Shimaji Mokurai and the Reconception of Religion and the Secular in Modern Japan

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Hans Martin Krämer
  • Honolulu, HI: 
    University of Hawaii Press
    , July
     246 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Religious scholars have questioned the utility of “religion” as an objective category since the days of Wilfred Cantwell Smith, but since the turn of the 21st century this practical consideration for accurate language choices has evolved into a large social constructionist project known as either “critical theory of religion” or “critical religion,” with Japan being a chief case study of the power-based construction of the religious category. In particular, Joseph Ananda Jacobson’s The Invention of Religion in Japan (University of Chicago Press, 2012) questioned whether “religion” corresponded with anything local to Japan. Hans Martin Krämer’s Shimaji Mokurai and the Reconception of Religion and the Secular in Modern Japan builds on this literature, as well as the underlying philosophical project, while rejecting the absolutist thesis that Japan invented the idea of religion out of whole cloth, or alternatively, that outside sources imposed “religion” onto Japan. Instead, Krämer proposes that the local word shūkyō—explicitly invented to correspond to the English “religion”—was a “co-creation” of Japanese intellectuals listening to and interpreting Western ideas about how to build a rationalistic-scientific nation. Underlying his thesis is an unexpected and entirely new level of depth that not only looks at Meiji concepts of shūkyō, but also its constituent terms shū and kyō as used in the Edo period, and the curious Edo period term jikyō. This book will be indispensable not only for scholars of Japanese religion, but also for anyone invested in the much larger question of how the religion-secular binary was created and continues to function.

Krämer follows the life of Shimaji Mokurai, a Shin Buddhist priest who wrote extensively about secularization, and traveled through Europe listening to what priests and politicians talked about when they spoke of “religion.” Tracing Shimaji’s travels using existing primary and secondary sources, Krämer also uncovers previously unidentified European correspondents whose liberal Protestant theology likely had a major influence on Shimaji’s conceptualization of the modern state. Shimaji himself had no direct influence on the Meiji government’s policy of “non-religious Shinto,” but by helping to determine the way these words were defined, he laid the groundwork for a vaguely Japanese vision of secularity in which a “non-religious Shinto” became possible. Although this vision was accepted by the Catholic Church, it found little support from Protestants, making it necessary for the Allied Occupation to supercede this discourse, revising Japan’s concept of secularity to American Protestant standards. The main target of their re-secularization efforts was the nebulous concept of “State Shinto,” which Krämer redefines as not a religion, but rather a “specific strategy to resolve a particular legal problem” (114).

Krämer also addresses the underlying philosophical question of how secularity constructs modernity, and to what extent Edo period language already provided for something called “Shinto” as either a private or public mode of behavior and thought. As Japan rejected Christianity in the 17th century, it embarked on a mode of thinking about cosmology that envisioned the existence of separate “schools” (shū) of thought or “teachings” (kyō)—terms sometimes used interchangeably. Here, Krämer’s presentation of primary sources is particularly valuable, as he avoids generalization and instead aims to show us how Edo period intellectuals leaned towards what we would call a “modern” cosmology in which different schools compete for metaphysical interpretation of a single reality. However, the role of the “secular state” was just as unclear in Edo period Japan as it was in the various nations of Europe.

Shimaji Mokurai and the Reconception of Religion and the Secular in Modern Japan covers much more ground than its title suggests. Its discussion actually overlaps with the major issues raised by Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2007). While Taylor primarily constrains himself to the subject of Europe, he leaves great openings for the historical and cross-cultural comparisons found in Shimaji. Readers wondering how other regions have grappled with ideas of the secular and the religious, to what extent the secular-religious binary has assisted the centralization of political power, or the role of specific metaphysical or cosmological systems in determining local constructions of the binary will have much to learn from this book. I expect Shimaji will serve as a firm practical foundation for refining theoretical concerns in the critical study of religion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Avery Morrow is a graduate student at the University of Tokyo.

Date of Review: 
August 22, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Hans Martin Krämer is professor of Japanese studies at the University of Heidelberg, Germany.


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