My work over the last few months, and what you’ll hear from me over the coming weeks

Hello readers,

Right now, I’m on the tail end of three and a half months in Japan. I’m on a one-year sabbatical from my position at North Carolina State University thanks to generous funding from the Luce Foundation and the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS). I can’t understate what it means to get this kind of support. Put simply, the ACLS has given me the money I need to dive into a year of intensive field research on religion and politics in Japan. I’m totally at liberty here to delve as deeply as I can into whatever I need to pursue. It’s amazing.

The ACLS is funding me to pursue a project I’ve titled “Religious Influences on Japanese Politics and Policymaking.” Essentially, I’m here to dig into a big conundrum that plagues Japan. Going by statistical measures, Japan is one of the world’s least religious countries. In response to regular surveys, when people in Japan are asked the (very loaded) question “do you have religious belief,” in excess of 70% of respondents answer with a resounding “no.” In spite of this, religious organization exert a profound influence on Japanese politics. Japan’s national government comprises a coalition of two parties: the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Japan’s dominant political power; and its junior partner, Komeito, or the “Clean Government Party.” Komeito was founded in 1964 on an absolute pacifism platform, but it has undergone policy shifts since then, most remarkably in recent years – a steep cost it pays to remain in the governing coalition.

Religious groups and otherwise religiously-affiliated activists play a pivotal role in guiding both parties. Most obviously, Komeito was founded by the Buddhist lay association Soka Gakkai (the Value Creation Study Association). I’ve just published a book with the University of Hawai`i Press on Soka Gakkai; see my earlier posts on its release in December 2018. I’m guaranteed to annoy readers with more Soka Gakkai book news to come. Meanwhile, the LDP is bolstered by support from a complex network of numerous (mostly right-wing) religious and otherwise ideologically motivated groups. Quite a few of these are based in Shinto, a difficult-to-define amalgam of traditions that is frequently called Japan’s native religion. For this reason, the LDP is conventionally referred to as a party that enjoys support from “Shinto neonationalism.”

What I’ve come to realize, quite quickly, is that “Shinto neonationalism” by no means encompasses the complexity of ideologues who seek to advance policy aims through the LDP. The label “religion” doesn’t really cut it, either. Right out of the gate, the parameters of my research have changed. Before this chapter of my Japan life, I thought I’d do the rounds of Soka Gakkai and Shinto-affiliated adherents, send out some neat dispatches, and then get back to North Carolina and resume brewing reasonably drinkable beer. Instead, I find myself immersed in a religious world that calls on me, and by extension all of us who do work on religion and politics in Japan, to construct a new set of categories that does justice to the ideas and activities of the many thousands of diverse individuals who are driving religion and politics in Japan today. It’s a big job, but it’s a really, really engrossing job.

It’s now mid-November, and I’ve been here in Japan since the beginning of August. Before this trip, I lived in Japan for long and short stints for a total of something like eight and a half years out of the last twenty-five years of my life, so I thought I had a handle on how things would go over this three-or-so months. I envisioned a comparatively balanced schedule. Interviews, fieldwork, writing, but also time to hike the mountains around Tokyo and indulge in my deeply guilty pleasure of face-melting, eardrum-annihilating heavy metal shows. Tokyo is the best city in the world for live music, in my opinion.

Instead, I was sideswiped by an overpowering wave of mind-bending opportunities to spend hours and hours and hours with religiously-affiliated activists. They just wiped me out. Over the last few months, I’ve woken up at 4:00 a.m. on numerous mornings to make it to ethics training sessions held at Shinto shrines that begin at either 5:00 or 5:30 a.m. These devotees meet 364 days a year. Most of them are women in their 70s and 80s. By their standards, I’m a wimp. I’ve taken part in seven-hour-long Buddhist doctrine study sessions run by a fourth-generation Soka Gakkai twenty-one-year-old Soka Gakkai member student at Soka University. She’s transgender. I rehearsed Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony under the baton of a Soka Gakkai member. We performed at a Christian wedding chapel, below a massive wooden cross. During late-night drinking sessions and formal interviews alike, Soka Gakkai members have told me they will follow Komeito no matter how it must compromise its founding pacifist policies to remain in the coalition. Others tell me they think the party at the national level will dissolve within ten years. Still others think Soka Gakkai itself will disappear within a generation. Nominally right-leaning Shinto priests introduce me to their environmental activism and social welfare initiatives that really, really don’t map on to the right/left spectrum that’s imprinted on my brain. The range of opinions and life experiences is overwhelming.

I am deeply suspicious of any general claims about Japan. I have no time for sweeping claims about anything, really. But there’s just something about Japan that seems to invite fatuous overstatement. You’ll notice that statements in English about “THE Japanese” are ubiquitous. Rule of thumb: anytime someone says “THE Japanese think X,” or uses the subject pronoun “they” in a sentence about “THE Japanese,” you can dismiss that person’s opinion.

That being said, there is one sweeping statement about Japan that I’m willing to back up: in general, people don’t do things by half measures here. Whatever you’ve committed yourself to, it’s all or nothing.

For this reason, my initial plan to send a series of dispatches from the field as I carried out fieldwork over the past months was stymied. I was just too busy carrying out the actual fieldwork to update this blog. Initiating engagement with people in their chosen activities was like flipping on a bright, bright light.

Now, however, I’m about to step away for a couple of weeks. I’m headed tomorrow to Denver, to attend the American Academy of Religion’s annual conference, an intimate gathering of 11,000 of my closest friends. I’m then headed home to Raleigh NC for a couple of weeks.

My plan is to send out a series of “here’s what’s going on with religion and politics in Japan” updates over the next few weeks. Lots to digest through these dispatches. Stay tuned here for a LOT more to come.

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