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Season 2, Episode 3 | Jolyon Baraka Thomas

April 2, 2021

Dr. Allison Alexy: Hello and welcome to Michigan Talks Japan, a podcast from the Center for Japanese Studies at the University of Michigan. I'm Allison Alexy. In each episode I’ll talk with a scholar working in Japanese Studies – across academic disciplines, across time periods.

Today it's my pleasure to talk with Dr. Jolyon Baraka Thomas, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. His research explores religion as it intersects with media, freedom, education, and capitalism. Our conversation centers on his book, Faking Liberties: Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan, published in 2019 by the University of Chicago Press. After we recorded this, I was happy to learn that the book has been awarded the American Academy of Religion’s Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion.

Allison: Today it's my great pleasure to be talking with Jolyon Baraka Thomas, mostly about your book, which was such a joy to read. Thank you so much for being here and talking with us. 

Dr. Jolyon Baraka Thomas: Thank you so much for having me. It's a real pleasure. 

Allison: I was wondering if we could start by you telling us a little bit about the kind of standard received narrative about what's called State Shinto in Japan. I know your book really challenges that narrative, but I thought it might be a good place to start. 

Jolyon: Sure. And thanks for the question, because I think this is a good sort of entry point for the book. The standard story goes that Japan, as it entered the modern age became an increasingly aggressive empire, swallowing up territories in what we now think of as the Japanese islands, going south towards Taiwan and into other parts of Asia and the Pacific. The standard story goes that the sort of ideological fuel for that empire was a type of religious inflected veneration of the Imperial House. And scholars before me tended to describe that ideological formation as State Shinto. And what they were trying to do is to point to the fact that Japanese governance paired what seemed to be obviously sort of fabricated or at least empirically unverifiable claims, like the emperor is the descendant of the gods, with political governance. This became particularly salient especially at the time that the United States and Japan were at war in the 1940s. So in the wake of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, one of the narratives that developed was that it was a peculiar type of Japanese state craft that had led them to perform this dastardly deed, right? Americans began to describe this as emperor worship and eventually they came to describe this as State Shinto. And by linking the words “state” with “Shinto”, they're basically trying to say, this is both bad politics and bad religion. In other words, they're trying to say the religion of Shinto has been distorted or attenuated by its close amalgamation with politics and Japanese politics have become particularly oppressive and Japanese imperialism has become particularly aggressive due to this amalgamation of religion with governance. That's the standard story.

And then the other crucial part of the story that my book directly responds to is a triumphalist narrative that makes the United States look really awesome. [Allison laughs] So the story is Japanese people were suffering under this oppressive state religion, and then we Americans swooped in and saved the day, not only by defeating Japan in the military victory, but then through the rehabilitating process of the occupation, the Allied occupation of Japan. From 1945 to 1952, occupiers representing the allies, but led by the United States were based in Japan and set about this long series of democratizing reforms. And one of the main things that they thought they were doing was to fix or correct this negative relationship between religion and politics. They claimed to be replacing what they had called State Shinto with religious freedom or with what they sometimes called “real religious freedom.” 

Allison: You're starting to talk about the intervention and the argument your book makes, but would you mind explaining a little bit more? 

Jolyon: We have a basic binary that the occupier set up, but then many scholars of Japan have reproduced in the decades since. And that binary is between State Shinto and religious freedom. And the story is that there was no real religious freedom in Japan until the Americans arrived and taught the Japanese people how to do it right. My argument is that that story is utterly false. It's false for several reasons. One, Japanese people had religious freedom on the books. It was included in the Meiji Constitution. It's an underappreciated historical fact that the Japanese provision of religious freedom was circumscribed but it was actually relatively liberal for constitutions that were generated in the late 19th century. As Japan moved into the early 20th century, the one thing that we see if we look for it in the historical record is lots of people arguing about what it means to protect religious exercise, free exercise, what it means to have freedom of belief and so forth.

The first half of my book is dedicated to uncovering that history and trying to figure out what exactly were people saying about religious freedom. They have a constitutional guarantee. What did that mean to them? And the upshot of that, the argument of part one, is that it meant everything. It meant all of these different kinds of things. People vehemently disagreed with one another about religious freedom, about what religion was, about what freedom was, about the obligations of citizens to the state and the obligations of the state to citizens. When the occupiers arrived in the fall of 1945, they couldn't see that or they chose to ignore it. What they saw instead was, or what they claimed to see, which might be the more accurate thing, is a complete absence of religious freedom. So by saying that religious freedom was absent, that gave them carte blanche to undertake any number of reforms, mostly related to democratization, some religious reforms, a lot of educational reforms and so forth.

Part two of the book looks at what the occupiers were doing. And it says that even though the occupiers told this very pat story, “Japan doesn't have religious freedom, we Americans have religious freedom. We're going to teach them how to do it.” That was their story. In actuality, the Americans disagreed with each other completely about what religious freedom was. Some people like Supreme Commander Douglas MacArthur thought that religious freedom was basically the freedom to make every Japanese person Christian. One of the protagonists, I guess you could say, of my book is William Bunce who was the head of the Religions and Cultural Resources Division in the Occupation. And he was much more of a pluralist in approach and he saw religious freedom as the freedom for people to practice the religion of their choosing. So the occupiers disagreed about this a lot. And as they were trying to come to a one-size-fits-all sense of religious freedom, they ended up being very dependent on Japanese people, including Japanese scholars of religion, Japanese religious leaders, leaders of Japanese trans-sectarian groups, who were basically telling them “this is Japanese religion, and this is what we think it means to be free.” So the second half of the book is showing this ongoing negotiation between American occupiers and their Japanese counterparts and what the long-term ramifications of that interaction were. 

Allison: One of the things that I found so fascinating about your book is you're making it really clear that the rhetoric of religious freedom is basically a tool of empire building for the United States. And I don't want to put words in your mouth, so feel free to push back against this. Looking around the world and coming up with a reason to occupy Japan, to justify the occupation of Japan, to justify the war on some level, they're using religious freedom to do that. They're using a rhetoric of religious freedom to do that. Is that fair to say, do you think?

Jolyon: Totally. And I want to say that I'm not alone in treating religious freedom as a tool of the U.S. empire. Tisa Wenger of Yale University has written quite persuasively about this, both in terms of sort of the conquering and dispossession of natives in the American West and then also in terms of places like the Philippines and so forth. Dr. Wenger makes a very persuasive argument, I think, that religious freedom is a tool of empire. Other people who have written about this are Anna Su, who's at the University of Toronto in the law school. Dealing with more contemporary issues about current U.S. foreign policy, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd of Northwestern University makes a similar sort of claim about the politics of global religious freedom and the American project of looking abroad and finding instances of religious oppression and trying to intervene or to protect “those poor people over there.”  One of the things that's common to all three of those projects I just mentioned is that the Americans tend to be magnanimous, beneficent. They genuinely are trying to do good, but a byproduct of their effect to do good is often the subjugation of people or the imposition of certain modes of religious being and belonging over whatever was there initially, often with devastating effects for local populations.

I want to stress here though, that Japan is a bit of a different case because Japan was an empire in its own right. It was obviously suppressing and subjugating colonized peoples elsewhere. So I want to stress that criticizing this aspect of U.S. foreign policy is not to let Japan off the hook. In fact, there's a way to write a version of my book that would look at Japan and its relationship with its colonies and what was going on with religious policy there, and to uncover similar dynamics. But what I wanted to focus on was the U.S.-Japan relationship.

I think that lots of people will want to re-litigate or rehash why the atomic bombs were dropped, whether it was justified and so forth. I think that the most important thing is that it was even capable to think about the dropping of the bombs because the Americans had so thoroughly dehumanized the Japanese enemy by that point. The firebombing of every major Japanese city and the atomic bombing are part of that dehumanization of the very human enemy. So that's one thing, but the atrocious nature of both the firebombing and the atomic bombings required Americans to really take the moral high ground when it came to the time of the Occupation. And because it was, I think, intuitive for them, many Americans sort of veered toward the language of religion, and they thought of religious freedom as being a way to rehabilitate not only Japan, but also the United States or at least to justify why the United States was in Japan, engaging in these reforms. Very few people laid that out explicitly, but I think that that is something in there as kind of operating in the background about like, well, “why are we here and why do we have a right to be here?” And religion and religious freedom were convenient and sort of intuitive tools for Americans at that time. 

Allison: Would you mind giving us an example of how that played out in the occupying forces? The second half of the book, especially, is filled with really rich detail. Would you mind just sort of talking us through one example of how these debates and discussions played out?

Jolyon: I'm thinking of one or two examples from chapter six of the book. One of them I already alluded to, which is just that General MacArthur was notorious for promoting the Christianization of Japan. And so he was giving preferential treatment to American missionaries. Missionaries were the first nonmilitary personnel to be allowed into Japan. And they often got preferential treatment once they were there. That's one attitude. Many of the missionaries regarded themselves as sort of a semi-official arm of the U.S. State and they said, “this is an American project. Our job is to Christianize Japan. You can't have democracy without Christianity.”

Allison: Wow.

Jolyon: Very explicit and quite striking. But at this time in the United States, there was a countervailing notion of democracy which was, for lack of a better term, more pluralist. And it was based on the notion that democracy did not require Christianization, but rather a commitment to what people thought of as religious neutrality in public space. This was being hashed out in the United States at that time, mostly in Supreme Court cases about public schooling, including things like saluting the flag, busing, this practice called "release time" where kids would have some time carved out of the school day to receive religious instruction. But in the occupation, it's basically William Bunce and the division that he headed, Religions and Cultural Resources Division, that sort of represented this attitude. And so they were trying to not just promote Christianity, but to protect the freedoms of Buddhists and members of marginalized religious movements and saying, no, we're here to protect all of you. Those two attitudes just bumped up against each other constantly and there was a lot of negotiation among the occupiers.

Let me give one very concrete example of how this worked. For a long time religious organizations like Buddhist temples had managed government owned land in these long-standing lease arrangements. And basically the land served as a source of revenue for the temples. The Land and Natural Resources Division is like, well, that's not okay. We want to divide all this stuff up so that everybody can become basically a farmer on a 2.5 acre parcel of land. Religions Division was like, we really can't have you operating government owned land because that's a violation of the principle of the separation of religion and the state. So you can only have the land that your temple sits on, like the actual buildings. But this put religious leaders in a bind because they were financially dependent on this land. And so Religions Division sort of changed this policy a little bit. It started to renegotiate. And so you have on the one hand, a sort of economic policy bumping up against a religious freedom policy and the people who are suffering in the middle of that are the temple priests and the shrine priests on shrine-leased lands. And there was no real way of resolving this to anybody's satisfaction. And I'll just highlight here that, that problem of everybody being dissatisfied is perhaps the one constant to religious freedom. Sort of like democracy is premised on a bunch of people being really pissed off.

Allison: As long as we're all pissed off together, it counts, something like that?

Jolyon: Something like that.

Allison: Oh, that's great. I hadn't thought about that before. But it does make me want to ask about what you lay out of the book as sort of the risks and dangers and possible rewards, of course, of religious freedom. The benefits of religious freedom might feel obvious to a lot of people, but you highlight in the book the risks or the dangers or the complications that come with it.

Jolyon: The way that I want to get about this today – although this was not available to me when I wrote the book, but I think it's a good concrete example – is the sort of debates, and I can't even believe they're debates, but the sort of debates happening in the United States about whether wearing a mask to protect other people from coronavirus constitutes a violation of one’s freedom. 

Allison: Can I tell you, I was reading your book and I was like, is this not just about masks the whole time? And what counts as religion and what counts as freedom.

Jolyon: Yeah, that's great. So, basically, freedom of any sort works to protect individuals, but in order for it to work in individuals also have to be constrained. In other words, freedom is not just license to do whatever you want. It’s license to do what you want within limits. And one of the things that we see in the current debates about mask wearing is that some people will want to assert their right to not wear a mask while in public spaces. But of course, as they do that, they're also asserting their right to threaten the lives and wellbeing of other people. And we could easily make an argument that those other people have a right to livelihood and good health and so forth. So these conflicting rights often bump up against one another and with religious freedom, that's always going to be the case.

