“Zen Buddhism,” declared Time magazine in 1958, “is growing more chic by the minute.” This was then, of course: the era of Kerouac, Snyder, Watts, and the Dharma Bums. These days most people go to Japan for other reasons: money, fashion, architecture, sex. I’m not sure when the promise of spiritual enlightenment first attracted foreigners to Japan. Long before the Beats in any case. Lafcadio Hearn visited a Buddhist temple in Yokohama in 1890. It was his first day in Japan, and he started off on the wrong foot. He mistook a bowl of water, offered for his refreshment by a hospitable priest, for a begging bowl, and dropped a few coins in it—one of many cross-cultural misunderstandings.

It is easier to pinpoint when Japan acquired its reputation for sexual license. Western travelers were either shocked or delighted by Japanese libertinism. Ian Littlewood, in whose sharp and amusing guide to cultural myths and misunderstandings I found the story of Hearn’s faux pas, mentions several instances of both. A sixteenth-century Florentine traveler named Francesco Carletti was outraged by the readiness of Japanese men to use their sisters and daughters as merchandise. Japan, he wrote, “is more plentifully supplied than any other with these sort of means of gratifying the passion for sexual indulgence, just as it abounds in every other sort of vice, in which it surpasses every other place in the world.”

In 1615, the commander of a British trading fleet sent to Japan for the East India Company brought back (strictly for personal use, one presumes) a stack of pornographic books and paintings. Upon discovery, the collection was publicly burned. Another Englishman, named Richard Cocks, had been left in command of a trading post in Hirado, where he enjoyed the company of a succession of Japanese “wives.” Since he was not sent out there to enjoy himself, let alone with native women, a senior colleague in Batavia complained to the East India Office that Cocks was “miserably given over to voluptuousness.” Cocks was called back to London in 1624 to explain his conduct, but died on the way.

Nothing much had changed when the first Americans, led by Commodore Perry, stepped ashore in 1853. A young officer named John Henry Prebble recorded what they saw: “The inhabitants crowded the hill, and beckoned us on shore, and by the most unmistakable signs invited our intercourse with their women. One female went so far as to raise her drapery and expose her person to us. They are either a very lewd and lascivious people, or have catered before this, to the passions of sailors.”

The open delight taken by Japanese in politically incorrect pornography continues to startle foreign visitors, and the rich variety of nightlife ensures that Japan’s reputation as a sexual playground remains high. No doubt the recent reports of Mitsubishi’s alleged “sex parties” in, of all places, Normal, Illinois, helped to confirm the lewd image as well. But it seems a long way from all this to the rigors of the Zen monastery. Spiritual enlightenment and sexual indulgence are indeed connected in some cults and sects, but Zen is not one of them. And yet… One of Arthur Koestler’s insights into Japan was to call it “a country of stoic hedonists, of Spartan sybarites.” Koestler observed how Japanese behavior fell into two extremes: extreme social discipline, relieved by bursts of extreme, bibulous hedonism. If Confucian ethics form (or used to form) the basis for social hierarchy and order, Zen was a traditional release. Although not exactly hedonistic, Zen was a cult of spontaneity, a way to dissolve self-consciousness, an assault on dogma and rationalism, a discipline, in a way, of merry pranksters—hence its attraction to Beats, Californian acid-heads, and other spiritual pleasure seekers.

Since I was myself inclined to hedonism without the stoicism, Zen never held much attraction for me during the time I lived in Japan, in the 1970s. Being whacked by monks with sticks was not my idea of fun. Living in Tokyo, the modern capital of glitz, I tended to associate Zen freaks with Kyoto, the old capital, where foreigners went to see “traditional” Japan or, as they liked to put it, “the real Japan.” They were the kind that wore kimonos, kneeled on the wooden floors of monasteries, practiced archery, or the art of making tea, or whatever. In short, I liked to affect a metropolitan air of lofty disdain toward such types. No doubt, I would have done so had I met Deborah Boliver Boehm, who was in Kyoto in the 1960s, wore a kimono, did Zen, Noh, Indian dancing, tea, calligraphy, and so on. And I would have been wrong, for she is one of the wittiest observers of the Japanese scene that I have read.

