Merry Xmas to those celebrating: How “religious” treatment of things Japanese allows for Japan to be kid-gloved through international public debate


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Hi Blog.  Merry Xmas to those celebrating.  As a special treat, allow me to connect some dots between terms of public discourse:  How Japan gets kid-gloved in international debate because it gets treated, consciously or unconsciously, with religious reverence.

It’s a theory I’ve been developing in my mind for several years now:  How Japan has no religion except “Japaneseness” itself, and how adherence (or irreverence) towards it produces zealots and heretics who influence the shape and scope of Japan-connected debate.

So let me type in two works — one journalistic, the other polemic — and let you connect the dots as I did when I discovered them last November.  I hope you find the juxtaposition as insightful as I did.

I’ll do a couple more of these thinking pieces for the holidays as enters 2012, its fifteenth year of operation.  Thanks for reading, everyone.  Arudou Debito


Excerpted from “Rice, the Essential Harvest”, from NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC (USA) Vol. 185, No. 5, May 1994, pp. 66-72.  By Freelancer Robb Kendrick of Austin, Texas.

NB: This section comes after the author takes us on a journey of other rice-centered countries.  Watch the subcontextual treatment:  First photos from 1) India, where its caption portrays rice as a means of avoiding starvation; 2) Japan, whose caption immediately resorts to religious subtext: “Colossal strands of rice straw entwine over an entrance to the Izumo Shinto shrine, one of Japan’s oldest.  Denoting a sacred place, the rice-straw rope, — or shimenawa — is the world’s largest at six metric tons.  Grown in Japan for more than 2000 years [sic], rice is woven through culture, diet, even politics.  Small shimenawa often hang over doorways to ward off evil.  One evil the nation cannot stop:  skimpy harvests, which in 1993 forced Japan to ease its sacrosanct restrictions on rice imports.”; 3) Madagascar, seen as staving off hunger in the face of a dearth of harvesting technology; 4) The Philippines, where rice technology is supported under the International Rice Research Institute; and 5) China, where peasant children eat rice for breakfast in rice-growing Zhejiang Province.

Then we get two paragraphs of text talking about the religious symbolism of rice in Bali.  Then the intercontinental versatility of rice growing and usage (as it’s even used in Budweiser beer), plus the research being done in The Philippines to make it even more so.  Then mentions of low-tech production in The Philippines, with photos of rice being used in a Hindu wedding in India and in religious ceremonies in India and Bali.  Further paragraphs depict how the Balinese meld both ritual and routine in perpetual harvests.  Then we get into the history of rice’s migration from India through to China, and how China has been working on rice hybrids at the Chinese National Rice Research Institute.  Thus the focus of this article has so far been more on the history and ubiquitousness of rice as a staple in many societies.

Then we get to Japan, and the tone of the article shifts perceptibly:


Next stop, Japan.  At the Grand Shrines of Ise, 190 miles southwest of Tokyo, the most revered precinct of Japan’s Shinto religion, white-robed priests cook rice twice daily and present it to the sun goddess, Amaterasu, who, they say, is the ancestor of the imperial family.

“The goddess brought a handful of rice from the heavens,” a senior priest tells me, “so that we may grow it and prosper.”  He adds that in the first ceremony performed by each new emperor, he steps behind a screen to meet the goddess and emerges as the embodiment of Ninigi no Mikoto, the god of the ripened rice plant.  Then every autumn the emperor sends to Ise the first stalks harvested from the rice field he himself has planted on the imperial palace gorunds.  All Japanese, says the priest, owe their kokoro — their spiritual essence, their Japaneseness — to the goddess, “and they maintain it by eating rice, rice grown in Japan.”

Japanese law, in fact, long restricted the importation of rice.  “Rice is a very special case,” explained Koji Futada, then parliamentary vice minister for agriculture, forestry, and fisheries.  “It is our staple food, and so we must have a reliable supply as a matter of national security.  That is why we politicians favor sulf-sufficiency, the domestic growing of all the rice we eat.”

And also because the farmers exert disproportionate influence in elections?

“Yes,” he said, “that is also true.”

