Religious legislation as a place of religion-making

In this response to Episode 332, Ernils Larsson writes, "A central problem with the principles of religious freedom and the separation of religion and state as they were instituted in Japan under American occupation is that they assume a consensus with regards to what constitutes religion. As Japan was reshaped by the occupation authorities, an American understanding of religion forced a transformation of the public rites of the state in order for them to conform with the notion of Shrine Shinto as a private religion."

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Ernils Larsson holds a Ph.D. in the History of Religions from Uppsala University, Sweden. In his thesis, Rituals of a Secular Nation: Shinto Normativity and the Separation of Religion and State in Postwar Japan, he critically examines how the concepts of religion and Shinto have been argued in Japanese courts of law.

Ernils Larsson

Ernils Larsson holds a Ph.D. in the History of Religions from Uppsala University, Sweden. In his thesis, Rituals of a Secular Nation: Shinto Normativity and the Separation of Religion and State in Postwar Japan, he critically examines how the concepts of religion and Shinto have been argued in Japanese courts of law.

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Religious legislation as a place of religion-making

Religious legislation as a place of religion-making

A response to Episode 332 Race, Religious Freedom and Empire in Post-War Japan by Ernils Larsson

Jolyon Thomas’ Faking Liberties (2019) is a book rich in content and themes, and while many of his arguments deserve to be highlighted, I would like to take the opportunity to respond to what I consider a central observation made by Thomas in this podcast: “Religious freedom is a place where you see religion-making happening in real-time, because to free religion people have to designate one thing as religion and something else as not religion.” This statement echoes a point argued by Winnifred Sullivan, who posited that the central problem with legislation pertaining to religion is that it requires “essentialized religion” (Sullivan 2005). In other words, for religious freedom to make sense, we would first have to agree on a common understanding of what religion is, yet since no generally agreed upon definition of religion is ever likely to exist, treatment of religion in courts of law becomes arbitrary. Law, like academia, becomes a place where religion is made, as certain aspects of human culture are designated religion while others are not.

Visitors enter the Yasukuni Shrine. Photo by Ernils Larsson

As Thomas notes in the podcast, religion exists in the Japanese vocabulary in part as a direct result of Western demands for religious freedom. This point has been argued in several recent studies (e.g. Josephson 2012, Maxey 2014), which have shown how the Japanese term for religion – shūkyō – was created following domestic debates on how best to make sense of primarily American and Dutch demands for religious freedom made in the mid-19th century. Japanese lawmakers were not only tasked with creating a Japanese equivalent to the Western religion, but they also had to decide upon what exactly was to be included in this new generic category. By the time the principle of religious freedom was written into the Meiji Constitution of 1890, it had been generally agreed upon that there were three religions present in Japan: Christianity, Buddhism, and sectarian Shinto. Significantly, the imperial institution and all rites associated with the emperor and the state were deliberately excluded from the category of religion and were instead considered part of the secular order in Japan, in a system which Jason Josephson has referred to as the “Shinto Secular” (Josephson 2012). This system became known in the postwar period as “State Shinto,” yet as Thomas suggests in the podcast, we could just as well refer to it as prewar “Japanese secularism.”

The American occupation of Japan after World War II signalled a shift in how secularism was envisioned in the country. As Thomas argues in his book, to the American policymakers reshaping Japan into a liberal democracy, “State Shinto” represented a form of “heretical secularism” in which true religious freedom could not be found. Through the Shinto Directive of December 15, 1945, all aspects of Shinto were separated from the state, including imperial rituals and those public rites which were carried out to honour and placate the spirits of the heroic war dead. The directive also firmly established that “Shrine Shinto” belonged to the category of religion: “Shrine Shinto, having been divorced from the state and divested of its militaristic and ultra-nationalistic elements, will be recognized as a religion if its adherents so desire and will be granted the same protection as any other religion” (Shinto Directive