Boehm was not so much a Zen freak as a Zen groupie. She liked the discipline, and she liked the monks. “What I wanted to be,” she writes, perhaps a touch greedily, “was a woman—preferably the only woman—in a monastery full of fascinating men.” (She tried a nunnery, too, but that wasn’t her style.) In the prologue to her book she describes a dream in which she has an erotic encounter with one of the monks, named Zan-san: “…I was wearing no underwear, and Zan-san’s trousers had magically dematerialized, although he still wore his kimono-style jacket…. ‘Ah,’ I sighed…. ‘Ahhh,’ echoed Zan-san, and I thought that was the most profound conversation I had ever had with another human being.”


Now this kind of thing has a long tradition in male writing about the exotic East. Western males are forever penetrating the mysterious, voluptuous, submissive Oriental female. Pierre Loti, in his quest for “a little yellow-skinned woman with black hair and cat’s eyes…not much bigger than a doll,” set the tone. He found one, through his laundryman in Nagasaki, but discarded her as soon as he grew bored: “I took you to amuse me; you have not perhaps succeeded very well, but after all you have done what you could: given me your little face, your little curtseys, your little music….” No wonder Jean Cocteau called Loti a “painted China goat.” But there were many, many others. Tennyson expressed the Orientalist desire in his poem “Locksley Hall.” He longed for “yonder shining Orient,” for “There the passions cramp’d no longer shall have scope and breathing space;/I shall take some savage woman, she shall rear my dusky race.”

Western males have celebrated the attractions of Oriental men, too. Much rarer is the same from a female perspective. This alone would make Boehm’s book worth reading. But it is not an exercise in female soft porn. For all her erotic dreaming, Boehm keeps her virginity intact until the end. She is constantly attracted, constantly on the brink, but the final act never comes. This is because she is what she calls a “ideological virgin.” In her own description, Boehm is a natural girl, an organic girl, a vegetarian Arizona girl. And back in the US she had decided that birth control was unnatural. This ruled out, as she puts it, “a sporting approach to physical relationships.” But it didn’t keep her from engaging in “passionate romances, or from spending a great deal of time pondering the mysteries of sexual conjugation.”

What she did, in effect, was to pour all her sexual energy into interior decoration, clothes, food, dancing, and, of course, religion. Her descriptions of Kyoto and Tokyo, and the way she dresses, and lives, drip with lush sensuality. She covers the sliding doors of her apartment with handmade rice paper in a “deep, dusty rose. When the sunlight, or the lamplight, or the candlelight shone through the newly-papered screens, the rooms were filled with a lambent rosy glow; it was like being afloat in a glass of mulled wine.” Or, one might add, like living in a womb.

Then there is the Zen temple itself: the “green velour of mossy gardens,” the “swoop and luster of dark-tiled roofs,” and “the work-of-art monks themselves, with their ambient glow, fine faces, and timeless costumes.” Boehm asks herself whether she would have loved Zen if it hadn’t been so beautiful. She knows the answer: of course she wouldn’t. Even the excruciating discomfort of Zen meditation sessions—the beatings, the cramped legs—are described lovingly, as physical pleasures. Her thighs are covered in “lavender lotus-bruises,” her shoulders feel tight, she can hardly walk, yet she asks to be hit by the monks, again and again, and writes in her diary: “The peculiar intimacy of beneficent violence.”

Fortunately, these confessions are leavened with wit. Boehm is very self-aware, at least with thirty years of hindsight. She knows exactly what she was up to. People who make a fetish of a particular race, or nation, or culture are often possessive lovers. Boehm displays the peculiar proprietary attitude of the Japanophile. One day in Kyoto she sees two bearded, beaded American Zen freaks, heavily “into satori,” and the like. Boehm is horrified by their chatter, and feels “sullied” by her contact with “American Zen,” “as if I had just visited a pornographic bookstore….” The image is a little odd, and shows an un-Japanese attitude to pornography, but I recognize the particular brand of snobbery: they are fakes, she is the real thing; Zen, Japan, belong to her alone.

