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Discussion Paper 3 in 2004
First published in ejcjs on 10 May 2004

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Dichotomies, Contested Terms and Contemporary Issues in the Study of Religion


Ian Reader

Professor in Religious Studies
Lancaster University

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This article has been written to try to move forward the debate on religious terminology between Tim Fitzgerald, Michael Shackleton, and myself that has been published in both the JAWS Newsletter and the electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies. Below you can click through to the articles published in ejcjs. The papers are listed below in order, with the most recent at the top.

Fitzgerald, T (2004) The Religion-Secular Dichotomy: A Response to Responses, electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies, Discussion Paper 2 in 2004, First Posted on 6 April 2004.

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.

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.

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.

Introductory Remarks

In his reply Timothy Fitzgerald complains that I have personalised issues, yet his complaint seems rather odd given the tenor of his original article and, indeed, his response. The original article contained so much in the way of unsubstantiated allegations and misquotations that it required a blunt response that drew attention to such errors and asked pertinent questions about them and their intention. I am sorry if my demand for accuracy and for substantiation of points used to construct an argument is deemed by Fitzgerald to constitute a personal attack and an obfuscation of the issues. I also think it is a pity that he evades the issues raised in this way and makes no attempt to acknowledge the serious academic flaws and mistakes in his article. This is an extremely important point given that his response to the criticisms both Michael Shackleton and I made about the lack of fieldwork data in his work is that, rather than being based in ethnographic fieldwork, his research ‘takes other people’s ethnography as its data’ – an argument used in similar terms by Russell McCutcheon (1997: 7), another scholar who has critiqued the concept of ‘religion’ and who has been similarly criticised for lack of fieldwork. Yet, it is precisely because Fitzgerald wants to use other people’s work as his data, that he has to ensure that he cites such material correctly and it is only natural that any response to him would focus on how badly he has failed here – a failure that calls into question the entire basis of his project. If fieldworkers get their data wrong, or have misinterpreted or misrepresented it, what trust can one have in their findings? Rather than carp about the tenor of my response, Fitzgerald needs to reflect on the serious academic issues of accuracy that were raised in it.

I recognise that he is right in his argument that scholars construct the object of their own research: we, after all, examine the things that interest us and naturally want them to be important areas of study (no-one ever thinks that they are writing a ‘minor book’ or studying an ‘insignificant topic!). However, when criticising others for their apparent construction of an ‘industry’, he needs to reflect that he is doing much the same thing. Those who make their careers out of criticising usages of terms such as ‘religion’ and who argue that the construction of this term is associated with and facilitates the ‘ideological conditions for global capitalism’, are every bit as much – and often with ideological fervour – constructing a particular field of study and discourse. This is a point that requires some reflection on Fitzgerald’s part.

I certainly would have had little problem with criticisms if Fitzgerald had focused on an evident flaw in my earlier work (and notably in Religion in Contemporary Japan), that I had over-emphasised and perhaps idealised aspects of the religious scene in Japan by overlooking some of its disjunctive elements, such as conflict and sectarianism, that I have paid more attention to recently. Yet I did have problems with his seeming misunderstandings of what people such as Winston Davis and I have written, in which Fitzgerald claims we have constructed an idealised view of religion in Japan that fits into a nineteenth century-based belief-centred assumption about what ‘religion’ is. By contrast, much of what both Davis and I write about examines popular practices that were rarely seen as ‘core’ issues for the study of religion in Japan (or elsewhere) in earlier times and that were not readily included in the ‘belief’ centred notions of ‘religion’ that Fitzgerald argues were constructed at Meiji. Indeed, much of what I have written about (amulets, pilgrimages, prayers for benefits) relates to issues that were written off during Meiji modernisation, as being ‘superstition’ and needing to be suppressed and detached from ‘modern’ conceptualisations of ‘religion’. My argument for using the term ‘religion’ and focusing, in this context, on aspects such as the above, was to get away from, not reaffirm, such nineteenth century focuses.

Then again, scholastic disputes are often about claims of misreading, a point emphasised by Fitzgerald when he complains that I have misunderstood his argument, obfuscated the theoretical issues, and shown an apparent lack of interest in a critical argument about ‘religion’, although he does not show how or why. Such claims are, of course, an easy way of evading the problems I (and Michael Shackleton) have raised, but they are scarcely a sound academic response. I leave it to readers to judge whether I have misunderstood or avoided Fitzgerald’s arguments – or whether I found them less than convincing or useful as an academic tool, because of their evident flaws and because they are so locked into a particular ideological stance that they offer little room for serious discussion. My response certainly engaged with the seeming division between ‘practice’ and ‘belief’, and emphasised that in my view ‘religion’ was useful as a concept because, unlike ‘ritual’, it offered scope for discussions about both practice and belief. Equally, I raised a number of problems with the term ‘ritual’ that have not been addressed in his response.

