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Discussion Paper 1 in 2004
First published in ejcjs on 3 March 2004

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Ideology, Academic Inventions and Mystical Anthropology

Responding to Fitzgerald's Errors and Misguided Polemics


Ian Reader

Professor in Religious Studies
Lancaster University

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This article was written in order to respond to arguments made in Tim Fitzgerald’s article in the JAWS Newsletter (Japan Anthropology Workshop) in November 2002 and to correct factual errors in it. Since Fitzgerald’s article (amended in November 2003 at the time my response was published) has since been posted as a discussion paper on this site, my response, too, has been included here, with slight amendments made to incorporate amendments made by Fitzgerald in the article as posted here. Please find below a reference and link to Fitzgerald's discussion paper.

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.

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Reviewing Timothy Fitzgerald’s book The Ideology of Religious Studies Shimada Katsumi (2001) is critical of Fitzgerald’s ideological arguments which Shimada sees as being founded in a monolithic perception of how scholars have analysed ‘religion’ over the centuries. Shimada in essence argues that Fitzgerald does what he accuses other scholars of religion of doing, i.e. reifying and essentialising categories in order to write about them. Fleshing out this critique, Shimada argues that Fitzgerald’s work was centred in ‘western nationalism’ and ‘cultural essentialism’ (p. 180 ). Because of such orientations (which Shimada categorises as ‘naïve’), Fitzgerald makes blanket statements about Japanese culture that are based, Shimada complains, in a rigid Western/non-Western dichotomy that presents a monolithic picture of Japanese culture that overlooks much, especially Japanese, academic writing on the subject.

Moreover, Shimada states that Fitzgerald’s account fails to meet even basic academic standards with regard to Japan in that, despite affirming an anthropological perspective, Fitzgerald shows no evidence of using any normative anthropological methods, such as participant observation, fieldwork data, interviews or statistical surveys (p 180). It is not just a seeming lack of empirical fieldwork data that Shimada complains of, for he is also unhappy that Fitzgerald has not – at least according to the total lack of citations in the book – consulted any Japanese language materials at all. This, Shimada suggests, means that, while attacking research that has been carried out in Japan on the topic of religion, he fails to demonstrate any knowledge of what Japanese scholars have said on the subject and whether their views might be similar to those of Western scholars. Thus, Shimada argues, Fitzgerald’s comments simply fail to carry the persuasive power of scholars who are well versed in the realities of research into Japanese religions (p. 180). In fact, such are the problems with Fitzgerald’s understanding of the topic and such are the academic deficiencies within it, that Shimada thinks it would have been better if the section on Japan in the book had been omitted.

Shimada’s review is pertinent in the context of Fitzgerald’s recent article in the JAWS Newsletter (No. 35, 2002) now republished in slightly revised form in here in the electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies, because it identifies problems inherent in that article, which displays a similar lack of evidence of normative anthropological modes of study and data gathering, and a lack of awareness of what Japanese scholars have written on the subject – and hence a seeming lack of recognition of the extent to which this tallies with the accounts of scholars he criticises, or of the extent to which the views of the western scholars he attacks might have been influenced by Japanese scholarship. The article suffers, too, from a variety of errors, including an obviously weak grasp of Japanese historical and religious matters, poor referencing, and misrepresentations of the work of others. It is also founded in a basic and rigid division between the ‘West’ and ‘Japan’, that is simplistic and proves inadequate as a mode of analysis.

I am not going to go through Fitzgerald’s article in great detail or point out every mistake he makes, because this would involve a much longer article than I or readers of this discussion could stand. I will note that many of the errors, notably the appalling mistakes of spelling and grammar that we scream about when our students make them (e.g. ‘there own exclusive commitment’ , ‘it’s nearest Japanese approximation’), should have been eradicated at the copy-editing stage. They are indicative, however, of the article as a whole.

More serious than the many elementary grammatical mistakes that permeate the article, are several factual and conceptual errors that illustrate the poverty of Fitzgerald’s arguments. It is these that need some response and correction, and here I will just focus on a few of the more obvious of them. The first part of this article deals with Fitzgerald’s claim that the categories of ‘religion’ and the ‘secular’ are alien to Japan and that they have been invented and imposed on Japan from outside. The second will look at some of the inventions and falsifications that he uses in his critique of those he accuses of having imposed these categories onto the Japanese situation, the third will briefly comment on his claims about ‘anthropology’ vis-à-vis other disciplines, and the final section will briefly comment on the inadequacy of his proposal for an alternative category (‘ritual’) to be used instead of ‘religion’.

The mythical invention of ‘religion’ in Meiji Japan

Central to Fitzgerald’s work is the claim is that the category ‘religion’ is a particular Western colonial construction that has been exported to and arbitrarily imposed – along with its partner in crime, the ‘secular’ – on other cultures such as Japan. In the case of Japan his argument is that Japan prior to Meiji made no distinctions between the ‘religious’ and the ‘non-religious’ – terms he uses synonymously with ‘religion’ and the ‘secular’. ‘Religion’ and its concomitants, the ‘secular’ or the ‘non-religious’ are terms that developed out of specific Western contexts and are categories that do not work in the Japanese context, because they come with a particular culturally weighted baggage and infer a ‘special, set-apart’ category or realm that has no place or no basis in Japanese cultural terms. Since there is no division between the ‘religious’ and the ‘non-religious’ these notions should be abandoned in favour of another (Western-derived!) term, ‘ritual’.

Fitzgerald unfortunately produces no empirical evidence to substantiate his claim that ‘religion’ as a category that stands apart in some way from the ‘non-religious’ or the ‘secular’ did not exist in pre-Meiji Japan. Rather, he assumes that pre-Meiji Japan made no differentiation between the two, asserts this point as if it were a given, and then moves on to state that the category was therefore imposed in the Meiji era as a result of Western influences. The argument is thus tautologous and rests on an unfounded assumption. And, like all such arguments, it falls flat if – as is the case here – the assumption on which it was based is incorrect.

Fitzgerald tells us that ‘religion’ and the concept of the ‘secular’ or the ‘non-religious’ were imposed on Japan in the Meiji because of ‘the insistence by the western powers that a civilized society separates church and state’. This is an extraordinary statement in the light of the fact that the ‘western powers’ concerned with the transformation of Japan in the Meiji era included European nations that did not adhere to the notion of church-state separation. Does Fitzgerald really believe that Meiji-era British diplomats, representing a state and serving a Queen who was Head both of State and of a national church, thought that a civilised society separates church and state? Did they perceive their own society as, therefore, uncivilised? Or is Fitzgerald just telling us here how tenuous his grasp of historical, to say nothing of political, issues is?

At the end of his article, too, Fitzgerald demonstrates his tendency to think in monolithic categories and to make the error of glossing the characteristics of one system onto a host of others, when he speaks of how:

‘the American written constitution with its separation of church and state and its guarantee of religion satisfies the west that Japan is really just like us, and conforms to our western assumptions about the world.’

Does he believe that we all think – or want to think – that Japan is ‘just like us’? (Funnily enough, I had always thought one of the problems with dealing with Japan has been the tendency to exoticise the place and make it different, rather than seek to make it ‘just like us’…). Or, indeed, that everyone in the ‘West’ operates on the same American-based constitutional model? Such comments – and the factual problems within them – are indicative of the general levels of accuracy (or lack thereof) in his work, and of the tendency to operate through broad, reified generalisations rather than through empirical data.

Fitzgerald provides no substance to his claim that certain distinctions and concepts (e.g. ‘religion’ and the notion of ‘religion’ as a ‘set-apart’ sphere of existence) were imported at Meiji and must therefore be a Western, colonial imposition. The problem here is that Fitzgerald appears to be only minimally aware of Japanese history and religion1 when making such comments. He fails to note, for example, that distinctions between the ‘religious’ and the ‘non-religious’ have been a recurrent element in Japanese history since at least the eighth century onwards. The Ritsuryō Codes of the eighth century, for example, sought to develop a synthesis of politics, religion, culture and state: the need to legally institute a synthesis itself indicates that people at the time were aware that these elements occupied different spheres of interest and hence needed some legislative process to link them together for the sake of government. The Ritsuryō laws seeking synthesis also recognised that these diverse elements had particular interests which needed to be safeguarded and to have their integrity preserved. Hence certain types of institutions (Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines) were given particular rights because of their nature, related to the worship of particular types of being and their association with other realms, and were marked out legally and in tax terms as different from institutions (e.g. feudal estates) that had mundane orientations. Equally, those who served such institutions were seen as a special category of people because of their ordinations as monks, nuns and shrine priests, and were subject to different regulations to people in ordinary society2. The granting of special tax concessions and status to institutions such as temples and shrines that enshrined what Fitzgerald calls ‘mystical powers’ which pertain not only to this but also to other realms, thus occurred even before the Heian era in Japan. While we are very much aware of the post-war laws that have granted special status in tax and other terms to bodies legally constituted as ‘religious organisations ’ (shūkyō hōjin), we should not assume that the construction of such special status is either a post-war innovation or a product of post-Meiji westernisation and the introduction of new ‘set-apart’ categories. The notion that such forms of institution should be differentiated from society and treated as a special category has been around for a very long time in Japan. One notes, too, that the Ritsuryō government also had a Department for Kami Affairs (Jingikan) which indicates that, in the eyes of those who ran this system, matters relating to these entities could be distinguished from other aspects of the realm and placed in a special category to be administered by its own particular arm of government.

