When I give lectures on Japanese culture in Turkey, I often receive the following question: “How are the Japanese so moral when they have no religion?”
Similar questions, perhaps more prejudicial, were asked of the Japanese during the Meiji period. For example, when Nitobe Inazo, a leading Japanese Christian intellectual of the Meiji period and the author of the book “Bushido: The Soul of Japan,” explained to a Belgian professor that there was no religious education in Japan, the professor replied, “No religious education! Then how do Japanese people learn morality?”
In response to the above question, Inazo Nitobe explained how although the Japanese people do not have religious education like Western Christian societies, ethics are hardwired into Japanese society based on traditional Japanese culture and religions, which he termed “Samurai Ethics.” His writings on this matter have brought global recognition to the samurai ethic, bushido and the word “samurai.”
Contemporary Japanese society, on the other hand, is not so easy to understand. While modern Japanese have inherited ethical principles in some aspects, they have forgotten how to practice them in their society.
In this short essay, I would like to introduce the message of the picture book “Anpanman,” the source of the now barely remaining moral culture in Japanese society, and how I have drawn inspiration for reviving its practice from Islamic classics and Muslim society.
Most people, when asked about the Japanese sense of morality, begin with an explanation of the traditional Japanese Buddhist and Shinto culture. But as a Japanese born and raised in Japan, I doubt how persuasive such an explanation is; it is possible for a secular Japanese person to lead a life completely unrelated to such traditional religions but carry on those morals. However, I can think of another explanation, and it is a story that almost every Japanese person has read. It is Anpanman.
Anpanman is a fictional character created by the manga artist, picture book author and poet, Takashi Yanase. He is a hero of justice who was born when a “star of life” was added to bean-paste buns during the bread-making process. Since he is an Anpan (sweet roll) bread hero, his face is filled with sweet red bean paste. He flies to those suffering from hunger, disease, or loneliness and gives them bread filled with sweet red bean paste by tearing off the bread from his face.
Japanese people love this hero. From an early age, even when they have not yet learned to speak the language, the Japanese children imitate Anpanman by pinching their soft cheeks and handing bread to their mothers and fathers. It is interesting to note that according to manga/anime critic Toshio Okada, the Anpanman series is not as popular with some Americans because the way he tears off his own face and gives it to others is reminiscent of cannibalism.
For the Japanese, however, including Yanase, Anpanman’s act is nothing less than the manifestation of justice. This story itself is inspired by Yanase’s experience during World War II. When he was drafted into the Japanese army, he was taught that the war was just. But after the defeat, he was taught that Japan was the aggressor. Yanase learned that justice between the major powers was nothing more than a mere political power game and that the victims were always the ordinary people. As he witnessed people suffering en masse from food shortages after the war, he realized that real justice is found in the person who gives bread to a starving child.
To convey this message and his reflections after the war, he did not use a bakery character, but the bread itself. It could be said that the character of bread refers to the human soul or life force and the fact that altruism necessarily involves sacrifice. When Anpanman tears off his own face and gives it to the hungry, his face grows disfigured and chapped. But the person to whom the bread is given is brought life by the sweet bread. In other words, altruism is to threaten one’s existence for the sake of others. Yanase wanted to tell the Japanese that a person who lives with the pain of having his soul and body unquestioningly removed and used for the life of another is a person of true righteousness. You do not need abstract arguments or purely rational critiques to talk about justice. It is only a matter of whether or not you are willing to give up the bread you have in your hand and reduce your life to the bare minimum for the sake of the others in front of you.
However, while the Japanese have created such a beautiful story and passed it on to their children, it is highly doubtful that Japanese society is actually putting it into practice. In 2022, the annual number of suicides in Japan will exceed 21,584. Japanese youth continue to suffer from loneliness and a sense of social stagnation. How can we Japanese regain our humanity again?
I would like to share my personal experience to further highlight the power of this analogy. Despite growing up in such a beautiful narrative tradition, I had long forgotten the importance of practicing altruism. When I was in high school, I was ashamed that I did not have such “socially successful” aspirations when it came to choosing a university, while those around me chose law schools to become lawyers, engineering schools to become system engineers, and the University of Tokyo to become excellent bureaucrats.
Then, when I was a freshman in college, I was deeply impressed by a book written by Shaykha Khawla, the first Japanese Muslim female Alim, which inspired me to pursue Islamic studies. In the summer of my second year of university, I became Muslim in Egypt, and in the winter of the same year an international workshop on the social ideals of the Ottoman Empire, featuring Professor Recep Senturk, was held at my university. I was so impressed by his presentation of the multi-layered society of the Ottoman Empire and the Tasawwuf principles behind it that I decided to study in Turkey for a year.
In Turkey, I stayed at a private educational institute in Istanbul that taught traditional Islamic studies and Western studies. The name of that private institute was ISAR; I learned that the name of the private school was taken from the Arabic word ithar, which means altruism.
