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Imagining American and Japanese Religious Freedom

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

I listened to Jolyon Thomas’ interview about his book Faking Liberties with Brett Eskai while COVID-19 was rapidly spreading internationally, in mid-March 2020. I was struck with how my European and American colleagues racialized and classed the disease. A Danish colleague said that people around him, that is, middle-class and upper-middle class Danes, assuming that the disease only affected the lower-class and immigrants, were enjoying their regular lives. “I think they are arrogant,” he said. Certainly. Although most of them did not go as far as calling it “Yellow Peril,” they associated the disease with race and class. As for the United States, although lower-class people are, in fact, under a larger threat due to their lack of health insurance etc., Americans have also been inclined to discuss the disease in terms of race and class. In contrast, Japanese people have mostly related the disease to age. It is, again, a fact that older people have higher risk of more serious infection, but it is also true that Japanese people do not see it as a racial and class problem (except those conspiracy-lovers who say that the disease is a bioweapon to terminate Asians). Instead, as the virus spread beyond Asia, they started associating the disease with national identity. They have been saying, some sarcastically but others proudly, “We, Japanese people, are so obedient to the government that we stay home just with an official ‘request.’ No need of order or legal enforcement.”

The above is only another example of how we unconsciously adopt a particular way of viewing things. That is why diversity matters in the academy, as Thomas argues. Diversity often lets us realize that we have limited our scope with no deliberation. Regarding the study of Japanese religions, diversity is even more necessary because scholars in the field have largely consisted of only two groups: Japanese scholars and white Westerners. Few other African Americans, multiracial, or non-white/non-Asian scholars specializing in Japanese religions have obtained faculty positions at US universities. Moreover, it is customary for minority American scholars of religion to choose a field that is closely related to their ethnic backgrounds: African Americans often specialize in the history of their own religious traditions, so do Asian Americans. It is too often as if only “white” scholars have the freedom to study anything and everything.

Therefore, the contributions Thomas has made and is going to make in the future for the study of Japanese religions are immense. Indeed, the impact of his work is not limited to Japanese studies. His sharp critique of Robert Bellah’s arguments of civil religion arose because of his unique positionality as a multiracial African American scholar of Japanese religions.

That said, it is also important to note that his critique can function differently in Japanese contexts. (I have given him similar feedback before, which is mentioned in the book). Briefly, a critique of American liberals (such as Bellah) can please Japanese conservatives. Thomas says American civil religion is no different from State Shinto, at least not as much as Bellah claimed. In contrast, Japanese scholars have a tendency to stress differences and to place American civil religion above State Shinto. They argue that Shinto is a this-worldly religion and only legitimizes the Japanese government, while American civil religion, like Christianity, has a transcendent dimension, in light of which Americans criticize the current state of their government. In other words, Shinto is always subject to nationalism, while civil religion, being based on universal values, can transcend nationalism. In so arguing, Japanese scholars attempted to maintain critical consciousness of their war past. Thomas’s argument may sound to Japanese people that they do not have to be so harsh on themselves. It may then empower Japanese conservatives who are ready to use any chance to de-demonize Shinto and Japan’s military past.

From William P. Woodard, The Allied Occupation of Japan and Japanese Religions 1945-1952, Leiden, 1972, frontiespiece, in ref. 2, p. 97

 

I am also cautious of making any academic argument that can serve Japanese reactionism (particularly against the backdrop of the present Abe administration). Yet, at the same time, I consider Japanese scholars’ comparison between State Shinto and American civil religion to be quite problematic because it heavily draws upon the essentialized dichotomy of “world religion” vs “national (or ethnic) religion.” (To note: the term “world religion,” which was coined in the late 19th century, has two major meanings. One is “religions in the world” and the other is “universal religion” as the opposite of national/ethnic religion. The former meaning has been remaining in the US, UK and some other multicultural countries, while the latter meaning, which became obsolete in those Western countries, has survived in Japan. As for why it is still popular in Japan, see Fujiwara 2016). Perhaps academic critiques are always two-sided when thrown into different contexts of the actual world. What we need to do together is to find out a way to avoid “trade-offs” and promote “synergies” between critiques.

Closely related to the comparison between State Shinto and civil religion is Thomas’s arguments on secularism in Japan. He identifies preoccupation Japan as a secularist system based on the Meiji constitution. This is also a bold statement because the established thesis has been the opposite: preoccupation Japan had neither true separation between religion and the state nor true religious freedom. The thesis is being questioned by a new generation of scholars represented by Thomas and also by Yijiang Zhong (Zhong 2014), who happens to be another promising scholar of Japanese religions who is not a white Westerner. Thomas says, “I saw a lot of works in the critical religious freedom literature tearing apart the word ‘religion’. I saw less on freedom and I thought that freedom was something that really needed to be addressed more directly.” If Americans have been preoccupied by the idea of religious freedom as their imagined national treasure, many, especially conservative, Japanese people love to talk about the tolerance or inclusiveness of Japanese religions, above all Shinto, as their imagined innate nature since the pre-war period. It would be intriguing to investigate how discourses on Japanese religious tolerance/inclusiveness have developed hand in hand with those on US religious freedom.


References

Fujiwara, Satoko. 2016. “Why the Concept of ‘World Religion’ Has Survived in Japan: On the Japanese Reception of Max Weber’s Comparative Religion,” in Contemporary Views on Comparative Religion, ed. by Peter Antes, Armin W. Geertz and Mikael Rothstein, Sheffield: Equinox, 191-203.

Zhong, Yijiang. 2014. “Freedom, Religion and the Making of the Modern State in Japan, 1868–89.” Asian Studies Review, 38/1: 53-70.

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). Under the new legal framework implemented during the occupation, including the new constitution of 1947 and the Religious Juridical Persons Law of 1951, formerly nonreligious Shinto shrines were essentially forced to reorganize as religious organizations in order to survive their separation from the state. To the American occupation, the new secular order, in which all religions were equally separated from the state, provided the foundation for a true religious freedom to be carried out in Japan. While religion was already understood in Japan as belonging to the private sphere, the occupation authorities simply ensured that the same was true for everything that they considered to be religion, including Shinto.

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. For an example of this process we can look at Yasukuni Shrine, one of the most central public institutions of the prewar state. At Yasukuni Shrine, the spirits of all those who gave their lives for the nation were enshrined, regardless of the private religious faith of individual soldiers, and all loyal subjects were expected to participate in the public worship of these heroic spirits. While the American occupation authorities had initially intended to destroy Yasukuni Shrine due to its central position in Japanese militarism, the shrine priests and their allies managed to ensure the survival of the shrine in part by arguing for its religious nature (Mullins 2010). After all, as champions of religious freedom, the American occupation authorities could hardly force the closure of a religious institution. Yasukuni Shrine has been organized throughout the postwar period as a private religious institution, yet through its claims to public significance for the nation it continues to be the cause of much controversy. In the 1960s and 70s, the Yasukuni Shrine Bills sought to renationalize the shrine, yet based on the shrine’s status as a religious organization, it was concluded that this would violate the principle of secularism as established by the constitution. The tension between private and public also plays out whenever key political figures pay their respect at the shrine, as postwar legal precedence has found this to be a key factor when deciding whether visits and offerings are allowed or not (Breen 2010).

Above, about 70 Japanese lawmakers visit the Yasukuni Shrine in April 2019. The shrine pays honor to war dead as well as war criminals of World War II, a fact that creates tension with China and South Korea.

A reading of court cases on religious freedom suggests that in general the basic principles instituted under the American occupation are being upheld by Japan’s courts of law. Religious freedom grants citizens the right to freely believe and practice their faith as individuals, and the judiciary tends to support those plaintiffs who demand the right to be different (Takahata 2007). The question of how to define religion as a legal concept is rarely discussed in lawsuits on religious freedom, as these are commonly resolved by reference to the status of the organization an individual adheres to: Jehovah’s Witnesses are registered as a religious juridical person and are therefore considered a religion under Japanese law. Normative assumptions about what religion means in a Japanese context can instead be found primarily in those lawsuits which deal with the principle of secularism, i.e the separation of religion from the state. Reading such lawsuits, it becomes clear that how religion is to be understood in relation to Shinto institutions and rites remains a deeply contested issue. While current Supreme Court precedence favours the view that all religious organizations should be equally understood as religion under Japanese law, this debate is far from resolved (Larsson 2017). There are many influential actors in contemporary Japan who would favour a return to what Thomas in the podcast refers to as “Japanese secularism.”


References

Breen, John. “’Conventional Wisdom’ and the Politics of Shinto in Postwar Japan.” In Politics of Religion, Vol. 4, No. 1 (2010), pp. 68-82.

 

Directive for the Disestablishment of State Shinto from the Supreme Commander of Allied Powers (December 15, 1945). Available in Mullins, Shimazono & Swanson 1993, pp. 97-102.

 

Josephson, Jason Ānanda. The Invention of Religion in Japan. The University of Chicago Press, 2012.

 

Larsson, Ernils. “Jinja Honchō and the Politics of Constitutional Reform in Japan.” In Japan Review, No. 30 (2017), Special Issue Formations of the Secular in Japan, pp. 227-252.

 

Maxey, Trent E.. The “Greatest Problem”: Religion and State Formation in Meiji Japan. Harvard University Press, 2014.

 

Mullins, Mark R. “How Yasukuni Shrine Survived the Occupation: A Critical Examination of Popular Claims.” In Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 65, No. 1 (Spring 2010), pp. 89-136.

 

Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers. The Impossibility of Religious Freedom. Princeton University Press, 2005.

 

Eiichiro, Takahata. “Religious Accommodation in Japan.” In Brigham Young University Law Review, Vol. 2007, No. 3 (2007), pp. 729-750.

 

Thomas, Jolyon B.. Faking Liberties: Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan. The University of Chicago Press, 2019.

Race, Religious Freedom & Empire in Post-War Japan

At the 2019 American Academy of Religion conference in San Diego, California, Brett Esaki sat down with Jolyon Thomas to discuss Thomas’ new book Faking Liberties and the complex intersection of religious freedom, empire, and racialization in the post-war relationship between Japan and the United States. The processes or projects of secularization, says Thomas, were instrument of American empire. By looking at the ways discourses about religious freedom regulated race, gender, and ritual practices in occupation-era Japan, we can see the double-standard of what America has advocated for abroad versus practiced at home. Thomas calls for deeper scholarly engagement with the category of “freedom” and how freedom of religious expression has been racially coded as white in the United States. It is a cautionary tale with important pedagogical and institutional lessons. If we find that discussing “diversity looks like activism,” he suggests, then “we have a huge problem” that reveals why diversity in the academy is essential for discussing secularism, religious freedom, and religion today.

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Race, Religious Freedom and Empire in Post- War Japan

Podcast with Jolyon Thomas (11 May 2020).

Interviewed by Brett Esaki.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/race-religious-freedom-and-empire-in-post-war-japan/

Brett Esaki (BE): Welcome to sunny San Diego. I’m Brett Esaki, and I’m really excited to talk about your book today. So the book, Faking Liberties, Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan. It’s about a lot of things, but primarily in the area . . . about Japan before, during and after the American Occupation. But it’s also, interestingly, a reflection upon the United States and its projects abroad. So, can you briefly introduce the book’s thesis, and list a few of the items of comparison across the countries?

Jolyon Thomas (JT): Well, thank you for taking the time to do the interview. I’m Jolyon Thomas and I’m really pleased to be here. So the book’s main thesis is that there’s a story that’s been told that the United States brought religious freedom to Japan at the end of the Second World War. And, as I was looking at this history, I was really struck by the fact that it just seemed to not be true. Now it turns out that the United States did bring religious freedom to Japan, only it had brought religious freedom to Japan much earlier, in the 1850s, as part of a sort-of diplomatic package. And indeed, the concept of religion comes to Japan in that time. But the sort-of triumphalist Occupation era narrative about the United States bringing religious freedom to Japan is a really problematic story, because it sets up the Americans as being sort-of the holders of freedom and the Japanese as being these benighted people that need to be saved, or rescued, by the Americans. So I was really inspired by literature on secularism, and secularity studies, in thinking through the ways that religious freedom is a really good topic for thinking about what secularism is. But I was also trying to make an intervention in the history of Japan and the United States, thinking perhaps a little more critically about American empire. And then thinking perhaps a little bit more – what’s the way to put this? – in a sort-of radical credulity about one of these claims that Japanese people in the Pre-War and War-time period made, that Shinto was not a religion. And so one of the things I wanted to do was take that claim at face value and think, “Well, what would the history look like if that turned out to be true?”

BE: Right. And that kind-of explains one of the shifts you make from going from essentialist and functionalist definitions of freedom of religion to more of a project or claims-making. Can you walk us through that transition?

JT: Yes. So one of the things that really struck me in thinking about the Occupation era narrative about “Japanese people don’t have religious freedom”, is that it basically makes an essentialist claim, saying “Japanese people, as such, in their being, don’t get it.” And, you know, I think that many of us in the academy, in 2019, we’re well aware that we should avoid essentialising claims. But there are still a lot of them that sort-of lurk out there. They’re sort-of shambling around in our midst, right? So the first sort-of correction for that is the suspicious move to do the functionalist claim, like: “What’s really happening behind the scenes?” And I think that, for most of time that I’ve been professionally studying religions in Japan, I’ve seen more of the functionalist move where it’s like: “Well, Shinto is essentially a religion of Japanese people. And State Shinto is functionally the political co-option this benign ancient religion”, or whatever. It turns out that the scholarship has shown that both of those claims are just not accurate. And that one of things that I really push, in a more constructivist bent, is to look at who speaks about Shinto and about religious freedom, and how do they engage in projects of religion making? And so, you know, in this critical secularisms and secularities literature there’s a sort-of focus on the constructed nature of both . . . the co-constructed nature, I should say, of both religion and secularism. And so, as I was thinking through those issues, it was very obvious that 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”. And so I find that to be endlessly fascinating, and fun to think through and with.

