The Tao of the East and the Last Samurai’s Testament

Shūmei Ōkawa is a Japanese religionist, Islam scholar, and class-A war criminal. On the first day of the Tokyo Trials, upon entering the courtroom he yelled nonsense in German, ran around the room, and whacked Prime Minister Tojo on the head, and was shortly found to be insane. While in the mental hospital, he made the first Japanese translation of the Qu’ran. Upon being released, he wrote a religiously oriented memoir, from which I translate two-thirds of this chapter.

Returning to the free spirit of the Japanese, I noted in the past that the word we use today to indicate the European words for “religion” (宗教) is merely a modern translation of that European concept. In the East, not only the Japanese, but also the Chinese and the Indians had no corresponding word for this concept. Religion is derived from the Latin religio, and there are several theories on the origin of religio, but I consider as with Cicero that it must have come from relegere, “to do a thing scrupulously”. As Cicero proceeds to say, “All matters concerning the gods are said to be practiced religiously,” and therefore, the Romans gave the term religio to those ceremonies honoring the gods. Furthermore, not only the Romans but other nations also thought that the existence of “religion” was derived from these ceremonies. In comparison, in the Chinese Book of History there are three words, 類[resemblance], 禋 [sacrifice], and 望 [hope] which refer to ceremonies for the gods, but there is no generalization for the three, and only in the Book of Rites to we start to see such general words 礼祠 [revere-enshrine] and 祭法[honor-law] which could correspond to religio. In Japanese, the terms matsurigoto [lit. “matters of state”] or kamiwaza [“matters of kami”] express the same idea. In India, the word Rita refers to the successful completion of a ceremony. So, there are words in the East which correspond to the Latin religio, but these are not terms which match the word religion used in the present day. Thus, when the Dutch came to our country as the first emissaries of Western civilization, at that time, the first translators invented new terms like 祭祀 [shrine-revere] or 宗祀 [sect-revere] to correspond to the European word religion.

Why is it that the East had no word corresponding to “religion”? I think the reason is as follows. In the practical lives of men, there are three spheres of religion, morality, and politics. In the West these were gradually segregated and developed separately, and each field sought its own model to judge behavior, but in the Orient, the three fields were never separated, and to the very end they were bound together as a holistic understanding of life, and a single model was sought for understanding the soul. The East does have words that refer to the model for all humanity, for which there is no corresponding word in the West. These are the Japanese Michi, the Chinese Tao, and the Sanskrit Dharma, all of which mean the practical principles of all human life.

Now, the Tao of China refers to the Way of Heaven, Earth, and Man. That is to say, the general principles for promoting proper relations between heaven, earth, and man are integrated into that one word, Tao. Therefore, in China, he who aspires to the Way in the slightest must understand the three powers of Heaven, Earth, and Man. This corresponds to the British poet Wordsworth, who said that “all people must have the correct idea about God, Nature and Man”, but in Wordsworth’s case, these must be contemplated on separately, while in China, the single word Tao contains in itself religion, morality, and politics.

As I will explain in detail later, humanity’s attitude towards heaven is religion, our attitude towards earth is narrowly speaking ethical, and our attitude towards our fellows is politics, so the Confucian approach to the Tao is a Tradition* that gives each of these equal consideration. And so, a certain scholar named Prof. Douglas for example calls Confucianism nothing more than “a plain, matter-of-fact system of morality”, while another scholar claims it is chiefly concerned with politics, and still another lists it among the world’s religions. But Confucianism is not a religion in the Western conception of the thing, nor is it ethics or political science. Confucianism is not a single one of those, but is indeed all of them at once. Recognizing this as an internal structure, we can resolve the external confusion: this is a Tradition which we will understand nothing of from a Western perspective.

[* Okawa here combines the characters for “teaching” and “lineage”, creating a word which appears in no Japanese dictionary.]

It is said, in this way, that the ideal human life is that which balances Heaven, Earth, and Man evenly. In the East, it is not Heaven alone which is abstracted; rather we only seek to inculcate a feeling of trembling reverence as the religious side of one’s personal life. For example, Confucius says that “men of virtue have three fears: fear of heaven’s will, fear of the words of sages, and fear of great men,”** while Mencius says that “one who devotes his mind will know nature, and the sage who knows nature will know Heaven”. In the same way, the [Chinese sage] Ōyōmei talks of what Christians might identify as religious-style experiences, but he does not turn that into a commentary on religion. Rather, he was acknowledging that such experiences and feelings must be inculcated freely as one side of our personal lives.

