Jolyon Thomas


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A small statue on the Kirarazaka Trail between Mt. Hiei and the city of Kyoto.

A small statue on the Kirarazaka Trail between Mt. Hiei and the city of Kyoto.

The New Nanzan Guide to Japanese Religions

Editors: Matthew McMullen and Jolyon Baraka Thomas

The original Nanzan Guide to Japanese Religions published by University of Hawai‘i Press in 2006 has been a useful tool for students and scholars in the fields of Japanese and Religious Studies. However, the field has changed significantly over the past decade. The editors of the original publication intended to make periodical updates to the guide as the state of the field changed and as new resources became available. We believe it is time for such an update.

Rather than a replacement or a revised version of the original, we plan to publish a companion volume that includes recent resources (especially digital resources) and scholarship by a new generation of scholars in the field. We will revisit some of the topics in the original from new perspectives as well as recent issues in Japanese religion with the goal of producing a comprehensive, yet accessible, collection of articles that could be used to teach an upper level undergraduate or graduate level course on Japanese religion.

Offerings in a second-floor shrine at a café in Hội An, Việt Nam.

Offerings in a second-floor shrine at a café in Hội An, Việt Nam.

Material Secularisms

A lecture series, workshop, and symposium co-organized with Donovan Schaefer (Penn)

The study of what Talal Asad calls “formations of the secular” is advancing across the humanities, creating an interdisciplinary subfield referred to as secularism studiesor critical secularism studies. Within religious studies, a “materialist shift” (Vasquez 2011, Chidester 2018) has followed trends in subfields like material culture studies and new materialisms to call attention to the way that religion is made not just by frames of belief, but by bodies, practices, objects, places, and other material things. Our year-long project explores how this can be applied to the study of secularism, suggesting that formations of the secular, too, can be understood not just as belief or disbelief, but by attending to their material components.

Details about speakers and events for the 2019–20 year forthcoming.

The Panasonic Museum (Osaka) describes founder Matsushita Kōnosuke’s epiphany about connections between religion and business.

The Panasonic Museum (Osaka) describes founder Matsushita Kōnosuke’s epiphany about connections between religion and business.

The Corporate Form

Why Scholars of Religion Must Investigate the Corporate Form


Levi McLaughlin (North Carolina State University)

Aike P. Rots (University of Oslo)

Jolyon B. Thomas (University of Pennsylvania)

Chika Watanabe (University of Manchester)

A growing body of research describes connections between religion and economic activity through the language of commodification and marketization. Although this scholarship rightly challenges the assumption that religion is or should be divorced from worldly concerns, it still relies on distinctions between religionand the economyas isolable, reified entities. Rejecting this binary approach as untenable, we argue that studying the corporate form enriches the academic study of religion by providing concrete examples of how people create institutions and how organizations turn human bodies into resources while also fostering individuals’ devotion to collective agendas. Attention to the corporate form enables us to keep money and power in view as we trace historical formations and current manifestations of religious organizations. We investigate Japanese genealogies of the corporate form to elucidate some generalizable principles about how nonprofit religions and for-profit companies alike generate missions, families, individuals, and publics. 

[Abstract from an article resubmitted after peer review]

Jeordy Meow, "Itsukushima Gate," Wikimedia Commons


I. Association for Asian Studies Annual Meeting 2016 (Seattle): "What Isn't Shintō?"


Noriko Kanahara, "Shintō and Islam in Interwar Japan"

Sarah Thal, "Shintō or Bushidō?"

Jolyon Thomas, "The Sacred Spaces and Secular Subjects of the Postwar Japanese Public School"

Chika Watanabe, "'Shintō Ecology' in Development Aid"


II. What Isn't Shintō? Symposium, University of Pennsylvania, September 2016

9:30 a.m. Coffee Service

10:00 a.m. Introduction

Welcome from Nancy Steinhardt, Chair, EALC

Opening remarks by Jolyon Thomas

10:30 a.m. Session I

John Grisafi, University of Pennsylvania

Shintō in Colonial Korea

Takashi Miura, University of Arizona

Shinto Is the Indigenous Religion of the World: Deguchi Onisaburō and His Vision of Shinto Universalism

11:30 a.m. Session II

Tianran Hang, University of Pennsylvania

Defining Divinity: Interchangeability and the Spirits of Yasukuni Shrine

Aike Rots, University of Oslo

Primordial Practices? ‘Nature Worship’, ‘Animism’, and the Depoliticisation of Shinto

12:30 p.m. Lunch Break

1:45 p.m. Session III

Kaitlyn Ugoretz, University of Pennsylvania

What is Indigeneity? Questioning the Narrative Roots of Shinto

Sarah Thal, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Bushidō vs. Shintō: Shifting Rhetorics of Prewar Conservatism

2:45 p.m. Coffee Break

3:15 p.m. Session IV

Jolyon Thomas, University of Pennsylvania

Non-Shintō National Pride in Postwar Japanese Public School Education

Chika Watanabe, University of Manchester

The Politics of Shinto Ecology

4:15 p.m. Session V

Mark Teeuwen, University of Oslo



Open Discussion/Q&A with Speakers

Jolyon Thomas, University of Pennsylvania

Closing Remarks

5:30 p.m. Reception

Open to all registered attendees


What Isn't Shintō?

The basic premise of our project is that determining what Shintō actually is becomes much easier when the boundaries around the category can be sharply drawn. While definitions of Shintō have shifted over time, each participant’s research elucidates the nature of modern Shintō by showing how interest groups have attempted to define the tradition in relationship to something else. Collectively, collaborators’ research projects cover attempts to either link Shintō to—or disaggregate Shintō from—militarist ethics, public school education, new religions, nature conservation, and overseas development projects.

Recent scholarship has already problematized the timeworn explanatory rubrics of “State Shintō” as totalitarian politics and Shintō as Japan’s indigenous religion. Yet as the 70th anniversary of the promulgation of Japan’s postwar “peace constitution” approaches, these outmoded paradigms are being resuscitated by journalists, politicians, and academics eager to bend Shintō to the domestic and international politics of today. And although demographers have marked a steady decline in Japanese religiosity in the decades since the close of the Pacific War (1945), Shintō remains a persistent and irrepressible force in Japanese social and political life. Lobbies such as the Shintō Association for Spiritual Leadership exert considerable pressure on politicians. Issues of succession in the imperial household capture the attention of the reading public.

Although simplistic narratives of neo-nationalist Shintō “resurgence” and romantic idealizations of kami worship as a venerable vestige of Japan’s premodern past deserve suspicion and critique, the precise nature of Shintō can be clarified by examining how Shintō traditions, lineages, and ideas have been mobilized in pursuit of political, economic, and conservationist agendas.

Simply put, Shintō is not solely defined by shrine priests’ attempts to enforce orthodoxy or the demarcation of the geographical boundaries of shrine precincts. It is also defined by the red meat pandering of politicians to the nationalist right and the greening of Shintō to appeal to the environmentalist left. “Shintō” emerges as a discrete thing in the world when these interest groups juxtapose the amorphous tradition of kami veneration with humanitarian outreach, militarist jingoism, and public school education.

To be clear, the study of Shintō is not merely the study of Japan. Rather, it is the study of Japan’s interaction with East Asian neighbors. It is the study of Japan’s changing security relationship with the United States. The study of Shintō is not merely inquiry into the history of a quaint religion endemic to the Japanese archipelago. Rather, it is an opportunity to interrogate—and perhaps redefine—commonsense concepts like “indigeneity,” “animism,” “secularism,” and “theocracy.”


Related Publications

Conceptual Overview:

Jolyon Thomas, "Big Questions in the Study of Shinto," H-Net

Related Books and Articles by Collaborators

Takashi Miura, “Shintō is the Indigenous Religion of the World,” Journal of Religion in Japan 7 (2018), 57–81.

Aike P. Rots, Shinto, Nature, and Ideology in Contemporary Japan: Making Sacred Forests (Bloomsbury, 2017)

Jolyon Thomas, Faking Liberties: Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2019)

Chika Watanabe, Becoming One: Religion, Development, and Environmentalism in a Japanese NGO in Myanmar (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2019)