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Discussion Paper 2 in 2004
First published in ejcjs on 6 April 2004

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The Religion-Secular Dichotomy

A Response to Responses


T. Fitzgerald

Reader in Religion
University of Stirling

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About the Author

This article was written in order to respond to arguments made in Ian Reader’s and Michael Shackleton’s articles in the JAWS Newsletter (Japan Anthropology Workshop Newsletter issues number 35 in 2002 and 36 in 2003) which were themselves a response to my original article in the JAWS Newsletter in the November 2002 issue. Since then my original article and Reader's response to it have been slightly amended and appear in the electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies site at the following addresses:

Fitzgerald, T. (2003) 'Religion' and 'the Secular' in Japan: Problems in history, social anthropology, and religion, electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies, Discussion Paper 3 in 2003, First Posted on 10 July 2003.

Reader, Ian (2004) Ideology, Academic Inventions and Mystical Anthropology: Responding to Fitzgerald's Errors and Misguided Polemics, electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies, Discussion Paper 1 in 2004, First Posted on 3 March 2004.

Editor's comment: The editorial team at ejcjs make every effort to eliminate errors of a linguistic or factual nature. However, as our team members receive no payment for their services, we must rely on the goodwill and professionalism of our contributors. Therefore, and to repeat from our copyright statement:

In return for copyright remaining with the authors, and since the editors of ecjcs work at no financial gain to themselves, all typographical errors and errors of omission or fact that are contained in the text of articles, discussion papers, conference and seminar papers, and reviews are the sole responsibility of the author concerned.

I shall try to keep this response brief and focused on the theoretical issues. There is limited space and anyhow I do not want to repeat arguments I have already made and which I believe still stand, by and large intact, even after Michael Shackleton’s and Ian Reader’s responses.

Shackleton has raised important issues that need to be addressed. I will, however, say now that Reader has misunderstood my argument from beginning to end. He has misread the kind of argument it is, its motivation, and what it is really about. By responding in such a personal way, in my opinion out of proportion to the original article, he has obfuscated the serious theoretical issues which affect the whole discipline of religious studies in which he is a Professor, and made it virtually impossible to debate them. And he has ignored the special but obvious problems that go with inter-disciplinarity. I do not blame Reader for defending his position; but I do criticise him for his apparent lack of interest in a critical argument about the generic ‘religion’, and his seeming inability to see the issue as being about something more important than his or my reputation.

No data or research methodology

One criticism of me, made in different ways by both Shackleton and Reader, is that I produce no signs of a research methodology that produces data. But my article is not ethnography. It takes other people’s ethnography as its data. It is concerned with how scholars of Japanese religions are (individually and collectively) constructing the object of their own research without realising that we are reproducing the ideological conditions for global capitalism.

Not a complete text

It needs to be pointed out that Shackleton and Reader originally were not able to respond to my complete text, because the footnotes that I sent with the article got lost in cyberspace and were never published (see editor’s note in JAWS Newsletter, No. 36, 2003: p.3). The footnotes include consideration of other scholars that I think are helpful in developing alternative categories. If any readers would like to see the complete text with footnotes, this can now be found here in electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies:

Specialist versus interdisciplinary

I feel that Reader has interpreted my argument in an excessively personal way. The motives of my argument were theoretical: I wanted to show the readership of JAWS and the electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies a number of representative English language texts constructing Japanese religion for an English-reading public; and to show how this idealised religious world has been produced in a way that fits into a set of assumptions which operates far more widely than the field of Japanese religious studies.

Reader and I both work in religious studies departments, and many of the theoretical issues that both construct and complicate the field of religion go beyond any single specialism. Not only do they flow into anthropology (Shackleton rightly points out that both religious studies and anthropology were born in a colonialist environment), but analogous problems arise in such fields as Indology, the study of ‘African religions’ or more generally ‘indigenous religions’. They also enter into historical and ethnographic studies of our own society, for example in historical studies of the ‘religion’ and ‘politics’ of medieval or early modern England, or in contemporary New Age religions and spiritualities. It is the interdisciplinary scope of this issue that we need to debate.