And so the government buys the rice from the farmers at about ten times international market prices. It also subsidizes part of the cost to consumers.  Still, Japanese consumers pay about four times as much as they would if they could buy rice in a California supermarket.  All this cost the government about 2.5 billion dollars in 1992.  One result is that land will stay in rice production that might otherwise be available for housing, which is in short supply.  About 5 percent of the city of Tokyo is classified as farmland, worked by 13,000 families.  That would be space enough for tens of thousands of new homes.  Does all this mean that Japanese rice farmers are rolling in money?

Thirty miles north of the capital, in the Kanto Plain, I visit the Kimura family in the town of Kisai — typical of most of Japan’s 3.5 million rice-farming households:  Rice is not a major part of their working life.  Grandfather Shouichi, 83, along with his son Take and Take’s wife, Iwako, both in their 50s, look after a prosperous gardening-supply business; grandson Masao, 25, commutes to an office in central Tokyo.  Three out of four rice-growing families hereabouts have become “Sunday farmers,” relying on income from other sources, mainly jobs in factories that sprang up nearby in the past ten years.

The Kimuras farm two and a half acres — this modest size is typical too — and they tell me the work is not arduous:  Excerpt for planting seeds in boxes in a shed, they do it all with machines — transplanter, tractor — in about ten working days for one person, plus a few hours for spraying fertilizer, insecticide, and herbicide.  “Harvesting is no work at all.  We hire a combine.”  What do the Kimuras get out of it?

“Enough rice for us to eat for a year,” says Shoichi.  “But no profit.  Zero.”  Expenses go up, rice prices don’t.  It’s the same for most farmers around here.  “We do this only because we inherited the land.”

But nature and international politics are forcing a change.  An unusually cold and rainy summer reduced Japan’s 1993 harvest by some 25 percent, so more than two million tons of rice will have to be imported before the end of this year.  And after that, a newly revised global treaty — the General Agreement on  Tariffs and Trade, or GATT — will oblige to allow annual imports of 4 to 8 percent of its rice requirement.  But will the domestic rice price drop?  Hardly.  The government still sets the wholesale price, and that’s likely to stay high.


That’s it.  The rest of the article deals with a) liberalization of the rice markets in Vietnam, b) rice economies in Europe, c) in Africa, d) in the United States, and finally e) the future of rice technology and how production will have to accommodate growing populations.


Here’s my point:  No other country is treated in this National Geographic article with such reverence and deference as Japan.  Look:  A parroted religious introduction citing an obscure deity is channeled into a discourse on national identity, and an alleged political need for self preservation by excluding outside influences (everyplace else mentioned is seen as increasingly cooperative in developing a reliable food supply).  If anything, many other countries are seen as somehow less able to cope with their future because of their technological or economic insularity.  Not Japan.  It gets a free pass on cultural grounds, with a deference being accorded to “Japaneseness” as a religion.  (There is, by the way, one more picture of Japan in the article — that of sumo wrestlers doing “ritual shiko exercise”, with attention paid to the dohyo rice ring in this “honored Japanese sport”.  Cue the banging of gongs and the occasional shakuhachi flute…)

Granted, the article does offer up the hope of Japan’s rice market being liberalized, thanks to the disastrous 1993 rice harvest and pressure from GATT.  But now nearly twenty years later, how are those rice imports coming along?  Not so hot: According to the USDA in 2003, “Japan agreed to a quota on rice imports that now brings 682,000 tons of rice into the country annually. However, most of this rice is not released directly into Japan’s market. Instead, imported rice often remains in government stocks until it is released as food aid to developing countries or sold as an input to food processors.”  Meaning it didn’t work.  See a historical article I wrote on the misplaced propagandistic reverence (and GOJ dirty tricks) regarding rice imports here (and also apple imports, while I’m at it), so you can see how the discourse helps keep things closed.

Why does this keep happening?  My theory is that it is due to the politics of religiosity.  For when you treat Japanese culture as a religion, the terms of debate change, putting rationality, logic, and overall fairness on their back foot.

