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  • Religious Discourse in Modern Japan: Religion, State, and Shintō by Isomae Jun’ichi
  • Jolyon Baraka Thomas
Religious Discourse in Modern Japan: Religion, State, and Shintō. By Isomae Jun’ichi. Translated by Galen Amstutz and Lynne E. Riggs. Leiden: Brill, 2014. 501 pages. Softcover $209.00.

When I was a visiting research student in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Tokyo between 2006 and 2007, Isomae Jun’ichi’s 2003 monograph Kindai Nihon no shūkyō gensetsu to sono keifu: Shūkyō, kokka, shintō was indispensable reading. In that Japanese-language predecessor of the book under review here, Isomae refreshingly traced the adventitious process whereby shūkyō came to be the default translation for the English word “religion.” He also showed how the discursive structures of the religious studies field—including the assumed naturalness of the very word “religion”—shape the research questions scholars have been inclined to ask. Isomae’s willingness to critically examine religious studies was a stimulant for the field in general, and it would be no overstatement to say that his treatment of the political effects of the “R word” provided inspiration for my own current research on religious freedom in modern Japan. The sharp critiques that follow must be read with this indebtedness and profound respect for Isomae’s pathbreaking work in mind.

Although the titles are similar, the English-language edition departs in significant ways from Isomae’s 2003 work, incorporating several new sections that reflect his voluminous output in the intervening years. While its topic is of indisputable importance to those of us who professionally study “Japanese religions” (a phrase I use here out of convenience), frankly the book would have benefited from some ruthless editing, a clearer framing of the argument, and a more rigorous chronological presentation. The introduction, for example, is a literature review of the sort one expects to find in some doctoral dissertations but cannot be justified in an academic monograph. Subsequent chapters are redundant, retracing the same material several times rather than providing a cogent presentation from start to finish.

Translators Galen Amstutz and Lynne E. Riggs deserve congratulations for rendering Isomae’s text with fidelity to his idiosyncratic tone. Isomae habitually writes in the passive voice or—when using more active verbs—speaks of objects or institutions as if they were agents: “Shinto succeeded in prescribing its acts of religiosity as the public [End Page 186] duty of all the people of the state regardless of what beliefs they might hold as private individuals” (p. xix). He also speaks unhesitatingly about what Japanese people felt or believed without offering any evidence to support his claims. This creates the unavoidable impression that Isomae’s rigid binary between “the West” and “the non-West” and his sharp division of Japanese history into pre- and post-“religion” are premised on a rather naïve assumption that premodern Japanese people were somehow more noble or pure for lacking the modern concept of religion.

Indeed, in Isomae’s telling the concept of religion becomes a sort of polluting agent or irritant. It is the small foreign body around which modern Japanese identity, the field of religious studies, and the religion/secular distinctions of the modern Japanese state cohered. This last claim that the foreign category of religion constructed modern Japanese governance is not dissimilar to Trent Maxey’s recent argument in The “Greatest Problem”: Religion and State Formation in Meiji Japan (Harvard University Asia Center, 2014). In contrast with Maxey’s stolid historical approach, however, Isomae advances an activist project that aims to recuperate a romanticized Japanese past while dreamily idealizing a different future for the study of religion.

Isomae is on slightly firmer ground when he turns to actual historical data in part 1, “The Formation of the Concept of ‘Religion’ and Modern Academic Discourse.” Chapter 1 provides a sweeping overview of the introduction of the category “religion” to Japan and the diplomatic difficulties and domestic policy implications it engendered. Isomae sees the introduction of religion as a problem of the imposition of “Western logic” on Japan. But because he never clearly defines the “Japanese logic” against which he juxtaposes this (similarly undefined) “Western logic,” the reader...


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pp. 186-191
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