Equally, after the Heian Court in the early ninth century permitted the Tendai sect to establish its own ordination platform, Buddhist orders were able to establish a form of self-governing authority that marked them out from the rest of society. Indeed, the degree of autonomous power – including the ability to maintain armies of monks – that Buddhist institutions wielded was a notable feature of Japanese history until Oda Nobunaga’s destruction of Mount Hiei in the sixteenth century. Such legal differentiations, and the concept that certain types of order, institution and person, occupied special categories related to their adherence to particular realms of influence, are very much in evidence, too, in the continuing links and struggles from the Heian until the early modern era between the concepts of ōbō (also written as ōhō), Imperial law (i.e. law as generated by the state and predicated upon state authority, needs and privileges) and buppō the Buddhist Law (law predicated upon the religious orientations and claims of Buddhism, and linked to the claims of privilege, special treatment and priority made by those who claimed to represent the law of Buddhism in this temporal sphere, i.e. the monks and their institutions). These two were interrelated, and the ways in which one or other had the upper hand in the relationship shifted from era to era. They were central, too, to Japanese conceptualisations of the state and religion in pre-Meiji times. The two operated in tandem, with worldly authority supporting and giving patronage to Buddhist temples, while spiritual authority buppō represented by that crucial component of the Buddhist world view, the sangha, the Buddhist community of practitioners and institutions, gave moral and ritual support to worldly authorities.

Yet if they existed in a mutually beneficial and interdependent relationship, they were conceptualised as different entities. There were spheres for the Emperor and state – and spheres for Buddhist institutions and their specially defined community which, because they functioned under the buppō and provided moral support for the state, were given privileges denied other institutions. And because of this special status, too, Buddhist priests were a class apart – indicated by their taking of the tonsure, special vows and forms of dress that marked them out as different from, and related to another world to, members of ordinary society. As late as the Tokugawa era this difference was evident in the ways in which they were subject to extremely severe punishments (not applicable to ordinary people) if they violated the moral codes of the Buddhist law. (Here one might note, too, since Fitzgerald seems so keen on close semantic analysis of words, that a ‘religious’ is someone who is bound by monastic vows, while a ‘secular’ is a member of the laity, someone not bound by monastic vows – a differentiation that is certainly found in Western cultures but that is also in evidence in societies such as Japan, which also historically differentiated in law and status between those bound or not by monastic vows.)

The ōbō-buppō dyad, in other words, indicates a reality of pre-Meiji Japan: that Japanese thought worlds conceived of and were well aware of a differentiation between types of institution and areas of activity and thought. As such, too, one could argue that formal attempts to separate ‘religion’ from the political in the Meiji era were driven as much, or more, by the clear wish of the authorities to reduce or remove the influence of the religious sphere in public life, as they were by any wish to ‘construct’ a special set-apart sphere called ‘religion’ to accord with western sensitivities.

The conceptualisation of certain places as set apart from, or not really belonging to this realm, but linked to a sacred realm, and usually associated with gods or buddhas, also reinforces this view. Buddhist figures of worship such as Kannon, for example, had their Pure Lands that were set apart yet accessible from this realm (hence the tradition of monks who set out from this physical world, leaving the shores of southern Kumano or Shikoku to journey to Kannon’s Pure Land Fudaraku). Not only institutions but particular places associated with deities and buddhas were considered as standing apart from the ordinary world. Thus, there were prohibitions on ordinary people entering particular mountain areas because these were considered to be specially holy, and hence only to be entered by those who had undergone certain initiations, or were members of religious orders, and only for the purposes of worship and asceticism. These enforced separations have largely disappeared since the promulgation of laws in the early Meiji period stripped away such special prohibitions. As a result, indeed, one could make out a case for saying that there may be even more of a blurring of borders in some contexts nowadays between the religious and non-religious than there was prior to the Meiji. For example, people can ascend mountains such as Ontake as pilgrims and as adherents of a religious organisation or they can go up as tourists with no intent to pray: the summits of places once reserved for those engaged in special rituals now see tourists and pilgrims side by side, each conducting their own activities in the same space. This point – that in the modern day categories such as the ‘religious’ and the ‘secular’ may be blurred especially in areas such as pilgrimage – is a running theme in much of my work on the subject - a point well noted by other scholars in the field, even if it seems to have evaded Fitzgerald’s understanding3.

It might be argued by some that these differentiations could be explained via other vocabularies (e.g. sacred-profane or sei-zoku) and that we do not need ‘religion’, the ‘secular’ and the ‘non-religious’ to identify them. Yet this would be something akin to semantic juggling, not about the existence or otherwise of differentiated categories, but about the terms that might be used to apply to them. It would still create the same types of category structures and set some things apart from others, and undermine the basic assumption that no such differences existed pre-Meiji. It fails to counter the basic point that in pre-Meiji Japan – as after – certain types of institution, place, people and beings were distinct from (even if they related to) the mundane world.

Even when he relies on the term shūkyō to substantiate his arguments, Fitzgerald errs, appearing to think that the term did not exist prior to Meiji, an assumption found in this article and expressed more overtly elsewhere, where he claims that the term was invented in the 19th century, ‘specifically coined in the 1860s under foreign pressure’ (Fitzgerald 2003 p 222). This is wholly wrong and indicative of the problems in Fitzgerald’s scholarship. I admit it is an assumption I might have helped create in my statement (in Reader 1991a, p. 14) that shūkyō was a ‘derived word that came into prominence’ at Meiji, and if so I apologise for causing confusion. This statement is not quite correct, since it glosses over a long history. The term shūkyō certainly is derived, but from Chinese Buddhist terminology, first appearing in Chinese Buddhist texts, where it is used as a reference term for Buddhism. In such contexts it came to Japan, where it appears, as far as I am aware, for the first time in Japanese documents during the Tempyō era (729-749), to indicate institutions that were accorded special privileges because of their status in such terms. It crops up –admittedly in specialised contexts, and in the writings of sectarian traditions, rather than in popular discourse – throughout the next eleven centuries. In the Zen tradition, for example, shūkyō was used to indicate Buddhist traditions whose authority was based in textual transmission rather than (as Zen liked to see itself) in direct personal transmission from an enlightened master. In seventeenth century Tendai tracts, the term is used to identify specific schools and traditions within the Pure Land sects, which are termed shūkyō.

These are but a few examples of the uses of the word pre-Meiji. All of them point to a particular meaning that ties together the notions of an organisation or institutional identity (shū – sect/school) and a set of teachings (kyō) specific to it4. Such a meaning is not far from (one might argue, it is rather close to) nineteenth century notions of ‘religion’ as something framed by doctrine and organisation. I suppose one could propose an alternative word than ‘religion’ for translating or representing shūkyō in such pre-Meiji writings, although I am not sure quite what that word might be: maybe Fitzgerald could give us his opinion of how this term might best be translated or interpreted in these pre-Meiji sources?

There are various other examples of how the word shūkyō was used in pre-Meiji times to indicate specific, separate, and doctrinally constructed traditions and ways of teaching. Perhaps most strikingly, the term is used by the eighteenth century thinker Tominaga Nakamoto (1715-1746) who used the term shūkyō to refer to specific, distinctive traditions in his 1745 tract Shutsujo (Emerging From Meditation) (translated and edited by Michael Pye (1990). Michael Pye has argued that Tominaga developed a critique of ‘religion’ and that his use of shūkyō was ‘modern’ in context (by which he means that it equates very much to Western concepts). In arguing that the term shūkyō ‘meant none other than ‘religion’ as early as the first half of the eighteenth century’, Pye states that ‘religion had already been the object of sustained historical and systematic reflection’ well before Western influences entered in the Meiji era and that, by the eighteenth century:

‘two things are indisputable about the term shūkyō ….. it is a clear equivalent for ‘religion’ as in the phrase ‘the study of religion’, and it was not invented by westerners.’(Pye 1994 p 122).

Pye has subsequently emphasised the point further, stating that ‘the modern study of religion(s) in Japan is influenced not only by reaction to western models but also by underlying ideas available in the Japanese intellectual tradition itself’ and that ‘The term ‘religion’ should by no means be written off as a misleading western import ‘(Pye 2002 p 350-351).

