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Religion and the Secular in Premodern Japan from the Viewpoint of Systems Theory*

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Abstract This article discusses the essential question of whether or not the concept “religion” is applicable to premodern Japan. Rather than looking for semantic equivalents of the Western term it stresses the necessity to look for structural analogies to the binary code religious/secular. Roughly within the theoretical framework of Niklas Luhmann’s systems theory, documents from medieval Japan are analyzed in order to find out whether an emic binary code was used as a functional equivalent to the religious/secular pattern. It is shown that the fundamental Buddhist distinction between things that belong to this world (laukika; seken) and those which transcend the world (lokottara; shusseken) functions as a culturally specific emic version of the binary code transcendence/immanence, i.e., the code by which—according to Luhmann—all religious communication is guided. Furthermore, it is argued that the distinction between the “ruler’s law” (ōbō) and the “Buddha’s law” (buppō), which was so prominent in the Buddhist political discourse of the Kamakura period, is closely related to the binary code transcendence/immanence (shusseken/seken). It is proposed that both “laws” or “orders” (hō) represent what we would call the “secular order” and the “religious order.” From the fact that medieval Japanese discourses actually organized the world by the binary code ōbō (seken) / buppō (shusseken) it can be concluded that “religion” as a generic concept was by no means alien to the Japanese as many post-colonial authors want to make us believe.

Affiliations: 1: University of Leipzig Leipzig Germany


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