June 13 2024

Buddhist Chaplaincy in Japan with Adam Lyons

Interview with Adam Lyons

Adam Lyons joins Kristian Petersen to discuss his award-winning book Karma and Punishment: Prison Chaplaincy in Japan (Harvard University Press). Interdisciplinary in its orientation that seamlessly blends in-depth fieldwork with meticulous archival research, Lyons' book is a profound meditation on the relationship between carcerality, religion, and the modern State.

Kristian Petersen:

Welcome to Religious Studies News. I'm your host, Kristian Peterson, and today I'm here with Adam Lyons, who's an assistant professor at the University of Montreal and the 2022 co-winner of AAR's Best First Book in the History of Religions Award. He's here to speak to us about his book, Karma and Punishment: Prison Chaplaincy in Japan, published with Harvard University Press. Congratulations Adam, and thanks for joining me.

Adam Lyons:

Thank you very much, Kristian. It's a pleasure to be here.

Kristian Petersen:

So this is a really wonderful project, an idea I would've never even thought of as a place to think about the study of religion. You offer kind of a historical genealogy of the place of prison chaplaincy across basically the modern period in Japan and some of its formative transformations. Can you start off perhaps just telling us a little bit about where the project started for you? How did the idea to study this domain emerge for you and what were some of the broader conceptual interventions you were hoping to make through the study of prison chaplaincy?

Adam Lyons:

Yes, thank you for this question. So I'd like to begin by explaining how I got involved in the world of the Japanese prison chaplains, because it's kind of a strange story and a lot of my questions came out of that experience.

So to make a long story short, I happened to meet a Japanese prison chaplain while I was looking around for a dissertation topic, and he invited me to go with him to a prison and to watch him at work. So I did. I went to the Japanese prison, we got permission, and I watched this chaplain giving a sermon. He was a Christian minister to a group of inmates. And then I watched one of his colleagues who was a female Shingon Buddhist priest interacting one-on-one with inmates. And the thing that struck me immediately was that a lot of the incarcerated people in Japan who were interacting with the chaplains were senior citizens.

They were old. And they were old to the extent that the idea that they could be rehabilitated and go back out into Japanese society and get jobs and pay taxes just didn't seem to make sense. It was not a realistic setup for the whole situation, where the chaplains are there trying to encourage these people to reform, get out, get a job, go back to work, and so on. So there was obviously some kind of issue there that I couldn't understand immediately. I was curious about that. So I started interviewing chaplains, and the second anecdote that led me to go further with this is: once I started meeting the chaplains, interviewing them, and kind of informally going out with them for dinner and drinks - I learned that my interview question, the first question, was actually the set up to a joke.

So I was asking people, why did you become a prison chaplain? And a few times I got this response - a lot of them are Buddhists, right? That's the frame for this - so the response was "because I did something terrible in a past life to deserve it. And so because of my bad karma, I have had no choice but to become a prison chaplain in this incarnation."

And I thought that that joke was hilarious because it seemed to be making the chaplains out like they were also prisoners of this system that they didn't really like. So from those two experiences, seeing that chaplaincy on the ground involved tasks for the chaplains that didn't necessarily make sense because their mandate was to encourage correctional reform for people who needed something more like a social work solution, that was one set of issues I was seeing. And then the other thing that I was seeing, that I think is invisible if you read the archive of chaplaincy texts, is that there were quite a number of chaplains who felt ambivalent about their role. So I wanted to understand: why are the chaplains here? Where does this tradition come from? What are they doing? And then, what are they making of it?

And I tried to interpret those two things in light of bigger themes in the history of religion and state relations in Japan, and most broadly, in the themes of religion and law as we discuss in the American Academy of Religion.

Kristian Petersen:

Yeah, yeah, it's really interesting, and I'm glad you included that narrative in the book itself, to give us an idea of where the project came from. Of course, for lots of listeners to the podcast, chaplaincy might be a category they understand or are familiar with, but it seems to operate in different ways, both in your book, and then you seem to gesture towards the fact that chaplaincy has multiple forms in Japanese society. So in thinking about Japanese models of prison chaplaincy, the way that you focus on in the book, can you tell us a little bit about the specificity of that and can you give us a snapshot of the relationship between this social role, the Japanese carceral system, and then Buddhism more specifically tied to the title itself? We get this idea right away that Buddhism and prison chaplaincy have some sort of intricate relationship.

