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The discursive position of religious studies in Japan: Masaharu Anesaki and the origins of religious studies

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image of Method & Theory in the Study of Religion

In Japan today, the issue of religious cults is a frequent topic of discussion, particularly in the aftermath of the Aum Shinrikyo incident. However, at the time of the Aum incident, the views of scholars in religious studies were scarcely heeded. This can be attributed to the fact that for many people, religious studies was thought to lean too much toward a defense of religion. Focusing upon Masaharu Anesaki, the founder of religious studies in Japan, this article explores the fundamental characteristics of the discourse of religious studies as it has come down to the present day. It seeks to elucidate the close relationship of religious studies to the political situation in Japanese society during the Meiji period (1868-1912), and how this contributed to the development of the field. It further maintains that in conjunction with state policies for national education, the discourse of religious studies helped instantiate religion as an integral component of modern society, one defined particularly by the vacillation between individualism and nationalism. After World War II, there were few in Japan who would openly express admiration for nationalist ideology, but in religious studies a tendency toward nationalism remained evident in its yearning for the solidarity of religious groups and other kinds of communal bodies. Thus, even as its outward form underwent change, this tendency toward nationalism not only served as a defense of religion, but it also continued to uphold the existing discursive positionality of religious studies.


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