Pye’s argument thus is that there is such conceptual and intellectual common ground between shūkyō and ‘religion’ that the one can relate to (and be translated by) the other. Certainly, when Pye translates shūkyō in Shutsujo it is hard to see how he could have used any word other than the one he did – ‘religion’– for this purpose. Thus, while one can accept that the English word ‘religion’ came into Japan in the Meiji, the claim that ‘religion’ (in terms of meaning) was imported then is incorrect. If Pye is correct, the concept was there already. As such it is surprising that Fitzgerald has virtually nothing to say about Pye’s work, which challenges the very foundations on which his ‘case’ is built. In his original article, published in the JAWS Newsletter to which this article was a response, Fitzgerald does not mention Pye at all – a striking omission in the context. In his revised version for this e-publication he has added a few comments in one footnote. However, the ‘analysis’ of Pye proffered is unconvincing. Fitzgerald merely notes that Pye’s arguments do not convince him (unsurprising, one might consider, given the ideological bias Fitzgerald brings to the subject and given that Pye’s work so effectively strips away so much of what Fitzgerald claims!) . He states that Pye’s argument is ‘difficult to assess, partly because it often isn’t clear what Japanese equivalents would be used in the original Nakamoto texts’ – which merely indicates the problems with Fitzgerald’s own approach. Of course, it would be clear to those who examine the matter closely what terms are used by Tominaga; a scholar claiming knowledge of the Japanese situation would certainly think of examining the original Tominaga text, which is available in various libraries and collections! Pye, moreover, provides examples of the terminology of ‘religion’, pointing out that Tominaga uses the term shūkyō. Why he has not discussed Pye in the context of the evidence to hand, and has simply tried, in an inaccurate footnote, to claim that he is not convinced by Pye, is one that one can only speculate on, though the cynic in me asks whether he has effectively ducked the issue because he has no real answer. Yet, without properly discussing and refuting what Pye has to say, Fitzgerald’s case is shorn of credibility and stands exposed as an assumption backed by no evidence and built on hollow foundations. Perhaps Fitzgerald has some argument he can provide to counter this point, but he certainly needs to explain what pre-Meiji Japanese who used terms such as shūkyō and accorded special set-apart status to certain types of being and institution, meant by such activities.

Thus, a basic cornerstone of Fitzgerald’s argument (that the notion that one could separate out or differentiate between the ‘religious’ and the ‘non-religious’ was a Meiji invention imported from the west) is flawed. It is far more accurate to state that the intellectual tools and concepts relating to ‘religion’ as brought by Westerners in the nineteenth century lent themselves to the adoption of the term shūkyō in wider public discourse because shūkyō had a history that was associated with the types of concept that were implied by the Western term ‘religion’. Indeed, it was because of these meanings that the word was able to be assimilated into discourse with Western missionaries and to be used as a standard translation of the (nineteenth century) term ‘religion’.

Changing meanings and linguistic accuracy

This does not mean that shūkyō as a term and concept has retained the same meaning ever since – a point that George Tanabe and I make in our discussion of shūkyō/religion (1998 p. 5). Yet, ironically for someone who makes great play, in his references to one new set of meanings the ‘religion’ acquired in the West in the 16th-17th centuries, about how terms can change in or develop new meanings, Fitzgerald appears oblivious to the possibility that this might happen also in Japan with shūkyō. Yet any examination of this term in Japanese contexts and in Japanese academic usage would indicate how its meanings have developed and been broadened from its earlier narrow doctrinal focus (see, for example, Reader and Tanabe 1998 pp. 3-7, and Shinno 1991, passim, but esp. pp. 269-289). Quite why Fitzgerald fails to note this point is unclear, although his failure to make any reference to Japanese language scholarship in the article suggests possible clues5. If he had, he would have noticed that, if ‘religion’ might have been culturally weighted in Meiji era Japan in line with Western conceptions, it has, in its Japanese development since then, acquired Japanese interpretations and cultural weightings that have amended its meaning(s).

As readers of our book will know, it is, in effect, because of such changes that Tanabe and I felt able to use the term ‘religion’. In defining what we mean by this term we first warned readers of the ‘potential theological (and culture-specific) implications’ it can hold (1998 p 4) but then moved on to suggest that one can still use the term, as long as one qualifies it in ways that get it out of its nineteenth century straitjacket and related it to modern Japanese interpretations. In such contexts we discussed modern Japanese academic concepts of shūkyō and stated that, in using the term ‘religion’ we were effectively using an English translation of the Japanese term shūkyō (1998 p. 5).

Fitzgerald’s problems with Japanese terms do not end here. He comments, for example, that the idea that genze riyaku ‘demarcates a religious rather than a non-religious sphere of activity should be challenged’ and proceeds to claim that one can receive riyaku from a ‘Boss’ as well as from (say) an ancestor or some other ‘mystical being’. Yet the word riyaku itself indicates the existence of a specific type of vocabulary in Japan, derived from and related to Buddhism. Riyaku is a term originating in Buddhism and relates to benefits emanating from divine (non-human) sources such as kami, Buddhas, ancestors or other spiritual/mystical beings or powers. Definitions in standard Japanese-English dictionaries (e.g. Kenkyûsha ) are clear on this point, as are more specialist (e.g. Buddhist, Shinto) dictionaries. There is also a ‘secular’ reading (rieki) of the same ideograms, which denotes interest or benefits accrued in a material/financial sense from the human world of business (and hence from Fitzgerald’s ‘Boss’). As such, using the term riyaku to assert that one cannot differentiate between the religious and non-religious is itself evidence of conceptual misunderstandings.

A new method of academic criticism: Inventing statements you can criticise

If the above basic academic premise of Fitzgerald’s article is highly dubious, so too is another aspect of it which attacks a number of scholars (myself, Winston Davis, Byron Earhart and Neill McFarland) for their use of the term ‘religion’ in Japan. The attack is dressed up as a seeming close analysis of the words used by this ‘Gang of Four’, although, as will be seen, there are times when what transpires is not so much close semantic analysis as straight misrepresentation. According to Fitzgerald, the four people mentioned (and I feel pleased to be associated with company such as Davis and Earhart, whose work I cite, use in my teaching and find very useful contributions to our understanding of the field) are part of what he terms the ‘religion industry’ (p.59) that has used the (artificial, in his view) religion-secular dichotomy to carve out a special ‘set-apart’ realm of religion. Apparently, according to The Ideology of Religious Studies, ‘‘Religion’ has become constructed by some needs of a home audience and home publishing industry’ (2000 p 211), and hence, it would appear, this ‘religion industry’ and the construct ‘religion’ itself, have been cobbled together by Western publishers so they can sell books. (I am assuming that ‘home’ in this context relates to Western – or Anglo-American – audiences and industry, since the scholars he criticises have all been published by English and American publishers, and since he appears not to be aware of Japanese studies of religion. He certainly makes no comment on the Japanese situation, where the production of books on ‘religion’ – especially folk religion – in Japan is bigger as an industry than it is in Western languages.)

I do not question Fitzgerald’s view that publishers want to sell books (after all, that is why they put snappy blurbs on dust jackets, and, indeed, why they publish books in the first place!), nor that they have particular interests and wishes for certain types of book that they think will sell. This is not, however, enough to provide evidence of a collusion between academics and publishers in the construction of an ideologically slanted ‘industry’. Indeed, one of the recurrent problems I – and, I suspect, most academic authors – face, is that much of what we write is deemed not popular enough to meet with the demands of ‘markets’ beyond our narrow academic enclaves, and that getting books published on certain topics (and resisting requests for others that appear to be ‘more commercial’) remains a struggle.

To show the problems that are caused by this ideological clique of ‘religionists’ (p.49), Fitzgerald goes through, with apparently close textual analysis, some of the things that we say, thereby showing the errors that arise from our tangled understandings. And I admit that if one were to take Fitzgerald’s work seriously one might come to the conclusion that we have a few problems with our terms and concepts. I do not entirely disagree with this, for we are talking about an area and set of terms that I find genuinely problematic – an area, indeed, that some of us who write about it have warned readers not to make Western-centric assumptions about (see, for example, Earhart 1982 pp 192-193 as well as the warning made by Tanabe and myself, referred to above).

Yet Fitzgerald consistently assumes that those who write about ‘religion’ all know what it is – even as he criticises scholars such as Davis for their attempts to analyse it. (If Davis and others such as myself, really ‘knew’ just what it was, one might ask, why do we spend so long on definitions and discussions of it?). Although Fitzgerald claims – although quite what grounds he has for so doing is unclear – that I ‘know’ what religion is (he means this in an ideological sense), the truth is far different. It is an issue that remains puzzling for me – which is one major reason why I am so interested in studying ‘religion’ and trying to work out what I think it might be. (It is also, incidentally, one reason why one can identify differences and changes that have entered my work over the years I have been writing about the subject although, if one were to read Fitzgerald, one might assume that I, and the other ‘religionists’ in the gang, have a static, monolithic and unchanging view of the subject.6)

However, when one looks a little more closely at Fitzgerald’s ‘critique’ problems begin to appear – not least because Fitzgerald is frequently rather economical with the truth. Put more bluntly, Fitzgerald builds a case based in great part on the invention of quotations and the attribution – without valid reason – of assumptions, terms and feelings to those he criticises, which are then used as weapons of attack. I came to realise this when reading his comments on my work – which at times had me saying in some puzzlement, did I really use that phrase or say that? And when I checked, more often than not, I did not. While it is certainly an interesting academic technique to invent quotations and then use them as a means of criticising someone’s work, it is neither sound nor academically honest. That sounds a harsh comment to make, but in order to help readers of this journal decide whether I am being unfair to Fitzgerald I will offer just a few examples from his article.