Therefore I have to say that I found Reader’s appeals to the insider knowledge of the specialist somewhat disingenuous. However much specialist knowledge Reader may feel he has access to, his arguments still have to make sense to people not trained in Japanology. This is because the field of ‘religion’ is being actively constructed and reproduced as a worldwide industry.


I believe that it is reasonable, under these circumstances, to expect Reader to be aware of the wider debate to which many people in the field are actively engaged. I also believe it reasonable to expect him to show awareness of my own previously published arguments about Japan (1993, 1995, and 2000)1. If he had indicated that he had read these pieces, which consider the work of a range of Japanese and western writers on Japanese religion, and which offer theoretical proposals, then we could have had this debate earlier. It was Japanese writers on Japanese religion that formed the basis of my ideas.

Reader severely criticised me for not including references to Japanese writers in my article. Ten years ago while working in Japan I published an article “Japanese religion as ritual order” in Religion (1993). The argument in it was initially inspired by a Japanese book which I read when I first went to live there, and which was my introduction to the subject: Japanese Religion: A Survey by the Agency for Cultural Affairs, edited by Hori Ichiro, Ikado Fujio, Wakimoto Tsuneya and Yanagawa Keiichi (1972). This book contains an Introduction by Matsumoto Shigeru, short authoritative articles by a number of scholars, including Tamaru Noriyoshi on “Buddhism”, Miyake Hitoshi on “Folk Religion”, Tomikura Mitsuo on “Confucianism”, Ueda Kenji on “Shinto”, and others. I discussed the articles by these writers and developed my theoretical base from them. I also discussed other articles by Kiyomi Morioka, Yanagawa Keiichi, and Abe Yoshiya. Nakane Chie, the anthropologist, was another important theoretical resource for me. Among non-Japanese writers I discussed in this article were A. Woodiwiss, W. Edwards, J. M. Kitagawa, R.J. Smith, Benjamin Duke and Jan Swyngedouw. I also introduced writers who are not connected to Japanese studies but who I believe usefully could be, such as Louis Dumont, R. S. Peters, Richard Gombrich, David Gellner and de La Vallée Poussin.

A second article of mine, a review article, appeared in The Japanese Journal of Religious Studies (1995) in which Reader also publishes. It was an extended review of Mark Mullins, Shimazono Susumu and Paul Swanson (eds.) Religion and Society in Modern Japan (1993). Of the authors in this book I particularly discussed ideas and research by Paul Swanson, Kuroda Toshio, Miyake Hitoshi, Richard Young, Jan Swyngedouw, Ian Reader, David C. Lewis, Klaus Antoni, and Peter Takayama. In this one, I extended the argument begun in 1993. I discussed Reader’s article “Buddhism as a religion of the family”. Normally I would not have mentioned his oversight; it may be an unimportant review article. But it is relevant and contains serious theoretical proposals.

One point that seems to have got lost in this discussion is the necessity of distinguishing in the English language between sacred-profane and religion-secular. These cut in entirely different directions. The first can be imagined as a continuum to be found anywhere and everywhere, and would be no respecter of modernist distinctions between religion, politics and economics. The religion-secular is aligned with the modern separation of church and state, of religion and politics. It is remarkable that scholars such as myself who write incessantly about religion and religions all too often have not noticed that the distinctions between such terms as secular, profane and mundane require theorisation. Experts may tell me that I am wrong, but I suspect that a similar confusion has entered into Japanese, with for example the modern concept of ‘secularization’ being translated as sezokuka. It may be that our ability uncritically to conflate, in English and (I hazard to guess) in Japanese, the distinctions between something with the nuance of secular-profane and something with a nuance of religion-secular serves wider ideological interests of which we are not properly aware.

Finally, I published a book in 2000 called The Ideology of Religious Studies. In this book there are two chapters on Japan, but the arguments on Japan are part of a larger argument about religious studies as a wider discipline. Reader has mentioned only the criticism by Shimada Katsumi describing me as a British nationalist. I can find little indication so far that Reader has taken the trouble to read it himself and come to his own independent conclusions.

Some historians: Kuroda, Pye, Isomae, Breen and Teeuwen

Reader criticised me for not squeezing more history into my article. However, I had already overstepped JAWS editorial guidance on length; guidance which was perfectly reasonable given that this was a very long discussion paper in a physically small newsletter. Here, then, is a little of what I couldn’t squeeze in before.

Since Kuroda (1999 [1981]) and some other historians we know that, at Meiji, Shinto was constructed as a reified entity and then at some point in the process described officially as part of the civil ‘non-religious’ fabric of the social order. At other times it was considered ‘a religion’ or ‘the state religion’. This fact alone should draw our attention to the fragility and constructed nature of our modern categories.

Reader criticised me for not mentioning Michael Pye. Michael Pye is a historian of Japanese Buddhism who has published in many different places2. He kindly presented me with a signed copy of his translation of the book mentioned by Reader, Tominaga Nakamoto’s Emerging from Meditation (Pye (ed.):1990)3. Pye’s introduction and his translation of Tominaga, is an interesting text on 18th century intellectual culture in Japan. But his argument is actually not so much about the category of religion itself, since he seems to presuppose the idea of religion throughout. His argument is about “an autonomously reflective science of religions, standing apart from the religions themselves.” (1992:101). The assumption that there were already ‘religions’ existing independently, which by the 18th century required a science to study them, is to assume without argument the problematic that needs critiquing. I am questioning the idea that such ‘religions’ in the modern reified sense ever did exist prior to modernity, and that would apply equally to, say, medieval Europe. By analogy I do not believe, for example, that it clarifies institutional history to describe the Roman Catholic Church or Christendom in the 15th century as ‘a
religion’, neither to describe the Franciscan or Dominican orders as ‘religions’. The same point would apply to the Buddha Dhamma Sangha of south east Asia or the Soto Zen sect of Japan. I am not an expert on Islam at all, but I imagine there are serious problems in trying to classify Islam as ‘a religion’. The case of ‘Hinduism’ may be too well known to mention.

Pye continues that Tominaga

“…was concerned with the dominant religions of his place and time: Buddhism, Confucianism and Neo-Confucianism, Shinto, and more incidentally, Taoism.” (1992:102)

This is clearly not the same project that is being pursued in my paper. In my paper I am problematising the category ‘religion’ and have proposed that these reified entities are modern constructions uncritically projected back into profoundly different worlds.

Reader criticises me for not mentioning various historians. Kuroda Toshio’s work on the concept of Shinto seems to have lessons for our project. It is illuminating to treat Kuroda’s analysis of shintō as an analogy for a possible analysis of shūkyō:

“The meanings of the word shintō as well as changes over time in customs and belief, would indicate that Shinto emerged as an independent religion only in modern times, and then only as a result of political policy. If that is so, can this continuity be regarded as a true picture of history? Or could it be that what is perceived as indigenous, or as existing continuously from earliest times, is nothing more than a ghost image produced by a word linking together unrelated phenomena?” (Kuroda in Mullins et al, 1993: 27)4

Recently I reviewed Breen and Teeuwen’s Shinto in History (2000)5, which has become a landmark of historiography in this field. In their discussion of Kuroda’s thesis, Breen and Teeuwen (2000) point to the dislocation between a prevalent image of Shinto created by the Establishment for ideological nationalistic purposes, and what the vast majority of ordinary Japanese people do and think at shrines:

“…all the indications are that ‘Shinto’ -- as opposed to, say, jinja or kami -- has no meaning at all for the vast majority of Japanese, regardless of generation. Japanese attend shrines and beseech kami at festivals and on other occasions too, but they have no awareness that their practice constitutes something called ‘Shinto’, or that they themselves are ‘Shintoists.’ They certainly do not themselves profess affiliation to the Shinto religion… ‘Shinto’ is not then, in any obvious sense, what contemporary Japanese ‘do at shrines’, nor what they think before the kami, since it is not what they themselves understand that they do and think; Shinto is, rather, what the contemporary establishment and its spokesmen would have them think and do.” (2000: 3).

