Gods without faces : childhood, religion, and imagination in contemporary Japan
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In societies where religion is largely not dogmatic, Pierre Bourdieu observed that religion “goes without saying because it comes without saying.” But in what manner does it come? Japan presents a particularly interesting case study in religious transmission not only due to the lack of dogmatism in the Japanese approach to religion, but also because there is demonstrably little overt attempt to indoctrinate children into the belief systems of Buddhism and Shinto. The texts from which the Japanese learn the most about the content of their religion are not the holy texts of the institutional religions, but rather picture books from the secular market. Ideas and attitudes about the kami and Buddhas are not communicated to the child explicitly, moreover, but rather come tacitly as part of learning the traditional cultural apparatus of which these beings are a constituent part. Because direct explanatory statements about the kami and Buddhas tend to be avoided, the child comes to make assumptions about supernatural beings based on the ways they are taught to interact with them: to greet these beings much as they would greet other humans, and to think of them as members of a social network of loving care that sustains them even when they are not aware of its actions. Furthermore, children are taught that showing ritualized social deference to a significant object is functionally equivalent to showing deference to the entire social network that that object represents. The kami, then, is the symbolic spokesperson for this collective: the face applied to a null operator through which feelings of concern are transacted. Through this process, the kami and Buddhas come to be understood simultaneously as both members of the community and symbolic representations of the community—and in particular, the community in its role as a network dedicated to the collective nurturance of the child and performing concern for his wellbeing. The concern of the community for the child and the gratitude of the child for the community are both directed—not to their ultimate recipients—but toward inanimate objects that serve as loci for the transaction of these feelings.