OAC Online Seminar 13-24 October: Cosmetic Cosmologies in Japan


There is a computing expression, What You See Is What You Get (pronounced ‘wiziwig’ for short) that refers to the aim of showing on the screen what the end-product will actually look like, as opposed to a string of numbers and letters. It was borrowed from a TV comedy catch phrase meaning “I am who I am, take it or leave it”. The idea that the truth is not what appears on the surface is endemic in western civilization and is especially favoured by academic intellectuals who often like to think that their own shambolic appearance conceals real depth. They may even cultivate being scruffy in order to suggest hidden depths that aren't there! Beauty is only skin deep after all. It is not hard to find in all this Christian notions of the soul and of heaven being vastly superior to this life. The hedonistic riposte is to say that, other things being equal, it is better to be rich, beautiful, successful and happy than not or, in Gordon Gecko’s words, “greed is good”.

Philip Swift’s entertaining and erudite essay takes off from ethnographic reports of Japanese praying at Shinto shrines. It seems that going through the motions of prayer is all that matters there and this causes problems for academic interpreters (anthropologists included). Surely there has to be more to the ritual than that? Philip asks rather what might happen if we treat superficiality not as a problem but as a resource. He also tackles a common claim that Japanese ritual does not evoke cosmology, the theories and stories that explain how our universe was made. He suggests rather that forms and surfaces – the artificial and the superficial -- might themselves be understood as being cosmologically efficacious in Japan.

Philip Swift lives in London where he taught in the history and anthropology departments at University College London for five years. Philip carried out fieldwork with the members of a Japanese religious group. An article based on this research ('Touching Conversion: Tangible Transformations in a Japanese New Religion') was awarded the Curl Essay Prize for 2009 by the Royal Anthropological Institute. OAC regulars already know Phil for his fantastic blog post The Octopus: Eight Footnotes.

You can read or download the present paper, Cosmetic cosmologies in Japan: Notes towards a superficial investig... here. This online seminar will last twelve days, so there is plenty of time to read and reflect, even to do some impromptu fieldwork! This is not just a specialist paper on Japanese religion. It touches on issues that affect us all. And to prove it, Philip’s argument starts with a scene from a James Bond novel. Now is that superficial or what?

In the movie, Last year at Marienbad, a stranger tries to persuade a married woman to go away with him, but she doesn’t seem to remember that they already met a year ago. It’s a pretty inscrutable movie. I once saw its writer, Alain Robbe-Grillet, being interviewed by journalists on French TV. One of them said to him. “I have a theory about what is going on in the film: they were killed together last year at Marienbad and are now ghosts!” Robbe-Grillet replied “What I find interesting is that you need to know what really happened.” Enjoy. And please feel free to join the discussion!

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Such surfaces! such exemplary imitation! so many simulacra! such a fine cosmetic treatment! This is a serious paper with a serious anthropological intention, but it is also funny and provoking. What is it about, though? Ostensibly it is a reading of Japanese ritual practices and an attempt to winnow out some unhelpful terms, like 'belief', that keep reemerging despite well known flaws. Dare I say, though, that, at a deeper level, the paper is about the expectation that interpretations should have depth in relation to what immediately presents to the eye - the surface of things. So, we are treating the ratio; depth > surface. Is Ian Fleming's description of a ritual more superficial than a social scientist's, Thomas Kasulis' for instance, and if so, what does that mean?

Those of us brought up in a European Christian tradition, particularly a Protestant one, know that the most important values and qualities are those that are left unstated - the motives that lie behind what is said. Excessive speech is a sign of the devil. 'Yea, yea: Nay, nay: For whatsoeuer is more then these, commeth of euill' - words that Weber quotes in his comparative study of Confucianism. Particularly in the European anthropological tradition, language belongs to the surface and requires comprehension in terms of the social substructure - substructures are more important intellectually than superstructures. It is of more value to show what is behind something than simply to show it as it is; or, god forbid, simply to copy it. The thing-in-itself is more elusive and valuable than how it presents itself.

In The Lonely Crowd, David Riesman counterposed the inner-directed and that other-directed American. The inner directed were driven by what came from their own spirit; the other-directed responded to the surface of social relationships constantly transforming themselves in the process. Riesman's is a nostalgic account - inner-direction was odd, stiff, unyielding but there was something foundationally valuable about it: outer-direction was commonplace, increasingly so.