BE: So, to try and summarise that, there are these two projects of secularisation, or kind-of defining what religion and what non-religion is, both within pre-War Japan and also in the United States in its later Occupation. So it’s a nice line of comparison, having those two (5:00). So, one thing I’d like to turn to, is one of these provocative claims that you’ve made – and I think it’s actually – as the argument goes in your book – a quite tempered claim, for my view, that religious freedom and human rights have been used functionally as tools of empire – and that’s the term you use. Can you explain what you mean by that term, tool of empire? And maybe provide an example?

JT: Sure. So I think I’m not alone in making this sort of claim. And just to give a shout out to other scholars working in the field of Critical Religious Freedom Studies: Tisa Wenger‘s book Religious Freedom – I forget the subtitle . . . something about an American ideal – is . . . . She uses this idea about religious freedom. As white settlers move west then they take religious freedom with them, and it helps them occupy territory, and so forth. Writing in a more contemporary period, Elizabeth Shackman Hurd has talked about the global promotion of religious freedom, or what she calls international religious freedom. And, you know, this is something that the Trump administration takes very seriously. So did the Obama administration before it, and so forth. And the reason that this is a sort-of tool of empire is that it’s a way for Americans to do assert a certain type of moral superiority, and to . . . . Even if not dominating politically another territory and population, the language of religious freedom allows Americans to sort-of assert a certain degree of political hegemony. So in the book there are two main examples of this, I would say. Chapter Three looks at territorial Hawai’i, which is, at the time, you know, an American territory, not a state. I’m looking at Hawai’i in the 1910s and twenties, mostly. And there, under the plantation economy, religious freedom and the notion of white Christian supremacy work hand in hand. So, to make a long story very short, Japanese American Buddhists make an attempt to use the language of religious freedom, and they fail utterly. And this is partly . . . and the reason they fail is that there’s a very carefully constructed political economy of the Islands. And if Japanese people are allowed to use religious freedom, then that really calls into question the white supremacy that dominates that. And the other place is, of course, the Occupation itself. Japan is an autonomous state. It has its own sovereignty at this stage. I would say that it’s fair to describe Japan as a client state. It’s utterly dependent on the US military presence in a very conflicted way. And Japan is America’s . . . the forward base for the United States in East Asia that reflects the geopolitics of the Cold War. There’s a lot of emphasis on using Japan as a sort-of place to maintain freedom of navigation in the Pacific and so forth. All of that is to say, religious freedom was central to the Occupation project. It was one of the main rationales for why the United States needed to be in Japan in the first place. These people, we fought a war with them, they fought the war because of their religion: “Their religion was bad, we’re going to fix it. And, having fixed it, then we’re going to incorporate them under the sort-of military umbrella of the United States.” So, you know, we could parse the term empire all day. But I’m totally comfortable with thinking of America as an empire and that’s quite accurate in many respects.

BE: And we could also use the adjective empirical, like . . . things related to those goals. Can we also categorise other similar freedoms, spread abroad, with the same kind of analysis of projects?

JT: Yes, I think so. You know, other people have talked about this sort of thing. One of the things that immediately comes to mind when you ask this question is, sort-of gender and women’s rights. I think we see a lot of Americans really worked up about genital cutting and in a very complicated way. And there are a number of scholars who have worked on sort-of calling that into question. But sort-of saying like “Women need to be protected either from themselves or from the terrible men who are doing stuff”. And, of course, Saba Mahmood has talked about this sort of thing with veiling, and there are others like Rick Shweder at the University of Chicago, who have written articles on genital cutting and so forth, where there are double standards that are applied (10:00). So one of the things that I think is really interesting thinking about the US project of spreading freedoms abroad, is that we often operate under double standards, where what we do at home is a little bit different from what we project overseas. And I think that we really need to sort-of slow down, and pay attention to that dynamic. It’s insidious in its worst instantiations.

BE: From maybe my interests, and my lines of questioning, maybe you have like a presumption, maybe, of a kind-of underlying interest that I have. And that’s really your experiences of racialisation and how that informs your scholarly perspective. Now, I’m not imposing this on your book. But, in fact, it’s explicitly stated in the epilogue, you’re a multi-racial African American, if that’s the right term you’d like to use to identify yourself. And without giving away the book’s awesome finale – stated in musical form – really cool! – can you just touch upon, maybe, how your study of Asian religions, in particular, has been affected by your own experiences of racialisation.

JT: Yes. Thank you so much for asking that question. So one of the things that struck me as I was getting into the archival materials for this book, was how frequently the occupiers described themselves as white. And how they also positioned themselves as . . . they thought of America as white. And the American armed forces were still segregated at this time. America’s self-understanding was figured around whiteness. And as a non-white person, that really was jarring. But it also was one of the things that I . . . . You know, it’s part of this longer autobiography, I guess, that I share in a brief form in the epilogue, which is that if you’re a non-white person in the United States then it’s very obvious – I shouldn’t speak for all of us, but I’ll just speak for myself. It was really obvious to me growing up that when American’s talk about freedom that freedom is not extended to all of us equally. And so I saw a lot of work in the critical religious freedom literature, tearing apart the word religion. And very important to do. I saw less on freedom. And I thought that freedom was something that really needed to be addressed more directly. And to think about how there are both emancipatory and coercive qualities to freedom. And that different people, and different groups, get freedom in different ways. One of the things that . . . . So the Epilogue, as you’ve seen, is written in a very personal tone. I had a lot of trepidations putting it out there in the world. So far, when I’ve heard from people, they’ve generally . . . the response has been positive from people who have already read the book. But one thing that I notice is that a number of people said that it was . . . that my project was an activist project. And so, in the Introduction, I say very explicitly it’s not an activist project for all of these reasons. But one of the things that people are taking away, having read the Epilogue, was that this made the book an activist project. And I’ve been thinking about that recently. And this goes to your question about racialisation. Because I think that that reading is actually a racialised reading of the book. So, in other words, if I were like a white American and I close the book by being like, “Oh I went on the JET programme and I had this lovely experience in this small town in rural Japan.” Nobody would read that as activist. They would be like “Oh, that’s just a book.” Right? But because I’m talking about my experience as a racialised minority in the United States, and because it’s built into the apparatus of the book, suddenly the book becomes activist. And I think we really have to think about, you know, what sort of burden that places on racialised scholars of religion, and what we can do about that. Because – sorry, this is turning into a long rant! But one of the things that I think is that . . . . The Epilogue was designed to show, rather than tell. But it was showing the value of diversity in the academy. And if diversity looks like activism then we have a huge problem. So I think that one of the things that I really . . . like, my hope for people reading the Epilogue is that “Oh, this represents why diverse voices are valuable in the academy; this represents why we need to foster diversity in the lower ranks of the academy”, and so forth.

BE: Right. So there’s so much in there to unpack. I would like to actually walk back to more of your archival discussion.

JT: Sure.

BE: So let’s take us back into that time (15:00). You look at his archive, and then, over and over, you’re reading, with the name America, some reference – either explicitly or implicitly – to concepts of whiteness. What goes through your mind as you’re going through this archive? And again, I’m trying to help you out here, with the . . . and I do that myself, your experiences shape your lens. They don’t make your project activism. So I trying to help you articulate that process.

JT: Yes great, OK. So let me just talk about the archive in general. It’s actually multiple archives in the United States in Japan. So I’m looking at American military government records at the National Archives and Records Administration. That’s in College Park, Maryland. And also there is this fabulous collection at the University of Maryland called the Prange Collection. During the years of the Occupation, every document that was published in Japanese was censored. So, you know, there’s this irony in the Occupation to promote freedom of expression, that the occupiers censor everything! (Laughter). To promote religious freedom, they quash some religious groups, and so forth. I talk about this in great detail in the book. So the Prange Collection has all these censored documents. And then I was looking at archives in Southern California, in Oregon, for people who had been influential in Occupation policy, or active in the Occupation, as well as archives in Japan. So Government records, a lot of magazines and so forth. One of the things that I noticed, as I was going through the American military government records, was that they told a very sort-of hasty story of the Japanese past, the recent Japanese past. And their story was designed to make Japan look like it was an inferior, sort-of uncivilised place. So with the concept . . . . I want to stress the concept of civilisation here, for a second, like really spell that out. Because civilisation was the dominant frame for understanding the world in the first half of the twentieth century and the late nineteenth century. And so civilisation was basically equated with whiteness. And so any time the Americans are talking about civilisation, they’re often – if not explicitly, at least implicitly – sort-of tying this to “these people who are insufficiently white”. And, of course, those people who know the history will know that Japan has had this ambiguous status geopolitically, because Japan was an empire in its own right. Japan staved off being colonised by colonising the other countries of Asia. And that’s a very complicated history that I won’t go into in too much detail. But where does that leave the scholar? Well I felt like I had a responsibility, then, to unpack the stories the Japanese people were telling about themselves. How did they think of themselves? How did they mobilise the language of civilisation in a different way? And so, you know, at first I thought I was just writing a book about the years of the Occupation. But it turned out that I needed to write a whole half of the book that was about whatever was happening before the Occupation, to really let Japanese people speak in their own voices. And, strikingly, one of the things that happened was that a lot of them were saying a lot of things about religious freedom. And they’re laughing at the United States through a lot of it. A lot of them were just like, “Look at those crazy Americans! They are way too lapse with their laws about religious freedom! We’re going to use religious freedom, but we’re going do it our own way.” And I think that that’s a very important kind of story. And, of course, just amplifying the Japanese voices, and all of their complicated conflicted ways, is part of the project of the book.

BE: So, one thing you’re pointing to is that quick summarisation of what Japan used to be. So what are we doing now, as an American project? What was Japan before this? And one of the interesting things you point to is how they drew upon Religious Studies scholars to make this claim about what Japan used to be like. And so this actually discusses it . . . . It’s a major discussion you have about the politics of Religious Studies scholarship. And so here we have an example where . . . I don’t know if those scholars really thought of themselves as world-influencing in terms of their work. However, they ended up being it. And so one major portion of the book is called “The Occupation of Religious Studies” And obviously you have a double entendre there with the job, as well as the American Occupation. And there are some really interesting points made through this probably secondarily archival work, right? But there’s these terms of a spiritual vacuum, and also what happens after the American Occupation, the flourishing of new religions (20:00). And so this new term, “new religions and new religious movements”, and other terms that come out of there, actually come out of this definition of what Japan was like before and then what it was like after. So reflecting on these discussions and maybe – well, you can maybe parse out some of that for the Listeners. But also, maybe, words of advice about us as scholars of religion and what our potential political impact could be, based on our ways of framing religions.

JT: Great. Thanks so much for that question. OK. So I’m going to answer it by looping back to an earlier part of our conversation with the activism stuff. So the reason I said that it was deliberately not an activist project was precisely because so much stuff that I was seeing in the archive was scholars of religion adopting a prescriptive tone, saying “This is good religion, and that’s bad religion.”

BE: Right.

JT: “This is superstition. That’s real religion.” And that sort of thing. I think the category of State Shinto, which I alluded to before, it had that whole story built into it. Two-words, whole story, right? And so I wanted to be very deliberate. Of course, there’s always going to be some sort of prescription that we’re doing. But I think in general, for me, I think the first order level of prescription is about scholarly method. And if there’s an intervention I’m making in the book, it’s: how do we periodise, how do we tell our stories? Whose voices are we paying attention to? And that sort of thing. Those are the kinds of things that I think I’m very explicit about in the book. On reflection, I think I could have been even more deliberate, or taken a little bit more time to – in this case – rather than show, actually tell people what I was doing, in terms of playing with chronological presentation. The book is organised chronologically, but it’s also not organised chronologically. And that was my way of sort-of doing the historical method, but also kind-of screwing with it at the same time! But in terms of the sort-of nitty-gritty of what was happening in the Occupation – before, during and immediately after the Occupation – we have scholars of religion who are really minor until they become major, because of a sudden policy need. So the person I have in mind is Daniel Clarence Holtom, who’s a Baptist Missionary, who’s a scholar of Shinto and nobody was reading his stuff really, right? He’s completely under-appreciated. I think a small number of people are looking at him. But after Pearl Harbour the sort-of dominant narrative at the time was that Japanese people were ultra-nationalist because of Buddhism, not Shinto. And then somebody in the state department or in the Office of Strategic Services finds Holtom’s work and they’re like: “Oh my God! This guy is this expert who’s been telling us all of this stuff about why Japanese people are the way they are!” And so, suddenly, Holtom’s work has this whole new life, where it’s explaining Japanese ultra-nationalism. So this guy comes to . . . and then he ends up having like an outsize role after being on the margins of the scholarly community. So his ideas about Shinto as the national faith of Japan, and so forth, come to inform a lot of policy. This is particularly the case in the fall of 1945, when the occupiers have a sudden policy change that’s dictated by Washington. And the people in Washington suddenly announce on American public radio that Shinto, as a state religion, is going to be abolished. For the occupiers, stationed in Japan, this was the first they were hearing of it, and then they suddenly had to come up with a policy to support this objective. They had to come up with a reason to support this objective, while also protecting and promoting religious freedom. Which is an impossible task! So the only way to make that work is to designate Japan’s – quote-unquote – “national religion” as not being religion. Or as being sort-of insufficiently distinguishing between the religious and the political. How do you do that? You go to scholarly experts. So they relied on Holtom’s work, and they also relied on local Japanese scholars of religion, particularly this guy Kishimoto Hideo, and were asking them to basically support this for ordained objective and sure enough by 15 December of that year, of 1945, you get this document called the Shinto Directive, which formally abolishes this thing that they have now come to call State Shinto. And one thing I just want to put here – a sort-of asterisk to all of this – is that the language of – quote-unquote – “State Shinto” doesn’t solidify until December 1945. It is not something that is widely used, in Japanese or in English, up until that point. And that’s really crucial (25:00).

BE: And, in the book, you do a really good job of pointing out the kind-of lineage of the debates within Japan about the relationship of religion to the state. And so, it’s very clear from that there is no solidification of the State Shinto idea. So I think what this is actually . . . it’s bringing it back to, maybe, one of the earlier points about racialisation. So instead of it being an activist work, it’s really –and you can rephrase this how you want – your experiences shape your lens. That lens would be obvious . . . that lens is obvious to anyone who’s had similar experience of racialisation. On the other hand, maybe another scholar would take some of these assumptions about State Shinto for granted. Can you maybe loop those together? Like, how your own experience of racialisation allows you to break free of that presumption that the previous Religious Studies scholarship was fully accurate.

