It was particularly gratifying and amazing to see so many viewers on YouTube and reddit respond to the interview both positively and critically within the first 12 hours or so that it has been up.
I promised at the end of the interview to be in dialogue with viewers, so here are some thoughts on questions that people raised, offered in three broad categories:
But isn’t Thomas’s definition of religion too expansive?
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this question, and indeed it is the problem of defining religion that inspired me to write Drawing on Tradition in the first place. There are two important points here, both of which I explain in detail on pages 8–12 of the book: First, there are important distinctions between the definitions of religion favored by clerics, scholars, and laypeople. In Japan and in contemporary America (as well as many countries in Europe), many laypeople don’t think of themselves as religious. But clerics and scholars might disagree, and for very good reasons.
Let’s take clerics, for example: Japanese Shintō priests count everyone who visits their shrines as parishioners. They don’t care what brings people to the shrine, whether it’s a fireworks festival or an Obon dance. If the person comes and interacts with the deity in some way, the priest counts it as Shintō practice. That’s important, and I think if we only focus on the motivations of individual laypeople we miss this complicating factor. It’s especially important because very few people visit shrines without at least perfunctorily bowing and clapping before the enshrined deity or deities. What happens psychologically in those moments is impossible to assess, and you usually can’t trust what people tell you if you are doing interviews at shrines. But I think it is important that human bodies go to spaces that are legally and socially designated as “religious” and formally engage with non-obvious entities while there.
Second, while I certainly don’t intend to go to the extreme of claiming that all cultural activity is religious, I do think that excessively narrow definitions of religion tend to privilege the political interests of specific groups at the expense of others. Narrow definitions of religion allow a certain group to claim that it has “real religion.” Narrow definitions also let “spiritual, but not religious” types have their cake and eat it, too. I’m quite suspicious of the commonsense distinction between “organized religion” (which young people in Japan, Europe, and North America tend to bash) and “spirituality” (which people tend to think is OK because it is elective and non-coercive). I’m very interested in the social institutions and ideologies that allow such non-religious religion to perpetuate itself.
To sum up: I work as a scholar of religion who takes individuals’ identity claims seriously, but I don’t think that how a person describes her religiosity is the whole story. This is particularly important because there are all sorts of complicated historical reasons why people in Japan and North America today often describe themselves as non-religious. I’m aware of that history, and I want to account for it in my descriptions of contemporary media and related ritual practices.
Finally, I’ve recently written about how the academic study of religion and the study of Japanese popular culture are intertwined in a piece at Sacred Matterson teaching. I think it might help elucidate some aspects of my approach.
There’s clearly a difference between fandom and religion!
Japanese religiosity is special/unique/different from here at home (wherever home is)
Nope. Not really. There is a long tradition of people within and outside of Japan making claims about Japanese uniqueness, but my research generally shows that Japanese religion tends to be very much like religion elsewhere. In fact, I try to use Japanese cases to push my colleagues in religious studies to refine their definitions of religion (that was part of the purpose of Drawing on Tradition).
To be absolutely clear: Japanese people are not “more spiritual” than other people, nor are they more or less likely to believe that spirits exist in everything. This is a trope that gets repeated time and again (especially on the web), but I think it’s one of those things that people say because they’ve heard it somewhere, not because it is factually true. This is tied to the distinction some researchers want to draw between belief-based religions and practice-based religions. I don’t really find that distinction to be ultimately helpful, mostly because we now have a lot of evidence that suggests that engaging in bodily practice fosters particular types of emotional and cognitive dispositions. I also think that some of my Japanese colleagues latched onto the idea of “practice-based religion” because it let them talk about the uniqueness of Japanese religion in comparison to a global Protestant Christian norm. The hegemony of Protestant Christianity in global understandings of RELIGION is a real problem for the non-confessional academic study of religion, but I don’t think contrasting such ostensibly belief-centric religion with the idea of “practice-based religion” solves the problem.
The claims about Japanese people being indirect in their communication should also be taken with a grain of salt. Communication in the Japanese language is often implied rather than stated outright, but not always. People can be shockingly direct. And any non-Japanese researcher with a reasonable grasp of the language and a modicum of cultural fluency can “read the air” (as people would say in Japanese: kūki o yomu) and figure out what an interviewee really means.
Anyway, studying Japanese religion is complicated for all the factors that I mention in the video plus some historical factors that I did not get into, but I don’t think it is fair to assume that Japan’s relatively late modernization means that Japanese people are somehow more naïve than others. In fact, by sociological measures Japan is one of the least religious or “spiritual” countries on earth. That is important, and it’s part of why I find studying Japanese religion so fun and fascinating.