So like, let's say one person's right to free exercise of their religion means that they want to like slaughter goats in public spaces or something like that. And other people might be like, I don't really like watching goats being slaughtered because my religion wants me to like protect animals or I have a duty to protect animals. I'm making this up as we go along. But the point is that you're going to have these things where people's freedoms bump up against each other and directly conflict with one another. And that means that often the groups that have the most clout and the most political power end up getting to claim religious freedom while those that don't have clout and political power don't have access to religious freedom. Like even if they make a religious freedom claim, they will often be sort of denied the ability to make that claim or the claim won't even be intelligible to other people.

This becomes, I think, very clear in the way that I write the book, especially in the conclusion and the epilogue, but my thinking about this is directly influenced by the circumstances in my own embodiment. I'm a Black American. I grew up in the Midwest in a predominantly white state, and thinking about, you know, sort of growing up as a Black American thinking about the American rhetoric around freedom, it was so obvious to me that freedom was not equally extended to everyone. We can have the claim that these truths are self-evident and all men are created equal but we also have the claim that my ancestors were three-fifths of a person, right? Like those two things don't go together, except that they do, regularly. Our political life is structured on this. Our political life collectively is built around the idea that some people are people more than others. And I think that because of that, we need to attend very carefully to freedom talk because oftentimes freedom talk is not just. It is not used in the pursuit of justice. It will actually reinscribe the deleterious, pernicious, social hierarchies often at the expense of those who are already vulnerable. 

Allison: Yeah. I found myself thinking a lot about the Enlightenment Project while I was reading your book. As this ideology and this rhetoric of freedom and how we – you know, in quotes – "we" need to turn towards science and freedom and enlightenment, which was literally built on chattel slavery, right? And that all of this rhetoric of "all men are created equal" is eventually built onto a constitution that is designed to protect people being enslaved, and a country that supports it. It's actually part of the power of the rhetoric of religious freedom is precisely the inequalities and the hierarchies that it is built on and in turn supports. Like it's part of the project, right?

Jolyon: Absolutely. That's a really nice way of putting it. And one other thing that I would just add in terms of the enlightenment part of this story is that people who are doing work on religious freedom, the most recent books, have been increasingly clear that a lot of the talk about freedom that we have in the United States is based on property rights, not these abstract rights. Like when you look at it, you boil it down, it comes down to who has the right to own stuff, including who has the right to own human beings. And so I think that like recognizing that property rights are really central to our political imagination of freedoms, especially the really, ethereal abstract freedoms, like religious freedom, really helps us put a finer point on what's at stake here. And who, who benefits and who doesn't. 

Jolyon: One of the easiest things, especially for American scholars of Japan to do has been to just vilify the wartime Japanese state. Actually let me take that back because there's a strong tradition of vilification of the wartime Japanese state in Japanese scholarship as well. And I think that like all the reasons for doing that, a hundred percent I'm on board with. The brutal colonization of other places is something that we should all treat as reprehensible. But what are the things that I also think is important is there's a logic of beneficence that's going on there where Japanese people thought they were helping. And I have some people I talk about, especially in chapters two and four of the book, Buddhist priests who had some really sort of wacky ideas about what religious freedom was. Basically for them, it was like religious freedom is the freedom to be Buddhist and everybody else can kind of suck it, right? But like they're also operating under this notion that they're helping people. They see themselves as the good guys. And so I think it's really important to pay attention to the ways that people can envision themselves as doing good, not only for themselves, but for others, even as their policies are having devastating impacts on people, where people are being imprisoned and they're dying and so forth. And people can be like, yeah, well, this is just the way it is, we're helping, right?

Allison: It's such a great point. It's hard not to think about in terms of sort of my life or our lives now. We're all, in different ways, complicit in all sorts of systems, right? Some of which are incredibly violent in really obvious ways. And some of which are incredibly violent in less obvious ways. I record these podcasts now sitting in a closet. So I'm sitting on the floor of a closet, looking at a row of my husband's shirts and thinking, I didn't make any of these shirts. He didn't make any of these shirts. We don't know where these exactly where these shirts came from. So when I'm talking about networks of violence and guilt or responsibility it feels really apparent to me that the clothes on my back are part of it, let alone the food that I ate this morning.

Jolyon: As I was working on this book, I was thinking precisely around those kinds of issues. And I talk about this in the acknowledgements, but my book is totally ensnared with my wife's own research projects. She's a geographer at Temple University and she works on climate change and overseas development aid. And we spent some time in Bangladesh, speaking of, you know, fast fashion in shirts and clothing. So I finished the dissertation in Bangladesh so I was surrounded by that sort of thing, like shortly after the Rana Plaza factory collapse.

Allison: Oh my gosh.

Jolyon: She was doing work on overseas development aid and the ways that these people who are engaging in sort of hard infrastructure projects in places like Bangladesh and Vietnam think they're doing like the best possible thing for the people, they think they're helping. And yet, they can often have negative impacts on the very people who are supposed to be helped. The people who were the most vulnerable can be vulnerabilized again. To give credit where credit is due, I think I have to say my wife Kimberley is directly responsible for a lot of the ideas that are sort of operating in the background. They're not about religious freedom, but the way that we're all enmeshed in these problematic projects. And we're all enrolled in things without even realizing it. Just trying to take a step back and think about, well, you know, I think freedom is good, but is it always good? Or, don't we want to protect people from things like sea level rise? Well, yeah. But what if that actually makes them more vulnerable. That sort of thing. So, you didn't take it too broad. You actually sort of latched on to the secret background behind the book and in a really interesting way. 

Allison: That's really great. Does she have any books or publications that you could recommend to our listeners in case they want to learn more about her work? 

Jolyon: Yeah, no books, but several articles. She has a website, Kimberley, L E Y. K I M B E R L E That's "Thomas research," one word, all of her stuff is available there. 

Allison: One of the implications of what you find in your book that, when people think they're helping, they might actually be doing even more damage, and therefore need to be particularly careful.

Jolyon: Yeah, I think it's good to have these conversations. We're in a moment where having these conversations and airing them is, it's always been important, but I think like now people care in a different way. Sorry to sound really cynical, but, you know, for the people who might possibly be listening to this, like 30 years in the future, and don't know what I'm referring to, you know, there's the George Floyd murder at the hands of the Minneapolis police, which spurred this like nationwide uprising about racial injustice and police brutality. It was one in a long string of murders of Black people at the hands of police. And suddenly every corporation and every academic institution wanted to affirm that it valued diversity and equity and inclusion, and was ready to like, trot out, every Black person or person of color to say, look, we have one, too, and that sort of thing. I'm very cynical about that, or I'm suspicious of those sorts of things. Because I think there's a problem with statement culture, as opposed to actually like fixing long-standing inequities.

