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The Invention of a New Religion by Basil Hall Chamberlain

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Etext editor's notes: A few diacritical marks have had to be
removed, but Chamberlain did not use macrons to represent lengthened
vowels. What were footnotes are numbered and moved to the end of
the relevant paragraphs.


The Invention of a New Religion [1]

[Note 1] The writer of this pamphlet could but
skim over a wide subject. For full information see
Volume I. of Mr. J. Murdoch's recently-published
"History of Japan," the only critical work on that
subject existing in the English language.

Voltaire and the other eighteenth-century philosophers, who
held religions to be the invention of priests, have been
scorned as superficial by later investigators. But was there
not something in their view, after all? Have not we, of a
later and more critical day, got into so inveterate a habit of
digging deep that we sometimes fail to see what lies before
our very noses? Modern Japan is there to furnish an example.
The Japanese are, it is true, commonly said to be an
irreligious people. They say so themselves. Writes one
of them, the celebrated Fukuzawa, teacher and type of the
modern educated Japanese man: "I lack a religious nature,
and have never believed in any religion." A score of like
pronouncements might be quoted from other leading men. The
average, even educated, European strikes the average educated
Japanese as strangely superstitious, unaccountably occupied
with supra-mundane matters. The Japanese simply cannot be
brought to comprehend how a "mere parson" such as the Pope, or
even the Archbishop of Canterbury, occupies the place he does
in politics and society. Yet this same agnostic Japan is
teaching us at this very hour how religions are sometimes
manufactured for a special end--to subserve practical worldly

Mikado-worship and Japan-worship--for that is the new
Japanese religion--is, of course, no spontaneously generated
phenomenon. Every manufacture presupposes a material out of
which it is made, every present a past on which it rests.
But the twentieth-century Japanese religion of loyalty and
patriotism is quite new, for in it pre-existing ideas have
been sifted, altered, freshly compounded, turned to new uses,
and have found a new centre of gravity. Not only is it new,
it is not yet completed; it is still in process of being
consciously or semi-consciously put together by the official
class, in order to serve the interests of that class, and,
incidentally, the interests of the nation at large. The
Japanese bureaucracy is a body greatly to be admired. It
includes most of the foremost men of the nation. Like the
priesthood in later Judaea, to some extent like the Egyptian
and Indian priesthoods, it not only governs, but aspires to
lead in intellectual matters. It has before it a complex task.
On the one hand, it must make good to the outer world the new
claim that Japan differs in no essential way from the nations
of the West, unless, indeed, it be by way of superiority. On
the other hand, it has to manage restive steeds at home, where
ancestral ideas and habits clash with new dangers arising from
an alien material civilisation hastily absorbed.

Down to the year 1888, the line of cleavage between governors
and governed was obscured by the joyful ardour with which all
classes alike devoted themselves to the acquisition of
European, not to say American, ideas. Everything foreign
was then hailed as perfect--everything old and national was
contemned. Sentiment grew democratic, in so far (perhaps
it was not very far) as American democratic ideals were
understood. Love of country seemed likely to yield to a humble
bowing down before foreign models. Officialdom not unnaturally
took fright at this abdication of national individualism.
Evidently something must be done to turn the tide.
Accordingly, patriotic sentiment was appealed to through the
throne, whose hoary antiquity had ever been a source of pride
to Japanese literati, who loved to dwell on the contrast
between Japan's unique line of absolute monarchs and the
short-lived dynasties of China. Shinto, a primitive nature
cult, which had fallen into discredit, was taken out of its
cupboard and dusted. The common people, it is true, continued
to place their affections on Buddhism, the popular festivals
were Buddhist, Buddhist also the temples where they buried
their dead. The governing class determined to change all this.
They insisted on the Shinto doctrine that the Mikado descends
in direct succession from the native Goddess of the Sun, and
that He himself is a living God on earth who justly claims the
absolute fealty of his subjects. Such things as laws and
constitutions are but free gifts on His part, not in any sense
popular rights. Of course, the ministers and officials, high
and low, who carry on His government, are to be regarded not
as public servants, but rather as executants of supreme--one
might say supernatural--authority. Shinto, because connected
with the Imperial Family, is to be alone honoured. Therefore,
the important right of burial, never before possessed by it,
was granted to its priests. Later on, the right of marriage
was granted likewise--an entirely novel departure in a land
where marriage had never been more than a civil contract. Thus
the Shinto priesthood was encouraged to penetrate into the
intimacy of family life, while in another direction it
encroached on the field of ethics by borrowing bits here and
there from Confucian and even from Christian sources. Under a
regime of ostensible religious toleration, the attendance of
officials at certain Shinto services was required, and the
practice was established in all schools of bowing down several
times yearly before the Emperor's picture. Meanwhile Japanese
polities had prospered; her warriors had gained great
victories. Enormous was the prestige thus accruing to
Imperialism and to the rejuvenated Shinto cult. All military
successes were ascribed to the miraculous influence of the
Emperor's virtue, and to the virtues of His Imperial and
divine ancestors--that is, of former Emperors and of Shinto
deities. Imperial envoys were regularly sent after each great
victory to carry the good tidings to the Sun Goddess at her
great shrine at Ise. Not there alone, but at the other
principal Shinto shrines throughout the land, the cannon
captured from Chinese or Russian foes were officially
installed, with a view to identifying Imperialism, Shinto, and
national glory in the popular mind. The new legend is enforced
wherever feasible--for instance, by means of a new set of
festivals celebrating Imperial official events.

