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.

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