[Marxism] Fwd: H-Net Review [H-Japan]: Larsson on Thomas, 'Faking Liberties: Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan'

Andrew Stewart hasc.warrior.stew at gmail.com
Wed Aug 28 19:27:43 MDT 2019

---------- Forwarded message ---------
From: H-Net Staff via H-REVIEW <h-review at lists.h-net.org>
Date: Wed, Aug 28, 2019 at 2:07 PM
Subject: H-Net Review [H-Japan]: Larsson on Thomas, 'Faking Liberties:
Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan'
To: <h-review at lists.h-net.org>
Cc: H-Net Staff <revhelp at mail.h-net.org>

Jolyon Baraka Thomas.  Faking Liberties: Religious Freedom in
American-Occupied Japan.  Chicago  University of Chicago Press, 2019.
 336 pp.  $97.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-226-61879-1; $32.50 (paper),
ISBN 978-0-226-61882-1.

Reviewed by Ernils Larsson (Uppsala University)
Published on H-Japan (August, 2019)
Commissioned by Jessica Starling

Larsson on Thomas, _Faking Liberties_

_Faking Liberties: Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan,_
Jolyon Baraka Thomas's second book, is an ambitious work in which the
author sets out to critically reexamine the triumphalist narrative
about how religious freedom was first introduced in Japan by the
United States after World War II. Thomas posits that religious
freedom "does not exist until somebody makes a claim about it for a
specific set of political reasons" (p. 260), and this constructivist
perspective informs his approach to the question of how religious
freedom was instituted as a universal human right in postwar Japan.
_Faking Liberties_ contributes not only to the ongoing discussion
about how the category of "religion" has come to be understood in
Japan,[1] but also to the growing literature on the politics of
religious freedom.[2]

The first half of Thomas's work, chapters 1 through 4, explores how
secularism and religious freedom were institutionalized in prewar
Japan, during what Thomas refers to as "the Meiji constitutional
period" (p. 21). It is unfortunate that these four chapters,
comprising almost half of the book, are not more clearly announced in
the title of Thomas's work, which gives the impression that _Faking
Liberties_ deals mostly with the occupation period. Whereas the early
years of the Meiji constitutional period have been explored in a
number of recent works dealing with the "invention" of religion in
Japan, the question of how religion was negotiated in Japan during
the Taishō and early Shōwa periods has received relatively sparse
scholarly attention.[3] As a consequence, while these four chapters
provide vital background for the second half of Thomas's work, they
also contribute to our understanding of how the categories of
"religion" and "the secular" were understood in prewar Japan.

In chapter 1, Thomas argues convincingly against the stubborn notion
that State Shinto acted as a repressive state religion in prewar
Japan, suggesting instead that the distinction between "religion" and
"not-religion" as instituted by the 1890 constitution was what
allowed for the repression of particular movements (pp. 20-21).
Freedom of religion was established in Article 28 of the Meiji
constitution, yet significantly, no consensus existed on how to
understand the term "religion." As a consequence, the secularism of
the Meiji constitutional period was constructed by various actors in
pursuit of specific administrative and apologetic projects.
Distancing himself from essentialist ideas about what constitutes
religion, Thomas explores the question of "who _made_ the
religion/not-religion distinction that lies at the heart of religious
freedom talk, how they did so, and for what reasons" (p. 36).
Referencing material from a wide range of sources, Thomas shows the
plethora of diverging ideas on how religion and not-religion could be
understood in prewar Japan, and how these understandings could be
linked to the ideological projects of individual stakeholders.

