As I have mentioned before on this blog, and indeed on the “About” page, I work (part-time, as a consultant) for Jinja Honchō, the largest and most influential Shinto organisation in Japan. This might seem like a natural pairing. After all, I practise Shinto, and write about it on my own time.
However, Jinja Honchō is a right-wing organisation, and I am not a right-wing person. Jinja Honchō is so right wing that people write books with titles like Jinja Honchō: The Extreme Right Wing Organisation That Controls The Prime Minister. (I am fairly confident that Jinja Honchō does not control the prime minister, and did not even when Abë held the post. If they did, he would have visited Yasukuni a lot more often.) Indeed, when I was still updating my Japanese blog every day, a few years ago now, someone wrote a comment saying “How can someone so liberal be interested in Shinto?”.
While I think Jinja Honchō’s reputation among some liberal Japanese is somewhat exaggerated, I have real disagreements with them. I disagree with them about the Imperial succession, as discussed on this blog a little while ago. I disagree with them about Yasukuni Jinja, and about Japan’s actions during the first half of the twentieth century, as discussed in my book. I disagree with them about the ideal shape of Japan’s society. These are quite important disagreements, and they know about most of them, in some cases because I have given them proposals suggesting that they should change. (They haven’t.)
So, why do I still work with them?
There are three main reasons, which I will give in order from most superficial to most fundamental.
First, I do not disagree with them about everything. I am pretty sure that some of the other employees agree with me on some of the points that I disagree with Jinja Honchō about, so it is possible that there are employees there with whom I do not have any important disagreements. More generally, there are positions taken by the organisation as a whole with which I agree. I think that preserving Shinto traditions is important, and so is making those traditions accessible to people outside Japan, including those who are visiting as tourists. For most of the things that they ask me to do, I am in broad sympathy with their goals. I do not always agree that they are taking the best approach, but, first, I might be wrong, and, second, that leads into the second reason.
The second reason is that I believe that, if you are interested in working with a particular part of culture, you ought to work with the people who sustain that culture, and work with them even if they are not exactly as you would like them to be. Taking the culture but refusing to have anything to do with the people who sustain it because you don’t like their politics strikes me as a worrying form of cultural appropriation. It feels very close to saying that the people who actually sustain and embody this culture do not deserve to have it. I think it is perfectly fine to suggest that they could change, and I do. But they are at liberty to reject those suggestions, and that is not a reason to stop working with them, at least not as long as you want to continue working with that aspect of culture. (There is more to this issue than I can address here, because my main focus in this post is different. I will come back to it.)
The third reason is that I think we should work with people with whom we have deep and important disagreements. I think that such cooperation is a vital part of making a pluralistic society possible, and that there are extremely good reasons for creating a pluralistic society — not least the fact that any non-pluralistic society is a tyranny for some of its members. My thinking here is relatively simple — much simpler than my thinking about cultural appropriation.
If you have a pluralistic society, then there will be people in that society who disagree with you about deep and important issues. That is what “pluralistic” means. If everyone agrees with you about fundamental points, such as the Apostles’ Creed, to take a historically important example, then you do not actually have a pluralistic society. Similarly, if you have a pluralistic society, then you have the potential to interact and work with everybody who lives in it. That is what “society” means. If there is a group of people with whom you do not interact, and never would, then those people are not part of your society. This means that, in order to have a pluralistic society, people must work with others in spite of profound disagreements. You can continue to disagree, and even discuss those disagreements, but you also continue to work together on projects where you have enough common ground. It may not always be easy to work with such people, but those who do are doing important work in preserving a pluralistic society, and deserve moral commendation.
Thus, I think that I should work with an organisation that I disagree with, because that is part of the work of preserving a pluralistic society. I can’t work with every organisation I disagree with — there are just too many of them — so I need to choose. My interest in Shinto separately means that I ought to work with the organisations that preserve that culture, and that provides a good reason for choosing Jinja Honchō as a group to work with. As Jinja Honchō are also interested in working with me it is, perhaps, a natural pairing after all.