June 13 2024

Competing Constructions of Religious Freedom in Allied-Occupied Japan

Interview with Jolyon Baraka Thomas

Despite the Japanese constitution guaranteeing religious freedom since 1889, after World War II, the United States-occupiers deemed that guarantee flawed. In this conversation with, Jolyon Thomas, author of Faking Liberties: Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan shares how the US imposed a new framework of religious freedom onto the Japanese, one that favored some traditions more than others.

Thomas's "Faking Liberties" was co-winner of the AAR's 2020 Analytical-Descriptive Studies Award for the Excellence in the Study of Religion. He is associate professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

Interview Transcript

Kristian Petersen:

Welcome to Religious Studies News. I'm your host Kristian Petersen and today I'm here with Jolyon Thomas, associate professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania and winner of the AAR Book Award in analytical-descriptive studies. He's here to speak to us about his book, Faking Liberties: Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan, published with the University of Chicago Press. Thanks and congratulations.

Jolyon Baraka Thomas:

Thank you so much, Kristian. It's really good to be here.

Kristian Petersen:

Yeah. This is a really neat book and certainly deserving of the award, unique and interesting topic. And for me, and I'm sure for people who do pick it up, it's certainly relevant for everybody in religious studies in thinking about how our work matters and what the afterlife of that work might be. Can you talk about how this project emerged? It's not something that a lot of people would think of, probably because they don't even know the story. So what's some of the background here in terms of the bigger picture, what people might need to know to understand your project, and how you got into this as a book project?

Jolyon Baraka Thomas:

Sure. So one of the origin stories of this book, and there are several, but I think one that people listening to this podcast might resonate with is in my first year of my PhD program, I was taking a couple of seminars simultaneously, and as you do, I saw some linkages between the things that I was reading. So in one seminar, which was a theory and method seminar in religious studies, we were reading Talal Asad among other things and I was tasked with presenting on Talal Asad's formations of the secular. And then in the same week, I also had a class presentation on a series of readings about the Allied occupation of Japan, which was the period at the end of World War II when the Allies, led by Americans, occupied Japan and engaged in the series of democratizing reforms.

So I had read about the occupation before and the standard story of the occupation was that wartime Japan was dominated by a state religion and with Japan's defeat at the end of World War Two, the occupiers came in and democratized the country, eradicated this state religion, and placed it with real religious freedom. That was the sort of language of the standard historiography.

But as I was reading this account while also reading Talal Asad, I couldn't help but think that the account was just wrong. As I was thinking about secularism as a political project, about the sort of demands placed on quote unquote non-modern peoples as Asad describes it in his introduction, I was thinking, "Well, what are the ways that we could think of the occupation in terms of secularism?"

And as I started thinking about that, I started to... I wrote some seminar papers, I started to present my work, and at one point a colleague in Japanese history said, "You're talking about the occupation, but this story makes no sense if you don't think about what preceded the occupation." So I wanted to tell a story where the occupiers were telling this triumphalist narrative about having eradicated quote unquote State Shinto and replaced it with religious freedom, but to tell that story, I had to go back in time and describe in detail what was going on in Japan before.

What I found was that Japan had a constitutional guarantee of religious freedom, and moreover Japan had a really robust domestic discourse about the nature of religion and more importantly about what it meant to provide religious freedom to citizens. When I started looking at this, I realized the occupier's story was utterly false and that Japan had a certain mode of secularism in the period when its first modern constitution was in effect from 1890 all the way up to its defeat in 1945.

And furthermore, when I was looking at occupation records, military government records, I found that Americans claimed to have brought religious freedom to Japan but the Americans themselves totally disagreed with one another about what religious freedom was. When we look at their correspondence with each other, we see one agency fighting against another agency, one person disagreeing with another, some people saying at religious freedom was the freedom to be Christian, others saying that it was the freedom to choose one religion out of a range of options. And this got me thinking in much broader terms beyond the original questions about what it means to free religion and how that might be related to concepts like religion making and competing definitions of religion itself.

