JOJG No. 43





  Japanese Garden Myths

Secular Japan

Japan emerges as the single most secular nation... (in the World)
The December 2003 issue of Scientific American included an article titled “Measuring Modernity.” The article was about research conducted by political scientists Ronald Inglehart and Wayne E. Baker of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.* These two men have attempted to scientifically measure “Modernization” in 77 countries around the world. Of interest to JOJG readers are their findings about religious vs. secular values. Japan emerged as the single most secular nation out of the 77 nations surveyed. This data, of course, conflicts with the inaccurate and commonly-held (Western) belief that Japanese people are exceptionally spiritual. The data also helps cast doubt on the widespread (Western) belief that the Japanese garden tradition is somehow related to religions such as Buddhism and Shintoism.

Profs. Baker and Inglehart defined modernization in two realms: Religious vs. secular, and Self-expression vs. security. To measure these qualities they used responses from the World Values Survey, an international study based on extensive querying of ethnic groups representing more than 80 percent of the world’s population. The data for individual countries was presented on a 2-dimensional chart identifying nine different cultural groups (see graphic). Japan’s data places it in the “Confucian” group, together with China and a few other Asian counties. Nations in this group are nearly completely secular and strike a 50-50 balance between freedom of expression and security.

Scientific American made some interesting conclusions regarding the cultural groups. Protestant Europe was deemed the “most modern” group, with secular values and wide-ranging freedoms. English-speaking countries such as the U.S. and Australia were “somewhat modern,” their lower ranking partially due to their religious traditions. Catholic Europe, on the other hand, is decidedly average and LESS modern. According to Scientific American, this is largely due to the influence of the Roman Catholic Church, the “prototype of a hierarchical, centrally-controlled institution.”

Many informed people might disagree about what constitutes a “modern” society. JOJG presents this information, not to further a debate on modernity, but rather to illustrate how secular Japan really is. Tourist groups and Japanese garden books repeatedly turn their focus to temple gardens and other religious sites open to the public. The truth is: (1) the gardens at those sites don’t necessarily reflect religious values, (2) those sites certainly do not reflect the much larger tradition, and (3) the real JN garden tradition is secular, just like the nation and culture that surrounds it.

Some scholars might reply, “But the JN garden tradition was created centuries ago in a time of strict religious beliefs.” Nonsense. The bulk of the tradition - including the sukiya-style of architecture - was developed during the Edo period, a long and distinctly non-religious period in Japanese history. What’s more, the so-called “religious” garden elements that may have emerged prior to the Edo Period consist mainly of myth and superstition. Heian~Muromachi concepts in areas such as stone placement, berm construction, and watercourse layout might be presumed to be somehow religious, but in fact they are more accurately categorized in secular terms as “attempts to evoke natural patterns.”

The data clearly shows Japan to be a secular nation. It might not be fair to say that Japan’s Sukiya Living tradition is completely void of religious influence, but religion is certainly not a prime or even noticeable factor.


* Modernization, Cultural Change, and the Persistence of Traditional Values, by Ronald Inglehart and Wayne E. Baker in American Sociological Review, Vol. 65, No. 1, pages 19-51, February 2000.  Scientific American illustration, below: