are not uncommon; old-fashioned wire fuses often blow. Jenny waited a fateful few minutes to investigate the sudden darkness followed by a flickering light in the children's bedroom. Built of wood, straw and paper, old-fashioned Japanese houses are bonfires heaped up and waiting for a spark. The flames, we were later told, were seen five miles away. The heat melted aluminum and buckled steel. In twenty minutes, despite the efforts of our neighbors, the tardy arrival of the amateur fire brigade (it provides a kind of substitute military service for the young men of the village)--and the winter-low streams did not help--everything we owned had gone up in flames.

Mercifully, none of us was really injured (Jenny had some minor burns.) Our dog, cats and pet hen Henry were also spared, and as we soon found, we were far from being alone. Neighbors arrived within minutes to escort Jenny and the children to their homes. A teacher appeared near midnight with clean underwear, so that our children would not miss a day's school (Japanese priorities in action). Next morning the clearing where our house used to be was a scene of smoking, unaccustomed bustle. Our local policeman had roped off the still-smoldering ruins and was busy with investigations. This was to be expected, but not the activity of two local women--we knew them by sight, but not precisely who they were--hard at work at a folding table. A line of people filed past them, handing over envelopes of a traditional Japanese pattern (purchasable at any Japanese stationery store) with a space for the donor's name and another, covered by a flap, for the sum enclosed. One of our neighbors noted names (in two books, one for the immediate locality, the other for further afield) while her partner extracted, smoothed out and counted bills (ichi-man, ¥10,000, around $120, is customary). It took us a few minutes to grasp that all this money--it amounted by the end of the day to more than $10,000, and eventually closed near $20,000--was being collected for us.

But by no means was folding money, handy as it was, the end of our help in need. Other neighbors--some in their seventies and eighties, to judge by their gnarled looks--arrived to comb through the house ruins for the sort of items a Japanese farmer would find useful for starting all over again: blackened cooking pots, salvageable knives and forks, smoke-stained plates and dishes. All were carefully sorted for our future use. Other neighbors brought us new and fairly new clothes, serviceable futons, a portable radio and, one unforgettable snowy night soon after the fire, a total stranger arrived with a portable typewriter with an English keyboard, explaining that he had heard I was a writer, and had himself no further use for it. Meanwhile the volunteer helpers had scouted round our village and found an empty house recently vacated by a widow, who was ready to rent it to us. We moved in straight away, arranged our scratch collection of household furnishings, and within three days all the Sayles were together and, like proper Japanese, back at work. Along with all this kindness we encountered another, less endearing Japanese tradition. Among our hundreds of volunteer helpers, most of them unknown to us, must have been at least one kaji-dorobo, or fire thief, because we are both sure we saw Jenny's charred jewelry-box after the fire, holding opals we had dug ourselves in Australia and antique Chinese silver we had bought in Macao; we never saw either the box or her jewelry again.

All this activity was much too fast--and too thoughtfully helpful--to have been spontaneous. Who had organized it? Not the Japanese central government or the local municipality. We saw two minor officials, both of whom we knew slightly, but they were clearly handing over envelopes in their private capacities; and apart from some Red Cross blankets, no flag or crest was displayed. We had not long to wait to identify our practiced benefactors. Three or four days after the fire a mysterious folder was delivered to our mailbox with our name in katakana, Say-ru, prominent. It contained a list of small chores to be done around the village, litter collection and roadside weeding, and a notice of the impending meeting of something we had never heard of before, the Cho-nai-kai, the Inside the Town League or, more gracefully translated, Village Association. Without asking, or being asked, it seemed we were now members of this mysterious group, as we are to this day.

Most Japanese who belong to a chonaikai do so because their parents did before them. Strictly speaking it is not people who belong, but houses or households, or ie. Ours is a grouping of thirty-eight households, split roughly into four sections of nine houses each, all contiguous, in a part of the village called Miyamoto, the Central Shrine. The 38-house subsection is, in turn, one of eight into which our whole village is, for chonaikai purposes, divided; and we are in turn, in contact with chonaikai in other nearby villages and hamlets. News is thus quickly spread, either by the circulating folder and its clipboard, the kairanban, probably best translated by the old French term, descended from the Middle ages, "Round Robin," or in more urgent matters by direct neighbor-to-neighbor messages, either over the back fence or by telephone. It was over this live human network that news of our fire had spread so fast, we discovered; and no meetings or decisions were necessary, because everyone in the loop, as we would call it, knew exactly what to do, house fires being a common Japanese calamity (there have been five in our village since ours). The people who had set up the folding table and collected money for us in relays were the officials or their wives of the chonaikai in whose area we had all unknowingly been living. What had so astonished us was in fact an old system, unknown to many modern urban Japanese, going into action.