Throughout the following three chapters, Thomas goes on to explore
how religious freedom was negotiated by different actors during the
Meiji constitutional period. In chapter 2, Thomas examines how
Japanese Buddhists responded to the new paradigm of religious
freedom, showing that while many had a strong interest in religious
freedom, they were not united in their views on how it should be
interpreted. Following an exploration of a wide range of sources from
the prewar period, Thomas argues that the variety of opinions present
in his material supports the "inescapable conclusion" that "religious
freedom is never just one thing" (p. 73). This point is further
expounded in the following chapter, where Thomas eloquently
illustrates the universality of the incoherent nature of religious
freedom by focusing on how it was negotiated in relation to Japanese
migrants in Hawai'i during the first half of the twentieth century.
Through his exploration of the ultimately unsuccessful attempts by
Japanese migrant groups to argue for their rights based in their
freedom to practice Buddhism, he concludes, in agreement with many
other recent scholarly works on religion and law in the United
States, that "Americans have historically used the concept of
religious freedom to exclude at least as much as we have used it to
accommodate" (p. 100).[4]

In chapter 4, the final chapter of the first half of the book, Thomas
examines how Japan's Buddhists negotiated religious freedom during
the years leading up to the end of World War II. He distances himself
from the assumption that resistance to authoritarian power should
have been the only available option for Buddhists at this time, a
notion which Thomas suggests has become rather widespread in postwar
scholarship.[5] Instead of accepting unnuanced accounts of Japanese
Buddhists as sycophants, progressives, or martyrs for a liberal
cause, Thomas shows how, depending on their own worldviews and
agendas, politically active Buddhists could draw fundamentally
different conclusions about the repressive nature of the prewar
secularist state. Thus, while some Buddhists did resist the draconian
legislation and law enforcement that sought to restrict religious
organizations, other Buddhist actors considered egalitarian treatment
of religions to be a problem rather than a solution.

The second half of _Faking Liberties_ deals with the topic announced
in the subheading of Thomas's work: religious freedom in
American-occupied Japan. Throughout these chapters, Thomas critically
examines the claim that "true" religious freedom and secularism were
first introduced in Japan during the Allied occupation, and that
religion had previously only been nominally free. In chapter 5,
Thomas begins this discussion by noting that State Shinto was
essentially an invention of the occupiers. As he argues, "the
occupiers invented the concept of 'State Shintō' so that they could
eradicate a state religion and replace it with religious freedom" (p.
144). Through a close examination of the work done by various experts
in authoritative roles during the occupation, perhaps most notably
William K. Bunce (1907-2008) who drafted the influential Staff
Memorandum on State Shintō, Thomas shows how State Shinto as the
state religion of Imperial Japan was in many ways an invention of the
occupation. Since the constitutionally secular Imperial Japan did not
have a national religion, Bunce and his colleagues in the Religions
Division essentially had to create State Shinto in order for it to be

Over the following three chapters, Thomas lays the groundwork for
what is perhaps the most intriguing argument in the book, namely that
"religious freedom became a human right through collaborations
between bureaucrats and academics, journalists and legal experts,
Americans and their Japanese interlocutors" (p. 144). While rights
and liberties pertaining to religion had been discussed prior to and
during the war, the unique transnational circumstances of the Allied
occupation of Japan provided lawmakers the opportunity to establish
religious freedom as a transcendent and universal human right. As
Thomas argues, the result of the work done by Bunce and his
colleagues was the establishment of an order whereby religion was to
be understood as a fundamentally private and individual choice of
affiliation. Consequently, the role of religious freedom as a
universal right was to allow citizens the ability to choose their
beliefs "without the state getting in the way" (p. 180).

In chapter 7, Thomas again stresses how the ideal of religious
freedom as a universal human right was not a finished product
exported by the United States to occupied Japan, but rather developed
as the result of multilateral interaction between occupation
personnel and Japanese scholars, politicians, and religious leaders.
While the occupiers had initially set out to teach the Japanese
people the "correct way" of understanding religious
freedom--fundamentally different from the supposedly misguided
secularism of the Meiji constitutional period--the end result was
that the ideal itself came to be reconfigured and understood in a new
way. Importantly, while the policymakers of the occupation had to
deny that Japan had ever experienced "true" religious freedom, they
simultaneously had to downplay the notion that religious freedom was
something uniquely Western, since "such an argument would have
undermined the idea that religious freedom was a universal principle
that could and should be adopted in Japan" (pp. 203-4). Thomas
suggests that as the ideal of religious freedom as a universal human
right developed in the specific context of American-occupied Japan,
it also came to be envisioned as a model for promoting religious
freedom in other contexts--"religious freedom had been America's gift
to Japan; it could be America's gift to the world" (p. 219).

