Episode 96 – Dr. Jolyon Thomas (Penn)

Originally published on February 22, 2019 
[This transcript has been edited for clarity.]

Tristan Grunow: This is the Meiji at 150 Podcast. I’m Tristan Grunow. On this episode, I’m talking with Dr. Jolyon Thomas, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Thomas is the author, recently, of “Varieties of Religious Freedom in Japanese Buddhist Responses to the 1899 Religions Bill,” published in The Asian Journal of Law & Society in 2016 as well as Faking Liberties: Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan, forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press in spring of 2019. Dr. Thomas, thank you so much for talking with me today.

Jolyon Thomas: Oh thank you for having me, and thanks for the good work that you’re doing with this podcast.

TG: Thank you so much. I’ve had several episodes with scholars looking at religious studies but often, these textbook narratives we get of religion during the Meiji period focus on Shintō, and then where Buddhism does come in, it’s usually things like the separation of Shintō and Buddhism (the shinbutsu bunri), the resulting destruction of Buddhism (haibutsu kishaku). And so, Buddhism gets a secondary position. Now, your research has looked at Buddhism or religious practice I should say, all the way from the Meiji period up to contemporary Japan, looking especially at Buddhism. So, could you give us a little bit of that story of what happens to Buddhism during the Meiji period?

JT: Sure. So I guess the first thing that I should say is that I’m having to talk about Buddhism, but it’s almost impossible to talk about Buddhism without also making reference to the tradition that we now call Shintō. Indeed, the story of modern Shintō is, in many ways, the story of modern Buddhism as well, and I’ll unpack what I mean by that. Having said that, we see in the Meiji era – I think if I had to compress it down into one keyword – anxiety or perhaps uncertainty.

Buddhists had a very stable position in Japanese society for most of the Edo period through their special relationship with the Tokugawa government as effectively census keepers under the dankaseido or the tedokeseido, the system where households had to register with local Buddhist temples to prove that they were not Christians. So, Buddhists had this very stable position. It was premised on the notion that occupational groups like Buddhists had a particular role to play in that political order and then by the end of the Tokugawa period, we already start to see that stability begins to crumble.

With the influx of American ideas and global ideas about what religion is and what role religion should play in society, Buddhists find themselves really on the defensive. Of course, the story that we’ve all heard (the one that you alluded to a moment ago) is the story of the Meiji Restoration, the separation of kami from Buddha, the Shinbutsu hanzen of 1868 and then the persecution of Buddhists that happened over the next few years. I think that story is true, although of course, many scholars have started to complicate it by saying that there are regional differences, that the narrative of Buddhist victimization is problematic, and the reinscribed narrative of victimhood is one that might get in the way of understanding the more complicated relationships (political and doctrinal relationships that are going on). But the thing that I want to focus on is that if Buddhists had had the luxury of thinking of themselves mostly in terms of sectarian differences (you know, as tendai or as jōdo shinshū or ootaniha or whatever), the introduction of the category “religion” as a diplomatic category and the persecution of the first few years of the Meiji really forced them to think of themselves as Buddhists first and foremost.

This is counterintuitive to us from the perspective of the 21st century because we think: Oh, Buddhism is a religion that’s existed as this discrete tradition for all this time. But I think that we shouldn’t underestimate the power of those political decisions in the early Meiji era, and the influence of those political decisions in really making Buddhists think of themselves as Buddhists first and foremost.

So, what does this look like? Well of course, we have the separation of kami and Buddha, which means that people have to make these decisions about what counts on the grounds of their temple as being Buddhist and what doesn’t. And you know, there has been great work on this, like Sarah Thal’s work. Thal’s work is really good at showing how people make those decisions, and Jim Ketelaar as well. That’s one thing, but then another thing is that because the haibutsu kishaku movement had resulted in all of this language about Buddhists being degenerate or not fitting with the Japanese national character, there’s this apologetic Buddhist discourse that emerges in the immediate wake of the haibutsu kishaku moment that has Buddhists saying: “Hey, not only are we good people (which they have to say), but you need us and you need us for these reasons.”

Now, I just realized that I said haibutsu kishaku without translating it to “destroy the Buddhas, expel Shakyamuni.” It’s this movement that was trying to eradicate the traces of Buddhism in favour of this ostensibly local tradition. But the recent scholarship on Shintō has pretty clearly suggested that this notion of Shintō as being the indigenous religion of Japan was also being invented over the course of the Meiji era and the couple of centuries that immediately preceded it. So, I mentioned that “anxiety” is the keyword, so there’s also an anxiety on the part of the the Shintō-leaning ideologues to establish what Shintō is once and for all. And so, what we see in the first couple of decades in the Meiji era is multiple parties trying to fix boundaries and trying to say: “Well, is this Buddhist? Is that Shintō? What’s really local? What’s foreign?,” and so forth. And I think that helps us gets a sense of what Buddhism is or what Buddhists, I should say, are thinking about as they engage in their various endeavours in the first couple of decades of that era.

TG: And then from the second half of the Meiji period, as you said, this idea of Shintō gets really invented as an invented tradition. And it’s from this time period when Shintō really starts to become centralized around the person of the emperor, and then going into the early 20th century and certainly in the ‘20s and ‘30s, you get this embracing of State Shintō to the point where practices of Shintō are said to be part of what it means to be a good Japanese subject. So I’m really curious what happens to practices of Buddhism and Buddhists during this time period?

JT: Yes, that’s a great question. I’m going to just bookmark one thing that you said about the category of State Shintō. It’s a category that I actually don’t use in my own research because I think it’s a distraction, and in the sense that the category of State Shintō, it turns out it was retrojected onto the past. I’ll explain more about what I mean by that in a moment, but one of things that I found myself doing in my forthcoming book Faking Liberties was talking about State Shintō, though I also focus a lot on what Buddhists were saying and what Buddhists were doing as a way of clarifying that category of State Shintō.

So, I’m not the first person to do this. Hans Martin Krämer has talked about Shimaji Mokurai, the prominent Jōdō Shinshi priest who helps to theorize about the distinction between religion and non-religion, and helps to set up this way of thinking about Buddhism as belonging to the category of “religion” and shrine rights belonging to the category of “not religion.” But one of the things that I found really interesting is that in the wake of that distinction, Buddhists worked really hard in the last part of the Meiji era to continue to make that distinction, and to try and make it make sense.

This comes through in the Buddhist obsession with what is going to happen to them under the Meiji Constitution once it goes into effect in 1890. They’re trying to figure out how their customary rights that they had enjoyed under the Tokugawa regime might be maintained or preserved or recovered under the new Meiji constitutional regime. And a lot of this attention focuses (and admittedly, I’m biased because I wrote this book on religious freedom, so I’m thinking about religious freedom) on this category of religious freedom. We’re trying to figure out: What does it mean? What are Buddhists supposed to do in the context of a religious freedom guarantee? And who gets religious freedom?

So by the late 1890s, we see Buddhists vehemently talking with themselves and to outside parties about who is going to be the beneficiary of the religious freedom guarantee. One of things that they virtually all agree on is that Christians don’t get religious freedom. Christians don’t get religious freedom because Christianity is not an official Japanese religion, and so what the Buddhists are trying to do in general is to preserve customary rights or a sort of corporatist version of religious freedom by advancing this notion of a kō ninkyō; they’re trying to establish this notion that certain religious traditions have been officially recognized by the Japanese government, and those religious traditions are the ones that can benefit from religious freedom.

Well, it turns out that the certain religious traditions in that case only refers to Buddhist sects because Buddhist sects have existed in Japan for a long amount of time, Shintō has been categorized as being not religious. And so we have this development of this new Buddhist theorization about religion-state relations that has largely gone under-examined up until now. One of the things that is interesting is that notion of Buddhism, specifically, as an officially recognized religion pops up again and again across the next several decades. So even after we leave the Meiji era, even after there are changes in the administration of the religions, specific Buddhists keep coming back to this idea that religious freedom is not something that should be granted on egalitarian grounds, but actually should be granted on the basis of historical precedent. And I think that really helps us understand both how the politics of the Meiji era impacted Buddhists, but also how Buddhists took some of the new intellectual developments of the Meiji era about conceptualizing religion and took that forward into later time periods.

But to talk about your question with Buddhists, one of the things that we see is this explosion of textual production on the part of Buddhists starting around the 1870s and the 1880s. I’m thinking here particularly of trans-sectarian magazines. So, these are magazines like Meikyō Shinshi and a few others: Chūgai Nippō comes to be developed eventually in the 1890s. These become repositories of Buddhist opinion, and conflicting opinion about various things that are related to the way that Buddhists should be in society.

At the same time that we have this explosion of print, I should mention for historians who might be interested in this material that there are ongoing attempts to make sense of all of this print going on here in Japan where people are making databases and so forth trying to figure out what exactly we have access to. But in addition to the explosion of print, there’s also the development of a new kind of Buddhist sermonizing called enzetsu, which is not a sermon. It’s not a lecture on doctrine, but it’s actually a sort of entertaining mode of providing information about Buddhism to both Buddhists themselves in terms of priests, but also to lay audiences who might be slightly intellectually inclined.

So, I like to think of enzetsu as sort of like the “TED Talk” of the Buddhist world in this time period. It was academic, but it was formulaic. It’s pitched towards an audience that doesn’t necessarily need to have a ton of background information. And so, Buddhists are trying all of these different ways to explain exactly what Buddhism is, and one of the things that comes up in this is that there’s very little discussion about proper ritual protocols. There’s very little discussion about what people should be doing in terms of their moral lives except in a very abstract sense. But there is a lot of talk about this is where we’re different from the Shintō priests, or especially a lot (I’m going to come back to this keyword) of anxiety, a lot of anxiety about Christians and what Christians are doing, and how Buddhism should be more or less like Christianity. So, we see this new Buddhist obsession with social work because the Christians (both foreign Christians and then also Japanese converts) are really good at doing charity work, and maybe Buddhists should do that too.

There’s also a focus on education, and the language that comes up in terms of education varies depending on the individual. But let’s just say that there’s a general interest in the role of Buddhists as people who can be not only moral exemplars for lay people, but also for Buddhists to be engaging in some sort of outreach that helps uplift people both intellectually and morally.

TG: That’s a great point about the need to problematize this term “State Shintō,” and maybe not use it so uncritically. But this idea of “State Shintō” is certainly one that the American Occupation forces had when they came into Japan. I’m recalling this film Our Job in Japan, where they say: “It was this State Shintō, all this mumbo jumbo they brought up from the past in order to brainwash the people of Japan.” And they really targeted State Shintō as something that led to the militarism of Japan and something that had to be eradicated. So, I understand you have this forthcoming book Faking Liberties, looking at religious freedom in American-occupied Japan. How does the occupation impact religion in Japan?

JT: Yes, I’m so glad that you asked that question. One, because I’m really excited about the book and also because I think that the Occupation is the moment when State Shintō comes into being. The word “State Shintō” we see earlier in the 1920s as kokka teki shintō in the work of this scholar Katō Genchi. He’s a scholar of religion who’s mostly based in Tōdai, and then his phrase gets picked up by D.C. Holtom who was an American missionary who spent most of his life in Japan and wrote a series of books on Shintō. Holtom’s work happened to be picked up by American policymakers in the 1940s as virtually the only real academic work that people could find about Japanese religious and political life.

I should note too that before people had settled on Holtom, most Americans prior to the war and then during the first few years of the war assumed that it was Buddhists, not Shintōists, who were responsible for Japanese militarism or what they began to call “ultranationalism.” This point has largely gone overlooked, but the American discourse about Japanese Mikadoism and stuff like that often focuses its energy on Buddhists as ultranationalists through the 1920s, ‘30s and then into the early 1940s. So then, the narrative changes in the middle of the war where people start to attribute Japanese militarism to Shintō because people have started to pick up D.C. Holtom’s previously obscure work.

That remains true in the first few months of the Occupation. So when the Occupation started, the occupiers had basically one objective related to religion, which was to promote religious freedom, and that was a positive objective. And then the negative one was to make sure that no ultranationalistic movements were allowed to “hide behind the cloak of religion.” So, that’s all they had said. The Occupation formally begins on September 2nd, the civil liberties directive is promulgated on October 4th, 1945, and then two days later, the State Department official is on an MBC public radio program called The University of the Air.

His name’s John Carter Vincent, and he says in a sort of offhand way that Shintō as it is a religion of individual Japanese people won’t be interfered with, but Shintō as a state religion (national Shintō that is) will go. And this is the first time that the occupiers who were based in Japan had heard about this policy of eradicating Shintō as a national religion. It is important that Vincent, this guy who makes the radio announcement, uses the word “national Shintō” because the language of “State Shintō” had not yet coalesced. So I argue in chapter 5 of the book that it was actually after this announcement was very precipitously made and very publicly made that the occupiers were forced to come up with a policy that would square the two things.

On the one hand, they have to promote religious freedom. On the other hand, they have to eradicate a national religion, and it’s complicated because trying to do those two things simultaneously is impossible. It’s furthermore complicated because Japan doesn’t have a state religion by law, so the outcome of all of that was that this mid-level Occupation bureaucrat William Buntz reads a bunch of scholarship on religion, he does this crash course with the University of Tokyo scholar of religion Kishimoto Hideo. As a result of all of that, he uses State Shintō as a way of basically highlighting Japanese practices as a “bad” sort of secularism. So, it’s that Japanese people don’t properly distinguish religion from the state that causes the problems that we’ve seen here. That’s the source of ultranationalism, but also ultranationalism is what causes Japanese people to fail to properly distinguish between religion and the state.

While holding all of that in mind, if we think about the category “State Shintō,” basically anytime prior to the Occupation, what people have been inclined to call “State Shintō,” I think we need to be quite cautious about. So, in the book I’m looking at ways that different parties (usually at the local level) are trying to distinguish between “religion” and “not religion.” And I think that’s really the essence of the governance of religion and national politics in what I call the Meiji constitutional period: there’s this ongoing anxiety and uncertainty about what counts as “religion” and what doesn’t.

TG: When we think more broadly about the Occupation, it’s these policies of demilitarization and democratization. So many of the policies that the Occupation embraces are filtered through this lens of democratization, such as even agrarian reform, the idea that if we promote this Jeffersonian farming system, then this will encourage grassroots democratic movements. Now you title your book very tantalizingly Faking Liberties: Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan. So, is that “faking” aspect coming from this conflation of religious liberty with democratization perhaps?

JT: Yes. So, as other people have already documented in exhaustive detail, the Occupation is rife with ironies, and that’s one of the things that I’m pointing to with the title. In the name of promoting freedom of expression, the Americans censored every document that was published in the country. In the name of promoting religious freedom, they subjected Shintō shrines to surveillance. They actually quashed some marginal religious movements, and another thing related to religious freedom specifically is that in the name of religious freedom, they gave preferential treatment to Christian missionaries on the presupposition that democracy can’t happen without Christianity (basically that Christianity is the driving force behind democratization).

Faking Liberties, in one sense, points to these ironies that characterize the Occupation project, and in another sense, it points to the fact that the occupiers spoke with a lot of confidence about what “freedom” was, both religious freedom but also “freedom” more broadly. Official Occupation pronouncements generally described that sort of thing in very confident terms, but then if you look at the Occupation records at the national archives, you see that the occupiers vehemently disagreed with each other on just about everything. In a way, it’s a very American project in that it’s just shot through with all of this disagreement about all kinds of topics, including what “freedom” is, what “religion” is, what “religious freedom” is or could even mean.

Another thing: the occupier sort of narrative that they’re bringing “freedom” to the Japanese people masks the fact that they disagree about what “freedom” is. And then the title points to a third thing, which is that the Occupation narrative that Japan lacked religious freedom and then the occupiers brought it is based on this idea that even though religious freedom appeared in the Meiji Constitution of 1889, it was false, that it was fake, and that the Japanese government had just been paying lip service to this notion of religious freedom, but did not actually grant religious freedom to Japanese citizens.

So in order to deal with that part, I actually spent the whole first half of the book looking at what practices of religious freedom were like under what I call the Meiji constitutional regime. I look at what Buddhists were saying about religious freedom and how they were positioning themselves vis-à-vis both Christians, but also vis-à-vis each other. I look at things like the ways that various parties were responding to legislation and the Religious Organizations Law that was passed in 1939. I also spent some time looking at Japanese American Buddhists in the American territory of Hawaii, and the ways that they were using religious freedom as an apologetic category while also appealing to Japanese diplomats to speak up on their behalf. In all of these cases, we have Japanese diplomats, Japanese Buddhists, Shintō priests, politicians, all kinds of parties who are constantly talking about religious freedom. I mean it is impossible to miss unless you’re deliberately assuming that religious freedom doesn’t exist and so, one of the points of the book is that we’ve got this post-Occupation narrative about Japan being bereft of religious freedom. That’s just a politically-driven narrative that is utterly false. Japan was characterized by a robust discourse on religious freedom, lots of people were concerned about it. The problem is that they just disagreed vehemently with one another about what “religion” was and how to “free” it.

TG: So if we could talk about your first book now: Drawing on Tradition: Manga, Anime and Religion – also a great title (laughter), would you say that the Occupation sets the stage for contemporary religious practices in Japan or is it more of a disruption in your mind?

JT: In Faking Liberties, I talk about the Occupation as both disruption and continuity, and I think that’s the safest way of describing it or depicting it. But let me talk about the ways in which the Occupation set the stage for what we see in Japanese religious practice today. So, one of the things that happens with the Occupation is that there’s a disruption in the sense that religious freedom needs to become universalized and therefore, religiosity needs to be treated as always being a matter of individual choice.

Now, this may sound utterly obvious to some listeners, but that’s a byproduct of the fact that the Protestant models of religiosity as being a matter of individual choice are so dominant especially in the English-speaking world. But in Japan in 1945, it was not necessarily the case that religiosity was understood to be personal and elective, and so the occupiers worked very hard with Japanese interlocutors who are in the Ministry of Education, scholars of religion, scholars of law, to create this notion of religion as personal and elective.

To offer one example, there’s an illustrated guide to the constitution that was published in 1947. In that guide, you see three members of the same family who are all simultaneously practicing different different religions: the dad is chanting the lotus sutra, the daughter is singing a Christian hymn and the son is a Shintō norito. And so this is a way of visually encapsulating what religion is like now. If we take that forward, we see that in the wake of the Occupation, Japanese people took this idea of religion as choice in a direction that I don’t think the occupiers anticipated because the occupiers (as well as the Japanese interlocutors) assumed that everybody was religious before anything else, that at the heart of every human was this religious self.

What we see after a brief efflorescence of interest in religion in the wake of the Occupation is the rapid decline of interest in religion and so, “choice” turns out to be a choice to not be religious as opposed to the choice to choose the right religion for oneself. Today, Japan presents a statistical conundrum for scholars of religion because by some statistics, the country is exceedingly religious. You know, I can walk out my door here in Kyoto, and I can see probably 200 different religious edifices in the space of 2 km. So that’s one way, and if you go by official governmental statistics, the religious population of Japan exceeds the actual population of Japan by about 1.5 times. But on the other hand, if you talk to average people on the street, it’s only going to be about 2 people out of 10 who tell you that they have any sort of religious affiliation. So, the occupiers failed in a way. If you want to talk about it as “success” or “failure,” the choice that they were so keen on presenting ended up being the choice to not be religious, and I don’t think that’s something they anticipated.

TG: That’s a great point about one of the great ironies. People will say that they are not religious even while they understand exactly what to do when they go to the temple and the shrine. And then especially when you look at how many anime and manga have depictions of religious practices and other types of religious elements within them. You were talking about the animated constitution, and that ties directly into the way that religious practices are animated in anime and manga. So, can you paint a picture for us about how this has come to be?

JT: Yes so, when I started Drawing on Tradition, my thinking was that I didn’t know what “religion” was. Because of this statistical conundrum I was just mentioning, I couldn’t figure out what Japanese people meant when they said “religion,” so I thought: Well, let’s look for religion in an unlikely place, like let’s look at something that a lot of people wouldn’t assume to be religious and see if that can help clarify the matter.

What I started doing was looking for religion in manga and anime just as you suggested. “Oh look, here’s a bodhisattva, oh this looks like it’s a depiction of apocalypse,” and so forth. And about midway through my field research, I realized that I was doing exactly the wrong thing because basically, as a scholar of religion, I was prefiguring what counted as “religion,” and I was trying to find it. That’s super easy to do. If you want to look for something in any source, you can figure out a way to find it. You’re reading your own interest into it.

So, I turned from that to looking at two different things: I wanted to look at aspects of the manga and anime mediums themselves that might serve as models for understanding religious practices. For manga, I look at how it is laid out, how panels are juxtaposed one to another, how they look on the page, how the passage of time is depicted and so forth. I also wanted to look at how manga will use the two Japanese types of onomatopoeia (gitaigo and gyongo) to create this synesthetic experience where one is not only looking but also almost sensing sounds and so forth. And then for anime, to look at this technique called compositing that’s used in cel animation where it’s not just that you draw images in rapid succession and show them in rapid succession like a flipbook, but you actually break images apart and move different layers of images to create this sense not only of movement but also of depth.

I was trying to use those techniques as metaphors for how we might think about religiosity. To take compositing for example, it may be that in daily life, I just live in what we think of as the real world, but it’s also possible for me to superimpose onto the real world the illustrated world of the anime that I like, and perhaps even another imaginary world that is either just retort in that anime or that I understand to exist beyond that.

I can live in those three worlds simultaneously, and I think we see this in practices like anime seichi junrei (pilgrimage to anime sites where fans will go to the place that was the setting for a particular anime), or in things like cosplay where people are trying to embody the character and bring that character into being, if temporarily, in what we think of as the real world.

So, the other thing I was trying to do in Drawing on Tradition was to talk with people. Instead of imposing my ideas on particular series, I wanted to ask people: “What do you think, and how do you engage with this?” And some of this was in direct interviews, and sometimes I lurked on fan discussion boards to see how people were talking with each other without interacting with me as a researcher. Out of all of that, I saw people, without any prompting, saying: “Oh you know, I watched this anime, and this character inspired me to deepen my Christian faith.” I also talked with a manga artist who founded a religion. A lot of his followers were people who had been fans of his manga. So rather than saying that manga and anime depict Japanese religious practice, I think rather that they’re vehicles (and really good vehicles) for thinking through what might be some alternate models of how religion or religiosity work.

TG: The Meiji at 150 Podcast is hosted by Tristan Grunow at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. This podcast would not be possible without the cooperation of the UBC Centre for Japanese Research and the technical assistance of the UBC Faculty of Arts ISIT. Find out more about the Meiji at 150 Project, including the Meiji at 150 Lecture Series, Digital Teaching Resource and Workshop Series by visiting our website: meijiat150.arts.ubc.ca. Thank you for listening.


*Citation for this episode: 

Jolyon Thomas, interview with Tristan Grunow, The Meiji at 150 Podcast, podcast audio, February 22, 2019. https://meijiat150.podbean.com/e/episode-96-dr-jolyon-thomas-penn/.

The Meiji at 150 Podcast is hosted, produced, and edited by Tristan Grunow, with editorial assistance from Joshua Linkous. Transcripts by Kelly Chan.