JT: Yes. Thank you so much for that question. OK, so I’m going to sort-of build on what we were just talking about with State Shinto, and tie it to this other concept that may be lurking in some Listeners’ minds, which is civil religion. OK, so Robert Bellah starts off, as I understand it, Talcott Parsons tells Robert Bellah, “You’re going do Japan” And he writes this book, Tokugawa Religion. And then he ends up shifting focus, and he ends up the being one of the major sociologists of American religion and so forth, and we’re all very indebted to him. One of the things that . . . one of his most influential essays is about Americas’ civil religion. And I think one of the things that a lot of people forget – maybe a lot of our Americanist colleagues forget – is that Bellah’s experience studying Japan directly affects his civil religion essay. And there’s even a footnote in that essay where he’s like: “I’m not talking about an American Shinto” – which I think says exactly what he’s doing. Right? There’s a sort-of proleptic quality to that that I think is really, really telling. So there are maybe one or two pages in Chapter One, where I’m talking about how Bellah, writing in his time – 1967, I think it is – he’s capable of telling a story about America’s civil religion that picks a set number of saints and heroes and monuments and so forth, and he’s talking about things like national sacrifice. But look at who he’s including and not including. There is no mention of blackness. There is no . . . like, black people are not present in this stories.

BE: Let’s repeat the date.

JT: 1967. Yes! Exactly! And so it’s just utterly striking. And so I’ve had a number of colleagues say, “Well, actually, shouldn’t civil religion be helpful in talking through your critique of State Shinto?” and I want to say, “No!” I want to flip the table over and say. “No. This is not helpful. Because Bellah was both using a racialised notion of Japan to tacitly to build his argument about American civil religion. He was rejecting what was going on in Japan to say, “Well, what we do is actually really good. And it’s the healthy stuff that bonds us all together.” That’s exactly what Japanese people were saying about . . . what they did not call State Shinto, but they called like the Imperial Way or shrine rites, or whatever. They had lots of different names for this stuff. And, you know, one of the things that Bellah’s . . . I mention this explicitly in my discussion of Bellah’s piece. But there’s no reference to Martin Luther King. There’s certainly no reference to Malcolm X, I mean can you imagine?! Right? But these are people who were speaking in prophetic voices. They were talking about the problems of the American project. There’s . . . and so, I think, to answer your question directly, I see that because of the way that I am, and because of the circumstances of my embodiment. I’m sure that . . . and I would not say that a white person would not see that. I want to be very clear here. But I think that because of growing up with this sort of ambiguous racial identity, as a multi-racial person, it’s always been sort-of in my face. I’ve never been able to not think about race. And so it took me a long time to figure out why I was so dissatisfied with the civil religion explanation. And it actually wasn’t until very late in the book that I finally came up with an answer for it. But it has to do with this issue: the circumstances of who I am, the nature of where I was born, how I grew up and all that stuff affects how I approach the archive, and so forth (30:00).

BE: Thank you so much. One more thing. And this is just like a nuts-and-bolts thing. So, we’ve discussed all the origins of the creation of the term State Shinto. Yet still . . . and I have to admit it, for myself, when I ‘m doing an Introduction to World Religions, there it is: the term State Shinto’s there. And you discuss it. Is there a nuts-and-bolts better way to describe what was happening in pre-Occupation Japan?

JT: Yes. I think we just need to talk about Japanese secularism. I describe it as a secularism. I describe what I call the Meiji constitutional regime as a secularist system. It’s premised on the distinction between “religion” and “not religion”. And I mean that in two ways. There’s like the forbidden not religion, which is things that end up being called superstitions, and so forth. And then there are the permitted or even encouraged not religion, which is the compulsory shrine rites, where you’d get a bunch of school kids to go to the shrine and pay their respects, or, like, bow to a picture of the Emperor. That’s secularism. That’s what’s happening in America too, at exactly the same time. There’s a sort-of a sense. . . . This is what Bellah would call America’s civil religion. But I think it’s actually much more complicated than that. I don’t want to reduce things to religion. I want to maintain the complexity of the language games that people play, in terms of parsing things as being religion or not religion, right? And I think that collapsing everything into the category of religion actually misses part of the point. So it is not my job to police what other people say. I know that I will be shouting into the wind, and there are going to be people who insist on using the term State Shinto. But I really think that, historically, it’s just inaccurate. And so if you’re in the classroom, you’re teaching your world religions class or whatever, what do you do? Well, use Japan as an opportunity to talk through the issues of secularism more broadly. Say, “We used to tell the story this way. Our text books or readings use this term. But you know, this is actually reflective of a different sort of politics of good and bad religion. Let’s talk about that. Let’s tie it to contemporary things. Like, when people are saying ‘Islamism’, what are they doing?” I argue in the book that Islamism is basically like the State Shinto of our day. It’s taking something and describing it as being illegitimate, just by adding that “ism” to the end. And I think there are a lot of other example that we could use. That’s the one that immediately comes to mind. So, you know, in one of your earlier questions you asked about the sort-of impact of scholars of religion. And one of the things that I do in the last chapter of the book is to show how these things – categories like State Shinto, for example – they have echoes. And they continue to influence the academy, our classrooms, policy-making and so forth. And so, if we can attend to the moments when those categories are developed historically, if we can pay attention to the politics of that moment, then we can also pay attention to how those echoes are working in our contemporary moment. It’s not to be presentist. It’s just to say that there are problems in the State Shinto concept, so let’s deal with those.

BE: Well, thank you so much. You’ve given us a lot to think about: religious freedom, secularism, secularisation, the concepts we use, the politics that we – either implicitly or explicitly – work through as Religious Studies scholars. So, thank you so much for your time today, and your excellent work: Taking Liberties: Religious Freedom in American Occupied Japan.

JT: Thanks so much. I really enjoyed your questions and the conversation. I really appreciate it.

 

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Religious change in Japanese Shinto

Though Shinto is widely known as the indigenous religion of Japan, it is rarely discussed in detail and has attracted little attention from scholars. In this week’s podcast, Hans Van Eyghen sits down with Professor Michael Pye to discuss the  various historical, political, and social factors that have impacted Japanese Shinto.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Religious Change in Japanese Shinto

Podcast with Michael Pye (19 March 2018).

Interviewed by Hans Van Eyghen.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Pye_-_Religious_Change_in_Japanese_Shinto_1.1

 

Hans Van Eyghen (HVE): I’m with Professor Michael Pye, at the University of Marburg, to discuss Shintoism. Welcome, Professor Michael Pye.

MP: Thank you.

HVE: My first question: Shinto is often called the native religion of Japan. Could you tell us a little about that definition, and what might be wrong with it?

MP: Yes. Well it is a native religion of Japan. That’s not problematic in itself, I think. But the problem is that during the long history of Japan, what we now call Shinto was constantly created and recreated. So, what people nowadays regard as Shinto isn’t necessary what was Shinto a few hundred years ago, or a thousand years ago etc. That’s the problem.

HVE: What would be some of the main differences between the current Shintoism and, say, ancient Shintoism?

MP: Well, the main point is that in the 19th century Shinto became ideologised and used by the state in support of nationalism. And so, therefore, new agendas appeared which were of a modern kind. And prior to that, there was a long period when Shinto was very closely identified with Buddhism and it was difficult to separate them out. They formed part of a wide religious complex. And then, if we look back even earlier, we have difficulty in being sure that Shinto was very much like what modern Shinto is like. Nevertheless, there are ancient traditions of the worship of kami, and rituals connected with kami – that’s the divinities in Shinto – and so there are important continuities. But, as I said, because of the long history there have been many shifts and developments.

HVE: Some mainly Japanese scholars, I’ve been told, try to argue that there’s a form of pure Shintoism, which goes all the way back to ancient times, which got corrupted during the middle ages. Could you tell us a little bit about their claim and what may be wrong with it?

MP: Well, I think what’s wrong with it is that they’re trying to posit a unique pure Shinto, which can’t really be historically maintained.

HVE: Why is that?

MP: Well, they want to do that because they want it to be the national religion of the whole of the Japanese people. Not all Japanese people agree with that, and want that. But they would like it to be that. So, therefore, they’re laying claim to the origins of the Japanese people and the origins of the imperial line of emperors, in an attempt to have a kind of coherent, civic religion. Which just doesn’t fit with what we know about the ancient periods.

HVE: And how doesn’t it fit?

MP: Well it doesn’t fit because although some kami rites – Shinto rites – were organised by the ancient courts – the Yamato court- we don’t actually know very much about what happened in the regions of Japan, what kinds of religious practices there were. And these were not really coordinated into something which we can call Shinto.

HVE: And the whole influence of Buddhism, like, the claim of the Japanese scholars suggest that there was a process when they tried to do away with Buddhist influences. Was that actually the case?

MP: Yes, in the 19th century, they definitely tried to separate Buddhism and Shinto. It’s called shinbutsu bunri: separating – the Shin of Shinto means kami and the butsu are the Buddhas of Buddhism. So they effectively took away Buddhist images and Buddhist practices away from the shrines, and tried to create and promote the pure Shinto as they thought of it.

HVE: And who did this? The Government, I assume.

MP: The Government led it and the Government wished it and decreed it. But it was carried out, of course, by shrine authorities.

HVE: And how did people respond? Like, often people are very resistant to religious change. They try to keep doing the things that they always did. Was there something like that going on, or did they just follow the dictates?

MP: Well, there wasn’t very much resistance because it wasn’t very easy to resist it, actually. And to some extent, after the Second World War, there has been a move to return to a closer symbiosis of Shinto and Buddhism. But at the time it wasn’t really possible to resist it. So part of that movement, also, was to install the divinities – which are mentioned in the ancient texts in shrines all over Japan – where previously there had been more mysterious divinities of, maybe, an ambiguous nature. So they tried to clean up the kind-of character of Shinto, in many ways. Not only by removing Buddhist influence but also by organising the pantheon, the Shinto pantheon in a structured way.

HVE: Well, the whole symbiosis with Buddhism: I imagine Buddhism has a very specific goal in mind what Buddhas, and Bodhisattvas are doing for people – what role they play. So could you tell us a little about that, how that changed Shintoism?

MP: Well I think you may be thinking of the situation in which Buddhist leaders – Buddhist monks and thinkers – tried to assimilate Shinto divinities and mobilise them, for the purposes of leading people into Buddhism. Is that what you’re thinking about?

HVE: Indeed. Or leading them into salvation.

MP: Yes, leading them into salvation or enlightenment, rather. Leading them into the path of Buddhahood – butsodo is the path of Buddhahood. So I think Mahayana Buddhism is quite well-known for its tolerant integrative attitude towards the great variety of religious practices. So it’s not so much tolerance in a kind of modern, Western, liberal sense, but more in the sense of making room for things to be carried out: popular practices, daily practices in which people have the possibility of satisfying their daily needs, their practical needs for security, safety, for good harvests, for benefits of various kinds in this world. And so Mahayana Buddhism – most Japanese forms of Buddhism are within the Mahayana tradition – seeks to make room for all of these things, in order to lead people towards Buddhist ideas. So it has . . . the leading monks have a very reflective attitude about that. They understand those processes.

HVE: It sounds rather like Buddhism is incorporating Shintoism, rather than there is symbiosis where the two are mutual partners.

MP: Well no, they weren’t. In the heyday of the medieval period they were not really mutual partners, that’s true. Buddhism, especially esoteric Buddhism, was the dominant partner. So that’s why, when you have the more decisive response by Shinto-oriented thinkers – and especially when it came to be backed up by the Government – the attempt was made to take the initiative over against Buddhism.

HVE: I want to get back to post-war Shintoism.

MP: OK

HVE: You said we can see a symbiosis with Buddhism, or mutual influences. I imagine some Shinto thinkers are unhappy with that. Are there people who try to do away with that, or try to respond to that?

MP: Well, I don’t think so. I mean this is not a massive movement, but we’ve recently seen some signs. For example, the head temple of Tendai Buddhism on Mount Hiei, has been making overtures to the priest in charge of the Ise shrine, which is closely linked with imperial family where the sun goddess is enshrined, Amaterasu Omikami. So these overtures are a kind-of friendly approach which is quite supportive of Shinto institutions and Tendai Buddhist institutions. And not all Buddhists are interested in that. But there isn’t really any complaint. There isn’t really any resistance to that, on the part of Shinto leaders, because they’re happy to be recognised and to find wider recognition in Japanese society.

HVE: Ok. And I want to touch on another point now, again on post-war Shintoism. There is the experience of the war, of course. This must have been traumatic. How did that influence Shintoism? Of course, the Emperor renouncing his powers, more-or-less: what was the impact of the war and especially the after-war period in Shintoism?

MP: Well, it’ a big subject, but – by the way, we usually speak of Shinto rather than Shintoism.

HVE: I’m sorry.

MP: That’s ok. Shintoism is widely used, I know, but it rather suggests an ideology, rather than a religion. So I prefer to speak of Shinto, usually. Well, the first main point is that the official forms of Shinto were disestablished: separated from the state. That was a very necessary move after the end of the war. And so there is a problem about the ways in which contemporary Shinto can be part of public life. There are various problems with that, for example we have the problem about Yasukuni shrine, which is where the Japanese war dead are enshrined. And whether the Prime Minister of Japan can go to visit that shrine, as Prime Minister. And of course in recent years they have been doing that. So other people have objected to that.

HVE: Because they’re war criminals?

MP: Well that’s one reason, yes. Because a small number of convicted War criminals are enshrined there. But the main problem is the question of the separation of religion and state, you see. People don’t really want to have a blurring of that distinction, which is an important guarantee for the secular democracy which we now have in Japan. So that’s one of the problems. A similar problem arose with the enthronement of the present Emperor, because again the Emperor is descended from previous emperors of course, and the enthronement is partly based on religious traditions connected with Amaterasu, the sun goddess. And so, how can you have the enthronement of the emperor in a non-religious way? That was the problem. So in fact they did it quite well, because they had two separate lots of activity. One was the public secular ascension to the throne and the declaration of the emperor himself. And the other part was a series of rituals in the imperial household, in the gardens, in the grounds of the imperial palace. So those two things were separated. And I thought that was quite successful. But some of the other things are not so successful. And at the Yasukuni Shrine there is a blurring of the distinctions, and in some other cases too.