Of course the argument – both Kuroda’s and Breen and Teeuwen’s – is more complex than I can do justice to in a small space. The latter do make some partial criticisms of Kuroda’s thesis. However what Breen and Teeuwen clearly accept about Kuroda’s argument is its historiographical sensitivity to changing context and nuance, its attempt to deconstruct essentialised notions of Shinto/shintō, to criticise the tendency to project back into earlier historical social formations the same meanings as are current and hegemonic among a relatively small modern elite.

If the general perspicuity of Kuroda’s thesis concerning the 19th century ideologically motivated reification of ‘Shinto’ can be generally accepted, then it might be argued that a theoretical solution could be found in pushing further and questioning other reifications such as ‘Buddhism’ and ‘Religions’ also. For if Shinto, as it has been constructed by Meiji and more recent intellectuals, was partly the result of the separation of kami/shrines and buddhas/temples (shinbutsu bunri 「神仏分離」), and also partly the result of the separation of church and state (seikyō bunri 「政教分離」), then arguably both ‘Buddhism’ and ‘Japanese Buddhism’ imagined by the modern mind as ‘religions’ are also reifications that derive from the same modern process instigated under internal and external pressure. And it surely cannot be any co-incidence that these dual reifications were contemporaneous with their description as ‘religions’, or rather with the public debate concerning what constitutes ‘religion’ and ‘non-religion’, and how ‘religion’ should be translated.

In his paper “Shinto as a ‘non-religion’: the origins and development of an idea” (Breen and Teeuwen (eds.) 2000: 252-271) Nitta Hitoshi at one point gives a list of the issues being addressed by the Home Ministry on the question of ‘religious administration’. The first item out of eight has been translated in this way:

“Ritual before the deities (kamimatsuri) should be the responsibility of the state; religion (kyōhō) should be left to the beliefs of private individuals.” (p265)

The word kyōhō is here being used for ‘religion’ and was at that historical point being distinguished from kamimatsuri [shrine ritual], as private to public. Is kamimatsuri religious or not religious? The dichotomy between the religion of private individuals and the public duties of the citizen surely suggests an attempt to change indigenous understandings and practices and to conform to the contours of Protestant epistemology and its historical connection to capitalism and modernity. In the background we can sense gaiatsu [foreign pressure] and the threat of colonisation. But we can see from Isomae Jun’ichi’s article translated below that there were many terms such as kyōhō that were considered for ‘religion’ but which were too tied to a specific institutional practice to be translatable as the generic ‘religion’.

In my view the English word ‘religion’ and ‘religions’ in the noun sense, and its modern Japanese equivalent shūkyō, should not be confused with words that have different nuances such as teachings, practices, disciplines, paths, sectarian and monastic orders or schools, and ritual institutions which may or may not be state sponsored. The over-stretched, blanket term ‘religion’ obliterates finer tunings. Isomae Junichi, in his lecture published as an article on the formation of religious studies in Meiji Japan, shows that there were many different indigenous cultural constructs at the time that the modern scholar might have reached for in an attempt to find an approximation to Christianity. Here are a few examples:

Japanese Term

English Translation
信念 (shinnen) belief
宗派 (shūha) sect/denomination/order
宗旨 (shūshi) doctrine
教法 (kyōhō) doctrine/law
宗法 (shūhō) doctrine/law?
信教自由 (shinkyō jiyū) freedom of faith/ belief
聖道 (shōdō) sacred doctrine; sacred path [of Buddha]
教義 (kyōgi) dogma
宗教 (shūkyō) belief/doctrine
神仏礼拝 (shinbutsu reihai) ‘worship’ of kami and buddha
神を祭る (kami wo matsuru) ‘worship’ of kami

The salient point that I believe Isomae wishes to make in the lecture is that all these terms, including the relatively obscure shūkyō, derive their meanings from specific, institutionalised contexts of discourses and practices. As far as I understand it, none of them were generic terms in the way that modern ‘religion’ is, and the adoption finally of shūkyō as the term most often used to correspond to a belief-centred non-Japanese cosmology changed its meaning and its usage. It was in this sense that I suggested that shūkyō is a modern invented category of a generic abstraction claimed uncritically to be found in all societies at any time in history. This is the ideological translation to which I tried to draw attention. The fact that these kanji [Chinese characters] have been found together a few times in obscure texts does not mean that there was a single word with a stable, established meaning corresponding to modern ‘religion’.