Adam Lyons:

Thank you. Yes. So I think a good approach to this set of issues would be to point to some important works about chaplaincy in the US. I'll just pick one. I'll say there's Winnifred Sullivan's book, A Ministry of Presence, which is about chaplaincy, spiritual care, and the law. And that book shows convincingly that the wide variety of forms of chaplaincy that exist in the United States, like national park service chaplaincy, university chaplaincy, prison chaplaincy, hospital chaplaincy, and so on, are structured around a set of cultural and legal conditions most informed by the essentially cultural dominance of American Protestantism, such that, humanist university chaplains, Jewish prison chaplains or Buddhist prison chaplains in the states understand their role as variations on this theme of ministry of presence, which is, concisely stated, something like spiritual care work, like a form of care work.

So when I was in graduate school, I think that was probably the most influential study about chaplaincy. And I started looking into Japanese prison chaplaincy, thinking, it'll be a similar thing, and I had a set of expectations about Japanese prison chaplaincy, all of which turned out to be wrong.

One of my expectations was that Japanese prison chaplaincy was going to be something that was installed after the occupation of Japan. Like, it was a kind of human rights-based reform or religious freedom-based reform that the allied occupation installed into Japanese society. So the chaplaincy would have been, under those circumstances, translated from the West into Japan and adapted there.

That turned out to be totally wrong. It was not an adaptation based on Christian precedents that the occupation foisted upon the Japanese or something like that. It turned out that the official history of the Japanese prison chaplaincy produced by chaplains themselves and university professors in Japan - mainly Buddhist university professors at a Buddhist university - traced the history back to the 19th century - almost to the Meiji Restoration of 1868 - and that it was a Buddhist tradition that began right when prisons started to be built in Japan in the 1870s.

As part of my fieldwork, I was on the book committee of chaplains who were writing their field manual, and they were also writing their own history. And I was able to see how they interpreted their history as this story of kind of a Whiggish narrative of progress, like the inherent humanistic motivations of religious volunteers created and sustained the chaplaincy through the generations.

But because I was also studying religion and state relations in the Meiji period - the late 19th century - with academics in Japan and in graduate school, I was able to see other sides to that story that were kind of edited out of the official history of the chaplaincy. The most interesting anecdote that encapsulates this is that the first person to be identified as a prison chaplain in Japan in the late 19th century, before this man was ministering to incarcerated people, he was responsible for the last campaign of persecution. He was one of the agents responsible for the last campaign of persecution against the illegal Christians of Japan.

Christianity was only legalized in Japan after the Meiji Restoration, in about 1872 (correction: 1873). And the government basically arrested and rounded up a community of secret Japanese Christians who went public right around the time of the Restoration with their Christianity. And the government tried to force these Christians to convert. Buddhist priests, Shinto priests, and others had a role in this campaign of forced conversions. But after the government legalized Christianity, that whole campaign was defunct.

It was the same year that that campaign of forced conversions against illegal Christians fizzled out in the 1870s that Japan started to build prisons. And one of the agents of this campaign just took his established skillset of remonstrating with the incarcerated and telling them - you have to be loyal to the emperor, you must follow the Japanese laws - he took that skillset that had been used to admonish heretics and started to apply it to incarcerated people who were in prison for all manner of offenses. And that's actually the origin of prison chaplaincy in Japan.

Kristian Petersen:

The role of prison chaplaincy. You also use it, as you mentioned, as a kind of site to think about the mediation between religion and society, and the role of the state, and the kind of position of religion in their view. Can you talk a little bit about how prison chaplaincy opens up a new way of tackling these religion-state relationships in Japan and how you feel like your book is adding to this growing body of scholarship that focuses on this relationship in Japan?

Adam Lyons:

Yes, thank you. So I'll try to connect this to the last train of thought as well about established models for understanding chaplaincy in the states are based on this idea of spiritual care, which is very important, and that exists also in Japan.

Spiritual care chaplaincies started to be adopted into Japanese society in the postwar period with the Japanese word for spiritual care being translated as as kea or kokoro no kea. So that is one type of chaplaincy that is based on the idea that the chaplains should provide some kind of care work that exists also in other societies as well as in Japan and the United States. But the model that I identified in this book is premised on a tradition of what's called "doctrinal admonition." That's the word that gets translated today as prison chaplain in Japanese, kyōkai.

And as I just indicated, it started out in this campaign to suppress heresies, I think before being adapted into the prison system. And so in the case of doctrinal admonition, the basis for understanding the job of religion in the prison system is not primarily or foremost framed around the idea that incarcerated people are suffering and in need of care work that religious workers can provide. The basis of doctrinal admonition is not spiritual care, and it's obviously not American Protestantism. The basis for doctrinal admonition is the idea that has been central to Japanese religion and state relations since the 19th century, that religious organizations, or, in the eyes of the government and a lot of moral authorities in Japan, good religions should contribute to public order by promoting pro-social values.