HVE: So what’s the main motivation for separating Shinto and public life of public officials? Is it just that – separation of church and state, as we have here? Or are they afraid that what happened in the past will repeat itself?

MP: Well, it was actually forced upon the Japanese government immediately after the war, by the American occupation.

HVE: Could you elaborate on that?

MP: There was a directive given that this should all be separated out. And so that was combined with a freedom of religions law, which made it possible for other religions in Japan to organise very well, including a good number of new religions, some of which had been oppressed in the meantime, and some of which were newly founded after the war. So religious freedom is an aspect of it. So if you’re going to have religious freedom you can’t, at the same time, have a state religion which is completely dominant and not permitting space for other religions to organise. And this is a classic problem all over the world.

HVE: There’s no idea that the past connection of Shinto with the imperial family led to atrocious things? That’s nothing to do with it?

MP: Well there is among the Japanese population. But, within the world of Shinto Shrines, this is not something which is talked about very much. But in some other important religious denominations, such as Shin Buddhism, and also in Soto Zen Buddhism, there is a very clear understanding that Shinto led – organised, modern, politicised Shinto – contributed to leading Japan into war and disaster. So – remember the population of Japan is very large, well over 100 million. I don’t know what it is today, but 120 million, or something. So there is quite a lot of room for people to have different views.

HVE: And connected to that, nowadays some claim we see some resurgence of Japanese nationalism. Is there some implications for current Shinto, or it isn’t an issue?

MP: Well, there’s a constant resurgence of Japanese nationalism, in my opinion.

HVE: Is there?

MP: Yes. Ever since the Second World War we have had mainly right-of-centre governments in Japan. And, usually, some members of the governments have been saying things which are quite right-wing, and even militaristic. But, of course, the constitution doesn’t permit Japan to have an army in the same sense as some other countries, although they have very large self-defence forces. So, anyway, public figures sometimes say quite disturbing things about the past of Japan, and how it “wasn’t so bad”, and this, that and the other, you see. So whereas, on the other hand there are those who resist this – there are quite a lot of people who want to defend Clause Nine of the Constitution, which forbids having a military . . . .

HVE: People that say these things about the past: they don’t make a connection to Shinto, or they don’t identify Shinto more strongly?

MP: Well the ones who criticise it identify Shinto with that, and they identify the emperor system with that. But within the Shinto world there is not very much concern about that. They rather tend to be on the right wing, or tolerating right-wing attitudes.

HVE: OK

MP: Speaking very generally, that’s the way. But of course the Shinto world is quite large. There are many shrines, there are many priests who have been educated in various universities. And I think it’s of interest to speak, above all, with moderate Shinto figures and to encourage them, and to encourage moderate Shinto thinkers or leaders to keep a steady view, and not to rush off into some right-wing movements or something like that.

HVE: You talk about moderate Shinto – does that imply that there is a not-moderate Shinto, as well?

MP: Oh yes. Well, some of the leaders of Shinto shrines are not actually very reflective about politics. So, they obviously have uncritical views about Japan’s past. And there is always a danger that they will encourage nationalism, especially if they’re talking about Shinto as the religion of the ethnic group. So this tends to focus on the particular ethnic group. And that’s the seed-bed of nationalism. But some of the Shinto leaders are more widely educated and it’s easier to talk with them and help them to have a balanced view of their own history.

HVE: But, in your view, the non-moderates aren’t gaining ground or aren’t gaining influence?

MP: I don’t think so. Things are fairly stable. As far as I know.

HVE: And is there a connection between these less or non-moderate people and those who advocate, like, the view of a pure Shinto in ancient times?

MP: Yes, they are more likely to be saying that, yes. I’ve advanced the notion that Shinto – this is my personal way of looking at it – that “Shinto”, in inverted commas, is an adapted religion. It’s an adapted primal religion. In other words, it does have indigenous roots.

HVE: In Japan?

MP: Yes, indigenous in Japan. It’s not an imported religion. It has indigenous roots in Japan. So that’s what I call a primal religion. Some people just call it an indigenous religion. And this has been adapted, due to the changing political and social circumstances, up until the present day – when it’s quite complicated. And the moderate Shinto leaders are quite happy with that understanding. And they are less likely to be asserting some kind of simplified essential Shinto as having been there from time immemorial. So they’re quite happy to perceive the historical vicissitudes and changes, and they know perfectly well that the way in which Shinto is used politically, in the 19th and early 20th century is not really a possible way for Japan in the future. So they’re providing a more balanced service to the religious needs of Japanese people, without having a heavily politicised attitude.

HVE: Apart from the shrines and the priests – the common practitioners: is that something that’s on their minds . . . whether there’s a pure Shinto?

MP: No, I don’t think so. They just go to the shrine to get their fortunes told, and to pray for benefits, and for a quiet life, and prosperity, and so on. People are not really thinking about this, no. I don’t think so.

HVE: And do they show certain more symbiosis with Buddhism, as you see here in the West: Christians who meditate, Christians who attend other services, even? Do you see that in Japan as well, with Shinto practitioners who are engaged with Buddhist practices, or other practices?

MP: Well, some Buddhist denominations are quite tolerant of Shinto practices, but others are more strict and they don’t really want their believers, their followers, to take part in the practices of Shinto shrines. But as far as the Shinto shrine leaders are concerned, they don’t really mind if people go to Buddhist temples or not. They just like them to come to the shrine first. For example, at New Year: “Please come the shrine first and then you can go off somewhere else to celebrate New Year in a different way.” That’s quite common.

HVE: There’s no friction in certain Shinto beliefs or certain Buddhist beliefs, for example?

MP: Well, there is between . . . . In general, there is not – in the minds of, maybe, the majority of people. But there is some friction in the case of what we might call the more decisive popular denominations of Buddhism. Shin Buddhism, which has about 16 million followers after all, and also Nichiren Buddhism, and some of the new Buddhist movements which have a rather strict view of their own form of Buddhism. So there is, to some extent, a rejection of Shinto. They try to encourage people not to bother with Shinto practices, not to go to Shinto shrines, but to concentrate on their own religious practice. And of course, because there is not public religious education in school, because of the separation of religion and state, people in general are not very well-informed about the variety of religions in Japan. They don’t actually know very much about the different Buddhist denominations. Or, if they’re in Buddhist contexts, they don’t know very much about Shinto shrines for example. So that’s part of it. Some ignorance. Difference through ignorance, you might say.

HVE: A final question about the study of Shinto. Like these questions about pure Shinto and the symbiosis with Buddhism, how do you see it going forward? Is there building a consensus somehow that the ancient pure Shinto isn’t a worthwhile approach?

MP: Do you mean amongst scholars, or amongst . . .

HVE: Amongst Scholars.

MP: Well I think that’s pretty well accepted amongst scholars, that there wasn’t an original pre-Shinto which we can just define and grasp. But that the origins are complex, and that the focussing on something that we can call Shinto actually took place step by step, and later than the oldest documents that we have. So I think everybody realises that. But the problem arises because when Japanese writers – maybe rather popular writers, maybe media people – when they refer to Shinto as if it were an original pure thing, which you can just get from the past. That’s the problem. It’s not among academics.

HVE: And that isn’t going away?

MP: Oh, that won’t go away. I don’t think so.

HVE: You’re not very optimistic?

MP: No, because it’s an ideological statement which people find easy to swallow. So they will keep on saying that for some time. We just have learn to live with that, and to maintain the academic clarity over against the religious standpoints. But this is  . . . . You find this in any studies of religion. You have to distinguish between the academic reflection on it and historical analysis on the one hand, and the religious positions on the other hand, which are quite often misleading or incorrect.

HVE: Ok. Thank you very much, Professor Pye. That was a very interesting interview.

MP: My pleasure. Thank you very much.

HVE: Thank you.

Citation Info: Pye, Michael and Hans Van Eyghen. 2018. “Religious Change in Japanese Shinto”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 19 March 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 14 March 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/religious-change-in-japanese-shinto/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing the RSP archive, or know of any sources of funding for the transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

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Learning to Unlearn “Religion”: Jason Ānanda Josephson on the Invention of Religion in Japan

One of the first Religious Studies courses in which I enrolled was titled “Japanese Religion.” There were several themes running through the course, but the one that stuck with me as the most important was something the professor asked during the first meeting of the class:

The course is called “Japanese Religion”; over the semester, think about that phrase – would it be better to say “Japanese Religions”? How about “religions of Japan”? Or, is “religion” the best word to use to describe the Japanese traditions we’re studying?1

The implications of the latter question are considered by Jason Ānanda Josephson, scholar of East Asian religions and religious studies theory, in this informative interview with the Religious Studies Project. Josephson and interviewer Brad Stoddard explore how the concept of “religion” was translated, discussed, and applied in 19th Century Japan.

Josephson’s book, The Invention of Religion in Japan (University of Chicago Press, 2012), forms the backbone of the conversation. Josephson explains that he has always had an interest in East Asian religion, as well as the theory of religion and religious studies, and in his doctoral research he put those pieces together. The result is a book that critiques the category of religion using the Japanese situation as a case study. Josephson relates how, in post-1853 Japan, there was a significant discussion taking place among the Japanese elite about what the European idea of “religion” meant, how it fit (or didn’t) with existing traditions in Japan, and also, how the concept of the “secular” applied to Japanese society at the time. Josephson’s primary case study involves Shinto, rather than Buddhism, although Josephson hopes to explore Buddhist traditions in Japan in a future work.

Josephson’s critique of the category “religion” as it relates to Japan is part of an on-going discussion among scholars as to the accuracy, relevance, and necessity of that concept. (Scholars such as Timothy Fitzgerald, Russell T. McCutcheon, Talal Asad, and Tomoku Masuzawa are mentioned in the interview as key figures participating in this critique.) While I would not describe myself as a theorist primarily, or consider my main interest to be theories of religion, I have come to realize that questions about the nature of “religion,” what scholars mean when they write about “religion,” and the categorization of “religious” traditions cannot be overlooked and must be grappled with prior to studying a “religious” tradition.

When I was a student in the Japanese Religion course, I had not yet been introduced in a meaningful way to the critiques of the concept of “religion.” What seemed problematic to my novice eyes was the disjunction between the different implications of the phrases “religion in Japan,” “Japanese religion,” and/or “Japanese religions.” By the end of the course, I decided that the least problematic way to think about the topic was as “religions in Japan.” This didn’t tackle the truly important piece – namely, the category of “religion” – but it did seem to be more neutral and inclusive than any of the other phrases. In my graduate work, these questions of naming and labeling recurred – my interests centered around one of the Buddhisms in Japan, not the monolithic idea of “Japanese Buddhism.” The latter implies that there is one Buddhism that can be described as Japanese. I can think of (at least) two traditions of Buddhism that flourished and took on a “Japanese” approach over time, as well as several of the New/Emergent Religious Movements which originated in Japan and claim a Buddhist lineage. Ultimately, the use of terms like “Buddhism” and “religion” in the singular seem to be neither specific nor descriptive enough to capture the richness and diversity of the actual world. Josephson’s perspective adds that necessary final dimension to anyone studying “religion” in Japan: since it is both an imported and manufactured category, can it be used reliably by scholars to discuss Japanese traditions?

In the interview, Josephson mentions in passing that the title of his work (The Invention of Religion in Japan) could have just as easily been either The Invention of Superstition in Japan or The Invention of Secularism in Japan. I find this a particularly fascinating comment, as those three words – religion, superstition, secularism – each have a distinct implication. However, as Josephson demonstrates throughout the interview, Japanese society had to come to terms with those three ideas as a package. Was Shinto a religion or superstition? What about Buddhism? Is Japan a secular nation? Is Japan a modern nation? Since one could not be both “modern” and “superstitious,” that meant that Shinto could not be a superstition if Japan wished to take its “place” among the nations of the modern world. However, Josephson also points out that while colonialism often imposed categories upon a colonized people, that was not entirely the case in Japan. Japanese scholars involved in the (literal and cultural) translation of the concepts of religion, superstition, and secularism investigated what these terms meant to Europeans and then negotiated the idea within Japanese society, demonstrating a degree of agency not often seen during interactions between Western and Asian societies in the 19th century.

Not only am I eager to read The Invention of Religion in Japan, but I am also looking forward to Josephson’s next project, discussed at the end of the interview. The project is currently titled “Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences”; Josephson describes this as a project to analyze European society, specifically those parts of Europe that did not match up to the claims of modernity made by European scholars. Josephson’s novel approach analyzes these claims of modernity – and the disjunction between scholarly claims and reality – through the lens of postcolonial theory, using the world outside of Europe to analyze Europe.

 

1 Or at least, that’s my recollection of the instructor’s remarks! I am paraphrasing, not quoting directly.

 

References

Asad, Talal. Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.

Ellwood, Robert S. Introducing Japanese Religion. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Fitzgerald, Timothy. The Ideology of Religious Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Josephson, Jason Ānanda. The Invention of Religion in Japan. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 2012.

Masuzawa, Tomoku. The Invention of World Religions: or, How European Universalism was

Preserved in the Language of Pluralism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

McCutcheon, Russell T. [See Dr. McCutcheon’s website for a list of his work]

Tanabe, George J. (ed). Religions Of Japan in Practice. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.

The Invention of Religion in Japan

Scholars interested in Asian religions have often noted that European colonialism simultaneously disrupted native societies and to various degrees created the modern social identities commonly referred to as “Buddhism,” “Confucianism,” “Taoism,” “Shinto,” etc. Inspired by Edward Said and others, these scholars recognize the change and adaptation that resulted from colonial encounters, specifically as they relate to the natives’ appropriation of the modern category of religion.

In this interview, Jason Josephson discusses these issues and more, specifically as they relate to Japan and the formation of Shinto. Josephson first describes how Shinto is typically represented in EuroAmerican religious studies courses. He then describes the various actors and processes (both European and native) that were involved in the Japanese appropriation of the modern category of religion, paying particular attention to the material and economic interests embedded in these larger processes.