But, to circle back to the influence of my spouse, Kim and I talk regularly about something that we've come to call "the problem with solutions," which is basically that when you think you're solving something, especially when you think you're helping, you have a duty to stop and to think, and also to ask is this actually helping? Okay, so we all have to act. This is not a call for us to like, not do anything. Sometimes you just need to intervene. Sometimes you need to act proactively so that the terrible thing doesn't happen, like climate change, right? But, let's say you've done your intervention. Then you also have a duty to look back periodically and to check back in and see like, did that do what I thought it was going to do?

One of the things that is particularly clear in her research, but I think it also applies to my work on the Occupation, is that people swing in and they engage in these interventions, and then they have evidence that the intervention didn't work the way they said it was going to, but they double down and they do exactly the same thing and they do it again and again and again. In her research, this is with overseas development aid and those sorts of projects where people have all the evidence in front of them that their pet projects didn't work, and in fact, made life worse for people. And they're like, “Oh yeah, let's throw two or three more million dollars at this thing. Or 40 million more dollars at this thing.” There becomes a fetishization of the solution itself without realizing that the solution is a problem. And I think that religious freedom, in both U.S. domestic policy and also U.S. foreign policy is a similar sort of thing. Our current State Department has put a lot of emphasis on promoting religious freedom globally. But I don't know that they've paid sufficient attention to the ways that all the focus on religion specifically may actually be letting other problems off the hook. And if you force people to code their problems in terms of religion, then you may actually focus a little bit too much attention on certain types of people who are capable of rendering their grievances in certain types of ways. And for people in the United States, most of the time, those grievances will be rendered either as Christian, or they will sound a lot like a Protestant Christian claim. And so U.S. foreign policy ends up privileging people who can render their claims in language that sounds a lot like the sort of claims of Protestant Christianity, especially evangelical Christianity. And then other people who don't kind of fit into those categories end up not getting the help that they may deserve and need. So I think that's kind of the idea of the problem with solutions is that we have a responsibility to constantly check and to see what deleterious side effects come with our pet solutions.

Allison: A number of the examples you give are about tensions surrounding practices, particularly in schools, and it gets framed as a religious freedom issue. But it also struck me that it very much could have been a question of education and what is being taught to our young people. Would you mind talking a little bit more about that? I'm thinking specifically of the way that the Emperor’s portrait was treated in Japanese schools. 

Jolyon: I'm so glad that you asked that question. A little bit of background: before I became an academic, I trained as an elementary school teacher. And I think that that lens is always sort of lingering in what I do. I'm really interested in education. And in fact, the book that I'm working on right now is a companion volume to “Thinking Liberties.” And it's specifically about public schooling in both Japan and the United States.

Allison: Oh, cool.

Jolyon: So these kernels that pop up in a few different places in the book are actually foreshadowing for the book that I'm working on now, in some respects. Schools are interesting because schooling is compulsory. It already is a problem for children who are not at the age of majority to be attending this compulsory place and then to be talking about freedom. And schools are interesting because we outsource to schools, to public schools anyway, the task of inculcating in younger generations our collective commitments. And the way to do that, especially for young children, is to tell them utterly sanitized versions of the past that may accord very loosely with reality, but it's a way of getting children to think of themselves as citizens. We need people to think of themselves as citizens because otherwise they'll just be selfish, jerks, right? I'm being sort of flippant, but I think that's kind of the general idea.

Then the question becomes what are our collective commitments? Some people are comfortable making the understanding of our collective commitments, sort of rendering those claims entirely in claims about citizenship, the nation, the land, and so forth. But I think most people, and I think in most countries, there's also this sort of meta-empirical set of claims that also is necessary. You can think of like Benedict Anderson's imagined communities and stuff like that, but it's hard to think of yourself as being the same as somebody who lives like 3000 miles away and just happens to be on the same portion of the same continent. How do we come to think of ourselves as being Americans? Or how do we come to think of ourselves as living on this one island and somebody who lives on that island, but we're both Japanese. And one of the ways that people have done that has been to tie claims about citizenship and nationhood to these meta-empirical claims that would often otherwise be thought of as religious. In the United States since 1954, I think, it's included in the pledge of allegiance, “one nation under God.” Since 1956, it's the national motto officially “in God we Trust.” But even before that, we had things like the ritual of invoking God in Supreme Court sessions and presidential inaugurations and that sort of thing. There's this sense that people are sort of uncomfortable if they don't baptize official proceedings in the language of religion.

And of course in Japan, the same has been true with the reference to Japan being a divine land, the notion of the kokutai or the body politic, which has for lack of a better term, religious resonances. Today, Japanese conservatives have replaced kokutai with the word kunigata, but effectively the words perform the same sort of function. And then most importantly the notion of the Emperor being of divine descent. I think that it's quite normal for modern polities to refer to these meta-empirical sorts of claims in order to get people to commit to the nation. In Japan, this happened through compulsory shrine visits in the early part of the 20th century which I talk about in chapter one, especially. Also in things like venerating the Imperial portrait on school grounds in these small alcoves called hōanden. The occupiers saw this as a major problem. One of the first things that they did was to destroy or repurpose the hōanden and to remove the Imperial portrait called the goshin'ei and to eliminate the practice of bowing in the direction of the Imperial palace, eliminate the practice of bowing in the direction of the Ise Shrine, because they feared that these sorts of modes of physical comportment would instill the wrong ideas in children. Anthropologically, I think that's really fascinating because the occupiers at this point, were already recognizing that what bodies do matters to what goes on in heads, but also I think that it's interesting because they're trying to figure out ways to strip Japanese schools of ritual at exactly the same time that American educators are trying to build more ritual into American public schools. More religious ritual into American public schools. So I mentioned already the pledge of allegiance comes to include the words “one nation under God,” shortly after the occupation ends. And then there will be other major debates about religion in public schools between 1940 and basically up until today. But the crucial point here is that the Americans, when they looked abroad and when they looked at Japan, they saw it, "okay, we have religion in schools and that's a problem." But at exactly the same time at home, they said, "we don't have enough religion in schools, and that's a problem." These sorts of tensions and ironies are one of the things that drive my account in this book. And they're sort of the launching point for, for the book that I'm working on now. 

