Art and Secularization Debates in Contemporary Japan
Artists in contemporary Japan occupy a special societal niche from which to comment on narratives of religious decline and secularization, and even to create novel religious expressions. In contrast to the popular view that religion is on the wane in Japan, as represented by scholars such as Hiromi Shimada and Ian Reader, various trends in contemporary Japanese art serve as proof that religion is reformulated and renewed through a variety of mediums. In this article, I will profile two artists, Kyohei Sakaguchi and Tengshing Kazama, who use religious concepts and themes in their work, with the explicit or implicit goal of providing commentary on the state of religion in Japan today, while also creating alternative frameworks for perceiving and defining faith. In a society where both traditional and new religions are increasingly looked upon with suspicion and disdain, especially since Aum Shinrikyo’s 1995 Tokyo subway attack, artists are in a prime position to address ethical and spiritual issues in a way that members of organized religions cannot. The work Sakaguchi and Tengshing produce, even when it does not directly reference or incorporate religious content, addresses questions in Japanese society that stem at least in part from the reshaping of organized religion as well as economic instability. In this sense, these two artists, and, many more, search for subjects of faith inside of the many narratives of decay in contemporary Japan.
Kyouhei Sakaguchi, a prolific writer, visual and conceptual artist and musician, is no stranger to the risks posed by the failure of traditional value-systems in Japan, from organized religion to corporate feudalism. Underlying all his art is his struggle with manic depression, which is related to widespread precarity. “I have an idea of why people kill themselves over the economy or the way their lives are going: when I fall into a depressive state the thing I most feel is the risk of poverty,”  he writes in Theories for Reality Escape (109). “If I can’t do my job, my family… won’t even be able to eat.” The second leading cause of suicide in Japan, and the first for people under age 50, is economic instability and day-to-day problems[i]. Economic stagnation since the early ‘90s as well as the waning influence of organized religions in the country has created a moral vacuum that marginalized and young people are most susceptible to. What is needed is a value-system with which to ward off nihilism, and Sakaguchi, while he does not directly attempt to supplant organized religion, is engaged in both creating and transmitting such a value-system.
Meaning, synonymous with creation for Sakaguchi, begins with doubt: “When you doubt something, you have a chance. From there, you pose a question 問い; you convert your doubt into this question. I call this process creativity”  (164). The catalyst for his work, and more generally his worldview, is his ability to doubt, which in turn is integrally linked to his depression. The existential despair and suicidal ideations that accompany his bouts of depression contain the key to his continuing desire to live and create: “I think about killing myself 24/7 [in my depressive state]. It’s hard. But, even so, I work frantically to find something to doubt. When I’m doing this, thinking becomes an act of searching for a reason why I can’t, why I mustn’t die”  (167). He extends this theory, saying that the “responsibility” that accompanies a sense of doubt “serves as fuel to move the machinery of the body”  (172). For Sakaguchi, doubt becomes a constructive act that ties the individual to a sense of external meaning (for example, a question about the order of things, which prompts action).
Intentionally or unintentionally, Sakaguchi’s value-system parallels that of the Soto Zen monk Minami Jikisai. In the book A Zen Monk Speaks, Jikisai writes in a similar vein that “at the edges of life there are no pre-determined objectives, values or meanings, only questions 問い” (69). He asserts that “we are not given meaning and value to live by, but that living creates meaning and value.” In short, the question to ask in response to the issue of impermanence 諸行無常 is, “how will I live?” (70-71). Jikisai urges value-creation in a similar way to Sakaguchi, one that frames the asking, or rather “finding” of questions as the only certain way to respond to life’s baselessness. While the premises for their philosophies are dramatically different, with Jikisai responding to the Buddhist concept of impermanence, and Sakaguchi framing his philosophy around his manic depression and larger social and economic issues in Japan, they arrive at a similar conclusion in emphasizing the individual’s agency in creating meaning through interrogating the structures of the outside world. If Japan’s high suicide rate indicates a crisis of values, or the danger of nihilism lurking beneath the surface of a “secular” society, then both Sakaguchi and Jikisai attempt to combat this danger with value-systems that derive from the importance of questions 問い.
Sakaguchi embodied his value-system from 2012-2013 by turning his personal phone number into an anti-suicide hotline called the “The New Government Life Number” 新政府いのちの電話 (the number is still listed on his Wikipedia page). The hotline was an integral part of the independent government 新政府he created in the wake of the 2011 disaster to criticize the Japanese government’s muted response to the reactor meltdown. In his own words: “My goal was, rather than to try to convince people to keep living, to create a space where two people could exchange their thoughts… I dedicated the majority of my time [on the phone] to learning about what kind of people they were, what they were interested in, what they thought about” (173). While the effort isn’t synonymous with working to change the underlying economic and social conditions linked to the high suicide rate, it does demonstrate serious engagement on the part of Sakaguchi with a problem that increasingly takes on religious connotations: Monks and religious organizations are also becoming actively involved in addressing suicide. Anthropologist John Nelson, in his book Experimental Buddhism, asserts that monks from a variety of sects “are beginning to provide the kind of counseling and referrals that people with suicidal tendencies need” through hotlines, “old-fashioned letter writing” and online groups (93). While these efforts are fledgling, they highlight how the roles of artists and monks today overlap. For monks, it is a matter of finding new ways to make Japanese Buddhism relevant in the 21st century, while for artists, it is a matter of using or reformulating religious concepts to address contemporary issues in Japan like suicide, though necessarily at a distance from organized religions and governmental entities.
