Jolyon Thomas


2600 years detail.jpeg


Click to buy! Use code UCPNEW for a 20% discount!

Click to buy! Use code UCPNEW for a 20% discount!

Faking Liberties: Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan

University of Chicago Press, 2019

Americans stationed in occupied Japan at the close of World War II claimed to be bringing religious freedom to a country where it did not exist. They described Japan’s 1889 constitutional guarantee of religious freedom as a fake, and they claimed to be implanting “real religious freedom” in its stead. But in making such claims, the occupiers overlooked inconvenient historical facts. Countering the victors’ narrative, Jolyon Baraka Thomas shows that Japanese people were actually involved in a robust debate about religious liberty for decades before the occupation began; he also demonstrates that the American occupiers were far less certain about how to define and protect religious freedom than their triumphalist rhetoric suggested. And whereas post-occupation histories have commonly assumed that the occupiers introduced the human right of religious freedom to Japan, Thomas argues that the inherently transnational circumstances of military occupation prompted a new conception of religious-freedom-as-human-right: timeless, universal, and innate. Along the way, the occupiers and their Japanese counterparts collaboratively constructed a new technical vocabulary about “good” and “bad” religion. The categories they developed in the late 1940s still dictate how academics, journalists, and policymakers working today imagine who deserves religious freedom, what kinds of political practices infringe on religious liberty, and who bears responsibility for doing anything about it.   

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
Meticulously researched, theoretically sharp, and elegantly written, Faking Religion [sic] is an excellent study not only of how religious freedom was constructed as a transnational ideal through mutual negotiation during the period of American occupation, but also of how various actors interacted with religious freedom during the interbellum period. Faking Liberties is a welcome addition to the field of Japanese religious studies as well as to the critical study of religion and law.
— Ernils Larsson, H-Net Reviews
A review of Faking Liberties at Choice.

A review of Faking Liberties at Choice.

Click on the image to see the book on the UH Press site.

Click on the image to see the book on the UH Press site.

Drawing on Tradition: Manga, Anime, and Religion in Contemporary Japan

University of Hawai‘i Press, 2012

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.


Journal Articles

A promo video for my article, now out in the Asian Journal of Law & Society vol. 3, no. 1 (May 2016): 49-70.

Varieties of Religious Freedom in Japanese Buddhist Responses to the 1899 Religions Bill

Asian Journal of Law & Society vol. 3, no. 1 (May 2016): 49-70

ABSTRACT: Historians have often described early-twentieth-century Japanese Buddhists as ignorant of the importance of religious freedom, myopically focused on their parochial agendas, and sycophantically aligned with the state. Such depictions assume that the attitudes of a minority of elite Buddhist clerics represent majority Buddhist opinion; they also problematically treat religious freedom as a universal principle rather than a historically contingent concept subject to the conflicting claims of competing interest groups. This article highlights the contingency of religious freedom law and the diversity of its interpretation by introducing three discrete attitudes that surfaced in Buddhist responses to a controversial Bill advanced by the Japanese government in December 1899. Tracing differences between statist, corporatist, and latitudinarian interpretations of religious freedom, it shows that religious freedom is never unitary or uniform in any time or place.

Keywords: Japan, Buddhism, religious freedom, legislation, activism


A promo video for my forthcoming article in Material Religion. For more info on Ryohoji, see the temple website ( or visit the temple's YouTube channel: 松栄山了法寺.

The Buddhist Virtues of Raging Lust and Crass Materialism in Contemporary Japan

Material Religion 11, no. 4 (2016 [2015]): 485–506

ABSTRACT: The idea that Japanese Buddhism is in a state of inevitable decline is widely accepted by scholars, clerics, and journalists as both demographic fact and doctrinal truth. However, this analysis fails to capture the complicated dynamic between the longstanding narrative of decline and the equally longstanding reality of Buddhist survival. Using animated music videos, plastic figurines, and illustrated merchandise created in collaboration between the for-profit company Hachifuku and the small Tokyo temple Ryōhōji as examples of a broader trend, this article shows that the very things that are taken as evidence of Buddhist decline – crass materialism, raging lust, and blissful ignorance of the finer points of doctrine – are actually the things that allow Buddhism to survive and thrive in contemporary Japan. I conclude with a critical analysis of the political economy of the decline narrative, showing that religious studies scholars, mass media, and Japanese ecclesial institutions all benefit from a story that is only provisionally true.