Kristian Petersen:

Yeah. Man. And I'll preface the conversation here that the book really does so much and is really generative I think, so I hope people will check it out. But certainly this idea of religious freedom and I think you call it infeasible and unjust, if I got your words correct there. What's at the root of these questions of religious freedom? There's been a lot of great scholarship on this recently. Where do you feel like your book fits into that body of scholarship?

Jolyon Baraka Thomas:

Yeah. Great. So obviously I've been deeply influenced by the literature on religious freedom, what I think of as the critical literature on religious freedom, especially Winnie Sullivan's work, The Impossibility of Religious Freedom, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd's Beyond Religious Freedom. Also looking at people like Anna Su who comes to this from a legal background by looking at the history of religious freedom as a facet of US foreign policy. And Tisa Wenger's great book, Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal. Oh and Finbarr Curtis's book as well, which I think does a really wonderful job of thinking about the ways that, as he puts it in his introduction, conflict brings religions and claims about religion into being, and I think that this is also true. I'm looking at a military conflict, its aftermath, and the ways that claims about religious freedom are brought into being in that moment. So I see myself as being in conversation with all the people that I mentioned.

One of the things though that I noticed in surveying that literature is that a lot of it is very good about dealing with the question that I think is at the core of our discipline, I think religious studies is a discipline, but the question that's at the core of our discipline is basically what is religion or what are the political ramifications of people claiming that something is religion? So the people in critical religious freedom studies have done a really good job of dealing with the religion question. What I saw less was dealing with the other part of the equation, which was freedom, and thinking really deliberately and carefully and equally critically about that operative term.

So although my book started off as a project that was basically about how competing parties define religion in order to free it, it necessarily also became a project about how we understand freedom and how competing conceptions of freedom are just as important to the project of freeing religion as competing conceptions of religion are.

Kristian Petersen:

So your book takes us through a lot of history, different context. I also like that you kind of set it up that readers can come to it with different interests and kind of satisfy their needs so to speak in the way they enter the book. I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit about... this seems like very, very deliberate structuring, even more so than a typical book. So could you talk a little bit about how you conceptualized the book, both in terms of these two halves that you have, but then also these complementing themes? Why did these themes arise as prominent to you and then how do they fit into the two narratives that you're telling?

Jolyon Baraka Thomas:

Yeah. Thank you so much for this question. So the first thing that I want to say is shout out to my readers. The anonymous readers of the manuscript really pushed me on a few things, and it was originally the book did not have halves and originally it didn't have this structure. One reader in particular, who I now know is Jason Ānanda Josephson Storm at Williams College, suggested that I include a chapter from the pre-war period that was set in the United States. That became chapter three and it's about territorial Hawaii and the experiences of Japanese-American Buddhists in Hawaii's plantation economy and how that related to their ability or inability to secure religious freedom.

Having added that chapter, I looked at the book entirely differently and once I saw the book in a new way where I realized that it was at least as much about the United States as it was about Japan, I'm trained as a scholar of Japanese religions, so that didn't occur to me right away. Then I realized that it had a natural parallel structure, and once I reorganized my chapters in this way, everything clicked into place for me. It's often at the very end stages of a project where we actually understand what we're trying to do. Like a lot of graduate students out there, you don't really know what your dissertation is about until you write the abstract right before you submit or something like that, and I think it's true for books as well.

So I set the book up. It's eight chapters, eight content chapters. The first one is called "Japan's Preoccupation with Religious Freedom." A little bit ago I mentioned that this is my attempt to really describe what was going on before the occupiers got to Japan in 1945, and three of the four chapters take place in Japan. All of the chapters deal with materials that are in Japanese language, deal with Japanese language materials, but they're trying to figure out what were Japanese people thinking about religious freedom and how were they in dialogue with global conversations about religious freedom?

In the late 19th century and early 20th century, most of the influence was coming actually from Western Europe. A lot of emphasis on what was happening in Germany and France, but increasingly the United States model becomes something that people are taking very seriously, especially as they're looking at, I think plight is a good word to use here, looking at the plight of the Japanese-American immigrants living in the United States who are suffering all kinds of discrimination, including religious discrimination. So that's the first half of the book.

