Religion in Modern Japanese Society


The aim of this course is to understand the role of religious beliefs, practices and institutions in modern Japanese society. The first part of the course will review sociological and historical approaches to the study of religion and consider the “layers” of tradition—Shinto, Buddhism, Christianity and New Religions—that evolved over many centuries and continue to shape contemporary Japanese religiosity.

The second part of the course examines religion during Japan’s century of modernisation and considers the “invention” of State Shinto and its role in nation-building, the restructuring of Japanese religion and society during the Occupation period (1945-1952), the decline of temple Buddhism and Shrine Shinto during the post-war period and the emergence and impact of new religious movements.

The third part of the course will focus on several key issues that have been the topic of critical public debate in recent decades:

  1. Religion and violence: Aum Shinrikyō, a new religious movement, launched a sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995. We will examine the factors that might explain how a small and seemingly harmless yoga group turned to violence and how this incident led the government to revise the laws regulating all religions in Japan.
  2. Religion and neonationalism: A second area of conflict and debate revolves around Yasukuni Shrine, a controversial Shinto site dedicated to the military war dead. We will consider how some religious and political groups are using the shrine as a symbolic focus for revitalising national identity and how this is connected to proposals by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to revise the Constitution of Japan, including Articles 20 and 89, which define the nature of religious freedom and the separation of religion and state.
  3. Religious responses to disaster: In the wake of the 11 March 2011 “triple disaster”—earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi plant—many Japanese religions have a renewed sense of their social and public role. We will examine some of the new initiatives of religious groups to engage in relief work and reconstruction, grief care and critical engagement with the government’s nuclear policy and efforts to revise the Constitution.

Learning Goals

This is a core course for the advanced study of religion in modern society, which reviews sociological and historical approaches and key issues of critical debate on the place of religion in contemporary Japanese society.

At the end of this course, students should:

  1. Have acquired a broad knowledge of the key characteristics and social significance of both established and alternative religious traditions in modern Japan
  2. Be able to provide an extended analysis in essay form of issues surrounding the role of religion in contemporary Japanese society that demonstrates a critical understanding of the larger cultural, political and legal context

Requirements and Readings

Attendance at lectures is required and students should come prepared to discuss the readings each week. There are no required textbooks for this course, but two to three articles or book chapters will be assigned each week.

Particular attention will be given to the religious dimensions of neo-nationalism in Japanese society and the post-war movements to recover the public role of Shinto by the Association of Shinto Shrines and affiliated socio-political movements. These restoration efforts include the movement to renationalise Yasukuni Shrine, revise the post-war Constitution (particularly Articles 9, 20 and 89) and various strategies to reform the public school system through the inclusion of moral and patriotic education. These neo-nationalist initiatives and efforts to revitalise a Japanese civil religion have generated considerable conflict and debate over a range of religion-state issues. Students will be expected to prepare a literature review and final paper on one of these contemporary issues.

The topics and readings covered may be adjusted according to the background and research interests of the enrolled students.

Availability 2022




ASIAN 708: 15 points