As Philip Swift argues here, when Euro-American anthropology lit on Japan - it was shocked by the inability of the ethnographic eye to settle in any particular place. Beyond saying that Japan was a mirror image - an old trick - the search for an appropriate analytical ratio of surface and depth failed. Baudrillard merely spelt out the problem - there are signs but nothing is signified. But this seems to replay an Orientalist tune - Nothing is original, nothing created, everything is a quote or a copy - an imitation, of something else.

Nigel Rapport often repeats a latin tag which I enjoy: he borrowed it from George Devereux who borrowed it from the classics and I have borrowed it back - si bis faciunt idem, non est idem - when two people do the same thing it is not the same thing. The more one thinks about this statement, and despite copyright laws that try to legalise the opposite view, this is a fundamental truth that presents a counter-strand to a great trajectory of European thought. Finally (for now) it strikes me that this is the efficacy of Japanese ritual imitation as Philip Swift describes it; each mountain of rice is the sacred mountain, but it cannot be the same mountain.

Thank you for this thought provoking paper. Upon reading it, I was immediately reminded of a quote from one of Borges's short stories (Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius): "One of the heresiarchs of Uqbar had stated that mirrors and copulation are abominable, since they both multiply the numbers of man." To this one might add that "behind" both deception "lies" as well.

Your account is itself a play with mirrors. In negating an orientalist reading of Japan (whether "ours" or "theirs") as a mirror image or reflection of the West, you argue that mirrors and surfaces might be conceptualised differently (i.e. without a corresponding hidden depth).

You then however talk about divinities that reside "within" mirrors and other not-so-apparent (at least to the Western eye) activities and practices such as mitate (lit. ‘seeing-standing’), a kind of imaging technique for the conceptualisation of something presented in terms of something else distant or absent. How are we to understand these invisible or virtual dimensions (the not-so-apparent) if not as kinds of depths. What other kinds of surfaces are there? How are they made apparent if not to the eye? For example, employing a Melanesian idiom, are they felt on the skin?

Also, your account being preoccupied with the cosmological significance of surfaces, I was very surprised that you did not address Japanese aesthetics more generally, something about which is found in most of our accounts of Japan, even if "superficially."

In addition, more than once you explicitly engage the recent literature on cosmology, in particular that of Viveiros de Castro, but you resist using the word ontology (except in your quotation of Miller). I suspect you have your reasons for doing so, and I would be curious to hear what they are. This of course brings up the question of what exactly we mean by a "cosmological" or "ontological" account or reading, and the differences if any between them.

Furthermore, cosmologies being about difference and comparison, it would have been interesting to see your account of Japanese cosmology in a comparative frame (Islands of Cosmology?), perhaps in relation to perspectivism in Inner Asia (see also Giovanni da Col's comparative programme)

Finally, returning to the Borges's quote which I began, we have not yet addressed its second part: copulation. It would be interesting to hear how such a cosmological account of the importance of appearances extends to the realm of gender in Japan.
In gentlemanly James Bond fashion, I'd like to raise a glass of martini to Keith for his introductory comments, and to Huon for his considered response. While I'm at it, I might as well observe that, in You Only Live Twice (the movie), Bond asks for his customary drink and - as if to reinforce the topsy-turvy trope - he gets it prepared the other way around: stirred, not shaken. The point is, Western ethnography of Japanese ritual practice sometimes ends up in the same predicament: it doesn't get what it wants, and what it wants, or expects, is depth.

One powerful reason for this Euro-American preference - why we want to drink deep, as it were - is something I didn't mention, but both Keith and Huon do. It's the legacy of Protestantism. We've been drunk on the stuff for far too long, and it is only fairly recently that efforts have been made, if not to sober us up, then at least to admit that we might have a drinking problem.

Thus, to stick with Japan, there are a number of Western ethnographic accounts of shamanic practice (for example) in which the investigator ends up disappointed, because they got something other than what they asked for. The most famous case was Mircea Eliade, who decided (in his monumental book on shamanism) that shamanism in Japan isn't the real thing any more but is merely 'factitious and crudely simulated'. But were we to stop swigging from the bottle marked 'Protestantism' for a minute, and achieve what alcoholics call 'a moment of clarity', we might conceive the possibility that the authenticity of shamanic practice might be something produced through simulation itself.