Early in the article he makes the grand statement that:

“Reader may be unaware of the ideological legacy he has received from the fathers of comparative religion”.

These ‘fathers’, according to Fitzgerald, include Max Muller, Rudolf Otto and Mircea Eliade. How Fitzgerald ‘knows’ what ideological legacy I have received, and from whom, and how he is able to proclaim that I am ‘unaware’ of it, are all matters of some speculation. He certainly is unaware that I first encountered Otto as a postgraduate student, when I wrote an essay criticising his notion of the numinous as a culturally bound idea based in his privileged notion of Christianity and an implicit critique especially of Islam. I doubt if he knows that I discuss Muller in MA seminars at Lancaster in the context of nineteenth century Western ideological constructions and imaginings of Buddhism, and am highly critical of Muller’s preoccupation with text and the construction of idealised forms of ‘religion’7. Fitzgerald, however, appears unconcerned about his lack of knowledge, making the allegation/assumption without evidence, and ignoring any comments I might have made to the contrary- such as the occasions when (e.g. Reader 1991b Reader and Tanabe 1998 p. 4) I have made critical comments about the orientations of the early academic study of religion. Fitzgerald, despite his claims of having ‘trawled’ through my work (p. 53), manages to avoid mentioning such critical comments – possibly, perhaps, because they do not fit in with his allegations of my ideological roots.

Nevertheless, he follows this initial erroneous assertion by claiming that:

“Reader… seems to suppose without question that religion is a universal phenomenon that has existed in all times and all places.”

Again, quite where this comes from is unclear. There are certainly no citations provided to underpin this claim, although this is unsurprising – for obvious reasons. I can only suggest that this is an invention of Fitzgerald’s, conjured up to conform to his own prejudices.

Incidentally, given the stringent criticism implied in Fitzgerald’s words above about the assumption of universal phenomena, it struck me as rather ironic that he appears to deal in similar assertions himself. How otherwise are we are to view such statements as ‘faith in reciprocity and reciprocal dependency is fundamental to all societies in one way or another’ or even his ‘Ritual is pervasive at every level of society, not least in Japan’? Such sweeping value judgements leave one to wonder why certain types of assumption about universality are acceptable, and others are apparently not. Presumably the answer relates to where one’s prejudices lie: it appears that the ‘universalising’ assumptions Fitzgerald has assigned, without due cause, to me, are heinous sins whereas his own actual assumptions are perfectly acceptable.

Perhaps I should not complain overmuch about Fitzgerald’s tendency to read into my work assumptions about what I really feel. After all, he does the same for Winston Davis who, on the basis of the three words ‘religion, however defined’ in the midst of an extended discussion of theories, is pronounced by Fitzgerald as being ‘weary of definitional problems’ – a point serious readers of Davis’s work would find surprising. Then again, Fitzgerald appears to like putting others in particular positions despite any obvious indications to the contrary. Thus, Byron Earhart is included in the ‘religion industry’ and tarnished by association with all those who cling to universal assumptions about ‘religion’ – even though Earhart has been one of the strongest voices warning us not to carry Western preconceptions about ‘religion’ over into Japan contexts or to assume that what goes on in Japan will necessarily be the same as one would find in western contexts (e.g. Earhart 1982 pp. 192-193).

When Fitzgerald does actually move from making unqualified assertions, to providing ‘actual’ quotations, the problems get even worse, since he appears almost incapable of accuracy or getting hold of the right end of the stick. He says, for example, that I have ‘pointed out that the idea of religion was imported at Meiji’ (citing Reader 1991a pp. 13-14) when the point I made was that the notion of religion as a ‘specific, belief-framed entity’ came into prominence at this time (1991 p 13). That is not the same as saying that the idea of ‘religion’ was ‘imported’ (and it certainly fits more closely with the point I made earlier, about the pre-Meiji meanings of shūkyō and why it proved so suitable to use as a translation for ‘religion’). Fitzgerald here also claims that I never consider that the arguments that this (i.e. the concept of ‘religion’) ‘is a western myth, one that liberal ecumenical missionaries have been importing to the rest of the world since the days of Max Muller.’ Perhaps the point that I do not consider that this is a ‘western myth’ is because – as my earlier comments about pre-Meiji Japanese concepts of shūkyō indicate – this idea of a western import is itself a fallacy, a myth constructed by those who have particular ideological positions to emphasise and who appear unconcerned about the veracity of their evidence.

He later complains that I ‘cannot explain the difference between a ritual and a “religiously ritualized practice”’, and gives a page reference from one of my articles to refer to this phrase in parentheses. I suspect that most people reading this would assume therefore that I used the term “religiously ritualized practice”. Yet when I checked the offending article and looked at the page cited, the phrase was nowhere to be seen: nor does it appear elsewhere in the article, which suggests that it must have somehow come from Fitzgerald’s own mind. Might I suggest that the reason why I did not explain the difference in the article is that I do not use the term! Simple really.

Similar problems occur with his claim that:

“Reader …..distinguishes ‘between religious harmony and non-religious harmony (1991:30) and even has a special set-apart place for “religious sincerity” (1998)’.

If one checked these references out (the first refers, according to his list of references, to Religion in Contemporary Japan, the second to my 1998 Short Introduction to Shinto) one would find something rather different. I comment that harmony, which is affirmed as a social ideal in Japan, has also been transformed into ‘something of a religious ideal’ (1991a p. 46). I do not make a distinction between ‘religious’ and ‘non-religious harmony’ (nor do I use the term ‘non-religious harmony’, which makes distinguishing it from ‘religious harmony’ rather difficult!). The second claim, that I have a special set-apart place for ‘religious sincerity’ is false. The term ‘religious sincerity’ does not occur in the work cited – so how could it have a ‘special set-apart place’? In the Shinto book I discuss sincerity and gratitude as qualities that are complementary and of importance in Shinto thought (1998 pp. 97-99): I do not single out something called ‘religious sincerity’. The one occasion I have found where the term occurs in my work is in Reader 1991, p. 16, in relation to the contents and ideals advocated by Buddhist sects in the guidebooks they publish for their followers, in which Buddhists advocate sincerity as a core element in their value systems. There, too, there is no ‘special set-apart place’ for it.

After such inventions, Fitzgerald claims that he has ‘trawled through’ my work (if he had, he might at least have been able to provide a reference for the use of the term ‘religious sincerity’!) but cannot find any editorial principle that I have for including or excluding various forms of ritual activity in my conceptualisation of religion (p.53). This is an illogical statement, given that elsewhere Fitzgerald criticises me for having specific modes of categorisation in which certain types of institution are privileged and ‘set-apart’ as locations of the religious and in which he claims that I consider rituals and values as religious “only when found in temples”. There would appear (if Fitzgerald’s allegations are correct) to be some form of editorial principle here. Fitzgerald, in effect, wants to have it both ways, accusing me of (i) not having an editorial principle for excluding or including ritual activities when discussing ‘religion’ and (ii) of having a particular type of editorial principle in which I make distinctions relating to specific (‘religious’ ) places such as temples, which form the basis of including or excluding rituals within my framework of interpretation.

It is not just that Fitzgerald appears to be contradicting himself (I have editorial principles that he does not like, but I do not have editorial principles at all…) but that he has failed to read articles in which I have set out some editorial principles. Fitzgerald clearly has not trawled competently, or he might have come across them (e.g. Reader 1991b, whose very title ‘What Constitutes Religious Activity?’– written in response to a criticism that I disregarded belief and over-emphasised ritual performance! – gives a clue as to what it is about).

Fitzgerald claims that I repeatedly make a distinction between religious rituals and those ‘that are merely secular’. One should not be too surprised to note that he does not provide a reference to indicate where I might have used the term ‘merely secular’ – again, for obvious reasons. Likewise, he states that:

‘Reader sometimes identifies the “religious” with “the spiritual realm” and contrasts it with the physical (1991: 46)’

and then moves on to say:

‘Presumably the “religious” is the non-material, what cannot be seen.’ (p. 66).

Thus he works out that I define the ‘religious’ as somehow being related to the ‘non-material’, the unseen. The problems with this are manifold, not least because, if readers care to check out the reference given (Reader 1991a p. 46) , they would find no such comments there, nor indeed comments contrasting the ‘religious’ with the physical. They might also find it odd to hear that I relate the ‘religious’ to the unseen and the non-material, especially since much of my work has centred on the seen and on the study of the material – the amulets, votive tablets and the material culture of religion.

