IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 17 | Regions |East Asia


01:16-19 March 1998
Blaubeuren, Germany

Religion and Economy in East Asia (China, Japan, Korea)

Relations exist between religion and economy. To highlight this thesis from various angles was the main aim of the three-day international workshop 'Religion and Economy in East Asia (China, Japan, Korea)', in March 1998. The Asia Committee of the European Science Foundation (ESF) was the chief sponsor and an additional contribution was offered by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG). Professor Knut Wolfgang Nörr, Chairman of the Deutsch-ostasiatisches Wissenschaftsforum, Tübingen, presented the welcome address. A selection of the total of seventeen papers are mentioned here.

By Dr Stephan Peter Bumbacher, Dr Gerhard Leinss, Dr Sungjong Paik

To approach the vast subject in an interdisciplinary way, the conference was divided into five parts. In the theoretical part, Günter Kehrer (University of Tübingen) offered a model for a micro-economic analysis of religious actions. Basing himself on the thesis that religious promises are comparable with economic goods, he discussed a matrix of religious/non-religious means leading towards religious/non-religious ends and applied it to a variety of examples of religious behaviour.

Klaus Antoni (University of Trier) spoke in the part on religious aspects of modern economic organizations in East Asia. He investigated the enormous commercialization of the Shintô wedding rituals in Japan. As an 'invented tradition' the ceremony was introduced in 1900 in the wake of the Shintoization of Japan and did not really belong to the realm of authentic Japanese religions. Its commercialization after the end of state Shintô in 1945, therefore, did not impinge on religious feelings. Hirochika Nakamaki (National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka) presented a paper on company memorial monuments on Mt. Koya, which wer originally erected to honour the memory of employees who died before retirement. Annual memorial services are conducted at the tombs with the covert purpose of praying for the prosperity of the company.
In the section on pre-modern economic aspects of religious organizations Roger Greatrex (University of Lund) analysed the economic organization of the Taoist institutions on Mt. Mao during the Tang and Song dynasties. He concluded that, while the Maoshan profited from imperial patronage, it was mainly the literati interest and involvment with this spot that set it apart from other Taoist centres. Examples of three types of the financing of local cults in ancient China were discussed by Stephan Peter Bumbacher (University of Tübingen). With or without the help of local officials, priests could levy various taxes, particular segments of the population financed cults from their own pockets, or pilgrims and believers worshipping at a local shrine would be requested to contribute objects from their possession.


Structures of longue durée in economic-religious thought and actions in East Asia since the eighth century were the subject of part four. Although an integral part of Chinese popular religion, spirit money tended to be mentioned only briefly or not at all. John McCreery (Yokohama) argued that - in contrast to offerings of food, which are used to attract spirits and draw them into social relationships - offerings of spirit money are used to send them away, restoring a comfortable social distance, which shows a fundamental ambivalence toward both gods and ancestors. Olof Lidin (University of Copenhagen) claimed that discontinuities are rare events in Japanese religion and culture; continuous developments seem to be the rule. The Shintô we meet today has not changed much since the eighth century, and Buddhism - in its earliest form - is still observed in Japan's oldest temples.
The final section of the conference concentrated on sacrifice and its economic-religious meaning. Noreya Sumihara (Tenri University) looked closely into one of the so-called Japanese New Religions, the Tenri sect which emerged in the middle of the nineteenth century and today has almost two million followers. These followers practice a kind of 'self-sacrifice', the hi no hishin, a 'daily dedication or contribution of labour towards the happiness of others'. Two examples were presented of companies that act partly contrary to economic laws since not being interested in the maximization of profits they try to buy at high and sell at low prices. This works due to the self-sacrificing attitude of management and workforce.

Economization of life

Indubitably mutual relations between economy and religion exist. Although this close relationship was revealed and light was shed from various angles on the complex connections between religions and economy, it is clear that an economic approach is by no means sufficient to understand all aspects of religions, one reason being that the economy itself has to be seen as part of a culture, civilization or society at large.
Pertinently problems of economic interpretation arise particularly when religious ideas become the end of economic or otherwise non-religious investments. The issue 'money' in general and questions like 'what are the costs of religion?' or 'who profits economically from religion?' in particular proved to be delicate ones. At the same time the relationhips between economy and religion are to be seen within the spatial and temporal dimensions and limitations of relevant cultural contexts. In analysing phenomena of earlier periods, patterns of economic organization, action, and thought that may differ not only in quantity but also in quality when compared with modern times have to be taken into account. That we tend today to see religious life in terms of modern market conditions is, of course, a phenomenon of our own time and culture. We may deplore it, yet it is a consequence of the economization of many aspects of human life.
The papers will be edited for publication to present the results to the scientific community.

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 17 | Regions |East Asia