Our fire occurred just a week before New Year's Eve, 1988. There was no time to lose, the two neighbors who had taken charge of us explained. Together they drew up a message of thanks from our whole family in flowery Japanese, had it printed by our village stationer, addressed it in correct kanji to our hundreds of benefactors-a task which took them a good part of a night's work-and had them in the mail and delivered before the end of the year, at which time, by Japanese tradition, all debts, even debts of honor, have to be settled. By this formal exchange of help and thanks we had, it seemed, accepted our place in the web of obligations that makes our village a community. Our very first kairanban announced that our house should send someone to help tidy up the riverbank, which is used for picnics in fine weather--a gentle hint, perhaps, that we should have been helping with the village chores all along. We both went, and while there asked if this analysis was correct. Well, our neighbors explained, when you first arrived, two foreigners speaking hardly any Japanese and ignorant of Japanese customs, it did not seem appropriate that you should join the chonaikai. However, as we now had children, had settled in, and had suffered the same sort of domestic calamity many Japanese do, well, now it did seem appropriate. "They don't want you to move away," a wise friend in Tokyo (a Japanese) advised us. "You've become honorary Japanese."

Certainly, our chonaikai has shown us Japanese social cooperation in action. Ours has four officials: a chairman, who is a kind of village elder; a kaicho or headman (our officials have always been men); a deputy headman; and a treasurer. They are neither elected nor appointed, but persuaded to accept office by their predecessors, rather like what the English call "Buggins' Turn." Meetings are held twice or three times a year in the home of the kaicho, whose wife is expected to provide snacks and sometimes drinks. Every house is supposed to send someone; in our case Jenny usually goes, because of her good Japanese. No minutes are kept, although all decisions are recorded. There are no elections and votes are seldom (if ever--we have never seen one) taken; questions are decided by discussion steered towards attaining a consensus or, to use the Quaker term (Quakers also disliking dissension) "the sense of the meeting." Agreement is signaled by a round of applause. What kind of decisions? Anything of village concern, particularly finance: for example, how much should people living on the village main street (mostly shopkeepers) pay towards the cost of the street lighting, and how much should be paid by people (like us) who live in narrow lanes off the main street. (Most of the lighting cost is borne by the municipal council, but the residents who will benefit are expected to contribute.)

Here we see the ghost of the mura-uke system of the shoguns' days, one of the props of village solidarity; the whole village was collectively responsible for paying taxes, and villagers decided among themselves how much each household paid. Anyone who refused to pay was subjected to the ultimate in coercion, murahachibu, or ostracism--being "sent to Coventry" as English villagers once used to call their identical process of enforcing conformity.

The chonaikai also applies moral pressure to our younger men to join the village volunteer fire brigade, and supplies money for their after-duty drinks. Our chonaikai has its own modest funds; they come from the ¥l,000 yen (around $12) per month collected from each household by a designated person (Jenny has just completed her two-year term as collector) and kept by the treasurer. The funds are also used to buy paper, clipboards and other administrative items, but mainly to pay for open-air banquets, once or twice a year in the summer, when our neighbors gather to feast on Japanese delicacies, sing karaoke and drink beer and saké in convivial quantities. At the meetings and parties the men, who often went to the local school together, call each other by the friendly male honorific suffix "-kun" while wives, who usually married into the village, use the more formal "-san." Our neighbors call both of us "Sayru-san" at such gatherings, although our children are known by much less formal names and titles: Alexander was Arekusu-kun until he was about sixteen, and afterwards became Sayru-kun to his schoolfriends. Malindi is called Rin-chan (chan being the affectionate diminutive) by almost everyone; and Matthew, who is ten, has just graduated from Ma-chan to Ma-kun, being thus promoted from child to young man.

Neither of us knows of a modern Western equivalent of a chonaikai, although something similar probably existed in Europe in the Middle Ages. Its members are not exactly friends, in the sense of having chosen each other, although the atmosphere is friendly enough, and our members certainly behave as friends and help each other through life's difficult moments, house fires or bereavements being striking examples. Chonaikai participation is not entirely voluntary, either, and this is made clear by an edge of compulsion. Fines (collected by the dues-collector) are imposed on a house that fails to send someone to a meeting, or does not send a worker to participate in the agreed chores-the fines range from ¥100 to ¥500, roughly one to five dollars, and are thus more of a formal mark of reproof than a real punishment. Jenny for instance has just collected ¥300 yen each from three houses who failed to send someone to the last meeting. Individually, the members may or may not be friends in the Western (or Japanese) sense, but in chonaikai matters we all keep to a more formal, structured neighborliness. Perhaps the solidarity of a club of people with common concerns, or the comradeship of a military unit comes closest to the flavor. Above all, the chonaikai is a form of social security, conducted in a personal and democratic fashion (if obedience to an ancient code of mutual reliance can be described as democratic)--a system of shared rights and obligations in place of the Western concept of charity to strangers, whose absence has so often been remarked on in Japan (usually without describing the village alternative) or our modern-day substitute for charity, the entitlements of the welfare state.

Eight years of participation in our own chonaikai has explained for us the tenacity and resilience Japanese show in the face of natural disasters, earthquakes, typhoons and the catastrophically lost war. It also partly accounts for the slow, and seemingly callous way in which official Japan, particularly the Tokyo bureaucracy, reacted to the Great Hanshin Earthquake--one immediate reaction by Japanese of the generation of then Prime Minister Murayama was that the victims of such a natural disaster can, and even should, be confidently expected to look after each other, without official help.