In my view the modern English-language category of religion has been formed through the same process that led to the separation of church from state in Northern Europe and North America and which simultaneously made possible the idea of the right to freedom of worship. If religion in the modern senses had already made its appearance in the 18th century in Japan, then how does one explain what happened at Meiji?

Given the importance that a historian such as Kuroda Toshio has given to the emergence of the modern invented meaning of shintō in Meiji, and the importance that in a somewhat parallel way Isomae Junichi has given to the emergence of a modern meaning for shūkyō, it seems crucial that the reader knows which Japanese words are being translated into which English words.

Pye uses the word ‘religion’ and ‘religious’ copiously throughout his book. However, my copy of Pye’s book has few Japanese words in Chinese characters in it. This is not primarily a complaint, but an observation. There is an impressive index, printed in kanji, of 250 names of writings referred to by Tominaga, yet none of them contain the characters 宗教 (shūkyō). This is hardly evidence that the word was of fundamental importance to the dominant discourses of that time. On page 157 there is a reference to “Futtantan’s transmission of two religions” and a footnote that says:

“Two religions’ stands for nishūkyō. Although Ishida transforms this into a different character compound by replacing the last character with that for ‘sūtra’ (also pronounced kyō) following a Chinese source…this appears to be, in Tominaga’s text, an early use of the modern Japanese term for ‘religion’. “ (footnote 152 on page 157).

This is the one place I can find a reference to shūkyō, and this is apparently a different kanji. Thus in this specific case there is no way for the reader to check (short of doing the research for him or herself) what is actually being asserted when Pye argues that ‘religion’ in the modern sense was already an indigenous category equivalent to ‘shūkyō’ in Japan in the 18th century.

Short of duplicating the work of translation for her- or himself, the reader has no way of checking what Japanese words are being translated for ‘religion’ in the 18th century (and this point applies in a more general sense to other categories which we all use to organise our thinking, for example ‘law’, ‘economics’, ‘markets’, ‘politics’) and what contextual nuances they carried. But Reader informs us that, in a different article, Pye does definitely specify shūkyō as the word used by Tominaga Nakamoto, and that by this he meant practically the same thing as we mean when we talk about religion. Furthermore, this idea of religion was arrived at in the Japanese context entirely independently from the developments in European languages. This claim, I admit, would be a serious challenge to an important part of my argument if it can be established. Yet if this is genuinely the modern nuance, one would like to know what has happened to the non-religious sphere that would be implied in the separation of ‘religion’ and ‘politics’「政教分離」and how it was possible to come up with the same concept before this historical event had come to pass.

I do not argue that ‘religion’ in English only has one essentialised meaning, and my book The Ideology of Religious Studies gives examples of a very large range of meanings attributed by scholars. The point here was to show that ‘religion’ is often treated by scholars as a loose bag into which a very wide range of things can be placed, including things that in other contexts would be placed in the ‘secular’ bag. However Isomae convinces me that the dominant meaning at the time of Meiji was ‘belief’ derived from private Protestant piety and hoisted on Japan by the (civilizing?) Protestant powers that threatened Japan with relegation to the status of ‘barbarian’ nation (yaban koku「野蛮国」;see Isomae below) if they refused to separate church from state or if they failed to understand and honour the principle of ‘freedom of religion’ (shinkyō jiyū 「信教自由」).

However, having said that, this is not an attempt to define religion in terms of some fixed essentialised meaning; it is to highlight the ambiguity and flexibility of the term. Its power lies in that it has both a strong historical and semantic association with private protestant piety, with a strong emphasis on correct belief, keeping it tied to some specific context of meaning. At the same time the same word is actually used by specialists as an empty container for whatever they want to put in it on the basis of ever more distant analogies to that relatively fixed point. The implied analogy between religion in its most strongly associated meaning of Protestant Piety or more generally Christian faith/belief and some other cross-cultural or cross-historical practice or institution at times becomes dangerously and even absurdly stretched.

Kuroda’s article (1993) as it has been translated into English is one example where ‘secularity’ is represented as “itself religious in nature.” (See footnote 4) and this is not uncommon in religious studies texts. I believe we can find examples in various publications where humanism, science, the Individual, football, the theory of evolution, the state and nationalism have been described as ‘religious’ or ‘religion’. I’ve even heard ‘the secular’ sphere described as a ‘religion’, along with humanism, science, the liberty of the Individual, baseball, the theory of evolution, and the state and nationalism. To describe things that are usually placed in the secular classification as a religion or a religious ideology is to go so far in the direction of flexibility as to completely un-tether the term from its semantic origins in Christian piety and to make it a mere arbitrary marker at the whimsy of any writer. In this context it seems surprising that scholars who specialise in the subject don’t appear to sense any problem, and seem merely to wish to protect the specialism from outsiders.


With the help of my friend Minako Takahashi, and my colleague Tom McAuley (School of East Asian Studies, University of Sheffield), I have attempted to translate Isomae Junichi’s lecture on the origins of 宗教学 (shūkyōgaku) in Japan during Meiji. This part of Isomae’s lecture is offered in translation with modesty and caution. We saw above that Nitta Hitoshi uses shūhō as equivalent to the western category ‘religion’, which at that time was heavily indebted to Protestant Christianity, and I have shown above that there were a number of different words and expressions, all tied in to specific institutional contexts, that were being picked up and put down again as possible equivalents. Eventually it was shūkyō that gained ascendancy. Isomae seems to be saying that shūkyō was a relatively obscure term at the time, which prompts the thought that it was partly because of its relative obscurity that it was most easily adapted to its new generic usage:

“…it was in 1857 that the word ‘religion’ was [first] translated from English into Japanese, for use in the 1858 US-Japan Treaty of Amity and Commerce. At that time Christianity was still banned in Japan, and translations of ‘religion’ were, for some time after that, exclusively created for use in diplomatic treaties with western countries. The translation, however, was not yet fixed as shūkyō 宗教, and various early modern terms, such as shūhō 宗法 and shūshi 宗旨, were used as equivalents for religion6. Although freedom of belief  [信教自由 shinkyō jiyū] was agreed at the national level, there was no debate on whether or not there was a correspondence between the western concept of religion, which centred on Christianity, and the Japanese concepts typified by shūshi 宗旨, yet the word religion was accepted by both Japan and the west for use in their external relations as being roughly equivalent to shinbutsu no reihai 神仏の礼拝 [‘worshipping’ kami and hotoke.]

It was after the prohibition of Christianity was withdrawn in 1873, or rather, once the practice of Christianity was tacitly approved, that the various Japanese words used as rough equivalents to the English word religion became unified to shūkyō 宗教. From this turning point (removing the ban) there was a debate within the wider society about how the word religion should be translated, this being seen as a problem of national policy concerning shūkyō 宗教. This debate indicates that the influx of Christianity to Japan was the trigger for the creation of the unified word shūkyō 宗教 which was generated from various terms of various religions that already existed in Japan [日本在来の諸宗教]7. In the first place the need arose among those Japanese people who participated in the debate to find a standard translation for religion which could be used consistently, and a consciousness arose in Japan about the relationship between Christianity and the various Japanese religions [キリスト教と日本在来の諸宗教との関係性]7. However, the debate only took place between governmental officials or a few intellectuals such as Fukuzawa Yukichi who had contact with western culture.

The point that I want to make here is that, before translations of religion were unified in shūkyō 宗教 two different types of translation equivalents were used: a word such as shūshi 宗旨 which is rich with the nuance of practice, and words such as kyōhō 教法 which has more of a meaning of belief. Words such as shūshi and shūmon emerged from the system of household registration with particular temples (terauke) and were only used to indicate practices entailed by personal membership of a specific sect temple, or of Christianity which was regarded as a deviant form (of sectarian practice). Only practices which were clearly followed by all members of a sectarian organisation [kyōdan sōshiki 教団組織] such as the dankaseido 「 檀家制度」, or funeral rites as suggested by the term ‘funeral Buddhism’ [sōshiki bukkyō 葬式仏教] were regarded as shūshi 「 宗旨」.

