April 14, 2005


The God Gap: Japan and the clash of civilizations (ROGER PULVERS, 4/10/05, The Japan Times)

There are many differences between Japan and the West, both historical and contemporary, but there is no gap so gaping and, perhaps, unbridgeable as the "God Gap."

When I first arrived in Japan in 1967, though I could barely speak a word of the language I felt immediately at home. I was happy to be away from the holier-than-thou rhetoric of life in the United States, a country whose instinct for religious intolerance runs deep within the body politic. That instinct is suppressed by laws which at times -- our times included -- are weakened by leaders who equate religious dogma with liberty.

The Japanese, on the other hand, have throughout their history been admirably tolerant of other religions. The persecution of Christians in the Edo Period (1603-1867) is an undoubted stain on this record, yet it was no worse than what European Christians were doing to each other and most everyone else. In addition, the policy had the virtue of excluding Europeans from Japan. After all, their sweet oratory was merely the colonialist's ruse and their Bible's pages reeked of gunpowder. By evading the European God, Japan circumvented the Western dominator.

Now, one topic currently being passionately discussed in Japan's government circles is bunmeikan taiwa (dialogue among civilizations). World cultures, as represented blatantly in our day by their religions, seem to be in the throes of a violent clash. Confrontation leads all too readily to violence; violence to holy destruction.

One of the characteristic features of Japanese society is the avoidance of confrontation -- most Japanese would rather walk away from a conflict than join the fray, and there is a tendency to nod and agree with another's opinion even when it is not shared. This is done out of both an ingrained civility and a commitment to the harmony of the moment over the self-assertion of conviction.

To non-Japanese unfamiliar with Japanese manners or the Japanese love of propriety and decorum over free expression and discord, this avoidance of confrontation can appear suspiciously like hypocrisy. But it is based on an ideal of amelioration: that people of differing beliefs can surely live together if they do not try to impose their faith on each other.

Set aside for the nonce the unfortunate fact that like other godless nations they're dying off, how'd you like to see him read his essay on a street corner in Nanking?

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 14, 2005 10:46 PM

it takes your breath away to see how jamoke's like this just breeze past genuine evil in their unseemly rush to find common cause for their own agendas. "oh don't notice the religous persecution for 250 years, don't notice the horrors of WWII, they don't believe in god so they must be alright"...idiot.

Posted by: cjm at April 14, 2005 10:53 PM

Not just "alright", but superior.

"By evading the European God, Japan circumvented the Western dominator."

And started down the road that got two cities nuked and many more incinerated, a result which was actually an improvement over what the Japanese intended to do to themselves and anyone else they could reach had the war continued.

So why is it that all these people who find every other culture (including New Guinean and Amazonian neolithics) superior to that in the US and it's Western European ancestors (the "colonialists" of this article) rarely get the gumption to leave this hellhole behind?

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at April 14, 2005 11:41 PM

My first post on the Brother's Blog but have to disagree with my man Orrin and the other two brothers who left a post.
I joined the Navy in 1993. My first command was in Japan. I finally transferred back to the U.S. in 2003 and the only reason I did so was because I did not have another choice.
There are many other sailors that stay in Japan as long as they can. My thought on this is that after living in the U.S where every ignorant ass thinks they have a right to express themselves living in Japan is a relief because of the very attention to harmony that the article mentions.
Life in Japan is very difficult compared to the U.S but at least the ass factor is so much lower.
I wish I was there now and this is coming from a straight up Bush, Red state player.

Posted by: Scott Cole at April 15, 2005 12:17 AM

They see their own country and culture as a hellhole because it won't do or believe what they want it to, so they project other places into being Shangra-La, and eliminate any facts to the contrary from the debate. It's the same reason why so many on the left can find sympathy with the Iraqi insurgents today or with the totalitarian Soviet state in the past.

Posted by: John at April 15, 2005 12:19 AM


Read this book...it's all in there.

I remember skimming a book a few years ago in which a scholar noted the tendency of Western intellectuals to emotionally reject their own society and project their hopes and dreams onto other lands. The scholar noted that, of course, this is a quintessentially Western practice: Tacitus was doing the same thing 1900 years ago.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at April 15, 2005 12:28 AM

I definitely do not see my own country as a hellhole and I don't consider Japan as a Shangri-La, in fact I said it was a harder country to live in.
If we had a long time to talk over a few beers you would find that my desire to return to Japan and experience the harmony there (rapidly diminishing as they take the worst of popular culture) is a reaction to the assertive products of American left wing education and media.

Posted by: Scott Cole at April 15, 2005 12:34 AM

And then there is Ichiro. Observe him observing his bat.

