The Competitiveness of Nations in a Global Knowledge-Based Economy

Tetsunori Koisumi



Journal of Cultural Economics, 1 (2)

December 1977, 35-46.




I - Introduction

II - The Nature and Form of Religious Worship

           Observed Among the Japanese

III – Traditional Japanese Religion

IV - Homo Religious versus Homo Economicus

V – Conclusions



I. Introduction

Are the Japanese religious people?  This question has puzzled many Westerners ever since the Meiji Restoration in 1868 opened up the Japanese society to Western observers and visitors.  The Restoration marked an end, politically, to the two and a half centuries of isolationist foreign policies under the feudalistic reign of the Tokugawa clan, establishing the unified nation under the new regime of imperial government, and, socially, to the long hibernation in unruffled seclusion from foreign cultures, exposing the Japanese for the first time to the glittering charm of the Western civilization of the nineteenth century.

The new Meiji government faced, and quickly took to, the dual task of restoring political unity and renovating social life, exhibiting great leadership in emancipating the nation from the shackles of feudalistic institutions and stimulating the flow of ideas and people between Japan and the West.  Responding to the official sanction of freedom of activities and the government’s invitation to join efforts, the whole nation engaged in the business of renovation and progress with the zeal which had been concealed behind the forced loyalty to feudal lords during the Tokugawa period.  The subsequent process of Japan’s modernization and industrialization has been literally the process of Westernization: private citizens as well as public officials have made a concerted effort to catch up with the advanced Western Countries.  The process has involved the absorption and, in some cases, the blind imitation of the modus operandi of Western nations, the influence of Western cultures thus permeating all aspects of the life of the Japanese.

There is, however, one aspect of life which has been kept relatively intact.  This concerns the attitude of the Japanese towards religious worship.  In fact, the relative conservatism of the Japanese in this regard stands in sharp contrast to the rapidity with which they have otherwise absorbed Western cultures and adopted Western modes of living.  The contrast has been so pronounced that there is some evidence pointing to the resurgence of interest in recent years in this old puzzle about the religious attitude of the Japanese, especially in the wake of Japan’s remarkable recovery from the wreckage of World War II and her subsequent maintenance of rapid economic growth despite her obvious disadvantage in the endowment of natural resources.  One evidence is the prevalence, among many Japanese as well as Western researchers, of a general hypothesis that religion has played a significant role In Japan’s modernization and industrialization in the same way the Protestant


ethic did in the early stages of capitalistic development in the West. [1]

It is one thing to assert as a general hypothesis that religion plays important role in the life of the Japanese, but quite another to provide a coherent explanation of its precise function.  The difficulty is further enlarged if one is interested in the role of religion not only in the spiritual life of the Japanese but also in a broad sense covering their economic, political and social activities.  As a result, there exists a wide spectrum of different interpretations concerning the nature of religious worship of the Japanese reflecting the differences in researchers’ interest and/or training.

To the casual observer, the Japanese may appear completely atheistic or, at best, totally indifferent in their choice among different religious creeds.  Even a Western religion, which normally demands a wholehearted devotion to its creeds, is not quite immune from what appears to be a somewhat haphazard approach to religion by the Japanese.  Christianity, for example, has failed to take deep root on Japanese soil despite the fact that the Japanese have bees exposed to it since it was first introduced by the Portuguese as early as the sixteenth century.  The lack of devotion on the part of the Japanese to Christian values explains why such a shrewd observer as Ruth Benedict was led to conclude that the concept of sin has no place in regulating the social behavior of the Japanese.[2]  To the careful observer, however, it soon becomes evident that the Japanese are indeed a very religious people, albeit in a different sense of the term from that normally employed to characterize a Western nation, and that their attitude towards religious worship has a profound influence on the manner with which they conduct their daily life.  In fact, the works of Lafcadio Hearn are a vivid testimony to the penetrating insight with which a Westerner, who developed a deep liking for the Japanese society and its people, delves into the spiritual aspect of the life of the Japanese.[3]

The purpose of this essay is to provide a somewhat novel interpretation of the traditional Japanese religion which is deeply rooted in the inner life of the Japanese and to indicate how it influences their economic activities.  Section II provides a brief review of the nature and form of religious worship that has been preserved and observed by the Japanese.  Section III formulates the Japanese view of religion implied by the rich variety of religious worship.  The Japanese view of religion thus formulated is then employed in Section IV to shed light on the nature of interaction between religious and economic activities of the Japanese.  Section V contains a summary of the themes developed in this essay.


