Faking Liberties

Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan

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Jolyon Baraka Thomas
Class 200: New Studies in Religion
  • Chicago, IL: 
    University of Chicago Press
    , March
     336 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


When, in 1920, Japanese and Filipino sugar plantation workers in US-occupied Hawaii went on strike for better labor conditions, they met a two-pronged counterattack from the territory’s white power brokers. Landowners from the Hawaiian Sugar Planters Association evicted workers from company-owned dwellings, triggering widespread homelessness in Oahu. Then, another blow: US education commissioners called for the abolition of Buddhist-run Japanese language schools on the grounds that “under the cover of religious instruction, [they] teach the children loyalty to their Emperor and country” (93). White occupiers’ backlash to colonial subjects’ attempts to organize was refracted, in part, through fights over the bounds of “religious freedom.”

Such are the entanglements between US empire and locutions of religious freedom that Joylon Thomas’ Faking Liberties: Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan illuminates. Thomas joins a chorus of scholars who elaborate “religious freedom” as a contested political-cultural project, which is shaped by local assumptions about what constitutes religion and deployed by plural actors for multiple ends.

Thomas adds complexity to this conversation by using a thoroughly comparative transnational method. Moving between the US and Japan, and attending to pre- and post- World War II archives, he uncovers among state bureaucrats, scholars, and clerics a range of arguments about the stakes of “religious freedom.” He brings these sources to bear on the historiography of Japanese religion (arguing that they often reiterate problematic assumptions of midcentury imperial states), as well as with critical scholarship on religion (arguing that they often traffic in binary distinctions that support questionable political projects).

The author's overarching claim—“religious freedom anywhere is characterized by a lack of feasibility and, to put it strongly, is inherently unjust” (3)—unfolds on two levels. The first emphasizes the shifting meanings of “religious freedom.” Here Thomas corrects two interlocked misconceptions: that prewar Japan was gripped by a theocratic regime called “State Shinto” and that the US occupation brought the country “true” religious freedom. The archives of the Meiji Constitutional regime (1890-1945) tell another story, wherein Japan’s secular state established religion as a right of citizens long before the war began.

Thomas argues that Meiji Japan was secularist not in a sense of religious neutrality, but because it was a majoritarian regime consumed with questions about how to distinguish between “religion” and “not-religion.” The issue had material stakes. Thomas discovers Japanese policymakers, Buddhist clerics, and local scholars defining religious boundaries according to their sectarian interests. It is with this plurality in mind that Thomas rejects oversimplified analytic frameworks that ask whether Japanese Buddhists were “complicit with” or “resistant to” wartime atrocities.

The book’s analysis of US occupation policy similarly emphasizes interpretive diversity and contestation. Readers listen as US “Department of Religion” officials conjure the category of “State Shinto” as the theocratic foil to “real” religious freedom. Then, we hear them fight over what this freedom means—advancing Christianity? Suppressing Shinto? Promoting “new religious movements”? Thomas follows these possibilities before demonstrating how an idea of religion as an individuated “human right” gained hegemony. This was thanks in part to the scholars of religion who taught occupiers to distinguish between the “real” and “false” religions in their midst. The former was internal, personal, and private; the latter was public, collective, and state-oriented.

Here, we find the book’s second level of argument. Thomas wants readers to reflect on what 1940s collaborations between religion scholars and the US military can teach us about the work of religious studies departments today. He warns scholars to choose their rhetoric and alliances with care. Our terms, distinctions, and manufactured boundaries between counts as “religion” have been—and still are—recruited as ideological supports for war, surveillance, and occupation.

There is interesting tension between Thomas’ two major arguments. On one hand, religious freedom is fraught with definitional contingency, where each corresponding secularism installs a specific regime of inclusion and exclusion, with winners and losers. On the other hand, scholars should strive for a certain distance, by avoiding normative claims about what constitutes religion or how religious freedom might be pursued. Thomas announces the impossibility of neutrality when it comes to “religious freedom,” even as he defers his own position on the issue.

Listen again. The prologue reassures readers that Thomas “personally celebrate[s] religious freedom as an ideal,” then claims that religious freedom, as a “project,” is “only as effective as the people pulling it off” (xii). The conclusion emphasizes that “religious freedom does not exist until somebody makes a claim about it for a particular set of political reasons” and until “particular human bodies are made to suffer, or are freed from suffering, in contexts that are always-already local” (260). The specter of these particulars means that Thomas “cannot in good conscience close this book with any prescriptions about doing religious freedom right” (257). Yet the closing blurs these lines: “We must ensure that our definitions of ‘religion’ and ‘the human’ are capacious enough to allow our songs of freedom to be characterized by contrapuntal melodies and the blue notes of discord at least as much as they feature mellifluous harmony” (267).

What should we make of these stylistic tensions? And what is the position of disavowed position? The questions apply to many works on religious freedom, as shaped by anti-imperialist critiques of the category as by a hope that the right people, in the right positions of power, could turn it toward the good. Return, for example, to the attack on schools following the sugar strike. The community considered asserting their First Amendment right to free exercise, before concluding that Japanese subjects were so overdetermined by white supremacist race regimes for this to work (90-91). The totalizing sway of racism rendered “religious freedom” effectively moot as a legal claim, and it would have been self-sabotage to imagine otherwise.

Historians of religious freedom spend hours tracking such disappointments and failures. And yet we still find hope when the subjects of our histories did not: hope to steer around a complicity we admit is inevitable, hope that our categories will build a better world, even if we can’t or don’t articulate how. Faking Liberties prompts acute reflection on these issues. Through archival prowess and intra-textual paradox, Thomas offers a well-timed reminder: to stake out ground in the capacious is to take a partisan position. It is to recognize, again, the ways that our critical projects remain enmeshed with hard-won visions of social good and with so many ambivalent projects of humanism that—still, somehow—we cannot manage not to want.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Lucia Hulsether is an Assistant Professor of Religion at Skidmore College.

Date of Review: 
April 30, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jolyon Baraka Thomas is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.


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