Fitzgerald’s suggestion that I appear to lack interest in debates about religion is a misconception: what he is effectively saying is that I have different interests from him in this context. While he is interested in discussing how a particular interpretation of ‘religion’ has developed, and while he has built a career around critiquing a particular ideological conceptualisation and, as he terms it, reification of ‘religion’ that has roots in the nineteenth century, I am more interested in how the term has developed in contemporary usage and moved away from (as I have put it) this nineteenth century straitjacket. I have been especially interested in Japanese academic thinking on such issues because it seems to me to be a fertile area for discussion and because it provides perhaps the most striking example, outside of the Western world, of the formation of an academic discipline centred around the study of religion. As a result, I have published numerous reviews and review articles focused on Japanese scholarship and shūkyōgaku (including a review article on the subject in press), participated in various panels on the subject (see, e.g. Isomae 2003: 17-18) and written, for example, about the relationship between shūkyō and bunka, and between concepts such as shūkyō and shinkō in Japan (Reader 1991, 2000)1. My current theoretical interests in interpretations and conceptualisations of ‘religion’ and shūkyō are also more focused on contemporary issues and debates, particularly in Japan, especially in the context of how they relate to issues of civil rights and attempts to define (or re-categorise) certain types of movement either as ‘religions’ or not as the case may be – a point that is of some major concern in the post-Aum era in Japan2. If I may be criticised for being more interested in these contemporary issues than in the formation of the field in the past, then so be it, but equally, of course, in the same light Fitzgerald might be criticised for seemingly not being aware or interested in how the field is developing in areas such as Japan in which he has a declared interest, and especially in a context in which civil rights issues (see footnote 2) may be at stake.

I find other of Fitzgerald’s responses to be problematic, notably his complaint that I have, in his view, used ‘Japanology’ to reply to him. Indeed I used a number of Japanese materials and examples, but then his article focused on and examined Japan. If one is to make claims about the use or otherwise of Japanese terms (e.g. riyaku, shūkyō) then it is important to ensure that such claims are factually grounded, and it is simply disingenuous to dismiss a serious request for academic accuracy as some form of flight into the obscurantism of Japanology.

Equally problematic is Fitzgerald’s claim that I have not read his work and rely instead on Shimada’s assessment of it. Here again Fitzgerald relies on unsubstantiated assumption rather than clear evidence. If he had done the latter he might have noted, as readers of my initial response can readily verify, that I based my response both on his article and his book (which also contains the gist of other articles that he cites, including his review article) and that I cite from the latter in a number of places, identify problems with it, and show how and where the article reiterates parts of the book. It would have been hard to have displayed such an awareness of the book’s contents without having read it. Space prevented an extended excursus into the problems I found with the book, especially since my rejoinder was to his article. Hence it seemed a reasonable technique to me, to summarise problems with his book by citing Shimada’s critical review, which made many of the points I made in my article. Doing this also indicated that my criticisms of his book should not be seen as the aggrieved response from someone who had been attacked, but as a reflection of feelings that had been felt by other scholars such as Shimada.

Shūkyō , Religion, and Historical Problems

Having commented on some of Fitzgerald’s complaints, I will now turn to some of the more substantive issues that are raised by the use of the term shūkyō and also by the issues raised in some of the historical work he mentions, such as Kuroda Toshio’s and Isomae Jun’ichi’s work. Here again, I think the crux of our dispute relates not so much to theory as to matters of historical focus. This difference of views may be because of our different backgrounds and academic training, his in anthropology and mine initially in history. In my view, historical processes are rarely only about disjuncture, whereas it appears that for Fitzgerald they are primarily about disjunctions. The arrival of Westerners into Japan was clearly a historical watershed, one Fitzgerald sees as an event through which everything changed in intellectual and political terms, and in which the hitherto unknown category the ’modern’ appeared, along with such notions as ‘the modern category of religion’. He thus sees Tokugawa and Meiji as occupying ‘profoundly different worlds’. Conversely, I do not see these as quite so dramatically different, nor do I view the changes of the mid-nineteenth century as a wholly disjunctive event, but one that, besides changing much and bringing many innovations, also served as a catalyst to processes such as modernisation, that were already emerging in Tokugawa Japan and that also built upon Japanese understandings of Western knowledge and thought that were present prior to the 1850s3.