The second half of the book focuses primarily on the occupation, although it also stretches in the years past the occupation to look at the ramifications of occupation policy, not only within Japan, but also globally. So those are the two halves of the book, but having set up the halves, I realized that each of these corresponding chapters were dealing with similar themes. So chapter one of the book just sort of makes a case for why we should think of what I call the Meiji Constitutional Period, that period from 1890 to 1945, when Japan's constitution was in effect. I make a case for thinking of that as a secularist system, that's premised on the distinction between religion and not religion. But then in chapter five, that's my sort of introduction to the occupation, but I'm also looking at the ways that the occupiers were describing Japan's pre-war and wartime system as being a bad or even a heretical secularism. The sort of theme between those two chapters is the question of secularism.

Similarly in say in chapter... I won't go through all of them, but in chapters three and seven, I'm looking at the sort of tension between local circumstances and universal claims. So chapter three is the one that's set in territorial Hawaii, and there we have Japanese Buddhists who are making claims to the universal right, or at least the American constitutional right to religious freedom, and they're saying this should be applied universally but their local circumstances are keeping them from being able to really assert that right. And then in chapter seven, I'm looking at how the unique circumstances of the occupation where two governments are simultaneously in charge of the same territory and population, the Japanese government and the US military government. That situation I argue bred a... it sort of forced a new conception of religious freedom where religious freedom could no longer be a civil Liberty that's granted to citizens by their state, but actually had to become of necessity a universal human right. So the local circumstances forced this universal conception.

So those are two examples of the kinds of threads that I see running across these chapter pairs. Chapter two and chapter six also have some similarities. Chapters four and eight also have some similarities. And I encourage readers if they're inclined to grab the book to just kind of experiment with reading the book in different ways. I think that if you're not really into say pre-war Japanese material, you might find it a little bit bewildering to start there, but it might make a lot more sense if you read chapter five first and then went back to chapter one. And I wrote the book so that you could do that without getting lost.

Kristian Petersen:

And I think for many in, at least my generation, will appreciate the choose your own adventure approach of the book. Very cool. I did like that as well.

Again, there's lots to talk about, but one of the things I was hoping that you could just spend a little time on is kind of the role of scholars in these negotiations, in these debates, and then kind of the afterlife of our work, I guess. What are the consequences of scholars in the context that you looked at? But then more broadly, how do you think we should think about our scholarship and its potential uses today?

Jolyon Baraka Thomas:

Yeah. Okay.

Kristian Petersen:

Big question, you could take it however you want.

Jolyon Baraka Thomas:

It's just I have so much to say. I think the last part of the book makes it very clear that I hadn't... I've been thinking about these things, but I'm not sure that I have a final... I'm not sure that Faking Liberties constitutes the final thing that I have to say about this. One of the things just in terms of the historical material, I was really fascinated to see the ways that religious studies scholarship was operationalized by political leaders for the purposes of governance.

This comes through very clearly in chapter five where I show that the relatively obscure writings of this American missionary scholar named Daniel Clarence Holtom end up being sort of resuscitated or rehabilitated, or actually given more prominence by the intelligence needs of the office of strategic services and the US State Department, the OSS is the precursor of our CIA. And what's happening there is the US and Japan are already at war as of late 1940, in the early 1940s, late 1941. And then they're trying to make sense of Japanese people. Why are Japanese people the way they are? And a lot of this stuff is utterly racist, of course, and it's utterly simplified and it's all essentialist. So they go to the guy who seems to be the expert, and he's a scholar of religion and he's written these books with titles like The Political Philosophy of Modern Shinto. And then Holtom, in the context of the war writes another book called... oh no, I'm in the middle of an interview and I'm blanking on the title—Modern Japan and Shinto Nationalism I think it is, but that might be wrong.

Anyway. So this guy's work gets drawn upon to tell this story that Japanese governance is characterized by this oppressive state religion. One of the important bits of context that's left out is that, of course, Holtom is a Baptist missionary who's got a very biased view about what constitutes religious freedom. And while he's got a lot of respect for the Shinto scholars that he's learned from and for Japanese people, he also has this sort of biased view premised on the world-religions paradigm that Shinto is primitive and that Christianity is advanced. And so he's thinking, "Well, why are these people so beholden to this primitive ideology?"