Alexander the Great was perhaps the original Orientalist. He not only conquered the Orient but wanted to inhabit it, wear its royal robes, marry its women, worship its gods, and be worshiped as an Oriental god himself. A distinguished British China expert once told me that when he made love to a Chinese woman, he felt as though he was, as he put it, “fucking China.” Boehm describes the same kind of thing in regard to Zen. “When you’re madly in love with a person, or a place or a phenomenon, your desire to invade that existential air-pocket transforms you into a giant anemone of need…with thousands of tiny tentacles waving pathetically in the air while you shriek: ‘Like me! Love me! Let me in!”‘


It doesn’t work of course. What she wants is out of reach, not to be possessed, an illusion. Her hymen remains unbroken, and so does the mystery of Zen. No matter how many hours she meditates, how many times she gets beaten, how many koans she attempts to unravel, Zen is still inscrutable: “I was never completely able to transcend my analytical ‘Western lobe’; and in the end, I wasn’t completely sure I wanted to.” Here, too, Boehm is firmly planted in a Western literary tradition. Most accounts of personal discovery set in the Orient end on this note: veil after veil is lifted, only to find another veil. Or, if you prefer a more Buddhist simile: layer after layer of an onion is peeled until you end up with…nothing. The problem, I think, is not the inscrutability of the East, but the confusion of the Western traveler. Often, by peering into apparent mysteries too deeply, we miss what is on the surface. Zen, and indeed much of Japanese art and culture, does not pretend to be deep; on the contrary, it celebrates the surface of life, what meets the eye, hence its aesthetic genius.

Westerners in search of Oriental wisdom often ask the wrong questions, or seek the wrong thing. Boehm looked for a substitute for sex; her Zen was a way of making love without losing her virginity. But Buddhism, even Zen Buddhism, is not a sexual substitute: it is a discipline aimed at the release from sexual desire. Still, Boehm’s aesthetic approach was closer to the spirit of Zen than Arthur Koestler’s quest in 1958 and 1959. He went East to find out whether Asian religions offered any answers to the moral vacuum left by the alleged death of God in the West. Instead of answers, he found cultivated ambiguity, deliberate obtuseness, celebration of irrationality, a lack of moral doctrine or “universal values,” and it maddened him. But he too asked the wrong questions. The problem with Koestler, who had plenty of sex, is that he was always looking for a substitute for Marx, or God. And there is no such thing in India, China, or Japan—unless you count Chairman Mao.

Japan has a religious tradition that might have been more suited to Boehm’s organic needs than Zen, namely Shinto. Shinto, literally the Way of the Gods, is an ancient form of nature worship. The gods, or kami, are spirits, ghosts, and other supernatural forces, all of whom must be kept happy, lest they turn against us. Matriarchal in origin, Shinto celebrates sexuality, fertility, rice, trees, mountains, rivers, everything, in short, that lives or gives birth to life. Weddings and births are Shinto affairs; death is left to the Buddhists. While similar pagan cults were swamped by great religions elsewhere, Shinto survived in Japan by negotiating, compromising, and often merging with Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and even Christianity. The functions of the kami are flexible and easy to update. The fox spirit, for example, is the guardian of rice fields, but also looks after business success. The truly remarkable thing about Shinto is how a set of folk beliefs has been incorporated in a modern society. Shinto priests were called in to bless the construction of Renzo Piano’s new international airport in Osaka.