My observations – and these, too, I would suggest, are evident in Michael Pye’s work that I cited in my initial response – is that, while Meiji period discussions and political considerations related to the opening of Japan and its development as a modern nation-state, incorporated some new or hitherto unexplored notions into the conceptualisation of ‘religion’ (e.g. the notion of private individual spiritual autonomy that had barely been linked with shūkyō beforehand (see Shimazono 2004: 200), they also built on existing elements that were useful to this process. This does not mean that ‘the modern category of religion’ (and I would question whether there is such a singular thing) existed as a wholesale entity in pre-Meiji Japan, but that there were existent intellectual formulations that facilitated both the ways in which the term ‘religion’ was translated into Japanese, and the ways in which an emerging conceptualisation of shūkyō, in the Meiji era and beyond, developed. Pye has drawn attention to Tominaga’s influence in this context, and others such as Shimazono Susumu (2004) have also pointed to Tominaga’s influence in the growing use of Bukkyō (a term implying teaching and doctrine) as a normative term for Buddhism (along with or displacing butsudō and buppō, both of which imply a focus more on practice) in the Tokugawa period and, indeed, to the use of the suffix –kyō as a referent that pointed to a concept of religion4. As Shimazono points out, the tradition of recognising and categorising a number of different traditions in Japan – namely Confucianism, Shinto and Buddhism – had a long history evident, for example, in Kūkai’s 797 tract Sankyō Shigi with its references to the ‘three teachings’ sankyō (2004:194), a term used also by Tominaga. The use of the suffix –kyō in such contexts points to an understanding of conceptualised traditions which it was possible – as Tominaga’s work shows – to study and on which to make critically evaluative comments5. This notion of ‘three teachings’ also rests on notions of exclusion as well: one should not assume that all ‘pre-modern’ societies lacked notions of distinction, categorisation or, indeed, of exclusion.

While Fitzgerald cites Kuroda Toshio’s work, which was vital in producing a rethink of old notions about the relationship of Buddhism and Shinto, to provide historical support for his claims, he is doubtless aware that Kuroda’s stance is itself coming under some challenge now. The work of Mark Teeuwen, along with John Breen and Bernhard Scheid (Breen and Teeuwen 2000, Teeuwen and Scheid 2002) has taken us beyond Kuroda’s work towards a more nuanced understanding of Shinto both before and after Meiji. While Kuroda, a historian who has been described by Teeuwen and Scheid (2002: 198) as having little interest in Shinto, presented a rather disjunctive analysis of Shinto as a tradition constructed in the modern, i.e. Meiji, era, Teeuwen and Scheid have shown that Shinto is a term relating to attempts to impose a ‘unifying framework upon disparate kami cults, or at creating a distinct religious tradition by transforming local kami cults into something bigger’ (Ibid.: 199). They show that the term Shinto ‘had gained wide acceptance as a designation for an autonomous religious tradition’ before the Edo period – used, for example by priests involved in the creation of Yoshida Shinto in the late fifteenth century, who used the term as a ‘self-designation for their own religious system’ (Ibid.: 202). The history of ‘Shinto’ - transformed (again) at Meiji but not ‘invented’ then – in their version, is a series of attempts at ‘controlling kami worship by theological and discursive means’ in ways that were ‘always in pursuit of a unifying conception.’ (Ibid.: 202-3). Their argument, then, is that one should not see Shinto as ‘just’ a modern invention, but that the modern, i.e. Meiji and beyond, emergence of a discourse on Shinto represented a further stage, given weight by political considerations, in a continuing process that has long centred on the attempt to formulate a distinct tradition that can be set apart from (for example) Buddhism.

Much other research on pre-Meiji Japan also suggests that the notion of disjunctive watersheds and the formation of profoundly different worlds, overstates matters. I was struck, for example, by Helen Hardacre’s recent study of religion and society in pre-Meiji Japan, which is based on shrine and temple documents and records, and in which she comments on how many of the issues and themes scholars tend to see as characterising modern Japanese religions, were forged in the Edo period (Hardacre 2002: xv-xvi). Even issues such as the apparent development of rationalist attacks on ‘superstition’ that characterise the Meiji era, may not be simply the product of a modernity that entered Japan after 1853: while authorities and the newly-formed mass media of the earlier Meiji era, for example, railed against pilgrims as the products of irrational superstition, such views were not all that new. Laws and decrees promulgated by various fiefdoms in Shikoku to control and regulate pilgrims in the Edo era had similar connotations. Tokugawa Japan, in other words, also manifested notions of concern and prohibition relating to activities that offended against rational sensibilities. Rationalism and attacks on ‘superstition’ were not necessarily just products of the modern, post-Meiji Restoration, period or of the incursion of Western cultural forces.