But the chonaikai form of organization, neither official nor unofficial, neither voluntary nor obligatory, needs a set of shared, unquestioned values. On what are they based? Plainly, as our case shows, not on race or nationality--although we have not heard of any of our foreign friends, almost all city-dwellers, belonging to a chonaikai, and our neighbors think it is unlikely that local Korean, Chinese or even Brazilian-Japanese residents would belong to one. We have been surprised to find that the system of chonaikai seems to be based, not on law or politics, but on religion--or, more exactly, it shows how traditional Japan has blurred and fused together these social elements, so severely, dogmatically and primly kept separate in the West.

In Gods We Trust

Many religions are practiced in Japan, but only one is of concern to our chonaikai--Shinto. The summer after we joined there were, as usual, two religious processions through the village, both setting out with mikoshi, portable shrines, from the jinja, or temple, near our house, and returning to the same place. It was the turn of our house, we were told, to supply one male to help carry the mikoshi--considering that it weighs well over half a ton and needs twenty big men to lift, it had to be me--while our three children were invited to help carry the children's mikoshi, a much smaller and lighter affair, if we had no objection to their doing so. (We later heard that some Japanese Christian- and Buddhist-based sects, Jehovah's Witnesses and the Soka Gakkai, for example, do indeed object to joining in Shinto rites of any sort, but we take the ecumenical view). A chonaikai planning meeting confirmed that the procession would stop at the usual places, marked off by straw ropes with white paper streamers slung from temporary bamboo poles-the objection of a family belonging to the Jehovah's Witnesses that they did not want the mikoshi stopping outside their house was simply over-ruled with the words, "We always stop there." At the same meeting we arranged the bulk purchase from a local shop of happi-coats and hachimaki headcloths, which we donned in a vacant lot--it is normally our car park--for a group photograph with our neighbors, before we set out on our two separate processions.

We big boys carried the large mikoshi, an ornate affair of black lacquer with gilt trimming, around what roughly corresponded to the area occupied by the houses of our chonaikai, pausing every few hundred yards for snacks, beer and saké served by cheering, laughing housewives, which considerably eased a tough task. (Being taller than my neighbors, at times I felt that I was carrying the whole half-ton myself.) Our route took us twice over our river, not by the modern steel bridge, but by lowering the heavy mikoshi down the steeply concreted river-bank, splashing it (and ourselves) with river-water as a rite of purification, wading across with it and man-handling it up the other side, to much shouted applause. We were evidently tracing the boundary, not only of our village, but also of the Shinto parish under the protection of the deity whose temporary abode we were shouldering. Who was this august personage? None of my fellow porters could tell me; only later did I learn that it was no less than Amaterasu Omikami herself, the divine progenitor of the Japanese race (but not of us gaijin, a fine theological point my neighbor and informants did not find troublesome.) Our children, meanwhile, were helping carry the smaller children's mikoshi over a shorter, less demanding, non-alcoholic but just as cheerful route.

This observance was the prelude to the annual festival at our local shrine, at which our daughter joined the neighbors' children in some well-practiced, energetic drumming. It all made for a long, cheerful day of socializing with our neighbors, with nothing religious about it, at least as a recent convert might expect a religion to be. Shinto, however, is not a religion aiming at conversion. It calls for no beliefs beyond perhaps a vague idea of purity, expressed in the frequent washing of hands, mouths and portable shrines; it has a commercial aspect (one of the duties of a chonaikai collector is to distribute wooden tablets inscribed with the location of the jinja, but not the name of the presiding deity, as protective talismans to be hung in automobiles, and to collect ¥700, or seven dollars each for them); it makes no promises of salvation or life after death, and preaches no moral code, beyond good neighborliness. It has, in particular, nothing to do with death; our jinja has no graveyard, and the only Shinto funeral rite I have attended was that of the Showa emperor in February 1989, just after our fire.

Shinto is all about life:lived in a small community; local weddings; shichi-go-san, the shrine ceremony welcoming girls when they reach the ages of three and seven, and boys when they reach five; new life (our neighbors used to take their new-born infants to be blessed by the priest at our jinja, but he died recently, and no new one has yet appeared, so they take their babies anyway, bong the bronze bell themselves, bow, and leave a small cash offering); daily life with its small delights and squalors, as when our Shinto priest used to come to bless the topping-out of partly-built houses, and the rooms where the future kitchen, bath and toilet will be. Shinto, in short, is a civic religion, resembling the old Roman state religion of gods and goddesses or--this insight comes from our own backgrounds--Anglicanism, not as I recall it in Australia, but as we have seen it in sleepy English villages, to which everyone is presumed to belong who does not opt out, a religion of good actions, short on dogma, long on harmonious relations among neighbors and timely mutual help.

