Deconstructing ‘Religion’ in Contemporary Japan [transcript]

Deconstructing ‘Religion’ in Contemporary Japan

Podcast with Mitsutoshi Horii (4 October 2021).

Interviewed by Andie Alexander

Transcribed by Andie Alexander

Audio and transcript available at:


Categorization, Critical Theory, Deconstruction, Governance, Authenticity, Japan, Religion and Law, Buddhism

Andie Alexander (AA)  00:02

Hello, I’m Andie Alexander and joining me today is Dr. Mitsutoshi Horii, who is a professor at Shumei University in Japan, but he currently works overseas at their campus in the UK, Chaucer College, as principal. Dr. Horii’s research focuses on the foundation of modern Euro-American colonial categories such as religion and examines how these categories authorise and naturalise specific norms in a variety of post-colonial contexts. Dr. Horii is the guest editor of a forthcoming special issue of the journal Religions titled “Critical Approaches to Religion in Japan: Case Studies and Redescriptions.” And he has a second monograph that will soon be published titled ‘Religion’ and ‘Secular’ Categories in Sociology: Decolonizing the Modern Myth with Palgrave Macmillan. But today, we are here to talk about your first book, The Category of ‘Religion’ in Contemporary Japan: Shūkyō & Temple Buddhism, which was published in 2018. Dr. Horii, thank you so much for joining me here today. It’s great to have you.

Mitsutoshi Horii (MH)  01:20

Thank you very much.

AA  01:22

I wonder if you’d be able to kick off our conversation with a little information and background on the predominant discourses about religion in Japan and the ways in which your book intervenes in those conversations because it strikes me that this is a bit of a new approach to these discussions. So, what led you to developing this particular argument and this book for religious studies in Japan?

MH  01:50

I think probably the best starting point is just to tell you the background, you know, the why I ended up thinking of writing this book. I studied Temple Buddhism of Japan when I was doing PhD in England. I’d studied how Temple Buddhism exists in modern Japan or contemporary Japan. And I originally framed my analysis of Temple Buddhism in a secularisation discourse. At that time, I always assumed Temple Buddhism is a religion. Japan has been modernised last 150 years, and modernisation is always accompanied with secularisation, which is the decline of religion. So, Temple Buddhism as a religion, how is it like in so-called secularised Japan? So, that was kind of the frame I assumed.

MH  02:54

Then I did my PhD, and then eventually I framed my study, the study of de-professionalisation of Temple Buddhism. Basically, I analysed, studied how the notion of specialism eroded in contemporary Japan, for example, what is the speciality of Buddhist priests? There are lots of kinds of Buddhist scholars in Buddhist priesthood, but at the same time, there are a lot of lay people having a specialist knowledge about the Buddhist doctrine. So, and then also the main source of income for many priests is actually performing certain rituals. Again, in this area, there are a lot of lay Buddhist organisation performing their own rituals, not requiring priests.

MH  03:46

So, I eventually framed the Temple Buddhism in this profession. There is the erosion of specialisms; they cannot monopolise Buddhists’ rituals, or something special about them. There are a lot of competitors. So that was my thesis, but it is kind of packaged by secularisation thesis. Yeah. So, after my PhD, I actually—I got my PhD, so that was good! (laughs) But after my PhD, I tried to publish one article out of my thesis, and then I wrote an article, and then I submitted it. And then I think I had three reviewers on there, you know, each reviewer gave me feedback. And then one of the reviewers actually highlighted the point actually, [that] I take the notion ‘religion’ for granted. And that really kind of hit me.

AA  04:42


MH  04:45

Yeah (laughs). Because I highlighted, in my thesis for example, how the idea of religion is so difficult to define, and [it] depends on how you define religion. You can narrate the story of secularisation, but if you define religion broadly, secularisation never happened. But although I highlighted that sort of argument, I still used the word religion to categorise Buddhism in Japan. Also, the package, the idea of de-professionalisation in the sense of secularisation, as if authentic religion is diminished. Temple Buddhism, Buddhist priests are so-called religious professors, and their religious skills and knowledge has been de-professionalised. Still as I was thinking [that] Buddhism is religion. Yeah.

