Society without "Religion"?

The Concept and Politics of Religion in Japanese History

Taking the "invention" of "religion" in the middle of the 19th century as the point of departure, it is necessary to make sense of the absence of a modern term for religion both for the period before (1550-1870s) as well as after (1870-1945) the establishment of the concept. In the second half of the 19th century, the new term "religion" as well as other words from the lexical field of the religious, and particularly their applicability to Japan, were discussed in depth. Frequently, it was religious policy, as formulated by the state, which served as a trigger for such debates. Policy measures were characterized by recurring attempts to exclude certain groups from the scope of a definition of religion (at first Christianity, later parts of Shinto, new religions, and "superstitions"). This makes interplay between religious policy and concept formation an interesting subject of investigation, assuming that discourses on religion swayed the course of politics but that at the same time politics influenced the contents of religious discourse. Religious contact is an important aspect in this period because the confrontation with Christianity played a central part in defining what was to be legitimately subsumed under "religion". For the period up to the mid-19th century, the central question is how the numerous phenomena today usually understood as religious were understood conceptually. An analysis of those terms that made up the epistemological field of the religious in early modern Japan shall serve as the background for investigating how these complex terminologies interacted with the legal system and politics from the 16th century onwards. The contact with Europe (i.e. especially Christianity) is of particular significance in shaping religious thought and the spectrum of possible actions to be taken towards religious groups.

Taking the example of Japan, what added value did the introduction of the new concept "religion" bring into the epistemic field in East Asia - did it change the system of knowledge and categories in legal thought and politics? It might be argued that "religion" does not hold a significant place in Japanese categories of knowledge, but that the new term has firmly established a footing in only few areas, mainly in the modern legal system, i.e. in questions of the freedom of religion and of the relationship of state and religion, and as a category to include the so-called "new religions", which have only appeared in the modern era. Taken a step further, it is our intention not only to find out how the conceptual field was structured before the modern period, but also to make room for the question of whether the modern term "religion" might not exacerbate our grasp of existing phenomena. In order to answer this question, which is ideally suited to highlight the specific nature of the Christian-European case, it is necessary to analyze both the current situation, the period of change during which the new term was introduced, and the conceptual world of the pre-modern period, through which the Western concepts entered into negotiation in the 19th century.

Affiliated Persons


Prof. Dr. Hans Martin Krämer

Individual Researcher

Dr. Stefan Köck

Cooperation Partner

Office GB 1/140
+49 234 32-26235

Prof. Dr. Regine Mathias

Cooperation Partner

Office GB 1/39
+49 234 32-26255