Of course, a response to the above would doubtless be that Fitzgerald is speaking of intellectual conceptualisations and idealisations of ‘religion’ as a category, while the examples I have cited, are primarily about practice. Yet one has, I would argue, to incorporate notions of practice into any assessment of change in the pre- and post-Meiji Restoration periods. Moreover, I would suggest that the above points seriously question Fitzgerald’s conceptualisation of profoundly different worlds, upon which his arguments about the construction of ‘religion’ and his views of the modern, are based. Neither ‘Shinto’ nor ‘Buddhism/bukkyō were modern inventions or products of the Meiji period: rather, that period produced further levels of conceptualisation that built on notions in existence from earlier eras. So, too, was the case with shūkyō/religion.

My problem with Fitzgerald’s work here remains as before: that it is based too much in a monolithic perspective that is founded in a particular ideological position that has been adopted without great recourse to historical matters and is founded more in assumption than anything else. Fitzgerald speaks of ‘the modern category of religion’ as if there were a singular definition and category of the term that constitutes the modern, yet this is a highly dubious assumption, both now and in the nineteenth century. Fitzgerald appears not to recognise that there have been developments in the field both in the west and Japan to mean that any notion of a singular notion of ‘the’ category is itself a matter of contention. In the nineteenth century, too, it is questionable whether such a singular category could be operative, especially if associated, as he argues, with the baggage (e.g. notions such as the separation of church and state) that he assigns to it. ‘Religion’ simply did not, in the nineteenth century, uniformly mean or imply separation of church and state, as is shown by the use of the term in European countries (e.g., England and Denmark) where one found national churches and no constitutional separation of religion and state.

As to the ‘separation from the secular’, as I have noted in my earlier response, there were clear understandings in pre-Meiji Japan about places and situations where the places of this world (i.e. the ‘secular’) and those associated with sacred traditions (the ‘religious’) could be demarcated. I would argue that since one of the demarcations of who could and who could not enter into such places, related to their categorisation as ‘religious’ (a term, as I noted previously, has long referred to those who have taken ordinations in monastic orders), one could use the term ‘religious’ in this context just as one might use the ‘sacred’. It seems that Fitzgerald is seeking to distinguish between the religious and the secular on one hand, and the sacred and profane on the other, which is a fair enough attempt to create modes of classification, but it is a distinction that (with his frequent shifts between terms, ranging from the secular to the ‘non-religious’) was not clear in the original article.

It will be critical to his project to examine the notion of the ‘secular’ and the extent to which this term and concept had roots and meanings prior to the modern period. This would certainly involve some excursus, in Japan, into Buddhist texts and polemics (since this is a tradition that has consistently used a language of differentiation between the realms of the sangha, and the world of ordinary people) but it would also involve some interesting studies of several branches of thought and analysis within Japanese studies of religion. The sacred-profane issue has, of course, been closely associated with many earlier theoretical studies of ‘religion’ (shūkyō) in Japan, notably in the work of Hori Ichirō (of course profoundly influenced by Eliade) and various scholars who identify themselves with shūkyō minzokugaku such as Miyake Hitoshi, much of whose earlier work associated the ‘structure of Japanese religion’ (Nihon shūkyō no kōzō) with notions of the sacred and profane (e.g. Miyake 1974: this notion is also present albeit not in such distinct terms, in Miyake’s later theoretical discussions, notably Miyake 1989). My sense is that the notion of the sacred-profane offers little more in conceptual terms than do the terms religion and shūkyō, but I look forward to Fitzgerald’s explorations on the subject, since they offer the potential for advancing the field in many ways.

In arguing his point about the term shūkyō (which I think remains critical in this debate) Fitzgerald cites a lecture by Isomae Jun’ichi – a lecture that, incidentally, restates the argument made in the first part of Isomae’s generally admirable study of the formation of the academic study of religion in Japan (Isomae 2003). Yet, while Isomae’s work is exceptionally strong in its historical focus on academic studies after Meiji, and especially in the last decade or so of the nineteenth century through to the ideological premises upon which reformulations of religious policy in the early Shōwa were based, it is less so on what preceded the Meiji Restoration. Thus, Isomae offers little or no discussion of the uses of the terms under discussion, and notably shūkyō, prior to Meiji. Isomae, too, similarly to Fitzgerald, appears to not pay much attention to subsequent and especially post-war developments of shūkyōgaku – or to recognise that such developments have occurred and that the modern (i.e., late 20th/early 21st century) field is not coterminous with the late 19th/early 20th century one6.

Neither Isomae nor Fitzgerald have examined pre-Meiji uses of shūkyō or of conceptualisations associated with it, to any degree. What Fitzgerald does is claim that the term was ‘relatively obscure term’, as ‘occurring in a few obscure texts’ and as kanji that have ‘been found together’ (as if their joining was some lexicological accident). But what evidence is there to substantiate these claims of obscurity? Usages in such sources as the Buddhist canon and in Zen and Tendai texts, widely known within those traditions, might be ‘obscure’ if one is not cognisant of textual traditions and the debates that occurred within Buddhism and between Buddhist sects and factions throughout pre-Meiji Japan, or if one is unaware of Japanese intellectual discussions and understandings of the Buddhist tradition, but this does not mean that they are ‘obscure’ or that their usage is accidental. The uses of the term as a referent for Buddhism – and the discussion by Shimazono (above) showing that shūkyō and Bukkyō were significant prior to Meiji – present a rather different picture, and make one wonder whether the label of ‘obscurity’ has been assigned to shūkyō by Fitzgerald less on academic grounds than ideological ones that manifest his need to think of shūkyō as an ‘obscure’ term prior to Meiji, because otherwise his case unravels.

Moving beyond Isomae’s work one could cite the more recent, and more nuanced, analysis of Shimazono (2004), cited earlier, in which Shimazono shows that shūkyō was not an invented or newly constructed term in Meiji, that it was used quite early on (from 1871) in government documents as a translation for ‘religion’ and that the intellectual environment of the period was such that the use of this word was ‘easily chosen’ (erabareyasui) as a referent for ‘religion’. Shimazono’s discussion (2004: 190-191) of the historical derivations and intellectual milieu, associated with organised traditions (e.g. Bukkyō/ Buddhism), within which the term had resonance, indicates that the conjunction of the two ideograms hardly represented some form of accidental linkage or emergence from obscurity. There appears to be, here, further evidence of the points Pye and I have made – that one should not see the concept of ‘religion’ as indicated by the term shūkyō, as something wholly new and disjunctive in the mid-nineteenth century. In such terms, I suggest that the transition between the pre-modern and the ‘modern’ is not quite as dramatic as is implied by Fitzgerald and that there were enough tools in the pre-Meiji Japanese intellectual armoury to be aware of the distinctions contained in the terminology that came to the fore in public life at Meiji.

Categories and Important Questions of Definition

Although, in the above, I have emphasised various criticisms of Fitzgerald’s perspectives and arguments, this does not mean that I do not recognise that there are some substantive questions raised in the work that he, Isomae and others have done. Fitzgerald is certainly right in alerting us to making us think about whether our categories are specifically modern in nature and based in ideological constructs (a point I would agree with to a degree in earlier times but which I think is far less so in the contemporary era). I have become acutely conscious of how, in some quarters, focusing on ideological constructs can lead to unhelpful idealisations and mystifications of the issues – a point that is evident in some of the discussions about violence in religious contexts that have emerged in recent times. This issue, of course, is one of the more pertinent issues of the day, an area I have been much involved in since the mid-1990s, but which has become especially high profile post-September 11th 2001. Amidst the many useful discussions of the topic one can also see numerous examples of the ideologically fixed reification of issues of which Fitzgerald complains – reifications and idealisations that, indeed, produce or affirm an essentialised category (‘religion’) which is implicitly rich in value judgements about what ‘religion’ ‘is’. For example, Charles Kimball’s book When Religion Becomes Evil (2002) provides us with a check-list of the warning signs of what might occur in this production of evil – signs that are clearly constructed with a mind to what ‘authentic’ religion looks like (quite a lot like an idealised ‘Sound of Music’ version of Christianity) and that ‘show’ that new and alternative movements clearly tend towards the inauthentic and dangerous. In such contexts, there is clear evidence of the reification of ‘religion’ founded in a particular and fixed model. It is perhaps ironic that, while I have been trying to argue against such idealisations on the one hand, I find myself accused, on the other, of being part of the same ideological process.