Allison: It sounds fascinating.

Allison: Do you mind if we talk about your research methods and your writing, the writing methods that you used? I was wondering if there was some particular detail or it could be a footnote, or it could be a text that you've found, or an archive that you were so excited to figure out and to get into the book that might otherwise be less visible. 

Jolyon: Yeah, so the book is fairly long and I ended up having to kill a number of darlings, including all the footnotes that I really, really liked, that just were like chock full of detail. Initially the manuscript had a lot more on pre-war Japan a lot more on this group called the Fellowship of New Buddhists. And some of the detail in there was just really great stuff with these guys getting into fistfights and stuff like that. And I just had to cut it because I just couldn't include it.

In terms of something that I'm sort of proud of and still surprised about, the argument in chapter seven, about how religious freedom became a human right was very counterintuitive for me. And that's not exactly how I intended to make the argument, but once the pieces kind of clicked into place, then I felt like it was pretty persuasive. This idea that rights can just be civil rights guaranteed to citizens by their states until you have some sort of situation that forces the issue of where people have to be thinking beyond the boundaries of the state. And the Occupation of course, it was one of the circumstances, although not the only one. I think I settled on the version of that while I was doing a postdoc at the University of Wisconsin Madison. And once that kind of clicked into place, that was one thing that really helped me feel like I knew what my project was about a little bit more.

I guess one other thing is that I took a major, what felt to me to be a major risk, in terms of writing, which was to write an epilogue that was very personal and very raw, and kind of put it out in the, in the world, not knowing what would come of that. And had a lot of trepidation about that. The surprise is that with one or two exceptions, I think most of the responses to that epilogue have been positive, or people have said that they thought that it was effective. So even though it was personal, it didn't undermine the persuasiveness of the non-personal parts of the argument to the extent that any of us can ever separate ourselves from our work. Pure objectivity is impossible, but we kind of pretend at it sometimes. So those are some things just about the writing process that were sort of surprising or interesting to me.

Allison: It's a wonderful epilogue and it, and it makes some of your ideas gel in an even more powerful way. I've never written an epilogue exactly like that, but I did write a kind of version of it in my dissertation and then took it out.  I realized there are things that I'm comfortable sharing with the interlocutors, with whom I'm doing research. So people who are telling me about their lives and I'll tell them about my life, but it felt really uncomfortable to make a similar kind of statement to an invisible stranger. And by that, I mean the reader. And so I wrote it. And then pulled it. 

Jolyon: I totally get that. For the longest time, what is now the epilogue was just kind of like a standalone essay that was not going to be seen by anybody. But I became increasingly convinced that it had a place in this book, and yet there are other stories that remain untold, that I don't think are for the consumption of somebody who's unknown to me. So yeah, I respect and understand your decision and could easily have gone the other way with this one. 

Allison: Thank you for including the epilogue. It was really powerful. And it did gel the stakes of these questions. And the stakes were already pretty high if we're thinking about the American Imperial project, if I can call it that.

Jolyon: Sure.

Allison: And sort of Imperial projects more generally. But taking it from a very sort of general level to this more personal level, it was very effective. I'm not surprised, but I'm glad that you've had lots of positive responses. 

Jolyon: Yeah. Well, thank you for yours. And you know, I'm still so curious about how others interpret that. 

Allison: I was wondering as a reader, so the book is sort of roughly organized in chronological order so that the first half focuses more on debates in Japan around the religious freedom article. And then later the American debates and discussions around similar issues later when they're basically trying to pretend that Japan never had religious freedom.  Did you come to the project at the latter moment first and then work backwards? Or did you come at the project from the earlier moment and then move forwards? 

Jolyon: Your hunch is right. I started with the Occupation. One origin point is just a seminar paper that I wrote in a history seminar with Sheldon Garon at Princeton. And I happened to be taking a religious studies seminar at the same time that I was taking his history seminar. And in the same week, I had to give a presentation on secularism and then I also had to give a presentation in Professor Garon’s seminar on the Occupation. So I was reading people like Talal Assad and thinking about the Occupation through people like John Dower and others. And then like everything just sort of clicked, that the story that we've been telling about the Occupation was a story where we fixed religion. We fixed a problematic religion and “we” as the American perspective. And I thought if we're thinking in terms of critical secularism studies, this story, it can't possibly hold up. And so that's kind of where I started.

And I had this very long paper that I presented in a couple of different venues and including at the University of Hawai'i at a grad student conference. And after my presentation, I was talking with the historian Yuma Totani, and she was like, well, if you want to make this argument, then you have to tell people what happened before. And it was like just a light bulb moment and credit to her for really pushing me on that. As soon as she said it, I was like, of course. And it actually gave me permission to pursue a bunch of primary sources that I'd wanted to work with anyway.

Then the real challenge came in convincing people that what are now the two halves of the book are actually one book. So I had mentors who are saying, just break this into two different books and then it'll be a lot easier for you to get tenure. And I kept thinking about it and I was like, yeah, like I get why that's supposed to be the smart thing to do, but that's not the story I want to tell. I insisted on putting these things together at the expense of making a somewhat long book, but I felt like the Occupation story, if we just narrate the Occupation by itself, we really miss something important, particularly when it comes to religion and religious freedom.

In terms of the history of religion in modern Japan, I would say my colleagues in religious studies, up until this point, have been very cautiously moving through the Meiji era and like have sort of started to dip their toes into Taisho era religion. And like, there are a few radicalist types who are like, well, maybe I'll look at early Showa. And I was like, you know, we kind of need to look at all of these things together. These Imperial reign dates actually tells us very little about religion. And that's why I chose to periodize in the way that I did, by treating the time that the Meiji constitution was in effect as a single historical period, because I was interested in Article 28 and its political effects.