The next artist I will profile represents a different approach to bridging art and religion in contemporary Japan, one that focuses more directly on organized religion and related narratives of decay and secularization. Tengshing Kazama is an ordained monk in the Soto sect of Zen, and also works as a contemporary installation and conceptual artist. As opposed to a majority of younger monks, led by Matsumoto Shoukei (founder of the online temple Higanji 彼岸寺and the temple networking site Maiteraまいてら) and Koike Ryunosuke (founder of online temple “A Space for Runaways” 家出空間), who accept the criticisms of Funeral Buddhism and advocate changing the structure of Buddhism from the inside, Tengshing responds to these trends in a way that blurs the roles of artist and monk. While he runs a temple in Northern Hokkaido, and associates with the aforementioned monks in trying to revitalize Buddhism, he makes his most dramatic comments on the state of religion in Japan today through his art. This push-pull relationship between his artistic career and religious duties makes his work hard to define, and he, in a recent interview I conducted with him, lamented that “monks don’t understand what I’m doing, and it’s really symptomatic of something larger in Japan: that art is seen as just a hobby.”
Much of Tengshing’s work focuses on how Buddhism and faith in Japan, as well as the country itself, are changing due to globalization and increasing skepticism of organized religion. This is best represented through his conceptual piece “The Distance,” in which he underwent a Buddhist pilgrimage in France to address the displacement of people from their homes in Fukushima after the disaster. In his own words: “The Japanese have never effectively experienced their land being taken from them. Depending on how you look at this, it could be seen as a tremendous blessing, but inside of a changing world, I felt that it was actually a kind of disadvantage. One exception to this was, because of the radiation, the people of Fukushima were forced out of their homes, and so in a way this experience was a first.” Based on this observation, he used the pilgrimage in France as an “impetus to explore the possible problems we would be faced with in such an event.” In this sense, the piece represents an attempt to contextualize Japan’s relationship with globalization through religion: By transplanting Japan’s spiritual tradition of pilgrimage into a new context, ‘The Distance’ is at once an intercultural and interreligious dialogue, as well as a commentary on problems Japan faces in a globalizing world. Ultimately, he used the pilgrimage to find a “distance there [was] no need to bridge”⸺to understand where communication breaks down between cultures, specifically in the midst of a religious act, a commentary often overlooked in more idealistic narratives of cross-cultural understanding that accompany globalization.
Another one of Tengshing’s activities revolves around examining the way that funeral rites and rituals are conceived of in Japan. As a monk, he is limited in the changes he can propose to the highly bureaucratic Soto sect organization, but as an artist he imagines alternatives to funerals and enlists artists to help in this endeavor. His proposal for the 2017 Sapporo Art Fair featured a “Mock Funeral” 妄葬儀, an art project that challenges the audience to understand the function of the funeral in contemporary Japan through the staging of a “fake” funeral. “The Mock Funeral is an experiment in which artists, the general public and monks come together to create new shapes for the funeral,” he writes in the proposal. This view that the widespread criticism of Funeral Buddhism calls for a response not only by monks, but also by artists as well as the public, highlights the blurring of art and religion in Tengshing’s practice. According to Tengshing, “artists are trustworthy and occupy a position closer to that which monks originally occupied in society, and so what I’m trying to do now is have them lead us in reimagining funerals.” While the “Mock Funeral” is in its nascent stages, Tengshing’s efforts to respond to changing funeral practices through art are based on observations he has made while performing funeral rites at his own temple; they demonstrate his commitment as a monk and an artist, and deserve further study.
There is no definitive aspect that unites the work of the two artists I have profiled above, or the many other artists (such as Fuyuko Matsui and Tatsuo Miyajima) who use religious content in their art, or respond to religious trends in contemporary Japan. Nor do I think it would be a fruitful exercise to search for such a unifying theme. What does join them, however, is their interest in defining faith and religious experience in a society marked by narratives of religious decline and widespread mistrust of religious authority. These narratives are often overblown and fail to take into consideration the experiences of religious leaders and practitioners on the ground, but they have considerable currency in the Japanese media as well as the public imagination. Artists, standing apart from religious organizations and the government, have the unique ability to individually address religious concerns precisely because of their lack of affiliations to publicly maligned institutions. Even when they criticize the state of religion in contemporary Japan, they do so borrowing its language and concepts, and by doing so, explicitly or implicitly renew it for a contemporary Japanese audience.
"An Interview with the Artist and Zen Monk Tengshing Kazama." Telephone interview. 1 May 2016. http://www.jirikitariki.com/new-blog/2016/7/17/an-interview-with-the-zen-monk-and-artist-tenshin-kazama
Jikisai, Minami. 語る禅僧. Tokyo: Chikuma, 2010. Print.
Nelson, John. Experimental Buddhism. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. Print
Sakaguchi, Kyōhei. 独立国家の作り方. Tokyo: Kodansha, 2013. Print.
Sakaguchi, Kyōhei. 現実脱出論. Tokyo: Kodansha, 2014. Print.