Shinto can still pack a punch, as I found when I attended a village festival twenty years ago in the northeast of Japan. I was hanging onto the rafters of a dimly lit barn-like shrine, which was jam-packed with men, like a giant Tokyo subway during the rush hour. Most were naked, many were drunk. The air was close and humid. I could hear the sound of conch shells outside, and the shouts of priests driving out evil spirits. Then for a moment it was silent and a wooden idol was dropped from the roof into the mass of heaving bodies. One touch of the object was enough to purify oneself for the coming year. The writhing, sweating mass came alive, like a great human amoeba, as men fought to get near the idol, or to avoid being crushed. In the old days, the shrine doors would be bolted, and the struggle took place in the dark. Death was not an unusual occurrence at these annual orgies.

If my presence sounds voyeuristic, that is of course what it was, inevitably, since Shinto is a local creed, celebrating particular communities and their particular gods. Outsiders can watch, but rarely participate, and women are often excluded as well, for their menstrual blood is “impure,” and impurity is precisely what Shinto rituals are meant to cleanse. In some Shinto festivals men purify themselves by walking through fire, in others by dunking themselves in the ocean, or standing under icy waterfalls, or rolling naked in the snow. There are Shinto shrines built around huge phalluses, while others contain treasures in the shape of female genitals. Fertility is celebrated by having the sacred objects mate on special occasions, with members of one village pushing the great ram, while men from a neighboring shrine hold on to the wooden vulva.

Shinto is a perfect illustration of Koestler’s Spartan hedonism, for the men who writhe about naked in shrines or batter the sacred vaginas are normally bank clerks, insurance salesmen, or schoolteachers. The so-called naked festivals are ritual orgies, to be staged once a year by people who lead otherwise circumscribed lives. There are other, less raunchy occasions for Shinto ceremonies, too: coming-of-age ceremonies, weddings, the New Year, and so on. But nature, in all its earthiness, remains at Shinto’s core. The Japanese isles were created by kami, who coupled by imitating the motions of a wagtail. And the Sun Goddess, from whom the Japanese race allegedly sprang, was lured from the darkness of her cave by a lewd dance, performed by the Dread Female of Heaven. This striptease, in which the Dread Female exposed her genitals, was known as Kagura, “that which pleases the gods.” It is still performed today, though no longer in the original manner.

Shinto, unlike Zen, is not chic. This is perhaps because it does not offer individual salvation, or enlightenment, or whatever it is people seek. But it is also because Shinto got a bad name. Since the late nineteenth century, nationalists have tried to turn a set of local cults into an official national cult. Since more and more people left their villages to make a living in cities, this was a logical development. Allegiances became wider. But it also served an authoritarian political program. In 1940 Shinto was established as the religion of the state. Just as the emperor, who, before 1865, had been a secluded high-priest-like figure, became a uniformed symbol of military expansion, Shinto became State Shinto, a worship of Japanese nationhood, the Japanese imperial line, the Japanese race. The pure Japanese, with their divine emperor descended from the Sun Goddess, were alleged to have a sacred mission to bring the world under one Japanese roof. And all subjects of the Japanese empire, including Koreans, Taiwanese, and Pacific islanders, had to worship at Shinto shrines.

One of the first things the Allied Occupation authorities did after 1945 was cut the ties between state and religion. This was to break the pernicious influence of State Shinto. Henceforth, anyone could believe anything he or she wanted. No religion would be officially propagated, and no cult, however bizarre, would be forbidden. Japan, like the US, is now a marketplace of faiths. Most are benign, but some, as in the US, are not. The murderous activities of the Aum Shinrikyo, a mishmash of invented ritual and half-baked Hinduism, continue to fill the Japanese mass media with agonizing, and, depending on the target audience, sensational commentary.

Many so-called new religions have been strange, but none was led, as Aum Shinrikyo was, by a half-blind guru who plotted to take over the state and ordered his followers to commit mass murder by spreading poison gas in the Tokyo subway. Even more disturbing to many people is the nature of the guru’s followers. Mostly young and highly educated, they include nuclear scientists, engineers, and even military officers. One of the guru’s chief lieutenants, a handsome, articulate young man, now under arrest, has become a teen idol. Little wonder, then, that the principle of religious tolerance is being questioned. Conservative nationalists blame the secular state. They believe that Japan’s apparent spiritual malaise is the result of postwar Allied policies. They would like Shinto to be reestablished as a national cult, with the emperor as the priest-king, for in their view Shinto is not one religion among others, but the basis of national culture, without which Japan will be lost.