Consider this excerpt from Richard Dawkins, “The God Delusion”, between pp. 20 and 23:

A widespread assumption, which nearly everybody in our society accepts — the non-religious included — is that religious faith is especially vulnerable to offence and should be protected by an abnormally thick wall of respect, in a different class from the respect that any human being should pay to any other.  Douglas Adams put it so well, in an impromptu speech made in Cambridge shortly before his death, that I never tire of sharing his words:

“Religion… has certain ideas at the heart of it which we call sacred or holy or whatever.  What it means is, ‘Here is an idea or a notion that you’re not allowed to say anything bad about; you’re just not.  Why not?  — because you’re not!’  If somebody votes for a party that you don’t agree with, you’re free to argue about it as much as you like; everybody will have an argument but nobody feels aggrieved by it.  If somebody think taxes should go up or down you are free to have an argument about it.  But on the other hand if somebody says ‘I mustn’t move a light switch on a Saturday’, you say, ‘I respect that’.

“Why should it be that it’s perfectly legitimate to support the Labour party or the Conservative prty, Republicans or Democrats, this model of economics versus that, Macintosh instead of Windows — but to have an opinion about how the Universe… no, that’s holy? … We are used to not challenging religious ideas but it’s very interesting how much of a furore Richard creates when he does it!  Everybody gets absolutely frantic about it because you’re not allowed to say these things.  Yet when you look at it rationally there is no reason why those ideas shouldn’t be as open to debate as any other, except that we have agreed somehow between us that they shouldn’t be.”…

[Dawkins continues further down:]  If the advocates of apartheid had their wits about them they would claim — for all I know truthfully — that allowing mixed races is against their religion.  A good part of the opposition would respectfully tiptoe away.  And it is no use claiming that this is an unfair parallel because apartheid has no rational justification.  The whole point of religious faith, its strength and chief glory, is that it does not depend on rational justification.  The rest of us are expected to defend our prejudices.  But ask a religious person to justify their faith and you infringe “religious liberty”.


This is why appeals to “Japaneseness” so many times take on a religious overtone.  Why does the National Geographic feel the need to interview a priest as some sort of source about world rice?  Allegedly, “because Japanese rice is as essential fundamental to the Japanese people as their kokoro“.  Presto!  It’s off the subject table for rational debate.  Because once you criticize Japan’s rice policy, apparently Japanese are hard-wired to take it as a personal affront.  After all, there IS so much pressure to somehow, somewhere, say something “nice” about Japan — especially if you’re being any way critical.  For balance, some might say, but I would say it is because we feel the pressure to treat Japan more kid-glovey than we would, say, China, Russia, or any other nation, really.  Why?  Out of reverence for how somehow “special” Japan is.

I believe Japan is neither exceptional nor special (no more special than any other society), and it should be exposed to the same terms of critique and debate as anyone else.  Yet it gets a free pass, as I saw during the Otaru Onsens Case, where for example many bought into the “foreigners must be excluded” thanks in part in reverence to some arguments being made, in paraphrase, were “Japanese baths are a very special place for Japanese people, and if they want those kept pristine and exclusive only for those who really understand Japanese bathing culture, then so be it.”  No need to treat people equally just because they’re people anymore.  Only those born with the sacerdotal kokoro need apply to bathe in these now holy waters.

This is my Xmas present to Readers:  Look at Japan-related discourse now through the lens of religious discourse.  Watch the kid gloves come on.  It is a very careful and deliberate means to defang political debate and stymie change in this society which badly needs it.

Again, “Japaneseness” as a religion with all the trappings — an analytical thought process in progress on  Arudou Debito

16 comments on “Merry Xmas to those celebrating: How “religious” treatment of things Japanese allows for Japan to be kid-gloved through international public debate

  • Farm subsidies in the US. “American Exceptionalism” as a political discourse. Trade barriers on agriculture are widespread among developed economies.

    When you come to the question of Japanese rice being grown domestically somehow tasting better or being better than the foreign alternative, one has to think of French wine or cheese, Scotch, Bourbon, Swiss watches, Champagne, beef politics, Nihonshu, Mozzarella, Vodka, and the whole list of foods from any nation people think is better when produced at home. In blind taste tests, which have been shown on Japanese TV, the average person cannot distinguish between Japanese and Californian rice, between a 600 yen or 8000 yen bottle of wine, or between wagyuu raised in Japan or Australia – let alone domestic, American, Brazilian or Vietnamese chicken. Or was that tuna caught in the Pacific, the Atlantic or the Mediterranean and where were the crew members from?