And then there's one other thing I want to mention, which is another shout out to my peer reviewers who were fabulous. I had three reviewers, they all gave me really rigorous comments. And one of them in particular encouraged me to include at least one chapter with a sort of pre-war example from the United States. What is now chapter three was the last thing that I wrote. I wrote it after I had submitted the whole manuscript for review. To the extent that the book is persuasive, chapter three is what makes it so because I'm talking about Japanese people living in the American territory of Hawai'i and how they're trying to make claims to religious freedom using the language of the American polity and they're consistently denied. It shows that it's not just the evil empire of pre-war and wartime Japan, that’s suppressing people's religious freedoms. But I have this very concrete case that culminates in a Supreme Court decision that shows us the United States is its own evil empire that denies religious freedom to marginalized citizens. That was also one of those things that I think became necessary to achieve a sort of balance between the two halves of the, of the book. 

Allison: Would you mind just giving us a bit more detail about the cases that you narrate in that chapter, which are absolutely fascinating? 

Jolyon: I was casting about, and because I had lived in Hawai'i before, I was sort of interested in this and I asked a couple of colleagues for some pointers. Justin Stein, who's another scholar of Japanese religions, kind of pointed me in the direction of this guy Imamura Emio, who's a Jodo Shinshu cleric who wrote prolifically. He was based in Honolulu. When I first picked up his writings, I was like, what is this guy talking about? I couldn't figure it out. And I had to like dig deep into local Japanese and English language newspapers to kind of piece together things. This has been narrated in some secondary scholarship as well. But, basically in the wake of World War I there was this huge push for what was called Americanism or like basically it was an assimilationist push, a lot of anxieties about immigration to the United States, including anxieties about Japanese immigration that were, you know, virulently racist. And in Hawai’i it was particularly problematic because most of the land was owned by white colonists yet the majority ethnicity on the islands was Japanese. And increasingly that majority was second generation Japanese who thanks to relatively recent amendments had birthright citizenship and could therefore buy land and vote. The white elite started to worry that these Japanese people were going to snap up the land in Hawai’i. And the Hawai’ian islands were responsible for the majority of sugarcane production at that time. And sugar production was a billion dollar industry. Like in today's dollars, it's something astronomical. If the Japanese people were able to take control of the sugar industry in the minds of the white elites, they would other utterly change the economy of the islands, but also the US economy. And they might be inclined to send that wealth, not to the United States, but actually to the Japanese empire.

So this is all getting really complicated. Where’s the religion angle? The white elites decided that Buddhist priests were responsible for getting people to be nationalists and beholden to Japan as opposed to beholden to the United States. They said that the way that the Buddhists priests were doing this was through these language schools that they ran. So a lot of the Japanese kids were growing up on plantations. They spoke pidgin and their parents wanted them to learn what they thought of as their native tongue. So they set up these extracurricular schools, most of which were run by Buddhist priests at Buddhists missions. The white elites were saying, look, these are basically like little training grounds for potential insurgents. They're being taught this militaristic ideology. They're being taught to love Japan more than America. The school's gotta go. They wanted to eliminate the schools, but they couldn't do that legally without coming up with some sort of pretense. So they started to use bureaucratic measures to make it very difficult to operate the schools.

Long story short, a group of parents, with the urging of this Buddhist priest, I mentioned, Imamura Emio, get together and they file a lawsuit. Eventually due to some procedural things, it's a little bit murky, but they're able to bypass the territorial court and go straight to the US circuit court. And eventually it's a case that's decided at the Supreme Court in February of 1927. The case is Farrington vs. Tokushige. Tokushige is just the name of one of the parents who brought suit. And Farrington is the name of the governor of Hawai’i, at the time. If you've spent time in Hawai’i, then you will know the Farrington highway which is named not for him, but I think for his relative. At any rate, the Japanese Americans take the case to the Supreme Court and they win, but they don't win on religious freedom grounds. It's very clear that the white elites in Hawai’i were targeting these Buddhist run missions saying that the religion was the problem. But the plaintiffs were able to win their case based on one important precedent, which was, I think a Nebraska based precedent, Pierce vs. the Society of Sisters where people won the right to have language instruction in German, in some private schools. And also the due process, equal protection part of the 14th amendment, which extended to the territory of Hawai’i through the Fifth Amendment. So that's all technical legal stuff, but basically what it means is that they were able to make a case that they could teach their children in these extracurricular nonpublic schools, in whatever language they wanted to. And the Supreme Court ultimately supported their claim. But, and this is what's important for my story. They were not able to make a case based on religious freedom grounds because there was so much hostility in the United States at that point to Buddhism that if they had made that case they almost certainly would have lost. We have an interesting question here about which legal strategies are available to people at any given time. And in this case it seems that the legal strategy of making a religious freedom claim was not ideal, even though Imamura Emio had been really pushing Japanese people to embrace the American language of religious freedom. 

Allison: Yeah. And I think the example also helps us see the limits of rhetoric.  Part of your point in the book is that if religious freedom was really that important this case would be a classic example of religious freedom being upheld. They win, but they win on different grounds.

Jolyon: Right.

Allison: Thank you so much for explaining that. I found it to be really fascinating and didn't expect it. 

Jolyon: And neither did I. 

Allison: That’s always nice. So I wanted to ask, a little bit about the AAS petition that you helped put together, around anti-Black racism and Black Lives Matter that was directed at the Association of Asian studies. For people who don't know, this huge international organization of scholars who work in Asian studies.. So I wanted to thank you, and the group you worked with to put together that petition asking the AAS to take more seriously anti-Black racism and the need for paying attention to this extensive ongoing issue in the field. I wanted to start by just saying, thank you very much for doing that.

Jolyon: Yeah, thank you for saying that.

Allison: I was wondering if you wouldn't mind talking a little bit about how you decided to put that together, and I know you worked with a group of three other people, I think. But just sort of the thinking behind it and how you're feeling about that now.