MH  05:42

So, I tried to, after my PhD, by reading critical religion works or literature in the field, I realised, actually, it’s better to frame my study in a different way in which we include this issue of categorisation in the analysis. So let’s move away from this notion of religion. And then let’s include that into my analysis. And then I studied Temple Buddhism as Temple Buddhism; then, I included the element, how this notion of religion giving all sorts of effects, how Temple Buddhism operates in society. Temple Buddhism is now categorised as religion. So, what is a consequence of this categorisation?

MH  05:42

Then I got into all the literature of critical religions, which I didn’t know until that time, and it was an eye-opening moment for me. And actually, probably the more interesting way of analysing Temple Buddhism is actually including this idea of religion, in my analysis, as well. So just moving away from the assumption of Buddhism as a religion, let’s just analyse Temple Buddhism as it is, and then there are a lot of things going on, the history of Buddhism, etc. But for example, Temple Buddhism exists before the notion religion. The notion of religion arrived to Japan in late 19th century, then, Buddhism became classified as religion. And in order to exist in the newly reified the realm of religion, Temple Buddhism have to change themselves to fit to the definition; when it doesn’t fit, there was conflict.

MH  07:31

In theory, for example, in the legal discourse, for example, most of the Buddhist Temple in Japan is so-called religious corporation, which is a kind of legal category, and the religious corporation has defined activities they can do. So that limits what this temple can operate—their parameter of activities. But it doesn’t necessarily fit what Buddhist Temple has been doing throughout history, and also what priests themselves want to do. So I started looking at those tensions and the negotiation with the category of religion, rather than assuming Buddhism as religion.

MH  08:09

And many temples may probably work better if they categorise themselves differently. But probably they don’t think like that, because people in general assume Buddhism as a religion. So this notion of Buddhism as religion limits what they can do. So that was my argument. Yeah. But that was now very different from how I argued in my PhD. So for me, it took about 10 years to just reframe everything in this way. Yeah. So my book is kind of a product of my post-PhD exploration.

AA  08:45

That’s really wonderful, though. And I think that’s a great story of how we do tend to have this understanding of religion that we take for granted in its application, right, to different things. And you’ve gone back and rethought your entire doctoral project, which is really amazing, and would take a lot of questioning your own ideas and developing your own thoughts and analyses in very different ways. So that’s fantastic.

MH  09:13

Yeah, I think once you managed to get away from that category, it’s become more fruitful for me to think about other things. And also, I realise in many different academic disciplines or sub-disciplines, many scholars actually doing this already. The same thing. Women’s studies, for example. It is not the study to define what women are. It is actually the study of the category of women. How this notion of women, this kind of a gender binary, binary of two sexes, influences or affects our everyday life: how we think what we do, how it can be sometimes oppressive. And Black studies for example, yeah, this is not the study to define what the Blacks are; it is about this notion, the study of this category: how this category was invented, how it was applied, how it was utilised, how it’s oppressed people, and then how we should negotiate, how we should fight against evil, isn’t it? So yeah, actually, we are doing this. So, but somehow when we talk about religion, we’re still not [able] to get to that sort of stage, somehow. We tend to assume something is a religion. But I think once we move away from this assumption and then start actually studying how actually we use these categories, I think we can uncover a lot of different things.

AA  10:47

Oh, I completely agree.

MH  10:48

That that is kind of my way of understanding these issues.

AA  10:53

Yeah, no, I mean, I completely agree with you. You touched briefly on how Temple Buddhism, of course, predates the category of religion in Japan, and then how, in reading for the uses of this category, you were able to explore different effects of the category of religion in society, particularly the legal effects of this category. There’s a particularly interesting thing about the public benefit aspect of the koeki, is that it?

