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Book Review: Vitality of East Asian Christianity

Book Review: Vitality of East Asian Christianity

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Published by: Simon Cozens on Jun 05, 2010
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Book Review: Vitality of East Asian Christianity
Simon Cozens
June 5, 2010

It has long been a cry of Japanese Christians (particularly Hideo Ōki and Seiichi Yagi, as noted inPhillips 1981, p228 andFuruya 1997) that Japanese theology has been in a state of ‘German captivity’, particularly to the theologies of Barth and Brunner; so much so that indigenous Japanese theologies have been actively ignored by the church and the academy alike, with the effect that, as the introduction to the current volume points out, “theology in Japan has developed almost in parallel not only to the Christian church but to Japanese society, seldom intersecting with either of them significantly.” Instead, the ‘vitality’ in Japanese theology has traditionally been a competition not so much to ‘root the gospel in Japanese soil’ but to provide the most faithful commentaries on German theologians. Doctoral students at some Japanese seminaries today1 are still required to sit entrance examinations in German, while Japanese theologians such asKitamori (2005) and Koyama are far better known outside Japan than inside—according toFuruya (1997, p146), although

Koyama has been regarded as a representative Japanese theologian… his contribution to theology in Japan is almost nil. is may be due to the fact that he has been working outside Japan for so long… On the other hand, it may also be due to the fact that until recently Japanese theologians have not been interested in the theology of Japan.

However, during the 1960s, urbanisation, secularism and skepticism found root in the one particular strand of Japanese
theology, the traditionally liberal hotbeds such as Dōshisha University, and

thereaer, some of the problems and views that seemed unique to America–‘death of God’ theology, black theol- ogy, liberation theology, political theology–were all alike read in Japan but with questions about their relevance to the Japanese scene. (Phillips,1981, p268)

e current volume is a collection of musings and dialogues on these themes, and in particular, the majority of the chapters appear to be a hunt for a particularly Japanese expression of liberation andminjung theology. Japanese society, as every human society, has its particular categories of marginalized and oppressed peoples, and so the book contains chapters attempting to apply liberation theology to theburakumin2, to resident Koreans in Japan who are denied the privileges of citizenship even aer many generations, to women who are still regarded as second-class citizens in a generally paternalist society, and to Okinawans3. ere are two further chapters, one rather esoteric paper concerning the ‘image of the soul,’ and a chapter by a Korean ‘re-examining the theology ofminjung.’ We will not consider these two latter chapters in this review, concentrating on the principal theme of the book, which is the attempt to develop a Japanese liberation theology.

Unfortunately, in part due to the diversity of situations represented in the various chapters, there is little sense of a result being achieved; the authors highlight different situations and either theologize upon those situations, or, in the cases of the chapters by Kuribayashi, Suh and Yamano, skip over theologizing and go straight to demanding liberation for Koreans and

1See, for instance,http://www.kwansei.ac.jp/Contents_5041_0_0_0_0.html - retrieved 2010-03-02.
2eburakumin are outcast people who, while ethnically Japanese, suffer discrimination due to being descended from workers in leather and blood-
related trades in the 17th century, or by being associated with villages where such workers lived.
3Okinawa is the chain of the southernmost islands of Japan, formerly an independent state called the Kingdom of Ryukyu. Ryukyu was invaded

by Japan in the 15th century but was ran as a puppet state; it was then annexed as part of Japan proper in 1879, given to the Americans as a military base in 1945 and returned to Japanese rule in 1972. It is still a major US military base and there is oen tension between the Americans and the local community. e islanders are still struggling with national and cultural identity.

1

women on unspoken social and ethical grounds, but there is no development of a framework by which orfor which such liberation ought to take place. erefore in reading these attempts, it is difficult to escape the feeling that the authors are seeking to ally themselves with whatever is fashionable with the rest of the theological world, forty years too late. With an astonishing amount of self-awareness, Teruo Kuribayashi declares that “changing hats one aer another to the tune of the times is a deep-rooted habit among Japanese intellectuals,” (p.29) yet despite his protests to the contrary, this is precisely what is going on in his theologising, both here and in his “eology of the Crown of orns”—seeing the global interest in liberation theology, the writers in this collection wish to find applications in their own contexts. However, to do so is to miss the key motivation of that same liberation theology: Liberation theology must be born out of a theological reflection upon ones’own experience of oppression4.

