Anesaki Masaharu

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ANESAKI MASAHARU (18731949) is known as the founder of religious studies in modern Japan. Through his "Introduction to Religious Studies" lectures at Tokyo Imperial University and the publication of his book General Introduction to Religious Studies (1900), Anesaki established a new form of the academic study of religion in Japan. Thereafter he became a professor and occupied the chair of religious studies (established in 1905) at the Imperial University. He later became chairman of the Japanese Religious Studies Association. Anesaki's life itself reflects the development of religious studies in Japan before the outbreak of World War II.

Anesaki's early ideas concerning religious studies were expressed in his General Introduction to Religious Studies. He thought that the subject of religious studies should be constituted into three areas: religious psychology, religious ethics, and religious sociology. His main goal was to comprehend religion as an expression of the human desire for the infinite. From this point of view, all religious phenomena can be understood equally as one, while the same humanistic psychological processes lay behind the differences in religions. Anesaki's psychological ideas were influenced by C. P. Tiele and William Starbuck, and by Wilhelm Bender and Benjamin Kidd in terms of irrational human desires.

In early modern Japan, there was no unified conception of a "religion" behind religions, or even of "Buddhism" behind Buddhist sects. It was only in the modern era, with the arrival of Christianity and the formation of a nation-state, that the category of "religion" emerged in academic and legal discourse in discussions concerning how to regulate the relationship between Christianity, Buddhism, and Shintō, and between the different sects in each religion, in order to create and then support a Westernized nation-state. Anesaki provided a discursive framework for "religion" that could bring all religious phenomena into one and the same category: namely, the sui generis "religion." Furthermore, by interpreting religious categories as a psychological dimension of the human mind, Anesaki relocated the things concerned with the other world (e.g., God, heaven, and hell) into worldly civil society. Therefore, it may be said that Anesaki's idea of religious studies provided the Japanese people with a national identity that transcended individual beliefs by interpreting the category of "religion" as referring to the psychological interiority that members of a society need to support a nation-state. In this, Anesaki was influenced by his nationalist teacher Inoue Tesujirō, a famous scholar who emphasized the importance of national values, and by Raphael von Koeber, who argued that much of the individual's interior life could not be reduced to rational terms.

In response, religious studies as envisioned by Anesaki granted the sphere of individual consciousness priority of uniqueness. This promised a way to guarantee the protection of individual religious freedom from the power of the state. At the same time, it included the possibility of connecting this interiority with enthusiastic nationalism, which had grown after the separation of the church and state in Japan. In fact, when the government appointed Anesaki a member of an investigative committee for religious institutions, he criticized the intervention of the state into matters of religious beliefs. At the same time, however, at a meeting held in 1912 consisting of Christians, Buddhists, and Shintōists, he took the lead in advocating that religious groups support the Japanese government. Anesaki was known as a follower of Nichiren, whom Anesaki believed was the ideal prophet who had connected religious devotion to belief in the nation-state.

In this sense, his admiration during the latter half of his life for Prince Shōtoku is worthy of note. Throughout his life, Anesaki thought of the emperor as a religious figure who existed as the center of the Japanese people's interiority. Prince Shōtoku was an imperial prince in antiquity and a noted exponent of the Lotus Sūtra. This form of Buddhism sought to save all people who could be saved. Here, one can see a close relationship drawn between religion and national identity. As such, Anesaki's vision derived more from the early modern Japanese social and political climate than from modern Western thought, where the separation of church and state was the ideal. In fact, Anesaki was born into a family working for a Buddhist temple. His ancestors had worked as servants of the imperial family in Kyoto from the early modern period. Thus, though Anesaki's vision of religious studies as a field was developed under the strong influence of Western thought, it included native elements that cannot be reduced to modern Western concepts.

In addition, his study of Japanese religious history is worthy of note. He cast a great deal of light on some aspects of Japanese religious history, including the religious personalities of Nichiren and Prince Shōtoku, Buddhist art, and the "hidden Christians" (kakure kirishitan ). Interestingly, these works were first written in English and later translated into Japanese. It was while he was a visiting professor at Harvard University from 1913 to 1915 that he started to study Japanese religious history in earnest. This was during World War I, and he was exposed to the Yellow Peril campaign in the United States. As a result, he felt that the Japanese needed to explain their cultural character to Westerners in order to be understood. For him, religion was an essential common matter among people that informed the Japanese core character. Thus, he began to study Japanese religious history in English. This provided him with a framework to describe "Japanese" religious history as a unified concept. As a result, people could describe Japanese religious history as occurring within a circumstantial space where various religions had interacted with each other. However, the question of whether it is possible to write about Japanese religious history as a whole is today still a difficult problem for scholars. Anesaki's Japanese religious history has also lost some of its significance because many scholars today question the utility of the very concept of "Japanese religious history."

Nevertheless, Anesaki's attempt to describe Japanese religious history deserves respect and should be reevaluated as the first attempt to portray Japanese identity through a comparison with the West. Anesaki's role in establishing the field of religious studies contributed to the establishment of the idea of representing "Japanese religious history" itself. His works, incorporating both this notion of "religion" and "Japanese religious history," represented an important response to the cultural and political conflicts raised within Japanese society by the overwhelming influence of the West. From this perspective, Anesaki's publications on religious studies provide us with highly interesting material that can be used to analyze the reactions of members of the Japanese elite undergoing Westernization during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


Collected Works in Japanese

Anesaki Masaharu Shū. 9 vols. Tokyo, 2002.

Kaitei Anesaki Masaharu chosakushu. 10 vols. Tokyo, 1976, 1982.

Waga shogai. Tokyo, 1951; reprint, 1993. His autobiography.

Works by Anesaki in English

Buddhist Art in Its Relation to Buddhist Ideals, with Special Reference to Buddhism in Japan. Boston, 1915.

Nichiren, the Buddhist Prophet. Cambridge, Mass., 1916.

The Religious and Social Problems of the Orient. New York, 1923.

A Concordance to the History of Kirishitan Missions. Tokyo, 1930.

History of Japanese Religion: With Special Reference to the Social and Moral Life of the Nation. London, 1930.

Art, Life, and Nature in Japan. Boston, 1933.

Prince Shōtoku, the Sage Statesman, and His Mahasattva Ideal. Tokyo, 1948.

Secondary Works

Isomae Jun'ichi. Hidetaka Fukasawa, Kindai Nihon niokeru Chishikijin to Shukyo: Anesaki masahu no Kiseki. Tokyo, 2002.

Isomae Jun'ichi. "The Discursive Position of Religious Studies in Japan: Masaharu Anesaki and the Origins of Religious Studies." Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 14, no. 2 (2002): 2146.

Suzuki Norihisa. Meiji Shukyo Shicho: Shukyogaku Kotohajime. Tokyo, 1979.

Isomae Jun'ichi (2005)