[** The saying, #439, continues: “A worthless man cannot understand heaven’s will and does not fear it. He takes liberties with great men and despises words of the sages.”]

As the Tao of China integrates religion, morality, and politics, so the teachings of India contain religion, morality, and philosophy. In Buddhism especially we speak of Sila, Dhyana and Prajna, Sila being moral practice, Dhyana being religious askesis, and Prajna being philosophical contemplation. All the teachings of India possess these three faces. Within these three faces, the most powerful is usually religion or philosophy, but from the Buddha’s first exposition he placed importance on moral practice, so some scholars, like [Cornelis] Tiele, make him out to be an ethicist. But Early Buddhism, from its beginning, possessed all three faces, these being afterwards divided into those emphasizing the ethical face like Risshū, those emphasizing the religious askesis like Zen and Pure Land, and those emphasizing philosophical contemplation like Tendai and Mādhyamaka.

In this way, religion, morality, and scholarship were bound up in the Orient under the Tao, even as they were divided up from early on in the West. The relationship between religion and morality has long been a point of argument there. One will distinguish religion from morality, and another will make religion the basis of morality; Christians, in particular, are mostly of the latter view. The Christian St. Augustine, who could be called the Nāgārjuna of the West, said that “whatever the virtues of the Greeks, if they are not rooted in faith in God, they are naught but wickedness,” and we might take this as typical of the ethico-religious thought of Christian scholars. From the Meiji Restoration through to the Russo-Japanese War, the Christian missionaries who came to Japan repeated over and over, “Without Christian faith, there is no true morality in Japan.” I personally heard from [the great Christian teacher] Professor Kaiseki Matsumura that a missionary of exemplary gentleness and kindness named G.W. Knox, who came to Japan from America in the 1880s and wrote a book called The Spirit of the Orient thereafter, once asked him, “Do the Japanese have words to express the concepts of good and bad?”

The division of religion, ethics, and politics occurred early in the West, so it might be thought of as part of the Western spirit of specialization and classification, but perhaps it was fostered by historical circumstances. […] Moreover, humanity cannot stand such a confrontational and contradictory situation, so the three were unified and harmonized through great effort, and thus a new spiritual development was accomplished. Now, in the history of the West, issues of religion and morality, or religion and politics first arose in [late] Rome. The Roman spiritual life preserved harmonies between religion, morality, and politics while it continued to develop. But then Roman citizens collided with the Jewish religion of a quite different history and considerably different racial characteristics, with the birth of the Christian faith. Moreover, the Christian faith was of an order far removed from the religion of the contemporary Romans. For that reason, religion and state, religion and morals became the most important issues for Rome, and they went through much suffering to resolve them. That is, the most pertinent issue for the spiritual life of Rome, tormenting the minds of Roman thinkers, became how to resolve these disputes, and finally [the West] started down the road to separating the roles of Church and State. The same process was repeated in Germany when Christianity came there. Obviously, with the end of the Roman Empire, the rule of the Church was extended, but with the rise of the modern nation-states, religion was removed from public affairs entirely, and the role of “religion” in the West became a quite unique phenomenon in the history of the world.

Comparing this to Japan, when Confucianism was first introduced to our country, on a moral and ethical level, things had already developed to become rather close to what Confucianism was teaching, so there was not so much spiritual disturbance. A hundred years thereafter, when Buddhism arrived, problems of faith became entangled with political meaning and caused much disorder, but thanks to the genius of the great Prince Shotoku, Shinto became the fundamental principle of politics while common moral life was instructed by Confucianism, with Buddhism being assigned to the religious life, under his steadfast leadership. The greatest issue facing Japan was thus settled splendidly, and the newcomer Buddhism was integrated without disturbing Japan’s spiritual life. In a [medieval] biography of the Prince we find this statement:

Shinto is the Root of the Way, one with heaven and earth, teaching men of their origin. Confucianism is the Branches of the Way, together with Beauty, teaching men of their life’s path. Buddhism is the Flowers and Fruit of the Way, together with the dissolution of human things, teaching men of the Way of the End. Preference of one or hatred of the other is selfish.

