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Revisiting ‘Secularization’ in Japan: A Historical Perspective (1850s-1890s)

Panel Chair: Orion Klautau | Thursday, August 27, 3:30 - 5:30 p.m. | LG 1 135

Although the idea of “secularization” has been applied to the Japanese context since at least the Meiji Period (1868-1912), it was not until the postwar period, with the dissemination of Weberian Theory, that it became a central notion for speaking of both historical and contemporary religions in the archipelago. While the debate over “secularization” continued throughout, towards the end of the twentieth century Japan scholars were less prone to utilize it as a valid framework for describing concrete historical realities. In the past decade, however, with the increasing popularization of studies on the history of the term “religion” in Japan, “secularization” has been revisited from a yet different perspective, that is, from the viewpoint of discourse theory. In light of this new type of scholarship, the present panel session intends to revisit the idea of “secularization” in Japan by focusing on historical cases of the latter half of the nineteenth-century.

Kiri Paramore

Secularism not Secularization: The Interactivity of Modern Ideologies of Religion between China and Japan

Most scholars of early-modern Japan agree that something resembling a process of secularization had already occurred in Japan around the late sixteenth century. For an early-modernist like myself, therefore, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are remarkable not for any process of alleged secularization, but rather for the rise and dominance of a modern political ideology of secularism. This paper argues that the crystallization and deep influence of a modern ideology of secularism not only in Japan, but also in China, occurred through transnational interactions between Chinese and Japanese intellectuals during the late nineteenth century. Although very different ideologies of religion arose in the very different Japanese imperial and Chinese republican states which emerged from westernization, both shared a deep secularism which was related to their shared pre-modern histories, and which went on to influence shared aspects of East Asian modernity – notably scientism.

Makoto Hayashi

Asylum Practices and the Dissolution of Priestly Status in Modern Japan

The 1970s were the heyday of “secularization” theories in Japanese academia but, even then, scholars hesitated to fully adopt the concept. For instance, historian of religions Hori Ichirō suggested that Japan had never experienced “secularization”, since religions in the archipelago had always been “secular” to begin with. While it is true that as a subcategory of “modernization” the idea of “secularization” lost much of its effectiveness in recent years, it is still possible, to an extent, to use it as a framework for comparative history. Here, I will focus on the process through which Buddhist priests were deprived of their privileged status by the Meiji Government (1868-1912). This meant that priests became subject to tax collection and conscription, and that temples lost their societal role as sites of sanctuary. In my perspective, the demise of these “asylum” practices is central for reconsidering “secularization” in the context of modern Japanese Buddhism.

Seiji Hoshino

Considering the ‘Religious’ and the ‘Secular’ in Meiji Japan

During the 1890s, a discourse emerged in Japan that emphasized the autonomy of the “religious” as a sphere independent from the “secular.” However, in the previous decade, there predominated among Japanese religious intellectuals, namely Christians, yet another type of discourse which, emphasizing God’s orderly running of the cosmos, left no place for dualistic distinctions such as “religious” and “secular.” Influenced by deism, these holistically informed intellectuals reinterpreted the idea of God in light of indigenous frameworks, such as the concept of ten (“heaven”). Furthermore, Christian apologetic works published in Chinese around the mid-nineteenth century also had a strong impact on their arguments. In this paper, I will examine the continuities and ruptures between these two types of discourses between the 1880s and 90s, and discuss how the establishment of a modern education system around the same time influenced the conception of the “secular” among the academics in late nineteenth-century Japan.

Trent E. Maxey


Trent E. Maxey will respond to the issues raised in this panel.


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