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  • Imagining Japan: The Japanese Tradition and Its Modern Interpretation
  • Ian Reader
Imagining Japan: The Japanese Tradition and Its Modern Interpretation. By Robert N. Bellah. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 2003. Pp. 254.

While Robert Bellah is probably best known for his work on religion in America, his earlier work focused on Japanese intellectual history, culture, and religion, and it is to these subjects that he has returned in this latest book, Imagining Japan: The Japanese Tradition and Its Modern Interpretation, almost five decades after publishing his seminal work Tokugawa Religion. In returning to Japan, Bellah brings to this broad overview of dominant themes within Japanese tradition, social structure, and intellectual and cultural history the grasp of a historical sociologist deeply rooted and [End Page 351] well versed in mainstream sociological theory. He also reminds us that although his reputation is as a sociologist of American religion, his intellectual roots are in the study of Japan, and he makes clear in his comments on one of his earlier essays (p. 3) that it was through the study of Japan that his eyes were opened to new possibilities, which he then applied to his study of the sociology of religion in the United States.

Imagining Japan is not so much a new book as essentially a collection of essays written in the 1960s and 1970s that are now wedded to a new and extensive Introduction, in which Bellah develops an overarching theoretical framework through which to interpret and analyze Japan and to situate the materials addressed in these essays. That the book can be read without any apparent disjuncture between essays written in the 1960s and an Introduction produced at the start of a new century indicates how consistent Bellah's thinking has been over the last four decades, and how deeply his early understanding of Japanese thought, religion, society, and culture has penetrated and framed his subsequent thinking.

Essentially Bellah is concerned with problems that have challenged scholars and Japanese thinkers for decades: how is it that, in Bellah's view, this society more than any other has retained such a strong sense of what is native and what is foreign (p. 188) and managed to preserve and emphasize its own cultural identity while engaging with, absorbing, and utilizing foreign (i.e., external) cultural influences. And, in the final essay of the book, Bellah asks how it is that a nation so economically and technologically advanced has continued, in the twenty-first century, to maintain an archaic, Bronze Age monarchical system (p. 184). Japan may not be quite as unique in some of these aspects as Bellah suggests (Britain, after all, is also modern, complex, and wedded to a monarchical system grounded in archaic notions of heredity, primogeniture, and privilege), but it remains perhaps the most striking case of how archaic notions can persist and form the basic framework of a society even as that society functions within a different framework, namely of modernity. In focusing on such issues, Bellah takes in-especially in the Introduction-the great sweep of Japanese history from the seventh century to the late twentieth, displaying a masterful ability to combine historical insight and sociological analysis.

The basis of his framework, expressed overtly in the Introduction but implicit in many of the chapters, is the application of theories that developed initially out of Max Weber's thesis that religion (in Weberian terms, Protestantism), with its focus on a universalizing ethic, is an essential factor in the emergence of modernity and of societies founded on capitalism. Following in this tradition, S. N. Eisenstadt described world religions as "axial" ("world religions"-particularly Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam-being those that have engaged in missionary activities across borders and that have posed a transcendent reality that supersedes or goes beyond the parameters of localized societies and states). Bellah, too, is convinced of the critical importance of the notion of axial religions and asserts that they are the "indispensable precondition" of modernity (p. 6). Yet, for Bellah, as for Eisenstadt (who also was fascinated with and wrote about Japanese society), Japan has been non-axial in that its primary orientation has remained focused on the...