Thomas begins the book's final chapter by critically commenting on
the idea that post-surrender Japan constituted a "spiritual vacuum,"
according to which the Japanese people after being liberated from the
oppressive state religion of the prewar period now turned to other
forms of religiosity. Much of Thomas' discussion is informed by his
questioning stance toward essentialized religion, and he emphasizes
the role of religious scholars in perpetuating the notion that
"religion" exists as an identifiable sphere of social life. For
instance, instead of accepting the idea that a multitude of Japanese
people suddenly turned to new religious organizations after their
liberation from State Shinto, Thomas suggests that the occupation
might simply have rendered various religious groups more visible
through a new vocabulary as well as through a reconceptualized
religious freedom.

Thomas sets out to study a large and rather unexplored field, and it
is natural that he has had to make some difficult decisions with
regard to what material to include in this study. That being said,
while the first four chapters are of great interest and provide much
new insight on this period of Japanese religious history, it could
have benefited from a greater variety of religious voices. Thomas
notes in his introduction that the focus on Buddhist sources is to a
large part the result of Buddhism dominating the religious landscape
at the time, but I still wonder if other sources representing the
eventually silenced voices might not also have been relevant for the
discussion. For instance, it might have been of interest to look more
closely at how religious freedom was argued and interpreted by
members of groups such as Ōmotokyō or Jehovah's Witnesses before
and during their persecution. While a wider use of non-Buddhist
materials might have contributed to this study, their absence in no
way detracts from the strength of Thomas's general argument.

Given that the last decade has seen a number of scholarly works
detailing the establishment of "religion" as a concept in early Meiji
Japan, Thomas's efforts to show how the category of religion was
negotiated in Japan during the entire first half of the twentieth
century represents a welcome move forward in time. Meticulously
researched, theoretically sharp, and elegantly written, _Faking
Religion_ is an excellent study not only of how religious freedom was
constructed as a transnational ideal through mutual negotiation
during the period of American occupation, but also of how various
actors interacted with religious freedom during the interbellum
period. _Faking Liberties_ is a welcome addition to the field of
Japanese religious studies as well as to the critical study of
religion and law.


[1]. Hoshino Seiji, _Kindai-Nihon no sh__ūkyō gainen:__
sh__ūkyō-sha no kotoba to kindai_ (Tokyo: Yūshisha, 2012); and
Horii Mitsutoshi, _The Category of Religion in Contemporary Japan:
Shūkyō & Temple Buddhism_ (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2018).

[2]. Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, _The Impossibility of Religious
Freedom_ (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005); Elizabeth
Shakman Hurd, _Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of
Religion_ (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015); and
Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, Saba Mahmood, and
Peter G. Danchin, eds., _Politics of Religious Freedom_ (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 2015).

[3]. Jason Ānanda Josephson, _The Invention of Religion in Japan_
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012); Trent E. Maxey, _The
"Greatest Problem": Religion and State Formation in Meiji Japan
_(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014); and Hans Martin
Krämer, _Shimaji Mokurai and the Reconception of Religion and the
Secular in Modern Japan_ (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press,

[4]. For example, Tisa Wenger, _Religious Freedom: The Contested
History of an American Ideal_ (Chapel Hill: University of North
Carolina Press, 2017).

[5]. For one example of this trend, see Brian Daizen Victoria, _Zen
at War_ (New York: Weatherhill, 1997).

Citation: Ernils Larsson. Review of Thomas, Jolyon Baraka, _Faking
Liberties: Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan_. H-Japan,
H-Net Reviews. August, 2019.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53952

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States

Best regards,

Andrew Stewart

More information about the Marxism mailing list