II. The Nature and Form of Religious Worship Observed Among the Japanese

Religious worship of the Japanese takes on a variety of forms, ranging from


mere observance of traditional customs to highly orchestrated group worship.  The practice of watching the sunrise on New Year’s Day is still widely observed by the Japanese.  This practice, while it may have originated in the worship of the Sun-goddess as the ancestor of the imperial family and as the incarnator of fertility in agricultural Japan, [4] is not to be interpreted to carry the same religious significance as a similar practice in Zoroastrianism.  It simply reflects a belief among the Japanese that watching the sunrise on New Year’s Day ensures blessings in their activities for the entire year by expressing their gratitude towards the benevolent sun.

The Japanese, as a rule, enjoy visiting Shinto Shrines and Buddhist temples.  However, their pilgrimage is not the reflection so much of their religious commitment as of their natural curiosity as tourists to see ancient constructions and valuable treasures.  No doubt these people experience a hallowed sensation when they enter old temples and see holy statues.  But this is, at best, a momentary experience as they will soon reveal their inclinations to explore more secular tourist attractions.  “Worship by day, fun by night,” is not altogether an uncommon motivation of their pilgrimage.

At the other end of the scale, one of course finds very serious forms of religious worship.  It is not uncommon, even to this day, to see a solitary monk traveling from one temple to another in search of enlightenment.  This form of asceticism is also shared by ordinary citizens with a more serious bent towards religious worship.  These pilgrims travel in white uniform with cane in hand and stay at Buddhist temples to share the training that demands extreme austerity with resident monks.[5]

One of the most highly organized forms of religious worship observed among the Japanese today is the one practiced by the adherents of Sokagakkai, one sect of Zen Buddhism.  These people pay their annual pilgrimage to the head temple in Mt. Minobu with the same kind of fervent dedication as the Jews and Muslims exhibit as they visit the Holy City of Jerusalem.  They hold weekly meetings devoted to serious study on their canon and are strongly encouraged to spread the canon to their friends and neighbors.

A widely accepted explanation for the rich variety of religious worship is the universal acceptance of animism by the Japanese [6].  Historically, the origin of animism in Japan can be traced back to the time when the founder of the nation, upon completion of his mission to create the Japanese archipelago, mused and muttered: [7]

In that land there were numerous deities (or spirits) which shone with a luster like that of fireflies, and evil deities which buzzed like flies.  There were also trees and herbs which could speak.


Reflecting this pure form of Japanese animism, objects of worship by the Japanese can be quite varied.  For example, a book, being a product of mental work, is regarded not merely as a material object made of paper, but as an object imbued with the author’s spirit.  Of course, the object of worship need not be limited to visible and concrete materials.  Even a word can have a spirit.  Carried to its extremity, this form of worship gives rise to the belief in the soul of language.  A good example is found in the care with which the Japanese in general treat the number ‘four’ which, pronounced shi in Japanese, is homonymous with another word shi (death). [8]

If an object, material or abstract, possesses a soul, so does any living creature and, most certainly, any human being.  Moreover, if, as a popular saying goes, “Even a one-inch worm has a half-inch soul,” there is surely plenty of room for soul in any human being.  The recognition of this simple fact, then, becomes the motivation for a variety of forms of human worship observed among the Japanese.

Collective unity has long been an important element of the Japanese value system.  Maintenance of unity demands loyalty to collectivity and respect for the head of collectivity.  At the smallest scale, this gives rise to loyalty to a family and respect for the head of a family, culminating in the family religion generally called ancestor worship. [9]  A psychological basis for filial piety and ancestor worship is the feeling of respect and reverence towards the elder and, supposedly, more sagacious members of the community.  If this is the case, the circle of worship can be easily expanded to include other individuals outside direct family lineage.  It was thus a natural course of development for the Japanese to expand a family religion to a clan religion, worshipping Ujigami (clan deity) as the progenitor of the clan.  This form of worship actually played an important social function of maintaining the solidarity of communal life in ancient Japan.  The reverence with which the Japanese hi general regard the Emperor can be best explained in this light, although such reverence is turned into the worship of the Emperor by some Japanese as the direct descendent of the Sun-goddess in Shinto mythology. [10]

As the circle of worship is gradually expanded, family linkage becomes neither necessary nor sufficient for a certain individual to be elevated into an object of worship.  One important necessary condition for any individual to be elected to join the divine family is a high degree of achievement in whatever line of business that individual happens to be engaged in.  It is not surprising then that the Japanese have created gods in literature, in military, and even in baseball! [11]


III. Traditional Japanese Religion

We have seen in the previous section how the traditional form of Japanese animism has contributed to generate and foster a favorable environment for


the rich variety of religious worship observed among the Japanese.  We are now in a position to formulate the Japanese view of the fundamental problem:  What is religion?  We can, of course, take a metaphysical approach to this question. [12]  However, what we propose here is an inductive approach.  That is, we derive hints from the nature and form of Japanese religious worship and use these hints to formulate the traditional Japanese view of religion.  The concept of religion thus formulated is then employed in the next section to shed light on how the Japanese behave in the realm of their economic affairs.