Our village has, of course, another religious tradition, omnipresent in Japan. Apart from the handful of Christians of various persuasions, Soka Gakkai and other exotic sects, our neighbors, if asked their religion, would all reply "Buddhist." We have three Buddhist temples close by. All have the characteristic marks, extensive graveyards with expensive family tombs and stands of mops, pails and rakes for relatives of the deceased to tend them at appropriate times of the year, particularly on the significant anniversaries of their bereavement. The nearest, which we have been told belongs to the Zen strand of Buddhism, has a lawn, rare in Japan. There we have attended many O-bon parties at which families eat, drink and communicate with the spirits of their departed kin. At the end of O-bon week colored lanterns are floated down our river as the village children gather on the bank and wave the spirits of their kin good-bye for another year, a vivid recollection from many Japanese childhoods.

Our Zen temple, apart from its flourishing funeral business, offers no form of spiritual guidance or pastoral care whatever. Where, then, are its adherents, or customers in a more worldly sense, expected to acquire their knowledge of the Buddha's teaching? Not at the temple's festival, held once every twelve years, when its Buddha, a small, undistinguished statue, is exposed for a few hours. At all other times the temple is permanently shut. The priest, a friend of ours, and his assistants devote themselves entirely to funerals, costly two-day affairs at which eulogies of the deceased are delivered (researching and tape-recording them is itself a lucrative branch of Japan's death industry) and the priest and his assistants chant lengthy prayers in incomprehensible ancient Japanese. According to a Buddhist doctrine unique to Japan, it is during this liturgy that the deceased hears the truths of the Buddhist religion, achieves enlightenment and at once departs for "the other shore," the Buddhist heaven. The Buddha's heaven is on various levels, depending on the religious merit acquired by the deceased during his or her most recent life (the doctrine of endless rebirth and reincarnation in a higher or lower form is not stressed in mainstream Japanese Buddhism). This can in turn be acquired-out of delicacy I hesitate to use the word bought-as part of a package which involves paying a priest for a kaimyo, a posthumous name which will later be inscribed on an ihai, a memorial tablet (actually two, one to be left at the grave to molder away, the other to be placed in the household shrine for family prayers). The name-tablets are thought to represent the spirit of the dead, and pious people sometimes die after plunging into burning houses to rescue them (we lost an elderly neighbor that way.)

The names vary in length and dignity according to the merits and accomplishments of the deceased, and the fee climbs accordingly. We hear (we have never personally purchased one) that ¥100,000 (roughly $800) fetches an average name, and we have heard stories of ¥1 million or more being paid by the wealthy and pious, or at any rate the wealthy. There is, no doubt, a theological distinction to be drawn between the sale of salvation for cash and money contributions made to encourage priestly zeal, as there was in the Christian Middle Ages; but in both eras families have been naturally eager to do whatever they can to honor the recently departed and assure them the most comfortable future life, and the distinction tends to be lost in the pain of bereavement. One of our neighbors, for instance, was advised not to spend too much on a name for her late father, as all the other family members would have to have names of the same level (and expense) if the family hoped to be reunited in heaven. Apart from prayers, death names and expensive funerals, the visiting and tending of graves is also considered important in securing repose for the souls of the departed-hence the racks of mops and buckets identifying Buddhist cemeteries in our area, as all over Japan. This pious custom has, like so much else in Japan, recently gone on-line. The Kannon-in temple in Hiroshima has reportedly opened a virtual cemetery where the departed can be laid to cyber-rest on the temple's home page and prayers, incense and flowers can be offered by email from anywhere in Japan or the world (major credit cards accepted.) Mops and buckets are, of course, unnecessary.

Has mainstream Japanese Buddhism degenerated into a commercial racket? Certainly, in our village, neither it nor its Shinto rival offer any kind of religious instruction, counseling, pastoral care, congregational worship or meetings of any kind, apart from the shrine and temple festivals which are more like Western country fairs, fetes or circuses, free of spiritual content. We have been able to confirm this at home, by quizzing our children, who have been exposed to all the activities of our village: they have no idea who either the Buddha or Amaterasu Omikami were, or what Four Noble Truths the Buddha, whoever he might have been ("some kind of Indian?") taught. It is not surprising that sects which do offer the comforts of religion to the living have been sprouting in Japan for more than a century; but the appeal of one of them, Aum Shinrikyo (until it took to using nerve gas), to so many bright young people needs a little further explanation.


Why, one may well ask, has mainstream Buddhism, the most intellectual of religions, nothing more subtle than cash-up-front salvation to offer to troubled modern Japan? The answer, I have learned from the history books I repurchased after our fire, is that genuine Japanese Buddhism was suppressed long ago. Why would anyone want to put down such a gentle faith? Because Buddhism is by no means necessarily a religion of peace among men: its history in Japan and other Asian countries is one of endless clashes, often armed, between Buddhist monks and the secular authority. These clashes usually ended in defeat for the clerics, unless (as happened in Tibet in the seventeenth century) the monks manage to seize power themselves, in which case permanent trouble with neighboring states is more or less guaranteed. The problem of church-state relations has disturbed mankind down through the ages; Buddhism, for one, is still very far from solving it.

