Larsson on Thomas, 'Faking Liberties: Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan'

Jolyon Baraka Thomas
Ernils Larsson

Jolyon Baraka Thomas. Faking Liberties: Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019. 336 pp. $97.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-226-61879-1; $32.50 (paper), ISBN 978-0-226-61882-1.

Reviewed by Ernils Larsson (Uppsala University) Published on H-Japan (August, 2019) Commissioned by Jessica Starling (Lewis & Clark College)

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Faking Liberties: Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan, Jolyon Baraka Thomas’s second book, is an ambitious work in which the author sets out to critically reexamine the triumphalist narrative about how religious freedom was first introduced in Japan by the United States after World War II. Thomas posits that religious freedom “does not exist until somebody makes a claim about it for a specific set of political reasons” (p. 260), and this constructivist perspective informs his approach to the question of how religious freedom was instituted as a universal human right in postwar Japan. Faking Liberties contributes not only to the ongoing discussion about how the category of “religion” has come to be understood in Japan,[1] but also to the growing literature on the politics of religious freedom.[2]

The first half of Thomas’s work, chapters 1 through 4, explores how secularism and religious freedom were institutionalized in prewar Japan, during what Thomas refers to as “the Meiji constitutional period” (p. 21). It is unfortunate that these four chapters, comprising almost half of the book, are not more clearly announced in the title of Thomas’s work, which gives the impression that Faking Liberties deals mostly with the occupation period. Whereas the early years of the Meiji constitutional period have been explored in a number of recent works dealing with the “invention” of religion in Japan, the question of how religion was negotiated in Japan during the Taishō and early Shōwa periods has received relatively sparse scholarly attention.[3] As a consequence, while these four chapters provide vital background for the second half of Thomas’s work, they also contribute to our understanding of how the categories of “religion” and “the secular” were understood in prewar Japan.

In chapter 1, Thomas argues convincingly against the stubborn notion that State Shinto acted as a repressive state religion in prewar Japan, suggesting instead that the distinction between “religion” and “not-religion” as instituted by the 1890 constitution was what allowed for the repression of particular movements (pp. 20-21). Freedom of religion was established in Article 28 of the Meiji constitution, yet significantly, no consensus existed on how to understand the term “religion.” As a consequence, the secularism of the Meiji constitutional period was constructed by various actors in pursuit of specific administrative and apologetic projects. Distancing himself from essentialist ideas about what constitutes religion, Thomas explores the question of “who made the religion/not-religion distinction that lies at the heart of religious freedom talk, how they did so, and for what reasons” (p. 36). Referencing material from a wide range of sources, Thomas shows the plethora of diverging ideas on how religion and not-religion could be understood in prewar Japan, and how these understandings could be linked to the ideological projects of individual stakeholders.

Throughout the following three chapters, Thomas goes on to explore how religious freedom was negotiated by different actors during the Meiji constitutional period. In chapter 2, Thomas examines how Japanese Buddhists responded to the new paradigm of religious freedom, showing that while many had a strong interest in religious freedom, they were not united in their views on how it should be interpreted. Following an exploration of a wide range of sources from the prewar period, Thomas argues that the variety of opinions present in his material supports the “inescapable conclusion” that “religious freedom is never just one thing” (p. 73). This point is further expounded in the following chapter, where Thomas eloquently illustrates the universality of the incoherent nature of religious freedom by focusing on how it was negotiated in relation to Japanese migrants in Hawai’i during the first half of the twentieth century. Through his exploration of the ultimately unsuccessful attempts by Japanese migrant groups to argue for their rights based in their freedom to practice Buddhism, he concludes, in agreement with many other recent scholarly works on religion and law in the United States, that “Americans have historically used the concept of religious freedom to exclude at least as much as we have used it to accommodate” (p. 100).[4]

In chapter 4, the final chapter of the first half of the book, Thomas examines how Japan’s Buddhists negotiated religious freedom during the years leading up to the end of World War II. He distances himself from the assumption that resistance to authoritarian power should have been the only available option for Buddhists at this time, a notion which Thomas suggests has become rather widespread in postwar scholarship.[5] Instead of accepting unnuanced accounts of Japanese Buddhists as sycophants, progressives, or martyrs for a liberal cause, Thomas shows how, depending on their own worldviews and agendas, politically active Buddhists could draw fundamentally different conclusions about the repressive nature of the prewar secularist state. Thus, while some Buddhists did resist the draconian legislation and law enforcement that sought to restrict religious organizations, other Buddhist actors considered egalitarian treatment of religions to be a problem rather than a solution.

The second half of Faking Liberties deals with the topic announced in the subheading of Thomas’s work: religious freedom in American-occupied Japan. Throughout these chapters, Thomas critically examines the claim that “true” religious freedom and secularism were first introduced in Japan during the Allied occupation, and that religion had previously only been nominally free. In chapter 5, Thomas begins this discussion by noting that State Shinto was essentially an invention of the occupiers. As he argues, “the occupiers invented the concept of ‘State Shintō’ so that they could eradicate a state religion and replace it with religious freedom” (p. 144). Through a close examination of the work done by various experts in authoritative roles during the occupation, perhaps most notably William K. Bunce (1907-2008) who drafted the influential Staff Memorandum on State Shintō, Thomas shows how State Shinto as the state religion of Imperial Japan was in many ways an invention of the occupation. Since the constitutionally secular Imperial Japan did not have a national religion, Bunce and his colleagues in the Religions Division essentially had to create State Shinto in order for it to be destroyed.