Seeing the matter more clearly, the Japanese scholar Masakatsu Gunji - whose work I referred to in the paper - puts these differences down to the fact that we have different gods. The god of Christianity inspires a particular notion of what counts as 'real', but Japanese gods, on the contrary, are not pleased by 'real things' (honmono). This is, no doubt, an over-simplification, but it is still, I think, a pretty effective one.

Of course, I realise that in arguing in this fashion, I risk the accusation that I'm being taken for a ride on the orientalist express. One doesn't have to dig very deep to find Western accounts of Japan that stress its superficiality above all else, e.g.: the Japanese 'are open to all teachings, which, however, go about one inch deep'; 'the decorous demeanour of the nation betrays the lack of mental activity beneath' (these examples are cited by Chamberlain in his encyclopaedia of Japan). Or, Rudyard Kipling, who concluded of the Japanese that 'when you come to speak to the imitation...You touch it, and it is not what you thought'.

Now, the idea that the Japanese are so devoted to surfaces that they are incapable of deep thought is a notion that should be utterly, flatly, rejected. But such statements are interesting, precisely because they tell us about 'our' (Euro-American) prejudices.

It strikes me, anyway, that the particular problem I'm interested in, is a bit like Peer Gynt's onion:

'What an incredible number of layers!
Don't we get to the heart of it soon?
No, I'm damned if we do. Right down to the centre
there's nothing but layers - smaller and smaller...'

being taken for a ride on the orientalist express
(A remnant of text was left hanging at the bottom of my previous post. Sorry - just ignore it)


Great questions. Thanks.
I'll try and respond to them - all too slowly - in ascending order of difficulty.

The easiest is the 'What - no ontology?' query. Actually, I happen to think that this is a very useful word, because it can take anthropological thinking to interesting places. (The word does a lot of work in the essay, 'Touching Conversion', that Keith mentions in his introductory remarks, which is an attempt to understand conversion in a Japanese new religion as an ontological process.) Hence, I'm not quite sure why I didn't mention it in this particular paper. It's omission certainly wasn't owing to strategic reasons. I put it down to physical exhaustion!

As for not discussing Japanese aesthetics at greater length, I should say that one of the inspirations that got me fired up to write this paper in the first place was a statement by the philosopher Megumi Sakabe that, 'in Japanese traditional thought there is nothing but surfaces'. Were we to take this remark seriously, we would perhaps first of all have to try to escape the conceptual clutches of a different villain - not Calvin this time, but Plato. I am being a bit theatrical, of course, but you get the idea.

The rather recondite concept of mitate is a term that relates to kabuki theatre and to Japanese poetics more generally. But I agree that I should have devoted more time to a discussion of Japanese aesthetics. Again, exhaustion intervened.

Next: the mirror question. In saying that Japanese ethnographic materials might offer a different way of conceptualising mirrors, the contrast I had in mind was that their function for 'us' is often that of recognition. What I mean is that we tend to imagine that when we look into mirrors, we only recognise ourselves. Hence, the postmodern take on anthropological epistemology, that all we can really know about is ourselves and no one else. But perhaps this epistemology is, after all, local, because I hazard that mirrors in Japan might be understood to operate in other ways.

In the Amaterasu myth, the divinity is persuaded to leave the cave because she thinks she's looking at a different divinity altogether; rather than recognition, what she gets reflected back to her is difference. This might be understood as an example of the capacity of Japanese divinities to not appreciate 'true things'. But, equally, it would seem to support Huon's highly insightful proposal that the presentation of the same thing might actually be something rather different.

Getting on to your more difficult - excellent - question of the invisible, virtual aspects of mirrors, in so far as mirrors are often hidden inside Japanese shrines as repositories (literally 'bodies') for the gods, I confess I have no ready answer. The main reason given as to why such mirrors - mostly, but other objects are used as well - are kept out of sight, is related to the maintenance of purity. Concealment, and its relation to purity, is a major issue in Japanese religions. I almost hear my audience exclaiming, as they read these lines, 'Aha - depth at last!' Perhaps. To be perfectly honest, I haven't yet thought of a better way to relate this to the other issues in the paper. It is, at any rate, a paper in progress.
But what I find quite suggestive is the fact that mirrors - those exemplary devices of simulation - are very often the substitute bodies of the gods.

Finally, hardest question last: you ask about the issue of gender. Very unfortunately, I have to make another confession, that I don't know enough about this to give you much of an answer.

