Ionat Zurr: I’d like to think about the differences in distinctions between life and nonlife from your Japanese perspective, and my own, the Judeo-Christian tradition, which is based on the Western dualistic idea of, “This is alive, this is not alive.’’ I would love to hear more from your view, because our tradition is very much about life being carbon-based. But what is life? It is a mystery. And I know that in Shinto it’s a bit different.
Maholo Uchida: The basic idea of Shinto is that we have something like eight million gods.
Ionat: Eight million?
Maholo: Eight million gods, which really means countless gods. In Christianity or other Western religions, you have one very important God, who creates a human. That’s the rule. I’ll focus on Shinto, because it has many similarities to other animisms, like the traditions found in Mexico or Iceland or Bali. In Japan, Shinto has been continued by the royal family and the shrine system. In Shinto, we say that we have eight million gods, and those gods each represent a certain nature element. So, we have a god of the wind, a god of the land, a god of the sun, etc.
Ionat: Okay. So eight million is not a specific number. It’s just to say there are many, many gods.
Maholo: Many gods everywhere. And in that sense, we think that the human is just a part of nature, a part of matter, a part of the universe. The human is not the center, whereas the Western idea is that the human is the center, and the world revolves around it. But in Shinto, the human is just a part of the world. It’s melting with everybody—but not just everybody, but everything. That’s the very basic idea. I think you know some of the Japanese robot animations? We have so many varieties of humanoid robots, and animal-like robots. And funny animations that have characters that are nonliving things. For example, the bread hero “Anpanman”. I understand this as part of our culture, which strongly relates to Shinto.
Ionat: So, robots—do they also have soul?
Ionat: Does that mean that each entity has its own soul, i.e. a robot has a soul, the wind has its own soul and so on?
Maholo: Actually, it doesn’t matter, because there is no definition. It’s not religious. It’s more like a philosophy, or a daily belief. And once you start to think about, “Well this thing has some soul,’’ then your morning café au lait cup has a soul. In the traditional Japanese family, we have the rice cup for me, and the rice cup for father, and it has a different color or whatever, and everybody takes care of their cup. It’s the same even for the chopsticks.
Ionat: So it’s more fluid or entangled? You look after them like they’re alive? You have to look after them.
Maholo: Yes. And it’s the same for a robot; they will take care of that robot as a living robot.
Ionat: In “Western” culture there is the fear of robots taking over humans. But I guess in Shinto there’s no fear like that since humans and robots are all part of an animated continuum.
Maholo: There’s no fear like that.