Tag Archives: Religion

Review: Bushido, the Soul of Japan

Bushido, the Soul of Japan
Bushido, the Soul of Japan by Inazo Nitobe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is short, and accessibly written (provided you view ordinary late nineteenth-century writing as accessible).

When reading this book, it is important to remember two things:

1. It was written in 1900. The approach and the ethics therefore reflect the attitudes and society of the nineteenth century, not the twenty-first.
2. It was written by a Japanese man who had seen the fall of the feudal system, to explain Japanese and, particularly, samurai culture to Westerners. In fact, it was originally written in English and only later translated into Japanese.

Some people have criticised this book for its ethics in general – but I think this is unjust, as it’s a book of its time. Although there are parts which do more than merely raise eyebrows, it is only fair to the book, and to the author, to acknowledge that our ethics are a century away from Nitobe’s. It is unfair to expect a nineteenth-century Japanese man to have exactly the same moral values as twenty-first century Westerners.

Others have criticised the book for its very intent: to explain Japanese culture in terms that Westerners could understand. Again, it’s very easy to criticise from our twenty-first century internet-enabled Western point of view. If we want to know about Japan, or any other country, we can look it up on the internet in a few moments. In fact, nowadays, it’s very hard not to know at least a little about other cultures unless you deliberately shut yourself off.

It was different at the end of the nineteenth century: Japan had only just emerged from its isolation, and not only was its culture strange to the Western world, but most societies were much less multicultural than they are now, so people were less likely to have encountered a culture other than their own.

Thus, Nitobe discusses Bushido with lots of Western and Christian comparisons and examples, because these are what will make sense to his chosen audience.

The result is a very interesting book.

Nitobe himself was born in 1862, so he was eight years old when feudalism was abolished, and ten when the carrying of swords was forbidden. This not only gives Nitobe a unique perspective, but also means that when the book was written, many Japanese people would have remembered the feudal system. To them, it was not some foreign (or even barbaric) practice – it was their own culture. It was normal.

So with this book, there is a strange mix of explanation and defence. Nowadays, it’s shocking to read the story of an eight-year-old samurai boy being order to commit seppuku (ceremonial suicide by disembowelment) and actually doing it. But under bushido – and to Nitobe, who seems to have been of the samurai class himself, or close to it – the story emphasises the strength of devotion to duty, and courage, of even samurai children.

The attitude to women, too, is shocking nowadays. However, it’s important to remember that since this was written in 1900, the attitude to women in the West wasn’t much different. Admittedly, young girls in the West weren’t given daggers in case they needed to commit suicide to protect their honour – but then, neither were boys. If you read much about the life of women in the West during the late 19th century, you do wonder who had the better deal: the samurai girl in feudal Japan, or the middle-class young woman in London.

All in all, this is a very interesting and thought-provoking book – and not the least because it’s not written as a scholarly study by an outsider, but by a man trying to explain (and, in some senses, justify) his own culture. It therefore has the result of telling the reader perhaps more about feudal Japanese society and culture than even the author intended.

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We Need Diverse Books…

I came across the “We Need Diverse Books” campaign recently. Two thoughts sprang to mind:

  1. I really hate this use of the word “diverse”. Hate it hate it hate it.
  2. This is not as simple as people who start campaigns think it is.

The word “diverse” means, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “showing a great deal of variety, very different.” We already have diverse books. There are books on quantum physics, geology, embroidery, vampires, sailors, aliens… how much more diversity do you want?

Of course, the campaign for Diverse Books doesn’t use the word “diverse” in that way. They have limited the definition of “diverse” (stripping it of most of its diversity!) to mean only racial, sexual or disability diversity. This annoys me because it seems to imply that the only diversity that counts is racial, sexual or disability. And, following from that, that a book character’s race, sexuality or ability status are the only important things about them – and hence, about real people. Whatever happened to the concept of concentrating on a person’s character rather than their race?

It seems to me that by saying “we need more black characters so that black people will identify with them”, we are one step short of saying “black people only identify with black characters”, which is one step short of saying “black people aren’t like everyone else”, which is one step short of saying “segregation is better because then people will spend time with people who they feel comfortable with” and then just “segregation is better”. (Insert whatever “group” you like.)

It’s worrying to think that we are being encouraged to concentrate on differences rather than similarities, and to think that differences overpower similarities.

On the other hand, books are an important way of introducing people to things they haven’t encountered before. And since a book allows you to look into a character’s mind, you can find out things about being someone else that you could never learn by  talking to a real person (because there are some things you don’t ask even if you know a person very well!).

Which brings me to the second point.

It’s not as easy as the people running this campaign seem to think.

