Religion and the Secular in Premodern Japan from the Viewpoint of Systems Theory

in Journal of Religion in Japan
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This article discusses the essential question of whether or not the concept “religion” is applicable to premodern Japan. Rather than looking for semantic equivalents of the Western term it stresses the necessity to look for structural analogies to the binary code religious/secular. Roughly within the theoretical framework of Niklas Luhmann’s systems theory, documents from medieval Japan are analyzed in order to find out whether an emic binary code was used as a functional equivalent to the religious/secular pattern. It is shown that the fundamental Buddhist distinction between things that belong to this world (laukika; seken) and those which transcend the world (lokottara; shusseken) functions as a culturally specific emic version of the binary code transcendence/immanence, i.e., the code by which—according to Luhmann—all religious communication is guided. Furthermore, it is argued that the distinction between the “ruler’s law” (ōbō) and the “Buddha’s law” (buppō), which was so prominent in the Buddhist political discourse of the Kamakura period, is closely related to the binary code transcendence/immanence (shusseken/seken). It is proposed that both “laws” or “orders” () represent what we would call the “secular order” and the “religious order.” From the fact that medieval Japanese discourses actually organized the world by the binary code ōbō (seken) / buppō (shusseken) it can be concluded that “religion” as a generic concept was by no means alien to the Japanese as many post-colonial authors want to make us believe.

Religion and the Secular in Premodern Japan from the Viewpoint of Systems Theory

in Journal of Religion in Japan



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Münch (2011) presents his concept of Handlungsräume (areas of action) as an alternative to Luhmann’s social systems which he criticizes primarily with regard to the notion of “autopoiesis.”


See Nongbri (2008) for a critique of this concept.


Fitzgerald (2003) in contrast denies the existence of distinct social systems in most cultures: “However the traders and many of the colonial administrators may have been more interested in establishing the institutions of secular civil society itself a highly ideological concept including specific concepts of exchange and markets but appearing to many as simply the natural and rational way to organize things. In most cultures that became colonised what we call law economics and politics were not separated out into distinct spheres but were embedded in a different indigenous way of representing the world. It was this disembedding that was a necessary programme for the imperial power if it was to impose western-style laws create capital markets and forms of exchange and to ‘educate’ the people in the new school systems.” Reader (2004) has sharply—but in my view adequately—criticized Fitzgerald’s position.


See also Ruegg (1995 20012008); cf. Nara (1995); and Derrett (1957: 84ff.).


For the Japanese case see Josephson (2006). The same pattern seems to be used in Sri Lanka where the cults of gods for the sake of worldly benefits is relegated to the realm of laukika whereas Buddhism being primarily concerned with things lokottara is seen as a true religion (āgama) like Christianity and Islam. Cf. Ames (1964: 22); and Southwold (1978: 363).


For more on these see Adolphson (2007); Kleine (2002).


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