MH  11:24

Yeah, that’s correct.

AA  11:26

Could you just walk us through a little more of that?

MH  11:32

Yeah, in the legal discourse, religion is defined as something to do with the public benefit. There is a notion of in religion should be a voluntary association, which benefits the public. And also, this category of religion is separated from politics, economics, and also the commercial businesses; and then that defines what Buddhist Temple, for example—any organisation exists as a religious corporation, this is again legal category, you know, incorporated as a religion—can do. So, they have to negotiate with the idea of you know, this legal definition of legal notion of religion and in other Buddhist Temple, what they can do what they cannot do.

MH  12:21

At the moment, their main source of income tends to be from funerals, and also the maintenance of graveyards, for example. [Are] funeral graveyards religious? This is the question. There are commercial industry, you know, operating funeral businesses, but Buddhist priests, Buddhist Temple somehow they have to create the discourse or narrative, which naturalises their activity as religious. In exchange of their funeral service, they get the payment for example. But they have to define their receiving or payment as [an] offering. For example, as a norm they tend not to show the price of their service because if they show the price against that kind of service they provide, they take the risk of being defined other commercial. So, there are all sorts of negotiations they have to do.

MH  13:25

And then many organisations, for example, rent out some of their spare rooms for the local clubs and social clubs, etc. Sometimes they organise their own social club, and sometimes they ask for the membership fee. Yeah. But is it [an] offering or is it some income against a commercial activity? What also things they sell—when they sell omelette—is it, again, commercial activity or is it [a] so-called religious activity? Things are really vague—there is no clear definition between what is commercial or what is religious. But they have to create their own way of distinguishing it; and somehow they have to make [an] agreement with [the] tax office. So, they have everyday struggle over defining themselves as religion in the absence of definition, but kind of vague notion of that religion shouldn’t be commercial.

MH  14:33

Also something [that] benefits the wider public. Yeah, many temples, now, in order to be more explicit about benefits for the wider public, they host public events like a concert, or festival, etc. But some critic, you know, tend to say, “Oh, this is not really Buddhism, etc.” Well, there’s always that sort of tension, but then priests have to define, “Yeah, you may not think this is ‘pure’ Buddhism, but in the in the much wider sense, fundamentally Buddhism teaches [us to] benefit all human beings. So, therefore, you know this is what we did. There are lots of that sort of discussion going on.

AA  15:19

I would imagine that the critiques then, as you mentioned, are that of an inauthentic understanding of Buddhism.

MH  15:28

Yeah, I think a common critique of Temple Buddhism increase earning too much money that sort of things here. Some temples make probably a huge profit, but because they are so-called the public benefit organisation, they cannot distribute their profit you know, to the shareholder, for example; they have to invest their profit for the public benefit. I think there is a kind of a misconception, but on average I think many temples are just surviving, many priests have a second job, etc. And also, some priests because you know, the number of temples are limited and then there are you know, lots of priests who hasn’t got their own temples.

MH  16:13

So, those priests now for example, you know, some of them established their own commercial company, and dispatching licensed priests in a much cheaper prices to funerals and other ceremonies. So, now, the attention, yeah. Here are temples providing certain services as a religious corporation, but here a commercial company [is] providing the industry the same services at much cheaper prices. And commercial company, you know, a so-called religious organisation doing the industry… same business. So, there is always this dilemma. Almost feels like if temple just quit being categorised as religion and then if they established commercial company, things may be much easier for them to do. It’s kind of the notion of religion preventing you priests exploring you know, doing other things here.

MH  17:15

So, many temples actually—if many successful temples, for example, establishing independent charity organisation or non-profit organisation—organisation independent from the temple to do other things, you know, which temple cannot do because they are so-called religious organisation—generally, they have to negotiate different category all the time.

