Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan

In this post, Jolyon Thomas reflects on the anxious nature of secularity and the contested meanings of religious freedom in American-occupied Japan.JB Thomas Head Shot

Secularity is anxious.

I wrote this short sentence during one of the many post-review revisions of my forthcoming book Faking Liberties: Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan. I didn’t think much of it when I wrote these three words, but I soon recognized that the sentence neatly encapsulated the main points of the book. I’ll use this post to unpack what I meant.

First, some background: During the first semester of my PhD, I had to give back-to-back presentations in two seminars. In a Japanese history seminar, I was to absorb everything I could on the post-WWII Allied Occupation of Japan (1945–1952) and distill the main points for my peers. Meanwhile, in a religion seminar I was to summarize Talal Asad’s work on secularism, with the kicker being that Asad himself was to be in the room (he had just delivered a big lecture on campus the previous day). Cue a lot of nervous preparation.  

My dissertation, and then my book, emerged from a few days of very little sleep. I naturally began thinking of the two topics together, and in my mind Asad’s points about secularism as a political project merged with historical analyses of military occupation as political rehabilitation. The histories suggested that a theocratic system called “State Shintō” had served as the primary ideological driver for Japanese imperialism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Eliminating that religion, the American-led occupiers had supposedly implanted religious freedom in its stead. However, when I started looking at primary sources armed with the insights of critical secularity studies, I realized that this reassuring narrative was utterly false.

My research revealed that rather than eliminating a national religion called “State Shintō,” Occupation bureaucrats had actually concocted the concept of State Shintō as a way of navigating between inherently contradictory orders. Pre-surrender objectives said that they were to proclaim religious freedom for all, but when a State Department official casually declared on American public radio that the occupiers would eliminate “national Shintō,” they suddenly found themselves responsible for eradicating a state religion as well. Their task was complicated not only because it was hard to guarantee universal religious freedom while simultaneously abolishing a particular religion, but also because Japan technically had no state religion in law. In fact, the constitution of 1889 had included a clear, if circumscribed, guarantee of religious freedom.

The conundrum spurred a momentous exercise in boundary demarcation. The occupiers were understandably anxious about how to eradicate a religion while simultaneously guaranteeing religious freedom, so they turned to religious studies experts for guidance. The narrative that emerged from these collaborations, encapsulated in the newly solidified concept of “State Shintō,” was that the Japanese lacked real religious freedom.

So, what existed in Japan before the occupiers got there? It turns out that when states guarantee religious freedom in constitutional law, stakeholders must define what counts as religion in order to free it. Japan was no exception to this rule. Many people weighed in on the meaning and scope of religious freedom during what I call “the Meiji constitutional period” (1890–1945). The various parties disagreed on virtually everything, but the single thing they held in common was uncertainty about how to properly discriminate between religion and not-religion. Even when their preferred definitions were established in law or set as policy, stakeholders remained concerned that the proper distinctions would stay in place.

Secularity is anxious.              

The post-defeat narrative about Japan as bereft of religious freedom served an important political function by legitimizing Occupation reforms. But it obscured the fact that Japanese people had been vigorously debating the meaning and scope of religious freedom through inherently democratic processes such as free speech, lobbying, and parliamentary procedure for decades before the occupiers even arrived. By simplistically treating religious freedom as a universal principle that states have or lack, the Occupation narrative also masked the occupiers’ own vehement disagreements about the meaning of religious freedom. One takeaway is that any triumphalist story about benevolent Americans bringing freedom to benighted theocrats abroad should make us very nervous.  

Another takeaway point concerns the politics of religious studies, which is of course a secularist endeavor insofar as scholars must “make” religion in order to study it. I mentioned above that the occupiers relied on scholars of religion for guidance in how to protect religious freedom. Mobilizing their newfound political clout, scholars working in postwar Japan invented new analytical categories that reflected their own normative presuppositions about where to properly draw the line between “religion” and “not-religion.” These categories remain influential today. For example, the concept of “new religions” was born in postwar Japan out of a collaborative interaction between scholars of religion, Occupation officials, and leaders of marginal religious groups. Collectively, these stakeholders aimed to protect religious minorities by replacing pejorative terminology such as “superstitions” (meishin), “lascivious heresies” (inshi jakyō) and “upstart religions” (shinkō shūkyō) with a new, anodyne term. Many scholars today take the idea of “new religions” for granted. However, its birth during the Occupation reflects the recuperative politics of that time, including stakeholders’ normative conceptions of what counts as “good” religion and what counts as “religion” in the first place. And that should make us anxious, too.   


Jolyon Baraka Thomas is an assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Faking Liberties: Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan (forthcoming from University of Chicago Press in April 2019) and Drawing on Tradition: Manga, Anime, and Religion in Contemporary Japan (University of Hawaii Press, 2012). He can be followed @jolyonbt.     

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