Obviously, these are not the verbatim words of Prince Shotoku. But they vividly express the spirit of Shotoku. The Prince did not attack Shinto, Confucianism, or Buddhism, and thus politics, morality, and religion were undivided. Instead, they were synthesized. This is obvious to anyone who reads his 17-Article Constitution. Essentially, these things we call religion or morality are just faces of our personal life, and while it’s possible to analyze them from an academic perspective, that doesn’t mean we have to label aspects of our everyday lives, saying, this is morality, or that is religion. And so, to the extent that we can develop these three faces of our everyday life together, we will not face contradictions from one in particular. When one of these faces moves too far apart from the others, for example the shock of a new religious revelation as in the aforementioned case of the Roman encounter with the Jews, or when a religion is impressed upon a savage tribe, the fabric of everyday life is necessarily torn asunder, and religious consciousness becomes segregated from the other aspects. I think there would be no religionists without established religion, at the very least unconscious influence from Western European thought, which developed with knowledge of religion as a special and independent sphere. If we think about it impartially, religious reverence can be inculcated without the need to turn people into Christians or Buddhists.

Then he returns to his memoir, which made me sleepy enough to stop here. I guess you’ll never learn the secrets of the Last Samurai’s Testament, but he doesn’t talk much about it anyway.

Please think about this for a moment. The Americans called this guy the “Japanese Goebbels” and tried to have him executed. But where Goebbels is known for his conniving, evil propaganda against the Jews, Ōkawa wrote stuff like what you saw above, and calm analysis like this:

“Starting in the 290s AD, our country absorbed Confucianism and Chinese civilization, chiefly through borrowing the abilities of naturalized Koreans. Since then, for about 300 years, Koreans led the way in developing our national culture, a fact we must never close our eyes to.” [2600 Years of Japanese History, published 1939]

This guy they made a war criminal?

Posted: February 19th, 2013 | Kokoro 4 Comments »

4 Comments on “The Tao of the East and the Last Samurai’s Testament”

  1. 1 Guest said at 3:13 am on February 20th, 2013:

    The best article I have ever read from you, Avery Morrow. Different ontological quality from other things you wrote.

  2. 2 Avery Morrow said at 3:18 am on February 20th, 2013:

    Glad to hear it. I don’t have anything like Shumei’s depth of knowledge.

  3. 3 The Political Philosophy of Confucianism (I) | Gornahoor said at 3:50 am on February 22nd, 2013:

    […] A postwar revision of some parts of this essay, and further thoughts on the concept of “religion”, can be found on my website. […]

  4. 4 Oliver said at 10:44 pm on February 22nd, 2013:

    Very interesting post, I think almost all true war criminals were never caught (from both sides).

    The Khabarovsk War Crime Trials, held by the Soviets, tried and found guilty some members of Japan’s bacteriological and chemical warfare unit (Unit 731). However, those who surrendered to the Americans were never brought to trial. As Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, MacArthur gave immunity to Shiro Ishii and all members of the bacteriological research units in exchange for germ warfare data based on human experimentation. On May 6, 1947, he wrote to Washington that “additional data, possibly some statements from Ishii probably can be obtained by informing Japanese involved that information will be retained in intelligence channels and will not be employed as “War Crimes” evidence.”[13] The deal was concluded in 1948.[14]

    In 1981 the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published an article by John W. Powell detailing Unit 731 experiments and germ warfare open-air tests on civilian populations. It was printed with a statement by Judge B. V. A. Röling, the last surviving member of the Tokyo Tribunal. Röling wrote that “As one of the judges in the International Military Tribunal, it is a bitter experience for me to be informed now that centrally ordered Japanese war criminality of the most disgusting kind was kept secret from the Court by the U.S. government.”

    And also Remember Operation Paperclip…

    I live in Argentina, people always speaks about nazis coming here but they dont know that we also welcomed more than 30.000 croats (Croatian government in exile was formed here) and among them alot of Ustaše, they were way more deadly than SS elements.

    If you read spanish here is an interesting article about that: