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  • Editors' Preface
  • Don Baker and Seong-nae Kim, Editors

In this second issue in volume two of the Journal of Korean Religions, we continue our exploration of Korea's complex religious culture while continuing to interrogate the meaning of "religion" in a Korean cultural context. Most of our focus is on the twentieth century. As Kim Taehoon shows in "The Place of Religion in Colonial Korea Around 1910—the Imperial History of Religion," it was not until Japan began wrestling with the loose fit between the Western definition of religion and the complexity of religious communities and practices in Korea that a coherent definition of religion applicable to Korea emerged. Japan employed this new definition of religion to both describe Korea's religious culture, and to allow colonial authorities to delineate "religious freedom" in such a way that restraints on the exercise of state power were minimized.

For example, Japan excluded both shamans and new Korean religious groups from wearing the "religion" label. Since both were seen as more difficult to control than established religious communities, colonial authorities wanted to deny them the legal protection recognized religions enjoyed. Moreover, the government also classified State Shinto and Confucianism as non-religious, making it possible to promote them without appearing to favor one religion over another.

A core element of this new concept of religion was the identification of separate and distinct strands within Korea's religious culture. As Boudewijn Walraven points out in "Religion as a Moving Target," his keynote speech at a conference on "Korean Religions in Inter-Cultural and Global Contexts" held at Sogang University in May, 2011, this overlooks the blurring of [End Page 5] boundaries around Buddhism, Confucianism, and Shamanism as they are actually practiced. Drawing sharp lines between one religion and another is not confined to modern Korea. However, such normal simplification of religious reality was reinforced by a colonial government policy of treating Buddhism, Christianity, and sect Shinto as different types of religion that needed to be dealt with in different ways, and also as very different from "non-religions" such as Shamanism, Confucianism, and Korean new religions. Such reification of religious labels has persisted into the present day.

So has the prescriptive approach to the categorization of religions in Korea. As James Grayson makes clear in his "Montanism and the Empire of Mount Sion: Lesson from the Early Church and the Early Korean Church," even Christian groups which deviated too much from the mainstream of Christianity in Korea have been denied the freedom from state persecution "real" religions enjoy. The Empire of Mount Sion, though it clearly is a Christian movement, was treated as an illegal organization both under Japanese colonial rule and into the 1960s in South Korea. Koreans are not unique in dismissing some religious organizations as more cults than real religions. However, that tendency gained legal sanction in Korea in the twentieth century.

The two remaining articles in this issue also speak to both the diversity of religion in Korea and the difficulty of applying abstract religious labels to actual religious phenomena. Hwansoo Kim brings us back to the colonial period with "A Buddhist Christmas: The Buddha's Birthday Festival in Colonial Korea (1928-1945)." Though Buddha's birthday had long been an important day in the Korean Buddhist calendar, during the colonial period it gained new importance as an assertion of the differences between Buddhism and Christianity. Kim shows that one of the reasons for the new enthusiasm Koreans displayed in celebrating Buddha's birthday was Christian influence on how Koreans perceived religion, and on how they perceived believers should behave. Since Christians commemorated the birthday of their founder with holiday festivities, Buddhists came to believe they should do the same on the birthday of their founder. Kim's article serves as a warning that religious [End Page 6] labels should not obscure the non-Buddhist contributions to both the revival of that celebration and the way it is celebrated in the twenty-first century.

So-Yi Chung's "Kyŏnggi Southerners' Notion of Heaven and Its Influence on Tasan's Theory of Human Nature," takes us back before the 20th century to the Chosŏn dynasty. She focuses on...


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