For political leaders today, a pandemic means never having to say you’re sorry. This has not always been the case. Once upon a time, in a different era, rulers publicly proclaimed their shortcomings, taking moral responsibility for a host of disasters, from droughts to epidemics, thought to be caused by the lack of virtue in a sovereign. While people around the world today still call upon the gods for help in response to Covid-19, political leaders’ ritualized public confessions have largely disappeared. I want to consider the case of Japan, both in contemporary and ancient times, to think about changes in ritual practice, particularly those aimed to enlist divine aid and confess wrongdoing. I am curious about how people turned to the gods historically, the discursive modes permissible for doing so in 2020, and the implications of these shifts.

Buddhist institutions in Nara, Japan’s eighth-century capital, are amongst the oldest in the country. These temples have promoted practices in response to Covid-19 that would have been familiar to residents of the city in antiquity, such as sutra copying, a ritualized form of writing. The basic idea is that transcribing scripture, like other virtuous acts, can bring this-worldly benefits to the patron or copyist, including healing, as well as post-mortem salvation for the deceased. Yakushiji, a temple in Nara dedicated to a deity known as “Medicine Master Buddha” and founded to help cure the illness of an imperial consort, has been promoting sutra copying at home as a way to pray for a rapid end to the Covid-19 crisis. Newspaper reports suggest that Yakushiji has seen a threefold increase in requests to send sutra copying materials for in-home transcription. Other prominent Nara temples such as Kōfukuji and Tōdaiji have performed both old and new rituals to quell the coronavirus pandemic. These are just some of the many religious responses we have witnessed to Covid-19 in Japan.

Seeking divine aid in moments of distress is not unusual. Scholars of Japan have long pointed out that people “turn to the gods in times of trouble.” These tendencies challenge popular perceptions of Japan as a secularized society, a narrative derived in part from low response rates to problematic survey questions based on norms from non-Japanese contexts, as well as from definitions of religion and non-religion that do not accord to English usage. These findings complicate debates over whether Japan is actually secularizing or if such decline narratives are just recycled stories that serve the interests of researchers and practitioners. As scholars of religion have noted more generally, we should not be surprised that disenchantment is a myth, one that does not accord to belief and practice on the ground. The presence of spirits persists even into modernity.

Part of the appeal—dare I say timeless appeal—of the gods is that they can look after us, though they do so with an ominously watchful eye. While Tōdaiji restricted visitation due to Covid-19, it opened a typically shut viewing window upon the face of the Great Buddha, its famous, fifteen-meter-tall object of worship; the monk Morimoto Kōjō tweeted the reminder that it is not for us to see the Buddha but for the Buddha to watch and protect us.

The eighth-century history of the temple that came to be called Tōdaiji is tied closely to protection from epidemics. This can be seen in relation to a smallpox outbreak in the 730s, which decimated around one third of Japan’s population. This crisis sparked the creation of a large network of official monasteries and convents, one of each per province. Tōdaiji was the administrative center of this temple network. An edict by Emperor Shōmu from 3/24/741 announcing the creation of these provincial monasteries and convents explained that the Four Heavenly Kings, key deities in the Buddhist pantheon, will always come and protect kingdoms in which the Golden Light Sutra was promulgated. In fact, he named the monasteries the Temples for Protecting the State by the Four Heavenly Kings of Golden Radiant Light and had copies of the scripture enshrined in every temple to enlist their guard.

But these gods did not only protect. They also observed and reported transgressors, who would in turn be punished. The celestial realm was itself a moral surveillance state patrolled by the four heavenly kings. This is expressed in iconography from ancient Japan, including a set of images enshrined in Tōdaiji’s Precept Platform Hall. Two of the Four Heavenly Kings gaze off in the distance surveilling people; one holds a brush and a scroll to record the acts of humans and report them up the heavenly hierarchy. The other two carry swords and stand with fierce bulging eyes. They will either protect or punish depending on one’s actions. This idea also appears in one of the origin stories of Japanese Buddhism from the temple Gangōji, which may date to the Heian period (794–1185), in which the female sovereign Suiko prays for the four kings to protect the realm but cautions that future rulers will be visited by “great calamity and great shame” if they fail to promote Buddhism.

In this Buddhist imaginaire, the virtue of the ruler is utterly transparent. If epidemics or disasters strike, it means the sovereign was to blame. For this reason, rulers in antiquity constantly lamented their own shortcomings. Emperor Shōmu responded to various disasters including the aforementioned smallpox epidemic with repeated edicts stressing that such crises emerged from his lack of virtue and that “the fault is not with the people.” He echoed this sentiment in his aforementioned 741 vow for the provincial temple network: “I with meager virtue have unworthily born this weighty appointment [as emperor]. I have yet to spread governance and civilization. In waking and sleeping, I’m filled with shame . . . Recently, the year’s crops are not prospering and pestilence repeatedly spreads. Shame and dread mix together, I just toil away and blame myself.”

In this way, rulers in ancient Japan, sometimes seen as both human and divine themselves, were under celestial surveillance while also seeking heavenly protection. Their legitimacy was in part based on how the world responded to their moral integrity or lack thereof, as the virtue of their bodies was thought to manifest in the world. To sin brought visible punishment in the form of disease as well as a host of other calamities ranging from famine to warfare. The deities that protected you would also destroy you. Rulers needed to constantly proclaim their inadequacies through these ritualized proclamations and confessions. Penance and protection required one another.

It was this climate of belief that caused the constant confessions and patronage by political leaders. And it is this notion of public confession of moral culpability by leaders lest the people face divine punishment that has been largely lost in recent years. While a range of individuals from moral philosophers to everyday citizens interpreted the 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake as punishment by kami or the Buddha for Japan’s materialism and individualism, the 3/11 triple disaster from 2011 only saw a few people, most prominently Tokyo’s governor and a well-known academic, claim divine retribution. On the one hand, this evidence shows that public figures still occasionally invoke this discourse. On the other hand, they were clearly in the minority for 3/11 and largely condemned for insensitivity toward the victims, facts that suggest scholars need other ways to study religion and disaster beyond a rhetoric of theodicy. I have yet to hear of any prominent public figure in Japan referring to Covid-19 as divine punishment.

As a global pandemic rages, it is perhaps an ironic coincidence that the statues of the Four Heavenly Kings from Tōdaiji’s Precept Platform are currently being moved from the temple to a museum to facilitate needed repairs to the hall. The gods are no longer on duty. While people in Japan may still pray for protection in the age of Covid-19, for the most part, politicians neither vocalize fear of divine punishment for their immorality nor proclaim their moral shortcomings as a cause of the pandemic. I am by no means suggesting that Japan or any country should return to a world patrolled by celestial kings, particularly as discourses of divine retribution for sin tend to enforce norms that target marginalized communities and practices.

Rather, I am left wondering what is lost when public leaders are no longer expected to regularly perform penance or publicly express their failings as they once did in response to epidemics. Such confessions might be viewed by critics as empty gestures, maybe even self-serving ones. But ritual theorists have found that repeated outward performance, even when conducted (at least initially) without sincerity, can generate subjunctive “as if” worlds and endow the self with new, often more pious, qualities. What are the implications of an age when prayers for protection from disease are made without the threat of punishment? What is the role of apology for the nation’s sins in a liberal and supposedly secular state? What would our world look like if our leaders regularly performed culpability and confession?

I’m sincerely grateful for the insightful feedback I received from Ann Gleig, Levi McLaughlin, Asuka Sango, and Jolyon Thomas, all of which made this a much better piece on short notice, as well as the astute editorial advice from Mona Oraby.