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Bibliographic Data: Bellah, Robert. Tokugawa Religion: The Cultural Roots of Modern Japan. New York: The Free Press, 1985. [1957]

Main Argument: Bellah argues that "Tokugawa religion" [sic] inculcated socio-cultural values which provided the foundation for economic and political modernization and rationalization (i.e. industrialization) in the modern period.

Historiographical Engagement: This book is essentially shackled to modernization theory, by way of Talcott Parsons and also Paul Tillich, which should tell you a lot right there (and which, in fairness, does make Bellah's conception of "religion" somewhat easier to swallow).

Introduction: Argument, Sources, Examples This introduction, written in 1985, situates the book in terms of the heyday of modernization theory, which Bellah describes as "a kind of late child of the enlightenment faith in progress" (xii), amidst the postwar atmosphere in which "the belief that social science was rapidly becoming scientific and the belief that its results would be socially ameliorative" held sway (ibid). He also discusses Maruyama Masao's main criticism of the book, which "was what he considered my overly optimistic interoperation of the major developments in modern Japan as tending in the direction of 'rationalization' and 'modernization'" (xiii), although Maruyama did like "the strong theoretical framework of the book" (bid). [For those of us playing along at home, this should be anything but surprising.] In Bellah's own evaluation of the book, he notes that "I characterized Japanese society as one that emphasizes group loyalty on the one hand and individual and collective achievement on the other. This combination makes for strong and effective group action. …I failed to see that the endless accumulation of wealth and power does not lead to the good society but undermines the conditions necessary for any viable society at all" (xvii-xviii). [This seems true as far as it goes to me; the problem is how Bellah gets there.]

'Religion' in the Tokugawa period )

Critical assessment: I really, really dislike this book, to an extent that I have actually tried to keep secret from my advisor, as Robert Bellah was his outside examiner in his PhD exam here at Berkeley, lo these many years ago. The fundamental problem is that Bellah was trying to do for Japan what Weber did for Prussia--except that Weber was totally wrong about the "Protestant ethic" and the "spirit of capitalism." Even if either of those things exist as such, neither of them caused the Industrial Revolution, and Weber's entire theory is deeply chauvinistic at best and out and out bigoted at worst. Basing your entire method on a theory that is totally wrong is not likely to yield accurate analysis, and that is basically what happens to Bellah here. The modernization theory that is a more proximate base for Bellah's analysis here is also essentially bunk, and I am a skeptic about the notion of "social science" in general as well.

There are other problems, such as Bellah's definition of the category of "religion" and his reading it back into the Edo period uncritically; historians such as Kano Masanao have pointed out since (and may well have done so beforehand) that in Japan there was no category of "religion" as such before the bakumatsu and Meiji period, when the whole of Japanese thought on this domain changed radically. Much of what Bellah calls "religion" isn't. In other words, when your fundamental premises are factually incorrect, I don't think you're going to get much of value out of your analysis.

In some ways reading this book and discussing it in seminar with my advisor was like a funhouse reflection of my own time at St. Olaf College, where we had serious discussions about our vocation and how to find it and also where I participated in a two year "Great Con[versation]" program in which we read the "classics of the Western canon," which FYI includes no women according to my syllabi, including Paul Tillich. I can't overemphasize how much Tillich in particular is conditioned by his time period and by his reading of existentialism--it's essentially a postwar optimistic essentialism from a German-American Christian, which should tell you a lot. In light of that experience and in general, I question Bellah's uncritical application of concepts across societies and cultures in general and in particular.

In his defense, Bellah had hoped to go to Japan to research something completely different, but in 1950 he was told that, because he had led a discussion group on the works of Marx in undergrad in the 1940s, the State Department was unable to grant him a passport, and it was strongly intimated to him that his graduate funding would not be renewed after the current academic year--so he shut himself in the library for six months to write his dissertation before that deadline, and produced this book entirely from library sources. Tell me again about how the United States is the land of the free. It's possible to write excellent books about the Tokugawa period entirely from library sources; Beth Berry's Japan in Print is one of them. But Bellah's premises are so off the mark that there is very little worth saving in here--although I will say, his position that the Tokugawa period bequeathed positive legacies to modern Japan is somewhat remarkable for the time in which he was writing.

Further reading: Jan DeVries, The Industrious Revolution; Mary Elizabeth Berry, Japan in Print; Ken Pomeranz, The Great Divergence; Sebastian Conrad, The Quest for the Lost Nation; Najita Tetsuo, Visions of Virtue in Tokugawa Japan; Maruyama Masao, Thought and Behavior in Modern Japanese Politics

Meta notes: The "Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism" [sic] did not cause the Industrial Revolution.


ahorbinski: shelves stuffed with books (Default)
Andrea J. Horbinski

August 2017

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