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Podcasts

Imagining American and Japanese Religious Freedom

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

I listened to Jolyon Thomas’ interview about his book Faking Liberties with Brett Eskai while COVID-19 was rapidly spreading internationally, in mid-March 2020. I was struck with how my European and American colleagues racialized and classed the disease. A Danish colleague said that people around him, that is, middle-class and upper-middle class Danes, assuming that the disease only affected the lower-class and immigrants, were enjoying their regular lives. “I think they are arrogant,” he said. Certainly. Although most of them did not go as far as calling it “Yellow Peril,” they associated the disease with race and class. As for the United States, although lower-class people are, in fact, under a larger threat due to their lack of health insurance etc., Americans have also been inclined to discuss the disease in terms of race and class. In contrast, Japanese people have mostly related the disease to age. It is, again, a fact that older people have higher risk of more serious infection, but it is also true that Japanese people do not see it as a racial and class problem (except those conspiracy-lovers who say that the disease is a bioweapon to terminate Asians). Instead, as the virus spread beyond Asia, they started associating the disease with national identity. They have been saying, some sarcastically but others proudly, “We, Japanese people, are so obedient to the government that we stay home just with an official ‘request.’ No need of order or legal enforcement.”

The above is only another example of how we unconsciously adopt a particular way of viewing things. That is why diversity matters in the academy, as Thomas argues. Diversity often lets us realize that we have limited our scope with no deliberation. Regarding the study of Japanese religions, diversity is even more necessary because scholars in the field have largely consisted of only two groups: Japanese scholars and white Westerners. Few other African Americans, multiracial, or non-white/non-Asian scholars specializing in Japanese religions have obtained faculty positions at US universities. Moreover, it is customary for minority American scholars of religion to choose a field that is closely related to their ethnic backgrounds: African Americans often specialize in the history of their own religious traditions, so do Asian Americans. It is too often as if only “white” scholars have the freedom to study anything and everything.

Therefore, the contributions Thomas has made and is going to make in the future for the study of Japanese religions are immense. Indeed, the impact of his work is not limited to Japanese studies. His sharp critique of Robert Bellah’s arguments of civil religion arose because of his unique positionality as a multiracial African American scholar of Japanese religions.

That said, it is also important to note that his critique can function differently in Japanese contexts. (I have given him similar feedback before, which is mentioned in the book). Briefly, a critique of American liberals (such as Bellah) can please Japanese conservatives. Thomas says American civil religion is no different from State Shinto, at least not as much as Bellah claimed. In contrast, Japanese scholars have a tendency to stress differences and to place American civil religion above State Shinto. They argue that Shinto is a this-worldly religion and only legitimizes the Japanese government, while American civil religion, like Christianity, has a transcendent dimension, in light of which Americans criticize the current state of their government. In other words, Shinto is always subject to nationalism, while civil religion, being based on universal values, can transcend nationalism. In so arguing, Japanese scholars attempted to maintain critical consciousness of their war past. Thomas’s argument may sound to Japanese people that they do not have to be so harsh on themselves. It may then empower Japanese conservatives who are ready to use any chance to de-demonize Shinto and Japan’s military past.

From William P. Woodard, The Allied Occupation of Japan and Japanese Religions 1945-1952, Leiden, 1972, frontiespiece, in ref. 2, p. 97

 

I am also cautious of making any academic argument that can serve Japanese reactionism (particularly against the backdrop of the present Abe administration). Yet, at the same time, I consider Japanese scholars’ comparison between State Shinto and American civil religion to be quite problematic because it heavily draws upon the essentialized dichotomy of “world religion” vs “national (or ethnic) religion.” (To note: the term “world religion,” which was coined in the late 19th century, has two major meanings. One is “religions in the world” and the other is “universal religion” as the opposite of national/ethnic religion. The former meaning has been remaining in the US, UK and some other multicultural countries, while the latter meaning, which became obsolete in those Western countries, has survived in Japan. As for why it is still popular in Japan, see Fujiwara 2016). Perhaps academic critiques are always two-sided when thrown into different contexts of the actual world. What we need to do together is to find out a way to avoid “trade-offs” and promote “synergies” between critiques.

Closely related to the comparison between State Shinto and civil religion is Thomas’s arguments on secularism in Japan. He identifies preoccupation Japan as a secularist system based on the Meiji constitution. This is also a bold statement because the established thesis has been the opposite: preoccupation Japan had neither true separation between religion and the state nor true religious freedom. The thesis is being questioned by a new generation of scholars represented by Thomas and also by Yijiang Zhong (Zhong 2014), who happens to be another promising scholar of Japanese religions who is not a white Westerner. Thomas says, “I saw a lot of works in the critical religious freedom literature tearing apart the word ‘religion’. I saw less on freedom and I thought that freedom was something that really needed to be addressed more directly.” If Americans have been preoccupied by the idea of religious freedom as their imagined national treasure, many, especially conservative, Japanese people love to talk about the tolerance or inclusiveness of Japanese religions, above all Shinto, as their imagined innate nature since the pre-war period. It would be intriguing to investigate how discourses on Japanese religious tolerance/inclusiveness have developed hand in hand with those on US religious freedom.


References

Fujiwara, Satoko. 2016. “Why the Concept of ‘World Religion’ Has Survived in Japan: On the Japanese Reception of Max Weber’s Comparative Religion,” in Contemporary Views on Comparative Religion, ed. by Peter Antes, Armin W. Geertz and Mikael Rothstein, Sheffield: Equinox, 191-203.

Zhong, Yijiang. 2014. “Freedom, Religion and the Making of the Modern State in Japan, 1868–89.” Asian Studies Review, 38/1: 53-70.

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). Under the new legal framework implemented during the occupation, including the new constitution of 1947 and the Religious Juridical Persons Law of 1951, formerly nonreligious Shinto shrines were essentially forced to reorganize as religious organizations in order to survive their separation from the state. To the American occupation, the new secular order, in which all religions were equally separated from the state, provided the foundation for a true religious freedom to be carried out in Japan. While religion was already understood in Japan as belonging to the private sphere, the occupation authorities simply ensured that the same was true for everything that they considered to be religion, including Shinto.

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. For an example of this process we can look at Yasukuni Shrine, one of the most central public institutions of the prewar state. At Yasukuni Shrine, the spirits of all those who gave their lives for the nation were enshrined, regardless of the private religious faith of individual soldiers, and all loyal subjects were expected to participate in the public worship of these heroic spirits. While the American occupation authorities had initially intended to destroy Yasukuni Shrine due to its central position in Japanese militarism, the shrine priests and their allies managed to ensure the survival of the shrine in part by arguing for its religious nature (Mullins 2010). After all, as champions of religious freedom, the American occupation authorities could hardly force the closure of a religious institution. Yasukuni Shrine has been organized throughout the postwar period as a private religious institution, yet through its claims to public significance for the nation it continues to be the cause of much controversy. In the 1960s and 70s, the Yasukuni Shrine Bills sought to renationalize the shrine, yet based on the shrine’s status as a religious organization, it was concluded that this would violate the principle of secularism as established by the constitution. The tension between private and public also plays out whenever key political figures pay their respect at the shrine, as postwar legal precedence has found this to be a key factor when deciding whether visits and offerings are allowed or not (Breen 2010).

Above, about 70 Japanese lawmakers visit the Yasukuni Shrine in April 2019. The shrine pays honor to war dead as well as war criminals of World War II, a fact that creates tension with China and South Korea.

A reading of court cases on religious freedom suggests that in general the basic principles instituted under the American occupation are being upheld by Japan’s courts of law. Religious freedom grants citizens the right to freely believe and practice their faith as individuals, and the judiciary tends to support those plaintiffs who demand the right to be different (Takahata 2007). The question of how to define religion as a legal concept is rarely discussed in lawsuits on religious freedom, as these are commonly resolved by reference to the status of the organization an individual adheres to: Jehovah’s Witnesses are registered as a religious juridical person and are therefore considered a religion under Japanese law. Normative assumptions about what religion means in a Japanese context can instead be found primarily in those lawsuits which deal with the principle of secularism, i.e the separation of religion from the state. Reading such lawsuits, it becomes clear that how religion is to be understood in relation to Shinto institutions and rites remains a deeply contested issue. While current Supreme Court precedence favours the view that all religious organizations should be equally understood as religion under Japanese law, this debate is far from resolved (Larsson 2017). There are many influential actors in contemporary Japan who would favour a return to what Thomas in the podcast refers to as “Japanese secularism.”


References

Breen, John. “’Conventional Wisdom’ and the Politics of Shinto in Postwar Japan.” In Politics of Religion, Vol. 4, No. 1 (2010), pp. 68-82.

 

Directive for the Disestablishment of State Shinto from the Supreme Commander of Allied Powers (December 15, 1945). Available in Mullins, Shimazono & Swanson 1993, pp. 97-102.

 

Josephson, Jason Ānanda. The Invention of Religion in Japan. The University of Chicago Press, 2012.

 

Larsson, Ernils. “Jinja Honchō and the Politics of Constitutional Reform in Japan.” In Japan Review, No. 30 (2017), Special Issue Formations of the Secular in Japan, pp. 227-252.

 

Maxey, Trent E.. The “Greatest Problem”: Religion and State Formation in Meiji Japan. Harvard University Press, 2014.

 

Mullins, Mark R. “How Yasukuni Shrine Survived the Occupation: A Critical Examination of Popular Claims.” In Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 65, No. 1 (Spring 2010), pp. 89-136.

 

Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers. The Impossibility of Religious Freedom. Princeton University Press, 2005.

 

Eiichiro, Takahata. “Religious Accommodation in Japan.” In Brigham Young University Law Review, Vol. 2007, No. 3 (2007), pp. 729-750.

 

Thomas, Jolyon B.. Faking Liberties: Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan. The University of Chicago Press, 2019.

Race, Religious Freedom & Empire in Post-War Japan

At the 2019 American Academy of Religion conference in San Diego, California, Brett Esaki sat down with Jolyon Thomas to discuss Thomas’ new book Faking Liberties and the complex intersection of religious freedom, empire, and racialization in the post-war relationship between Japan and the United States. The processes or projects of secularization, says Thomas, were instrument of American empire. By looking at the ways discourses about religious freedom regulated race, gender, and ritual practices in occupation-era Japan, we can see the double-standard of what America has advocated for abroad versus practiced at home. Thomas calls for deeper scholarly engagement with the category of “freedom” and how freedom of religious expression has been racially coded as white in the United States. It is a cautionary tale with important pedagogical and institutional lessons. If we find that discussing “diversity looks like activism,” he suggests, then “we have a huge problem” that reveals why diversity in the academy is essential for discussing secularism, religious freedom, and religion today.

Download this episode and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast on iTunes, Spotify, or YouTube. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us and consider becoming a member of our Patreon community with access to extra conversations and shorter classroom versions of our episodes. Or use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying books, groceries, or gifts.


Race, Religious Freedom and Empire in Post- War Japan

Podcast with Jolyon Thomas (11 May 2020).

Interviewed by Brett Esaki.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/race-religious-freedom-and-empire-in-post-war-japan/

Brett Esaki (BE): Welcome to sunny San Diego. I’m Brett Esaki, and I’m really excited to talk about your book today. So the book, Faking Liberties, Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan. It’s about a lot of things, but primarily in the area . . . about Japan before, during and after the American Occupation. But it’s also, interestingly, a reflection upon the United States and its projects abroad. So, can you briefly introduce the book’s thesis, and list a few of the items of comparison across the countries?

Jolyon Thomas (JT): Well, thank you for taking the time to do the interview. I’m Jolyon Thomas and I’m really pleased to be here. So the book’s main thesis is that there’s a story that’s been told that the United States brought religious freedom to Japan at the end of the Second World War. And, as I was looking at this history, I was really struck by the fact that it just seemed to not be true. Now it turns out that the United States did bring religious freedom to Japan, only it had brought religious freedom to Japan much earlier, in the 1850s, as part of a sort-of diplomatic package. And indeed, the concept of religion comes to Japan in that time. But the sort-of triumphalist Occupation era narrative about the United States bringing religious freedom to Japan is a really problematic story, because it sets up the Americans as being sort-of the holders of freedom and the Japanese as being these benighted people that need to be saved, or rescued, by the Americans. So I was really inspired by literature on secularism, and secularity studies, in thinking through the ways that religious freedom is a really good topic for thinking about what secularism is. But I was also trying to make an intervention in the history of Japan and the United States, thinking perhaps a little more critically about American empire. And then thinking perhaps a little bit more – what’s the way to put this? – in a sort-of radical credulity about one of these claims that Japanese people in the Pre-War and War-time period made, that Shinto was not a religion. And so one of the things I wanted to do was take that claim at face value and think, “Well, what would the history look like if that turned out to be true?”

BE: Right. And that kind-of explains one of the shifts you make from going from essentialist and functionalist definitions of freedom of religion to more of a project or claims-making. Can you walk us through that transition?

JT: Yes. So one of the things that really struck me in thinking about the Occupation era narrative about “Japanese people don’t have religious freedom”, is that it basically makes an essentialist claim, saying “Japanese people, as such, in their being, don’t get it.” And, you know, I think that many of us in the academy, in 2019, we’re well aware that we should avoid essentialising claims. But there are still a lot of them that sort-of lurk out there. They’re sort-of shambling around in our midst, right? So the first sort-of correction for that is the suspicious move to do the functionalist claim, like: “What’s really happening behind the scenes?” And I think that, for most of time that I’ve been professionally studying religions in Japan, I’ve seen more of the functionalist move where it’s like: “Well, Shinto is essentially a religion of Japanese people. And State Shinto is functionally the political co-option this benign ancient religion”, or whatever. It turns out that the scholarship has shown that both of those claims are just not accurate. And that one of things that I really push, in a more constructivist bent, is to look at who speaks about Shinto and about religious freedom, and how do they engage in projects of religion making? And so, you know, in this critical secularisms and secularities literature there’s a sort-of focus on the constructed nature of both . . . the co-constructed nature, I should say, of both religion and secularism. And so, as I was thinking through those issues, it was very obvious that 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”. And so I find that to be endlessly fascinating, and fun to think through and with.