But the schools are the great strongholds of the new
propaganda. History is so taught to the young as to focus
everything upon Imperialism, and to diminish as far as
possible the contrast between ancient and modern conditions.
The same is true of the instruction given to army and navy
recruits. Thus, though Shinto is put in the forefront, little
stress is laid on its mythology, which would be apt to shock
even the Japanese mind at the present day. To this extent,
where a purpose useful to the ruling class is to be served,
criticism is practised, though not avowedly. Far different
is the case with so-called "historical facts," such as the
alleged foundation of the Monarchy in 660 B.C. and similar
statements paralleled only for absurdity by what passed for
history in mediaeval Europe, when King Lear, Brute, King of
Britain, etc., etc., were accepted as authentic personages.
For the truth, known to all critical investigators, is that,
instead of going back to a remote antiquity, the origins of
Japanese history are recent as compared with that of European
countries. The first glimmer of genuine Japanese history
dates from the fifth century AFTER Christ, and even the
accounts of what happened in the sixth century must be
received with caution. Japanese scholars know this as well as
we do; it is one of the certain results of investigation. But
the Japanese bureaucracy does not desire to have the light
let in on this inconvenient circumstance. While granting a
dispensation re the national mythology, properly so called, it
exacts belief in every iota of the national historic legends.
Woe to the native professor who strays from the path of
orthodoxy. His wife and children (and in Japan every man,
however young, has a wife and children) will starve. From
the late Prince Ito's grossly misleading "Commentary on the
Japanese Constitution" down to school compendiums, the absurd
dates are everywhere insisted upon. This despite the fact
that the mythology and the so-called early history are
recorded in the same works, and are characterised by like
miraculous impossibilities; that the chronology is palpably
fraudulent; that the speeches put into the mouths of ancient
Mikados are centos culled from the Chinese classics; that
their names are in some cases derived from Chinese sources;
and that the earliest Japanese historical narratives, the
earliest known social usages, and even the centralised
Imperial form of Government itself, are all stained through
and through with a Chinese dye, so much so that it is no
longer possible to determine what percentage of old native
thought may still linger on in fragments here and there. In
the face of all this, moral ideals, which were of common
knowledge derived from the teaching of the Chinese sages, are
now arbitrarily referred to the "Imperial Ancestors." Such,
in particular, are loyalty and filial piety--the two virtues
on which, in the Far-Eastern world, all the others rest. It
is, furthermore, officially taught that, from the earliest
ages, perfect concord has always subsisted in Japan between
beneficent sovereigns on the one hand, and a gratefully loyal
people on the other. Never, it is alleged, has Japan been
soiled by the disobedient and rebellious acts common in other
countries; while at the same time the Japanese nation, sharing
to some extent in the supernatural virtues of its rulers, has
been distinguished by a high-minded chivalry called Bushido,
unknown in inferior lands.

