Aya Ikegame’s paper ‘Suicidal Citizens: Buddhism, Secularism, and War in Japan’, presented at the Third Oecumene Symposium, explored Buddhist understandings of secularism in Japan and challenged the idea of justifiable secular wars by examining the involvement of Buddhist organizations in the Asia-pacific war during WWII.
The paper explored the formation of secularism in Japan in relation to the modern nation-state. However, rather than emphasizing the Japanese ‘particular’ in relation to the Western ‘universal’ and engaging in oriental and occidental thought as a result, Ikegame aimed to engage in a discussion about the trajectory of the secular and religious in the West, recalling Charles Taylor’s argument that in order to provincialize Europe we must rewrite a history of Europe and secularism. The paper moved on to disagree with discourses that regard religion as absent or unnecessary in Eastern countries and public spheres and argued instead that religiousness remains important in Japan as the self-consciousness of religious identity remains developing and unexplored.
Ikegame explained the transformation that Buddhism underwent from being considered threatening to the state to gradually forming an alliance with it through the appropriation and incarnation of an old theological argument that broke the link between faith and the real life-world, giving away the judgment of how to live in this world to the ruling power, and justifying the involvement of Buddhist organizations in the war effort. Ikegame concluded with broader fundamental questions that arise out of the development of these events, including: Does separation of religion from politics mean unconditional acceptance of state policy on the part of faith?
Reading the paper in relation to theories on bio politics, Claire Blencowe (University of Warwick) commended the paper on contributing to a literature that is Euro-centric, providing a rich and in-depth account of the role of death in bio politics and the paper’s implications on the literature on vitality. Blencowe also raised three issues that the paper tackles: the relationship between secularism, violence and religion that the latter makes in relation to its transcendental role; the relationship between violence and nationalism as opposed to violence and secularism; and totalitarian violence. Through references to Foucault and Arendt, Blencowe discussed the relationship between nationalism, secularism and violence explored in the paper, arguing that violence can become more appealing and justifiable as a result of nationalism rather than secularism.
Barak Kushner (University of Cambridge) noted that the paper demonstrated very well the changing image of Buddhism in East Asia at the time of the 2nd World War, and revealed how religious institutions in Japan pushed for the ideas of suicidal operations and ‘suicidal citizens’. Kushner suggested, however, looking beyond religious values, to social structures at the time and their role in the changed meaning of death. Furthermore, Kushner also suggested asking further about how this is related to empire within Japanese history and culture.
The paper and responses triggered further suggestions and discussion amongst participants. William Gallois (University of Exeter) suggested looking at Japanese literature on the West instead of traditionally reverting to Western literature on the East. Leticia Sabsay (Open University) suggested bringing in a different comparative approach, which compared similarities and differences between nationalist movements in Japan with the Kemalist movement in Turkey rather than with more different examples from the West. Andrea Mura (Open University) questioned if the governmentality of death should be thought of as the governmentality of love instead– that you loved so much you were willing to die in its name? Further questions and clarifications were asked in relation to the use of terms like religion and secularism, different discourses on Buddhism, different examples of secularism in different European countries, and ultimately thinking about the governmentality of death.
Report by Dana Nassif