BE: So, to try and summarise that, there are these two projects of secularisation, or kind-of defining what religion and what non-religion is, both within pre-War Japan and also in the United States in its later Occupation. So it’s a nice line of comparison, having those two (5:00). So, one thing I’d like to turn to, is one of these provocative claims that you’ve made – and I think it’s actually – as the argument goes in your book – a quite tempered claim, for my view, that religious freedom and human rights have been used functionally as tools of empire – and that’s the term you use. Can you explain what you mean by that term, tool of empire? And maybe provide an example?

JT: Sure. So I think I’m not alone in making this sort of claim. And just to give a shout out to other scholars working in the field of Critical Religious Freedom Studies: Tisa Wenger‘s book Religious Freedom – I forget the subtitle . . . something about an American ideal – is . . . . She uses this idea about religious freedom. As white settlers move west then they take religious freedom with them, and it helps them occupy territory, and so forth. Writing in a more contemporary period, Elizabeth Shackman Hurd has talked about the global promotion of religious freedom, or what she calls international religious freedom. And, you know, this is something that the Trump administration takes very seriously. So did the Obama administration before it, and so forth. And the reason that this is a sort-of tool of empire is that it’s a way for Americans to do assert a certain type of moral superiority, and to . . . . Even if not dominating politically another territory and population, the language of religious freedom allows Americans to sort-of assert a certain degree of political hegemony. So in the book there are two main examples of this, I would say. Chapter Three looks at territorial Hawai’i, which is, at the time, you know, an American territory, not a state. I’m looking at Hawai’i in the 1910s and twenties, mostly. And there, under the plantation economy, religious freedom and the notion of white Christian supremacy work hand in hand. So, to make a long story very short, Japanese American Buddhists make an attempt to use the language of religious freedom, and they fail utterly. And this is partly . . . and the reason they fail is that there’s a very carefully constructed political economy of the Islands. And if Japanese people are allowed to use religious freedom, then that really calls into question the white supremacy that dominates that. And the other place is, of course, the Occupation itself. Japan is an autonomous state. It has its own sovereignty at this stage. I would say that it’s fair to describe Japan as a client state. It’s utterly dependent on the US military presence in a very conflicted way. And Japan is America’s . . . the forward base for the United States in East Asia that reflects the geopolitics of the Cold War. There’s a lot of emphasis on using Japan as a sort-of place to maintain freedom of navigation in the Pacific and so forth. All of that is to say, religious freedom was central to the Occupation project. It was one of the main rationales for why the United States needed to be in Japan in the first place. These people, we fought a war with them, they fought the war because of their religion: “Their religion was bad, we’re going to fix it. And, having fixed it, then we’re going to incorporate them under the sort-of military umbrella of the United States.” So, you know, we could parse the term empire all day. But I’m totally comfortable with thinking of America as an empire and that’s quite accurate in many respects.

BE: And we could also use the adjective empirical, like . . . things related to those goals. Can we also categorise other similar freedoms, spread abroad, with the same kind of analysis of projects?

JT: Yes, I think so. You know, other people have talked about this sort of thing. One of the things that immediately comes to mind when you ask this question is, sort-of gender and women’s rights. I think we see a lot of Americans really worked up about genital cutting and in a very complicated way. And there are a number of scholars who have worked on sort-of calling that into question. But sort-of saying like “Women need to be protected either from themselves or from the terrible men who are doing stuff”. And, of course, Saba Mahmood has talked about this sort of thing with veiling, and there are others like Rick Shweder at the University of Chicago, who have written articles on genital cutting and so forth, where there are double standards that are applied (10:00). So one of the things that I think is really interesting thinking about the US project of spreading freedoms abroad, is that we often operate under double standards, where what we do at home is a little bit different from what we project overseas. And I think that we really need to sort-of slow down, and pay attention to that dynamic. It’s insidious in its worst instantiations.

BE: From maybe my interests, and my lines of questioning, maybe you have like a presumption, maybe, of a kind-of underlying interest that I have. And that’s really your experiences of racialisation and how that informs your scholarly perspective. Now, I’m not imposing this on your book. But, in fact, it’s explicitly stated in the epilogue, you’re a multi-racial African American, if that’s the right term you’d like to use to identify yourself. And without giving away the book’s awesome finale – stated in musical form – really cool! – can you just touch upon, maybe, how your study of Asian religions, in particular, has been affected by your own experiences of racialisation.

JT: Yes. Thank you so much for asking that question. So one of the things that struck me as I was getting into the archival materials for this book, was how frequently the occupiers described themselves as white. And how they also positioned themselves as . . . they thought of America as white. And the American armed forces were still segregated at this time. America’s self-understanding was figured around whiteness. And as a non-white person, that really was jarring. But it also was one of the things that I . . . . You know, it’s part of this longer autobiography, I guess, that I share in a brief form in the epilogue, which is that if you’re a non-white person in the United States then it’s very obvious – I shouldn’t speak for all of us, but I’ll just speak for myself. It was really obvious to me growing up that when American’s talk about freedom that freedom is not extended to all of us equally. And so I saw a lot of work in the critical religious freedom literature, tearing apart the word religion. And very important to do. I saw less on freedom. And I thought that freedom was something that really needed to be addressed more directly. And to think about how there are both emancipatory and coercive qualities to freedom. And that different people, and different groups, get freedom in different ways. One of the things that . . . . So the Epilogue, as you’ve seen, is written in a very personal tone. I had a lot of trepidations putting it out there in the world. So far, when I’ve heard from people, they’ve generally . . . the response has been positive from people who have already read the book. But one thing that I notice is that a number of people said that it was . . . that my project was an activist project. And so, in the Introduction, I say very explicitly it’s not an activist project for all of these reasons. But one of the things that people are taking away, having read the Epilogue, was that this made the book an activist project. And I’ve been thinking about that recently. And this goes to your question about racialisation. Because I think that that reading is actually a racialised reading of the book. So, in other words, if I were like a white American and I close the book by being like, “Oh I went on the JET programme and I had this lovely experience in this small town in rural Japan.” Nobody would read that as activist. They would be like “Oh, that’s just a book.” Right? But because I’m talking about my experience as a racialised minority in the United States, and because it’s built into the apparatus of the book, suddenly the book becomes activist. And I think we really have to think about, you know, what sort of burden that places on racialised scholars of religion, and what we can do about that. Because – sorry, this is turning into a long rant! But one of the things that I think is that . . . . The Epilogue was designed to show, rather than tell. But it was showing the value of diversity in the academy. And if diversity looks like activism then we have a huge problem. So I think that one of the things that I really . . . like, my hope for people reading the Epilogue is that “Oh, this represents why diverse voices are valuable in the academy; this represents why we need to foster diversity in the lower ranks of the academy”, and so forth.

BE: Right. So there’s so much in there to unpack. I would like to actually walk back to more of your archival discussion.

JT: Sure.

BE: So let’s take us back into that time (15:00). You look at his archive, and then, over and over, you’re reading, with the name America, some reference – either explicitly or implicitly – to concepts of whiteness. What goes through your mind as you’re going through this archive? And again, I’m trying to help you out here, with the . . . and I do that myself, your experiences shape your lens. They don’t make your project activism. So I trying to help you articulate that process.

JT: Yes great, OK. So let me just talk about the archive in general. It’s actually multiple archives in the United States in Japan. So I’m looking at American military government records at the National Archives and Records Administration. That’s in College Park, Maryland. And also there is this fabulous collection at the University of Maryland called the Prange Collection. During the years of the Occupation, every document that was published in Japanese was censored. So, you know, there’s this irony in the Occupation to promote freedom of expression, that the occupiers censor everything! (Laughter). To promote religious freedom, they quash some religious groups, and so forth. I talk about this in great detail in the book. So the Prange Collection has all these censored documents. And then I was looking at archives in Southern California, in Oregon, for people who had been influential in Occupation policy, or active in the Occupation, as well as archives in Japan. So Government records, a lot of magazines and so forth. One of the things that I noticed, as I was going through the American military government records, was that they told a very sort-of hasty story of the Japanese past, the recent Japanese past. And their story was designed to make Japan look like it was an inferior, sort-of uncivilised place. So with the concept . . . . I want to stress the concept of civilisation here, for a second, like really spell that out. Because civilisation was the dominant frame for understanding the world in the first half of the twentieth century and the late nineteenth century. And so civilisation was basically equated with whiteness. And so any time the Americans are talking about civilisation, they’re often – if not explicitly, at least implicitly – sort-of tying this to “these people who are insufficiently white”. And, of course, those people who know the history will know that Japan has had this ambiguous status geopolitically, because Japan was an empire in its own right. Japan staved off being colonised by colonising the other countries of Asia. And that’s a very complicated history that I won’t go into in too much detail. But where does that leave the scholar? Well I felt like I had a responsibility, then, to unpack the stories the Japanese people were telling about themselves. How did they think of themselves? How did they mobilise the language of civilisation in a different way? And so, you know, at first I thought I was just writing a book about the years of the Occupation. But it turned out that I needed to write a whole half of the book that was about whatever was happening before the Occupation, to really let Japanese people speak in their own voices. And, strikingly, one of the things that happened was that a lot of them were saying a lot of things about religious freedom. And they’re laughing at the United States through a lot of it. A lot of them were just like, “Look at those crazy Americans! They are way too lapse with their laws about religious freedom! We’re going to use religious freedom, but we’re going do it our own way.” And I think that that’s a very important kind of story. And, of course, just amplifying the Japanese voices, and all of their complicated conflicted ways, is part of the project of the book.

BE: So, one thing you’re pointing to is that quick summarisation of what Japan used to be. So what are we doing now, as an American project? What was Japan before this? And one of the interesting things you point to is how they drew upon Religious Studies scholars to make this claim about what Japan used to be like. And so this actually discusses it . . . . It’s a major discussion you have about the politics of Religious Studies scholarship. And so here we have an example where . . . I don’t know if those scholars really thought of themselves as world-influencing in terms of their work. However, they ended up being it. And so one major portion of the book is called “The Occupation of Religious Studies” And obviously you have a double entendre there with the job, as well as the American Occupation. And there are some really interesting points made through this probably secondarily archival work, right? But there’s these terms of a spiritual vacuum, and also what happens after the American Occupation, the flourishing of new religions (20:00). And so this new term, “new religions and new religious movements”, and other terms that come out of there, actually come out of this definition of what Japan was like before and then what it was like after. So reflecting on these discussions and maybe – well, you can maybe parse out some of that for the Listeners. But also, maybe, words of advice about us as scholars of religion and what our potential political impact could be, based on our ways of framing religions.

JT: Great. Thanks so much for that question. OK. So I’m going to answer it by looping back to an earlier part of our conversation with the activism stuff. So the reason I said that it was deliberately not an activist project was precisely because so much stuff that I was seeing in the archive was scholars of religion adopting a prescriptive tone, saying “This is good religion, and that’s bad religion.”

BE: Right.

JT: “This is superstition. That’s real religion.” And that sort of thing. I think the category of State Shinto, which I alluded to before, it had that whole story built into it. Two-words, whole story, right? And so I wanted to be very deliberate. Of course, there’s always going to be some sort of prescription that we’re doing. But I think in general, for me, I think the first order level of prescription is about scholarly method. And if there’s an intervention I’m making in the book, it’s: how do we periodise, how do we tell our stories? Whose voices are we paying attention to? And that sort of thing. Those are the kinds of things that I think I’m very explicit about in the book. On reflection, I think I could have been even more deliberate, or taken a little bit more time to – in this case – rather than show, actually tell people what I was doing, in terms of playing with chronological presentation. The book is organised chronologically, but it’s also not organised chronologically. And that was my way of sort-of doing the historical method, but also kind-of screwing with it at the same time! But in terms of the sort-of nitty-gritty of what was happening in the Occupation – before, during and immediately after the Occupation – we have scholars of religion who are really minor until they become major, because of a sudden policy need. So the person I have in mind is Daniel Clarence Holtom, who’s a Baptist Missionary, who’s a scholar of Shinto and nobody was reading his stuff really, right? He’s completely under-appreciated. I think a small number of people are looking at him. But after Pearl Harbour the sort-of dominant narrative at the time was that Japanese people were ultra-nationalist because of Buddhism, not Shinto. And then somebody in the state department or in the Office of Strategic Services finds Holtom’s work and they’re like: “Oh my God! This guy is this expert who’s been telling us all of this stuff about why Japanese people are the way they are!” And so, suddenly, Holtom’s work has this whole new life, where it’s explaining Japanese ultra-nationalism. So this guy comes to . . . and then he ends up having like an outsize role after being on the margins of the scholarly community. So his ideas about Shinto as the national faith of Japan, and so forth, come to inform a lot of policy. This is particularly the case in the fall of 1945, when the occupiers have a sudden policy change that’s dictated by Washington. And the people in Washington suddenly announce on American public radio that Shinto, as a state religion, is going to be abolished. For the occupiers, stationed in Japan, this was the first they were hearing of it, and then they suddenly had to come up with a policy to support this objective. They had to come up with a reason to support this objective, while also protecting and promoting religious freedom. Which is an impossible task! So the only way to make that work is to designate Japan’s – quote-unquote – “national religion” as not being religion. Or as being sort-of insufficiently distinguishing between the religious and the political. How do you do that? You go to scholarly experts. So they relied on Holtom’s work, and they also relied on local Japanese scholars of religion, particularly this guy Kishimoto Hideo, and were asking them to basically support this for ordained objective and sure enough by 15 December of that year, of 1945, you get this document called the Shinto Directive, which formally abolishes this thing that they have now come to call State Shinto. And one thing I just want to put here – a sort-of asterisk to all of this – is that the language of – quote-unquote – “State Shinto” doesn’t solidify until December 1945. It is not something that is widely used, in Japanese or in English, up until that point. And that’s really crucial (25:00).

BE: And, in the book, you do a really good job of pointing out the kind-of lineage of the debates within Japan about the relationship of religion to the state. And so, it’s very clear from that there is no solidification of the State Shinto idea. So I think what this is actually . . . it’s bringing it back to, maybe, one of the earlier points about racialisation. So instead of it being an activist work, it’s really –and you can rephrase this how you want – your experiences shape your lens. That lens would be obvious . . . that lens is obvious to anyone who’s had similar experience of racialisation. On the other hand, maybe another scholar would take some of these assumptions about State Shinto for granted. Can you maybe loop those together? Like, how your own experience of racialisation allows you to break free of that presumption that the previous Religious Studies scholarship was fully accurate.