I'll have to mix another martini and think it over!
Phil, a most enjoyable paper. And, I believe, that when Huon writes, "the paper is about the expectation that interpretations should have depth in relation to what immediately presents to the eye" he puts his finger on the problem that the paper poses for Western, especially academic, readers. Despite the claims of Frederic Jameson that postmodernism involved a shift from internal, temporal and narrative depth to an external, atemporal, and visual focus, with the corresponding psychopathology shifting from hysteria to schizophrenia, and the seductiveness of Baudrillard's simulacra, we anthropologists remain, in large part, attached to the 19th century. We embrace views of cultural and self-analysis that, derived from the Protestant reaction to what was seen as the superficiality and paganism of Papistry, demanded instead an inwardness and depth in questioning aimed to uncover hidden meanings. When we think of cultural analysis or critique, we revert with little conscious reflection to the "unmasking" style familiar to us from both Marxist and Freudian analysis, which themselves may be only examples of Romanticism, with roots going back, as you point out, to Plato.

That said, and I say it only to put it aside for a moment, this self-absorption with familiar thinking in our own tradition diverts attention from some fairly straightforward ideas familiar to students of Zen and martial arts. I am thinking, of course, of the notion that the point of ritualized activity is not to express personal emotions, desires or meanings. It is, on the contrary, TO GET RID OF THEM ALTOGETHER! The goal is to practice to the point that the self disappears, allowing what is supposed to happen to happen naturally. Thus, what appears to the foreign observer to be extraordinary artifice is, instead, a discipline that eliminates the self-questioning and fraught dialogue with that greater Self/Superego, God, associated with prayer in the Judaeo-Christian tradition.

The Japanese businessman at the shrine can from this perspective be read as a mundane example of this sort of meditative discipline. He pauses, arranges his body and acts with accord with an established kata (form), calming and centering himself before plunging into his workday. What we see is, indeed, what he gets from this daily routine.

We do not, of course, know that in this particular case the interpretation I offer is true. The businessman could be desperately worried about his mother who is dying of cancer or an upcoming interview with his boss. What we do know, however, is that Japanese culture contains numerous and well-known models for ritualized behavior, behavior that may, indeed, seem superficial—to a Western observer obsessed with depth, an obsession which, the Buddha teaches, is precisely the sort of attachment from which the enlightened have freed themselves.
Thanks to everyone for getting us off to a good start and especially to Philip for his engaging paper and even more engaging replies (don't feel obliged to reply to everyone or at once, Phil). If there is anyone out there wondering if they can break into what must seem like a closed circle of cronies, I know it is hard, but hold your nose and plunge in; we won't bite. Nor do your points or questions have to take the form and style of what has been said so far. We have launched the discussion coherently enough. We can afford some diversions now.

John McCreery said:
postmodernism involved a shift from internal, temporal and narrative depth to an external, atemporal, and visual focus

What stuck me about John's evocation of Jameson is that exactly the same shift describes the ethnographic revolution in the early twentieth century, if we follow Johannes Fabian's argument in Time and the Other which I am inclined to do. It's often hard to distinguish between what is claimed for modernism and for postmodernism. Briefly, an evolutionary narrative deriving moderns from an earlier, "primitive" stage whose remnants were now scattered in remote places was replaced with intensive fieldwork aimed at revealing the contemporary significance of behaviour for people whose simple societies were still described as "primitive". Moreover, the method was observation, seeing live action rather than listening to stories in refugee camps.

I was told to pay particular attention to what I saw in the first few weeks, since after that it would not be so strange and I might miss the important stuff. A fetish was made of learning the native language, but what level can you reach in a 12-month stint, that of a 9 year-old? I have always believed (there you go, that word again) that ethnographers carry a huge burden of guilt concerning the shallowness of their own understanding and empirical research, when compared with the scope of the issues they want to write about. "My field notes" remain a secret store never made public, in most cases even after death. What kind of practice is that for a modern discipline?

Of course the solution was to escape into the ivory tower and write about other people's writing with a vague acknowledgment of a stint of fieldwork somewhere some time ("I have been there and you haven't"). Philip's paper is not based on ethnography at all. It is a prospectus, perhaps for future field research, but largely a compilation of literary sources informed by his evident love for and knowledge of things Japanese. Hence the importance of his subtitle: Notes towards a superficial investigation. What is the point of seeking depth knowledge if it is largely out of reach to the ethnographer?

