Dolphins, Chimps & Japanese Religions

After recently watching “The Cove” and a Mad Men episode titled “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” — a clever allusion to Ruth Benedict’s justly famous cultural study of Japan, I decided it was time to bone up on Japanese religions.  Japan is a multi-faceted nation and getting your head around its history, culture and people can be a daunting task.

Some people, like Roger in Mad Men, hate the Japanese as a result of their combat experiences in World War II, whereas others have a vague dislike of Japan because of things like the slaughter of whales and dolphins.  I can understand the unease, even if it is unfair and stereotyped.

There is also a double standard at work here, which is nicely illustrated by today’s New York Times article on the National Institute of Health’s appalling decision to “un-retire” a large colony of government owned chimpanzees — all of whom have been abused and fruitlessly infected with HIV and Hepatitis in the name of unproductive scientific research.  It is hard to cast stones at the Japanese government when the United States stands alone as the only developed nation to maintain chimp colonies and subject chimps to horrific experimentation.

But back to Japanese religions — I began reading Robert Bellah’s classic Tokugawa Religion, vaguely hoping it might provide some insights into my unease or something that would account for the fact that some segments of Japanese society see nothing special about cetaceans.  It seems strange, after all, that a nation so attuned to nature and harmony can simultaneously see cetaceans as oceanic pests and food.

I am not finding any answers, but am getting a nice overview of what Bellah asserts can be called “Japanese religion,” which usually is an amalgam of Buddhisms, Shintoism, Confucianism, and Taoism — all syncretically fused into something uniquely Japanese.  It makes for fascinating reading, and would probably strike most monotheistic Americans as utterly foreign.

My only complaint about Bellah’s treatment is that he, like so many other sociologists, considers early historical forms of these traditions to be “primitive” and “magical.”  This kind of normative, categorical thinking is deeply embedded in progressive evolutionary schemes, and was properly jettisoned by most anthropologists long ago.  It is time for sociologists to do the same.

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