Keywords: JapanBuddhismanimesexconsumerismdeclineotakumanga

Errata: The video links listed in the article are incorrect due to a copyediting error. See companion videos to the article below:

An English translation of the song "Tera Zukkyun" by Toromi a.k.a. ToroBenten, produced in collaboration with ARM (IOSYS) in 2009. ©Hachifuku. This translation is purely for academic purposes and is solely intended to serve as an accompanying media file for my forthcoming article "The Buddhist Virtues of Raging Lust and Crass Materialism in Contemporary Japan," (Material Religion).

An English translation of the song NamuXCyun by Toromi a.k.a. ToroBenten and Kikōden Misa a.k.a. KissYouTen Misa. Music and lyrics by ARM (IOSYS) and Tano Yoshimi. ©Hachifuku. This translation is purely for academic purposes and is solely intended to serve as an accompanying media file for my forthcoming article "The Buddhist Virtues of Raging Lust and Crass Materialism in Contemporary Japan," (Material Religion).


Katō Totsudō speaks to a rapt audience at Aoyama Hall.

Free Inquiry and Japanese Buddhist Studies: The Case of Katō Totsudō

Japanese Religions 39, nos. 1–2 (2015 [2014]): 31–51.

ABSTRACT: This paper argues that an influential but hitherto largely unexamined strain of Japanese Buddhist studies emerged from the ideal of “free inquiry” (jiyū tōkyu 自由討究) advocated by the Fraternity of New Buddhists (Shin Bukkyōto Dōshikai 新佛教徒同志會), a group of lay intellectuals and disaffected priests primarily active in Tokyo from 1900 to 1915. Although this group disbanded in the late 1910s, the New Buddhist project of “free inquiry” reached its zenith in the 1920s, when former members such as Katō Totsudō 加藤咄堂 (1870-1949) prodigiously published evidentiary scholarship on Buddhism while also advocating normative policy aims such as the eradication of superstition and the inculcation of “a sound Buddhist faith” in the populace. Katō’s “free inquiry” upheld the ideal of academic freedom as a way of countering sectarianism and superseding clerical authority, but as an example of activist Buddhist studies scholarship that clearly influenced contemporary religions policy, it was hardly politically neutral.

Keywords: Free inquiry – New Buddhism – Katō Totsudō – social edification – politics of religious freedom

Some background information about my latest article, "Religions Policies during the Allied Occupation of Japan, 1945-1952," forthcoming from Religion Compass very soon!

Religions Policies during the Allied Occupation of Japan, 1945–1952

Religion Compass 8, no. 9 (2014): 275–286.

ABSTRACT: Religion played a prominent role in the Allied Occupation of Japan (1945–1952) that followed the brutal Pacific War (1941–1945). Officially, the occupiers were to promulgate religious freedom, separate religion from the state, and encourage the Japanese people to develop a ‘desire for religious freedom’. Promulgating religious freedom was the easy part. Separating religion from the state without infringing on religious freedom was far more challenging, and the ambiguous objective of instilling a desire for religious freedom in the Japanese populace was nearly impossible to measure. This review article provides a brief overview of trends in Occupation research, traces historical changes and paradoxes in Occupation religions policy and examines the unexpected and frequently ironic outcomes of that policy. It provides a cursory look into the postwar efflorescence of ‘new religions’ and the politically fraught category of ‘State Shintō.’ It closes with an overview of archives and records on the Occupation.