A short detour into theology explains this seeming paradox. For most people religion is only one part of life, which has other, here-and-now rewards: "Give me chastity and continency" the young St. Augustine used to pray, "but not yet" (Da mihi castitatem et continentiam, sed noli modo). For the founders of religions, however, religion alone is important, and all the rest is mere sinfulness. The Buddha himself permanently abandoned his beautiful wife and young son to search for enlightenment, which these days would have caused the law to come after him for child support. He discovered the Four Noble Truths, which heroically simplified are: all human life is suffering, suffering is caused by desire, desire can be eliminated only by transcending the self, and the self can be overcome by following the Eightfold Noble Path of correct prayer, thought and behavior, leading to the state of non-being, Nirvana, and to release from the endless cycle of death and rebirth.

But ordinary life, as any advertising man knows, is about stimulating and satisfying desire; without desire no crops would be sown, babies born, taxes paid, deadlines met or young people be available to draft. Governments have therefore often felt threatened by Buddhism, and the hostility has been mutual. The Buddhist hierarchy is made up of men (women, known arousers of male desire, need not apply) who have reached ever higher states of enlightenment, satori, by full-time meditation; they are therefore not disposed to obey lay rulers who have achieved no enlightenment at all. A few non-Japanese kings have managed to fake enlightenment by building temples and pagodas; but elected politicians, enslaved by desire and far from enlightened, can only be headed for eternal punishment in one of the many Buddhist hells.

Buddhism in Japan has therefore followed the predictable path of subversion, rebellion and finally suppression, usually when the country has been under strong bakufu, "tent," or shogunal government. In the Kamakura period (1185-1333) the monk Nichiren, Japan's Martin Luther, continually in trouble with the bakufu for armed attacks on rival sects, was jailed and exiled to Sado Island, and became famous for his violent attempts to "smash and subdue" those he accused of blasphemy, i.e., of disagreeing with him--tactics with which his later twentieth--century disciples, Soka Gakkai, have also been charged. Significantly, many of Nichiren's converts were samurai warriors. We read of constant clashes with recalcitrant monks in fortified monasteries on Mount Hiei (near Kyoto) and elsewhere during Japan's civil wars.

Then, in the 1630s the Tokugawa shoguns ingeniously silenced two religious threats at once by compelling all Japanese to enroll at the nearest Buddhist temple, which was then required to issue certificates, in cases of doubt, that its members were not secret Christians-using fiendish tortures as necessary to smoke them out, and incidentally sowing hostility between the two faiths which continues to this day. Japanese Buddhism was thus conscripted into the thought control system of what has often been called the world's first totalitarian state, made harsher as Zen--a blend of Buddhist theology and Chinese Taoist psychology-became the semi--official religion of the samurai military caste, who began practising swordsmanship and archery in the grounds of Buddhist temples, theoretically devoted to reverence for all living things. Buddhism thus became a branch of the civil service, and its priests took to marrying, eating meat and other un-Buddhist activities, while its spiritual content dwindled to that of any barracks religion. After 1886, when the modernizing Meiji regime abolished the system of temple registration and made elementary education a state responsibility, mainline Buddhism was left with only the essential activity it had long monopolized, the lucrative funeral business. Its cash flow from the cult of death has inevitably attracted yakuza racketeers, bringing the Buddha even lower in public esteem.

Aum Shinrikyo was therefore by no means the ahistoric aberration it seemed in the shock of the Tokyo subway gassings. The idea of a supremely enlightened master who denounces the degeneracy of contemporary Buddhism, who attracts the young malcontents of his time to arduous spiritual exercises, sets up a fortified monastery, menaces the established government (Shoko Asahara told his followers that the Japanese state was "weak") and deliberately courts persecution as expiation for past sins-these have all appeared before in Buddhist societies, in Japan as elsewhere.

Aum's nerve gas, automatic rifles and microwave oven for cremating backsliders are, of course, new religious technology, but Asahara's spiritual message is one that Nichiren's twelfth-century followers would have easily recognized. Japanese Buddhism has been bureaucratically house-trained for so long that Aum's bizarre conduct seemed impossibly irreligious, which for some time protected the cult from serious police investigation; but in matters of faith a thousand years are but an evening gone, as the Anglican hymn says. This does not, however, explain what Aum's young followers were discontented about. What aspect of today's society made them want to opt out of it, via slavish obedience to a tyrannical and probably half-crazy guru? How had Japan failed some of its brightest if not exactly best, I pondered, as I returned from its fortress HQ on the slopes of Fuji to our village.

State Shinto and After

Looking back, I can now see that our house burned down at a meaningful moment. The bubble economy ended about the time the Showa era did, and with the old Emperor gone, many changes in Japanese society accelerated. Hirohito reigned for so long that very few of our neighbors can even remember Taisho, but all of those who attend our chonaikai meetings were born in Showa, and many have memories of the war, or of the years immediately after it. Why, I asked some of the old-timers, were so few villagers aware of the identity of the goddess, Amaterasu Omikami, the divine ancestress of all Japanese, who watches over us from our local Shinto shrine? Because, they explained, until 1945 only the cult of the imperial ancestors, Tenno-sei, was taught in the schools. When the Buddhist temples lost their educational function, it was not transferred to the Shinto shrines, which had no tradition of teaching, but to the new school system. Not going to school would therefore have been disrespectful to the Emperor, and unthinkable.