Such is the fabric of ideas which the official class is
busy building up by every means in its power, including the
punishment of those who presume to stickle for historic truth.

* * *

The sober fact is that no nation probably has ever treated its
sovereigns more cavalierly than the Japanese have done, from
the beginning of authentic history down to within the memory
of living men. Emperors have been deposed, emperors have been
assassinated; for centuries every succession to the throne was
the signal for intrigues and sanguinary broils. Emperors have
been exiled; some have been murdered in exile. From the
remote island to which he had been relegated one managed to
escape, hidden under a load of dried fish. In the fourteenth
century, things came to such a pass that two rival Imperial
lines defied each other for the space of fifty-eight years--
the so-called Northern and Southern Courts; and it was the
Northern Court, branded by later historians as usurping and
illegitimate, that ultimately won the day, and handed on the
Imperial regalia to its successors. After that, as indeed
before that, for long centuries the government was in the
hands of Mayors of the Palace, who substituted one infant
Sovereign for another, generally forcing each to abdicate as
soon as he approached man's estate. At one period, these
Mayors of the Palace left the Descendant of the Sun in such
distress that His Imperial Majesty and the Imperial Princes
were obliged to gain a livelihood by selling their autographs!
Nor did any great party in the State protest against this
condition of affairs. Even in the present reign--the most
glorious in Japanese history--there have been two rebellions,
during one of which a rival Emperor was set up in one part of
the country, and a republic proclaimed in another.

As for Bushido, so modern a thing is it that neither Kaempfer,
Siebold, Satow, nor Rein--all men knowing their Japan by heart
--ever once allude to it in their voluminous writings. The
cause of their silence is not far to seek: Bushido was unknown
until a decade or two ago! THE VERY WORD APPEARS IN NO
Chivalrous individuals of course existed in Japan, as in all
countries at every period; but Bushido, as an institution or
a code of rules, has never existed. The accounts given of it
have been fabricated out of whole cloth, chiefly for foreign
consumption. An analysis of medieval Japanese history shows
that the great feudal houses, so far from displaying an
excessive idealism in the matter of fealty to one emperor, one
lord, or one party, had evolved the eminently practical plan
of letting their different members take different sides, so
that the family as a whole might come out as winner in any
event, and thus avoid the confiscation of its lands. Cases,
no doubt, occurred of devotion to losing causes--for example,
to Mikados in disgrace; but they were less common than in the
more romantic West.

Thus, within the space of a short lifetime, the new Japanese
religion of loyalty and patriotism has emerged into the light
of day. The feats accomplished during the late war with
Russia show that the simple ideal which it offers is capable
of inspiring great deeds. From a certain point of view the
nation may be congratulated on its new possession.

* * *

The new Japanese religion consists, in its present early
stage, of worship of the sacrosanct Imperial Person and of His
Divine Ancestors, of implicit obedience to Him as head of the
army (a position, by the way, opposed to all former Japanese
ideas, according to which the Court was essentially civilian);
furthermore, of a corresponding belief that Japan is as far
superior to the common ruck of nations as the Mikado is
divinely superior to the common ruck of kings and emperors.
Do not the early history-books record the fact that Japan was
created first, while all other countries resulted merely from
the drops that fell from the creator's spear when he had
finished his main work? And do not the later annals prove
that true valour belongs to the Japanese knight alone, whereas
foreign countries--China and Europe alike--are sunk in a
degrading commercialism? For the inhabitants of "the Land of
the Gods" to take any notice of such creatures by adopting a
few of their trifling mechanical inventions is an act of
gracious condescension.

To quote but one official utterance out of a hundred, Baron
Oura, minister of agriculture and commerce, writes thus in
February of last year:--

That the majesty of our Imperial House towers high
above everything to be found in the world, and that
it is as durable as heaven and earth, is too well
known to need dwelling on here...... If it is
considered that our country needs a religious faith,
then, I say, let it be converted to a belief in the
religion of patriotism and loyalty, the religion of
Imperialism--in other words, to Emperor-worship.