The rich variety of religious worship observed among the Japanese can be best explained by the fact that the question of religious worship is utterly a private affair for the Japanese.  Whether it concerns the choice among different religious creeds or among different forms of religious services, final decision is completely left to the individual concerned.  His decision, as a rule, is not influenced or bound by the institution (including the religious institution) of which he is a member. [13]  Thus, we can assert that religious worship of the Japanese originates in the subjective desire of an individual for comfort and security in the conduct of his daily life.

Religion, to the extent that it originates in the subjective need of each and every individual, can be defined as a collection of beliefs and actions which relate man to his ultimate value system.  Religion, in the sense thus defined, forms man’s thoughts and regulates his actions in the conduct of his daily life.  The need for religion arises from the recognition that man is a defective being endowed with only limited knowledge about his environment.  Out of this humble recognition emerges a longing for perfection of the imperfect self and a yearning for wisdom and power to supplement his human frailty.  As a byproduct of such longing and yearning emerges the sense of reverence towards the individual possessed with wisdom and power, culminating in human worship when led to its extremity.  Other types of religious worship are developed in a number of different ways: through observance of traditional customs and values which reflect the conventional wisdom of the society the individual in question belongs to, through exchange of information and sharing of experience with other members of the society, or through the individual’s own effort to cultivate and nurture his value system.  Whatever the source of a particular religious worship might be, once it is developed it becomes an integral component of the ultimate subjective value system (which we call religion) of the individual concerned.

The Japanese view of religion thus traces the origin of religious worship to the mental process by which an individual develops his subjective value system.  It is a broader view of religion in that it does not require religion to be supplied by conventional religious institutions such as temples and churches.  We can, however, ascribe at least two important functions to these conventional religious institutions.  First, an existing religious sect provides a


ready-made set of religious codes which an individual can subscribe to and abide by in the conduct of his daily life.  Second, an existing religious sect preserves and perpetuates a particular value system within the confine of a particular religious institution to the extent that such institution functions as a viable social entity.

It must be realized, however, that no single religious sect can continue to provide a ready-made value system for all members of a society for any extended period of time.  As problems man faces in life are varied, the need for a variety of religious systems arises.  To the extent that freedom of beliefs and creeds is guaranteed, an individual will exercise his consumer sovereignty among different religious systems as the occasion dictates; he may, of course, develop his own system in case no existing sect can satisfy his needs.  Our broad concept of religion does not, therefore, define it as a fixed and stationary system of values.  Rather religion will go through its own metamorphosis as man is confronted with a new set of problems with every passage of time.  Religion, in this sense, must be interpreted as something quite flexible, being capable of accommodating itself to an ever-changing environment.

The traditional form of Japanese animism embodies such flexibility in that it recognizes the presence of deity in all objects in man’s environment.  Since man himself is endowed with deity, man acquires flexibility in dealing with his environment through the common link of deity.  That is, man is encouraged to develop his own deity, i.e., seek self-perfection in order to gain a better understanding of and maintain harmony with his everychanging environment.


IV.Homo Religiosus versus Homo Economicus

We now turn to the main issue of this essay:  How does the traditional Japanese religion as formulated in the previous section help us to shed light on the economic behavior of the Japanese?  One implication of Japanese religion which is crucial to answering this question is the inseparable interfusion of earthly activities and religious obligations for the Japanese.  An economic motive, far from being in conflict with one s religious obligations, is very naturally converted into a religious commitment as long as it originates in, and is therefore justified in terms of, one’s ultimate subjective value system which we call religion.  How this conversion actually takes place can be Illustrated with reference to the profit motive which underlies all business activities.

A fierce scramble to secure markets for the Japanese products in the post-World War II era has invited animosity against the Japanese in certain parts of the world as is typically reflected in the use of a rather sarcastic epithet ‘economic animals’ to describe the conduct of the Japanese


businessmen.  In the traditional treatment of economics, the behavior of these businessmen can be explained in terms of an economic motive of seeking profits.  It is not difficult, however, to justify such profit motive within the context of the Japanese value system.