And after the war? Well Tenno-sei was no longer taught in the schools, nor was any other form of religion, but it was still the same Tenno who was providing the education, practically as a gift, so it would still have been disrespectful not to accept. "And anyway there was nothing else to do;" a child who was absent from school would have been an object of village suspicion, which thus enforced the approved pattern of conduct. Our chonaikai, I learned, had been part of the machinery of food rationing during the war, and had been closely connected with the Imperial Rule Assistance Association, the wartime amalgam of, or substitute for, the pre-war political parties. (It still has links with the Liberal Democratic Party-not that politics are discussed at our meetings, but the village notables who are prominent in chonaikai affairs are almost always stalwarts of LDP politicians' support groups as well.) The American Occupation at first tried to suppress them, but found that even MacArthur's tent government was helpless without the bureaucracy and its information channels, via the chonaikai , to every house in the country.

Our chonaikai retains not only its tenacious flavor of Shinto, but more than the vestiges of its administrative functions as well. Police-wanted notices and advice about locking cars and houses (which most people in our village ignore) are included in our circulating clipboards. The same goes for advisories from our local town hall listing the times of its library service, cultural events like the yearly performance of Beethoven's "Big Ninth," and the seasonal cycle of sporting occasions, the opening of our outdoor skating rink, its conversion into a swimming pool, the schedule of contests at our new running track, and so on (the council spent its bubble era windfall revenues on some very vote-worthy projects).

Perhaps the quaintest combination of old and new is the annual rite of dog registration: our pointer, Lottie, gets a card summoning her by name to the Shinto shrine of the Sun Goddess. When she turns up (with one of her owners at the other end of the leash) she finds tables staffed by white-coated local veterinarians with a line of dogs and their owners filing by; each dog gets a jab of rabies vaccine, and the owner (for a payment of ¥5,000, around sixty dollars) a dog tag, a receipt and a sticker inscribed INU (dog) to display on the family mailbox. The system makes no concessions to their owners' convenience, but it has made Japan's dogs, despite several natural reservoirs of the disease, effectively rabies-proof.

In our chonaikai, then, we can see many reminders of how Japan was governed up to 1945, and for quite some time afterwards. The quaint example of dog control (backed by a service of catching and exterminating unregistered and therefore unwanted dogs) shows both its strengths and weaknesses: it is, at once, paternal, authoritarian and personal; its purpose is self-evident, and it works-so long as conformity can be taken for granted and enforced by community pressure (no official penalties are prescribed for non-attendance, and in our case unnecessary, as we see the logic in it and make time to cooperate).

The Japan of the war years, whose ghost we still live with, was clearly a federation of chonaikai, which then flourished in the cities as well as the countryside, being simultaneously instruments of state control, collectors of intelligence about what ordinary people were thinking, and mechanisms for rallying support behind the policies of the government. The wartime slogan, ichi oku ichi kokoro, ("one hundred million, one heart") was more than a slogan: it well describes self-enforced conformity; a dictatorship without a dictator; a social monolith held together by a civic religion, State Shinto, or the cult of the Emperor, which was actually the cult of the national family, of being Japanese, defined in terms of the rural neighborliness which is now disappearing for good. Our chonaikai is in its last days, and it may not see the millennium out. We'll certainly miss it. What's left of the system is doomed for reasons primarily demographic; but Japan's demography is, in turn, being reshaped by the disappearance of the old system's core values.

Modern Japan

Like most of traditional Japan, our village, too, is dying out. Last year we had seventeen funerals and only one wedding. When we moved house after our fire, our elder son Alexander was first a member and then the leader of his toko-han (a going-to-school group), which had eight members, all enrolled at our local primary school. The children still walk together, led by one of their older members, whose responsibility it is to get them there on time. (When our daughter Malindi was the han-cho she would sometimes invade neighbors' houses and drag sluggards out of bed.) Our youngest, Matthew, belongs to a han with only three members; next year it will be two. The adults in our chonaikai come mostly from families with six, eight or ten children. They themselves have one or two, very occasionally three. Many are unmarried, and have none. The change--one of the first signs of the collapse of the traditional social order--dates from the early 1950s, when Japan's birthrate, which had been at third-world levels, first fell below replacement. Those already born, of course, have lived on, into an era of fast-improving public health, and are only now dying out. Fewer babies were born in Japan last year than in any year since 1899; more than half of Japan's young women under thirty are unmarried. Japan's population will peak early in the next century, and from then on will steadily decline, while the rest of the world's population doubles. Why? Is this another sign of some deep discontent?

