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Taming Demons

The Invention of Religion in Japan

In 1853, American warships appeared off the coast of Japan. Ultimately, the Americans forced the Japanese government to sign a series of treaties intended not only to regulate commerce but also to protect a number of “basic rights,” including the freedom of religion. When Japanese translators encountered the term “religion” they had no idea what it meant. No word then existed in the Japanese language that corresponded to the English term or covered anything close to the same range of meanings. Taming Demons is the first study in any European language to reveal how Japanese officials, when confronted with the Western concept in a moment of crisis, invented religion in Japan. Drawing on a wide range of historical materials, this book traces the sweeping changes—intellectual, legal, and cultural—brought about by the importation of this category of “religion” into nineteenth century Japan.

The book’s trajectory is not merely a narrative of oppression or hegemony. Indeed, the process of articulating religion presented the Japanese state with a valuable opportunity. While acceding to pressure from international Christendom to guarantee freedom of religion to the Japanese people, officials defined “religion” in such a manner as to promote two other key goals. By excluding Shinto from the category of “religion,” they enshrined it as a national ideology, a matter of pure fact rather than contested faith. Meanwhile, officials consigned the popular practices of indigenous shamans and female mediums, with their spirit-foxes and other supernatural entities, to the category of “superstition,” deserving no protection under the regime of religious freedom. In short, Japanese officials translated pressure from Western Christians into a concept of religion that carved out a private space for belief in Christianity and certain forms of Buddhism, but also embedded Shinto in the very structure of the state and exiled various “superstitions” beyond the sphere of tolerance. The invention of religion in Japan was a politically charged boundary-drawing exercise that extensively reclassified the inherited materials of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Shinto.

Moreover, these developments in Japan refracted back onto the global discourse of “religion,” such that the political goals of Japanese state officials have shaped, in subtle but significant ways, our own understanding of that concept today. Taming Demons demonstrates that, while the discourse of “religion” emerged in the context of Western Christendom, it is not exclusively Western in its current formulations. Rather, the concept has emerges in the interstices, the international—in the spaces between nations and cultures. No straightforward reflection of Western dominance, though certainly responsive to its imperatives, “religion” is the transnational product of contested asymmetries of power.