The Rev. Dr. Ebina,[2] one of the leading lights of the
Protestant pastorate in Japan, plunges more deeply still into
this doctrine, according to which, as already noted, the whole
Japanese nation is, in a manner, apotheosised. Says he:--

Though the encouragement of ancestor-worship cannot
be regarded as part of the essential teaching of
Christianity (!), it [3] is not opposed to the
notion that, when the Japanese Empire was founded,
its early rulers were in communication with the
Great Spirit that rules the universe. Christians,
according to this theory, without doing violence
to their creed, may acknowledge that the Japanese
nation has a divine origin. It is only when we
realise that the Imperial Ancestors were in close
communion with God (or the Gods), that we understand
how sacred is the country in which we live. [Dr.
Ebina ends by recommending the Imperial Rescript on
Education as a text for Christian sermons.]

[Note 2] We quote from the translation given
by Mr. Walter Dening in one of the invaluable
"Summaries of Current Japanese Literature,"
contributed by him from time to time to the
columns of the "Japan Mail," Yokohama.

[Note 3] "It" means Christianity.

It needs no comment of ours to point out how thoroughly the
nation must be saturated by the doctrines under discussion
for such amazing utterances to be possible. If so-called
Christians can think thus, the non-Christian majority must
indeed be devout Emperor-worshippers and Japan-worshippers.
Such the go-ahead portion of the nation undoubtedly is--the
students, the army, the navy, the emigrants to Japan's new
foreign possessions, all the more ardent spirits. The
peasantry, as before noted, occupy themselves little with new
thoughts, clinging rather to the Buddhist beliefs of their
forefathers. But nothing could be further removed from even
their minds than the idea of offering any organised resistance
to the propaganda going on around them.

As a matter of fact, the spread of the new ideas has been
easy, because a large class derives power from their
diffusion, while to oppose them is the business of no one in
particular. Moreover, the disinterested love of truth for its
own sake is rare; the patience to unearth it is rarer still,
especially in the East. Patriotism, too, is a mighty engine
working in the interests of credulity. How should men not
believe in a system that produces such excellent practical
results, a system which has united all the scattered elements
of national feeling into one focus, and has thus created a
powerful instrument for the attainment of national aims?
Meanwhile a generation is growing up which does not so much
as suspect that its cherished beliefs are inventions of

The new religion, in its present stage, still lacks one
important item--a sacred book. Certain indications show
that this lacuna will be filled by the elevation of the more
important Imperial Rescripts to that rank, accompanied
doubtless by an authoritative commentary, as their style is
too abstruse to be understanded of the people. To these
Imperial Rescripts some of the poems composed by his present
Majesty may be added. In fact, a volume on the whole duty of
Japanese man, with selected Imperial poems as texts, has
already appeared. [4]

[Note 4] For over a thousand years the composition
of Japanese and Chinese verse has formed part of a
liberal education, like the composition of Latin
verse among ourselves. The Court has always
devoted much time to the practice of this art.
But the poems of former Emperors were little
known, because the monarchs themselves remained
shut up in their palace, and exercised no
influence beyond its walls. With his present
Majesty the case is entirely different. Moreover,
some of his compositions breathe a patriotism
formerly undreamt of.

* * *

One might have imagined that Japan's new religionists would
have experienced some difficulty in persuading foreign nations
of the truth of their dogmas. Things have fallen out
otherwise. Europe and America evince a singular taste for
the marvellous, and find a zest in self-depreciation. Our
eighteenth-century ancestors imagined all perfections to be
realised in China, thanks to the glowing descriptions then
given of that country by the Jesuits. Twentieth-century
Europe finds its moral and political Eldorado in distant
Japan, a land of fabulous antiquity and incredible virtues.
There is no lack of pleasant-mannered persons ready to guide
trustful admirers in the right path. Official and semi-
official Japanese, whether ambassadors and ministers-resident
or peripatetic counts and barons, make it their business to
spread a legend so pleasing to the national vanity, so useful
as a diplomatic engine. Lectures are delivered, books are
written in English, important periodicals are bought up,
minute care is lavished on the concealment, the patching-up,
and glossing-over of the deep gulf that nevertheless is fixed
between East and West. The foreigner cannot refuse the bolus
thus artfully forced down his throat. He is not suspicious
by nature. How should he imagine that people who make such
positive statements about their own country are merely
exploiting his credulity? HE has reached a stage of culture
where such mythopoeia has become impossible. On the other
hand, to control information by consulting original sources
lies beyond his capacity.