Taking race as an easy example, you can’t just take a character in your story and decide “OK, I need a black character… I’ll make her black.” If you make a character black, then you are not just changing hair, eye and skin colour: you are changing her family background, her culture, and probably her outlook on life as well. And what will that do to how she relates to the other characters and how she acts within the plot? If you change a character’s race, you could end up wrecking your whole storyline (and the same applies to any other characteristic with a major impact on a person’s life). For instance, if your main character is a wizard, then your character’s cutural baggage will become very important. A white person from the fairly secular UK would react differently from a white American from the Bible Belt, or from a Catholic Nigerian or a West Indian Episcopalian or an Asian Muslim. Even if a person does not practise the dominant religion of their culture, the cultural baggage will still inform their reactions.

Then, of course, there’s the avoidance of stereotypes. If you’re writing fantasy, you have an easy ride here, because culture is what you make it. If you’re writing in this world, you need to get it right. The more important your character is, the more detail you will have to give on their background and worldview – and the more chance you’ll get it wrong if that character has a background you’re not familiar with, or that you’ll end up writing a cringeworthy stereotype. And if you get it wrong, even slightly, you will not be given the credit for trying – you’ll be savaged. You will not get “Thanks to the author for attempting this” – you will get “This is patronising/insulting/demeaning”.

I’m relatively lucky in that regard; in one of my jobs at the moment, I’m the token white girl in the office so I’m exposed to Indian, Pakistani, West Indian, and Kurdish culture, plus a range of takes on Islam. In a previous job, one of my colleagues was an African nun (Catholic). But even so, I’d hesitate to write a main character who was black or Asian, because I just don’t know enough to be sure I’d get it right. I’d have to do an awful lot more research, and it would be the sort of thing that reference books wouldn’t tell me – the day to day detail of life.

Then, of course, there’s the story-believability of adding in characters of multiple races. If your book is set in a contemporary rural English community, a non-white character becomes less believable. Not only is 90% of the population of the UK white, but the non-white 10% is mostly concentrated in the cities. That’s not to say you couldn’t have a non-white character in a little English village – but you’d need a better back-story to explain it than you’d need for the same character in London.

If you’re writing medievalesque fantasy, the problem is different again: you’re writing about a period when travel is difficult. Immigration is likely to be rare, so your communities are going to be racially homogenous – unless there’s a very good explanation why not.

Even writing historical fiction, you have to be careful; if you are writing a character who is not native to the setting, where would your immigrant have come from, and why? And what opportunities would be open to that character, as an immigrant, in that time and place?

Moving on from race, there is the problem of sexuality. I tend to take the view that a person’s sexuality is only important if you actually want to have sex with them. Otherwise, it’s irrelevant. Likewise, in books, the author knows which way a character swings – probably – but a lot of the time it just isn’t relevant to the story, so why include it? In real life, you don’t know the sexuality of everyone you meet. Taking a real-life example, I’m doing a univerity course; I’m in the second year now. Only this year have I discovered that the guy who runs the coffee shop and (I think) one of the lecturers are gay. Not because they “look gay”, or because they said “by the way, I’m gay”, but because – in conversation – both mentioned their “partner” and used a male pronoun. And I’m not sure about the lecturer because he could have meant “partner” in a business sense.

We tend to make assumptions about people – usually that they are like us. I’ve had someone assume that I was male, for instance, because I was using a non-gendered internet handle and talking about swordplay to a guy. Alternatively, we assume someone conforms to the majority unless proven otherwise. However, we should bear in mind that assumptions are not reality. If a character’s sexual orientation isn’t specified, then why assume they are heterosexual? In fact, in the author’s mind, that character might be gay.

And there are problems with revealing a character’s sexuality. Whatever you do, whenever you do it, people are going to complain. If you make it known in the book that the character is gay, then it’s accusations of putting in the “token gay”. If you only reveal it later (should you be so lucky as to get a media interview) you are accused of keeping it secret to protect sales, or, conversely, revealing it – or making it up – to increase sales. If none of your characters are revealed as gay, then your book is not “diverse” enough.

Moving on to disability, this can be even more problematic than sexuality. In some ways, a disability acts like Chekhov’s gun – if it isn’t important to the story, why include it? And if you do because you want to be “diverse”, then you get accused of being patronising by including the “token disability”.

However, if you’ve decided your character has some kind of disability, this means more research if you are going to do it right. How do blind people make coffee? How do deaf people know when the postman is at the door? Then there’s the logistics of being wheelchair-bound – when travelling, do you ring the train station in advance so they’ll know to have one of those ramps ready? Or do you just buttonhole someone when you get there? How does it feel to self-propel a wheelchair, and how difficult is it to learn to do it?