    The lens for all nations is the same. Imagine a Scotsman ordering Suntory whisky at his pub, or an Italian buying Japanese spaghetti. Japanese people are hardly unique in applying their national bias to foodstuffs; every country does it. Food is not rational – it’s subject to a base desire to pump calories in the body or die, and the economies behind food production defy rationality, as they use nationalism as a marketing tool that works all to easily.

    — Right. To protect their own home interests, sure. But you’re missing my point: How many will buy into another society’s mysticism so easily and reverently as it is done in discourse about Japan IN OTHER COUNTRIES? The coda of “Japan is special and exceptional” is more often found overseas than that of “Japan is no exception”. Again, NJ invoking religious subtext in discourse on Japan results in NJ blunting their criticism of it out of reverence.

  • Daniel Flannery says:

    When the current state of Japanese society is seen more as the result of upholding sacred principles than a combination of circumstances and deliberate, self-interested decisions any questioning is seen as a personal attack. This is frustrating because it short-circuits any kind of real understanding, to say nothing of actual debate; even if you happen to agree with the conclusion, you’re expected to “take it on faith,” and not ask about the reasons.

  • The Japanese seem to have the ability to skim off the surface of various religious belief systems. Currently, the most obvious of these is Christmas. If memory serves, barely 2% or so of Japanese are actually Christian and yet nearly all of them are eagerly putting up trees, buying presents and the rest. Surface things. This is not to say that back in the UK or (presumably) the USA there aren’t plenty of people who go through the motions without having any real depth of understanding of or genuine belief in the original message of Christmas. Debito is right to point out that this is especially prevelent in Japan. We’ve all read of how the Japanese seem able to create syncretic belief systems blending and shaping things to fit into their mindset.

  • Excellent post Debito.
    Japan is very skilful at dodging its fair share of criticism from abroad. Problem is Japan as a nation can never see themselves as ‘bad’ when they are bad, but will (justifiably) play up its successes.

    Not sure why overseas media have bought this hook line and sinker though.

  • Nice observation Debito.

    The powers that be in Japan (political, religious, social leaders) have been selling that snake oil to the Japanese public for centuries. So it’s not surprising that the public also believes and sells the same snake oil overseas. And when it’s the only snake oil on the market, what are consumers going to buy?

    I don’t know how long it will take to eradicate the global sentiment of “special sacred Japaneseness”.

    I try to do my part though.
    “TJJ, why did you go jogging in the rain”!?
    “Ware ware Austrailiajin …”

  • @Debito,
    Merry christmas!
    Excellent post Debito. Japan has been so successful at selling the ‘japan is special’ meme, not only domestically, but also abroad. It ties in with the BBC Newsnight link I sent you a couple of weeks back. It really beggars belief that NJ with no real understanding of Japan will believe anything positive they are told, without questioning it, and then fight tooth and nail to protect it.

  • I do not think we need to worry anymore; Japan is nowadays portrayed in a hardly flattering light, “Special” has long given way to “difficult” or “weird”- most news reported from Japan (my source, MA in Journalism) is about hentai stuff or just plain weirdness. It has been the same since “Clive James on Television”, and his airing of the bizarre Japanese “Endurance” program in which contestants were tortured until they dropped out of the contest. More recently the BBC poking “fun” out of the unluckiest man in the world, a double A bomb survivor. The Japanese are ultra sensitive to how they are perceived in the world`s media, paranoid to the point of “laugh” plus “Japan” in the same sentence is seen as a slight- it just makes businesses and the media not want to bother with Japanese participation- Mendokusai yo. A leading fashionista was asked why no Japanese had taken part in a NY/London/Paris event and she tactfully said the Japanese were too “far away”, I think she meant in culture not distance! Western thinking is increasingly “Well, they don`t speak English, they seem fussy or easy to get upset, errr, lets stick with what we know about.”

