Japan’s Preoccupation with Religious Freedom

Overview of the Project

Japan’s Preoccupation with Religious Freedom” (Princeton University, 2014) showed that the concept of religious freedom took on an unprecedented universalist interpretation during the Allied Occupation of Japan at the close of World War II. While the idea of religious freedom as an innate human right initially emerged as a vague rationale for American participation in the war, during the early months of the Occupation it was redefined as a perennial, universal principle and a defining marker of democratic civilization. This redefinition had lasting consequences for local Japanese religions policy because it justified radical Occupation reforms such as the eradication of “State Shintō.” The new interpretation also affected academic understandings of Japanese religion-state relations through the frequently repeated claim that the Japanese government had failed to grant genuine religious freedom to Japanese citizens in the 1889 Constitution of the Empire of Japan. Through careful investigation of primary sources such as religious journals, parliamentary proceedings, and police records, the project first demonstrated that religious freedom actually existed in a substantive sense in prewar and wartime Japan. Second, it showed that the universalist interpretation of religious freedom that emerged during the Occupation played a crucial and hitherto largely overlooked role in the postwar construction of human rights language.