JT: Yes. Thank you so much for that question. OK, so I’m going to sort-of build on what we were just talking about with State Shinto, and tie it to this other concept that may be lurking in some Listeners’ minds, which is civil religion. OK, so Robert Bellah starts off, as I understand it, Talcott Parsons tells Robert Bellah, “You’re going do Japan” And he writes this book, Tokugawa Religion. And then he ends up shifting focus, and he ends up the being one of the major sociologists of American religion and so forth, and we’re all very indebted to him. One of the things that . . . one of his most influential essays is about Americas’ civil religion. And I think one of the things that a lot of people forget – maybe a lot of our Americanist colleagues forget – is that Bellah’s experience studying Japan directly affects his civil religion essay. And there’s even a footnote in that essay where he’s like: “I’m not talking about an American Shinto” – which I think says exactly what he’s doing. Right? There’s a sort-of proleptic quality to that that I think is really, really telling. So there are maybe one or two pages in Chapter One, where I’m talking about how Bellah, writing in his time – 1967, I think it is – he’s capable of telling a story about America’s civil religion that picks a set number of saints and heroes and monuments and so forth, and he’s talking about things like national sacrifice. But look at who he’s including and not including. There is no mention of blackness. There is no . . . like, black people are not present in this stories.

BE: Let’s repeat the date.

JT: 1967. Yes! Exactly! And so it’s just utterly striking. And so I’ve had a number of colleagues say, “Well, actually, shouldn’t civil religion be helpful in talking through your critique of State Shinto?” and I want to say, “No!” I want to flip the table over and say. “No. This is not helpful. Because Bellah was both using a racialised notion of Japan to tacitly to build his argument about American civil religion. He was rejecting what was going on in Japan to say, “Well, what we do is actually really good. And it’s the healthy stuff that bonds us all together.” That’s exactly what Japanese people were saying about . . . what they did not call State Shinto, but they called like the Imperial Way or shrine rites, or whatever. They had lots of different names for this stuff. And, you know, one of the things that Bellah’s . . . I mention this explicitly in my discussion of Bellah’s piece. But there’s no reference to Martin Luther King. There’s certainly no reference to Malcolm X, I mean can you imagine?! Right? But these are people who were speaking in prophetic voices. They were talking about the problems of the American project. There’s . . . and so, I think, to answer your question directly, I see that because of the way that I am, and because of the circumstances of my embodiment. I’m sure that . . . and I would not say that a white person would not see that. I want to be very clear here. But I think that because of growing up with this sort of ambiguous racial identity, as a multi-racial person, it’s always been sort-of in my face. I’ve never been able to not think about race. And so it took me a long time to figure out why I was so dissatisfied with the civil religion explanation. And it actually wasn’t until very late in the book that I finally came up with an answer for it. But it has to do with this issue: the circumstances of who I am, the nature of where I was born, how I grew up and all that stuff affects how I approach the archive, and so forth (30:00).

BE: Thank you so much. One more thing. And this is just like a nuts-and-bolts thing. So, we’ve discussed all the origins of the creation of the term State Shinto. Yet still . . . and I have to admit it, for myself, when I ‘m doing an Introduction to World Religions, there it is: the term State Shinto’s there. And you discuss it. Is there a nuts-and-bolts better way to describe what was happening in pre-Occupation Japan?

JT: Yes. I think we just need to talk about Japanese secularism. I describe it as a secularism. I describe what I call the Meiji constitutional regime as a secularist system. It’s premised on the distinction between “religion” and “not religion”. And I mean that in two ways. There’s like the forbidden not religion, which is things that end up being called superstitions, and so forth. And then there are the permitted or even encouraged not religion, which is the compulsory shrine rites, where you’d get a bunch of school kids to go to the shrine and pay their respects, or, like, bow to a picture of the Emperor. That’s secularism. That’s what’s happening in America too, at exactly the same time. There’s a sort-of a sense. . . . This is what Bellah would call America’s civil religion. But I think it’s actually much more complicated than that. I don’t want to reduce things to religion. I want to maintain the complexity of the language games that people play, in terms of parsing things as being religion or not religion, right? And I think that collapsing everything into the category of religion actually misses part of the point. So it is not my job to police what other people say. I know that I will be shouting into the wind, and there are going to be people who insist on using the term State Shinto. But I really think that, historically, it’s just inaccurate. And so if you’re in the classroom, you’re teaching your world religions class or whatever, what do you do? Well, use Japan as an opportunity to talk through the issues of secularism more broadly. Say, “We used to tell the story this way. Our text books or readings use this term. But you know, this is actually reflective of a different sort of politics of good and bad religion. Let’s talk about that. Let’s tie it to contemporary things. Like, when people are saying ‘Islamism’, what are they doing?” I argue in the book that Islamism is basically like the State Shinto of our day. It’s taking something and describing it as being illegitimate, just by adding that “ism” to the end. And I think there are a lot of other example that we could use. That’s the one that immediately comes to mind. So, you know, in one of your earlier questions you asked about the sort-of impact of scholars of religion. And one of the things that I do in the last chapter of the book is to show how these things – categories like State Shinto, for example – they have echoes. And they continue to influence the academy, our classrooms, policy-making and so forth. And so, if we can attend to the moments when those categories are developed historically, if we can pay attention to the politics of that moment, then we can also pay attention to how those echoes are working in our contemporary moment. It’s not to be presentist. It’s just to say that there are problems in the State Shinto concept, so let’s deal with those.

BE: Well, thank you so much. You’ve given us a lot to think about: religious freedom, secularism, secularisation, the concepts we use, the politics that we – either implicitly or explicitly – work through as Religious Studies scholars. So, thank you so much for your time today, and your excellent work: Taking Liberties: Religious Freedom in American Occupied Japan.

JT: Thanks so much. I really enjoyed your questions and the conversation. I really appreciate it.

 

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Religious change in Japanese Shinto

Though Shinto is widely known as the indigenous religion of Japan, it is rarely discussed in detail and has attracted little attention from scholars. In this week’s podcast, Hans Van Eyghen sits down with Professor Michael Pye to discuss the  various historical, political, and social factors that have impacted Japanese Shinto.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Religious Change in Japanese Shinto

Podcast with Michael Pye (19 March 2018).

Interviewed by Hans Van Eyghen.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Pye_-_Religious_Change_in_Japanese_Shinto_1.1

 

Hans Van Eyghen (HVE): I’m with Professor Michael Pye, at the University of Marburg, to discuss Shintoism. Welcome, Professor Michael Pye.

MP: Thank you.

HVE: My first question: Shinto is often called the native religion of Japan. Could you tell us a little about that definition, and what might be wrong with it?

MP: Yes. Well it is a native religion of Japan. That’s not problematic in itself, I think. But the problem is that during the long history of Japan, what we now call Shinto was constantly created and recreated. So, what people nowadays regard as Shinto isn’t necessary what was Shinto a few hundred years ago, or a thousand years ago etc. That’s the problem.

HVE: What would be some of the main differences between the current Shintoism and, say, ancient Shintoism?

MP: Well, the main point is that in the 19th century Shinto became ideologised and used by the state in support of nationalism. And so, therefore, new agendas appeared which were of a modern kind. And prior to that, there was a long period when Shinto was very closely identified with Buddhism and it was difficult to separate them out. They formed part of a wide religious complex. And then, if we look back even earlier, we have difficulty in being sure that Shinto was very much like what modern Shinto is like. Nevertheless, there are ancient traditions of the worship of kami, and rituals connected with kami – that’s the divinities in Shinto – and so there are important continuities. But, as I said, because of the long history there have been many shifts and developments.

HVE: Some mainly Japanese scholars, I’ve been told, try to argue that there’s a form of pure Shintoism, which goes all the way back to ancient times, which got corrupted during the middle ages. Could you tell us a little bit about their claim and what may be wrong with it?

MP: Well, I think what’s wrong with it is that they’re trying to posit a unique pure Shinto, which can’t really be historically maintained.

HVE: Why is that?

MP: Well, they want to do that because they want it to be the national religion of the whole of the Japanese people. Not all Japanese people agree with that, and want that. But they would like it to be that. So, therefore, they’re laying claim to the origins of the Japanese people and the origins of the imperial line of emperors, in an attempt to have a kind of coherent, civic religion. Which just doesn’t fit with what we know about the ancient periods.

HVE: And how doesn’t it fit?

MP: Well it doesn’t fit because although some kami rites – Shinto rites – were organised by the ancient courts – the Yamato court- we don’t actually know very much about what happened in the regions of Japan, what kinds of religious practices there were. And these were not really coordinated into something which we can call Shinto.

HVE: And the whole influence of Buddhism, like, the claim of the Japanese scholars suggest that there was a process when they tried to do away with Buddhist influences. Was that actually the case?

MP: Yes, in the 19th century, they definitely tried to separate Buddhism and Shinto. It’s called shinbutsu bunri: separating – the Shin of Shinto means kami and the butsu are the Buddhas of Buddhism. So they effectively took away Buddhist images and Buddhist practices away from the shrines, and tried to create and promote the pure Shinto as they thought of it.

HVE: And who did this? The Government, I assume.

MP: The Government led it and the Government wished it and decreed it. But it was carried out, of course, by shrine authorities.

HVE: And how did people respond? Like, often people are very resistant to religious change. They try to keep doing the things that they always did. Was there something like that going on, or did they just follow the dictates?

MP: Well, there wasn’t very much resistance because it wasn’t very easy to resist it, actually. And to some extent, after the Second World War, there has been a move to return to a closer symbiosis of Shinto and Buddhism. But at the time it wasn’t really possible to resist it. So part of that movement, also, was to install the divinities – which are mentioned in the ancient texts in shrines all over Japan – where previously there had been more mysterious divinities of, maybe, an ambiguous nature. So they tried to clean up the kind-of character of Shinto, in many ways. Not only by removing Buddhist influence but also by organising the pantheon, the Shinto pantheon in a structured way.

HVE: Well, the whole symbiosis with Buddhism: I imagine Buddhism has a very specific goal in mind what Buddhas, and Bodhisattvas are doing for people – what role they play. So could you tell us a little about that, how that changed Shintoism?

MP: Well I think you may be thinking of the situation in which Buddhist leaders – Buddhist monks and thinkers – tried to assimilate Shinto divinities and mobilise them, for the purposes of leading people into Buddhism. Is that what you’re thinking about?

HVE: Indeed. Or leading them into salvation.

MP: Yes, leading them into salvation or enlightenment, rather. Leading them into the path of Buddhahood – butsodo is the path of Buddhahood. So I think Mahayana Buddhism is quite well-known for its tolerant integrative attitude towards the great variety of religious practices. So it’s not so much tolerance in a kind of modern, Western, liberal sense, but more in the sense of making room for things to be carried out: popular practices, daily practices in which people have the possibility of satisfying their daily needs, their practical needs for security, safety, for good harvests, for benefits of various kinds in this world. And so Mahayana Buddhism – most Japanese forms of Buddhism are within the Mahayana tradition – seeks to make room for all of these things, in order to lead people towards Buddhist ideas. So it has . . . the leading monks have a very reflective attitude about that. They understand those processes.

HVE: It sounds rather like Buddhism is incorporating Shintoism, rather than there is symbiosis where the two are mutual partners.

MP: Well no, they weren’t. In the heyday of the medieval period they were not really mutual partners, that’s true. Buddhism, especially esoteric Buddhism, was the dominant partner. So that’s why, when you have the more decisive response by Shinto-oriented thinkers – and especially when it came to be backed up by the Government – the attempt was made to take the initiative over against Buddhism.

HVE: I want to get back to post-war Shintoism.

MP: OK

HVE: You said we can see a symbiosis with Buddhism, or mutual influences. I imagine some Shinto thinkers are unhappy with that. Are there people who try to do away with that, or try to respond to that?

MP: Well, I don’t think so. I mean this is not a massive movement, but we’ve recently seen some signs. For example, the head temple of Tendai Buddhism on Mount Hiei, has been making overtures to the priest in charge of the Ise shrine, which is closely linked with imperial family where the sun goddess is enshrined, Amaterasu Omikami. So these overtures are a kind-of friendly approach which is quite supportive of Shinto institutions and Tendai Buddhist institutions. And not all Buddhists are interested in that. But there isn’t really any complaint. There isn’t really any resistance to that, on the part of Shinto leaders, because they’re happy to be recognised and to find wider recognition in Japanese society.

HVE: Ok. And I want to touch on another point now, again on post-war Shintoism. There is the experience of the war, of course. This must have been traumatic. How did that influence Shintoism? Of course, the Emperor renouncing his powers, more-or-less: what was the impact of the war and especially the after-war period in Shintoism?

MP: Well, it’ a big subject, but – by the way, we usually speak of Shinto rather than Shintoism.

HVE: I’m sorry.

MP: That’s ok. Shintoism is widely used, I know, but it rather suggests an ideology, rather than a religion. So I prefer to speak of Shinto, usually. Well, the first main point is that the official forms of Shinto were disestablished: separated from the state. That was a very necessary move after the end of the war. And so there is a problem about the ways in which contemporary Shinto can be part of public life. There are various problems with that, for example we have the problem about Yasukuni shrine, which is where the Japanese war dead are enshrined. And whether the Prime Minister of Japan can go to visit that shrine, as Prime Minister. And of course in recent years they have been doing that. So other people have objected to that.

HVE: Because they’re war criminals?

MP: Well that’s one reason, yes. Because a small number of convicted War criminals are enshrined there. But the main problem is the question of the separation of religion and state, you see. People don’t really want to have a blurring of that distinction, which is an important guarantee for the secular democracy which we now have in Japan. So that’s one of the problems. A similar problem arose with the enthronement of the present Emperor, because again the Emperor is descended from previous emperors of course, and the enthronement is partly based on religious traditions connected with Amaterasu, the sun goddess. And so, how can you have the enthronement of the emperor in a non-religious way? That was the problem. So in fact they did it quite well, because they had two separate lots of activity. One was the public secular ascension to the throne and the declaration of the emperor himself. And the other part was a series of rituals in the imperial household, in the gardens, in the grounds of the imperial palace. So those two things were separated. And I thought that was quite successful. But some of the other things are not so successful. And at the Yasukuni Shrine there is a blurring of the distinctions, and in some other cases too.