The invisible disabilities are even more difficult, because they’re usually not something you could experiment with. It’s one thing to try to make coffee wearing a blindfold, but how can you really understand depression unless you’ve experienced it – or had a very detailed discussion with someone who has? How do you understand way someone with Asperger’s Syndrome sees the world?

Then, of course, there’s the difficulty of emphasis. Are you writing about a guy who saves the world (who just happens to have a disability), or are you writing about the disability? If you’re not careful, your story ends up like one of those awful Improving Books that adults give to children, to teach them what adults want them to know about death and divorce, and why Drugs Are Bad – all preaching and no entertainment.

But, of course, in the final analysis, none of this is as important as the fact that a story come from the writer’s imagination. If in the writer’s mind the character is white and male and heterosexual, making that character black and female and gay is unlikely to improve the story. In fact, forcing the character into a shape that doesn’t fit the author’s vision is likely to damage the story because that character will no longer be “natural”, and it will pull the whole story out of shape. I’ve experienced this myself: I had one character that I simply couldn’t make come out right. She always seemed to be slightly out-of-focus, and she didn’t fit into the character’s assigned place in the plot. Then I reimagined her as black – and suddenly, she fit perfectly. Not only did she come into focus, but her entire family did too, and so did her timeline going forward. That character is black not because I wanted to include a black character, but because it was right for that story.

So, in conclusion, “diversity” is all very well and good, but it’s not as easy as “just add some black/gay/disabled characters”. Characters are part of the story, and the nature of the character affects the nature of the story. Every author has a right to tell their own stories as they see them – however they see them.

Yes, “diversity” can help people to understand other people’s lives and experiences. But we also need to take care that the emphasis on “diversity” does not become an emphasis on “difference”, and then an assumption that the colour of a person’s skin is a measure of their worth as a person, or that the gender of a person’s life partner is more important than whether or not the relationship is a loving one.

Language, culture and religion

I’m currently learning French, German and Spanish on Duolingo (French and German to regain what I learned – then forgot – at school, and Spanish just because), and an interesting discussion came up on their forum.

One of the courses that made it into beta last month was Arabic>English, which means that once it’s stable Team Arabic will start on the ‘reverse’ course, English>Arabic. This is one I’m looking forward to, as I’ve been wanting to learn Arabic for years – and I’m looking at a new job in which Arabic will be useful.

However, Arabic as a language, and Arabic culture, are both very much intertwined with Islam as a religion. Someone asked, how was Duolingo going to manage to teach Arabic without also teaching religious stuff? Cue an interesting discussion of the fact that most languages seem to have religious bits and pieces in them – even when used in a completely secular sense.

Terry Pratchett said it best:

“Dwarfs were not a naturally religious species, but in a world where pit props could crack without warning and pockets of fire damp could suddenly explode they’d seen the need for gods as the sort of supernatural equivalent of a hard hat. Besides, when you hit your thumb with an eight-pound hammer it’s nice to be able to blaspheme. It takes a very special and strong-minded kind of atheist to jump up and down with their hand clasped under their other armpit and shout, “Oh, random-fluctuations-in-the-space-time-continuum!” or “Aaargh, primitive-and-outmoded-concept on a crutch!”

But in English, as well as ‘bloody hell’, ‘damn’, ‘Oh God’ etc, we have ‘goodbye’, which is a contraction of ‘God go with you’. Granted, the religious quotient of English is substantially less than that of Arabic, but it’s hardly absent.

So it’s quite interesting to think that religious imagery and terminology are not entirely the preserve of the religious. When they enter the common vocabulary, the ‘religious’ element fades and they gain a new, secular meaning and a place in secular culture and communication. From a writing perspective, it’s something to bear in mind: speaking Arabic colloquially involves a lot of “Insha’Allah”, even if you’re not Muslim, and as Terry Pratchett points out, what, as a committed atheist, should I be saying when I stub my toe?


Angelology is a real word. It means ‘the study of angels’. There are even books on it.

There seems to be two types of angelology: the study of angels as they appear in religious artefacts (books, sculpture etc) and also study of the angels themselves.

How do you study angels? I mean, it’s not like you can set a trap (humane, of course) and bait it with… what? A soul? Or put an ad in the local paper. “Wanted: Angel(s) for interview.” So angelology traditionally means a lot of extrapolation and a lot of speculation.

Angels appear in all the Abrahamic religions (as you’d expect from religions sharing a common origin) as guardians of humanity and messengers of God. The concept of divine messengers also occurs in other religions, although the terminology may not be the same.