There are other ethnographic traditions than Malinowski's famous method of baptism by immersion. The French, for example, did not imagine that they could get behind the facade presented to them by the peoples they occasionally lived among. They rather made a virtue of the cultural distance between the two sides (The Other) and, in the case of Marcel Griaule, advocated conceiving of fieldwork as a game where the ethnographer tries to trick his subtle opponent into revealing more than he intended. He would have laughed at the idea of immersion as a goal.

So, before we buy into the orientalist paradigm or universalise protestant iconoclasm, there is a lot more variation to consider if we are to accept or reject "seeing is believing". Perhaps that would be a suitable title for a debate. I want to bring up the issue of belief, but some other time.
Let me plunge in at the deep end with a potentially shallow response! I should first add the qualifier that I know nothing about Japanese society. I have found Philip’s paper, and subsequent responses, very thought provoking. Let me try and summarise the issues that emerged for me from reading and thinking about it in relation to my own interests and offer some thoughts. They do take us onto yet untouched pages and thus may be diversions from Philip’s particular (and deeper?) concerns :
The significance of superficiality – to break with the obsessive search for hidden depths. Is this an attempt to move beyond the ‘us/them’ dichotomy – to steer between the Scylla of the individual and the Charybdis of the universal? Or is there more here that wishes to take us beyond/away from the foundations provided by Enlightenment thinking?
In thinking about superficiality I am reminded of Persian stylized etiquette and the use of ta’aruf when dealing with people ‘outside’ one’s immediate circle. It involves (if I can venture an interpretation) hiding and controlling one’s personal feelings/opinions in the interests of smoothing interactions. It is also used in negotiating and establishing relative status. To ‘us’ it can often appear as hypocritical – grovelling and fawning. Another Persian concern is with aberu or face -losing/saving /maintaining face – making sure that the veil does not slip. In this case the superficial cover does not allow us to look behind the mask, but obviously something is being covered up. Codes of honour, concepts of shame support the significance of superficial negotiations about value and worth. One might argue that superficiality and the rituals that surround it serve to mask the hidden depths that can only be touched by prolonged immersion or intimate connection.
I am reminded also of the problems with the negotiation of value – the evaluation of worth – by development aid agencies and other public sector organisations (educational and health for eg.), and the quantitative exercises undertaken to measure results and impose standards and targets. I think we are all familiar with the superficial results produced by audits of various kinds – produced by outsiders. Excessive assessments take the trust out of relationships and the shallow results say little or nothing about the complex networks of meaning that lie behind the numbers produced. And yet these superficial statistics recording gross national product, or poverty levels, form the surfaces on which major policy prescriptions are made. Official story lines tell us nothing about the unofficial lines that link people to each other in more complex and empathic ways.
Here the analogy of the mirror becomes important. The superficiality of statistical data is further illustrated by the way in which that data is normally gathered. The interviewee, like a mirror, will reflect a perspective that is contingent on where she thinks the interviewer is coming from. The subsequent analysis of results while purporting to have depth (because of appropriate sampling techniques) will always be shallow. Have we scratched the surface or constructed it?
I feel that the conception of anthropology as a ‘mirror’ of and for ‘culture’ is worth pursuing further. Using the earlier analogy of the interview can one argue that anthropology in the hands of either the interviewer or the interviewee provides a mirror image that requires deeper reflexion?
Perhaps we need also to bring in current thinking about mirror neurons if we are intent on changing perspectives, rethinking the heritage from the enlightenment, and transcending not just the us/them divide but the nature/culture divide as well. “Neuroscientists believe this "mirroring" is the mechanism by which we can "read" the minds of others and empathize with them. It's how we "feel" someone's pain, how we discern a grimace from a grin, a smirk from a smile.”
On that note I will leave the stage, adjust my make-up, and await the next act!

David Marsden said:
In thinking about superficiality I am reminded of Persian stylized etiquette and the use of ta’aruf when dealing with people ‘outside’ one’s immediate circle. It involves (if I can venture an interpretation) hiding and controlling one’s personal feelings/opinions in the interests of smoothing interactions. It is also used in negotiating and establishing relative status. To ‘us’ it can often appear as hypocritical – grovelling and fawning. Another Persian concern is with aberu or face -losing/saving /maintaining face – making sure that the veil does not slip. In this case the superficial cover does not allow us to look behind the mask, but obviously something is being covered up. Codes of honour, concepts of shame support the significance of superficial negotiations about value and worth. One might argue that superficiality and the rituals that surround it serve to mask the hidden depths that can only be touched by prolonged immersion or intimate connection.