I was the first Japanese guest at that institution and lived in the dormitory alongside Turkish, Azerbaijani and American students. Some of the students specialized in Islamic studies, others in engineering, law, medicine, and political science. As I talked with them, I realized that the reason I had not decided on a career path when I was in high school was not because I “had no intention to succeed socially,” but because I had not thought deeply about what I could do for society.
In addition, witnessing the tradition and method of passing on Islamic knowledge within the Muslim community was a very new experience for me. In Japan, lectures and study groups on Buddhism and other subjects were common, but would always charge tuition fees. I realized that in retrospect, I never paid to attend a class on traditional Islamic studies in Turkey. On the contrary, the teachers would often visit their students or even prepare food for them in their homes. Teachers of Islamic studies do not ask for something in order to give, but rather they give their spirit to others in order to pass on and revive knowledge. In Islamic societies, I found an intimate connection between scholarship and practice — completely different from the philosophy of education I had received at school in Japan.
There is no denying the fact that we Japanese, living “after virtue,” have lost the system of knowledge that supports the practice of service for humanity. Traditional cultural appendages such as Bushido (Samurai Ethics) or popular cultures such as Anpanman, Naruto, or Tanjiro in Shonen Manga characters, etc. are all beautiful leaves, but their roots, the source of ethics and creativity, are increasingly weakening. The asphalt of modern values, in pursuit of efficiency and profit, suffocates the roots and prevents them from emerging and blooming into beautiful flowers and foliage.
In Muslim societies, the impact of modernity is similar, perhaps even more serious. However, Islamic civilization still has a system of ethics and knowledge that provides moral guidance and principles to Muslims and encourages them to put it into practice.
It then follows that the cultural and intellectual imperative for Japanese Muslims living in modern society is to study the ethics and knowledge systems of Islamic civilization alongside the diversity of their local practices. This will allow the Japanese to revive a humane society by building a network of people who practice Islamic-inspired morality in their daily lives and pouring water onto the remaining leaves of virtue in Japanese culture so that they do not wither and fade away.
As the first step of such a cultural experiment, upon the recommendation of Professor Recep, I translated the first book on futuwwa in Islamic civilization by Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Sulami, into Japanese. Al-Sulami is a well-known Sufi, Qur’anic commentator, and hadith scholar. Professor Recep explained how the spirit of futuwwa is the noblest ethic, forming the foundation of Islamic civilization. It is not just a philosophy, but a source of inspiration for everything in Islamic society: academic, political, economic and social.
The book Futuwwa explains the ideals of futuwwa with hadiths and anecdotes of the Sufis, with each virtue accompanied by a silsila. Silsila is not merely a chain that guarantees the legitimacy of the information, but a record of human footprints proving that the gift of knowledge and ethics has been passed down to the present day by individuals throughout history. Ethics and morality are never passed on as data or information, they are passed through the warmth of sweet bread and the relaying of personal experience in all its richness of flavor.
It is precisely this ethos that has continued to the present day, as I witness my teacher in Istanbul prepare warm soup for his students.
For the ahl al-futuwwa (the people of futuwwa), the highest principle is ithar. Ethics is expressed in society not through one’s own success, but through the desire to bring life to others, regardless of the cost to one’s life.
As al-Sulami writes:
من الفتوة أن يرى أن الباقي من ماله ما بذله لا ما أمسكه
Futuwwa believes that true everlasting wealth is not something that is earned from one’s wealth, but something that is spent for the benefit of others.
Each sentence of Futuwwa reminded me again of Anpanman, the stories of altruism that I read as a little child. But what has become a mere philosophy without real implementation in Japan, lives on in Muslim societies in a network of ideals, knowledge and practice.
It also reminded me of Bushido, by Japanese intellectual Nitobe Inazo. in the last chapter of Bushido, he calls attention to the fact that Bushido was dying and he prayed that there was a possibility of revival through the Christian spirit.
I believe that introducing Futuwwa to the Japanese world is an opportunity to show that there are societies outside of Japan that respect and carry on the Anpanman ethic. And, I believe introducing the Japanese people to the system of knowledge that produced futuwwa for the “revival of Japanese ethics” dreamed of by Nitobe is also a cultural and intellectual imperative for Islamic scholarship in Japan.
My next project is creating fictional characters and stories inspired by the Islamic ethics of futuwwa. I imagine that if we can combine the traditional creativity of Japanese culture, as embodied in manga, with the knowledge and ethical systems of Islamic civilization, we can create a new cultural activity that inspires and encourages people to serve others. Hopefully, this can be the topic of another essay, God willing.
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Dr. Qayyim Naoki Yamamoto
Dr. Yamamoto is currently an assistant professor at the Graduate school of Turkic Studies, Marmara University. He completed his PhD at the Graduate School of Asia and Africa Studies, Kyoto University, in 2018. He specializes in Ottoman Tasawwuf and traditional Japanese culture. His publications include a Japanese translation of Sulami’s Kitāb al-Futuwwa and Introduction to Tasawwuf: A Comparison with Shonen Manga (Shueisha Web Essay Series).