The religion question

I’ll never forget the time I was sitting around the lunch table with my Japanese coworkers and someone asked me about my religion.

At the time, I subscribed to a New Age religion.  Nervously, I told them its name.

The reply?  “I’ve never heard of that before.  Where is it from, Europe?”

My religion wasn’t “from Europe” or anywhere else, really.  It wasn’t anybody’s tradition; it was a modern invention.  As I struggled to answer, I felt the dissonance between our worldviews.  To my Japanese coworkers, religion was as matter-of-fact as nationality.  Having a personal, pet explanation of how the world works, some kind of “ism” that one subscribes to, might be considered enlightened and fashionable in the modern West, but in Japan it makes you sound like you’ve given up on reality and gone off to live in la-la land.

Which, to be honest, I had.

I realized, in that moment, that my religion was something fragile that needed protection inside an accepting mind.  When it was exposed to the harsh light of reality, it was exposed as disconnected from that reality.

And I felt that the next time I was asked about my religion in a Japanese office, I wanted to give a different answer.

It was an opportunity I would be granted.

Some time later, my organization rented out the second floor of an Italian restaurant for the welcome party for our new coworkers.  As was the practice, we drew numbers to see where we’d be sitting.  My tablemates turned out to be my boss’ boss and his boss, two men each old enough to be my father.  They belonged to a  strict and serious generation with impeccable posture.

Just when it looked like things were about to get horribly awkward–they didn’t.  Both men turned out to be humble and fascinating, and we were soon deep in a conversation about Buddhism.  Then my boss’ boss turned to me and asked, “But you’re a Christian, aren’t you?”

I was still a New Ager.  But I knew what he meant.  I was your average white American.  It was safe to say that my family had Christian roots.  In the context of a conversation with a Japanese man of his age, the correct answer to this question was yes.  It wasn’t about my personal opinions.  It was about where Providence had placed me.

Then it struck me.  Looking into the grave but kind face of this man old enough to be my father, I got the feeling he wasn’t the one asking me the question.

I got the feeling things were about to get crazy.

“Yes,” I said.



The Japanese virtues

In her book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, Ruth Benedict suggests that if there were one virtue more highly valued by the Japanese than all the others, that virtue would be sincerity.  Sincerity is certainly something I have seen a lot of in Japan, and is one of the major things I admire in the Japanese.  I would say some of the other major virtues I admire in the Japanese are humility, obedience and the lack of cynicism.

In fact, from a Catholic point of view, these are all pretty important things to have.  But Japan is clearly not Catholic, so where were they getting this stuff from?  I tried asking my coworkers at lunch.

“Do Japanese children take classes on how to be a good person at temples or shrines?” I asked.

I was assured by multiple people that they had never heard of any such thing, and besides, most Japanese people weren’t actually religious.  They just went to temples and shrines on special occasions because that’s what everybody did.

“Well then, do they learn it in Moral Education class at school?” I asked, knowing from my time as a teacher that such a class exists in Japanese schools.

“No, mostly what they learn in those classes is not to make fun of children with disabilities and to help little old ladies cross the street,” I was told.

And so I was left perplexed at how a country that seemed so indifferent to all things religious still managed to produce some of the most striking examples of Christian virtue I have ever seen.

As I understand it, Christian virtues are not something that can only be learned from Christianity–anyone who sincerely seeks the truth can deduce the natural law.

Ah–there it is again–sincerity.  Perhaps the Japanese are on to something there.