Indeed,Kuribayashi’s (1986) “Crown of orns”, which locates the best expression of the liberative message of the Chris- tian Gospel not in the Japanese church but in the secularBurakumin Liberation Association, therefore contains the tacit ad- mission that theological writers do not have the experience of oppression and liberation and must find it in external sources. Lacking this personal experience, the authors are reduced to either inventing their own oppressive experiences or making condescending and ingratiating inferences about the experiences of others. Both of these methods are, following Gutiérrez, unacceptable.

As an example of the former, see Watanabe’s bickering with Kuribayashi over the TUTS incident on p. 59; Kuribayashi’s work, which Watanabe critiques, is an honest attempt to identify liberationist elements in Japanese society, locating them in the BLA as mentioned above, but Watanabe berates him for not taking up the cause of desperately oppressed academic theologians in their brave struggle against the heartless faculty! For the latter, see Honda’s paper in chapter six, arguing that social care in the name of Jesus breeds discrimination and evenpride amongst its recipients. (p. 152)

is is an example of whatHayashi and Baldwin (1988) identify as a particularly Japanese trait: the surface-level copying of the form of an idea without necessarily having the underlying experiences and cultural history to fully appreciate its content. e overall impression given, then, is one of pastiche more than authentic theology: a manufactured attempt to reproduce the works of others, backed by a tendency to argue and debate purely for academic merit and point-scoring, rather than occasioned by a genuine concern for the church, the Gospel or Japanese society.

Honda’s paper, however, is unique amongst the others in that it does attempt to bring Biblical exegesis to bear upon a social issue. While his exegesis is oen questionable5, at least he is engaging in critical and Biblical reflection based on his experiences of the world, something one might imagine was a prerequisite for a work to be considered ‘theology.’ Contrast this with Kuribayashi’s initial paper which introduces and compares the life stories of Malcolm X, the Islamic black liberationist, and Saiko Mankichi, a Buddhistburaku liberationist. Just when one expects the author to bring a theological reflection to these two stories, the article ends. In his comment aer the presentation and reflection, the author notes that discussing these two figures in a study group about “the issues and direction for mission in East Asia” “might have been a total mismatch” (p. 27) but bizarrely justifies this decision in terms of a need to reject Barthian thought in Japanese theology.

As we mentioned in our introduction, Barth’s thought has exerted a strong influence over the development of Japanese the- ology until the 1960s, and it is encouraging to see theologians attempting to break free from ‘German captivity’, but the poor quality of theological investigation in this volume means the worrying questions do remain over the present state of Japanese theological education, particularly amongst the social/liberal tradition. ere is not even the excuse that Japanese theology is exploring uncharted territory:Odagaki (1997) cites four key themes of investigation (meontology, theology of religions, “be- tweenness and duality” and indigenization) since the 1970s, andMiyahara (2008) traces other indigenous Christian thought, such as Satō’s work on a theology of leisure.

Indeed, in assessing the impact of a work of theology, we can posit two possible areas of impact: either the work may have an impact upon the praxis of Christians, or it can form the basis for further theology which does so. We take this position on the basis ofBevans’s (2009) definition of theology:

eological knowledge cannot simply consist of intellectual clarification or religious affection. e knowledge
4Gutiérrez(1988, pp. xxx–xxxi) describes how the theology of Latin America did not come out of the middle-class academic environment but was
developed primarily through the experience of the poor.
5For instance, on p. 158ff. he sees John and Jesus’ calls forμετάνοιαpurely in terms of compassionate action, and denies any spiritual meaning ; he
mentions John’s “baptism ofμετάνοια in Mark 1:4, yet removes it from its context of “for the remission of sin”—see discussion inStein (2008, p45)
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