On the other hand terms such as kyōhō [教法 the Teachings of the Buddha] and shōdō’ [聖道 The Holy Path] indicate belief in the sense of doctrine [kyōgi 教義] or creed [shinnen 信念]. Debates on doctrine [kyōgi 教義] had taken place between Buddhists 「仏教」and others, principally Confucianists 「儒教」 and national learning scholars 「国学」but these were limited to intellectuals; concepts such as kyōhō 「教法」 and shōdō 「聖道」 existed on a different level from the ordinary person’s practice – shūshi 「宗旨」 – which was limited to Buddhism and Christianity. The characters for shūkyō 「宗教」originated in Buddhist texts 「仏典」 and were more like shūshi 「宗旨」 in nuance.

During the 1850’s and 1860’s, shūmon 「宗門」and shūshi 「宗旨」 were mainly used as the translation for religion in diplomatic documents and in the work of enlightenment scholars. Those words were often used because early modern Japanese were more familiar with them. However, the fundamental emphasis on belief that lay at the heart of the Protestant Christian sense of religion did not correspond to the sense of practice which underlay the early modern concept of shūshi 「宗旨」; so kyōhō 「教法」 and shōdō 「聖道」 began to be used in parallel with shūshi 「宗旨」.Eventually these translations became lined up into one word shūkyō 「宗教」with its emphasis on belief. This shows that the understanding of ‘things which appear like shūkyō 「宗教的なるもの」transferred from practice to belief among intellectuals in the early 1870’s.

At the same time the transfer from shūshi 「宗旨」 to shūkyō 「宗教」 widened the range of things that were recognised as religion 「宗教」. Whereas shūshi 「宗旨」was used exclusively in the context of either temple practice 「仏教or Christianity 「キリスト教 」, as is well known the word shūkyō 「宗教」 came to include Shinto [shintō 神道]、folk practices [minkan shinkō 民間信仰] and even Confucianism [jukyō 儒教]. Moreover the underlying concepts of shūshi 「宗旨and shūkyō 「宗教」 continued to diverge. Shūshi 「宗旨」 remained limited to the relation between believers 「 帰属という個別的な関係」and one of the sects 「仏教の各宗派」 whereas in the modern period the underlying principles of the word shūkyō 「宗教」 are quite different, including a wider set of phenomena 「近代での宗教という言葉は諸宗教を包括する」7. (Isomae Junichi, 平成12年3月, 3 March 2002).8

I believe that Isomae’s historiography opens up the issue in an interesting way. Is Reader really saying that the modern category of religion, with its distinction from the secular and implying the separation of church and state and the further principle of the freedom of religion or worship, were established as concepts and principles prior to Meiji? If that were the case, it would be difficult to understand why there have been any debates at all about how to translate ‘religion’. If the term with the same nuances was already established in the literary and scholarly tradition, what were the Meiji debates actually about?

I end my response to responses here. No doubt there are mistakes in my argument, and these things can never be decisively proved one way or another. But I hope the discussion has at least stimulated thought, if not agreement.


1. Fitzgerald, T. (1995)

2. For example, on this issue see Pye (1992) in Despland and Vallee, 101-109.

3. Tominaga, Nakamoto (1990 [1745]).

4. There are problems with the English language terminology in this translation, such as when Kuroda is translated as writing “It is said that Shinto played a secular role in society and existed in a completely different sphere from Buddhism. I would maintain that this very secularity was permeated with Buddhist concepts and was itself religious in nature.” (1993: 9) I believe that Kuroda is trying to say something important here, but either he or his translators were unable to find the right language. What does it mean to say that the secular sphere “is itself religious in nature”? I do not blame the translators for this; I merely point this out because it may illustrate my point about the confusion in language between religion-secular and sacred-profane.

