Jolyon Thomas


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Religion & Media

Drawing on Tradition

Manga, Anime, and Religion in Contemporary Japan

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Manga and anime (illustrated serial novels and animated films) are highly influential Japanese entertainment media that boast tremendous domestic consumption as well as worldwide distribution and an international audience. Drawing on Tradition examines religious aspects of the culture of manga and anime production and consumption through a methodological synthesis of narrative and visual analysis, history, and ethnography. Rather than merely describing the incidence of religions such as Buddhism or Shinto in these media, Jolyon Baraka Thomas shows that authors and audiences create and re-create “religious frames of mind” through their imaginative and ritualized interactions with illustrated worlds. Manga and anime therefore not only contribute to familiarity with traditional religious doctrines and imagery, but also allow authors, directors, and audiences to modify and elaborate upon such traditional tropes, sometimes creating hitherto unforeseen religious ideas and practices.

The book takes play seriously by highlighting these recursive relationships between recreation and religion, emphasizing throughout the double sense of play as entertainment and play as adulteration (i.e., the whimsical or parodic representation of religious figures, doctrines, and imagery). Building on recent developments in academic studies of manga and anime—as well as on recent advances in the study of religion as related to art and film—Thomas demonstrates that the specific aesthetic qualities and industrial dispositions of manga and anime invite practices of rendition and reception that can and do influence the ways that religious institutions and lay authors have attempted to captivate new audiences.

Drawing on Tradition will appeal to both the dilettante and the specialist: Fans and self-professed otaku will find an engaging academic perspective on often overlooked facets of the media and culture of manga and anime, while scholars and students of religion will discover a fresh approach to the complicated relationships between religion and visual media, religion and quotidian practice, and the putative differences between “traditional” and “new” religions.

Audience members exhibit religious frames of mind when they interact with the characters and cosmologies of manga and anime in ways that reflect an imaginative mode of compositing in which illustrated worlds are superimposed on empirical reality. A religious frame of mind is present when a given narrative animates the audience, inspiring devotional or ritual activity such as composing devotional tablets (ema) at shrines addressed to favorite characters rather than to deities. It is visible when a given character becomes animate in an audience’s shared imaginary as a model to emulate, as in the case of the women I describe in Chapter 3 who take the fictional character Nausicaä as a role model. We can trace religious frames of mind when audience members project an illustrated place onto physical topography as a pilgrimage destination (such as Sailor Moon fans patronizing Hikawa Shrine in the Azabu Jūban district of Tokyo). We can visualize them when a specific geographic location takes on sacred significance in fan discussions as the alleged inspiration for an animated world—a place that is simultaneously fictional and real, inspired and inspiring (the island of Yakushima as the putative model for the sacred forest featured in Princess Mononoke).
— J.B. Thomas, Drawing on Tradition, p. 31
Drawing on Tradition: Manga, Anime and Religion in Contemporary Japan makes an important contribution to both the study of media and religion and to our understanding of how religious ideas are represented and recreated in contemporary Japan.
— Erica Baffelli, Nova Religio

Drawing on Tradition has been reviewed by the following outlets:

  • American Ethnologist

  • Animation

  • Anthropology Review Database

  • Monumenta Nipponica

  • Nova Religio

  • Pacific Affairs

  • Religious Studies in Japan

Religious Freedom

Faking Liberties: Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan

Since 9/11, policymakers, pundits, and presidents have told us that spreading freedom abroad will solve fundamentally religious problems such as terrorism and the oppression of religious minorities. In their accounts, religion is a divisive force that serves as a disguise or rationale for violent ambitions. Simultaneously, they portray religion as a pacifying force, suggesting that its inherent altruism lays the groundwork for reconciliation.