For consider this peculiar circumstance: the position of
European investigators vis-a-vis Japan differs entirely from
that of Japanese vis-a-vis Europe. The Japanese possess every
facility for studying and understanding Europe. Europeans
are warded off by well-nigh insuperable obstacles from
understanding Japan. Europe stands on a hill-top, in the
sunlight, glittering afar. Her people court inspection.
"Come and see how we live"--such was a typical invitation
which the present writer recently received. A thousand
English homes are open to any Japanese student or traveller
who visits our shores. An alphabet of but six-and-twenty
simple letters throws equally wide open to him a literature
clearly revealing our thoughts, so that he who runs may read.
Japan lies in the shadow, away on the rim of the world. Her
houses are far more effectually closed to the stranger by
their paper shutters than are ours by walls of brick or stone.
What we call "society" does not exist there. Her people,
though smiling and courteous, surround themselves by an
atmosphere of reserve, centuries of despotic government having
rendered them suspicious and reticent. True, when a foreigner
of importance visits Japan--some British M.P., perhaps, whose
name figures often in the newspapers, or an American editor,
or the president of a great American college--this personage
is charmingly received. But he is never left free to form his
own opinion of things, even were he capable of so doing.
Circumstances spin an invisible web around him, his hosts
being keenly intent on making him a speaking-trumpet for the
proclamation of their own views.

Again, Japan's non-Aryan speech, marvellously intricate,
almost defies acquisition. Suppose this difficult vernacular
mastered; the would-be student discovers that literary works,
even newspapers and ordinary correspondence, are not composed
in it, but in another dialect, partly antiquated, partly
artificial, differing as widely from the colloquial speech as
Latin does from Italian. Make a second hazardous supposition.
Assume that the grammar and vocabulary of this second
indispensable Japanese language have been learnt, in addition
to the first. You are still but at the threshold of your
task, Japanese thought having barricaded itself behind the
fortress walls of an extraordinarily complicated system of
writing, compared with which Egyptian hieroglyphics are
child's play. Yet next to nothing can be found out by a
foreigner unless he have this, too, at his fingers' ends.
As a matter of fact, scarcely anyone acquires it--only a
missionary here and there, or a consular official with a
life appointment.

The result of all this is that, whereas the Japanese know
everything that it imports them to know about us, Europeans
cannot know much about them, such information as they receive
being always belated, necessarily meagre, and mostly
adulterated to serve Japanese interests. International
relations placed--and, we repeat it, inevitably placed--on
this footing resemble a boxing match in which one of the
contestants should have his hands tied. But the metaphor
fails in an essential point, as metaphors are apt to do--the
hand-tied man does not realise the disadvantage under which
he labours. He thinks himself as free as his opponent.

Thus does it come about that the neo-Japanese myths concerning
dates, and Emperors, and heroes, and astonishing national
virtues already begin to find their way into popular English
text-books, current literature, and even grave books of
reference. The Japanese governing class has willed it so, and
in such matters the Japanese governing class can enforce its
will abroad as well as at home. The statement may sound
paradoxical. Study the question carefully, and you will find
that it is simply true.

* * *

What is happening in Japan to-day is evidently exceptional.
Normal religious and political change does not proceed in that
manner; it proceeds by imperceptible degrees. But exceptions
to general rules occur from time to time in every field of
activity. Are they really exceptions, using that term in its
current sense--to denote something arbitrary, and therefore
unaccountable? Surely these so-called exceptions are but
examples of rules of rarer application.

The classic instance of the invention of a new national
religion is furnished by the Jews of the post-exilic period.
The piecing together, then, of a brand-new system under an
ancient name is now so well understood, and has produced
consequences of such world-wide importance, that the briefest
reference to it may suffice. Works which every critic can now
see to be relatively modern were ascribed to Moses, David, or
Daniel; intricate laws and ordinances that had never been
practised-- could never be practised--were represented as
ancient institutions; a whole new way of thinking and acting
was set in motion on the assumption that it was old. Yet, so
far as is known, no one in or out of Palestine ever saw
through the illusion for over two thousand years. It was
reserved for nineteenth-century scholars to draw aside the
veil hiding the real facts of the case.