Even when he appears to find (partial) agreement with some of the things I have written, Fitzgerald manages to mangle the ideas contained therein and to indulge in further misinterpretation. Take, for example, his discussion of my argument about the ‘primacy of action’ (Fitzgerald referring to Reader 1991a 15-20). For Fitzgerald this becomes an assertion of ‘ritual prescriptions taking precedence over doctrine, belief, or individual salvation.’. What I actually wrote focused on the ways in which practice becomes a gateway to belief and comes prior to it in terms of attracting potential followers (for example, to new religions) who are told to do the practices and see what happened to them, rather being asked first to accept and convert to a set of doctrines and beliefs. This does not mean that action takes precedence over or is more important than belief (I do not know any religious organisations in Japan which say that) but that it is an avenue – very often the primary one – into faith and belief. The point of emphasising this issue was to counter-act the dominance (at the time when I wrote the book) of emphases about doctrine and belief that prevailed in much of the field at the time, and trying to assert the importance of examining practice.

Elsewhere, Fitzgerald takes an essay I wrote on cleaning rituals (Reader 1995), which suggested that there were problems in trying to sort out or differentiate between rituals that occurred in religious contexts and in ‘apparently secular’ ones. The essay appears in a volume that Fitzgerald praises early in his article because it ‘explicitly problematises the religion-secular dichotomy and offers a powerful spectrum of ethnographies on rituals’. Later in the article, however, Fitzgerald appears to back-track, because suddenly one of the essays in this powerful spectrum of ethnographies problematising the religion-secular dichotomy turns into something entirely different, an emphatic and rigid affirmation of the ‘religion-secular’ division, that is somehow out of kilter with the rest of the book (a point clearly not noticed by its editors).

Actually, it is not so much the essay that is out of kilter as it is Fitzgerald’s interpretation of it. What I do in this essay is to raise questions about the practice of cleaning and sweeping in a variety of settings – focusing mostly on temples and new religions, but also in other areas, so as to make the point that:

‘it is reasonable to raise the question of whether we can view all such processes in which cleaning takes place in any ritualized form, from the apparently secular occurrences of periodic community clean-ups to the overtly religious discipline of samu in Zen temples, in a similar light.’ (Reader 1995 p. 241).

Perhaps this is more ambiguous than I thought when I wrote it, and when the editor accepted it in a book that problematised the ‘religion-secular’ issue. To Fitzgerald this comes out as a statement asserting a distinction between temple (i.e. religious) and other, e.g. community cleaning, practices. Fitzgerald seems on one hand to recognise that I speak, in the essay, of how practices that occur in different settings may have very similar (or the same) themes, structures and meanings. Yet he then says that this leaves the reader at a loss (actually – correction – it really leaves only some readers at a loss) because of my seeming claim that the ‘secular’ and the ‘religious’ manifestations of these rituals differ. Actually, nowhere in the essay do I make such a claim: I emphasise that some of the rituals I talk about occur in ‘overtly religious settings’ (and there are references to what these might be, including references to matters of legal status) and others in ‘apparently secular’ situations. The ‘overt’ and the ‘apparent’ were intended to indicate the putative differences that some might perceive (we are, after all, talking about different types of institutions with different modes of intent as well as different legal statuses, when we talk about temples and schools, for example) while the tenor of the essay was to hint at practical and ritual similarities between them. From this Fitzgerald somehow invents an intended difference and then criticises me for not being able to explain it. Nor, despite his assertions, do I make the claim that the values affirmed in spiritual training sessions ‘become specifically religious only when found in a temple’.

Fitzgerald also asserts, citing a quotation from the essay, that I make a distinction between ‘overtly religious organisations’ and ethical or moral welfare training ones (from which he extrapolates the idea, above, that I claim practices are only specifically religious when they occur in a temple). Unfortunately, the ‘quotation’ he produces is not what was written, but an amended version of it constructed by Fitzgerald in a way cuts out one vital phrase, replacing it (with no indication that it has been amended) with a new word which he has inserted into the quotation. What is left out is the phrase that indicates where distinctions might appear between organisations that are legally registered as ‘religions’ in Japan, and those that eschew such registration, but share similar characteristics. Fitzgerald also ignores the citation I give at the end of the sentence he cites, and which refers to the work of the Japanese scholar Numata Ken’ya, from whom the notion was taken, and who has discussed how moral welfare and religious organisations can be considered as part of similar categories of movement.

Incidentally, I should also note two further points, since Fitzgerald seems so concerned about my use of the term ‘overtly religious organisation’. The first is that the organisations discussed in the essay such as new religions and Buddhist temples, have specifically chosen to affix this distinction or label to themselves, and are legally registered as such (and as we have seen earlier, such definitions are not just a product of the modern age). Conversely, moral training organisations have eschewed the label for a variety of reasons related to their own volition. There are thus two distinct modes of registration that organisations with similar orientations can make, as shūkyō hōjin, or as shuyō hōjin. The former are, in my view, rightly termed ‘overtly religious’ in the Japanese context because they have specifically chosen to claim that label by their legal registration.

The above comments suggest that, at the very least, Fitzgerald sometimes has problems with his interpretation of the materials he cites. Sometimes – and not just with the false ‘quotations’ – I wonder whether he has actually read some of the things he criticises. This is shown by his comment when he refers to Winston Davis’s:

‘exploration in chapter 2 of the concept of exchange, which earlier I suggested might be usefully connected to genze riyaku in Reader and Tanabe’s text.’

Leaving aside the small matter that earlier Fitzgerald had not said such a thing – he had simply stated that genze riyaku is about exchange and reciprocity – what is striking here is that Tanabe and I do discuss exchange theory, drawing on Davis and Schutz and then proposing a modified form of such theory (1998 p. 33 and Ch 4, passim ) in relation to riyaku and relations with deities. Why, then, does Fitzgerald need to suggest that we might usefully use a theory which we have used? Would it be unreasonable for me to suggest that he does this because he has not read the text properly – an assumption all too easy to make in the light of his demonstrated inability to adhere to normative academic conventions such as getting one’s quotations right?

Fitzgerald and other scholars

If Fitzgerald presents a selective misreading of my work, much the same is true of his treatment of Davis, Earhart and McFarland. I will not comment much here about his discussion of McFarland, save to note that, having recognised that sectarian and doctrinally based organisations such as the new religions could present him with problems since they appear to be areas in which the concept of ‘religion’ might be applicable in modern Japan, he then proceeds to argue for the reverse by a critical analysis of Mcfarland’s (1967) book on new religions. Two things strike me in this. The first is that the section on McFarland is virtually an exact replication of pp. 167-169 of The Ideology of Religious Studies – even down to repeating its errors such as misspelling the name of the prominent sociologist of religion, J. Milton Yinger, whom Fitzgerald in both places calls ‘Singer’! One wonders about the academic propriety of copying one’s own work in this way. The second is to ask why he needed to reproduce his earlier criticisms of McFarland – whose work has been subject to widespread criticism over the past two or so decades, and has long been regarded as problematic. Why, one wonders, has Fitzgerald ducked an examination of more recent work on new religions – whether by Western scholars such as Helen Hardacre or, indeed, the other ‘gang’ members Earhart, Davis and myself (all of whom have written books on new religions) or, indeed, the copious amount of work done by Japanese scholars such as Shimazono Susumu and Inoue Nobutaka, to name but two? Could it be that this would have been too problematic for him to do, in that one can see – by comparing the work of Western and Japanese scholars who have written on this subject8 – that there are many areas of similarity between them, and that the new religions, as discussed in contemporary writings on the subject, too readily fit into the category structures that Fitzgerald abhors and seeks to deny exist in Japan? Shimada’s criticism – that Fitzgerald appears unaware of Japanese scholarship and hence seems not to know that Japanese scholars work with similar concepts to Western ones – appears valid here.

When Fitzgerald discusses other scholars, too, he continues to manifest his inability to provide adequate referencing. His very brief section on Byron Earhart, whose distinguished career of writing about religion in Japan (several books and many articles and translations) is a mere half-page ridiculously titled ‘Byron Earhart’s contribution’. This says nothing about Earhart’s extensive contribution to the field, instead citing just one quotation from Earhart’s extended oeuvre, referenced as ‘Earhart 1984’– a title that appears nowhere in Fitzgerald’s list of references. The only reference to Earhart in his bibliography does not contain the quotation.

This one sentence is used to back his insistence that Earhart is here using “the western ideologically determined slots ‘religion’ and ‘society’”. He fails to tell readers what I have already pointed out above about Earhart: that he has specifically warned his readers against using Western conceptualisations of ‘religion’ in the Japanese context – a warning that would seem to go against Fitzgerald’s claims of Earhart’s ideological bias. He then goes on to say that Earhart’s treatment of the ancestors strengthens the point he (Fitzgerald) wishes to make, yet he fails to give any reference to this apparent treatment, leaving interested (or doubting) readers unable to check for themselves whether Earhart actually does this.

His comments on Davis are also problematic. I have noted earlier how without adequate evidence, he has described Davis as being ‘weary of definitions’. He also glosses Davis’s citation of Yanagita Kunio’s well-known complaints about the ‘decline’ of folk religion because of Meiji modernisation, so that it becomes a critique of Davis. Thus we find Fitzgerald complaining that Davis does not explain why ryōkan are ‘secular’ when, in fact, it is Yanagita who uses such terms, and Davis who cites them as examples of Yanagita’s critiques of modernity!

