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Full Access Secularization, Deprivatization, and the Reappearance of ‘Public Religion’ in Japanese Society1

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Secularization, Deprivatization, and the Reappearance of ‘Public Religion’ in Japanese Society1

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AbstractSociological theories about the fate of religion in modern societies originated in Europe and were initially based on the history of Western Christianity. Whether or not these theoretical perspectives are useful for the analysis of other religious traditions in non-Western regions of the world has been the focus of considerable debate for decades. This article engages some of the familiar theories of secularization in light of major developments in Japanese religion and society over the past two centuries. While it has been widely assumed that modernization inevitably brings with it a decline in religion, the first phase of this process in Japan was accompanied by the creation of a powerful new form of religion—State Shintō—that served to unite the nation around a common set of symbols and institutions for half a century. This was followed by the rapid and forced secularization of Shintō during the Allied Occupation (1945-1952), which essentially privatized or removed it from public institutions. Since the end of the Occupation, however, there has been an ongoing movement to restore the special status of Shintō and its role in the public sphere. Even though recent case studies and survey research indicate that individual religiosity and organized religions are facing serious decline today, the reappearance of religion in public life and institutions represented by this restoration movement also needs to be taken into account in our assessment of secularization in contemporary Japan.

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47. FN1 1This article is based on a paper initially prepared for the Second Annual Conference of the Centre for Area Studies and considers developments in Japanese religion and society in relation to the conference theme of “Multiple Secularities and Global Interconnectedness,” University of Leipzig, 13-15 October 2011.
48. FN2 2The issue of terminology is a complicated one and cannot be pursued here. See Isomae (2003, 2005) and Thal (2002) for more detailed treatment of how the term ‘religion’ has been used and adapted in the Japanese context.
49. FN3 3There is a substantial literature on the development of this new form of ‘State Shintō’; representative works include Murakami (1970), Hardacre (1989), and Shimazono (2010).
50. FN4 4As Richard Rubenstein (1989: 116-117) has observed, “the West initiated modernization with a rejection of the highest religious and political authorities, not excluding regicide, and tended to equate modernization with secularization,” whereas “Japan undertook modernization under the authority of its supreme religio-political authority and in defense of the values of its traditional civilization.”
51. FN5 5One prominent figure that affirmed this interpretation was Miyaji Naokazu 宮地直 (1886-1949). Miyaji had served in the Ministry of Home Affairs as head of the Shintō Bureau’s Research Department (Jinjakyoku Kōshōka 神社局考証課) prior to his appointment to the Chair for Shintō Studies at the Imperial University in Tokyo, a position he held from 1938 to 1945. He subsequently served as an adviser to Jinja Honchō 神社本庁 (Association of Shintō Shrines), the main umbrella shrine organization of the postwar period. In a 1946 interview conducted soon after the Occupation began, he explained: “In my opinion religion is intercourse between human beings and what is superhuman. Therefore, all shrines naturally fall into the category of religion. . . . The government did not negate the religious activities of the shrines even when it did not regard the shrines as religion” (Miyaji 1946: 143).
52. FN6 6The role of public education was particularly important in the forging of a new national identity connected to the imperial household and symbolized by the new national shrines. On this point see Murakami (1982: 46-49). For a more focused treatment of the place of Shintō and Yasukuni Shrine in textbooks for elementary school children during this period, see Irie (2001: 73-78).
53. FN7 7The postwar growth of New Religions, of course, is not only related to the process of modernization—that is, urbanization and industrialization—but also to the disestablishment of State Shintō by the Occupation authorities and the serious legitimacy problems Shintō faced following Japan’s defeat.
54. FN8 8This ‘contingency’ model is very different from the earlier perspectives on secularization represented by such scholars as Peter Berger and Brian Wilson for whom it was an inevitable and irreversible process. At least in Berger’s earlier work, desecularization appeared to be theoretically possible only by a return to a pre-modern and pre-industrial form of society.
55. FN9 9For two recent treatments, see Okuyama (2010) and Baffelli (2010).
56. FN10 10Not all forms of religious nationalism are expressed in a way that has significance in the public sphere. See Shimazono (2001: 88-137) for a consideration of religious nationalisms that are largely ‘spiritual’ or ‘cultural’ and those that have political significance.
57. FN11 11This interpretation is supported by Ueda Kenji (1979), the late Shintō scholar, as well as the account of the postwar period provided by Jinja Shinpōsha (1971).
58. FN12 12See 31 October 2011) for a number of Shinseiren position statements on key issues of concern. For a historical account of their first fifteen years and an overview of their key activities, see Shinseiren (1984).
59. FN13 13See 31 October 2011).
60. FN14 14See Breen and Teewen (2010: 201-202) and the Shintō Seiji Renmei homepage ( for additional information on Shinseiren membership, political agenda, and current publications.
61. FN15 15The Diet group in support of Yasukuni Shrine is known as Heiwa o Negai Shin no Kokueki o Kangaeru Yasukuni Sanpai o Shiji Suru Wakate Kokkai Gi’in no Kai 平和を願い真の国益を考える靖国参拝を支持する若手国会議員の会.
62. FN16 16These pilgrimages are referred to as Nihon no wa no kokoro o kangaeru Ise Jingū okage mairi日本の和の心を考える伊勢神宮おかげ参り. See the following videos for Yamatani’s explanation of her May 2010 promotion of Ise Shrine pilgrimages:; 31 October 2011).
63. FN17 17Reported in Shūkan kinyōbi週刊金曜日, No. 797 (30 April 2010): 36-37.
64. FN18 18For a more detailed discussion of the developments noted in this table, see Mullins (2012).
65. FN19 19On the response of various religious bodies to this legislation and efforts to revise the Constitution, see Ōsaki (2007); Dessì (2009); Hishiki (2007), and Katorikku Chūō Kyōgikai (2007).
66. FN20 20Official data for each Prime Minister is available at the government home-page:; 31 October 2011); additional information has been gleaned from multiple sources.
67. FN21 21The original Japanese of this last phrase is shūkyōtekina jōsō o fukameru kyōiku ga taisetsu de aru to iu koto o mōshiagetakatta宗教的な情操を深める教育が大切であるということを申し上げたかった. Both the original Japanese and English translation of Mori’s 26 May 2000 press conference remarks may be found online at: 15 August 2011).

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