This paradoxical quality of the contemporary geopolitics of religious freedom is a prominent facet of the ongoing War on Terror, but it has a long history that predates 9/11. Faking Liberties: Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan returns to the close of World War II, examining the Allied Occupation of Japan (1945–1952) as an historical case of the United States and its allies attempting to spread religious freedom abroad. The occupiers presented religious freedom as a corrective for Japan’s “bad religion” of State Shinto, claiming that Japan’s prewar constitutional guarantee of religious freedom was a farce. Occupation policymakers argued that Japanese politicians had cynically abused religious ideas for militarist ends, and they suggested that Japanese religious leaders were either ignorant of the importance of religious freedom or complicit in the construction of illiberal policies and legislation. The Americans took it upon themselves to reorient the Japanese people by eradicating ultranationalist ideas from public life and by instilling a “desire for religious freedom” in the Japanese populace. By the time the Occupation ended in May 1952, they declared their mission accomplished.

This triumphalist story about the successful promotion of religious freedom during the Allied Occupation has been virtually unquestioned for decades. Upon investigation, however, the received narrative about Japan’s twisted relationship with religious freedom turns out to be false. In fact, a robust conversation about how to define religion and how to free it characterized the entirety of the time when Japan’s first modern constitution was in effect (1890–1945). Clerics, lay religious leaders, legislators, policymakers, and scholars of religion all weighed in on what religion was and how to protect it. They used the inherently democratic processes of protest and parliamentary procedure to do so.

To be clear, the occupiers were not wrong in describing the prewar constitutional regime as repressive. Police stamped religious groups out of existence and charismatic religious leaders died in prison. However, the prewar and wartime regime was repressive because it was secularist, not because it was dominated by Shinto as a state religion. It was the discrimination between “religion” and “not-religion” that allowed the Japanese state to so thoroughly and devastatingly police religious practices, not cynical political manipulation of Shinto doctrine. Across the Pacific, the same conceptual distinction allowed American majorities to designate Japanese and other religious minorities as un-American and worthy of exclusion or expulsion. In both Japan and the United States, political authorities and clerics selectively applied religious freedom so that it was capacious enough to match their interests but circumscribed enough to exclude groups and practices they deemed unsuited to the national character.

When the Occupation began in September 1945, the occupiers claimed to be introducing an antidote to State Shinto that they thought of as “genuine religious freedom.” However, their practices of governing religion were strikingly similar to the administrative practices of the prewar and wartime regime. Bureaucrats enacted policy based on their informal hunches about what constituted “real religion.” Scholars of religion told religious people how to behave—and even what to believe—in the name of religious freedom. Trans-denominational organizations aligned themselves with political authority, while bureaucrats used those same trans- denominational groups to gather intelligence and disseminate policy prescriptions.

These continuities between the prewar and wartime Japanese regime and the American military government suggest that Japan was never the exception to the global rule of religious freedom. Japan did not “get religious freedom wrong” in its 1889 constitution, nor were Japanese religious leaders ignorant of the importance of religious freedom. Rather, Japan exemplified the normal functioning of secularist governance, which defines and constrains religion in order to free it. To make this claim is not to apologize for the repressive aspects of the wartime Japanese state, but rather to use the case of Japan to show that all guarantees of religious freedom are shot through with inconsistency. In other words, religious freedom is not a timeless and universal “principle” that some states distort. Rather, a universal characteristic of constitutional guarantees of religious freedom is that the parties who craft and interpret them always make distinctions between “religion” and “not-religion” in ways that privilege some interest groups over others.

I make this broad theoretical claim about religious freedom to challenge received narratives that the prewar and wartime Japanese state paid lip service to religious freedom while denying it in practice. However, it is true that significant changes regarding the interpretation of religious freedom were introduced during the Occupation. In a unique transnational context where the American military government dictated policy while the local Japanese government enacted it, religious freedom could no longer be a mere privilege granted to citizens by their states. It could not just be a “civil right” guaranteed in the constitution that the occupiers magnanimously (superciliously, condescendingly) bestowed upon the Japanese people. Religious freedom had to become something more. It had to become innate. It needed to become timeless and universal. In short, religious freedom had to become a human right.