The reasoning goes as follows.  Receiving profits is made possible by doing business which is designed to benefit other members of the society.  As long as one’s business benefits others, one acquires the right to secure benefits (profits) for himself.  Business activity in this sense, is an act of receiving and returning blessings - the very foundation of the Japanese value system that emphasizes harmony with one’s environment. [14]  The origin of such an emphasis can be traced back to Shintoism.  In fact, Shinto has been a dominant force, throughout the vicissitudes of the nation’s history, in preserving the uniquely Japanese form of animism in that it emphasizes the communion of human beings with the surrounding environment - the environment here to be interpreted in the broadest possible sense to include not only material objects such as animals, trees, rocks and streams but also abstract objects such as words and spirits of ancestors.  As the only indigenous religion, Shinto has played an important role in building the character of the Japanese and, through its emphasis on the communion with the environment, it has constantly contributed to maintain the unity and integrity of the nation.  In any event, this example serves to illustrate that it is not at all far-fetched to interpret the devotion of Japanese businessmen to their work as stemming from their religious convictions.

If profit motive is highly commendable, a successful businessman has every right to be respected.  That such respect can be easily turned into human worship is again a natural consequence of the Japanese view of religion formulated in the previous section.  In fact, the economic miracle of the Sixties revived human worship of successful businessmen as miracle workers, some being referred to as gods in business and management. [15]  Once such divine status is achieved, the leadership of these businessmen goes well beyond their original area of expertise and their opinion begins to carry weight in forming public opinion in other social problems.  What a contrast this is with the image of a successful businessman in the West!  Thus, Schumpeter writes: [16]

Of the industrialist and merchant the opposite is true.  There is surely no trace of any mystic glamour about him which is what it counts in the ruling of men.  The stock exchange is a poor substitute for the Holy Grail.  We have seen that the industrialist and merchant, as far as they are entrepreneurs, also fill a function of leadership.  But economic leadership of this type does not readily expand, like the medieval lord’s military leadership, into the


leadership of the nation. On the contrary, the ledger and the cost calculation absorb and confine.

What is true with the profit motive is also true with other motives for economic activities.  As long as the motive for an economic activity originates in a subjective urge to seek self-perfection, a successful fulfillment of that activity sooner or later turns into a religious commitment.  This implies that, even in pursuing such a secular activity as business, there comes a point for the Japanese where the distinction between economic motive and religious conviction ceases to exist and where a secular objective is converted into a religious commitment.  Once this point is reached, it becomes meaningless to try to separate out economic motives from religious convictions.  Once the Japanese reach this critical realization that their activities embody their aspirations for self-perfection, it becomes futile, in a very real sense of the word, to try to distinguish homo religiosus and homo economicus in the Japanese.

The same argument applies, mutatis mutandis, to the relation between religion and the Japanese polity and between religion and the Japanese society in general.  The ultimate value system of the Japanese can very easily accommodate political and social values.  Once this accommodation takes place, it becomes meaningless, for the same reason as above, to try to explain the behavior of the Japanese in different aspects of life independently from their religious convictions.  This kind of all-inclusive value system, which reflects the traditional form of Japanese animism, is what triggers the Japanese to engage in all realms of their activities with their characteristic vigor and devotion.  In the narrow of their economic activities, this would be the Japanese counterpart to the Protestant ethic.  However, there is no better way of characterizing this type of all-embracing value system than to call it the traditional Japanese religion.


V. Conclusion

We have embarked on our inquiry by asking whether or not the Japanese are religious people.  The answer would have to be in the affirmative if religion can be given a broad interpretation as we have attempted in this essay.  The uniquely Japanese view of religion developed and expanded in the preceding pages actually dovetails well in a new category of religion whose emergence has been noted by sociologists in recent years - a category which is marked by the independence from traditional religious institutions as far as its supply is concerned. [17]

This type of religion basically originates in the subjective need of an individual for comfort and security in the conduct of his daily life.  The subjective form of religion has a definite implication on the character of a


national economy.  If a sufficient number of common elements are culled from the individual value systems of a nation, these common elements would then constitute the national religion and the working of the economy of this nation is strongly influenced by the character of this national religion.  We can make an even stronger argument for a nation whose individual value systems have sprung from an indigenous form of religion and have long been observed by its citizens. Indeed, the subjective nature of the traditional Japanese religion can be traced to the traditional form of Japanese animism.  It is, in fact, a variation of the basic theme contained in animism.  Animism in its purest form, stems from a basic human desire to establish dialogue and harmony with his environment.  It evolves into a religion when he experiences a sensation that he achieved communion with his environment - a sensation that every human being is capable of experiencing as is most aptly put by a poet: [18]

... And I have felt

A presence that disturbs me with the joy

Of elevated thought; a sense sublime

Of something far more deeply interfused,

Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,

And the round Ocean and the living air,

And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:

A motion and a spirit, that impels

All thinking things, all objects of all thought,

And rolls through all things...