John K. Nelson believes that Shinto is central to Japanese culture too, even though he would be the last to defend the imposition of a state cult. His book about his year at a Shinto shrine in Nagasaki is valuable, not least because of the rarity of his enterprise. Since the war, foreigners have shied away from Shinto. It is too tainted, too sinister, too tribal. Nelson comes to Shinto not as a seeker, but as a sympathetic anthropologist. Even though he sometimes indulges in purple passages about the “fair cheeks” of female shrine attendants, his interest is not erotic. Indeed, he belongs to the school of foreign writers on Japan that makes a point of mentioning the presence of wife and children, as if to make sure there can be no misunderstanding on this score. Nor is he aiming at personal salvation. This means he is both more scholarly and less entertaining than Boehm.

Nelson’s chosen shrine, the Suwa Jinja, has an interesting history. By the late sixteenth century Nagasaki had become a hotbed of Christianity. Local Christians, no doubt encouraged by foreign missionaries, had destroyed a large number of temples and shrines. So the central government in Edo, now Tokyo, encouraged the revival of Buddhism and Shinto. Not only that, but in 1614 Christianity was banned altogether. Ten years later a Shinto priest named Aoki Kensei was able to build the Suwa shrine with official help. One of his first ritual acts was to dip his hands in scalding water to ward off evil spirits. In 1634 and 1635, the Tokugawa Shogun cut off alien influence even further by limiting the presence of foreign traders to the tiny island of Dejima and by ordering the execution of Japanese who tried to leave Japan, or returned from abroad. The Suwa shrine was exempted from taxes, and received government money for its activities.

A nativist element clung to the Suwa shrine from the beginning, and was still in evidence in August 1945, when the A-bomb destroyed the Catholic cathedral in Nagasaki but spared the shrine. A street preacher named Honda went around telling people that the Japanese kami were responsible for this miracle. The Christian God, by implication, had proved inadequate to the task. Nelson is fully aware of the xenophobic side of Shinto, and its main shrines, yet his description of Shinto practices is generally sympathetic. There is, in his view, nothing inherently wrong with Shinto. Indeed, he believes it might answer some of the problems that worried Arthur Koestler: spiritual emptiness, ecological destruction, and what Nelson calls, in true social-scientist fashion, “the anomie of modern life in general.” While Boehm, the Zen freak, was concerned about her own inner life, Nelson, the anthropologist, is concerned about community. He believes, probably rightly, that modern people have lost touch with the gods and other spiritual forces that provided comfort (and terror) in the past. Most Japanese would not describe themselves as religious. Yet Nelson’s description of the activities at Suwa shrine and his interviews with participants suggest that many Japanese still cherish their festivals. Nelson catches their stoic hedonism very well. He observes how quickly Japanese slip from earthiness to ritual discipline and back again: priests crack jokes about farts and pretty girls just before they join a sacred rite, and so on. And he acutely observes that Japanese treat their kami roughly in the same manner they treat powerful people, by appeasing them, pleasing them, entertaining them, and showing dependence on them. This insight helps one to understand the behavior of the Japanese women greeting Commodore Perry’s crew in 1854. The Americans had guns, the Japanese lifted their skirts.

Japanese, like other people, in Nelson’s opinion, need to feel anchored in their communities by participating in sacred rites and communing with their kami. Shinto rituals, he writes, “provide a vehicle whereby the individual, however small and insignificant he or she may be, can become a temporarily sanctified participant in a divine order.” Taking part “can become an encounter with cosmologies essential to how a Japanese orients himself or herself to the world.” I’m not so sure about how essential this encounter really is, or quite so keen on divine orders as Nelson appears to be, especially when they become divine racial orders.

