Byzantine Reality

Searching for Byzantine failures in the world around us

The Samurai and the Sacred

While I’ve seen myself as a history enthusiast, I’ve definitely read a lot more about the West than the East. So I sought to remedy that by reading The Samurai and the Sacred, a contemporary look into Japanese history and culture. It was an informative book but I felt it was aimed more at those well-versed in Japanese culture than at the layperson.

The book starts off strong and covers exactly what you would expect a book on Japanese culture to cover. The thesis of the book seems to be “the relationship between the Japanese and religion is difficult to quantify and definitely is not what you are commonly taught”, and uses the metaphor of a “religious supermarket” to describe the pick-and-choose attitude undertaken by the Japanese with respect to religion. The idea seems to be that instead of having a single religion with a set of beliefs and standards, the Japanese have historically taken many religions and meshed them as needed. The process was definitely not uniform: everybody seems to get a unique blend of religions based on local and temporal influences.

What is confusing in this book is that despite this blend, there seem to be parts in Japan’s history where a single, well-established religion (let’s take Buddhism as one example) is seen as problematic and somehow de-integrated from the existing culture. Since the book goes out of its way to tell us how well Buddhism and Shinto are in Japan, it’s hard to grasp how this happens, and is a point of confusion in the book. The history and interplay involving Christianity is a lot more clear and a lot of this seems to be because Christianity was not integrated as well into Japanese culture as Buddhism was (although over time it appeared to have gained good traction there).

The book is unique in the large number of visuals it displays: nearly every other page has an image on it, and goes a long way towards making the book readable. The iterative style of the book goes a bit against this, however. What I mean is that the book is broken down into themes, so each chapter focuses on a particular theme, and can run from the beginning of Japan’s history to the present day. This means that once we’ve gotten to the present, the very next chapter can jump all the way back to the beginning again. This would be ok but in this book a lot of important events or people were not thoroughly explained the first time through. I had no idea what the Meiji Restoration was until the third time I saw it, when it was finally explained. I get that it wasn’t that important the first two times, but since the actual explanation was really only a sentence long, it just created a lot more confusion than necessary.

Thus I think that the book as a whole would have been helped a lot by a bit of reorganization, along the lines of Egypt, Greece, and Rome, which sorted things on date and time rather than by subject. Similarly, a bit more explanation when a new important person or event is introduced would have made it more readable for the layperson as well. All of the Japanese words are introduced nicely, so just a little more explanation on important events would have done wonders for the book (as opposed to me looking these things up).

The author also keeps ending each chapter with something like “now we see the interplay between the samurai and the sacred” (ala the title of the book), but since the chapters really focus on all tiers of society and religion, it comes off as forced and a bit awkward. I would have liked to see either a lot more focus and explanation on the samurai or (more preferably) just dropping that whole thing and just saying “this is the interplay between all tiers of society and the sacred”, which keeps it in line with what it already was saying.

So The Samurai and the Sacred is a good but not great introduction to Japanese history. It’s the most readable of the books I’ve looked into and is a good read, but you may find yourself skipping around trying to figure out what’s going on. Again, this may be because I’m a bit of a layperson in this area, but I think the book does have a lot of potential overall. Check it out if you’re looking to learn more about Japanese history!