Keywords: Japan, United States, military occupation, religious freedom, new religions, State Shintō


Detail from Shindo Fuyuki et al. Karisuma, vol. 1

Horrific "Cults" and Comic Religion: Manga after Aum

Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 39, no. 1 (2012): 127–151

ABSTRACT: After the 1995 Aum Shinrikyō オウム真理教 sarin gas attacks, influential commentators suggested that enthralling apocalyptic narratives characteristic of manga (illustrated serial novels) made Aum members prone to extremism and violence. This article inverts this interpretation, showing that popular manga published after 1995 have exhibited—and reflected—morbid fascination with the sensational fodder provided by the Aum incident itself. Early manga responses advanced variations on a horrific “evil cult” trope in which marginal religions modeled on Aum were graphically depicted as hotbeds of sexual depravity, fraud, and violence. Over time, equally chilling—if less sensational—psychological thrillers appeared that interrogated the aspects of human nature that allow for “cult-like” behavior. Finally, one very recent manga has sublimated the formerly popular “evil cult” trope by divorcing “religion” from “cults” and rehabilitating the former through mildly irreverent comedy.

Keywords: Aum Shinrikyō—manga—“evil cult” trope—BelieversDeath NoteSaint Young MenTwentieth Century Boys


Detail from Urasawa Naoki's Twentieth Century Boys



See the abstract for "Horrific 'Cults' and Comic Religion" above for the general gist of this article, which focuses particularly on Urasawa Naoki's magnum opus Twentieth Century Boys.

Still from Miyazaki Hayao's film  Princess Mononoke

Still from Miyazaki Hayao's film Princess Mononoke

Shūkyō Asobi and Miyazaki Hayao's Anime

Nova Religio 10, no. 3 (2007): 73–95

ABSTRACT: This article attempts to address the lack of terminology concerning the long-standing but often overlooked relationship between religion and entertainment in Japan, arguing that these two seemingly discrete and opposing fields are often conflated. Examining the underlying thought behind the animation films of director Miyazaki Hayao, and investigating audience responses to those works, the article suggests that this conflation—religious entertainment or playful religion—can best be described by the neologism shūkyō asobi. Composed of the words "religion" and "play" in Japanese, shūkyō asobi jettisons the artificial distinction between popular entertainment and religion in favor of describing the common space between them, as well as describing the utilization of that space by various interest groups. This deployment of simultaneously religious and playful media or action can result in the creation of entirely new religious doctrines, interpretations, rituals, and beliefs.

This article won the Thomas Robbins Award for Excellence in the Study of New Religious Movements.

Erratum: Ishii Kenji's given name is mistakenly rendered as "Kendo" in the notes.


Book Chapters

Click to buy!

Click to buy!

Spirit/Medium: Critically Examining the Relationship between Animism and Animation

Fabio Rambelli, ed. Spirits and Animism in Modern Japan, Bloomsbury Press (2019)

ABSTRACT: This chapter critiques the oft-repeated argument that Japanese animation (anime) is thematically and aesthetically unique because it draws upon Japan’s ancient animistic traditions. I argue that when professional observers describe anime as “animistic,” they use a politically fraught and technically inaccurate term to engage in recuperative or obscurantist political projects related to environmentalism or cultural nationalism. I also argue that when these professional observers repeat the essentialist idea that “Japanese people believe that spirits exist in everything,” they categorically ignore the potentially “spiritual” qualities of the material objects that are actually used to make anime in the first place (celluloid, ink, computer screens, cameras, cables). I conclude by offering alternative language that can more accurately depict what anime directors and their audiences do when depicting or observing relationships between spirits and nature in animated film. These attitudes and ideas can be deemed meaningful and even religious, I argue, without relying on the loaded language of “animism.”

Keywords: animism, religion, new animism, Your Name.Mushi-shiPossessions (Tsukumo)



Religion and Japanese Film: Focus on Anime

The Routledge Companion to Religion and Film, ed. John Lyden (2009): 194–213. London: Routledge.

A brief introduction to relationships between anime and religion.


Click the image to buy!

Shūkyō Asobi and Miyazaki Hayao's Anime (truncated version of Thomas 2007)

The Religion and Film Reader, ed. Jolyon Mitchell and S. Brent Plate (2007): 183–193. London: Routledge.

This article attempts to address the lack of terminology concerning the long-standing but often overlooked relationship between religion and entertainment in Japan, arguing that these two seemingly discrete and opposing fields are often conflated. Examining the underlying thought behind the animation films of director Miyazaki Hayao, and investigating audience responses to those works, the article suggests that this conflation—religious entertainment or playful religion—can best be described by the neologism shûkyô asobi. Composed of the words "religion" and "play" in Japanese, shûkyô asobi jettisons the artificial distinction between popular entertainment and religion in favor of describing the common space between them, as well as describing the utilization of that space by various interest groups. This deployment of simultaneously religious and playful media or action can result in the creation of entirely new religious doctrines, interpretations, rituals, and beliefs.


Book Reviews

Click to buy at Oxford University Press!

Click to buy at Oxford University Press!

Shintō: A History by Helen Hardacre

Japan Review 32 (2019): 233–35

EXCERPT: It must be said in no uncertain terms that this book constitutes a major contribution to the field of Shinto studies and is a must-read for any scholar interested in the tradition. At seven hundred pages of densely packed text, it is also not a book for the faint of heart. Undergraduates will struggle to hold it up, let alone read it cover to cover. But Hardacre’s elegant framing and smooth chronological organization tidily arrange information about a tradition that is notoriously difficult to define. It is a tremendous accomplishment.

Against Harmony: Progressive and Radical Buddhism in Modern Japan by James Mark Shields

Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Volume 86, Issue 2, 17 May 2018, Pages 568–571

EXCERPT: [Shields] persuasively shows that Buddhists experienced Japanese modernity in multifarious ways. He furthermore proves that many prominent Buddhists had demonstrable commitments to principles that we would regard today as “leftist.” The old model of quietist Buddhists failing to resist state power falls apart in Shields’s hands, and that is a good thing. Some Buddhists were concerned with supporting Japanese imperialism and military adventurism, but others were critical of the state and mobilized Buddhist ideas in pursuit of social justice. Notably, however, few of the movements that Shields discusses can be described as lasting successes. [...] The question therefore remains of what messages we should take from their failed ideas and abortive activities.
Shields would have us make Buddhism a little more Marxist and Marxian analysis a little more Buddhist. I am sympathetic to his progressive politics. But if one problem with earlier studies of modern Japanese Buddhism was that they unfairly imposed contemporary political sensibilities onto the people of the past, Shields’s corrective may not have escaped this same pitfall.

Click to buy!

Click to buy!

Itsukushima Gate, image from Wikimedia Commons © Jeordy Meow

Itsukushima Gate, image from Wikimedia Commons © Jeordy Meow

Big Questions in the Study of Shintō

EXCERPT: If in a previous generation it was an interest in Zen that brought students to classes on Japanese religions, today that topic is often Shinto. Two major sources of information put Shinto in the minds of our students. On the one hand, Japanese popular culture products pique student curiosity about shrines, kami, and associated myths and rituals. [...] On the other hand, Shinto is very much in the news. Regional and domestic debates over the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, proposed changes in protocol regarding imperial succession, and the prospect of constitutional revision have ensured that Shinto has stayed in popular consciousness, especially in East Asia but also farther afield. Prime Minister Abe Shinzō hosted the May 2016 G7 summit at Ise-Shima and had world leaders participate in a tree-planting ceremony near the Ise Shrines. Reportage on the scandals swirling around Abe’s administration (particularly the controversial land deal to Osaka-based education company Moritomo Gakuen) and on the political lobbies supporting his initiatives has often made obligatory reference to Shinto, describing it as “a polytheistic and animist religion native to Japan.”

Undergraduates who take courses on East Asian history, politics, and religion come to class with preconceptions that reflect these mediated and popularized depictions of Shinto traditions. The time is therefore ripe for scholars of Japan to build on students’ intrinsic interest in Shinto while also offering more nuanced historical and social context than students are likely to get from the en- tertainment, news, and social media with which they are probably most familiar.

Maxey,Trent. The "Greatest Problem": Religion and State Formation in Meiji Japan

Journal of Religion 96, no. 4 (2016): 571–572

EXCERPT: Recently a new question has come to an old field. The field is the nonconfessional study of Japanese religions. The question is whether juxtaposing these terms—“Japanese” and “religion”—makes any sense at all. Responses to the question have been mixed, but the most persuasive answers have historicized the category “religion” (shukyo) by showing how and why it was appropriated by Japanese policy makers, in- tellectuals, and leaders of sectarian groups.
Trent Maxey’s thoroughly researched book continues this project.


The “Greatest Problem” is required reading for those interested in intersections between religion and modern Japanese politics and deserves a place on graduate syllabi in secularity studies, Japanese religions, and Japanese history.

Religious Freedom, Past and Future (review of Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, Beyond Religious Freedom)

The Immanent Frame

EXCERPT: Hurd writes in large part for her colleagues in international relations who have only recently rediscovered religion as a salient factor in global politics and have tried to compensate for their previous tendency to overlook religion, but she also writes for policymakers and activists who have recently embraced the international promotion of religious freedom as a panacea for religious oppression, marginalization of faith communities, and religiously motivated violence. Hurd is firm in speaking to all of these groups, questioning the facile “two faces of faith” model promoted by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Faith Foundation and interrogating the plausibility of religious engagement projects advocated by the United States Department of State. While Hurd is diplomatic throughout, she takes scholars, policymakers, and activists to task for doubling down on the category of religion in their respective endeavors. She persuasively shows that the “two faces of faith” narrative is an oversimplification that uses security language to mask a missionary project (converting “bad religion” into “good religion”). She shows that “engaging” religion means reifying religious identities and making decisions about whose religion really counts.

Religious Discourse in Modern Japan: Religion, State, and Shintō by Isomae Jun'ichi (review)

Monumenta Nipponica 71, no. 1 (2016): 186–191

EXCERPT: Isomae’s critical appraisal of religious studies is as refreshing now as it was when his 2003 monograph hit the shelves, and anybody who is interested in the history of the field must read it. Moreover, the future of the field (the “study of religion,” to use Isomae’s nomenclature) lies in how all of us, regardless of citizenship or cultural background, might responsibly deal with the legacy of the “R word” in asymmetrical power relations and in the politics of our scholarship. I read Isomae’s work as calling for this indispensable reflection. I only wish that his evidence and argumentation were actually prepared to support his provocative claims.


The Concept of Religion in Modern Japan: Imposition, Invention, or Innovation?

Journal of Religion in Japan 2 (2013): 3–21

EXCERPT: One final point about terminology. Josephson’s decision to describe the emergence of the category of religion in Japan as an “invention” falls in a venerable line of scholarly precedent of highlighting a commonsense concept as “invented” (for example, Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983; Masuzawa 2005). Reference to invention now serves as scholarly shorthand for awareness of the historically contingent, intrinsically political, and dangerously seductive nature of categories that are too easily taken for granted. This is a useful rhetorical strategy, but the pas- sive construction “the invention of...” may obfuscate who does the inventing and why. Obviously invention never happens in a vacuum, but if scholars intend to suggest the creation of something wholly new when they use the word, then neither book is actually describing the “invention” of religion in Japan. Rather, each author in his own way describes a process of innovation wherein Japanese agents carefully selected from the concepts at their disposal and reconfigured them to suit their needs. This may seem a purely semantic point, but words come with entailments that can mislead, distort, and reinforce. One challenge for the future will be to discover ways to talk about the constructed nature of “religion” that do not denigrate the meaning of religion for those who apply the term reflexively, that do not diminish awareness of religion’s evident ideological power, and do not dismiss the idea of religion itself as a mere scholarly phantasm. Religion is “made” by states and apologists as much as it is made by scholars, and the “real” lies no more in our ability to identify religion’s historical and discursive origins than it does in the elucidation of religion’s material underpinnings or its political (and occasionally violent) effects.

Joseph Kickasola, John C. Lyden, S. Brent Plate, Antonio Sison, Sheila J. Nayar, Stephanie Knauss, Rachel Wagner, and Jolyon Thomas, "Facing Forward, Looking Back: Religion and Film Studies in the Last Decade"

Journal of Religion and Film 17, no. 1 (2013)


EXCERPT: Some might say that we know religion or the sacred when we see it, but this opens us up to the reasonable critique that we are being excessively confessional, are reading our own interpretations too much into the work of a director, or that we are imputing to audiences our own reactions. I’m not calling here for some impossible mode of pure objectivity, but minus ethnographic work (sorry to keep hammering this point) it seems difficult to prove that the scholar of religion and film is talking about anybody but herself. In my own work, I have to account for the fact that most of my informants—both directors and audiences—will recognize characters, images, and tropes as religious in origin but will deny the possibility that they have any religious effect or meaning. A sensitive, multivalent definition can address this by clarifying how the category of “religion” operates for different interest groups, including scholars, filmmakers, clerics, and audiences.

Screen Shot 2018-07-20 at 21.42.07.png

Celebrity Gods: New Religions, Media, and Authority in Occupied Japan by Benjamin Dorman

Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, Vol. 17, No. 4 (May 2014), pp. 104-105

EXCERPT: Benjamin Dorman’s recent book provides a welcome appraisal of the mutually dependent relationship between media and marginal religious movements. Focusing primarily on the activities of the religions Jiu and Tenshō Kōtai Jingū Kyō (TKJK hereafter) during the Allied Occupation of Japan (1945–1952), Dorman argues that journalists both stigmatized and popularized new religions by granting celebrity status to their founders. 


Web Essays and Blog Posts


Religious Freedom, Weapon of Choice

EXCERPT: We are reminded of the American story of religious freedom year after year. This national narrative certainly deserves careful, ongoing attention. But perhaps a more patriotic account would be characterized by humility rather than hubris. Instead of assuming that Americans naturally know what religious freedom is, we might look at moments like the Occupation of Japan when people of other nationalities have helped us think about how everyone might be free. Instead of assuming that religious freedom made the America that we know today, we might ask how Americans have made—still make—religious freedom into a weapon of choice.


The Meoto Iwa in Ise. Photo taken March 2019.

The Meoto Iwa in Ise. Photo taken March 2019.

What Is Shintō?

EXCERPT: Because Shintō appears essentially “Japanese,” one might assume that Japanese people intuitively know how to conduct themselves at shrines. But it is telling that many shrines display Japanese-language instructions on the “proper” protocol for venerating the kami (two bows, two claps, hold hands together while making a petition, another deep bow). Shrine priests also hang posters instructing people to bow toward the kami each time they pass through a torii gate. These initiatives suggest that Shintō priests are continually teaching Japanese people how to properly practice their own “Japanese” tradition.

Even Religious Freedom Victories Harbor Defeats

EXCERPT: [T]he relatively obscure February 1927 [Farrington v. Tokushige] decision seems like a feel-good legal win for a wrongly vilified and widely misunderstood ethnic minority. But behind this apparent victory lies a complicated story regarding American religious freedom, Buddhism, and debates over immigration that sound eerily similar to contemporary controversies about travel bans, border walls, and executive orders.

A racist image included with a 6 November 1921  Los Angeles Times  op-ed by former Governor of the Territory of Hawai`i Charles J. McCarthy

A racist image included with a 6 November 1921 Los Angeles Times op-ed by former Governor of the Territory of Hawai`i Charles J. McCarthy

Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan

EXCERPT: Secularity is anxious

I wrote this short sentence during one of the many post-review revisions of my forthcoming book Faking Liberties: Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan. I didn’t think much of it when I wrote these three words, but I soon recognized that the sentence neatly encapsulated the main points of the book. I’ll use this post to unpack what I meant.

Domesticity & Spirituality: Kondo Is Not an Animist

EXCERPT: I was initially hesitant to join the many people churning out hot takes in response to Kondo’s show, and I remain uncertain about whether contributing to the hype is warranted or wise. But as a scholar of Japanese religions who specializes in Shintō, I couldn’t remain silent when I started to see a worrying pattern.

The concepts of “Shintō” and “gentle animism” that Kondo’s defenders deploy instantiate the very racism they seek to challenge. Her defenders are trading in shockingly Orientalist fantasies about timeless Asian wisdom and white ignorance, and some of them seem to have little awareness of how Japanese auto-narratives perform political work.

Teaching True Believers

EXCERPT: We do not tell our students what to believe, nor do we tell them not to believe, nor do we deny the importance of their familial traditions or personal convictions. But we help them see that it does not have to be this way or that. We encourage them to move beyond the obfuscatory personal example, and to speak about religion as a social construction or an anthropological conceit or a legal category bearing geopolitical effects. We help them see that “religion” is historically bound and culturally contingent. Together, we acknowledge that there are lots of different ways that people interact with non-obvious beings and empirically unverifiable realities. We show that ideas like karma, sin, heaven, a chosen people, and rebirth are all articles of faith and figments of the irrepressibly fecund religious imagination. We train them to not assume that everyone operates within the same imaginaries.

Training the Religious Memory

EXCERPT: There is nothing quite so touching (or quite so irritating) as having a total stranger slump against you in a deep sleep on a Tokyo train.

Like the Internet, Tokyo trains are equally intimate and anonymous. They are spaces where one encounters fellow Tokyoites in all their wacky fashion, their frenetic mobile phone gaming, their inane conversations, their drunken abandon. Tokyo trains are raucous in the evenings and eerily silent during the day. They are often uncomfortably crowded, but they are nevertheless a place to temporarily let down one’s guard. I’ve actually boarded the Yamanote circle line and ridden it all the way around the city just so I could sneak in an hour-long nap.

Corporate Profit through Buddhist Kitsch

EXCERPT: Just as some retail establishments will maintain their thermostats slightly above a comfortable temperature to encourage people to make impulse buys, and just as IKEA will wear down consumer resistance by making people physically walk past the entire store catalogue in a carefully scripted pilgrimage, this particular store lulled customers into a sense of complacent consumption by providing omnipresent physical reminders of non-acquisitiveness. The serene countenance of the Buddha blissfully absorbed in supreme unexcelled awakening said nothing at all, but his familiar visage nevertheless offered a hortatory message.

“Go ahead and buy it,” the silent statues seemed to say. “No materialism here.”

Tongue in Cheek, Just in Case

EXCERPT: Norton’s 2012 campaign was clearly driven by profit, but the ad blends the mundane need for computer security with the value-added promise of divine protection (just in case religion). Simultaneously, the ad mocks itself by subversively parodying a staid religious ceremony (tongue in cheek religion). Solemnly suited individuals kneel and bow over their computers while a priest chants an intercessory prayer (kitō) before ritual offering trays piled with USB sticks. The ancient “god power” (English phrase in the original narration) of Japan’s myriad deities both sublimates and protects the base desires of the consumers depicted in the video: the otaku (geek) with his cathectic affection for 2D dream girls; the lecherous old man with a secret pr0n stash; the flirtatious bride taking a naughty trip down memory lane; the mature woman of intrigue and innuendo; the anime music fan with her illegally downloaded tunes; the gangster who engages in shady speculation and black market deals. The need for divine protection is intimately linked to human foibles and the vices of the age; the classical Shintō preoccupation with purity and pollution is mapped onto contemporary anxieties about computer security and viral infection.

Field Notes on Drinking at a Buddhist Bar

EXCERPT: We are pretty familiar with how Tokyo’s neighborhoods reward the adventurous, so when Three and I met up for drinks in Nakano on an autumn evening in 2012, we struck out for one of the small side streets near the station instead of walking down the larger shopping arcade directly across from the station exit. We immediately found ourselves in a maze of narrow lanes barely big enough to accommodate foot traffic, let alone vehicles. Japanese tapas bars (izakaya) and noodle shops cozied up to establishments catering to the prurient interests of a heterosexual male clientele. Young women on advertising posters coquettishly eyed passersby while well-dressed hustlers inveigled groups of suited salarymen to step inside.


While people around us may have been in Nakano looking for love, our interests were relatively pedestrian. We walked deeper into the warren of restaurants and bars in search of a drink and a meal. We passed an Irish pub, a darts bar, and an establishment that offered a special “course” in which a young woman sporting a maid’s outfit would sit on a patron’s lap and clean his ears.