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Japanese Buddhists and Religious Freedom

  • Ōtani University Korukan, 3F Kyoto Japan (map)

A widespread historical narrative suggests that Buddhists failed to defend religious freedom in prewar and wartime Japan. But religious freedom was not a universal principle that Buddhists failed to understand or protect. Rather, Japan’s 1889 constitutional guarantee of religious freedom enrolled Buddhists in the project of defining “real religion” in order to free it. For example, religious freedom dominated Buddhist concerns about the onset of mixed residence with foreigners in late nineteenth-century Japan. In the 1920s, Japanese Buddhists appealed to religious freedom as both national law and international ideal when defending their right to run language schools for second-generation immigrants in the American Territory of Hawai`i. And competing interpretations of religious freedom characterized diverse Buddhist takes on parliamentary efforts to strictly regulate religions in the early Shōwa era (1926–45). In short, a close look at the historical record reveals that Japanese Buddhists were fluent in “religious freedom talk,” but they spoke that language in multiple, often mutually unintelligible, dialects. The story of Buddhist indifference to religious freedom turns out to be inaccurate, while its creation during the Allied Occupation of Japan (1945–52) reflects the American occupiers’ understandings of “real religion” and ideal religion-state relations.