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Spiritual Pan-Asianism

Spiritual Pan-Asianism: The Religious Dimension of a Political Movement

Hans-Martin Krämer

The modern Japanese nation state that came into existence since the 1860s was a decidedly secularist entity. Secularism – understood to mean the definition of the state as secular and the concomitant relegation of religion to the private sphere – as the foundation of society was something that all political leaders basically agreed upon throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Indeed, the secularist ideology of modern Japan was so successful that it pervades even its historiography until today. What has largely been overlooked is that there have been voices of opposition against the secularist project at least from around 1900 onwards. Local Shinto priests, not content with the state’s definition of their practices as areligious, come to mind.

Opposition to state-sponsored secularism also pervaded the Pan-Asianist movement, which has ironically been portrayed by secularist historiography as purely political. In reality, protagonists of this movement have not only advocated a vague spiritual grounding of the unity of Asia (like Okakura Tenshin), but many of them sponsored specific religious groups and spoke vocally in favor of an alternative configuration of the state–religion nexus. Besides the more obvious Buddhism, other religions that were championed as furthering the unity of Asia from a Japanese point of view included Shinto, various new religious movements, amalgamations of several faiths, and even Islam.

Many of the groups and activists referenced here had a special interest in India: The desire for political change there directed against the West (decolonization) went hand in hand with the idea of establishing a spiritual-religious unity equally directed against the West. In addition, India seemed to offer a model for how religion could play a pivotal role in modernization, in stark contrast to how Japanese political elites had consciously shut out religion from modern society as they conceived of it.

The project sets out from an investigation of the exchange of the network of individuals, and the ideas they exchanged, who were active in or for the cause of Japan and India in the 1910s and 1920s, irrespective of their nationality. Here, among a larger group also including the Europeans James Cousins and William W. Pearson, the Indians Rabindranath Tagore and Dilipkumar Roy, the Chinese Gu Hongming, and the Japanese Okawa Shumei, Uchida Ryohei, and Okakura Tenshin, the Frenchman Paul Richard has emerged as a central node in this network, and subsequent research within MC7 has focused on this individual. During several brief research trips to Japan, project member Hans Martin Krämer has collected publications by and archival material on Paul Richard. He has also co-founded a small international group of people devoted to researching Paul Richard, and consisting of scholars from France, India, Japan, and Israel. Through their sharing primary documents, the knowledge on Richard available has increased markedly over the year 2015.

Hans Martin Krämer has attempted a first write-up based on this primary material now available for the MC7 conference Theosophy Across Boundaries in a paper entitled “Spiritual Anti-Colonialism: Paul Richard Between Europe, India, and Japan.” The conference was further helpful for this project in locating the narrower object of research Paul Richard within larger frames of reference, such as the history of occultism in early twentieth-century Europe, or the history of modern Buddhism. The meeting in Heidelberg also facilitated the direct exchange between some of the few international scholars who are familiar with Richard. Last, but not least, the conference will yield a volume co-edited by Hans Martin Krämer and Julian Strube, which will allow to further elaborate on Richard on an even broader basis of sources to be tapped in the near future. Overall, it is hoped that the early twentieth-century critique of secularism assists in relativizing the seemingly natural link between secularism and modernity that has long been taken for granted in the social sciences.