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Politics and Religion in Modern Japan: Red Sun, White Lotus ed. by Roy Starrs (review)

From: The Journal of Japanese Studies
Volume 39, Number 2, Summer 2013
pp. 462-465 | 10.1353/jjs.2013.0068

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This edited volume joins a growing catalogue of studies interested in the intellectual and political operation of religion in modern Japan. Spurred by the rise of historicist reconsiderations of religion as a category of thought and regulation, studies such as Jason Ānanda Josephson’s recent The Invention of Religion in Japan (University of Chicago Press, 2012) draw our attention to the epistemic shifts that both facilitated and accompanied the arrival of shūkyō in Japan in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The subtitle of the volume under review—Red Sun, White Lotus—refers to two principal currents that contributed to the politicization of religion in modern Japan: imperial state Shintō and Buddhism. The ten essays, while generally organized around these two axes, cover considerable thematic and chronological ground and propose some sharp revisions to how we conceive of the political valences of religion in modern Japan.

Yijian Zhong, Kyu Hun Kim, and Klaus Antoni collectively challenge the notion that Shintō, in its modern form, was the product of a “bureaucratic conspiracy” (p. 85). Zhong identifies visions of Shintō that the early Meiji state worked to exclude, and Kim observes that the idea of the emperor as a “living god” came from a diffuse popular tradition that “was neither a special prerogative of Shintoism nor something the state could monopolize easily without encountering resistance” (p. 69). Antoni forcibly challenges the view, attributed to the influential work of Kuroda Toshio, that Shintō was a modern construct and did not exist as an independent entity or tradition in premodern Japan. His corrective suggestion that we take seriously the intellectual traditions that grew up around shrines, the myth-historical texts of the Kojiki and Nihongi, and the sacerdotal role of the emperor is a welcome one. When Antoni identifies “the political aspect of Shinto thought which forms a constituent frame for the whole system of Shinto throughout history,” however, one senses a measure of overgeneralization. Mark Teeuwen and John Breen, indicted by Antoni as complicit with apologists dedicated to whitewashing the political baggage of Shintō, do not deny the historical accretions that preceded the modern construction of Shintō. In their recent A New History of Shinto (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), both argue rather persuasively that the imperial, or political, dimension of Shintō does not exhaust the historical and contemporary dimensions of Shintō. We might be wary of any attempt to reduce the “whole system of Shinto” into something that has existed “throughout history.”

The chapters dedicated to Buddhism in prewar Japan seek to unsettle the dominant view that Buddhists were acquiescent in the face of the state’s demands. Fabio Rambelli presents the intriguing example of Sada Kaiseki, an early Meiji cleric who applied Buddhist teachings to the rigors of modern astronomy and the economic challenges Japan faced in the second half of the nineteenth century. His work, Rambelli concludes, was consistently “oriented against state policies and the then-dominant ideas about modernization” (p. 126). Brian Daizen Victoria considers the Youth League for Revitalizing Buddhism and Senō Girō as examples of Buddhist movements critical of imperialist aggression and capitalist exploitation in the 1920s and 1930s. Although Sada and Senō were rare counterexamples and cannot claim to have been influential, both Rambelli and Victoria ask us to reconsider the political valence of Buddhism in prewar Japan by challenging the proposition that it was inherently conservative. Victoria is very blunt in this regard, suggesting that “there was a clear difference between left and right, not only when it came to Japanese aggression abroad but also in their respective attitude towards the emperor system. Given these clear differences, the labels ‘left’ versus ‘right’ are not only convenient but arguably appropriate” (p. 158).

If Rambelli and Victoria want to complicate the relationship of Buddhism to the political spectrum by identifying progressive, antistatist examples, Kevin Doak provides a provocative counterpoint. Arguing that the Meiji constitution and its conditional guarantee of religious freedom produced, “not a unique Shinto theocracy, but a kind of modern secular state that put a primacy on political controls over religion,” Doak positively appraises state efforts to contain radical critiques in the 1920s and 1930s (p. 189). State officials were not oppressing religious freedom by...

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