Study of Religion: The Academic Study of Religion in Japan

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The study of religion in Japan is probably best known to Western people for D. T. Suzuki and the Kyoto School. However, it would be too Orientalistic to assume that the modern Japanese study of religions has been predominated by Zen Buddhist philosophy with a somehow mystical method of intuition. Japanese students majoring in shūkyōgaku (the study of religion) have been reading classic and contemporary works that are more or less similar to those on the reading lists at Western graduate schools. Moreover, the earliest Japanese scholars of religion regarded themselves as more scientifically objective than their Western counterparts who were struggling to detach themselves from the influence of Christian theology. Although those Japanese scholars were, in reality, far from ideologically neutral, the establishment of the study of religion as a nonconfessional university department (at Tokyo Imperial University in 1905) and of an academy of religion (in 1930) were quite early in comparative terms. In addition, the ninth Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions took place in Tokyo in 1958. Nevertheless, the study of religion has never been granted a high status in Japan. Whereas the number of academy members had reached 2,000 by the end of the twentieth century, less than ten universities had departments of shūkyōgaku, that is, only 1 percent of all four-year universities and colleges in Japan. This paradoxical position of the Japanese study of religion reflects the sociopolitical contexts of religion in modern Japan.

Prehistory of the Study of Religion

It is commonly accepted that the modern study of religion in Japan started in the Meiji era (18681912), after Japan opened its doors to the Western world. The Japanese word for religion, shūkyō, was also coined at the beginning of the era as a translation of the Western term. This does not mean that there were neither precursors of shūkyōgaku nor concepts similar to religion before Japan became fully exposed to Western culture. Nakamoto Tominaga (17151746) is one of the Japanese scholars who developed comparative, historical, and critical approaches to religion without Western influences. Tominaga's rational thinking derived from Confucian education, which was promoted by the Tokugawa government. Rather than defending Confucianism, however, Tominaga compared it with Buddhism and Shintō, and then attempted to present a new teaching that surpassed all three. Like the Western thinkers of the Enlightenment, he criticized existing religions by exposing the historically conditioned nature of their ideas and scriptures.

Tominaga's comparative study of religion was not unique; it was a common practice among scholars at that time to consider Shintō, Buddhism, and Confucianism as related concepts. However, there was no fixed word, like the later shūkyō (religion), that placed them in a single category. Sometimes people called them kyō ("teaching") in order to emphasize their doctrinal aspects; at other times they used a word with more practical connotations, dō (tao, "way").

This terminological ambiguity indicates that a generic category called religion was not yet needed. Japanese scholars in those days did not ask the question that was central to the Enlightenment and gave rise to the modern study of religion in the West: what is the essence of religion? Nor was there any further development in methodology, in contrast to the West, where the methodology of the humanities was polished through imitating and challenging the methods of the rapidly progressing natural sciences. Although the Japanese did access the abundant data about the various religions found within their religiously pluralistic country, they did not embark on the systematic study of comparative religion by themselves.

A drastic change to this situation came about at the outset of the Meiji era. "Religion" was developed as a formal concept, initially to serve political and juridical needs. In order to integrate the country as a nation-state, the Meiji government adopted an imperial system and chose Shintō as its moral guideline. The government then defamed Buddhism, which was once amalgamated with Shintō, while reaffirming the long-standing ban on Christianity. At the same time, however, the government strove to modernize Japan by following Western systems, and in so doing it soon realized that religious freedom was regarded as one of the requirements of a modern society. The government was pressed to permit the freedom of religion yet sought to maintain the special status of Shintō. It managed to solve this problem by making rhetorical use of the concept of religion. The concept, which was an import from the West, was modeled after Christianity, in particular belief/doctrine-centered Protestantism. In light of this definition of religion, Shintō, which mostly consisted of ritual practices, was termed non-religious. The government declared that Shintō was not a religion, but a system of state rituals superior to individual religions. "Non-religious" was promoted as a positive virtue rather than implying something less than a religion. This was the rhetoric used to legitimize what later was called State Shintō. The government insisted that it was different from state religion and thus compatible with freedom of religion. Not all Japanese were convinced by this reasoning, and a heated dispute arose when the Kyōiku chokugo (Imperial rescript on education) was enacted in an effort to infuse all schoolchildren with national morality shaped by Shintō ideas.

Scholars debate what other effects were caused by the conceptualization of religion in the Meiji society. The consensus is that practice-based folk religions were suppressed, being categorized as superstitions. Established religions such as Buddhism imitated the modern features of religion epitomized in Protestantism for the sake of survival. In addition, Japan was unique among the cultures encountering the modern West in the failure of Christian missionaries to expand Christianity in the country, which was supposed to be perfectly religious already, according to the newly adopted concept of religion. It was under these circumstances that the study of religion gradually took its form in Japan.

Early Developments (19051945)

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, universities modeled after Western, particularly German, institutions began to be founded in Japan. While there were a number of private universities, some of which had either Buddhist or Christian backgrounds, a few national universities were granted a leading position in research and teaching. In 1890 Tetsujirō Inoue (18551944) delivered a lecture on comparative religion and Eastern philosophy at Tokyo Imperial University, Japan's first national university. In 1905 Masaharu Anesaki (18731949) was appointed to the first professorship in religious studies at the university, and the first department for the study of religion was established. Other national universities, which were independent of any religious organization, followed suit. The early scholars emphasized the importance of free inquiry and a comparative approach.

Nevertheless, their scholarly research was guided by significant practical concerns alongside the scientific ideal of objectivity. The fundamental question about the nature of religion had been evoked in the debate on the legitimacy of State Shintō, and the public came to expect scholars of religion not only to offer a professional definition of religion but also to present a blueprint for religion's future. Their recommendations varied. Inoue supported the Imperial rescript on education in the debate. His goal was to replace all religions with national morality and rational philosophy. He believed that existing religions would become outdated in the process of modernization.

While rationalist scholars such as Inoue thought that society would ultimately be able to dispense with religion, most scholars of religion, including Anesaki, hoped to secure the role of religion in contemporary and future society. They therefore defended religion against modern secularism. Still, it was self-evident to almost all of them that religion could serve to consolidate and expand their new nation-state, and in that aspect of national loyalty they were not much different from right-wing nationalists who promoted the Imperial rescript on education.

In this process of describing religion in comparison to other categories such as education and morality, they came to presuppose the sui generis quality of religion, and different scholars presented various universal definitions of religion, which were also assumed to be its origin. Their views of religion can be described, overall, as psycho- or subject-centered. For example, Manshi Kiyozawa (18631903) defined religion as "a mental faculty or disposition which enables man to apprehend the Infinite" (in The Skeleton of Philosophy of Religion, an essay in English distributed to attendees at the World Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893). Many Japanese scholars, even those with religious affiliations, regarded the divine being as a projection of human feelings, desires, or life forces. Interestingly, they did not think that such views would undermine religion. They were in fact optimistic about religion, believing in its evolution. Although these tendencies were distinct, it is difficult to discern how many of them were derived from their contemporary Western thoughts or from the indigenous tradition of Buddhism or animistic Shintō.

Twenty-five years after the first department for the study of religion was established, The Japanese Association for Religious Studies was founded, the first nationwide academic organization in the field. At that time there were strong antireligious movements inspired by Marxism, which was one of the causes that led scholars of religion to unite to defend religion. During the same period Japan became an imperialistic power and started to expand its colonies from Korea to other parts of Asia. In a parallel to Western scholarship, Japanese scholars developed ethnographic studies based on fieldwork in the new colonies in Asia, aware that studying the religions of diverse ethnic groups would serve Japan's colonial policy. It is often pointed out that the Kyoto School, the well-known group of religious philosophers from Kyoto Imperial University, justified Japanese imperialism with their ideas of Buddhism as postmodern, post-Western wisdom. Scholars of religion who supported Japanese imperialism ideologically were not limited to the Kyoto School, however. Moreover, many scholars found their freedom of research being increasingly restricted.

Developments Since 1945

With the end of the Second World War, it was publicly admitted that State Shintō was, indeed, a religion. The Shintō Directive, which specified the occupation policy on religion, was issued in 1945 to abolish the entire system of State Shintō. At the same time the imperial family was demythologized to allow a democracy to be established. In the postwar period the influence of the United States became immense, both politically and culturally. It was ironic, therefore, that many Japanese remained skeptical about religion throughout the Cold War, despite their living in a capitalistic society. Traumatic memories of religious totalitarianism continue to influence the Japanese to separate religion from politics, to an extent that they often feel uncomfortable about the religious aspect of U.S. politics, often called the civil religion of the United States. In addition, opinion polls indicate that a large number of Japanese have a strong distrust of any religious organization.

Under these circumstances, the scholars of religion in postwar Japan became more careful to maintain scientific neutrality than had been the prewar scholars, who were socially engaged in defending religion. This neutral attitude culminated in the work of Hideo Kishimoto (19031964), a leading postwar scholar who sharply contrasted the study of religion as a purely empirical science with the study of theology. It does not mean that the postwar study of religion had no perspectives. Many scholars took an interest in minor, or what are called "little," religious traditions, the religions of the populace, whereas prewar scholars more often investigated the religious elites. This new tendency reflected the politically liberal atmosphere that spread through the humanities and social sciences in the 1950s. It was also a result of differentiating the study of religion itself from studies of Buddhist, Shintō, or Christian religions that focused on textual studies and elitist traditions. It may also be true that cross-religious categories like folk religion were more suited to comprehending the syncretic pluralism of Japanese religions.

In these respects, the Japanese study of religion has many things in common with the history of religions, a term often used to describe a humanistic tradition within the study of religion in the West. Nonetheless, most Japanese scholars have never identified themselves as historians of religions in this sense. The reason for this may be largely institutional. Since the study of religion has been a small field, it has never become too compartmentalized; those researching new religious movements, for example, worked closely with field workers studying folk religions. In addition, Japanese scholars in other departments such as sociology used to pay little attention to religion due to the pervasive indifference to religion in Japan. Rivalry with those scholars also helped to unite the field.

Because of these factors, the Japanese study of religion developed by embracing psychology, sociology, anthropology, and other approaches to religion. In the process, Japanese scholars readily adopted Western theories such as functionalism and structuralism, but they also found Christian influences in the Western study of religion and elaborated original theories of religion from their point of view. To take a few examples, whereas the Western study of religion used to emphasize the mind or the mind-body dichotomy in religion, Kishimoto rehabilitated the aspect of the body in religion as seen in ascetic practices, and Keiichi Yanagawa (19261990) presented a definition of religion as human relationships, in sharp contrast to the monotheistic idea of religion.

The Japanese study of religion differs from its Western, and particularly American, counterparts in a number of other respects. The Japanese scholarly view of religion tends to be ritual-centric rather than myth-centric. Studying myth is relatively unpopular partly because of the sensitive nature of Japanese mythology, which was once believed to be the historical truth about the origins of the imperial family, and partly because of the lack of a strong tradition of Greco-Roman classical studies. Instead, the study of rituals such as festivals and shamanic practices is prevalent. It is also noteworthy that the philosophy of religion has always been much more existentialistic, as represented by the Kyoto School tradition, than Anglo-American. In addition, the study of religion in Japan used to center more on modernization than secularization. Although secularization did become a central theme in the sociology of religion, it was the problem of modernization that evoked lively cross-disciplinary discussions in postwar Japan. Scholars first ascribed the problems of the prewar political system to the immaturity of Japan as a modern society. Long discussions followed as to whether Japan had remained half feudalistic or had achieved modernization in its own unique way. It was in this context that Robert Bellah's Tokugawa Religion, which analyzed the relationships between Japanese religious ethics and industrialization, attracted attention.

The debate on modernization was, in a sense, a question of Japanese identity. The postwar quest for national identity was satisfied on a popular level by Japanese studies (nihonjinron/nihonbunkaron ), which overly emphasized the uniqueness of Japanese culture, including religion, based on the stereotypical contrast of the Orient and the Occident. On a more academic level, Japanese folklore studies, a neighboring field to religious studies founded by Kunio Yanagita (18751962), has most often been charged with ethnocentrism. It is considered to have originated in the Kokugaku (National Learning) movement, a nativistic movement based on philological study of Norinaga Motoori (17301801), an apologist for Shintō. At the same time, the work of Yanagita, who had been a private scholar, was reevaluated in the context of the counter-culture movements in the late 1960s and 1970s as an alternative to the established modern sciences of the universities.

The counterculture movements led to postmodernism in the 1980s. The trend was best embodied by Shinichi Nakazawa (b. 1950), a scholar of religion who had a Carlos Castenada-like experience with a guru in Tibet and later wrote books that combined his experiences with postmodern thought like that of Julia Kristeva. Whereas the Western postmodern study of religion tended to be critical of religion from a Freudian or a Marxist perspective, its Japanese equivalent could slide into Buddhist supremacism. This echo of wartime ideology resurrected a tough question as to whether the idea of the triumph of Eastern thought over Western thought was a mere reversal of Orientalism or if it had a certain validity.

It was no accident, therefore, that the new religion Aum Shinrikyō grew during the decade. Aum's release of Sarin gas in Tokyo subway stations in 1995 profoundly shocked Japanese scholars of religion. The incident forced them to seriously reconsider what the public role of the study of religion should be. Despite the overall lack of interest in religion among the Japanese public, new religious movements had been active, and the study of new religious groups had become quite popular in the postwar period. Scholars of religion treated new religions as Western historians of religions were treating indigenous religions, reevaluating them on their own merits instead of dismissing them as primitive. Accordingly, after Aum's gas attack, they faced criticism for having been standing on the side of new religions.

The postcolonial critique also raised the same question about the social role of the study of religion. Scholars started looking closely at diversity within the minor religious traditions, particularly in terms of gender and ethnicity, and problematizing the long neglect of oppressed minorities both by society and by the academy. Japanese feminist and gender-based studies of religion derive from the second wave of Japanese feminism in the 1970s. Interest in these studies has been high despite the twin difficulties of male domination of Japanese religious traditions and the lack of interest in religion within Japanese feminist movements.

In order to study the ongoing interactions between contemporary society and religions, new scholarly organizations were established in the 1990s. The most notable is the Japanese Association for the Study of Religion and Society (JASRS), founded in 1993. The International Institute for the Study of Religion (IISR), originally set up in 1953, was also reorganized in 1993, along with the Religious Information Research Center (RIRC).

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, popular issues in the mainstream of the Japanese study of religion include religion in practice (seikatsu no shūkyō), globalization/localization and religion, religion and violence, and the concept of religion and Orientalism. New impulses are emerging from the question of whether the study of religion should be more socially engaged rather than assuming neutrality. The responses to this question range from critical approaches following Saidian-Foucaultian reflections about knowledge and power to religious approaches following Nakazawa's attempt to guide the individual's spiritual quest.

Last but not least, all Japanese universities have recently been asked to reform themselves structurally to become more globally competitive. This movement is represented by the Twenty-First Century Center of Excellence (COE) program, a funding system that rewards selected universities and research institutions. The program is administered by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science with the support of the Japanese government. It encourages research that will directly contribute to society, which has promoted the idea of applied sciences even among traditional humanistic disciplines; the study of bioethics is one example within the field of religious studies. With this new focus, the study of religion is once again facing a challenge to serve public and national interests without losing its critical stance.


Primary sources in English

Anesaki Masaharu. Buddhist Art in Its Relation to Buddhist Ideals, with Special Reference to Buddhism in Japan. Boston, 1915, reprint, New York, 1978.

Anesaki Masaharu. History of Japanese Religion, with Special Reference to the Social and Moral Life of the Nation. London, 1930, reprint, 1995.

Bellah, Robert N. Tokugawa Religion: The Values of Pre-Industrial Japan. New York, 1957; reprint, London, 1985.

Katō Genchi. A Study of Shinto: The Religion of the Japanese Nation. London, 1926; reprint, 1971. Genchi Katō (18731965) initiated the study of Shintō from the perspective of comparative religion.

Kishimoto Hideo. "An Operational Definition of Religion." Numen 8 (1961): 236240.

Kishimoto Hideo. "Religiology." Numen 14 (1967): 8186.

Tominaga Nakamoto. Emerging from Meditation. Translated and edited by Michael Pye. London, 1990.

Uno Enkū. Religious Rites and Ceremonies Concerning Rice-Planting and Eating in Malaysia. Tokyo, 1942. Enkū Uno (18851949) is one of the early Japanese scholars of religion. This ethnographical essay has its background in Japanese imperialism in Asia.

YabukiKeiki, editor. Rare and Unknown Chinese Manuscript Remains of Buddhist Literature Discovered in Tun-Huang Collected by Sir Aurel Stein and Preserved in the British Museum. Tokyo, 1930. Keiki Yabuki (18791939), himself belonging to the Jōdoshū Buddhist tradition, was one of the pioneers who incorporated the study of religion into Buddhist studies. He is famous for his studies on the teaching of the three stages, but his works are not available in English.

Yanagawa Keiichi. "Matsuri no kankaku." Shūkyō kenkyū 49 (1976): 223242. Available in English as "The Sensation of Matsuri" from

Yanagita Kunio. About Our Ancestors: The Japanese Family System. Tokyo, 1970; reprint, Tokyo, 1988.

Yanagita Kunio. The Legends of Tono. Tokyo, 1975.

Secondary sources in Western languages

Isomae Junichi. "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. 1 (2002): 2146.

Japanese Association for Religious Studies. Religious Studies in Japan. Tokyo, 1959. A commemorative volume from the Ninth International Congress for the History of Religions.

Kawahashi Noriko, and Masako Kuroki. "Editors' Introduction: Feminism and Religion in Contemporary Japan." Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 30, no. 3/4 (2003): 207216. This entire volume is dedicated to feminist and gender studies of religion in Japan.

Matsumoto Shigeru. Motoori Norinaga 17301801. Cambridge, U.K., 1975; reprint, Ann Arbor, Mich., 1995.

Prohl, Inken. Die "spirituellen Intellektuellen" und das New Age in Japan. Hamburg, Germany, 2000. A critique of Shinichi Nakazawa and other popular religious-spiritual scholars such as Yasuo Yuasa.

Pye, Michael. "Japanese Studies of Religion." Religion 4 (1975): 5572.

Pye, Michael. "Modern Japan and the Science of Religions." Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 15, no. 1 (2003): 127. This article, along with "Religious Studies in Japan" by Tamaru, provides a general view of the Japanese study of religion, with a special focus on its prehistory.

Reader, Ian. "Dichotomies, Contested Terms, and Contemporary Issues in the Study of Religion." 2004. Available from This article touches on the concept of religion in Japan in light of recent theoretical discussions.

Rotermund, Hartmut O. "Les sciences des religions au Japon." In Le Grand Atlas des Religions. Paris, 1988.

Shimazono Susumu. "The Study of Religion and the Tradition of Pluralism." Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 9, no. 1 (19821983): 7788. This article discusses the influence of religious pluralism on the Japanese study of religion.

Snodgrass, Judith. Presenting Japanese Buddhism to the West: Orientalism, Occidentalism, and the Columbian Exposition. Chapel Hill, N.C., 2003. This book closely examines presentations by Japanese Buddhists at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. Opinions are divided as to whether the World Parliament of Religions was a major contributor in the formation of the study of religion in Japan.

Staggs, Kathleen M. In Defense of Japanese Buddhism: Essays from the Meiji Period by Inoue Enryō and Murakami Senshō. Microfilm, Ann Arbor, Mich., 1987. Both Enryō Inoue (18581919) and Senshō Murakami (18511929) had a Jōdo Shinshū Buddhist background and applied a modern method of free inquiry to Buddhist and religious studies. Inoue also published unique works on the superstitious aspects of folk religion.

Tamaru Noriyoshi. "Religious Studies in Japan: A Preliminary Report." In The Notion of "Religion" in Comparative Research: Selected Proceedings of the 16th IAHR Congress, edited by Ugo Bianchi. Rome, 1994.

Primary sources in Japanese

Anesaki Masaharu. Shūkyōgaku gairon (An Introduction to the Study of Religion). Tokyo, 1900.

Anesaki Masaharu. Fukkatsu no Shokō (The Dawn of Revival). Tokyo, 1904.

Kishimoto Hideo. Shūkyōgaku (The Study of Religion). Tokyo, 1961.

Yanagawa Keiichi. Gendai nihonjin no shūkyō (Religions of Contemporary Japanese People). Kyoto, 1991.

Secondary sources in Japanese

Isomae Junichi and Hidetaka Fukasawa, eds. Kindai nihon niokeru chisikijin to shūkyō (Intellectuals and Religion in Modern Japan). Tokyo, 2002. A detailed biographical work on Anesaki with critical essays and a comprehensive catalogue of his writings.

Shimazono Susumu, and Yoshio Tsuruoka, eds. Shūkyō saikō (Reconsidering the Concept of Religion). Tokyo, 2004. This contains a few articles on the concept of religion in Japanese contexts.

Suzuki Norihisa. Meiji shūkyō shichō no kenkyū (The Trends of Religious Thought in the Meiji Era). Tokyo, 1979.

Tamaru Noriyoshi, ed. Nihon no shūkyō gakusetsu (Theories of the Study of Religion in Japan). Vol. 1, Tokyo, 1982; vol. 2, Tokyo, 1985. A collection of articles on early Japanese scholars of religion, such as Seiichi Hatano (18771950), Enkū Uno (18851949), and Chishin Ishibashi (18861947). Limited availability.

Sakoto Fujiwara (2005)

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Study of Religion: The Academic Study of Religion in Japan

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