Jolyon: I alluded in an earlier part of our conversation to statement culture and just being kind of exhausted and a little bit disgusted with, you know, like every corporation rushing to not lose consumers, because they wanted to show that they were on the right side of the Black Lives Matter issue and so forth. And in early June, my own institution had put out some platitudinous statements that I found not only kind of milquetoast, but actually kind of offensive. Because they were sort of saying like, yes, this is really important, but not actually showing how they were going to put their money where their mouth is. To Penn’s credit, they have made some important changes in the weeks since, although not all the ones that I would like to see. But I was getting increasingly incensed and the George Floyd protests, all of these other people, like Ahmaud Arbery and Brianna Taylor and so forth, you know, I'd been on the streets, protesting. There were helicopters, flying overhead constantly in Philly. I was really stressed out at the police presence. Like there were a lot of boneheaded moves by authorities and it was in this context that Levi McLaughlin and Michelle Wang reached out to me, just asking for some input on this petition. And the other thing that was going on right at that time was on Twitter, where I am somewhat active, there was the Black in the Ivory hashtag. For listeners, if you haven't looked at this hashtag, I strongly encourage you to do so because it reveals just how pervasive anti-Black racism is in the Academy. One of the most common things that people were documenting is being at a conference and being treated like either like an intruder or like service staff. People go back and forth about the value of talking about microaggressions and so forth. But, you know, there are a lot of documentation of not even microaggressions, but macroaggressions. And one of the biggest things was when people that have tried – I'm going to be very deliberate in my pronoun usage here, when we have tried to raise issues with people who are in positions of power and authority, sometimes there's gaslighting that happens. And sometimes there's kind of violent responses. The Academy has already hierarchical and the people with the most clout and the most authority are also the most protected. And then you layer on top of that, the hierarchies of American race and class and gender, and you get a toxic combination. So I was looking at Black in the Ivory and contributing to it right at the time that Levi and Michelle reached out. I agreed to kind of join the petition. And one of the people who had been particularly active in posting on Black in the Ivory was Kimberlee Sanders, a PhD candidate at Harvard. And so I also wanted to bring her on board and make sure that she was part of the conversation because she was being, to her credit, very vulnerable and very honest about what it's like to be Black in predominantly white institutions. We worked through a draft and there are a lot of different considerations including not only just like anti-Black racism in the academy, but also anti-Black racism in the countries that we study.

So right at this time NHK the Japanese national television network, had this boneheaded move where they ran this short animated video, trying to explain the protests in relation to George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, Brianna Taylor and so forth. And they relied on racist caricatures to do that. One of the things that we were talking about amongst the four of us is like, how do we put pressure on the Japanese government and on NHK to show that this is actually really not OK. They also reduce the problems of racial inequities to economic disparities, which is not false, but it's also certainly not part of the picture. They didn't talk about police brutality at all.

So we were trying to think like individually, none of us can do anything, but an organization like the AAS can. Like an organization, like the AAS represents lots of scholars of Japan. Japan is dependent on us continuing to express interest in Japan, the whole soft power thing, Cool Japan, all that stuff, getting students into our classrooms, getting them interested in Japan, getting them to go to Japan as tourists and all that stuff. If the AAS says we represent all of these teachers, and we think that that video was really problematic. Then I think that that actually does a lot to combat at least one form of anti-Black racism in Japan. And that's just Japan. And like, we could talk about recent portrayals of Black people in China and other countries of Asia.

And we also wanted to make sure that AAS didn't just release a platitudinous statement and be done with it. When I've been at AAS conferences, I've watched three or four white colleagues walk unimpeded into a conference room, and then I get stopped at the door, asked for my badge. One can only undergo that experience so much before it's like, well, look, it's not about the individual people who are policing the door being racist as much as it is the AAS could easily just tell them, look like we're just going to assume that everybody has a right to be here. Or to not engage in that sort of filtering process at the door.

Ultimately, for me, at a time I'm thinking a lot about what the future of my career looks like and how to sort of pay it forward for all the people who have protected me and helped me up to this point. For me personally, this petition was about fostering the students I get in my classes, the students who literally come up to me and say, how did you get to do this? This is for them. It's not about me. It's for protecting the grad students who are undergoing microaggressions or gaslighting in departments that may be hostile to them. And to just say like, look, we all have a duty to recognize the fact of anti-Black racism and also to try and rectify it in some way.

One of the things that I have been really heartened by is the warm response from AAS. Their initial response was positive, but still trended slightly towards the platitudinous statement. In our conversations with them subsequently we've really confirmed that this is something that requires proactive engagement, and it's not something that just goes away with a single event or a single statement. And I like that not only AAS, but other venues as well have been doing a good job of highlighting the diversity of Black voices in the Asian studies academy. AAS had a really good round table with Will Bridges and Marvin Sterling, Keisha Brown and Yasmine Krings. Tristan Grunow in Japan on the Record has been featuring a lot of different people who are Black scholars of Asia are working on issues of race in Asia.

There's an assumption, and I think it's a pernicious assumption that to be a Black person studying Asia means that you have to study Black stuff. And some of us want to do that. And some of us don't want to do that. I think that one of the other things that we wanted to highlight is that issues of race require attention from all of us. And it shouldn't just fall on the shoulders of Black and other minoritized people to be talking about issues of race, to be doing that research. Nor should Black people specifically be expected to be doing research on Black issues in Asia. One of the things that comes up, there's a sort of casual racism within the academy that like, "Oh, well, you would be the perfectly situated person to do this." Like, that's a racist statement. I think that we need to be thinking much more broadly and much more capaciously about who has a responsibility for dealing with things. And of course we're talking about race right now, but we can also add things like disability and gender, class, the thing that nobody wants to talk about, the giant elephant in the room. I think that this is a really important set of first steps.

And I also want to highlight something that Yasmin Krings was brought up in that AAS round table, which is just that there's this sort of assumption that what we're supposed to focus on is like a certain set of research languages and that's our method and that's our skill. But she highlighted the fact that there's also a kind of fluency in a theoretical language, like the language of critical race theory, like getting fully equipped to know that language or the language of critical studies of gender and sexuality and so forth. We should be building capacity in graduate training programs so that people are rewarded, not penalized, for getting that sort of capacity building done while they're students. And she pointed out quite rightly, I think, that that may be far more helpful than studying German, which one would never use. I think that there's also an opportunity here for us to think through what's the future of Asian studies look like? This brings me to a sort of hobby horse of mine, which is that I think we need to be willing to break our traditional geographic framings of things, both with the category of Asia, particularly with Japan, trying to overcome the pervasive language of Japanese exceptionalism. There's similar cases to be made about any of the other countries that people in AAS study. So I think that there's a future there that is quite bright. But it takes a lot of collective effort to get there. 

