Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Perry Expedition (1853-1854) and the Japanese Encounter with “Religion”

By Mitsutoshi Horii, Shumei University

*This post originally appeared in Critical Religion

Under orders from American President Millard Fillmore (1800-1874), Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry (1794-1858) commanded an expedition to Japan in the 1850s. After more than 7 months at sea, Perry and his squadron finally reached Uraga, at the entrance to Edo (Tokyo) Bay in Japan, on 8th July 1853.

The Perry Expedition carried a letter from the President of the United Sates to “the Emperor of Japan” (in fact, meaning the Shogun)[1]. This letter was drafted in 1851 by Daniel Webster (1782-1852), and was signed by President Fillmore. This was accompanied by another letter written by Perry himself. These letters contained the English words ‘religious’ and ‘religion’, though there were no equivalent concepts in Japanese at that time.

The letters were presented by Perry to the Japanese officials on 14th July 1853, at Kurihama (present-day Yokosuka). Chinese and Dutch translations were provided together with the English originals. However, it was the Chinese translation from which the widely-circulated Japanese translation was produced. This was the first time the Japanese had encountered the English language concept of religion.

The original English letters were translated into Chinese by the expedition’s chief translator, Samuel Wells Williams (1812-1884), and his Chinese assistant. The process of translation was not an easy one. William’s Chinese assistant spoke Shanghainese, while Williams could only speak Cantonese at that time. Speaking different dialects, they had trouble understanding each other. In addition, with regard to the generic notion of religion in the letters, the Chinese language had no equivalent either.

Whilst translating President Fillmore’s letter into Chinese, the phrase “religious or political” was interpreted as 政礼, meaning ‘governance and rites’. By the mid-nineteenth century, the English language had already established the notion of ‘religion’ as distinct from ‘politics’. In contrast, the Chinese terms of ‘governance’ (ching) and ‘rites’ (li) did not have the same binary relation as ‘politics’ and ‘religion’, and carry very different nuances. Whilst ching implies the ruling of a territorial country by the imperial authority, li denotes the code of human conduct encompassing both the private and the public realms. Li renders the general sense of propriety and etiquette, which cannot be confined in the modern western notion of ‘religious’.

The Japanese version of the letter inherited the Chinese phrase 政礼 (governance and rites) in place of the English phrase “religion and politics”. When it came to be bilaterally translated into Japanese, however, the meaning was once again transformed. In the mid-nineteenth century, the Chinese ideograph, ching政, was read in Japan asmatsurigoto, which is derived from the word matsuri, meaning ‘to worship’. The concept of matsurigoto indicates that the purpose of human governance was “to celebrate the deities who created the realm and the people” (165). It contained an element which can be regarded as ‘religious’ in the modern sense.

As for the Chinese concept of li (rites), it was read as rei in Japan. While the Chinese concept of li represents the Confucian concept of propriety, in mid-nineteenth century Japan, the notion of rei was understood as norms of respecting existing social hierarchy. In this conceptualization, it is very hard to regard rei as the equivalent to the western notion of ‘religious’ as distinct from ‘political’. The Protestant notion of private faith, as articulated by the term ‘religious’, was bilaterally translated into the Japanese concept of rei, as a set of cultural codes which encompassed the entire social practices, including governance.

A similar transformation of meaning can be found in the process of the bilateral translation of Perry’s letter which accompanied President Fillmore’s letter. Whereas Williams used the term li to translate the adjective ‘religious’ in Fillmore’s letter, he chose the Chinese word kiáu教, for the noun ‘religion’ in Perry’s letter.

As Williams’ own publications in Sinology indicate, the mid-nineteen century Chinese notion of kiáu was much broader than the Western concept of religion as private faith. For example, the definition of kiáu in Williams’s 1856 dictionary is: “To instruct, to teach, to show how; to command, to order; precept, principle, rule; doctrines, tenets; a religious sect, a school, or those who hold to the same opinions” (144). In addition, kiáuindicates a kind of hierarchical harmony between the old and the young, and between ruler and subjects (372). It is also a kind of teaching to be transmitted from the old to the young, and from ruler to subject (372). The notion of kiáu was much broader than the Western category of religion, with a strong sense of ancestral traditions, which included families and the state.

The Chinese character for kiáu was employed in the Japanese translation of Perry’s letter. In the Japanese language, the same ideograph is read kyō. It is also pronouncedoshie. As kiáu does in Chinese, the Japanese notion of kyō or oshie refers to the generalized idea of teaching or teachings. However, the Japanese concept of kyō oroshie seems to have moved away from the strong hierarchical connotation which is apparent in its Chinese meaning. For the Japanese, it meant a kind of systematic knowledge constituting the basis for public morality and the outward form of state ritual (161). In this sense, it was likely that such things as the constitutional systems and state ceremonies in Europe and America, would have been categorized as kyō by the Japanese (162). In this light, the tacit distinction between religion and the magistrate, which Perry made in his letter, almost completely disappeared in the Japanese version.