Posted by: ghostcat at April 15, 2005 12:59 AM

scott: i think he was referring to the author of the article.

Posted by: cjm at April 15, 2005 1:24 AM

Scott: That's okay if you want to leave for Japan. Just say a prayer for those of us who stay and fight the good fight.

Posted by: Buttercup at April 15, 2005 3:46 AM

I've spent 6 weeks in Japan and collaborated with a number of Japanese scientists, and I can agree with Scott's respect for Japanese courtesy and conviviality. But it may be a beautiful but short-lived flower: the Japanese are rapidly diminishing in number. And suppressing disagreements may make it difficult to resolve problems and figure out how to progress -- look at how difficult it has been for Japan to change anything in its government policies despite 15 years of economic stagnation. At some point, you have to deal with problems. In the U.S., I think we'll become more harmonious as leftism continues its decline, while I'd expect Japan to go the other way as its troubles mount. Already, crime among the young is rising rapidly.

Posted by: pj at April 15, 2005 7:31 AM

What's hilarious about this is that all he knows is post-war Japan, which is what we made them.

Posted by: David Cohen at April 15, 2005 7:38 AM


Better visit fast. It won't be there long.

Posted by: oj at April 15, 2005 7:53 AM

--a country whose instinct for religious intolerance runs deep within the body politic.---

Can't have religious intolerance, but cultural intolerance is OK.

My husband and I went to Hong Kong in 92 w/a stopover in Seoul. My husband got into a conversation w/a gentleman and the gentleman proceeded to tell him our cultural problems and said that his country doesn't have them.

My husband replied, that's because you don't let anyone in.

Posted by: Sandy P at April 15, 2005 10:31 AM

For all the super-politeness (met some Japanese businessmen the other day, perfectly charming), the pressure has to manifest somehow. Sometimes I think the whole culture will just snap when I hear of stuff like this arcade game...

Posted by: Mike Earl at April 15, 2005 10:37 AM

Mr. Pulvers may be shocked to learn that his "godless" Shangra-La is not indifferent to Christianity. Here's an article in First Things that may be an eye-opener to him, called "J. S. Bach in Japan." Here's the link: http://www.firstthings.com/ftissues/ft0006/opinion/siemon-netto.html

Posted by: L. Rogers at April 15, 2005 10:49 AM

You are correct. A foreigner living in Japan gets the benefits of a relatively safe country (getting worse though), politeness, etc. For the Japanese the harmony comes at a great price.

A good example is safety for a woman. In most areas of Japan a woman can walk home very late at night and not have to worry about an attack (again things are getting worse) but very perverted pornography abounds.

Posted by: Scott Cole at April 15, 2005 11:02 AM

Scott --

As cjm said, I was referring to the post above your message, which wasn't in the thread when I sent my reply.

As for Japan, while it does have its positive aspects, the point Pulvers was trying to make was the absence of western theology and it's presence in the United States was what made Japan a vastly superior country to his native land. It's an example of someone ignoring the faults of a country because they're so desperate to highlight the faults of their own nation.

Posted by: John at April 15, 2005 11:31 AM

The emphasis on harmony and group consensus in Japan does reduce conflict, but it can be stifling. In Japan, the nail that sticks up gets hammered down. Japan remains a very hierarchical country. People avoid social conflict, not be tolerantly accepting other people, but by conforming their actions to their social superiors. It would never, NEVER occur to someone high in the hierarchy to abandon their own convictions to keep peace with subordinates.

As a foreigner, Pulvers is put outside of this. Japanese treat foreigners as a guest and treat them with a deference they would not show if he was Japanese himself. If he was Japanese and constantly had to stifle his own opinions, conform his behavior, and serve his superiors he may appreciate American culture a bit more. He no doubt knows this. Perhaps he's thankful that no matter how long he lives in Japan, the Japanese will always treat him as a guest because they will never, ever welcome him as Japanese.

Japan is a beautiful country with some great people. And despite OJ's rants, they have world class companies and creatively contribute to world and popular culture. There is much to admire about it. But your admiration should be based on what the culture is really about, and not a fantasy projection on it.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at April 15, 2005 12:34 PM

Doubt anyone is still looking at the comments here but Chris Durnell laid it all out in one post that I couldn't do in three.

A foreigner will never will be welcomed as a Japanese. A Japanese-American or Nisei will not be welcomed as a Japanese even.

It is a selfish attitude but I enjoy the benefits of being treated as a guest without having to pay the price of the conformity.

Posted by: Scott Cole at April 16, 2005 12:46 AM

But combined with an imploding fertility rate it's doomed.

Posted by: oj at April 16, 2005 12:52 AM