At the University of Pennsylvania I teach courses on Japanese popular culture, Japanese religions (including Shintō, Buddhism, and various other traditions), and Japanese history. While my training is in the humanistic field of religious studies, many of my courses include readings by social scientists such as anthropologists 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 latest book manuscript bears the working title Japan, The Allied Occupation, and the Problem of Religious Freedom. The first half of the book examines how different 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 Shintō” and inculcating a “desire for religious freedom” in Japan’s citizenry. This manuscript is currently under review.
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, I expect it to deal equally with Shintō, Buddhism, and other religious movements. Basically, the new project asks what sort of ideal subject/citizen has been imagined in postwar Japanese educational settings and 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.
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 this August 2014 interview.
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.