03 April 2011

reflections on the nature of syncretism in Japan

Recently Ive come to notice something. I tend to say the word “syncretism” a lot, but never actually go about explaining what syncretism actually is. Which is a very sizable oversight on my part, given how much of an impact syncretism has on both American and Japanese culture. In fact, syncretism as a cultural concept might be one thing that both the US and Japan share that very few other countries have. It is built into our respective cultures, and has influenced us both profoundly over the past 150 years. Kind of intimidating then, how one simple word could have such strong resonance across one vast ocean, but it does.

Syncretism is a word I first heard when reading C. Scott Littleton’s “Shinto,” a splendid introduction to the Shinto faith, beliefs and practices. He defined this as the single most important aspect of Japan’s cultural heritage, as it represents “the nation’s deep-rooted tendency to adapt and transform what it borrows from other cultures manifested itself... the end result being quintessentially Japanese, a seamless blend of foreign and indigenous ideas, customs, rites and beliefs.” (7-10) What this means, then, is that Japan and Japanese culture has a sort of innate necessity to look outwards and absorb foreign tenets and ideas into its own culture, and then “put a spin” on them, giving them a sense of “Japanese-ness” that they did not previously contain. Or, perhaps more simply, it is a form of assimilation that thoroughly and completely transforms concepts of outside origin into something recognizable.

Earhart continues this notion of pluralism in Japanese sacred experience when he notes that “although it is possible to distinguish the religions as formal traditions, each tradition is shaped in part by the other...individuals are more interested in the totality of a ritual or cult than its historical influences.” (157) In this case, the sum total of the experience, and cultural impact, is more important than the origins. Where it comes from has little impact on where it goes, and more importantly, how it is utilized and incorporated.

Littleton and Earhart were using this idea to illustrate Japan’s “religious evolutions” of the past few millennia, specifically its ability to blend Shinto, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and even Christianity into a single, coherent, functioning way of faith that practices all these religions at the same time, while still keeping them apart fundamentally. Indeed, use of the word syncretism is almost synonymous with “sacred culture.” But taking a look into Japanese culture as a whole, it is easy to see that this idea of syncretism is something that goes far beyond the confines of religious practice, and indeed is a large part of what has made Japan into the country it is today.

Now I know it is also apparent that syncretism as I explain it here is now a major part of the world we live in. Given the fact that the internet has allowed borders to open and for information to transfer at nearly the speed of light, all over the world, the idea of shared, global culture is a universal truth. But that is now, in our new, digital millennium. Syncretism as I explain it in relation to Japanese-US cultural exchange has been going on for much longer than the digital age, it goes back over a century and a half, long before the world shrank and sharing of culture became the norm.

The Black Ship

Kurofun’e, as they called it, sailed into Japan in the mid 1800s, and changed its world. Prior to this point, Japan was a feudal society, still living in the “glories” of its shogunate, including isolationism and a martial past built around the giri, bushido and heavy Confucian ideas. Contact with the outside world was greatly restricted, thanks to the slaying of Oda Nobunaga and the expulsion of non-Eastern peoples (read: Christians) living within its borders. This was based around the idea that a pure Japan was ideal, and that the west was seen as a source of “corruption,” with its foreign gods, foreign customs, and tendency to meddle. And this is how Japan had progressed for several centuries.

It should be noted now that the main bias Japan had towards these foreigners was directed at the Christian missionaries. While today Christianity is an accepted part of Japanese society, and influences a number of social institutions, in the days of the warlords, and Oda Nobunaga, Christianity was seen as a quaint outside cult, centered around a strange deity. But, most noticeably, Christianity was known for not fitting in. At the time, Japan was still a nation very centered around community, family, and government. People produced for their country as it was a way to survive. The Emperor was the descendant of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu, and through him did they follow her. When Christianity came on the scene, the initial perceptions of the faith were that it a) was centered more around the person than the community, and b) that it espoused faith in its God as being more important than worship of the Emperor. Put simply, if one was to be a good Christian, one had to put god before country, which ran countercurrent to the ways of Japan.

Predictably, this caused friction, and upon Nobunaga’s death, the Christians were expelled from, Japan. (Or killed, depending on which account one reads.) The country entered into isolation, and it stayed that way until the Black Ship appeared, and forced Japan into a modern world that had far outpaced it technologically, politically, socially and educationally.