Modern times supply another instance, less important than the
first, but remarkable enough. Rousseau came in the middle of
the eighteenth century, and preached a doctrine that took the
world by storm, and soon precipitated that world in ruins. How
did he discover his gospel? He tells us quite naively:--

All the rest of the day, buried in the forest, I
sought, I found there the image of primitive ages,
whose history I boldly traced. I made havoc of men's
petty lies; I dared to unveil and strip naked man's
true nature, to follow up the course of time and of
the circumstances that have disfigured it, and,
comparing man as men have made him with man as
nature made him, to demonstrate that the so-called
improvements [of civilisation] have been the source
of all his woes, etc. [5]

[Note 5] "Confessions," Book VIII., year 1753.

In other words, he spun a pseudo-history from his own brain.
What is stranger, he fanatically believed in this his pure
invention, and, most extraordinary of all, persuaded other
people to believe in it as fanatically. It was taken up as a
religion, it inspired heroes, and enabled a barefoot rabble to
beat the finest regular armies in the world. Even now, at a
distance of a century and a half, its embers still glow.

Of course, it is not pretended that these various systems of
thought were ARBITRARY inventions. No more were they so than
the cloud palaces that we sometimes see swiftly form in the
sky and as swiftly dissolve. The germ of Rousseau's ideas can
be traced back to Fenelon and other seventeenth-century
thinkers, weary of the pomp and periwigs around them. Rousseau
himself did but fulfil the aspiration of a whole society for
something simpler, juster, more true to nature, more logical.
He gave exactly what was needed at that moment of history--
what appeared self-evident; wherefore no one so much as
thought of asking for detailed proofs. His deism, his
statements concerning the "state of nature" and the "social
contract," etc., were at once recognised by the people of
his day as eternal verities. What need for discussion or

The case of Judaea is obscure; but it would seem that
something analogous must have happened there, when the
continuity of national life had been snapped by the exile.
A revolutionised and most unhappy present involved a changed
attitude towards the past. Oral tradition and the scraps of
written records that had survived the shipwreck of the kingdom
fell, as it were, naturally into another order. The
kaleidoscope having been turned, the pattern changed of
itself. A few gifted individuals voiced the enthusiasm of
a whole community, when they adopted literary methods which
would now, in our comparatively stable days, be branded as
fraudulent. They simply could not help themselves. The
pressing need of constructing a national polity for the
present on the only basis then possible--Yahwe worship--FORCED
them into falsifying the past. The question was one of life
and death for the Jewish nationality.

* * *

Europeans there are in Japan--Europeanised Japanese likewise--
who feel outraged by the action of the Japanese bureaucracy in
the matter of the new cult, with all the illiberal and
obscurantist measures which it entails. That is natural. We
modern Westerners love individual liberty, and the educated
among us love to let the sunlight of criticism into every nook
and cranny of every subject. Freedom and scientific accuracy
are our gods. But Japanese officialdom acts quite naturally,
after its kind, in not allowing the light to be let in,
because the roots of the faith it has planted need darkness
in which to grow and spread. No religion can live which is
subjected to critical scrutiny.

Thus also are explained the rigours of the Japanese
bureaucracy against the native liberals, who, in its eyes,
appear, not simply as political opponents, but as traitors
to the chosen people--sacrilegious heretics defying the
authority of the One and Only True Church.

"But," you will say, "this indignation must be mere pretence.
Not even officials can be so stupid as to believe in things
which they have themselves invented." We venture to think
that you are wrong here. People can always believe that which
it is greatly to their interest to believe. Thousands of
excellent persons in our own society cling to the doctrine
of a future life on no stronger evidence. It is enormously
important to the Japanese ruling class that the mental
attitude sketched above should become universal among their
countrymen. Accordingly, they achieve the apparently
impossible. "We believe in it," said one of them to us
recently--"we believe in it, although we know that it is not
true." Tertullian said nearly the same thing, and no one has
ever doubted HIS sincerity.

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