Fitzgerald is expressly critical of both Davis and myself for considering the Japanese to be ‘fundamentally mistaken about their own behaviour’ and because we:

‘know exactly what ‘religion’, ‘religious activity’ and ‘religious behaviour’ is (sic), but the Japanese do not.’

Even a story I used to indicate the misguided presuppositions I had when I first arrived in Japan, about how I thought people might act when they visited shrines and temples, is used to suggest that I continued to hold these views even after doing research in Japan. (Somehow Fitzgerald overlooks the fact that I pointed out (1991a, p. 2) that I was naïve in this context at the time).

Actually, neither Davis nor I tell our readers that ‘we know’ what religion is but the Japanese do not. I do not even, despite Fitzgerald’s claim, at any stage tell readers that to be religious, things must be done in a ‘worshipful’ manner. In criticising the lines that Davis and I take, Fitzgerald actually exposes the fundamental problem of his lack of awareness of the ways in which Japanese scholars of religion, notably sociologists of religion, have analysed data and dealt with issues that they relate to ‘religion’ (shūkyō). (If he wishes to get some insight into these points and does not want to read through copious amounts of Japanese, he might start with Reader 1990 or Inoue (ed) 1995, esp. Inoue’s Introduction pp. 4-17).

Perhaps it is because of this lack of awareness that he is unable to understand that both Davis and I are commenting on the problems that can be caused by terms such as ‘religion’ and ‘religious’ in Japanese contexts, especially when they are tied to questions of belief. My point here (as in much of my work) has been to emphasise the importance of examining practice as a critical element in the study of (what I call and have in various places defined as) religion. This is rather different from the philological-doctrinal-textual orientations of ‘founding fathers’ such as Muller from whom (according to Fitzgerald) I have imbibed so much – although it does not mean that (pace Fitzgerald) I necessarily consider practice to be more important than (say) belief or doctrine. Davis, too, is aware of the semantic problems concerned with terms such as ‘religion’ and is also aware of how Japanese scholarship has looked at such problems, and what sorts of things it has included in the rubric of things that it wishes to place in this category.

It is certainly interesting to note, in this context, that Fitzgerald appears unaware of the intellectual debt owed by those he criticises, to Japanese scholarship. Rather than imposing Western ideological assumptions on the Japanese, one could argue that the work of Earhart and myself in particular has been heavily influenced by Japanese colleagues in how we interpret and understand ‘religion’ in Japanese contexts. I make this clear in a number of places (e.g. Reader 1991a: viii, Reader and Tanabe 1998 pp. 4-6), and in my discussions of the types of data and issues I examine in Religion in Contemporary Japan that I use many of the same forms of data and information that sociologists of religion in Japan were working with in the 1980s. One can see, too, in Earhart’s work, the extent to which he has been influenced by Japanese scholars- notably his colleague Miyake Hitoshi.

Nonetheless, we are accused of claiming that we somehow ‘know’ what the Japanese do not know, and that we know what the Japanese really think – even if the parameters we use for our interpretations, and the forms of data we use, are quite normative in Japanese sociology of religion. I should also note that when I (the same is true for Davis and Earhart) make statements about aspects of Japanese behaviour, attitudes and so on, it is done after a fair amount of cross-referencing. Like Davis and Earhart, I use a multiplicity of sources together, from fieldwork and Japanese academic writings, to popular publications, to surveys and quantitative data. To that extent we could argue that whatever claimed ‘knowledge’ we put forward, is at least substantiated in terms of data.

One might contrast this with Fitzgerald’s own approach. He also appears to ‘know’ what the Japanese really think, as one can tell from his repeated generalisations (e.g. ‘the things that are important to the Japanese collectively themselves’, or the extraordinary suggestion (from his book) that ‘for Japanese people non-Japanese are not fully human.’ (2000, p. 183). Fitzgerald provides no data or evidence (not even surveys in which the Japanese people say what is important to them) to back such statements up: he apparently ‘knows’ these things without needing to provide evidence to substantiate them. As with his tendency towards universalising comments cited earlier, here, too, he appears to criticise others for doing what he himself does with abandon.

The mystical insights of anthropologists and the impoverished world of sociologists

Underlying the article is an ideological bias based in Fitzgerald’s claim to belong to a somehow privileged academic category called ‘anthropologists’ who, according to his grand claims, are:

‘less likely to become submerged by conceptual problems that the category typically induces than are those from religious studies. This is because anthropologists tend to have a more sophisticated grasp of the ethnocentric bias of categories and a greater range of alternatives through which to lessen the perhaps inevitable distortion that occurs when the concepts of one culture are used to describe and explain another.’

No empirical evidence is produced to substantiate this grand pronouncement. Indeed, one is left to wonder precisely what it is that marks anthropologists out in the ‘sophistication’ stakes: judging by Fitzgerald’s article, one would conclude that what marks anthropologists out is a poor grasp of historical issues and an inability to replicate even basic quotations or cite any anthropological data. Fitzgerald certainly appears unable to recognise that one of the most important means through which to really understand the ethnocentric bias of categories is through close linguistic awareness of the cultures one studies – and that this is an important means through which to understand that no one category is exactly the same across cultures and that no culture is ‘just’ like another. And as I have already noted, there are questions about Fitzgerald’s linguistic interpretation of terms such as shūkyō and riyaku. But there we have it: somehow anthropologists seem blessed with some special nature that makes them see into the parts of culture that other disciplines cannot reach.

Having introduced the mystical qualities of anthropologists, Fitzgerald provides a rather fascinating analytical device for ‘explaining’ why problems occur in the writings of people such as Davis, Earhart and myself. We are, it appears, located in the sociological tradition! Indeed, displaying the levels of academic inaccuracy that permeate the article, he even calls my friend George Tanabe a ‘sociologist’ – an interesting description of someone widely known as a historian and specialist on medieval Buddhist thought, art and texts. Still, in the light of Fitzgerald’s general economies with the truth, this is not too great a howler: I imagine for those lucky enough to be blessed with the superior insights of anthropology, all lesser fields and beings – sociologists, historians and so on – are all pretty much the same.

This lauding of anthropologists for their innate insight might be an ingratiating tactic for someone seeking to get an article accepted by an anthropology newsletter, but it hardly provides an adequate analysis of the differing qualities of academic disciplines. Nor does it provide any sound basis for Fitzgerald’s discussion of other scholars, in which the bias inherent in the above comment comes to the fore. Thus, Jan van Bremen is praised for his perceptive understandings of the problems caused by categories such as religion and the secular, and his Introduction (1995) to the aforementioned edited book on rituals in Japan, is cited positively in this respect. Yet no mention is made of the fact that van Bremen uses terms (e.g. ‘religious rites’, ‘religious institutions’, ‘religious ideas’ and ‘religious practices’) without qualification, just as do the ‘sociologists’ (e.g. Reader, Davis) with whom Fitzgerald finds such fault. Yet what, in Fitzgerald’s view, are imposed Western category mistakes when used by ‘sociologists’ appear not to be a problem when used by an anthropologist. Obviously the special mystical insights of the anthropological realms are at work behind the scenes here: unfortunately, since I am not an anthropologist, I am unable to see them and am hence left bemused.

Moreover, when one examines the examples and assertions Fitzgerald makes, one is left with scant knowledge of how much he has applied his apparent affiliation to the anthropological brother- and sister-hood. The apparent lack of fieldwork in The Ideology of Religious Studies of which Shimada complains, is inherent also in the JAWS Newsletter article. While we have many assertions (such as the apparent similarity in perception between ancestors and the ‘Boss’), there is little empirical data cited to indicate, for instance, any fieldwork investigations, interviews, studies of particular communities or particular types of people who provided data for such perceptions. All I could find was a reference to Fitzgerald getting loaded on sake at weddings and drawing, from this, feelings of communitas and the collapsing of boundaries. (Does this make me an anthropologist, given that I, too, have had my share of entering into sublimely perceptive states using similar means? Or am I just betraying my imperceptive sociological self by not basing my work on sake-fuelled sensations?).

While these comments may sound cynical, they indicate a serious problem with Fitzgerald’s work and his claims of anthropological insight. If one is to claim special status for certain types of academic methodology, one needs to demonstrate that one has used such methods successfully, and present evidence (e.g. in the form of data) to show it has worked. As far as his article indicates, Fitzgerald is unable to substantiate his claims in empirical terms. Indeed, in his lack of empirical material and lack of demonstrable fieldwork evidence, I would – linking back to Shimada’s criticisms about Fitzgerald’s lack of fieldwork evidence and Japanese citations – suggest that what Fitzgerald is doing is very much in the sort of ‘colonialist’ mode he accuses others of following. Without apparent recourse to empirical evidence, and without looking at what Japanese scholars have said, Fitzgerald appears ready to pronounce on the ‘Japanese’ and to assert what ‘they’ feel. I cannot think of a more colonialist – or in Shimada’s terms, ‘western nationalist’ – perspective than this.