Animism is generally regarded as a most primitive form of religion. In fact, this point is most eloquently argued by Freud. [19]  However, our interpretation of animism differs sharply from Freud’s in that we have traced the source of adaptability and flexibility of the Japanese to the traditional form of Japanese animism.  This is well exemplified by Japan’s success in industrialization and in achieving her post-World War LI economic miracles.  The Japanese animism derives its modern flavor in that it is devoid of strategic aspects such as sorcery and magic, although some forms of strategies still remain as superstitions.  The Japanese animism, above all, is a Weltanschaunung that admits the presence of deity in all objects in man’s environment and emphasizes the importance of achieving communion with the environment.

As was pointed out at the outset, the process of Japan’s modernization has been the process of Westernization in all aspects of the life of the Japanese.  It would not be far-fetched to claim that their cultural heritage, especially as regards their attitude towards religious worship, has actually aided in their endeavor to catch up with the advanced Western countries. Religion, in this


sense, has played an essential role in Japan’s industrialization.  Since the subjective aspect of the traditional Japanese religion points to self-perfection as a means of understanding and maintaining harmony with the environment, the economic activity of the Japanese sooner or later becomes interfused with their religious commitment.  In this sense, the inseparable union of hoino economicus and homo religiosus holds a key to understanding the notion of economic man in the Japanese.

Interfusion of religion with the economy and, for that matter, with the polity and the society clearly distinguishes Japan from other countries. This kind of all-embracing value system, which is uniquely Japanese and triggers the Japanese to engage in their activities with their characteristic devotion, can only be described as the traditional Japanese religion.

The Ohio State University



*Useful comments on an earlier draft by Richard Dyck, Tatsuo Hatta, Edward J. Kane, Hugh Patrick and anonymous referees of this Journal are deeply appreciated.

1. See, for example, Doi, Lockwood, Minami, Nakane, and Patrick and Rosovsky.  However, no work has yet addressed directly the question of how religion influences the economic activities of the Japanese as Tawney and Weber attempted with reference to the Western nations.

2. See Benedict.  Her contributions to Japanese sociology lies with her emphasis on the concept of shame in explaining the motivation of the Japanese in their social life - a concept which is still admitted by many as regulating the social behavior of the Japanese to some extent.

3. All of Hearn’s works, including his ghost stones, reflect his keen observation of the Japanese society and touch on various aspects of life of the Japanese.  However, Kokoro stands out for its penetrating insight into the spiritual life of the Japanese.

4. The Sun-goddess, called Ama-terasu-Ohmi-Kami, appears as a major character in Shinto mythology.  See Anesaki for a detailed account.  Kurozumi-kyo, one sect of Shintoism, still maintains the sun worship as an important element of its canon.

5. One of the most popular routes for these pilgrims is the round of 88 temples in Shikoku, all opened up at the initiative of Kobo-daishi, a legendary figure in the history of Buddhism in Japan.

6. See, for example, Umesao.

7. From Nihon-gi (Chronicles of Japan) as quoted by Anesaki, p.19.

8. Other examples illustrating the belief in the soul of language are found in Minami, Chapter 5.

9. For references on this subject, see Anesaki, Bellah and Kitagawa.


10. Doi, a psychiatrist by training, introduced the concept of ‘dependence’ as the underlying motivation behind the social behavior of the Japanese.  The sense of reverence the Japanese feel towards the Emperor, according to Doi, is an expression of ‘dependence’ towards the head of the Japanese as a nation.

11. Michizane Sugawara is regarded as the god in literature and Isoroku Yamamoto the god in military.  Mr. Tetsuji Kawakami, the former manager of the Tokyo Giants, used to be called the god in baseball in his hey-day at the helm of his perennial championship team.

12. See, for example, Tillich.

13. There are, of course, instances where an implicit form of influence is exerted in the name of collective unity.

14. Early history of direct participation of Buddhist monks in business activities is discussed in Bellah.

15. Konosuke Matsushita, the founder of Matsushita Electric, is regarded by many as the god in management.  His autobiography is widely read and his opinion highly regarded by the Japanese in other areas as well.

16. Schumpeter, pp. 137-8.

17. See, for example, Luckman, and Schneider and Dornbusch.

18. William Wordsworth, 7intem Abbey.

19. See his essay, “Animism, Magic and the Omnipotence of Thoughts,” in Totem and Taboo.



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