Lessons from Japanese Religion and History for Bioethics

- Karl Friday, Ph.D.
Dept. History, University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602, USA
Email: kfriday@uga.cc.uga.edu

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 8 (1998), 46.


That responsibility for the bulk of the world's ecology and environment-related problems can be laid at the feet of something called "Western Culture" has become almost an article of faith for the political and academic left. This accusation itself raises an intriguing set of questions: Is modern man's unrepentant rape of the world's ecology an accidental artifact of history, of the emergence of a particular society or civilization? Have human interactions with the environment, in particular the use or overuse of natural resources, been significantly determined by elements of culture, such as religious or philosophical worldviews? Are there worldviews alternative to those underlying modern European civilization that are intrinsically healthier for the environment? And would the more prominent ascendency on the world historical stage of one of these alternative worldviews have left us with a better ecological legacy today? The answer to the third question, at least, would seem to be a qualified yes. The answers to the others, however, are far less clear.

This paper briefly contrasted the ecological implications of the "Western", Judeo-Christian worldview with that of traditional Japan, and then tested the latter against the historical record. The Judeo-Christian worldview, at least in its modern form, emphasizing man's apartness from and rights to lordship over nature, correlates fairly well with what Arne Naess termed "shallow ecology"; while the traditional Japanese worldview, deriving from a blend of native shamanistic/spirit cults (Shinto) with elements of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, and emphasizing man's continuity with nature within a monistic or unitary cosmos, resembles Naess' notion of "deep ecology". Thus it seems logical that the Japanese worldview ought to have produced better caretakers of environment than the Judeo-Christian one.

The historical record, particularly of Tokugawa period (1600-1868) Japan, however, suggests otherwise. As recent research by Conrad Totman and others demonstrates, this period was one of rapid and far-reaching social and economic change that placed unprecedented demands on existing resources and the ecosystem. Rising demand depleted accessible supplies of unrenewable resources and outpaced reproductive capacity of the biosystem. By the mid-1700s, Japan faced numerous environmental and resource related problems of broad-ranging consequence.

Thus, it appears that the Japanese example justifies at least a healthy degree of skepticism toward some of the popular answers to questions concerning the relationship between human environment-related philosophies and human environment-related behavior. At a minimum, the Japanese example presents us with a problem: Tokugawa Japan was a society organized within a highly eco-friendly worldview--one consistent with modern notions of deep ecology, and precisely the sort of society one might expect to have produced a utopian record on use and interaction with environmental resources. And yet this same society clearly proved to be just as destructive toward its surrounding natural environment -- with commensurably serious consequences- - as so-called "Western" civilization has been.


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