Religion and ritual

The intention of this response has not been so much to deal with Fitzgerald’s charge that scholars including myself are using a category (‘religion’) that fails to provide a viable or useful analytical tool for studying matters Japanese, as it has been to demonstrate the fundamental problems with his own article, as a chimera based in misunderstandings, misinterpretations and the imposition of categories. I will, however, finish with a few comments about the term ‘religion’ which, as I have recognised, is problematic – although not just in Japan. That is why scholars in Religious Studies are constantly discussing and arguing about the term and its modes of application: recent Department seminars at Lancaster, presented by departmental colleagues, have resulted in raging debates and disputes over these issues – and long, in my view, may we remain in dispute. Fitzgerald is misguided if he thinks Religious Studies is really so monolithic that it adheres to a set of creeds set out by some ‘founding fathers’ many decades back: debates continue in Japanese as well as Western languages about the terms and meanings we use.

The terms ‘religion’ and shūkyō are not static, and, as such, they offer grounds both for continuing (re)interpretation and for cross-cultural study. As any student of ‘religion’ knows, the term – and the field of study it implies – have changed greatly since the nineteenth century: Religious Studies departments do not spend their time just studying texts and doctrinal systems and nowadays they even hire people like me, who mostly write about things such as pilgrimages, amulets and prayers for worldly benefits. These changes will continue, too, and they will continue through what I see largely as a process of understanding and modifying the terms we use as we enhance our studies. The changes in meaning that shūkyō has acquired since Zen Buddhists in medieval Japan used it to refer to text-based teaching traditions, and especially since academic studies of shūkyōgaku have proceeded in late twentieth century Japan, are ample evidence of this.

Using terminology that allows for some cross-cultural understanding and sharing of phenomena is also vital – and here, too, a notion of ‘religion’ that has been liberated from its nineteenth century protestant straitjacket and that incorporates practice as well as doctrine, and individual motives as well as group dynamics, provides a useful mode of analysis. That is why there has been such a strong drive among Japanese scholars studying what we tend to call ‘folk religion’ (nowadays most commonly termed in Japanese minzoku shūkyō) towards using the term shūkyō, which they see as affording grounds for drawing Japanese studies out of isolation and allowing for some common ground of discussion with other cultures and traditions (see e.g. Miyake 1989 and Shinno 1991; for fuller discussion of these issues see Reader (unpublished/in press).

At the end of the day we have to operate with terms and categories that allow us to work across cultures. This is not so that we can persuade ourselves that other cultures are just like ours or impose our own categories on them, but to enable us to have at least some form of a common language that allows us to talk together and draw from different cultures in theoretical terms while recognising the special nature of each culture. (Thus, in my book on the Shikoku pilgrimage (Reader, in press) I can both highlight its striking particularities and use it as a means of making broader comments about ‘pilgrimage’ in more general terms). The alternative is to adopt the sort of approach that claims one cannot examine or understand any culture or issue save in the context of its own cultural parameters and in isolation. (In effect, that is what I fear Fitzgerald ends up by doing: positing a Japan so ‘alien’, so ’different’, so ‘exotic’ (after all, they don’t regard anyone else as fully human do they?) that one cannot begin to examine them using any viable terminology that relates to the ‘West’. This, again, is where the rigid Western/non-Western dichotomy that Shimada complains of in Fitzgerald’s work, is evident. The logical extension of this is that, if we are to dismiss certain words and concepts because they are culturally bound, why use others (e.g. ritual) that also carry cultural baggage?

One answer might be to only write about Japanese topics in Japanese, thereby avoiding any potential terminological clashes. There are areas (e.g. discussing typologies of pilgrimage) where this might be easier to do, due to the differing complexity of Japanese as opposed to English terminology in this area) but overall it appears an impractical solution. Not only would it severely restrict the study of other cultures and make it hard to teach them to students who do not have the appropriate language skills, but it would reinforce the notion of exoticism without gaining any understanding of difference.

The alternative is to recognise the problems with terms, and use them accordingly, through constantly testing them, revising what we mean by them, and bearing in mind how other scholars- notably Japanese colleagues – frame their definitions and use their terms. When one translates (e.g. from Japanese to English), one inevitably encounters problems of interpretation. One also comes to recognise that certain terms play across the linguistic divide –  and I would suggest that shūkyō and religion do this. They did so in pre-Meiji times, made a reasonable fit for each other in the terminology of the Meiji era, and have complemented each other in their developments since then.

For Fitzgerald, however, religion-shūkyō does not work, and he wants to provide an alternative term for analytical use, and he suggests it is one that cuts across divisions and that demonstrates the uselessness of the ‘religion-secular’ divide. The insistence that there is no such ‘thing’ as ‘religion’ or the ‘secular’ is of course every bit as ideological a premise as is the claim that there is, but no matter. For Fitzgerald, the terms must be thrown out, and replaced by ‘ritual’, and he argues that pretty much everything we need to know about Japan can be interpreted through this notion. Taking things further, he even suggests (again, displaying his innate knowledge of what I really want!) that:

“most of what Reader means by ‘religion’ is the performance of rituals, and it is unclear what else over and above ritual he really wants to talk about.’

Unsurprisingly, I disagree. While ritual is a useful category for analysing certain forms of action (and, as I have demonstrated, cleaning floors can be interpreted as a ritual that occurs across any divide between the religious and the secular), it has its own failings that are at least as conceptually ensnaring as, for example, ‘religion’. This is evident in the things I have written about that cannot, in my view, be subsumed within or interpreted by ‘ritual’, such as personal volition (e.g. in purchasing amulets and votive tablets – how does one include the multiplicity of individual feelings found there within a general framework of ‘ritual’?); the importance of belief and doctrine (which, as I have shown with regard to Aum (Reader 2000) can be a very significant issue indeed, and which I do not see as being adequately handled under the rubric of ‘ritual’); and much else. Nor, in my most recent book in press, do I find ‘ritual’ a very useful category for analysing pilgrimage: while some aspects of pilgrimage lend themselves to analyses using concepts of ritual process, much that is included in my study of pilgrimage (e.g. the imagining of landscape, the questions of individual experience central to the ways in which pilgrims understand their own journeys, the ways in which pilgrims within the same group travelling together can record very different narratives and understandings of what they have done) cannot be adequately discussed or understood through such terms.

While ‘ritual’ as a category allows for the recognition of common ground between ritual practices in (say) a school or company and in a temple, it also may not accord us the potential for differentiating between practices. Nor, I would argue, does it allow for scope in identifying individual volition or personal motivations – issues which can at least be deciphered within the terminological rubric of ‘religion’. My concern with ‘ritual’ is that it tends towards generalisations and lumping together of all participants into a single framework or grouping of categories. We can see this, in effect, in Fitzgerald’s blanket comments about ‘the Japanese’ when they are performing ritual acts relating to relations between ancestors and the living, and the living and their bosses: when the ritual process of giving and receiving becomes paramount, we are in danger of losing sight of the potential within ritual performances for shades of opinion and differentiation to occur. What we end up with is ‘the Japanese’ all performing the same acts and becoming somehow the ‘same’. We would end up making the same mistakes as did the nineteenth century scholars who, in thinking ‘religion’ was all about doctrine and text, and allowing no room for ritual and practice, reduced and ultimately impoverished the field they were trying to study: by reducing everything to ‘ritual’ we would be equally impoverishing the field of study and – mirroring the folly of the early ‘fathers’ who ignored practice – be closing the door to much that was relevant.

We cannot even find, through ritual analysis, why certain people might join one Japanese new religion, and others join another: they are just all engaged in ritual practices that go across any dividing lines, and we have no further scope for analysing why they might follow (or disregard) certain types of practice rather than others. At least within problematic terms and category concepts such as religion, one finds scope for analysing why certain people join certain new religions (and not others) and why they might join none at all. While ritual is a useful category for helping analyse certain types of performance, it is not adequate to cover the sorts of areas I am most interested in studying and writing about – and it fails to provide the means through which one can adequately discuss and account for some of the things that one finds in ‘religion’, such as concepts of truth, personal faith, belief, doctrine and much else.

The category and term – especially when one understands what is meant by it in its different (English-Japanese) forms – also allows for some common ground in discussions with colleagues in Japan and elsewhere. Thus, in discussing, for example, notions such as ‘new religions’ or shin shūkyō with Japanese colleagues, we have been able to understand what each of us is talking about. In footnote 7 (above), I refer to books published by myself and a Japanese colleague on Aum, and note that they are quite similar in terms of conceptualising the field of study. I should also note that our interpretations of the topic also were much assisted by many discussions together on it, which were facilitated by a shared understanding of terms such as shūkyō and shin shūkyō. Equally, in the 1980s when I worked with colleagues in the Shūkyō Shakaigaku no Kai who were discussing what they meant by shūkyō, I was able to find enough shared ground to make discussion viable. I am not convinced that we were all falling into the same ‘category mistake’, nor that jettisoning the terms ‘religion/shūkyō’ would have enhanced our conversations and interactions in any way: I think that the reverse is more likely to happen, without any gain or advances in our theoretical understandings.