Fitzgerald, too, is right to admonish us to be careful about how far we stretch the term, and about how one can end up using the term as an arbitrary marker that means whatever anyone wants it to at any moment: the conjunction of the terms ‘religion’ and football’ serves as a good example here of how readily one can overdo the scope and use of the former term. Yet I would add a caution here, in the context of Fitzgerald’s continuing focus on practice and his critique of religion as a belief-centred category. The problem in this context is such associations (e.g. football and religion) are facilitated through a focus on practice and in interpretations of religion that centre on practice and ritual, rather than on those that incorporate issues of faith, belief, doctrine and ethics. While one can ‘analyse’ a football match (the clothes, symbols, moments of agony and ecstasy) as a performative ritual replete with symbolic meanings, one would struggle to extend the analogy if one had to take account of doctrines, beliefs, notions of spiritual beings and so on. In other words, going down the path of focusing solely on practice, or using concepts such as ritual, does not allow much scope for making degrees of differentiation between, say, football and Buddhism.

This is a problem I encountered in the early 1990s, when I started to go down the route of focusing on behaviour and practice to the exclusion of all else. Just after writing Religion in Contemporary Japan I started to examine various actions and acts of etiquette, such as bowing, taking off one’s shoes before entering the house, and other rituals of everyday life as markers of ‘religiosity’ (a term that I used then and find awkward and problematic now) in Japan (see, e.g. Reader 1991, 1996)7. Yet, as I was going down this route (effectively a ‘practice and ritual is all’ route) I came to realise that that it was leading me (and, I would argue, others who have discussed and developed notions such as ‘implicit religion’8) to attribute too much to the notion of ‘religion’, effectively ending up by saying everything was religious – a position that I now find no more useful than the reverse, of total denial of the notion of the religious. Critiques of the notion of ‘religion’ and the often slack methodological perspectives found in the field, have been useful in making people such as myself to be careful about the extent to which we were expanding the scope of the term ‘religion’ until it became as intellectually problematic as the idealised reifications that I have criticised in work such as that of Kimball.

Yet if Fitzgerald has viable points to make in these areas, I remain concerned that he remains too hooked on a specific, fixed interpretation of ‘religion’ that was prevalent in nineteenth century contexts (but that was never quite the single reified unitary category that he proclaims it to be, and that was not purely a modern western imposition on Japan) and too little attuned to the modern (by which I mean, contemporary) transformations of the terminology. I think that he is arguing for too narrow a remit and ultimately too parochial a context for ‘religion’ – one that seeks to bind it back into its nineteenth century straitjacket rather than liberating it and enabling it to embrace practice and belief. By emphasising the notion of a singular modern concept of religion, he is artificially creating a monolithic meaning for the term – one that I do not think can be proven to have existed as a universally accepted term or category. While there may be advantages in adopting this approach (it might spare us more books trying to categorise via a series of reified entities and a variety of numerical dimensions), it has many disadvantages too – notably that it neglects the point that words and ideas change.

I think we should recognise that the term has changed in nuance and has broader meanings than it did then, and that as scholars working in the (post)modern age we should recognise those meanings while being cautious about extending them so far that the term loses all intellectual coherence. One should accept that, even if there was a monolithic nineteenth century construction of ‘religion’ as a generic term of discourse, and even if this term was imported lock, stock and barrel as a wholly new concept into Japan (points I have disputed above), this does not mean that nowadays the terms and meanings remain the same, nor that contemporary usage is necessarily founded in an ideological discourse of colonialism. Contemporary scholarship in Japan has liberated the term shukyō from earlier belief-centric limitations and such developments have been a positive contribution to the field that have enabled us to push further our understandings and conceptual frameworks. Searching for alternatives or other terms on the grounds that ‘religion’ and shūkyō had particular meanings once, seems to be highly problematic, especially given the inherent terminological debates that will centre around any other term, whether ritual or whatever: it does not seem as helpful to me to argue about and try to keep ‘religion’ locked into a past meaning, as it is to continue to question and test the parameters of the term through modern usage.

