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Secularized Spirituality in Modern Japanese Literary and Political Thought
Individual Paper Presenter(s)
Columbia University, United States
Why did influential feminist writer Hiratsuka Raichō proclaim in 1911 her "unbearable joy" upon finding her own beliefs reflected in the pages of the White Birch (Shirakaba) literary journal, a publication that argued the ultimate goal of all women should be finding a good lover? Why in 1913 did the prominent anarchist writer Ōsugi Sakae describe an aristocratic White Birch author, whose political vision extended as far as saying the government should buy Cezanne paintings rather than battleships, as Japan’s best literary hope? Both of these curious statements were utterable only within the context of the transnational discourse of modern religion in the early twentieth century. The writers examined in this paper found their unlikely common ground in a shared understanding of spiritual experience, strictly distinguished from the institutions and dogmas of Christianity or Buddhism, yet frequently described with religious vocabulary.
I argue that from its inception in 1910, White Birch spearheaded inquiry among Japanese intellectuals into what the modern subject might be capable of experiencing beyond the five senses. Religion, according to contributors, did not offer a satisfactory answer to this question in the disenchanted modern world, yet scientific materialism was also found lacking. Both the conservative White Birch cadre and radical thinkers like Hiratsuka and Ōsugi looked instead to pantheism, liberal Christian theology, Zen-inspired meditation, hypnotism, mysticism, and Henri Bergson’s elan vital to construct images of a spiritual yet secularized self that could serve as the vehicle for both great literature and social change in the modern world.