As obscure religious studies scholarship that does one thing. When it starts to inform policy, it does a totally different thing, and it ends up creating this notion that there are good and bad ways of distinguishing religion from not-religion, and when paired with the general civilization list and racist rhetoric of the time, it also starts to say those people are inferior, and we are superior and we need to teach them how it's done. So I think Holtom was obviously uncomfortable with seeing the ways that some of his scholarship was applied in the context of the occupation, but he couldn't do anything about it. They asked him to come to Japan to serve as an advisor and he couldn't do it because of health reasons. So then he's just sitting there in retirement in California, watching them make policy based on his writings. He disagrees with the policy, but it's water under the bridge at that point.

I think his example is a really good cautionary tale for all of us, because if we get into normative claims, we all are going to do normativity in some way or another, but if we get into normative claims about good and bad religion as Holtom did, or good and bad secularism, which I think a lot of people do, I think a lot of scholars are more comfortable talking about what they see as good and bad secularism. So I think that's a problem, but it can be the case that political leaders are not going to be savvy to the nuance and political leaders are going to just take what's convenient to them and apply it in some way that we don't quite anticipate. So we need to be really cautious about that aspect of our work.

Now, let me talk as well about later in the occupation, when the people who are sort of responsible for making sure that the new version of religious freedom sticks in Japanese society are doing their work, we see really close collaborations between Japanese scholars of religion. I want to just pause and parenthetically say here that Japan has a robust and long-standing tradition of religious studies that dates back to the 1890s with full-fledged departments of religious studies. So there's a well-established community of religious studies scholars in Japan working closely with US occupiers who are also scholars of religion in their own right, although they're doing that sort of as bureaucrats, sort of as students of religion.

These people collaborate not only in establishing the postwar Anglophone architecture for the study of Japanese religions, I'm talking about things like flagship journals, like the Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, which is the chief journal in my field comes out of these collaborations. But they're also putting forward this notion that their job is not only to describe religion, but to teach people how to be free. And they do that by writing these sort of op-eds and giving lectures and things like that, that from my perspective today, seem to be quite patronizing and so forth.

So when I was looking at that, I was thinking these guys thought they were doing a really good thing and in the time that they were working, perhaps they were doing good. I mean it's not my job to cast dispersions on what they were doing, but it also made me uncomfortable to see how prescriptive their interventions were, not just normative about what constitutes good or bad religion. They certainly made those sorts of claims, but they would write in a Shinto priest magazine, "you guys don't even understand religion," wrote the Tokyo University scholar, Kishimoto Hideo. He writes in their own newspaper that they're ignorant about what they do or about the real meaning of religion.

I think few scholars of religion would be so bold today. I think there's more sensitivity, but I do think that there's, as we think about publicly engaged scholarship and think about the ways that we want to have our work be relevant to journalists and to policy makers, there's also this pitfall because many people want the quick and easy answer. Many people want the well, do we like them or don't we? I guess I'll only speak for myself, but that's not the sort of information I want to be giving to journalists or to policy makers as part of my job. I want them to be thinking with nuance and about exceptions to the rule, and certainly in a nonessentialist manner, because that's important because we don't live in a world of essences.

So I guess I'll just finish off my thoughts on this by saying that one of the things that I think is really important is for us to not arrogate to ourselves the position of knowing what's really going on, even as we own and affirm our expertise. In other words, we don't want our work to be seen as definitive and therefore give policy makers or journalists some reason to do something that we would find politically reprehensible or morally reprehensible. We want to always build into our analysis some sort of way of saying this is one way of looking at this and you also will necessarily need to get other perspectives, particularly by looking at things at different scales, not only looking at the national scale, but also at the local person to person scale, and getting the voices into the conversation that might otherwise be excluded.

These are all things that I think we have to do, which is a really high bar to set for the academic study of religion, but I think is a really important one.

Kristian Petersen:

Yeah. It sparks critical questions for us. And there's a lot more to the book obviously, you know that more than anybody. I do appreciate your time. I want to congratulate you again on the award and thanks for making time to talk about it.

Jolyon Baraka Thomas:

Thank you so much for this opportunity, and I am so happy to have people reading the book.