Over the following three chapters, Thomas lays the groundwork for what is perhaps the most intriguing argument in the book, namely that “religious freedom became a human right through collaborations between bureaucrats and academics, journalists and legal experts, Americans and their Japanese interlocutors” (p. 144). While rights and liberties pertaining to religion had been discussed prior to and during the war, the unique transnational circumstances of the Allied occupation of Japan provided lawmakers the opportunity to establish religious freedom as a transcendent and universal human right. As Thomas argues, the result of the work done by Bunce and his colleagues was the establishment of an order whereby religion was to be understood as a fundamentally private and individual choice of affiliation. Consequently, the role of religious freedom as a universal right was to allow citizens the ability to choose their beliefs “without the state getting in the way” (p. 180).

In chapter 7, Thomas again stresses how the ideal of religious freedom as a universal human right was not a finished product exported by the United States to occupied Japan, but rather developed as the result of multilateral interaction between occupation personnel and Japanese scholars, politicians, and religious leaders. While the occupiers had initially set out to teach the Japanese people the “correct way” of understanding religious freedom—fundamentally different from the supposedly misguided secularism of the Meiji constitutional period—the end result was that the ideal itself came to be reconfigured and understood in a new way. Importantly, while the policymakers of the occupation had to deny that Japan had ever experienced “true” religious freedom, they simultaneously had to downplay the notion that religious freedom was something uniquely Western, since “such an argument would have undermined the idea that religious freedom was a universal principle that could and should be adopted in Japan” (pp. 203-4). Thomas suggests that as the ideal of religious freedom as a universal human right developed in the specific context of American-occupied Japan, it also came to be envisioned as a model for promoting religious freedom in other contexts—“religious freedom had been America’s gift to Japan; it could be America’s gift to the world” (p. 219).

Thomas begins the book’s final chapter by critically commenting on the idea that post-surrender Japan constituted a “spiritual vacuum,” according to which the Japanese people after being liberated from the oppressive state religion of the prewar period now turned to other forms of religiosity. Much of Thomas’ discussion is informed by his questioning stance toward essentialized religion, and he emphasizes the role of religious scholars in perpetuating the notion that “religion” exists as an identifiable sphere of social life. For instance, instead of accepting the idea that a multitude of Japanese people suddenly turned to new religious organizations after their liberation from State Shinto, Thomas suggests that the occupation might simply have rendered various religious groups more visible through a new vocabulary as well as through a reconceptualized religious freedom.

Thomas sets out to study a large and rather unexplored field, and it is natural that he has had to make some difficult decisions with regard to what material to include in this study. That being said, while the first four chapters are of great interest and provide much new insight on this period of Japanese religious history, it could have benefited from a greater variety of religious voices. Thomas notes in his introduction that the focus on Buddhist sources is to a large part the result of Buddhism dominating the religious landscape at the time, but I still wonder if other sources representing the eventually silenced voices might not also have been relevant for the discussion. For instance, it might have been of interest to look more closely at how religious freedom was argued and interpreted by members of groups such as Ōmotokyō or Jehovah’s Witnesses before and during their persecution. While a wider use of non-Buddhist materials might have contributed to this study, their absence in no way detracts from the strength of Thomas’s general argument.

Given that the last decade has seen a number of scholarly works detailing the establishment of “religion” as a concept in early Meiji Japan, Thomas’s efforts to show how the category of religion was negotiated in Japan during the entire first half of the twentieth century represents a welcome move forward in time. Meticulously researched, theoretically sharp, and elegantly written, Faking Religion is an excellent study not only of how religious freedom was constructed as a transnational ideal through mutual negotiation during the period of American occupation, but also of how various actors interacted with religious freedom during the interbellum period. Faking Liberties is a welcome addition to the field of Japanese religious studies as well as to the critical study of religion and law.


[1]. Hoshino Seiji, Kindai-Nihon no shūkyō gainen: shūkyō-sha no kotoba to kindai (Tokyo: Yūshisha, 2012); and Horii Mitsutoshi, The Category of Religion in Contemporary Japan: Shūkyō & Temple Buddhism (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2018).

[2]. Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, The Impossibility of Religious Freedom (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005); Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015); and Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, Saba Mahmood, and Peter G. Danchin, eds., Politics of Religious Freedom (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

[3]. Jason Ānanda Josephson, The Invention of Religion in Japan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012); Trent E. Maxey, The “Greatest Problem”: Religion and State Formation in Meiji Japan (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014); and Hans Martin Krämer, Shimaji Mokurai and the Reconception of Religion and the Secular in Modern Japan (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2015).

[4]. For example, Tisa Wenger, Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

[5]. For one example of this trend, see Brian Daizen Victoria, Zen at War (New York: Weatherhill, 1997).

Citation: Ernils Larsson. Review of Thomas, Jolyon Baraka, Faking Liberties: Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan. H-Japan, H-Net Reviews. August, 2019. URL:

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