AA  17:40

Yeah, I’m thinking about this also kind of from my own American context. How, at least for Japan, is religion generally understood, how is it generally defined? Because, of course, here in the US the emphasis is on individual beliefs, and the reason I’m asking this is because I wonder what that category looks like in a Japanese context—not that it’s of course removed from others, as you know—but the general understandings of that and then how that ties in to the public benefit aspect because to me, it seems that, in this sense, religion is less privatised and more social. Could you explain a little about that?

MH  18:19

Yeah, there are different meanings of religions in a kind of different layer of discourse, in the kind of everyday language the religion is almost like the presentation of something weird. When they say religion means something very dogmatic something on this also, you know, committing too much, yeah. So, people tend to use the word religion in a kind of derogatory way. But in the legal discourse intellectual discourse, the religion often means something very kind of Protestant—oriented…

AA  18:56

… Privatised, yeah.

MH  18:59

… something privatised—everyone has a fundamental belief and that is religion. So, it’s not necessarily manifested other organisation or kind of group or movement is very powerful. And another discourse of religion is actually continuous since the beginning of modern Japan, beginning of the arrival of the term religion in Japan. It was initially utilised as a category of governance by the government. Those groups or traditions defined that religion are supposed to be serving to the government, in exchange of freedom. So initially, it was Christianity, Buddhism, and very specific sect of Shintoism. And then they served the government to support you know, government kind of tried to do modernisation, but they were given the freedom to practice or keep their doctrine. So that was the origin of religion as a public benefit, and then other groups which challenge the government, they are labelled as superstition.

MH  20:04

And then they were, you know, any kind of value orientation outside of this legitimate religion, you know subject of persecution. And then post the war legal framework inherited that pre-war notion of our religion as a public benefit. That is how in post-war Japan temples and shrines were incorporated in that principle. But that is the kind of very specifically legal definition of religion. And then I think Tax Office Charity Commission—the equivalent of a Charity Commission in Japan, that sort of organisation—but I think if you [are] looking at the various court cases about freedom of religion, etc, I think the Protestant notion of religion, you know, see the influence there. But in more public discourse, very popular literature or news media, I think, very deliberately, you know, most of the religion is still private. Religion is something another word for the weirdness, anti-social or cult, for example,

AA  21:16

I wonder if you could give us a little sense of how you have applied this critical approach to your own analysis of social identities of Temple Buddhists? This is something that, within the field of religious studies, gets a lot of pushback as wanting to do away with a category of religion or not taking it seriously or dismissing experiences, what have you…

MH  21:46

I think, probably—I don’t know—for me, the one way of clarifying this is, for example, just imagine, you know, we are studying race. And we study each other, for example, or I study you—your racial identity. And then I might think, you know, you belong to the group conventionally categorised as white. Yeah. But when I interview you, or, you know, when I, when, if I study your life, I have to put my category aside, you know, when I study your life, when I analyse your narrative, I shouldn’t project my assumption of you as white. Yeah.

MH  22:33

And then I should include how you negotiate your racial categorisation, you know, in your life. Yeah. I think equally applies, if you study me—my racial identity—I think you need to put your assumption about my category, you know, you may think I’m Asian, but you have to put your categorisation aside, and then you need to study how I negotiate with racial identification. So, and for me that studying temple Buddhism my entry point is my own assumption [that] Temple Buddhism is a religion Yeah, but, you know, after [my] PhD I realised, “Actually, I have to put this you know, my assumption of Temple Buddhism as a religion aside.”

MH  23:37

And then rather than me framing them as a religion, I just have to study Temple Buddhism without categorising them. I already categorise them as Temple Buddhism, but you know, but I think I just compromise it for the sake of you know, naming these institutions. Then I studied how people in this group negotiate with various identification categories. And then religion is one of them. But there are you know, other categories like commercial or other categories such as politics. By being religion, they shouldn’t be political, you know, they have to negotiate that photo aspect as well.