    Ditto the Austrian Ars festival, which used to be a bastion of “cool Japan” and their “Zen” art, but which tellingly, this year had several mainland Chinese in their winners list, but no Japanese at all. China is the new “trendy” place for the western media. Its “hot” because its “opening up” (subtext, that is where the money seems to be).

    As for Xmas in Japan, well obviously I am going to say that this is the postwar, post modern American re branding of “Japan” down to a tee. It does not make sense, but it refers to other meaningless or incomprehended signs.It conveniently goes hand in hand with the commercial aspect, but with no reference to Jesus, the religious aspect- the real meaning of Xmas. That is quite understandable, Japan is not a Christian country, but what is also missing more tellingly is the “Spirit of Xmas”.

    But, you say, Japanese give gifts at Xmas, surely this is the “Spirit of Xmas”? Well, I am not sure why some Japanese exchange gifts, I think its a dating phenomenon, like Valentines Day and White Day. Not to feel duty bound to give a gift to that aunt you actually dislike. And I m not sure people here go carol singing, or organize soup kitchens for the homeless just because it is Xmas.

    As the J rightists said about the halloween revellers, “This is not a white country.” They are not dreaming of a White Xmas, unless of course it involves a shower of sacred rice from the heavens.

    This whole “rice as religion” disturbingly harkens back to WW2 fascism, when Shinto was forced on the people as the state religion, when in fact most Japanese mix and match religions. I am no longer sure whether most of the population agree about rice, especially post Fukushima; it is rather like the whaling issue, a totem of the minority, geriatric extreme right.

  • Andrew in Saitama says:

    Good post.
    No doubt we’ll see more examples on TV during the silly season:
    Japanese “comedians” travelling overseas in a mock-up of local dress; Nikkei essentially being praised for retaining their Japanese-ness (as long as they look Japanese enough and don’t do anything silly like try to come to Japan); bizarre programs from overseas being depicted as typical (yet we’ll disavow any connection to “Gaman” – thanks for the memories Baudrillard – or any dozen similar shows on Japanese TV); emphasis on NJ’s accents while pretending the tarento’s language skills are fine; the list goes on.

    And I am never thanked for pointing out that for thousands of years, it was a case of “We Japanese eat acorns”.

  • Many years ago, I read in a book about Japan (I think the author was Jack Seward of Stuart or something like that) that Japanese have certain religious beliefs. Something like 69% follow Buddhist traditions, 71% follow the ways of Shinto, while 74% have no religious convictions, at all. It seems that this continues to hold generally true, although now we must add Christianity to the list.

    Nearly half of all wedding ceremonies in Japan are performed in Christian or quasi-Christian ceremonies. A friend of mine makes a pretty good living performing marriages but he probably has little or no religious training, per se. Forming a lifelong commitment under Christian rules seems to me to be more significant than wearing a funny hat and fake beard at Christmas. Every bride wants to look like a Disney version of Cinderella. Perhaps the proportion of non-believers is higher than 30 years ago.

  • up in the north says:

    This silly rice emperor myth was invented in the 19th century. now how many readers actually think that the current Emporor actually was born on that sacred solstice day when the sun-god phoenix like rises a to renew fertility and the rice growing season. All I’m suggesting here is that this specific birthday was invented and announced by the Imperial Household agency at the height of the Emporor cult in the 1930’s.

    — Links to sources please.

  • @Steve,

    Nail on the head, I think;
    ‘bride wants to look like a Disney version of Cinderella’.
    For me this is one of the most interesting aspects of Japan. They all think that driving a Benz is better than a Toyota, a white wedding is better than a shrine wedding, women dying their hair brown is better, French or Italian restaurants are better, a western style home is better, but on the other hand get angry because ‘this is Japan!’.
    I think it’s connected to a kind of insecurity about national identity v’s the luxurious trappings of western culture. What does everyone else think?

