Special Topic: 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 the centuries and continue to shape contemporary Japanese religiosity.

The second part of the course will examine religion during Japan’s century of modernisation and consider 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 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.

Availability 2022

Not taught in 2022


Lecturer(s) Professor Mark R. Mullins


Readings will be available through CANVAS/Talis via Modules. The assigned readings each week should be understood as the bare minimum required for the successful completion of this course. Additional research and reading will be required to demonstrate thorough grasp of the subject matter and issues addressed in this course.


JAPANESE 292: 15 points


45 points in BA courses, including either JAPANESE 150 or ASIAN 100