Why do I mention this jaunt into history? Because it is through the inherent Japanese need to be syncretic that Japan was even able to progress out of this feudal world as fast as it did. And progress it did- within 80 years, the nation went from feudal warlords controlling serfs to a world power that had defeated China (and by extension, Great Britain), Russia, and had launched a successful attack against the very same country that had brought it into the modern world, the United States. It attained several centuries of technological progress in less than one, enough to pose a threat to the most powerful nation on the planet at the time, and waged a war they very nearly won.

Syncretism played a huge role in this rapid ascent, as they were able to observe, learn, absorb, and eventually surpass the technology of the West. They learned our customs, they listened to our music, spoke our language, and incorporate our tenets and tenacity into their own, nearly overwhelming national honor and pride, and through that managed to almost “out-American” the Americans. And this idea did not stop at the end of the war. No, it has continued even since, blossoming into a cultural trade that crosses the Pacific each and every hour of ever day.

The Shinigami

But I’m getting ahead of myself. While it is true that syncretism has allowed for Japan to become a world power in the span of less than 200 years, it is more apparent when one looks at the subtle impacts syncretism has had on their culture. It is easy to look at the rapid rise in Japan’s technological supremacy when looking for ways in which is has taken from the West, but there is a rich tradition beneath that that is just as important to see.

Consider the shinigami (and I am laughing as I write this). Looking at modern anime and manga, these harbingers of the beyond are a very visible, and very popular, Japanese creation. They appear in shows like “Bleach” and “Kuroshitsuji,” are central characters in manga like “Rin-ne” and “Death Note,” and in many cases seem to embody a good deal of either Japanese culture, or how the Japanese view the West. Even their name, a contraction of the Japanese term “shini-no-kami”, or “god of dying” speaks to their Japanese origins.

But are these characters actually Japanese? In a word, no. Shinigami are a result of the same syncretism that Japan has relied upon for centuries in their cultural heritage. Despite looking very Japanese at times, their roots are from a much different, and much further away, culture.

The word “shinigami” did not appear in the Japanese lexicon until 1876, when a rakugo kaidan (sacred play) of the same name debuted in Kyoto. The play, which was based on an Italian Opera, was centered around a interactions with an ominous fellow called a “Shinigami,” which was a Japan-ified Grim Reaper-type. Up until this point, Japan had not had a concept like this within their mythology or folklore- previous ideas regarding death gods were more omnipotent or “godlike” than a simple harbinger of death. Now, for possibly the first time, Japan was being given a creature that did not fit into any of its previous “holes” regarding gods and supernatural beings, and they loved it.

Looking at the idea of the shinigami today, it is surprising that they came from such simple origins. Their prevalence in modern media is a direct result of the Japanese taking a new concept and incorporating it into their culture, and making it more and more Japanese with each revision. Bleach turned the idea of the shinigami into a “modern samurai,” with bonded weapons, distinctive uniforms and a very bushido way of action. Death Note transformed them into classical yokai types, sharp edges, disgusting appearances and a horrific sense of action. Soul Eater even went the route of making the shinigami into a comical entity with giant hands and a goofy, skull-like exterior. These images are all representative of a certain facet of Japanese culture or art, and are rooted in Japanese folklore.

Now look at the other side of this equation- Gundam Wing gave a shinigami that was plainly Western in design and action. Kuroshitsuji gave a flamboyant, victorian type that embodied the ideas of “wrong action” and the outsider. Rin-ne introduced a shinigami that acted like an unfortunate child of two worlds, forced to live in both while not being entirely native to either. In these cases, Japan bowed to the western cultures that gave them the shinigami in the first place, while still maintaining a sort of “Japanese-ness” that marked them as distinct creations of another country despite the source material. They were both Japanese and “not-Japanese,” but still maintained their shared cultural histories and appeal.

Digital Syncretism

Someone once described Japanese society to me as “everyone is a cog in the machine, and if you aren’t, then you lose your chance at success.” I can’t speak for the veracity of this statement, but it does explain one area in which syncretism has allowed for Japan to become such a force in the modern world. The Japanese ability to form itself into a powerful, cohesive and functioning unit of production and expansion has been one of its greatest traits when looking at its development as an industrialized nation.

Japan in the latter half of the 20th century was synonymous with both material success and technological supremacy. Taking ideas that were first developed by western powers, Japan managed to adapt, improvise, and eventually exceed the countries that created the initial product. Or, as Marge Simpson wonderfully explained, “I would love to see the Japanese version of the club sandwich, I bet it’s smaller and more efficient.” Efficiency was the word identified with Japan, and efficiency allowed it to take western ideas and make them better.