David, thank you so much for joining the discussion and especially for this valuable evidence for comparative analysis. What strikes me is how what you have written here could, by substituting Japanese for Farsi, have been written almost word-for-word about Japan. What would be enormously valuable, I think, would be to pursue the comparison in more detail, where interesting differences may emerge. The model I have in mind is Ruth Benedict's comparison of Chinese and Japanese in The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, where she elegantly demonstrates that while both are, in a broad sense, deeply concerned with "face," closer examination reveals strikingly different orientations (the Japanese are, for instance, insulted in situations in which the Chinese view is that a gentleman should not be bothered).

In broad outline, the same phenomena, an insistence on proper form and self-discipline that minimizes display of emotion, is found all over the world. Examples that pop into my mind include the early American republic as described in Joanne B. Freeman (2002) Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic or Richard L. Bushman (1993) The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities and the U.S. Military, in particular my daughter's alma mater, the United States Naval Academy. I am sure that MAI Saptenno could provide us with all sorts of variations from Indonesia. But again, and this is why I point to Benedict, besides the broad similarities there are numerous details in which (I borrow the terminology from Geertz) the "models of" and "models for" differ significantly. Exploring those would be fun and fruitful.
I agree that David's intervention looks promising as a basis for comparative discussion and I would not want to divert attention from that possibility. But one advantage of this format is that we can run several threads at once, to tbe dropped and picked up again. So I would just like to post a comment on the important question of 'belief' to which Philip devotes considerable attention in his paper, mainly in order to emphasize the relative signifcance of outward appearances as opposed to presumed inner states. There is a lot packed in this paper and not everything can be spelled out fully. I was intrigued by this statement:

"In discussions such as these, everything happens as if forty years of sustained and critical anthropological attention paid towards the concept of belief never took place."

If at all possible, could you please expand on this, Philip? I can't say that I have kept up with developments in the anthropology of religion and a headline primer on this issue would be helpful to me.

Perhaps because of my lack of contemporary knowledge, I cling to Emile Durkheim's book on religion. In any case, it is a source of endless inspiration to me. In Bruce Chatwin's The Song Lines, a Catholic priest in the Northern Territories is given The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life to read and he asks, "This Durkheim, is he some kind of communist?" Anyway, as is well known, D supposes that ritual provides the means of inserting religious beliefs into the minds of a cult's members whence they underpin normative social behaviour. Following Kant on the aesthetic, he supposes that the "effervescence" of the ritual helps to make these ideas stick. All old hat and no doubt deeply ethnocentric. But I still find it useful, mainly for thinking about money.

'Belief' means in Old English something 'held dear', like 'beloved', so affect is intrinsic to the notion. It also implies uncertain futures. But it clearly covers a wide range of social phenomena from belief that the car in front will stop at a red traffic light through belief that Joe will pay me back the money he owes me to belief in life after death. I once tried to organize these varieties of belief according to the affective level of attachment to them and the evidence supporting it. The two were, I proposed, inversely related: from blind faith to open-eyed confidence with the weasel word trust covering a wide range of possibilities in between. I defined 'trust' as willingness to accept the risk of default when someone makes a promise. I also cast doubt on the value of placing trust in ideas and things ("I trust the dollar" and it's twin "In God we trust") as well as persons .

So my question is how recent developments in the anthropology of religion might help us to cut through the miasma of uses of the word 'belief' when discussing the efficacy of ritual.
Hi, this is a really interesting discussion and a great paper!
I'm still relatively new to anthropology but it seems to me that despite the focus on superficiality, that through the act of reproducing these rituals on a daily basis, this typical Japanese businessman is creating and reinforcing his own cultural identity, i.e. that it the act itself which is important. Despite the religous ideals being rather superficial, it seems that this 'role playing' is actually quite a deep expression of Japanese culture as a whole.

Also, I think that today religious superficiality is quite normal; how many people do the traditional church weddings, christenings and occasionally christmas eve service without any real belief in Christianity.