One final point I would like to make is that, in this fog of argument, both Fitzgerald and I are, in different ways, expressing our uneasiness over terminologies. My argument is that, in this muddle of terms, we still need to use words of reference. They may not be precise, and many may be associated with various forms of historical baggage. Yet one has to both note that terms do change and develop (as ‘religion’ did from the 17th century to the 19th, in one context, and as it has in subsequent eras too) and that one continues to need to use some terms of reference. When I am writing about pilgrims who tell me of their faith in Kōbō Daishi, about the miracles that have happened to them, and about how they have done a particular pilgrimage several hundred times, I find terms such as ‘religious’ to be as useful a term as I have in my vocabulary, to refer to what they are doing. Sacred, profane and ritual somehow do not quite get it9. While terms such as religion and religious (and indeed Religious Studies, with its ability to allow space for anthropologists, sociologists, historians and many others) have their problems, this is not reason for jettisoning them or getting caught in the trap of thinking that they only mean what they meant a century ago or are associated solely with specific ideological positions or political systems. Through continually examining them and developing them within contemporary contexts there is scope for advancement.

Like it or not, ‘religion’, like shūkyō is going to be around for a while yet, and in order to deal with the situation one can use a variety of approaches. One can argue against the terms (as does Fitzgerald) and suggest alternative terminologies, although this merely, I think, leads to other sets of problems of a similar sort, as I noted in my earlier comments on ‘ritual’. Another way is to keep probing away at the term and its parameters, and focus on using empirical investigation as a means of building analytic frameworks. I would see the latter as more likely to get us out of the intellectual cul-de-sac that I feel the critiques of ‘religion’ are leading us into. Doubtless Fitzgerald would argue otherwise. I hope, at least, that in so doing, he will be alert to the important historical and terminological matters in Japan that I have flagged up, since they are highly relevant to the task he has set himself.


1. I should note also that the notion that shūkyō is basically associated with ‘belief’ is highly problematic when one talks to ordinary people. As Ama (1996) has noted, Japanese people tend to associate shūkyō with formalised traditions, founders and organisations, while, as I have discussed in Reader 2000, shūkyō for many people conveys the sense of formalised structures and organisations that have nothing or very little to do with faith or belief.

2. See Reader 2001 for a very brief introduction to this issue, which is part of my current research. Since the Aum Affair of 1995, a number of interest and pressure groups, from lawyers and politicians, to various ‘anti-cult’ organisations, have sought to redefine or reinterpret the notion of what a ‘religion’ (shūkyō) is in Japan, in ways that will exclude and stigmatise certain types of small-scale groups, particularly those coming from outside Japan, and that could have profound civil rights issues. There are some parallels with the pre-war period in this context, especially since there appears also to be an underlying nationalist agenda to such moves, and this constitutes, in my view, one of the most critical and important issues in the study of religion in Japan today – far more so than discussions about the formation of the field a century or more back.

3. There are numerous pointers to the existence of a modernising process that pre-dated 1853, and that shows that some of the underlying conditions of modernity already existed pre-Meiji. One can point to the formation of intellectual culture and thought, the emergence of a monetary nation-wide economic system and a banking system that enabled the movement of capital around the country and facilitated travel, the beginnings of a revolution in farming techniques and the emergence of inventions that mechanised aspects of production, the emergence of small-scale industrial style production, and the development of a relatively widespread education system based in Buddhist temples that gave Japan the highest literacy levels in the world pre-Meiji, and so on. One could also note the emergence of new religions- often seen as a pointer to the emergence of modernity, against which new religions are often interpreted as reactions – at the turn of the nineteenth century as another example of such developments that pre-date Meiji. One should also note that the notion that the Japanese were unaware of Western intellectual developments prior to the 1850s, is highly suspect. Besides the engagement between cultures in the 16th and 17th centuries, there was, during the Tokugawa period, a concerted attempt by the Japanese to study Western thought and knowledge through the area of studies know as rangaku – Dutch learning – and which introduced numerous Western concepts and ideas into Japan.

4. It would require a far longer discussion than space allows to deal with Fitzgerald’s suggestions that terms such as ‘Buddhism’ were themselves constructions that emerged from this same nineteenth century encounter with the West. Suffice it to note here that the term Bukkyō had served as a unifying concept in Buddhist circles for a long time, used, for example, in the Shōbōgenzō the 13th century magnum opus of Dōgen Kigen, founder of Sōtō Zen in Japan, with its famous quotation about the relationship of learning about the self and learning about Buddhism (bukkyō wo narau to iu no ha). While Buddhism in Japan might only have been described as a ‘religion’ after the English language entered the country (bringing with it many new words, the non-existence of which beforehand did not mean that the objects did not exist) this does not mean that there was no conceptualisation of Buddhism as an entity beforehand. As I indicated in my earlier response, Buddhism was, pre-Meiji, referred to shūkyō (indeed, Buddhist texts used the term as a form of self-referencing) while sectarian traditions of Buddhism were also referred to as shūkyō. This, at the very least, indicates that the application of the term shūkyō to contexts of doctrine and reified tradition was not purely a post-Meiji phenomenon.