The idea of religious freedom as a human right entered the war between the United States and Japan as an Allied propaganda rationale for “why we fight.” However, significant differences of opinion among the occupiers revealed that while everyone agreed that religious freedom was a good thing, nobody actually knew what religious freedom was. Over the course of the Occupation, American policymakers collaborated with Japanese bureaucrats, legal specialists, and scholars of religion in constructing a new vision of “religious-freedom-as-human-right.”

Like all human rights, the new human right of religious freedom faced a problem of enforcement. It was premised on the idea of a universal religiosity intrinsic to all humans, but what that religiosity looked like and whose religion actually counted remained a vexing problem. Expansive rhetoric to the contrary, in the late 1940s the language of religious-freedom-as- human-right bumped up against the need to police Japanese political leaders for signs of militarist recidivism. The conundrum appeared in Japanese electoral politics as trans- denominational organizations regarded marginal religions’ rapid numerical growth with consternation. It featured in postwar reflections on war responsibility in the common idea that “real religion” would have opposed political authority during the war. These narratives were constructed in part by religious organizations and Occupation bureaucrats, but scholars of religion played a major role in making determinations about what sort of religion deserved protection. Their discussions of State Shinto, Buddhist war responsibility, and the need to surveil or protect new religious movements reverberate in contemporary global conversations about how to govern religion. Their voices echo in American policymakers’ talk about liberating religion.

The takeaway message of this book is that some stakeholders—clerics, policymakers, journalists, government functionaries, and scholars of religion—have vested interests in portraying political ideals or violent acts as reducible to false religious ideology. Others will claim the mantle of religious freedom in order to advance parochial missionary projects. Still others will make normative claims about “real religion” being altruistic, apolitical, and austere as a way of reducing the potentially subversive qualities of religion. All of these parties make religion in order to free it. None of their constructions should be unquestioningly trusted.

Click the image to see the table of contents on the University of Chicago Press site.

Click the image to see the table of contents on the University of Chicago Press site.

A powerful study of warring rhetoric on religious freedom within and between Japan and the United States, Thomas’s work presents a model analysis of debate on a foundational concept, minutely clarifying the stakeholders, the stakes, and the consequences of the argument. This book shows the Allied Occupation of Japan in an entirely new light and unprecedented detail through its examination of religious policy as hammered out by the occupiers and the occupied, on the basis of a rich heritage of thought in both countries on the meaning of religious freedom.
— Helen Hardacre, Harvard University
Faking Liberties is a brilliant intervention in a burgeoning literature on the historical coercions of religious freedom. Thomas compares religious freedom regimes in Japan under pre-WWII Meiji rule and the postwar US occupation, exploding myths of Japanese exceptionalism (both negative and positive) and revealing how this freedom served in both cases as a project that defined and disciplined the limits of religion.
— Tisa Wenger, Yale University
Jolyon Thomas has written an original and enthralling account of the ideal of ‘religious freedom’ in the Allied Occupation of Japan. By tracing competing political, ecclesiastical, and academic discourses, Thomas shows that the ideal of religious freedom came to favor some groups at the expense of others and often resulted in the ossification of religious difference. The work is a timely and dazzling intervention with broad implications.
— Jason Josephson-Storm, Williams College
I show that religious freedom is not an ethereal principle that is applied to a situation or introduced to a nation. Rather, freeing religion is a mundane project subject to political machination and discursive manipulation.
— Jolyon Baraka Thomas, Faking Liberties, xi–xii


Other projects:

Religion and Public Education

Difficult Subjects: Debating Religion and Public Education in Japan and the United States

(Excerpts from my Abe Fellowship proposal)

Do public schools have an obligation to train students as moral agents? If so, how can morality be inculcated in young citizens without resorting to religious language, and without infringing on their right to religious freedom? Which modes of bodily comportment, intellectual dispositions, and affective commitments prove that citizens are really moral? I am addressing these questions in an ongoing comparative study of debates around religion and public school education in Japan and the United States. I focus on how “secular” public schools foster morality, diligence, and patriotism in students without resorting to religious language; I also consider how apparently “religious” commitments and practices sometimes inform public school curricula. Using a combination of archival research on educational law and policy and interview-based research with stakeholders such as religious lobbyists and textbook reform activists, I track attempts to introduce more religious language or behavior into public schools in both countries, either by diminishing the secular nature of school space or by re-coding originally religious practices and ideas as patriotic, therapeutic, or moral. 

