Imaoka was called the Emerson of Japan as he championed the free religion idea that Emerson espoused. Unlike Emerson, however, Imaoka didn’t wrote that much and was never really the poet-philosopher that Emerson was.
From Imaoka’s own words:
Coincidentally, I was born in the year (1881) before Emerson died in 1882. Also, I followed in his footsteps at Harvard, and since he was a Unitarian and my great teacher of free religion, I feel a great responsibility in accepting his spiritual legacy.
By claiming descendence from Emerson, Imaoka is in some way like many contemporary Unitarian ministers, a transcendentalist. Imaoka extended the idea of free religion by making it less individualistic. Per his biographer, George Williams:
Imaoka had taken Emerson’s “free religion” to heart, but it was still too individualistic, too self-centered. It was for him freedom’s paradox. As a concept, it was an absolute, a value that asserts freedom from bondage of any kind. Yet, absolute freedom was impossible, even for kings and emperors. If it could be understood as an image of a cosmic ideal that calls humans to become better and strive for something higher, then freedom could be seen as the ideal of all religion.
One would notice this tweaking of Emerson’s individualistic free religion in Imaoka’s Creed of Life. After laying the foundation for the self, he later said that one’s neighbour is one’s self as neighbour, and that the cooperative society and the natural world is one with the self and therefore the caring of the self should extend to everything else. Imaoka’s free religion was, in other words, more Asian.
While reading Cosmic Sage, I am struck by the depiction of Imaoka as someone who is egoless. Williams said that when talking to him, Imaoka always tried to reverse the flow of information by asking questions. Meanwhile, I am still bothered whenever someone unknowingly monopolizes the conversation by not asking questions. Perhaps, this annoyance also is a symptom of a strong ego.
I’m starting to see that the mainstream literary career is an ego-filled career. This further reaffirms that while letters are important to me, a life focused on becoming the best writer I can be is not what I want. It is not what I’m really called to do. When facilitating a writing session at the beach of Sampaloc Lake, I felt at home. I was confident. I felt like myself. I am convinced that everything I knew before is still true: the inner path is my true calling. The more I could become more compassionate and egoless, the better.
Williams, G. M. (2019). Cosmic Sage: Imaoka Shin’ichirō, Prophet of Free Religion. Uniquest Publishing.
His idea of religion was such that a majority of Westerners and mainstream Christians would not even think him religious at all. His mysticism was suspect and his theology “heretical.” Paradoxically, he questioned theism, while he accepted multiple religious identities of liberal Christian, Buddhist and Shintoist. Literally, a renunciation of theism makes one an atheist – a (not) + [believing in] theos (a [anthromorphic] god). Yet he only rejected the concept of theism, making him a non-theist. He lived a spirituality that had begun in theistic beliefs but had grown beyond them, he admitted. He rejected the concept of an Absolute God as authoritarian and anathema to freedom. He thought that one cancelled the other.
The quest to find something transcendent at the heart of religion, thus unifying all religions, would be continued despite Association Concordia’s failure. However, his quest was not to find an essence, principle, or concept at the heart of religion. Bergson’s use of images rather than concepts pointed to the nature of every principle. Principles are epistemological metaphors. They are symbols created by humans who are striving to grow beyond what they are today. Bergson’s intuition would be combined with Eucken’s radical concept of freedom. Thus, he needed to reconcile images and conceptualization. Imaoka had taken Emerson’s “free religion” to heart, but it was still too individualistic, too self-centered. It was for him freedom’s paradox. As a concept, it was an absolute, a value that asserts freedom from bondage of any kind. Yet, absolute freedom was impossible, even for kings and emperors. If it could be understood as an image of a cosmic ideal that calls humans to become better and strive for something higher, then freedom could be seen as the ideal of all religion.