Even when looking at animation, the influence is clear. While animation was a very western idea (indeed, Tezuka himself was influenced heavily by Walt Disney), when Japan got its hands on it, the entire medium changed. Angular and simplified features, stark backgrounds, streamlined actions and dialogue, ambiguous characters and morality, these were all the hallmarks of the Japanese influence on animation as a medium. And, over time, they allowed for “anime” to surpass much of the western fare. The appeal found within anime has often been attributed to its stylistic differences from western animation, the ease with which if tackles “darker” subject matter and the way it manages to integrate cultural ideas without resorting to obvious tricks and gambits. It sets itself apart, while still being animation in its own right.

But anime is just one of the more visible, and more recent, contributions brought to the table by Japan.

Syncretism Makes the World Go Round

At this point, I completely forgot what I was trying to say when I sat down to write this. As with a lot of what I do, I go off on tangents, and I did that here also. History lessons, philosophizing, religion, and I still haven’t gotten down to why I wanted to write this in the first place...oh wait, i remember now.

I mentioned way back in the beginning that the United States and Japan are two countries that have a tradition of being syncretic. In the case of both nations, we have prided ourselves on our ability to take concepts from without and make them a whole-scale part of our culture. But when looking at the respective differences between the United States and Japan, this might seem to be a bit of a shock.

Unlike Japan, the United States was built on the idea that we are a nation of immigrants. Granted, much of our initial population came from England and France, but over time we have seen booms from Europe, both West and East, China, Africa, India, South America. The idea of “American culture” itself is almost laughable, as essentially every aspect of our daily lives, right down to the goods we buy, originate from another country or ethnic group. We speak hundreds of languages alongside English. We read translations of books from around the world. We watch international television shows, and eventually recreate them for American audiences. Even our national language is an amalgamation of words, terms and rules taken from the cultures we have interacted with. The United States is a syncretic machine, ever absorbing whatever is thrown at us and finding ways to incorporate it into our culture, because when it comes down to it, there is no such thing as “American Culture” at all, because to be American is to be exposed to hundreds of cultures beyond the one that initially colonized this continent. Even the “slogan” of the nation, “e pluribus unum,” or “from many, one,” speaks to this notion that we are a blend of many cultures. And we even print that on the money!

Japan is different. There is “Japanese Culture.” It is written in the old Shinto ways. It exists in the shrines and clan affiliations. It has its own language removed from others in the area. It was born out of isolation, not pioneering and pilgrimage. It has separate ways of dealing with “non-Japanese” things. And yet, Japan has been open and welcoming to foreign concepts for centuries. Since the Buddhists first landed on their shores and brought them writing, art and medicine, Japan has almost been an “America of the East,” grabbing concepts whole-scale from around the world and making them part of the Japanese way of life. Sometimes they change the names, sometimes they change the interpretations, but the ideas remain the same. Japan is a cultural importer on par with anything the US has ever been, and it follows the same systems we do.

And when we work together...well, that is something truly to behold.

For further reading into syncretism and Japanese (sacred) culture:

C. Scott Littleton. "Shinto"
H. Byron Earhart. "Religion in the Japanese Experience"
Ian Reader. "Japanese Religions Past and Present"
Roland Kelts. "Japanamerica"


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  3. My Indian history is nowhere near my Japanese, but I think with India it was more of a "Britain forcing Western culture down their throat" more than "take this idea and run with it." Japan has usually managed to to be very proactive with new ideas, especially when they have the impact of advancing their society.

    A good example I didn't use here would be the introduction of Buddhism and Confucianism. Buddhism came to Japan and with it cam medicine, writing and a sort of "personal religion" that the culture did not have. After brief initial resistance, Japan welcomed the new tradition and especially the cultural "revolutions" it brought with it.

    Confucianism had a similar experience, but since Japan already had strong family and community dynamics, the idea of a philosophical "faith" that espoused the same notion was easier to welcome. That it was also something to be viewed as "pan-Asian" gave it even more legitimacy when the idea of resisting Western incursions became the direction the government headed down.

    India, in the end, was colonized. Japan industrialized under its own decision.

  4. oooh, blog fail. But digital bug remarked how the Japanese experience could be compared to the experience in Hindu India.