Don't know if this is a bit of a moot point, but I thought I'd throw it in anyway.
Apologies, I was AWOL (Anthropologist Was Off-Line). I went up to St Andrews and wasn't able to access the internet. The posts by John, David, and Keith all raise important issues, and I'd like to try and respond to them more properly. Currently, I'm writing this while on a crowded train back to London, so, for now, I'll merely attempt a haphazard response, as the countryside hurtles past in the dark.


I very much agree with your point about kata (those 'forming forms' - as Augustin Berque calls them), that constitute the bare bones of so many kinds of artistic and other practice in Japan. Part of what I wanted to emphasize was the efficacy of form itself in these Japanese prayers, by contrast with what might well be 'our' own assumption, which would be that efficacy is tied to spontaneity, and authenticity to interiority. Actually, however, in his unfinished dissertation on prayer, Marcel Mauss made my own point long ago, arguing that 'the efficacious power of form is never as evident as it is in prayer'.

David's observations about Persian etiquette are very thought provoking. I can't really do them justice at present, except to mention the indigenous model of the 'presentation of self' in Japan, according to which a distinction is drawn - to stick with dramaturgical categories - between one's 'front-stage' and 'backstage' interactions and utterances. At first blush, this distinction (tatemae/honne) might be taken to correspond to an outward, artificial/inward, hence genuine dichotomy. But things are - as ever - more complicated than that. Though I won't go into it right now.

Keith's belief query is important. It's not an easy thing to try to summarise forty years of anthropological work - especially on a train, with a drunken student babbling away loudly, directly behind me! But, to put the matter far too simply, the anthropological debate on the validity of 'belief' as a category, ascribable to people always and everywhere, was put in question by Rodney Needham in his Belief, Language and Experience. Needham's thesis passed over a lot of history - especially that Christianity, as Malcolm Ruel pointed out, but Needham's basic point remains, I think, a powerful one: people may not necessarily articulate or conceptualise their relations to gods, spirits, and so forth, in terms of 'belief'.

Of course, there is also a considerable literature on belief and belief states in analytical philosophy, which is fixed on another set of problems as well. But, I suppose the point I want to make is that there have been numerous discussions on the concept, and it has been tackled from multiple angles - for one of the latest, I recommend Alice Street's article in the current Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute.

Possibly, I might return to this issue when I have better writing and thinking conditions!

A train from St. Andrews, been there, done that. That you were able to write at all is amazing, which offers a nice stepping off point for what I want to say. You say that,

I wanted to emphasize was the efficacy of form itself in these Japanese prayers, by contrast with what might well be 'our' own assumption, which would be that efficacy is tied to spontaneity, and authenticity to interiority. Actually, however, in his unfinished dissertation on prayer, Marcel Mauss made my own point long ago, arguing that 'the efficacious power of form is never as evident as it is in prayer'.

Personally, I would argue that 'the efficacious power of form' is overrated in anthropological theory. You point to Mauss. I would add Levi-Strauss in his account of the curing ritual where the shaman constructs a tale of a baby's passage through the birth canal and Maurice Bloch with his theory that formalization of ritual language constrains the possible responses to it, thus making it authoritative. In all these cases, there is the assumption that, because the observation conforms to the way in which the observer speculates that it ought to work, it does, in fact, work that way.

But stop and think about it. Kata become efficacious only through long and intensive practice. For every master of Zen or martial arts, there are thousands of wannabes. Few will train to the point that the kata becomes not only automatic but deployed in a manner optimized for the situation in which it is used. (I find myself thinking here of Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers and the measurable difference between students at German conservatories who wind up as concert pianists versus those who wind up as secondary school music teachers: 10,000 hours of practice.)

Fortunately, we don't have to imagine that the Japanese businessman stopping at a shrine before he gets on with his workday has achieved enlightenment. It suffices to imagine that he has discovered that standing before the shrine, placing his palms together, taking a deep breath and bowing toward the hidden divinity leaves him more relaxed and centered than he otherwise might be — and there is, numerous local models tell him, no need to envision what he does in terms appropriate for Job, Christ on the cross, or, turning to Protestant theology, Kierkegaard, Rudolph Otto, or Karl Barth. Ultimate concerns need not be in play to get on with everyday life.

Speaking of surfaces, moreover, I recall a remark by Aldous Huxley, who suggests that religion will survive, not so much because it is necessary to believe, but instead because living as if one did believe is more aesthetically pleasing than the alternative. Not a view that is likely to appeal to Christian or Muslim fundamentalists, but it may be an attitude more widespread than anthropological theories imagine.



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