Following on from the Perry Expedition, President Franklin Pierce (1804-1869) appointed Townsend Harris (1804-1878) in 1855, to be America’s first consul to Japan. Harris opened the first US Consulate in Japan in 1856. He successfully negotiated the Treaty of Amity and Commerce (also known as ‘Harris Treaty’) of 1858, in which he inserted a clause on ‘religion’.

The American projection of ‘religion’ onto Japan in the mid-nineteenth century was an integral part of America’s Christian imperialism, powered by its self-belief in its divine mission in the world. The generic idea of ‘religion’ was brought to Japan by the Perry expedition, and subsequently by Harris, in this cultural context. These issues are fully examined in my forthcoming article, ‘American Imperialism and the Japanese Encounter with “Religion”: 1853-1858’, which will be published this year in the special issue of the Sapienza University of Rome’s Studi e Materiali di Storia delle Religioni.

[1] Perry mistakenly thought the Shogun was an emperor, while the Japanese historically conceptualized the Shogun as the Emperor’s military commander.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Pleasantville and Social Reproduction

By Craig Martin

In Religion & Society—my introductory religious studies course—I regularly use the 1998 comedy Pleasantville to engage in a discussion about how we’re socialized to actively seek conformity to the existing social order. The film is about two teens—David, played by Toby Maguire, and Jennifer, played by Reese Witherspoon—who are magically transported from the 1990s into a 1950s sitcom; they immediately begin to chafe under the social expectations of small town life. As they start deviating from the social norms of the fictional sitcom world (and encourage others to do so as well), they disrupt the life of the entire town. (If you haven’t seen it, the trailer is below. Note: there are spoilers further down.)

The film is all about the internalization and breaking of social norms—that is, social reproduction and contestation. On the one hand, life in the invented TV town is unrealistic and absurd: there are no toilets in the bathroom (because people in 1950s sitcoms weren’t shown defecating), their parents don't know what sex is (because sex never comes up in programs from the 50s), fire doesn’t burn, the basketball team never loses a game, etc. On the other hand, the absurdity of the way of life modeled in the sitcom doesn't prohibit the internalization—by the TV audience—of the social norms modeled. At the end of the film, after David and Jennifer return to their “real” world, we see David’s divorcee mom sobbing because she internalized exactly the sort of social norms she presumably learned from television shows like this one as a child (women are supposed to be married, have a perfect home, perfect children, white picket fence, etc.). She’s thoroughly ashamed of herself for not living up to the model she had internalized.

But shame is not the only response shown by the characters in the film when deviating from the norm. Some experience deviance as pleasurable and liberating, and others respond to deviance by attempting to restore the status quo via ridicule, shaming, new community regulations, or even violence. The film tends to present the responses to change as falling on one of these two sides: those who are bold and transformative, and those (cowards?) who want to keep things the same. It is not always so simplistic though; some of those who stand to lose (privilege or power, for instance) from social transformation are presented as pitiable at times. As David and Jennifer’s TV mom leaves their TV dad, their father is left confused and lost, not knowing how to cook or clean or care for himself alone.

Much of the film advances a sort of liberal ideology: desire is deep inside you, needs to come out, although its fulfillment is often blocked by people who are cruel or wrongly controlling. In those scenes that fit with this ideology, deviance from social norms is experienced as pleasurable and liberating.

On the other hand, there is much in the film that is in tension with this ideology. It's clear that desire don't simply come from deep within, but rather has its origin in part from the socialization process: the movie is itself a commentary on the effects of television itself in creating (potentially tragic) subjects of a certain type. The two most telling and poignant scenes in the movie are the parallel ones where David speaks with his two moms, both of whom are crying because they’re ashamed of their own deviance. In the first (see the clip below), David helps to put gray makeup on his sobbing TV mom after she turns from black and white to color, in order to help her appear to conform and “pass” as normal once again. Later, at the end of the film, he does the reverse: he helps to remove makeup from his “real” mom, all the while telling her that it is okay not to have the life to which she once aspired. Both of those women do not at all experience deviance from social expectations as liberating; on the contrary, they're so deeply ashamed and confused that they’re paralyzed.

In our class discussion I point to how the liberal model of deviance as liberating is highly problematic. Most of us are more often like David’s two moms when we break social norms we've deeply internalized—we experience it as disconcerting and shameful. The most effective social controls are the ones that invite us to police ourselves.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

"Welcome Back, This is Not a Spiritual Shopping Store"

By Tenzan Eaghll

A simple point that I like to make on the first day of any Religious Studies course is the following: this is not a "spiritual shopping store." I make this point by stressing what we are not doing in the course: we are not searching for the truth about religion.

When some students first think about taking a class on religion they often do so under the assumption that Religious Studies will help them navigate between the different religions of the world, and thereby make wise spiritual choices in their personal lives. These students tend to think of Religious Studies as an aid to help them choose the best religion ("Buddhism vs. Islam, Yah!") or as an aid to overcome religious institutions all together and be an informed spiritual agnostic ("I took a class on religion once and saw that it is all made up, so now I am spiritual but not religious"). This popular approach to the subject is what leads students to think of the Religious Studies classroom as a "spiritual shopping store"—a way of learning the truth about religion, or life, for that matter. They enroll in a religion class to read books on mysticism because they think that is what real religion looks like ("OMG, Saint Francis of Assisi was the real deal, everything else is just hypocrisy"). Or, to study Jainism because they think the idea of ahimsa is the only truth that can save our confused world ("non-violence is the only answer").

