At the University of Pennsylvania I teach courses on Japanese religions (including Shinto, Buddhism, and various other traditions), the religions of Asia, religion and media, and general Japanese studies courses like Japanese Popular Culture. While my training is in the humanistic field of religious studies, many of my courses include readings by social scientists such as anthropologists, geographers, and sociologists.
My primary research interests lie in the field of modern Japanese religions, with additional interests in the visual and material culture of religion; the politics of religious freedom; relationships between religion, sexuality, and gender; and the history of human rights.
My current book manuscript bears the working title Japan, The American Occupation, and the Problem of Religious Freedom. The first half of the book examines how competing interest groups advanced very different understandings of religious freedom during the time that Japan’s first modern constitution was in effect (1890–1945). The second half focuses on the shorter period of the Allied Occupation of Japan (1945–1952), when the U.S.-led occupiers aimed to reconfigure Japanese religious and political life by eradicating “State Shinto” and inculcating a “desire for religious freedom” in Japan’s citizenry. This manuscript is under contract with University of Chicago Press.
I am now beginning a new project on religion and education in postwar Japan. The project will be loosely bookended by the passage of the Fundamental Law on Education in 1947 and the revision of that law in 2006. Like most of my academic projects, this one will focus less on specific sects and denominations than it will on how the category “religion” operates in seemingly non-religious contexts. I expect the book to deal equally with Shinto, Buddhism, and other religious movements. Basically, the project asks what sort of ideal subject/citizen has been imagined in postwar Japanese educational settings; it also investigates how clerics, teachers, and scholars of religion have envisioned religious literacy and morality as part of the process of subject formation that forms the linchpin of modern education.
Even as I work on the education project, I am simultaneously working on another book about the problem of desire in Japanese religions. This book will revise old-school anthropological and religious studies terminology like “animism,” “fetishism,” “idolatry,” and “cult” to show that Japanese religion is fundamentally about sex and money and crass consumerism, but not in a reductive sense. Focusing on quotidian objects like trains, televisions, USB sticks, robots, and plastic figurines, this study will examine how desire—one of the fundamental problems addressed by Japanese Buddhism and also one of the fundamental drivers of Japanese religiosity—structures the political economy of contemporary Japanese religion. I expect to argue that contemporary Japan provides a model for understanding the co-constitutive relationship between religion, capitalism, and sexuality that features in many wealthy economies today. Some early thoughts on these topics can be found in essays and articles that I have written for Sacred Matters and Material Religion; a forthcoming book chapter critiquing the oft-described but insufficiently substantiated relationship between animation and animism keeps the thread going.
When I’m not working on the aforementioned projects, I’m also co-authoring with my wife a series of articles that bring my humanistic training in religious studies and Asian studies together with her training in the natural and social sciences. I’ll provide more details here as we get closer to publication, but the idea is to do truly integrative research that draws on our shared skill set.
I have also published extensively on religion and media in contemporary Japan, with a particular focus on religious aspects of the culture surrounding manga (illustrated serial novels) and anime (animated films). My 2012 book on the subject, Drawing on Tradition: Manga, Anime, and Religion in Contemporary Japan, is available from University of Hawai‘i Press. The book examined religious aspects of the culture of manga and anime production and consumption through a methodological synthesis of narrative and visual analysis, history, and ethnography. In it, I showed that manga and anime not only contribute to familiarity with traditional religious doctrines and imagery, but also allow authors, directors, and audiences to modify and elaborate upon such themes, sometimes creating hitherto unforeseen religious ideas and practices. Through case studies of manga and anime, Drawing on Tradition advanced a methodological argument about how the category of religion can be defined and applied in light of deep ambivalence about the position of religious traditions in contemporary Japanese society. You can hear me talk about the motivations behind the project and some of its strengths and weaknesses in the “Watch” and “Listen” sections below.
In addition to teaching and writing, I am also an editor of Asian Traditions at the Marginalia Review of Books, where I commission and edit reviews of cutting-edge books in the field. I also regularly contribute essays to the web magazine Sacred Matters.