5. Nor should one assume that the study and critical analysis and intellectual evaluations of other traditions, was only a modern notion associated with the West. There has been a long tradition in Buddhism of doing such things, famously, for example at the Buddhist ‘university’ of Nalanada in northern India during the period (c.4th-8th centuries CE) when Buddhism flourished there.

6. I develop these issues at length in a review article in press for the Social Science Japan Journal (to be published in April 2005) in which I discuss, alongside the many strengths of Isomae’s work, the various problems associated with his lack of discussion of pre-Meiji issues and his problematic comments on post-war shūkyōgaku, particularly in the context of the Aum Affair.

7. Indeed, in the ensuing discussion on the first mentioned of these two papers (both delivered within a short time of each other, though the latter was not published until some years later), one Japanese scholar present complained that I was making everything into religion, and that I even had effectively turned pachinko into a ‘religious’ practice, using the term pachinko shinkō as a jocular term for what I was saying.

8. This term, of course, is especially associated with the work of Edward Bailey and it should not, of course, escape attention that Bailey and I share common academic roots, sharing the same supervisor, Fred Welbourn, whose anthropological studies based in Africa influenced us both. I did my postgraduate studies with Welbourn after I had lived in West Africa for over a year, studied sociological and anthropological approaches to the study of religion with him, and wrote a dissertation on African death rituals. Bailey completed a PhD with Welbourn on everyday religiosity. Both of us owe a debt to his thinking, our paths crossed particularly because we had both worked with Welbourn, and his influences can be perceived in both our work.

9. Indeed, one of the themes of my book in press on Shikoku focuses on how notions of distinction (e.g. home and away, sacred and profane) collapse in the context of pilgrimage practice, especially when (as is often the case in Shikoku) pilgrims spend much of their lives either on the road or associated with pilgrimage devotion and practice. The book thus indicates the various problems with many normative categories (e.g. sacred-profane) that have been widely used in studies of pilgrimage.


Ama Toshimaro 1996 Nihonjin wa naze mushūkyō na no ka (Tokyo: Chikuma Shinsho)

Breen, John & Teeuwen, Mark (eds.) (2000) Shinto in History: Ways of the Kami, (Richmond, UK: Curzon Press)

Hardacre, Helen 2002 Religion and Society in Nineteenth-century Japan: A Study of the Southern Kantō Region, Using Late Edo and Early Meiji Gazeteers (Ann Arbor, USA: Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan)

Isomae Jun’ichi 2003 Kindai nihon no shūkyō gensetsu to sono keifu: shūkyō. kokka. Shintō (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten)

Kimball, Charles 2002 When Religion Becomes Evil (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco)

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

Miyake Hitoshi 1974 Nihon shūkyō no kōzō (Tokyo: Keiō Tsūshin)

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

Reader, Ian 1991 Shūkyō ni okeru Nihon bunka no ichi. In Kokusai Nihon Bunka Kenkyū Senta (ed.) Sekai no naka no Nihon Vol.3 (Kyoto: Kokusai Nihon Bunka Kenkyu Senta) pp. 117-135

Reader, Ian 1996 Des Pieds à la tête: étiquette et religion implicite au Japon. Religiologiques 14, pp. 75-99

Reader, Ian 2000 Are wa shūkyō kore ga shinkō: genze riyaku to nihon no shūkyō. In Miyata Noboru and Shintani Takanori (eds) Ōraikō: Nihonjin no sei ryō shi (Tokyo: Shogakkan) April 2000 pp. 321-330

Reader, Ian 2001 Consensus shattered: Japanese paradigm shifts and moral panic in the post-Aum era Nova Religio 4/2, pp. 225-234

Shimazono Susumu 2004 Kindai Nihon no okeru ‘shūkyō’ gainen no juyō. In Shimazono Susumu and Tsuruoka Yoshio (eds.) Shūkyō saikō (Tokyo: Perikansha) pp. 189-206

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

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: Meaning and Practice in Shikoku will be published by the University of Hawaii Press in February 2005. 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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