MH  24:39

Yeah, also the kind of very vague popular assumption about religion, they have to say,  we are religion but we are different from what you mean by religion. That sort of way. So that’s how I approached, and then as I said before, this is this way of looking at the issue, this way of analysing, human phenomena is very much common in many academic disciplines. So, for me, I just simply apply the same approach to study, you know, kind of human phenomena, which is conventionally categorised as religion. (laughs)

MH  25:29

Yeah, but I try not to categorise them as religion, I study how they negotiate these conventional categories. Yeah, for me, by not using the term religion, as a category of analysis, we can be more fruitful on the weekend, see different dynamics, which we could be prevented from seeing if we were using the category of religion. As soon as we call or, you know, in my PhD, because I assumed Buddhism is a religion, I made a claim that unfair judgment by looking—they are having families, they have to raise income for their family—that activity became not authentic because of my idea of religion. And but it’s not fair, you know, and that is my assumption. And then after that, if, that sort of prejudice is they have to negotiate it.

MH  26:46

I got some, you know, the view of my book, but I think some people felt quite offended. I think it did tend to be a common response when we actually deconstruct the category religion in religious studies, actually. I have a sociology background, so I’m a relatively newcomer to religious studies. But even in the sociology of religion, somehow we tend to receive, sometimes in slightly negative reaction, sense some resistance, you know, somehow deconstructing religion causes a bit of tension.

MH  27:35

Yeah, I don’t know how I should describe it. But you know, I felt some people feel, you know, some people don’t like it, you know, basically.

AA  27:45

Yeah, they don’t.

MH  27:46

Yeah. But I think, as I said before, you know, in religious studies, I think, it’s, yeah, I think you have to be critical about the term religion in the same way, you know, women’s studies is always deconstructing the notion of women; race studies is always deconstructing racial categories.

AA  28:11

Well, I’m afraid we’re just about out of time. But before we wrap up, could you tell us a bit about what you have in the works and what is on the horizon for you?

MH  28:23

Yeah, just finishing my manuscript at the moment. Hopefully, you know, it will be published near future. The provisional title is Decolonising the Modern Myth. My thesis is this fiction of modernity is founded upon the religion/secular binary. So, when religious study tried to deconstruct religion is touched upon really deep fundamental aspects of how we perceive the world. It is the foundation of the fiction of capitalism.

AA  28:53


MH  28:53

Foundation of the fiction of nation state, the foundation of coloniality which still continues after the decolonisation of many former colonies. So, it’s the foundation of the power structure of the world. So, my next book is actually unveiling in how this religion/secular binary mystifies modern myth as a factual reality. And also, I’m including other modern categories, such as politics, society, culture, and those abstractions, how it operates to construct what we think real. My argument is by deconstructing this religion/secular binary, by actually accepting what we categorise as religion, and what we conventionally categorise as secular, both actually [are the] same kind of thing. Then I think we can actually find a better way to dialogue.

AA  29:59


MH  30:00

And communicate across different cultures. So that was a kind of a theme of my new book. When I started writing The Category of ‘Religion’ in Contemporary Japan, that was my idea behind writing it. And then in my second book, I tried to write specifically about that, you know, kind of background of my previous book.

AA  30:24

That sounds fantastic. I can’t wait to read it. And hopefully, we will be able to have you back to talk about that book when it comes out!

MH  30:31

Yes, please.

AA  30:32

I just want to thank you so much for joining me today. This has been a fantastic conversation.

MH  30:37

Thank you very much.

Citation Info:

Horii, Mitsutoshi and Andie Alexander. 2021. “Deconstructing ‘Religion’ in Contemporary Japan”, The Religious Studies Project. Podcast Transcript. 4 October 2021. Transcribed by Andie Alexander. Version 1.0, 4 October 2021. Available at:

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

The views expressed in podcasts, features and responses are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Religious Studies Project or our sponsors. The Religious Studies Project is produced by the Religious Studies Project Association (SCIO), a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation (charity number SC047750).