As usual we have asked our neighbors for their views. Why did Japanese have so many children up to 1950 or so, when living conditions were so harsh? "We all had many children. That's why one got married." Then why marry? "Everyone did." Indeed, one of the duties of village elders--often schoolmasters or, by way of ensuring business for the future, Buddhist or Shinto priests--was to initiate discussions between village families, and then between the young people themselves, with a view to marriage. Either party could refuse after an arranged meeting, but as young women had limited economic prospects, they were under family and community pressure not to be too picky. Similarly, unmarried, childless men had failed in their duty to live the approved life-cycle, and to become heads of households and eligible to hold chonaikai office. Marrying and having many children was, an elderly neighbor told me, thought to be somehow patriotic-"it was what you did if you were Japanese." (Homosexuality, while never the object of superstitious revulsion it has been in the West was, and largely still is, thought to be an amusing foible but no excuse for not doing one's duty of propagating the wider Japanese family. Similarly, prostitution, while not a matter for religious reproof, was a career choice--or a financial necessity in some poor families-- that precluded normal marriage.)

These ideas are eroding rapidly in modern Japan with results that make it less and less possible to enforce them. We saw this at the most recent meeting of our chonaikai, which addressed the crisis, long brewing, now upon us. We met in the home of our current kaicho, or headman, Yagi-san, the sixtyish manager of a small local thread-twisting business (Hanbara was once famous for its silk filatures). Of our thirty-eight houses, twenty-eight sent someone--the usual crowd, which, by removing the sliding paper screens and sitting on the tatami mats, a normal-sized Japanese house can just about accommodate in shoulder-to-shoulder coziness. Up for discussion was a proposal to amalgamate our thirty-eight houses with the thirty-six of our neighboring chonaikai to make a total of seventy-four. Everyone could straightaway see the problem there--no one's house could hold that many people, so the neighborliness of deciding our affairs in face-to-face meetings will have gone. We all agreed that we would miss it. Why was amalgamation needed? Yagi-san explained that it was getting harder and harder to find people to volunteer for chonaikai offices, which involve a lot of work and some expense, as for instance the trouble that night's meeting was giving his wife, not that she minded. "But none of us is getting any younger" said our host ruefully. All the older village men have held the offices once, some two or three times. There are simply no young people coming along to take over, so some activities will have to be cut.

We went though the various sub-units of our chonaikai . The rojin-kai, the Old People's League, which organizes picnics and neighborly games of gateball, the Japanese form of croquet, has all too many members. The izumi-kai, the Spring League, the work-group of younger men aged thirty to fifty, who clear rubbish from the riverside and act as stewards at shrine festivals and whenever marathons pass down our village street (although they no longer actually repair the road itself) is facing steadily dwindling numbers. Meetings of the fujin-kai, the Ladies' League, once jolly gatherings for gossip and tea-drinking, have dwindled down to one or two a year. Our kodomo-kai, the Children's League, which organizes outings to local theme parks and festivals and holds parties to welcome new members, financed by the children themselves and their parents collecting newspapers, bottles and cardboard for recycling, has all but run out of children. No decision was reached but, discussing the question later over drinks served by our hostess, we all felt that something was coming to an end.

Sociologists, with their Teutonic jargon, have terms for what we have seen happening in our village before our very own gaijin eyes: a Gemeinschaft, or community of personal relationships governed by traditional attitudes, is giving way to a Gesellschaft, a society of strangers who in theory obey inflexible, impersonal rules. The first implies shared, unquestioned values, but not (as our membership shows) necessarily racial homogeneity. The second, the society of strangers, anyone can join. We have been privileged, in a way, to see how the old Japan must have worked. People led their appointed lives, enjoying the protection of the Sun Goddess and her high priest and direct descendant, the Emperor. They knew neither failure nor loneliness, the fate of so many people in the modern world. Shinto, if it was a religion at all in the Western sense, was a low-temperature one, calling for little more than respect for all the gods, including the one in Tokyo, and good neighborliness at home. The remoteness of the Showa Emperor (as far as we know he never visited Hanbara) made him an unquestioned figure, a part of the natural order of things like the Fox God in his wayside shrine near our house. The new emperor cannot fill this role, and evidently doesn't want to. Our own window on the rising Japanese generation, our children and their friends, know that Emperor Akihito has a family as well as a symbolic state function. But why should it be his family and not someone else's? They have no idea, and no curiosity. He has never visited Hanbara either, but Crown Prince Naruhito certainly has, driving down our main street, unescorted and unannounced, on his way to dedicate the site of a big new dam further up our river. He smiled and waved, and a few villagers, recognizing him, waved back. And, as everyone knows, gods don't smile, and they certainly don't wave.

Japan's present problems all come down to one: the Gemeinschaft is dying, if it has not already passed into history, although many of its customs and attitudes are very much alive; and Japan's future Gesellschaft is taking its time about being born. No human society has ever achieved a real rule of law and reason, of course; even those that boast they have done so contradict themselves by deifying their politicians, a faith all too often disappointed, turning politics into ideology, and making idols out of flags and constitutions. But very few modern societies, considered overall, are just aggregations of atomized individuals either, despite the fame of David Riesman's book The Lonely Crowd. What fashionable sociologists call civil society-social clubs, associations like Freemasons, Elks or Rotary, participation in politics, sports, church membership and so on-rescues, or is supposed to rescue Westerners from loneliness and alienation. Through it we are meant to feel that we belong, we count, we are valued--exactly what the old chonaikai system once did for almost all Japanese, and for a few, still does.