And, usually, in public debates and in theology and in a lot of commentary and media, what you find throughout the history of Japan is that - modern Japan, I mean, specifically - is that what's understood as good religion is basically the form of religion that contributes to powerful elites' conceptions of what the national interest is. So you wind up with this tradition of doctrinal admonition in Japanese prisons that I take as a reflection of larger negotiations in Japanese society about what role religions ought to play.

I tried to identify how political negotiations surrounding the role of religion in Japanese society, and the production of theology, are shaped by these commitments or demands to work for the public benefit. As a countervailing narrative, I also tried to show how the people called upon to play this role as kind of agents of both religion and state in the prisons experience a host of irresolvable personal dilemmas that come out of the way their role is structured, placing particular individuals, almost like, they're standing at the public-private divide that fractures around religion and contradictions in that public-private divide actually come out in specific experiences that they have that are impossible. Death row chaplaincy is a good example of that.

Kristian Petersen:

And obviously there's tons in the book that we can't cover, but this question of the death penalty might be one that listeners can see how this works at a more granular level, the tensions between the state and the individual, and the role religion plays. So can you talk a little bit about the possible moral conflicts that arise in death penalty cases and how that helps us think about religion in contemporary Japan?

Adam Lyons:

Wow. Yes. Thank you very much for asking me this one. This is the hardest material in the book. In the process of doing the research for this book, I met and interviewed Japanese death row chaplains. They work under an obligation to secrecy. One of them decided to talk publicly to me and to let me record it and put it in the book. And I did. His name is Hirano Shunkō, and his story is to me very important, and I hope it'll be interesting to other people who might care about the death penalty or chaplaincy or religion and law. It's in the book, I included an appendix with the whole interview for people who want to know more about Hirano sensei’s experiences and what he thinks.

To make a long story short, it's probably the third time I've used that cliche in this interview, but here it goes.

Existing literature about the role of chaplains in the death penalty system coming from people like Peter Berger and Sartre, originally, talk about death row chaplains participating in executions, and others participating in executions, as if they're acting in bad faith because they occupy a social role that obliges them essentially to participate in a state-sanctioned murder. There's a famous paragraph from Peter Berger that says something like: people take their formally structured role as an alibi to essentially placate, cheaply, their conscience when in fact what they're doing is unconscionable and they're responsible for it. But they take the idea that it's a moral, sorry, that it's a professional responsibility or something, as the excuse in order to get on with it and to prevent themselves from thinking about it so that they do not need to feel responsible. That's in the original quote, right, that the role is structured in a way that people do not need to feel responsible.

What I found in actually interacting with death row chaplains is that first of all, that's an empirical question. Is it true that people don't feel responsible when they're participating as a chaplain in an execution? What I found was that the structural analysis that relies on the principle that the people involved in an execution are all acting in bad faith might be good at the level of sociology to describe how those jobs are designed, but once you insert real human beings into that equation, it gets very complicated because people do feel things about it, and do have a set of complicated moral dilemmas that involve them - in the chaplain's role in particular. So, are chaplains in favor of the death penalty or are they opposed to it?

Well, if a chaplain speaks publicly against the death penalty, they automatically lose access to the clients on death row who very often they feel morally obligated to help.

The death row in Japan is treated something like a state secret. There's very little information about it in public. People are assigned to chaplaincy. They don't volunteer for it, they're not paid. It's an assignment that comes down through the sect. Usually chaplains have not thought at all about the death penalty before they're assigned to go meet their first death row inmate. And then the relationship with the death row inmate can last for seven years if they're with somebody the whole time that they're on death row. Ultimately what I found was that chaplains said to me in interviews that they feel morally obligated to support the person who's going to be executed and don't want to abandon that person. And because of that sense of moral obligation, they're actually silenced politically because the price of access is silence.

They lose voice, but they're not silent because they're complicit or complacent. They're silent because they have, in the Buddhist idiom, a karmic connection to the person on death row who they feel responsible for, and political action that they would be able to do presumably otherwise, is what would cut the connection to the person they feel wants them to be there. They're in this kind of irresolvable dilemma, and I tried to explain how that dilemma is a product of the way the prevailing religion-state settlement in Japan comes down on the shoulders of real people and has real costs that would usually be invisible. But thanks to Hirano sensei and others who were willing to talk, I hope to some extent I was able to introduce their perspectives and their dilemmas in the book.

Kristian Petersen:

Yeah, it's a powerful chapter. One I could imagine people that are taking cross-cultural approaches to. Things like incarceration or even abolition and the study of religion would work well. So I hope people will check it out. The book in general is a wonderful book, well deserving of the award, and thanks for taking time to talk about it, Adam.

Adam Lyons:

Thank you very much, Kristian.