As a graduate student, it had been years since I’d woken up at a decent hour, and it may have been the first time that I had to wake up regularly at the crack of dawn. It was November 2009, and I was in Japan, at one of the training centers run by a Japanese NGO called the Organization for Industrial, Spiritual and Cultural Advancement (OISCA), the focus of my dissertation project. OISCA was established by a man who also founded a Shinto-based new religious organization called Ananaikyō. His vision was for OISCA to lead a spiritual reformation of the world through development and the alleviation of poverty by use of sustainable agriculture. The preferred method to achieve this goal has taken the form of year-long trainings in agricultural skills and “spiritual cultivation” for rural youth, so that they may become leaders of development in their communities.

Despite its roots in a religious entity, OISCA is registered as a non-religious group. Many of the staff express ambivalence about the religious aspects of OISCA’s vision, staff composition, and history. In an avowedly “secular” Japanese society—an environment crafted in the immediate years after the Second World War by the U.S. Occupation, which was intent on eradicating the principles of “State Shinto” that were seen as the basis of an evil imperial regime—the term “religion” often triggers an allergic reaction. The terrorist attacks by the cult Aum Shinrikyō, in 1995, have not helped either. Wedged between a religious heritage and demands for secularity, OISCA offers a telling case in which religion and aid work entwine in complicated ways. How does the religious-secular boundary sharpen or blur in the trainings described as “person-making” (hitozukuri)? What kinds of persons are made in these activities?

With such thoughts running in my mind, at 5:50am, when a school-like chime rang throughout the training center, I was already awake. When I met up with the female trainees on my floor (the men were on the other side of the building)—from Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Indonesia—they were already busy getting to their respective cleaning duties. I had been assigned to help in the kitchen, and as I was heading there, I saw the Japanese staff, including the director, also getting down on their knees to wipe the floor, wash the toilets, etc. As I have been told many times since then, everyone is subject to this discipline at the training center. The cleaning is followed by a morning routine—seemingly militaristic, with commands and salutes—that includes a physical exercise called rajio taisō and the raising of the Japanese and trainees’ flags, and all trainees and staff participate.

Apparently, this was what they meant by “spiritual cultivation.” The founder of OISCA talked about “the spirit” (seishin) in terms of the “great spirit of the universe” and the “universal family” of all life forms, but he also referred to Shinto and the importance of upholding “Japanese values.” This double-exposure was his vision of reforming the world in a way that would be truer to nature and the universe, a vision echoed in OISCA.

One of the staff/trainers told me that the “spirit” nurtured in the trainings is what is needed in community leaders in order to realize the importance of working with others and creating harmony. She explained that the morning routine, which might seem militaristic, is in fact a way for trainees to see that if one person is late or out of line, the entire group falters, and so each person learns to think about others. She added that this is also a learning process for Japanese staff, as many of them, especially the young ones, are at first resistant to the discipline. Through the shared discipline of collective living, staff and trainees alike develop a “spirit” of community, developing an understanding of how to live in and for the collective, bridging cultural and other differences. This “spirit” ultimately connects to the great spirit of the universe.

This “spirit,” furthermore, is often tied to ideas of “Japan.” Staff use the term “OISCA spirit” as something that the organization aims to cultivate in both trainees and staff. When I asked a senior staff member about its meaning, he told me that it’s not so much about religion as a reference to a “Japanese spirit,” which is ultimately what is at the root of Shinto, in which OISCA and Ananaikyō are based. This argument that Shinto is “Japanese culture,” and thus not a religion, is an idea that was developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and became a focus of the wartime regime and subsequent debates about secularity in postwar Japan. Sidestepping this history, the staff explained that it’s about the discipline, cleanliness, work ethic, and kindness in Japanese values, which can show trainees how to develop themselves and their countries. It doesn’t mean that trainees should become exactly like Japanese people, he cautioned, but that experiencing these ways of doing things can provide a model or a hint.

The understanding of the Japanese spirit as a manifestation of a universal, absolute spirit—with all its Hegelian traces—is in fact an idea that the Japanese philosopher Tetsuro Watsuji expounded in the 1930s, eventually supporting the military regime’s aspirations during the war. The sense of a transcendental entity and the erasure of the self was also something that the philosopher Masao Maruyama attributed to wartime Japanese ultranationalist thought. There is no doubt that these figures cast long shadows on OISCA. Nevertheless, I hesitate to place OISCA squarely in these implications because its work is also oriented toward a common humanity and a spiritual reformation that can’t be reduced to political agendas and conspiracy theories.

In this sense, OISCA’s trainings for “person-making” and development seem to run against the conceptual limits of religion, secularity, the universal, the national, community, the individual, the past, the future.

Does this entanglement speak against the lovely eccentric professor in Brandon Vaidyanathan’s recent post? I feel the onset of another entanglement, for another post. . . .