Allison: Thank you so much. And we'll make links to all the things you mentioned so that our listeners can hopefully quite easily click and watch the recording of the AAS panel conversation and see the most recent Japan on the Record episodes. Thank you so much for putting that all together.

Jolyon: The AAS leadership, was initially maybe a little bit shocked and maybe a little bit kind of caught off guard by the petition, but I just want to give credit where credit is due. Hillary Fincham Sung and Christine Yano as well as the other members of the Secretariat have been very warm and we've had good conversations with them and the conversations are ongoing. And it's also important to recognize that as petitioners, I think we got a certain degree of attention for this initiative, but I also want to say a petition goes nowhere unless leadership is willing to engage with it. And what I've seen from the leadership is a real willingness to listen and learn and think creatively. I'm very heartened by that as well. Even knowing that institutions can be slow to change. But I think that it's quite heartening in that regard. And I want to just give a shout out to those people for really like taking what we had to say seriously and being proactive. 

Allison: Oh, I'm so glad to hear it. Thank you for sharing that. I don't want to shoehorn this in, but I do think that this relates to some of the things that you were talking about in your book. And by that I mean, if rhetoric of religious freedom can be used as a tool of empire, I think in the last, what couple of decades rhetoric of diversity can be used in all sorts of different ways, some of which are good and some of which are bad in the US and in certainly in the US academy. I was thinking about that as you were talking about the frustration about these sorts of platitudinous statements. Even beyond what we've already talked about, I think your book does provide readers a way of maybe not diagnosing, but at least identifying the potential for those kinds of dynamics. So watching someone use diversity – the rhetoric of diversity – to do really vile or white supremacist things, and say this is under the guise of diversity and therefore it becomes okay.

Jolyon: Absolutely. You're 100% right. That the terms diversity, equity and inclusion can all be weaponized and sort of repurposed in ways that might go against what you would think the surface meaning of those things are. Just to take inclusion, for example, I mean, like behind inclusion is the notion of tolerance. There's this 2006 book by Wendy Brown, Regulating Aversion, which I teach with. And it's about this notion that intrinsic to the idea of tolerance, it's this idea that whatever is being tolerated is already repugnant. And so the tolerator is the one who's holding their nose and saying, "well, I guess you're okay for now." That's not justice, right? That's basically just like somebody in a position of power retaining a position of power. And I think that that notion of tolerance is often the notion of inclusion that institutions like academic institutions prefer. Where they'll say, well, okay, we'll like pay some lip service to this issue, but we're not actually going to change anything. Right. Like we're not actually gonna change the way we do things. We're not going to fundamentally rethink things. That's one thing that's been sort of on my mind.

I'm big on using venues like this to talk up other people's research. I've had the great pleasure of working for the last several years with a PhD student, Mark Bookman, who's finishing a PhD right now on disability. And one of the things that his research has shown is that oftentimes attempts to make a space accessible – accessibility and inclusion are different concepts – but to make a space accessible may actually make it more accessible for one group of people with a particular type of embodiment while actually excluding others with other types of embodiment. I've learned so much from Mark Bookman's work about the ways that these seemingly apolitical concepts, like inclusion are actually highly political and we need to pay careful attention to the ways that they do work that we see, and also the work that we don't see. I think that in Faking Liberties there's probably also his influence on my thinking in some way, in that regard as well. 

Allison: That's wonderful. Is there a particular article or anything that you recommend or just check out his work in general? 

Jolyon: You can go to Bookman research dot, I think it's dot org, and his website has a ton of stuff and he is very active doing accessibility consulting. I think that he's got some links to some of his speeches, as well as his public facing articles and so forth. 

Allison: Oh, wonderful. Thank you. Any other books or articles or films that you've watched lately that you would recommend?

Jolyon: the thing: I am right in the middle of reconfiguring myself as somebody who works on Japan and the United States equally. If Faking Liberties was written by an earlier version of me that was a Japan studies person who was kind of talking about it about the United States, my new book, Difficult Subjects is my new sort of in sort of persona as somebody who is trying to position himself as a scholar of religion in Japan and the United States. So looking at my bookshelf right now, the vast majority of the books are about American religions. Books that I've been reading and loving recently include Megan Goodwin's Abusing Religion which is just fabulous. It's about this notion of religious groups subjecting particularly women and children to abuse and the politics of that. There are a lot of overlaps with some of the arguments that I'm making in Faking Liberties. Richard Kent Evans has a book, MOVE: An American Religion, which is about the intentional community that was based here in Philadelphia. Notoriously the Philadelphia police department dropped a bomb on their home and destroyed several city blocks. I think it was like 60 odd homes were destroyed and 11 people died. There's another overlap there with the arguments I made in Faking Liberties about who gets to designate what as religion and what happens when law enforcement gets involved. On Japan, I love everything that Chika Watanabe does. Her recent book Becoming One is fabulous. She and I just coauthored with Levi McLaughlin and Aike Rots an article in the journal of the American Academy of Religion. So I can say firsthand what a joy it is to work with Chika. And she's just got this amazing brain and anthropological insight. And every time I talk with her, I'm just really thrilled. I should say because I like the idea of pushing beyond the boundaries of Japan, and this is a shout out to you because I think you're the series editor, but Terri Silvio’s Puppets, Gods and Brands, I had the privilege of blurbing the book so I got to read it kind of like right before it came out, but it just like tickled my brain in all these productive ways. And for the work that I do here at Penn, I teach a course regularly called the "Religion of Anime," where I'm thinking about the relationship between religion and comics and cartoons. Her theorization of what it even means to animate was really great for me. And I encourage everybody in Asian Studies to grab that book and have a look at it. 

Allison: Oh, I'm so glad. I absolutely adored that book too. It sort of blows my mind every time I look at it. 

Allison: Thanks for listening to this episode of Michigan Talks Japan. If you're interested, please check out other episodes, which are available where you found this one and through all podcasting platforms. We're always interested in your reactions or comments, so please reach out on facebook or twitter @umcjs. I want to thank the Center for Japanese Studies, Reggie Jackson for our theme song, and David Merchant for IT support. This podcast was co-produced by Robin Griffin, Justin Schell, and myself, and edited by Robin Griffin and Justin Schell. I’m Allison Alexy and I hope you’ll join us for the next episode, a conversation with Dr. Gabriella Lukacs.