We will gain little if nothing from supplanting ‘religion’ with ‘ritual’ – and we run the risk of severely limiting the potential we have for analytical cross-cultural understanding. And until Fitzgerald can provide an adequate academic argument – one that is based in empirical materials, is grounded only in real references, and that takes note of scholarly studies of Japan from all quarters (by which I mean, that shows appropriate respect for Japanese scholarship to accord it some consideration in his discussions) – I will remain unconvinced by his arguments, and swayed more by Shimada’s assessment of his work.


1. I note that, in this response I am going to use the word ‘religion’ not only because I remain unconvinced by Fitzgerald’s arguments about its lack of applicability, but also because it appears to me to be a useful term to relate to both to pre-modern institutions such as temples and Buddhism, and to the modern uses of shūkyō.

2. See Teeuwen and Scheid 2002 p 199, and also Kitagawa 1987 pp. 87-90.

3. See, for example, John Eade who, in a study of theoretical works on pilgrimage, highlights my work as having ‘challenge(d) the rigid separation between the sacred and the secular’ (Eade 2000 p.xvi).

4. For information on these points and on various uses and textual occurrences of shūkyō, including those mentioned above, one can consult numerous standard dictionaries such as the Kokugo Daijiten (1976 Vol 10, p 238), the Jidai betsu kokugo daijiten (Muromachi jidai edition) 1994 p 466, the Kadokawa kogo daijiten Vol 3 p 265, and Nakamura Hajime’s (ed.) Bukkyō daijiten (1989/2000) pp. 391-392. Any search of standard historical and other dictionaries would provide similar examples of this term. Given the ready availability of such information, I find it extraordinary that Fitzgerald can make such erroneous claims and appear so confused over the uses and historical nature of this term. It almost leads one to question his competence as a scholar of things Japanese, even as he appears to claim the mantle by engaging in linguistic arguments about Japanese terms.

5. In the revised version on this site Fitzgerald has added a reference to an article by Isomae Jun’ichi (albeit with incomplete referencing, since the entry includes no pagination and fails to provide the exact reference for materials he claims are in that article).

6. As I noted in Reader 2000, for example, I now pay far more attention and give greater weight to text and doctrine than I did ten or so years back. This change of position (welcomed with great amusement by some of my friends in the Buddhist Studies area) has come through my studies of Aum, which showed me just how potent the notion of ideology and doctrine can be. This, again, is something that cannot be explained by limited notions such as ‘ritual’.

7. One might note, too, that Muller was deeply concerned with constructing an idealised vision of Asian traditions such as Hinduism through textual interpretation and famously told his students not to go to India, where the reality of Hindu practice might shatter their visions of what ‘pure’ Hinduism was. There is somewhat of a difference here with my own approach, which seeks to construct understandings primarily out of fieldwork and engagement with practice, and which encourages fieldwork. This point alone would seem to indicate that whatever ideological legacy I have it is not one that comes from Muller.

8. One might compare, for example, Shimazono 1997 and Reader 2000 as examples of studies of Aum that both locate it within the wider tradition of Japanese new religions, and that (one in Japanese, the other in English) use similar terminology and modes of analysis. While there are differences in focus (Shimazono focuses less on structural issues in terms of Aum than I do, and I pay less attention to the provenance of Aum’s teachings than he does) we share much common ground in analysing Aum and in emphasising the doctrinal issues that were so central to it.

References Cited


Bukkyō daijiten (ed. Nakamura Hajime et. al.) 2000 (1st edition 1989) (Iwanami Shoten)

Kadokawa kogo daijiten (ed. Nakamura Yoshihiko et. al. ) 1982 (Kadokawa Shoten)

Kokugo daijiten (ed. Nihon Daijiten Kankōkai) 1976 (1st ed. 1972) (Shōgakkan)

Muromachi jidai hen (Muromachi era volume of the Jidai Betsu Kokugo Daijiten) 1994, (ed. Muromachi Jidai Jiten Henshū Iinkai)

Other Works

Eade, John 2000 New Introduction. In John Eade and Michael Sallnow Contesting the Sacred: The Anthropology of Christian Pilgrimage (Urbana, Ill: Illinois University Press) pp.ix-xxvii

Earhart, H. Byron 1982 Japanese Religion: Unity and Diversity (Belmont, Cal.: Wadsworth)

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

Fitzgerald, Timothy 2002 ‘Religion’ and the ‘Secular’ in Japan: Problems in History, Social Anthropology and the Study of Religion. JAWS Newsletter No. 35, pp. 44-76.

Fitzgerald, Timothy 2003 Playing Language Games and Performing Rituals: Religious Studies as Ideological State Apparatus. Method and Theory in the Study of Religion Vol. 15/3 pp. 209-254.

Inoue Nobutaka (ed) 1995 Gendai Nihon no shūkyō shakaigaku (Tokyo: Sekai Shisōsha)

Kitagawa, Joseph M. 1987 On Understanding Japanese Religion (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press)

McFarland, H. Neill 1967 The Rush Hour of the Gods: A Study of New Religious Movements in Japan (New York: Macmillan)

Miyake Hitoshi 1989 Shūkyō minzokugaku (Tokyo: Tōkyō Daigaku Shuppan)

Pye, Michael 1994 What is ‘Religion’ in East Asia? In Ugo Bianchi (ed.) The Notion of ‘Religion’ in Comparative Research: Selected Proceedings of the XV1th Congress of the International Association of the History of Religions (Rome 1990) (Rome: L’Erma di Bretschneider) pp. 115-122.

Pye, Michael 2002 Modern Japan and the Science of Religion. In Gerard A. Wiegers and Jan G. Platvoet (eds) Modern Societies and the Science of Religions (Leiden: Brill) pp. 350-376.

Pye, Michael (trans with Introduction) 1990 Emerging from Meditation (by Tominaga Nakamoto) (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press)
Reader, Ian 1990 Returning to Respectability: A Religious Revival in Japan? Japan Forum 2/1, pp. 57-68.

Reader, Ian 1991a Religion in Contemporary Japan (Basingstoke and Honolulu: Macmillan and University of Hawaii Press)

Reader, Ian 1991b What Constitutes Religious Activity? Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 18/ 4, pp. 373-376.

Reader, Ian 1995 Cleaning floors and sweeping the mind: Cleaning as a ritual process. In Jan van Bremen and D.P. Martinez Ceremony and Ritual in Japan: religious practices in an industrialized society (London: Routledge) pp. 227-245.

Reader, Ian 1998 Simple Guide to Shinto: The Religion of Japan (Folkestone: Global Books)

Reader, Ian and Tanabe, George J, Jr. 1998 Practially Religious: Worldly Benefits and the Common Religion of Japan (Honolulu, Hi, University of Hawaii Press)

Reader, Ian and Tony Walter (eds) 1993 Pilgrimage in Popular Culture (Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan)

Reader, Ian 2000 Religious Violence in Contemporary Japan: The Case of Aum Shinrikyō (Richmond, UK and Honolulu, USA: Curzon and University of Hawaii Press)

Reader, Ian (in press) Folk Religion in Japan. In Clark Chilson, Robert Kisala, Okuyama Michiaki and Paul L. Swanson (eds.) The Nanzan Guide to Japanese Religions (Nagoya: Nanzan Institute for Religious and Culture: in press)

Reader, Ian (in press) Making Pilgrimages, Making Meanings: Landscape and Practice in the Shikoku henro (University of Hawaii Press: in press)

Shimada Katsumi 2001 Review (in Japanese) of Timothy Fitzgerald The Ideology of Religious Studies. Shūkyō Kenkyū Vol. 75/1 (No. 328) pp. 175-181

Shimazono, Susumu 1997 Gendai Shūkyō no kanōsei: Oumu Shinrikyō to bōryoku (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten)

Shinno Toshikazu 1991 Nihon yugyō shūkyōron (Tokyo: Yoshikawa Kōbunkan)

Teeuwen, Mark, and Bernhard Scheid 2002 Tracing Shinto in the History of Kami Worship: Editors' Introduction. Japanese Journal of Religious Studies Vol. 29/3-4, pp. 195–207.

van Bremen, Jan 1995 Introduction: The Myth of the Secularization of industrialized Societies. In Jan van Bremen and D.P. Martinez Ceremony and Ritual in Japan: religious practices in an industrialized society (London: Routledge) pp. 1-12.

About the author

Ian Reader is Professor in Religious Studies at Lancaster University. His first degree was in History at the University of Reading, followed by several years of travelling in Asia, Africa and North and Central America, before doing an MA on religion in Africa at Bristol University, and a PhD at Leeds University on the Sōtō Zen Buddhist organisation in Japan. He taught for five years at Japanese universities before working at the Scottish Centre for Japanese Studies at the University of Stirling in Scotland and at the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies in Copenhagen Denmark. He has also been Visiting Professor at the University of Hawaii. His books include Religious Violence in Contemporary Japan: the Case of Aum Shinrikyō (Richmond UK and Honolulu, USA: Curzon and the University of Hawaii Press), while his new book Making Pilgrimages, Making Meanings: Landscape and Practice in the Shikoku Henro is in press with the University of Hawaii Press. His wife Dorothy is a professional translator of Danish, Swedish, Norwegian and Japanese, and they have two children, Rosie and Philip.

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