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  • Japanese Religions and Globalization by Ugo Dessi
  • Yuki Miyamoto (bio)
Japanese Religions and Globalization. By Ugo Dessi. Routledge, London, 2013. vi, 191 pages. $135.00, cloth; $135.00, E-book.

The year 2013 marked the sixty-second rebuilding of the inner and outer shrines at Ise Grand Shrine since its inception 1,300 years ago and the fourth since 1945 when Kokka Shintō (State Shintō) was dissolved.1 The ritual of reconstruction, repeated every 20 years, culminates in a ceremony called sengyo no gi, presided over by the high priestess of Ise.2 What should be noted here is that, for the first time since 1929,3 the 2013 ceremony saw in attendance Japan’s prime minister, Abe Shinzō; vice prime minister (and Christian) Asō Tarō; and seven other politicians from the Abe administration. Their presence at the ceremony appears to violate the constitution for its political use of religion and thus demands critical scrutiny.4 But such close relations between a political entity and (Imperial) Shintō is hardly new5; one need only note the continuing controversy surrounding Yasukuni [End Page 483] Shrine, in which Shintō repositioned itself by deifying war dead.6 On the other hand, persecution against Buddhism at the dawn of the Meiji period forced Buddhists to redefine themselves.7

This phenomenon—religious institutions’ response to globalization in redefining their identity accordingly—is the theme Ugo Dessi treats in his monograph Japanese Religions and Globalization. The subject matter of Dessi’s book is exciting, especially as no previous books have examined the correlation between contemporary globalization and Japanese religions in the depth that Dessi achieves in this volume.

The book opens with a lucid exposition of the author’s main themes: glob alization and religion. Rather than studying individual religious practitioners, Dessi investigates religious institutions as agents of globalization and glocalization: “the main focus,” writes Dessi, “will be on the institutional level, that is to say, on the different ways through which the [implicit and explicit dynamics of globalization affect] the global consciousness of Japanese religious institutions” (p. 9). He quickly adds: “Whether or not effective and coherent religious action may follow from the development of these global dynamics and hybridization is not the main concern of this book” (p. 9). Attention is thus paid to the analysis of the global implications manifested in case studies in contemporary Japanese religions and religious practices originating in Japan. The selection of these case studies may appear arbitrary with regard to choice of religious traditions within and beyond Japan; yet the author makes clear that a “comprehensive overview” is not the goal of his project. Rather, he seeks to develop an account of religion as one of several “social actors,” demonstrating how such social actors can be “at the same time ‘against’ globalization and ‘within’ globalization” (p. 9).

While acknowledging the problems of globalization—for example, economic exploitation, followed by growing financial and political inequality—Dessi argues that globalization does not always result in “a one-way relativization from the center to the periphery,” with prevailing values displacing marginal values, resulting in “homogenization and cultural imperialism” (p. 3). He claims that globalization in our age “carries the potential to promote the relativization of any worldview or code of values, at the periphery and the center of global society” (p. 10). In other words, Dessi believes [End Page 484] globalization may also promote the influence of “peripheral” values against culturally central values.

In opening his account, the author sketches an overview of Japanese religions, beginning with the introduction of Buddhism in the sixth century. The description of Japan’s exposure to “global dynamics” supports Dessi’s skepticism about the discourse defining globalization as the product of the emergence of Western powers and the “world market” in the modern era: “In fact, there are reasons to believe that Japan was within global dynamics well before the end of the nineteenth century, and that relativization, hybridization, and functional differentiation also played a distinctive role in early historical phases of (proto-) globalized Japan” (p. 19).

Leaving the definition of globalization open, Dessi moves on to the question of the definition of religion. Buddhism, he observes, was introduced to Japan as the...


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