But modern urban Japan (where well under a tenth now classify themselves as farmers, and then mostly on Sundays) has, as yet, hardly any civil society to speak of. There are no spontaneous grassroots charities, feminist movements, or political organizations (except for those of the resurgent Communist Party, which has cultivated its own version of the "village spirit," as did Soka Gakkai's one-time political arm, the Komeito); no equivalents of the Masons, Elks, the American Legion or the Boy Scouts (the Japanese branch of the real Scouts are an isolated sect, like Christians); nor does any mainstream Japanese religion offer much fellowship, comfort, or spiritual guidance to the living. Urban Japanese males (and a few women) have only pachinko and other solitary vices, or their companies, for company; women have their families, if they are married, and endless loneliness. In place of the old Tenno-sei Emperor cult, no new patriotism or real sense of national purpose has yet appeared (which is why romantic right-wingers still cling, improbably, to the old one, despite the insuperable obstacle of a pacifist Emperor).

Japan once had the beginnings of civil society, in the liberal 1920s, the era of Taisho democracy. But as part of its zeal to return all Japan to monolithic peasant values, the military regime either suppressed all these essentially urban middle-class developments, or (like the Japanese Red Cross) co-opted them. Such things are painfully slow to revive naturally--the only way they can--in any society that has been spiritually traumatized by totalitarian thought control, as the parallel cases of post-war Germany, and more recently, post-Communist Russia demonstrate. Nonetheless, those who have battened on the traditional Japanese folkways continue their exactions. No one avoids death, so the funeral scam flourishes. Weddings are still impress-the-neighbors luxury productions for which such fripperies as hundred-guest receptions, overseas honeymoons and professional videotapes are touted as essential, with ¥5 million ($55,000) being a modest tab. Lovebirds can't play house without a house, and Japanese rents and house prices are still at breath-taking levels.

Japan has an effective low-cost health service, but childbirth is not included, and a normal birth costs ¥300,000 ($3,500) and up (the medical profession prefers cash). Education above junior high school level is expensive, even in the tax-funded public schools; college scholarships are scarce. When marriage was, in effect, compulsory, the institution could be forced to carry these monstrous burdens. Now that it is not, economics has reared its loveless head; marriage and a family have been priced out of the market.

Some commentators have been puzzled by the contrast between the early post-war decades, when Japan set about reclaiming a place in the world with an energy and sense of purpose that had few historical parallels, and the present floundering in the face of gloom, stagnation, and even the threatened disappearance of the Japanese as a people. We long-time foreign residents are not so surprised. The mood and the atmosphere of the country have changed enormously in the twenty years we have lived here. The generation of bureaucrats in power after the war, still holders of commissions brushed by the old Emperor himself, were either above corruption or, as the executive arm of the slow-to-go imperial cult, were above suspicion--probably a bit of both. All that has changed. The bubble economy visibly broke the connection between effort and reward, which had been a prized prop of the old Yamato damashii, the Japanese spirit. A new, post-war generation of civil servants has now come into its dubious kingdom. The Recruit scandal of 1988, one of the milestones of recent Japanese history, confirmed (if anyone still doubted) that the entire apex of Japan Inc.--the triangle of bureaucrats, politicians and businessmen--was, in the vocabulary of American politics, on the take. In humanizing his office, itself a popular endeavor, the Heisei emperor has inadvertently exposed his bureaucratic subordinates to critical inspection. They, too, it turns out, are all too human and have become-as products of the rudderless new times--Japan's nomenklatura, lining their pockets exactly as market principles would predict, and seeking esteem, not in their quasi-religious aura of former times, but in the new conspicuous consumption, just as everyone else did in the bubble years.

It was just at that moment that Aum Shinrikyo surfaced. It is not really surprising that some of the brightest products of the empty new age-all urban, almost all unmarried-turned from this squalid scene to one of the oldest of human consolations, religion, nor, considering Japan's past, that they turned to a militant form of Buddhism. The children of our village who won't go to school are following a similar impulse: refusing what half-modern, half-traditional Japan has to offer, even before they have acquired enough education to think it through. What, we sometimes wonder, will happen in the future to a pair of foreigners whose village house burns down? Immediate neighbors would help, of course, as they do almost anywhere; but the old village support organization will by that time have vanished, with nothing to take its place. The whole of Japan, it seems to us, is fast becoming a hundred million with no heart.

MURRAY SAYLE is a senior Australian journalist long resident in Japan. He has provided criticism and guidance to a generation of other writers about Japanese affairs. Today he contributes to The New Yorker, the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books on East Asian subjects. His early novel about life as a journalist for a Fleet Street scandal-mongering paper, A Crooked Sixpence (London: Macgibbon & Kee, 1960) is an underground classic.

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