I look first at the mutually influential experience of the U.S.-led Allied Occupation of Japan (1945–1952), which created new understandings of “real democracy” in both the United States and Japan. I then track changing notions of democratic citizenship over the course of the Cold War, subsequent economic booms and busts, and American and Japanese responses to terrorist incidents and shifting sexual practices and norms. Many of the contentious debates about public schooling in both countries have revolved around the question of how to make children into good moral subjects with or without the aid of religious language and training.

Debates about the proper relationship between religion and public school education center on questions of government, empowerment, and participation. In theory, public school education is the great equalizer, providing upward mobility to students while simultaneously preparing them for enfranchised citizenship through basic civics training. In practice, education often exacerbates differences of opportunity. While religion enters the conversation about public school education somewhat differently in the U.S. and Japan, it affects the ways that teachers, textbook authors, and boards of education imagine curricula, teach history, and train students as moral agents. In Japan, anxieties about the declining birthrate and concerns about regional security play out in efforts by religious lobbies to introduce good “family values” and “national pride” into public school education. In the United States, debates over shifting social mores reflect divisions about the nature of American exceptionalism. In both countries, anxieties about cultural assimilation and economic precarity inform claims about national uniqueness. These claims often have religious overtones: Textbook reform activists in the United States deem Islamic jurisprudence inimical to the “Judeo-Christian values” that supposedly inform American civic life; political pressure groups like the Shinto Association for Spiritual Leadership lament the “materially wealthy but spiritually bankrupt” character of Japanese society after World War II.

Because it is about children and what they do with their minds and bodies, the book is not simply about how some practices marked as “religious” can be excluded from schools while others marked as therapeutic or patriotic can infiltrate classrooms, but also about historical shifts in popular conceptions of prosperity and procreation. Capitalist commitments and sexual politics inform debates about education and religion in both countries.   

At present, I expect the book to have eight content chapters bookended by an introduction and conclusion. Chapter one examines debates that took place between American occupiers in Japan regarding the place of religion in public schools. On the one hand, members of the aptly named United States Education Mission to Japan and leaders of the Occupation Education Division favored a model of public school education that took students’ “spiritual development” seriously. On the other hand, members of the Occupation Religions Division and their Japanese advisors recognized the importance of learning about religions insofar as it fostered religious freedom, but they feared that anything resembling sectarian education would reinstate illiberal tendencies of the war years. 

Chapter two examines educational initiatives on both sides of the Pacific in the immediate postwar period. After the Occupation ended, Japanese policy makers in the Ministry of Education quickly turned their attention to the prospect of reinstating “morality education” in public schools, and debates between the Ministry of Education and the Japanese Teacher’s Union revealed major fault lines concerning how Japanese students were to be prepared for “proper” democratic citizenship and the responsibilities of fully enfranchised adult life. In the United States, high-profile court cases about the use of public infrastructure like schools and school buses to support sectarian education revealed contemporaneous debates about the role of the state in structuring students’ moral lives. In both countries, the Cold War ideological battle between capitalism and “godless communism” played a role, as did debates over expanding civil rights.  

From the 1960s through the 1980s, Cold War politics intensified, student protest movements flared, and oil shocks rattled the economic foundations of the United States and Japan alike. This period saw new anxieties about the allure of marginal religions, the decline of traditional religions as undisputed sources of moral authority, and the waywardness of youths who rejected mainstream understandings of success. Chapters three, four, and five compare American and Japanese attempts to re-establish guiding moral principles during a period when economic fortunes and social norms were rapidly shifting in both countries.  