HVE: So what’s the main motivation for separating Shinto and public life of public officials? Is it just that – separation of church and state, as we have here? Or are they afraid that what happened in the past will repeat itself?

MP: Well, it was actually forced upon the Japanese government immediately after the war, by the American occupation.

HVE: Could you elaborate on that?

MP: There was a directive given that this should all be separated out. And so that was combined with a freedom of religions law, which made it possible for other religions in Japan to organise very well, including a good number of new religions, some of which had been oppressed in the meantime, and some of which were newly founded after the war. So religious freedom is an aspect of it. So if you’re going to have religious freedom you can’t, at the same time, have a state religion which is completely dominant and not permitting space for other religions to organise. And this is a classic problem all over the world.

HVE: There’s no idea that the past connection of Shinto with the imperial family led to atrocious things? That’s nothing to do with it?

MP: Well there is among the Japanese population. But, within the world of Shinto Shrines, this is not something which is talked about very much. But in some other important religious denominations, such as Shin Buddhism, and also in Soto Zen Buddhism, there is a very clear understanding that Shinto led – organised, modern, politicised Shinto – contributed to leading Japan into war and disaster. So – remember the population of Japan is very large, well over 100 million. I don’t know what it is today, but 120 million, or something. So there is quite a lot of room for people to have different views.

HVE: And connected to that, nowadays some claim we see some resurgence of Japanese nationalism. Is there some implications for current Shinto, or it isn’t an issue?

MP: Well, there’s a constant resurgence of Japanese nationalism, in my opinion.

HVE: Is there?

MP: Yes. Ever since the Second World War we have had mainly right-of-centre governments in Japan. And, usually, some members of the governments have been saying things which are quite right-wing, and even militaristic. But, of course, the constitution doesn’t permit Japan to have an army in the same sense as some other countries, although they have very large self-defence forces. So, anyway, public figures sometimes say quite disturbing things about the past of Japan, and how it “wasn’t so bad”, and this, that and the other, you see. So whereas, on the other hand there are those who resist this – there are quite a lot of people who want to defend Clause Nine of the Constitution, which forbids having a military . . . .

HVE: People that say these things about the past: they don’t make a connection to Shinto, or they don’t identify Shinto more strongly?

MP: Well the ones who criticise it identify Shinto with that, and they identify the emperor system with that. But within the Shinto world there is not very much concern about that. They rather tend to be on the right wing, or tolerating right-wing attitudes.

HVE: OK

MP: Speaking very generally, that’s the way. But of course the Shinto world is quite large. There are many shrines, there are many priests who have been educated in various universities. And I think it’s of interest to speak, above all, with moderate Shinto figures and to encourage them, and to encourage moderate Shinto thinkers or leaders to keep a steady view, and not to rush off into some right-wing movements or something like that.

HVE: You talk about moderate Shinto – does that imply that there is a not-moderate Shinto, as well?

MP: Oh yes. Well, some of the leaders of Shinto shrines are not actually very reflective about politics. So, they obviously have uncritical views about Japan’s past. And there is always a danger that they will encourage nationalism, especially if they’re talking about Shinto as the religion of the ethnic group. So this tends to focus on the particular ethnic group. And that’s the seed-bed of nationalism. But some of the Shinto leaders are more widely educated and it’s easier to talk with them and help them to have a balanced view of their own history.

HVE: But, in your view, the non-moderates aren’t gaining ground or aren’t gaining influence?

MP: I don’t think so. Things are fairly stable. As far as I know.

HVE: And is there a connection between these less or non-moderate people and those who advocate, like, the view of a pure Shinto in ancient times?

MP: Yes, they are more likely to be saying that, yes. I’ve advanced the notion that Shinto – this is my personal way of looking at it – that “Shinto”, in inverted commas, is an adapted religion. It’s an adapted primal religion. In other words, it does have indigenous roots.

HVE: In Japan?

MP: Yes, indigenous in Japan. It’s not an imported religion. It has indigenous roots in Japan. So that’s what I call a primal religion. Some people just call it an indigenous religion. And this has been adapted, due to the changing political and social circumstances, up until the present day – when it’s quite complicated. And the moderate Shinto leaders are quite happy with that understanding. And they are less likely to be asserting some kind of simplified essential Shinto as having been there from time immemorial. So they’re quite happy to perceive the historical vicissitudes and changes, and they know perfectly well that the way in which Shinto is used politically, in the 19th and early 20th century is not really a possible way for Japan in the future. So they’re providing a more balanced service to the religious needs of Japanese people, without having a heavily politicised attitude.

HVE: Apart from the shrines and the priests – the common practitioners: is that something that’s on their minds . . . whether there’s a pure Shinto?

MP: No, I don’t think so. They just go to the shrine to get their fortunes told, and to pray for benefits, and for a quiet life, and prosperity, and so on. People are not really thinking about this, no. I don’t think so.

HVE: And do they show certain more symbiosis with Buddhism, as you see here in the West: Christians who meditate, Christians who attend other services, even? Do you see that in Japan as well, with Shinto practitioners who are engaged with Buddhist practices, or other practices?

MP: Well, some Buddhist denominations are quite tolerant of Shinto practices, but others are more strict and they don’t really want their believers, their followers, to take part in the practices of Shinto shrines. But as far as the Shinto shrine leaders are concerned, they don’t really mind if people go to Buddhist temples or not. They just like them to come to the shrine first. For example, at New Year: “Please come the shrine first and then you can go off somewhere else to celebrate New Year in a different way.” That’s quite common.

HVE: There’s no friction in certain Shinto beliefs or certain Buddhist beliefs, for example?

MP: Well, there is between . . . . In general, there is not – in the minds of, maybe, the majority of people. But there is some friction in the case of what we might call the more decisive popular denominations of Buddhism. Shin Buddhism, which has about 16 million followers after all, and also Nichiren Buddhism, and some of the new Buddhist movements which have a rather strict view of their own form of Buddhism. So there is, to some extent, a rejection of Shinto. They try to encourage people not to bother with Shinto practices, not to go to Shinto shrines, but to concentrate on their own religious practice. And of course, because there is not public religious education in school, because of the separation of religion and state, people in general are not very well-informed about the variety of religions in Japan. They don’t actually know very much about the different Buddhist denominations. Or, if they’re in Buddhist contexts, they don’t know very much about Shinto shrines for example. So that’s part of it. Some ignorance. Difference through ignorance, you might say.

HVE: A final question about the study of Shinto. Like these questions about pure Shinto and the symbiosis with Buddhism, how do you see it going forward? Is there building a consensus somehow that the ancient pure Shinto isn’t a worthwhile approach?

MP: Do you mean amongst scholars, or amongst . . .

HVE: Amongst Scholars.

MP: Well I think that’s pretty well accepted amongst scholars, that there wasn’t an original pre-Shinto which we can just define and grasp. But that the origins are complex, and that the focussing on something that we can call Shinto actually took place step by step, and later than the oldest documents that we have. So I think everybody realises that. But the problem arises because when Japanese writers – maybe rather popular writers, maybe media people – when they refer to Shinto as if it were an original pure thing, which you can just get from the past. That’s the problem. It’s not among academics.

HVE: And that isn’t going away?

MP: Oh, that won’t go away. I don’t think so.

HVE: You’re not very optimistic?

MP: No, because it’s an ideological statement which people find easy to swallow. So they will keep on saying that for some time. We just have learn to live with that, and to maintain the academic clarity over against the religious standpoints. But this is  . . . . You find this in any studies of religion. You have to distinguish between the academic reflection on it and historical analysis on the one hand, and the religious positions on the other hand, which are quite often misleading or incorrect.

HVE: Ok. Thank you very much, Professor Pye. That was a very interesting interview.

MP: My pleasure. Thank you very much.

HVE: Thank you.

Citation Info: Pye, Michael and Hans Van Eyghen. 2018. “Religious Change in Japanese Shinto”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 19 March 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 14 March 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/religious-change-in-japanese-shinto/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing the RSP archive, or know of any sources of funding for the transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

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Learning to Unlearn “Religion”: Jason Ānanda Josephson on the Invention of Religion in Japan

One of the first Religious Studies courses in which I enrolled was titled “Japanese Religion.” There were several themes running through the course, but the one that stuck with me as the most important was something the professor asked during the first meeting of the class:

The course is called “Japanese Religion”; over the semester, think about that phrase – would it be better to say “Japanese Religions”? How about “religions of Japan”? Or, is “religion” the best word to use to describe the Japanese traditions we’re studying?1

The implications of the latter question are considered by Jason Ānanda Josephson, scholar of East Asian religions and religious studies theory, in this informative interview with the Religious Studies Project. Josephson and interviewer Brad Stoddard explore how the concept of “religion” was translated, discussed, and applied in 19th Century Japan.

Josephson’s book, The Invention of Religion in Japan (University of Chicago Press, 2012), forms the backbone of the conversation. Josephson explains that he has always had an interest in East Asian religion, as well as the theory of religion and religious studies, and in his doctoral research he put those pieces together. The result is a book that critiques the category of religion using the Japanese situation as a case study. Josephson relates how, in post-1853 Japan, there was a significant discussion taking place among the Japanese elite about what the European idea of “religion” meant, how it fit (or didn’t) with existing traditions in Japan, and also, how the concept of the “secular” applied to Japanese society at the time. Josephson’s primary case study involves Shinto, rather than Buddhism, although Josephson hopes to explore Buddhist traditions in Japan in a future work.

Josephson’s critique of the category “religion” as it relates to Japan is part of an on-going discussion among scholars as to the accuracy, relevance, and necessity of that concept. (Scholars such as Timothy Fitzgerald, Russell T. McCutcheon, Talal Asad, and Tomoku Masuzawa are mentioned in the interview as key figures participating in this critique.) While I would not describe myself as a theorist primarily, or consider my main interest to be theories of religion, I have come to realize that questions about the nature of “religion,” what scholars mean when they write about “religion,” and the categorization of “religious” traditions cannot be overlooked and must be grappled with prior to studying a “religious” tradition.

When I was a student in the Japanese Religion course, I had not yet been introduced in a meaningful way to the critiques of the concept of “religion.” What seemed problematic to my novice eyes was the disjunction between the different implications of the phrases “religion in Japan,” “Japanese religion,” and/or “Japanese religions.” By the end of the course, I decided that the least problematic way to think about the topic was as “religions in Japan.” This didn’t tackle the truly important piece – namely, the category of “religion” – but it did seem to be more neutral and inclusive than any of the other phrases. In my graduate work, these questions of naming and labeling recurred – my interests centered around one of the Buddhisms in Japan, not the monolithic idea of “Japanese Buddhism.” The latter implies that there is one Buddhism that can be described as Japanese. I can think of (at least) two traditions of Buddhism that flourished and took on a “Japanese” approach over time, as well as several of the New/Emergent Religious Movements which originated in Japan and claim a Buddhist lineage. Ultimately, the use of terms like “Buddhism” and “religion” in the singular seem to be neither specific nor descriptive enough to capture the richness and diversity of the actual world. Josephson’s perspective adds that necessary final dimension to anyone studying “religion” in Japan: since it is both an imported and manufactured category, can it be used reliably by scholars to discuss Japanese traditions?

In the interview, Josephson mentions in passing that the title of his work (The Invention of Religion in Japan) could have just as easily been either The Invention of Superstition in Japan or The Invention of Secularism in Japan. I find this a particularly fascinating comment, as those three words – religion, superstition, secularism – each have a distinct implication. However, as Josephson demonstrates throughout the interview, Japanese society had to come to terms with those three ideas as a package. Was Shinto a religion or superstition? What about Buddhism? Is Japan a secular nation? Is Japan a modern nation? Since one could not be both “modern” and “superstitious,” that meant that Shinto could not be a superstition if Japan wished to take its “place” among the nations of the modern world. However, Josephson also points out that while colonialism often imposed categories upon a colonized people, that was not entirely the case in Japan. Japanese scholars involved in the (literal and cultural) translation of the concepts of religion, superstition, and secularism investigated what these terms meant to Europeans and then negotiated the idea within Japanese society, demonstrating a degree of agency not often seen during interactions between Western and Asian societies in the 19th century.

Not only am I eager to read The Invention of Religion in Japan, but I am also looking forward to Josephson’s next project, discussed at the end of the interview. The project is currently titled “Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences”; Josephson describes this as a project to analyze European society, specifically those parts of Europe that did not match up to the claims of modernity made by European scholars. Josephson’s novel approach analyzes these claims of modernity – and the disjunction between scholarly claims and reality – through the lens of postcolonial theory, using the world outside of Europe to analyze Europe.

 

1 Or at least, that’s my recollection of the instructor’s remarks! I am paraphrasing, not quoting directly.

 

References

Asad, Talal. Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.

Ellwood, Robert S. Introducing Japanese Religion. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Fitzgerald, Timothy. The Ideology of Religious Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Josephson, Jason Ānanda. The Invention of Religion in Japan. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 2012.

Masuzawa, Tomoku. The Invention of World Religions: or, How European Universalism was

Preserved in the Language of Pluralism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

McCutcheon, Russell T. [See Dr. McCutcheon’s website for a list of his work]

Tanabe, George J. (ed). Religions Of Japan in Practice. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.

The Invention of Religion in Japan

Scholars interested in Asian religions have often noted that European colonialism simultaneously disrupted native societies and to various degrees created the modern social identities commonly referred to as “Buddhism,” “Confucianism,” “Taoism,” “Shinto,” etc. Inspired by Edward Said and others, these scholars recognize the change and adaptation that resulted from colonial encounters, specifically as they relate to the natives’ appropriation of the modern category of religion.

In this interview, Jason Josephson discusses these issues and more, specifically as they relate to Japan and the formation of Shinto. Josephson first describes how Shinto is typically represented in EuroAmerican religious studies courses. He then describes the various actors and processes (both European and native) that were involved in the Japanese appropriation of the modern category of religion, paying particular attention to the material and economic interests embedded in these larger processes.

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