Nelson mentions the dangers of xenophobia, to be sure, and discusses how Shinto became State Shinto, with all its unpleasant consequences. He sensibly warns against the influence of nationalist propaganda, promoted by reactionary politicians and their house intellectuals. But his account of that influence is open to question. In his view Shinto was manipulated earlier in this century by politicians and militarists. And he voices the hope that priests will resist such machinations today. What makes Shinto vulnerable to manipulation, in his opinion, is its lack of “transcendental principles,” its “situational flexibility.” The kami, in other words, can be harnessed to any cause, because they never laid claim to absolute values or universal truths.

For Japanese Christians, such as the novelist Endo Shusaku, or the ex-mayor of Nagasaki, Motoshima Hitoshi, this is precisely what is wrong with Japan. Endo called Japan a moral “mud swamp” that sucks in foreign ideas indiscriminately, and distorts them in the process. Motoshima once explained to me that the Japanese have no sense of individual responsibility, because they “only worship nature.” There are several things to be said against this line of thinking. It is true that Shinto lacks a clear moral doctrine, but the distinction between the great religions, which supposedly transcend secular interests, and animistic cults with “situational ethics” is often more theoretical than real. Bloody history shows that Christianity, Islam, and even Buddhism can be harnessed to any cause, too. And State Shinto is an example of how a flexible set of animistic rites can be turned into a fundamentalist, dogmatic religion. Besides, situational ethics is not at all a strange concept to Protestant Christians.

More damage has been done in human history in the name of absolute values and universal truths than of nature worship. It is true that Japanese are perhaps less ready than some others to try to save poor African children out of a sense of universal duty. But it is also true that Shinto became a battle cry only once, in the 1930s and 1940s, and that development was actually inspired by the example of Christianity.

State Shinto was largely the creation of nineteenth-century thinkers, who thought that Christianity, as a state religion, gave Western powers their strength and cohesion. Japan, too, needed an overriding, national system of ethics and worship to “unify and direct the people’s wills.” So said Ito Hirobumi, who became prime minister in 1891. For a short time after the Meiji Restoration of 1868, Shinto did become the state religion, but it was disestablished again in favor of religious freedom. It then took many years—until 1940, in fact—of active lobbying to reestablish State Shinto. The lobbyists included chauvinistic intellectuals but also Shinto priests. They wanted to enjoy the privileges and financial perquisites of the state. So it was not simply a case of naive kami worshipers being manipulated by wicked politicians. The priests had an eye for the main chance. In this respect, they behaved just as priests of “transcendental” religions have frequently done over the centuries.

There is, in any case, something to be said for the situational flexibility that seems to worry Nelson. Syncretic religions are more likely to foster tolerance than universalist faiths based on dogma. When beliefs are negotiable, they are less likely to be imposed. The clannish nature of Shinto might not have encouraged cosmopolitanism in Japan, but it did not turn the Japanese into murderous fanatics either. State Shinto did so, but that was essentially the product of modern political indoctrination. The appalling violence of the Aum cult was indeed remarkable. But if the US, which is probably the most “transcendentally” religious nation in the Western world, can produce Jonestown and Waco, then why should Aum be typical of a lack of universalism? It is in fact the opposite. Aum does claim to be universal, as do other more or less sinister cults that started in East Asia, such as the Reverend Moon’s Unification Church.

That so many highly educated people would wish to join such a patently wacky cult as Aum remains a puzzle. The least one can say is that the vaunted Japanese education system produces a disturbing number of confused and vulnerable people. But I am not convinced that a religious revival is the answer to their problems. Nelson takes a Sierra Club view of the matter. He hopes that “Shinto can help Japanese renew themselves in an age of technology and material wealth” by encouraging “women’s issues” and addressing “environmental concerns” and “community preservation.” These are not unworthy goals, and if pride in local shrines and festivals can help, so much the better. And if the matriarchal origins of Shinto can help to overcome the male revulsion against female “pollution,” that would be a grand thing. But if sex and Shinto have provided the most ready ways for Japanese to celebrate nature, I think on balance that sex has the brighter future.

This Issue

June 6, 1996