5. See also Inoue (2003); and reviews by Fitzgerald (forthcoming and 2004)

6. Author’s bold.

7. These sentences are for me problematic, since it suggests that the several Japanese ‘religions’「諸宗教」already existed in Japan prior to an agreement about what constitutes a religion. Given the complexity of what Isomae is attempting it is hardly surprising that he, like most scholars, should be occasionally trapped by a terminology that is being problematised.

8. I am grateful to Professor Isomae for his permission to translate and publish his paper. I am grateful to Minako Takahashi for her translation help, and also to Tom McAuley for checking through the final translation and making improvements.


Breen, J. & Teeuwen, M. (eds.) (2000) Shinto in History: Ways of the Kami, Honolulu: University of Hawaii.

Despland, Michel and Vallee, Gerard (eds.) (1992) Religion in History: The Word, the Idea, the Reality; La Religion dans l'histoire: le mot, l'idee, la realite, Waterloo, Canada: Wilfred Laurier University Press.

Fitzgerald, T. (1993). Japanese religion as ritual order, Religion, 23: 315-341.

Fitzgerald, T. (1995) Things, thoughts and people out of place: a review of Mullins et al Religion and Society in Modern Japan, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, 22 – 1/2: 201 - 217

Fitzgerald, T. (2000) The Ideology of Religious Studies, New York: Oxford University Press.

Fitzgerald, T. (forthcoming) Review of Breen, J & Teeuwen, M (eds.) (2000) Shinto in History: Ways of the Kami, Japan Forum

Fitzgerald, T. (2004) Review of Inoue (2003) Shinto - A Short History, CSJR Newsletter, January Issue No. 9

Hori Ichiro, Ikado Fujio, Wakimoto Tsuneya and Yanagawa Keiichi (eds.) (1972). Japanese Religion: A Survey by the Agency for Cultural Affairs, Tokyo: Kodansha.

Inoue, Nobutaka (ed.) Ito Satoshi, Endo Jun, and Mori Mizue (2003), Shinto - A Short History, London and New York: RoutledgeCurzon.

Isomae, Junichi (2000) Kindai nihon ni okeru ‘shūkyō’ gainen no keiseikatei, Nihon joshi daigaku sōgō kenkyūjō nyūsu, No 8, March, 2000. (“The formative process of the category ‘shūkyō’ in modern Japan”, Japan Women’s University Research Institute Newsletter.)

Kuroda, Toshio, (1993 [1981]), Shinto in the History of Japanese Religion, translated by Suzanne Gay and James C. Dobbins, in Mullins, Mark, Shimazono, Susumu, Swanson, Paul L. (eds.) Religion and Society in Modern Japan, Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press: 7 – 30.

McCutcheon, Russell T. (1997) Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia, Oxford: OUP.

Mullins, Mark, Shimazono, Susumu, Swanson, Paul L. (eds.) (1993) Religion and Society in Modern Japan, Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press.

Pye, Michael (1990) translation plus Introduction and commentary, Tominaga Nakamoto (1990 [1745]) Emerging from Meditation, London: Duckworth

Pye, M. (1992) An Asian starting point for the Study of Religion,
in Despland and Vallee (eds.) (1992) Religion in History: The Word, the Idea, the Reality; La Religion dans l'histoire: le mot, l'idee, la realite: 101-109

Tominaga Nakamoto (1990 [1745]) Emerging from Meditation, translated with an Introduction by Michael Pye, London: Duckworth.

About the author

Timothy Fitzgerald began his career within Religious Studies at King’s College, London, then did a PhD also at King’s College, London, in the field of philosophical theology, and then moved into social anthropology at the LSE where he did an MSc. He did field work on Ambedkar Buddhism, an untouchable movement of collective and individual transformation and liberation in Maharashtra. Soon after his first field trip to India, he moved to Japan and taught in a university near Nagoya for several years. His wife Noriko is Japanese and their children, Taro and Mari, are bilingual. His recent book is The Ideology of Religious Studies (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

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Copyright: Timothy Fitzgerald
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