  • @Debito

    The interesting thing about shinto (and it’s connection with rice) is that what is accepted as shinto today didn’t even exist before the Meiji restoration. At that time the animalistic/shamanistic religion of shinto, (that had fell into obscurity following the adoption of Buddhism in the Nara period), was re-imagined, relaunched and re-branded as a replacement for the national faith system of Buddhism, (which was no longer desireable after the removal of the shogunate and abolition of samurai). This re-imagined ‘state shinto’ shared virtually nothing with it’s original namesake except some decrepit shrines and markers, and a huge amount of government money was spent on buildings, priests, and ceramonies.
    An English traveller to Kobe in 1858 remarked that there was a sacred tree, and a shinto tori-gate, and a delapidated wooden hut in the city, but no-one he spoke to living around the area could tell him anything about it, or it’s spirit. It was relaunched as the huge concrete Minato-gawa jinja in the Meiji period.
    The point I’m making is that just like the shinto rice garbage above, this is a remnant of Japanese Imperialistic ideology. That ideology reached it’s apex in WW2. Like Nazism, it failed, and rightly so. Unlike Germany, the Japanese have never been able to accept that they were neither the victims of the war, nor should they have won it. All of this ‘mysticism’ about Japan’s cultural spirituality is a smoke and mirrors trick designed to avoid them having to accept the reality that their ideology failed.

    — Sources please.

  • @Jim, excellent post about the “rebranding” of Shinto to fit the new nation state of Japan. Its also linked to imperialistic ideology as well as you say.

    As we know, Japan was rebranded again, or rather recreated in the image of America from the ashes of WW2.

    Marshall Mcluhan and Baudrillard would agree, a shame they didnt really know much about Japan other than cliches (but then few western writers or sociologists have time for it, apart from the apologists).

    This ties in with Debito`s post about Japan is given “special” treatment; it is usually from ignorance. Remember when you were at school and how the history of WW2 concentrated on Europe and the fall and denazification of Germany? Japan would often just be a kind of “Oh, and by the way, the same thing happened in Japan too” kind of footnote.

    Thus Japan remained “mysterious”- ah those inscrutables! But we all were taught at school that they were atom bombed, and as that is the worst kind of weapon, trumping all other atrocities (in Asia, so it didnt matter so much to us), so the “Japan as Victim” myth was born.

    This, plus the resulting western guilt, contributes to the special treatment. Until very recently, when all the gaijin and flyjin returnee detractors of Japan have reached critical mass, and so now the popular media images of Japan are “racist hentai weirdo anime cosplay Toyota (Scandal?)polite corrupt TEPCO nuclear disaster dont eat the seafood” -the images that flash thru the mind of the average person in the outside world.

  • Loved this post; “This re-imagined ‘state shinto’ shared virtually nothing with it’s original namesake except some decrepit shrines and markers”

    This is a classic postmodernist state. The “markers” are the signs that only refer to other signs. The original has disappeared; people worship a stand alone copy or simulacra, but they are not sure why.

    “An English traveller to Kobe in 1858 remarked that there was a sacred tree, and a shinto tori-gate, and a delapidated wooden hut in the city, but no-one he spoke to living around the area could tell him anything about it, or it’s spirit.”

    Again, only the signs remain, the original (meaning) has been lost. And so most peoples lives are meaningless, and there is no real “Japan”. But there is a lot of shopping and other controlled experiences to compensate. It is very nice….

    I was so sadly disappointed when I first came to teach in Japan; the older students could not tell me anything about Japanese culture like “Wabi” “Sabi” or any other stuff that was even in an illustrated textbook called “Talking about Japanese culture” etc. (Naturally I did not expect the young ones to, but the 60 year olds should know better). Your average Japanese person just does not know their own “Real” culture.

    However, they could tell us useless (or useful) stuff like the price of murasaki hair dye on sale at Matsuya Department store in Ginza. Happy Shoppers in the Matrix.

  • And can I just add that I will never marry a woman who wants to look like the Disney version of Cinderella, as such a woman is as fake as the fake society she inhabits, and will never be satisfied with a real man. This is the female version of those J guys marrying anime characters.

    She doesnt merely seek to be a copy of a fictional character. She wants to be a copy of the COPY of a fictional character, the mass produced one. Classic Simulacra.

    Run run run away, runway runaway.

    — That couldn’t possibly be a Duran Duran reference, now, could it? 🙂


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