With the collapse of the Cold War order, anxieties that were previously directed outward turned inward to focus on new perceptions of risk. High-profile murders committed by kiddie porn murderer Miyazaki Tsutomu and the anonymous “Kid A” (a.k.a. Sakakibara Seito) caused consternation in Japan (Arai A. 2000); such concerns were exacerbated by the sarin gas attack perpetrated by the religious group Aum Shinrikyō on the Tokyo subway system in 1995 (Baffelli and Reader, eds. 2012). In the United States, the Columbine High School shootings (1999) and the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001 refocused attention on security. Schools were no longer safe spaces for learning but potential execution grounds; neighbors were no longer innocuous immigrants but potential terrorists. Focusing on textbook reform movements in both countries, chapters six and seven uses interviews to determine how stakeholders understood their reform efforts and what they now see as their successes and failures. 

Where does the relationship between religion and public school education stand today in Japan and the United States? Chapter eight focuses on the 2006 revision of the Japanese Fundamental Law on Education, which took place in part because an unlikely coalition of religious organizations, anti-“cult” activists, and scholars of religion collaborated in creating the seemingly innocuous idea of “religious culture education.” Teachers can now receive certification as “Religious Culture Specialists” by passing a multiple-choice test; the certificate allows them to teach about religions at the secondary level in Japanese public schools. At the same time, concerns about teachers as moral exemplars have fueled high-profile court cases in which teachers have been dismissed for refusing to sing the national anthem or have been denied the right to teach under their maiden names. In the United States, laws targeting educational achievement have come and gone with successive presidential administrations, but a quiet revolution has taken place on school campuses. School counselors tout the disciplining benefits of the originally Buddhist practice of mindfulness; Hindu organizations protest the cultural appropriation of yoga in American public schools. The book will close by pursuing the question of why mindfulness can enter American schools unencumbered while Christian prayer remains forbidden.


Other Projects:

Religious Desires

Animism, Fetishism, and Idolatry in Contemporary Japan

Focusing on quotidian objects like trains, televisions, USB sticks, robots, and plastic figurines, this study examines the place of desire in contemporary Japanese religion. The work revises originally pejorative anthropological terminology like “animism,” “fetishism,”“idolatry,” and “cult” to show that Japanese religion is fundamentally about sex and money and crass consumerism, but not in a simplistic or a reductive sense. Rather, in contemporary Japan people have sex with 2D characters and fondle ritually purified USB sticks. They venerate fictional idols and patronize religious sites as fans of televised animation series. Buddhist clerics bemoan the decline of traditional ceremonial pomp even as they savvily market kitschy wares to discerning consumers and promote the dharma through bars and hip hop beats. Laypeople critique clerical degeneracy; scholars of religion police the boundaries of ritual practice to support a capitalist status quo that is consumptive without being consumerist. Some of these parties eschew the word “religion” to describe their ritualized activities; others lean on the category to vehemently deny that their practices are fundamentally acquisitive. While the word “religion” may not sufficiently capture the variety of these actions and attitudes in the Japanese political economy of the present, I argue that contemporary Japan provides a model for understanding the co-constitutive relationship between religion, capitalism, and sexuality that features in many late capitalist societies today.

Sensational outreach programs like Ryōhōji’s elicit comment and consternation, but more than anything they get a range of parties to “buy in” to the state and fate of Buddhism. As they do, many of those parties “cash in” by boosting ratings (the media), increasing prestige (scholars), or raking in profit and donations (Hachifuku and Ryōhōji, respectively). In the final analysis, the things that Ryōhōji’s critics bemoan as evidence of the decline of the dharma turn out to be the very things that allow Buddhism to survive and thrive.
— J.B. Thomas, "The Buddhist Virtues of Raging Lust and Crass Materialism in Contemporary Japan," p. 488.

the android “Mindar” at Kōdaiji, Kyoto

photo taken on Mindar’s opening day: 8 March 2019

Other Projects: