Inventing traditions and terminologies is as recurrent in academia as in politics. The invention of tradition has been especially linked to nineteenth-century modernity since the publication of Eric Hobsbawn and Terence Ranger’s famous 1983 study, The Invention of Tradition,1 and in Japan such inventions have played their part in the construction of the modern nation and its academic apparatus. The books reviewed here, both referring to invention in their titles, examine this phenomenon [End Page 301] along with the development of academic studies in Japan. They also emphasize the political dimensions of academia, in terms of how the nationalist discourses produced by Japanese encounters with Western forces in the Meiji period are reflected in the formation of academic disciplines.
In The Invention of Religion in Japan, Jason Josephson focuses on the Meiji era in his elaboration of how “religion”—nowadays rendered, in legal contexts and in the titles of academic departments, as shūkyō —was conceived as a legal and political term used in treaties and negotiations with Western colonial powers. He indicates how, even while building legal frameworks to protect the freedom of religion, Tokugawa authorities suppressed elements thought not to fit with the new conceptualizations of religion they advanced. In constructing a centralized modern nation-state that could resist Western incursions, partly by conforming to Western conceptions of modern statehood, Japanese authorities were keen to eradicate anything that was deemed irrational, superstitious, and rooted in an ignorant past. Many folk customs, beliefs in animal spirits, and healing practices were banned in Meiji as heretical and as barriers to progress. Methodologically, Josephson’s investigation is grounded in philological and textual studies related to politics, diplomacy, and power relations. The author argues that the concept of religion was invented and astutely manipulated by the Japanese for political purposes.
A Discipline on Foot: Inventing Japanese Native Ethnography 1910–1945, Alan Christy’s examination of minzokugaku, charts the methodologies and arguments propounded by pioneers of this new field. In particular, the author shows how minzokugaku contributed to the formation of ethnic identity and to debates about colonialism in the 1930s. By that time, the pendulum had swung the other way; the local and “superstitious” had been transformed into topics of academic study and into symbols of an “authentic” Japan that countered the cold rationality (as it was portrayed) of the West and that enhanced the nation. Christy examines how the founding figures of minzokugaku used fieldwork—the seedbed of their discipline and their means of working out new methodologies—and fieldwork-informed debates in creating the discipline of native ethnology. He also shows how disciplines are not just the product of intellectual thought but also of the personal quirks, interests, and occasional self-interested manipulations of their protagonists. He further demonstrates that disciplines are not static—unchanged from their inception—but must be viewed as living, vibrant entities that change over time.
Taken together, these two books enrich what we know of the intellectual history of modern Japan and shed light on the contexts in which intellectual concepts and academic disciplines emerged. They also emphasize the political dimensions of academic inquiry, in terms of how disciplines reflected the nationalist discourses produced by Japanese encounters with the West before and during the Meiji era, and how they contributed to shaping national identity. Another striking common theme is how notions of “superstition” were postulated and reshaped. I will discuss this further below, after introducing each work. [End Page 302]
Josephson begins The Invention of Religion by noting that Commander Matthew C. Perry arrived in Japan bearing letters that included a word, “religion,” that Japanese translators did not comprehend. There was thus, at the outset, a conceptual disjunction between Western and Japanese thought. Since there was no equivalent for this concept in Japanese, Josephson explains, at this moment of political crisis the Japanese invented “religion” in Japan. The author critiques the...