To underline the fact that this "spiritual shopping store" approach is not what we are doing in class, I like to show the following clip from Woody Allen's 1984 movie, Hannah and Her Sisters. Now, I love Allen and I love this movie, but it is a perfect example of how not to approach Religious Studies:


I use this clip to introduce students to the a priori assumptions they may have about religion, as it provides a perfect example of  what Timothy Fitzgerald calls The Ideology of Religious Studies.  If you watch the clip closely, you will notice that Allen imagines religion to be a private space of belief, a sanctuary of meaning and value in a desolate secular world.  In the clip he peruses different religions as if they were objects in a spiritual market place of divine meaning.  Of course, this is a very modern understanding of religion and it is quite common in popular culture, so I am not faulting Allen for presenting religion in this manner, but it is an approach that doesn’t help us understand the discursive role religion plays in our modern world. What is ignored in this shopping store approach to religion is all the political, historical, and cultural elements that make this private interpretation of religion possible in the first place. 

In contrast to this "spiritual shopping store" approach to Religious Studies, I stress that we are going to analyze all the social elements that make viewing religion possible. Echoing Slavoj Žižek in The Perverts Guide to Cinema,  I tell them to become religion perverts: I want them to peer behind  the surface image of religion that is presented in textbooks and popular culture and look closely at how discourse on religion is presented. We are not analyzing religion in order to a attain a true description of the world, but in an attempt to view how the very concept of religion functions. This reverses the shopping store approach to Religious Studies by placing students on the margins of religious discourse, so to speak, as critics. Contrary to the above clip from Hannah and Her Sisters, the students are not to approach religion as confused practitioners searching for the secret key to the universe, but as spectators viewing a series of images that are defined as religious. How does religion function in the market place of cultural meaning? What kind of work does it do for people like Allen who have a particular type of world they want to sustain, or understand? As Zizek suggests in relation to filmic reality, the goal of critical analysis is not to generate some kind of "fake fast food religious experience" by getting beyond illusion and touching the real, but by peering inside the construction of illusion itself, observing its production and moving parts.

So, welcome back, but be forewarned, this class is not a "spiritual shopping store"... it is a sustained lesson in the pervert art of critical analysis. 

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Forum on Teaching the Introductory Course

By Adam T. Miller and Emily Crews
University of Chicago

Back in April, Russell McCutcheon came to our home institution, the University of Chicago, to kick off the Divinity School’s Craft of Teaching lecture series on teaching introductory level courses in religious studies. (If you’ve got an hour and a half to kill, feel free to watch it.) Building on Jonathan Z. Smith’s reflections on pedagogy—most notably the insight that because it is not possible to teach everything in one class, one ought to put thought into what one includes, what one excludes, and why—McCutcheon presented his listeners with a series of problems that those of us tasked with teaching introductory courses will likely face. Drawing on his own experience in the classroom, he sometimes pointed out some ways through the morass. But for the most part, the paper presented problems in an open-ended fashion—no doubt with the hope of eliciting comment and conversation.

Elicit comment and conversation it did. Some weeks after the talk, McCutcheon contacted a handful of doctoral students at Chicago to see whether there was any interest in pursuing an in-print conversation on the basis of his talk. A good number of us hopped on board, and off we rode into the sunset…err, we mean, off we went to our notepads and computers. Our collective labor eventually resulted in a collaborative article, published January 2016 in Teaching Theology and Religion, titled: “Crafting the Introductory Course in Religious Studies.”

In addition to McCutcheon, five folks (at various stages of their careers—all early, some earlier than others) participated in this project. Aaron T. Hollander, doctoral candidate in Theology and currently the Program Coordinator of the Craft of Teaching, introduces the collection by situating it in its Craft of Teaching context. Andrew Durdin, doctoral candidate in History of Religions, draws attention to the fact that the problems McCutcheon describes are not easily solved once and for all, but rather rear their heads again and again, and seeks to navigate the choppy waters produced by the winds of the classroom. Kelli A. Gardner, doctoral student in Hebrew Bible, addresses the problem of attitude, asking how instructors can cultivate in students a willingness to engage course material from respectful but ultimately critical stances. Adam T. Miller, a doctoral student in History of Religions, wrestles with a different set of problems that arises when teaching an inherited course—that is, a course in which several decisions have been made for the instructor in advance. Emily D. Crews, doctoral candidate in History of Religions, considers the many ways in which the complexity of students’ and instructors’ identities—gender, sexual, racial, etc.—can create certain teaching opportunities and make others difficult, if not impossible.

These five responses only scratch the surface of how early career teachers—and, indeed, teachers at any stage—might make use of McCutcheon’s thought-provoking piece, and how the conversation it inspired might continue. To be a part of the discussion, take a look at the January issue of Teaching Theology and Religion and/or leave your comments here.