But hey, I think I’ll stick to the Abrahamics, if it’s all the same to you. Include Hinduism etc, and we could be here all day.

There are lots of angels, and mostly their names end in ‘-el’, which is a suffix meaning ‘of God’ in Hebrew. Others end in ‘-yah’ which means ‘Lord’, again in Hebrew. An exception is Metatron, who doesn’t seem to have any clear etymology behind him (no, nothing to do with insects – that’s entomology). Maybe at some time in the future I’ll make a list of angels and their duties (for example, Metatron is – some say – the only angel who can look upon the face of God, and hence is known as Prince of the Countenance). But it would be a long list.

Angels allegedly come in different ranks, although there isn’t much agreement on how the ranks are arranged. The different orders of angel are as follows:

Thrones (or Ophanim, or Erelim),
Dominions (or Dominations),
Virtues (or Authorities),
Powers (or Potentates),
Principalities (or Rulers),

About the only thing angelologists seem to agree on is that Seraphim are at the top of the pile, and Cherubim second. Archangels are second-from-bottom, and ordinary common-or-garden Angels are right at the bottom of the heap. Everything else is negotiable; I’ve used St Thomas Aquinas’ ordering; he groups his in three hierarchies of three orders of angel.

Putti – those little winged babies you get all over baroque art – don’t count. They’re Art, not Theology, and confusing them with Cherubim is likely to get you smacked if a Cherub hears you.

Whatever ranking the different orders of angels have, the further up the ranks you go, the less the angels have to do with humanity, or at least with individual humans – the intermediate grades of angel might be responsible for whole countries. When you get right to the top (Seraphim), their job is apparently to surround the throne of God, constantly shouting praises. (I have to say, my first thought is, Don’t they get laryngitis or something? and my second thought is Isn’t that rather distracting? Does this explain the duck-billed platypus?)

Right at the bottom of the scale, you’ve got ordinary angels, who seem to be the gophers of heaven. (As in go-fer-it, not as in cute rodents that live in large communities.) There’s some debate over whether Gabriel is an angel or an archangel, and whether Michael, who is definitely an archangel, is the kind that’s nearly at the bottom of the heap, or whether he’s an Arch-Angel, as in, top-dog angel in charge of all the rest.

So far, I haven’t found out where angels come from; presumably created by God directly. Unlike demons, for whom the Abrahamic religions have at least two alternative explanations that I know of (I’ll probably talk about demons later). There also doesn’t appear to be much opportunity for promotion; angels don’t seem to die, and nor do they seem to change position in the ranks. Great if you’re Metatron, less good if you’re one of the minions.

I think I’ll stop there; wouldn’t want to bore you.

And here is some angel-related music: Let All the Angels of God Worship Him from Handel’s Messiah.

The Life of Brian

This film is allegedly a comedy. People laugh when they watch it, which is how I know it’s supposed to be a comedy. Personally, I think it’s a tragedy.

This is the story of a man who is trying to mind his own business and just live his life the way he wants, but his friends and family – and increasing numbers of others – won’t let him. They insist on forcing him into a role he does not want, even over his protests. In the end, Brian has no freedom not because he is arrested by the Romans but because no matter what he does, his family and friends force him back onto the path they have chosen for him.

There are plenty of funny bits in the film, especially the bit with the People’s Front of Judaea… or is it the Judaean People’s Front? But for me they are overwhelmed by the tragedy.

Not only does poor Brian end up being crucified, and when he begs his family to take him down, they refuse, telling him how proud they are of his nobility and sacrifice, but some innocent Good Samaritan type also dies for the grievous error of judgement of trying to help someone in need. No good deed goes unpunished, indeed.

It makes me think… Do I do that to other people? We are all the stars of our own lives, with other people as Supporting Cast. But do I forget that they are the stars of their own lives too, not just bit-part actors in mine?

Do I pay attention to the people around me, or am I so focused on what I think, what I feel, and what I want, that I don’t see people for who they really are?

When Brian’s family go to him when he’s up on the cross and refuse to take him down and thus save his life, they think they’re doing what he wants. They think they’re doing the right thing. But because they never really pay attention to him, they end up depriving him of everything he values including, finally, his life.

Monty Python’s The Life of Brian

Film about Islam

Want to see a really good film about Islam? Well, check out The Message starring Anthony Quinn.

You can get it on Amazon. As soon as I figure out how to put a link in here, then I will.

Hah, not the film about Islam you thought it would be eh?

Honestly, if you really want to know about the origins of Islam, then this is the film to watch. And it’s good just as a film, too, rather than being overly educational and preachy. Also interesting how they manage to make a film about the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) without actually having him in it. The closest you get is seeing his camel…

And here is the link for The Message.