Shimaji Mokurai and the Reconception of Religion and the Secular in Modern Japan by Hans Martin Krämer (review)
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Shimaji Mokurai and the Reconception of Religion and the Secular in Modern Japan. By Hans Martin Krämer. University of Hawai‘i Press, 2015. 246pages. Hardcover $59.00.

Scholarship on modern Japanese religions has largely revolved around, to borrow a biblical expression, how much the new wine—namely, Western knowledge and religions—has warped the old wineskin (Japan’s indigenous traditions).1 Without question, the new Western wine has dominated the market of modern Japan, forcing the old wineskin to be either discarded or radically reshaped by exposure to it.

The neologism “religion” (shūkyō in Japanese, zongjiao in Chinese, and chongyo in Korean) and its multifarious meanings represented a major aspect of this new wine that brought an epistemic change to the religious and political landscape of Meiji Japan. Coined in the nineteenth century, shūkyō became an umbrella term for all religions that separate themselves from the secular world generally and from the state [End Page 405] in particular. The word was conceived and conceptualized within the modern context of Western global dominance and under the direct influence of Christian missions to the East. Buddhism in particular was forced to adapt in order to weather the imposing force of the Christian-secular paradigm that pervaded early Meiji Japan in the 1870s. Recent scholars of modern Japanese Buddhism have taken great pains to counterbalance the prevailing interpretation that Japanese Buddhism merely reacted to the onslaught of a Western discourse of religion; yet despite highlighting the agency of Japanese actors, these scholars, as Hans Martin Krämer, author of the book under review, points out, have inevitably continued to be preoccupied with the transformation that new ideas and knowledge inflicted upon Japan and Japanese Buddhism.

In response to this existing scholarship, Shimaji Mokurai provides the most convincing case study to date demonstrating that the old wine of indigenous Japanese religion not only remained powerful in its own right, but was also mixed with the new wine of Western religiosity to transform into something uniquely Japanese. The subject of Krämer’s in-depth analysis—the first of its kind in English-language scholarship—is the Shinshū Buddhist reformer-priest Shimaji Mokurai (1838–1911), who was influential in both politics and religion and was pivotal in (re)translating and (re)articulating indigenous Japanese and new Western concepts of religion in early Meiji Japan. Krämer takes as a key text Shimaji’s 1872 letter to the government, which transformed the direction of contemporary debates on religion and the secular. The central argument of the book is that Shimaji did not passively accept European ideas of religion but reconceptualized the term shūkyō to resolve local issues based on an autochthonous semantic legacy. The subtlety of Krämer’s position and specificity of his sources allow him to avoid sweeping interpretative terms such as “reinvention” and “creation” in favor of more nuanced ones such as “reconception” and “appropriation.”

Composed of five chapters as well as an introduction and conclusion, the book centers on the preexisting native terms and ideas that were instrumental in reconceptualizing a new notion of “religion” in modern Japan. Chapter 1 traces the three major hypernyms for what would later be called religion (shūkyō): (Law or Dharma), kyō (teaching), and shū (sect). These three umbrella terms had been used interchangeably until the beginning of the Edo period without much distinction among Buddhism, Confucianism, Shinto, and other traditions. The unclear boundaries between the words changed, however, in response to Japan’s encounter with Christianity in the sixteenth century. The Tokugawa government’s ban on Christianity and Buddhists’ response to the Christian mission generated an incipient concept of institutional religion, namely, the sect (shū), which later informed Shimaji’s reconception of religion in the 1870s.

From this focus on how the Christian problem in sixteenth-century Japan provided the prototype lexicon for Shimaji’s later treatment of religions, chapter 2 turns to the Shinto problem—an indigenous situation that became a formidable force in early Meiji, bringing about a major transformation in the notion of religion. The early Meiji government promoted Shinto to a state religion while marginalizing Buddhism in a policy that was reinforced...