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Reviewed by:
  • The Invention of Religion in Japan by Jason Ānanda Josephson
  • James C. Dobbins (bio)
The Invention of Religion in Japan. By Jason Ānanda Josephson. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2012. xiii, 387 pages. $90.00, cloth; $30.00, paper; $30.00, E-book.

This is an important book. Its basic thesis, which is essentially an extension of recent scholarship in religious studies, is that the concept of religion did [End Page 478] not even exist in Japan until the mid- to late nineteenth century, when it was introduced from the West, and that the Japanese thereupon participated in the modern construction of the idea of religion. This study is yet another instance of the deconstruction of terminology used in twentieth- and twentyfirst-century scholarship on Japanese religions. In the last several decades there have also been critiques of the concept of the secular in premodern Japan, of the existence of sects or schools of Buddhism prior to the Tokugawa period, and of the very identity of Shintō separate from Buddhism before the Meiji period. This thesis, like those critiques, has fairly significant ramifications. It requires us to rethink how we understand and classify Shintō, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Christianity in both premodern and modern settings.

Josephson’s book is in conversation—or, in some cases, in contention—with a host of theoretical thinkers, a few of whom I should mention here. His core thesis is inspired in part by Jonathan Z. Smith, who proposed that the idea of religion is an early modern European creation, incubated principally in Christianity, and that its meaning has continually evolved over the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. It is this fabricated and semantically unstable notion of religion that the Japanese encountered in Western documents in the 1850s. In adopting this view, Josephson aligns himself with scholars such as Timothy Fitzgerald and Isomae Jun’ichi (though he criticizes their studies in important ways), and he sets himself apart from Ian Reader and Michael Pye who argue roughly that a functional equivalent of religion can be found in premodern Japan prior to the modern articulation of the concept. Another theorist whose influence on Josephson is thoroughgoing is Michel Foucault. His analysis of Japan is Foucauldian in virtually every dimension—not only of its religion, but also of its use of knowledge as power and of the “disciplining of bodies” by authorities through regimens on hygiene, mental illness, sexual deviance, and imprisonment. And hovering in the background, also, are theories on Orientalism, colonialism, and asymmetrical power relationships as elucidated by Edward Said and his successors.

To clarify what this work does and does not do: it is a study of the political, social, and ideological formulation of the modern concept of religion from the late Tokugawa period through the Meiji period. At the same time, it traces the parallel development of the ideas of science, superstition, and the secular, which are equally creations of the early modern and modern periods, that are used to delineate and circumscribe religion. Josephson highlights superstition as perhaps even more important than science and the secular in defining the modern concept of religion. He uses this theoretical framework to trace the emergence of modern Shintō more than to examine Buddhism. In fact, Buddhism is the proverbial elephant in the corner throughout this study, hardly explored and yet profoundly affected by these [End Page 479] categories and actively engaged in defining them. There is little reference to conventional Buddhological issues in the book, even though the concepts of religion, superstition, and the secular became part of the sectarian and doctrine-based vocabulary of Buddhism in the period. In fairness to Josephson, this study would have become massive and perhaps unwieldy if he had treated Buddhism to the extent that it merited.

Josephson begins his work by showing that the concept of religion was not operative in Japan in the late medieval and Tokugawa periods. Some theorists have argued that the circumstance for the advent of a concept of religion is the actual historical encounter of one religion with another. But Josephson demonstrates that Christianity’s appearance in late sixteenthcentury Japan did not provoke the idea of religion in the Japanese, but rather...


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pp. 478-483
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