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Over recent decades, the academic concept of ‘religion’ has been examined critically by a number of scholars, especially, in Religious Studies. First of all, I would like to suggest, as a sociologist, that sociological discourse on religion (‘Sociology of Religion’) should be a subject of the same kind of critical examination. In the light of this scrutiny, I would like to take the concept of ‘religion’ itself as a subject for sociological investigation, and tentatively call this approach ‘Sociology of Religion Category’. Finally, I would like to demonstrate what a sociology of religion category might probably look like, by briefly examining the social construction of ‘religion’ in Japan.

Conceptualisations of ‘religion’ in Marx’s, Weber’s and Durkheim’s writings, for example, have been significantly influential over subsequent sociological discourses on religion. The existing literature focusing on their writings on religion implicitly indicates that the concept of ‘religion’ utilised by each Founding Father carries various historical and cultural baggage, specific to the society in which each of them lived, not necessarily denoting exactly the same social phenomena and the same aspect of human activities as each other. Likewise, it can be assumed that the notions of ‘religion’ shared by contemporary sociologists might have different meaning and nuances from those of the Founding Fathers, although they might also share some similarities.

Given this, the religion category in sociological discourse needs to be critically examined in the ways which have been carried out in Religious Studies. In my view, however, this has not been considered by many sociologists. When such an examination is posited, sociologists become defensive or positively acknowledge the criticisms but only partially reflect them in their own sociological discourses of religion, continuing the analytical use of the concept.

More importantly, such critical examinations of ‘religion’ can be extended to outside sociological literature, analysing the construction of religion category (and nonreligion categories) in the wider social context. Taking the critique of the term ‘religion’ seriously, studying religion sociologically should mean critically examining how the category of religion came into existence in the first place, in a particular social context; how particular value orientations and organisations have come to be socially categorised as ‘religion’; and what kind of assumptions and beliefs govern inclusion in and exclusion from, the category. This is what I call ‘Sociology of Religion Category’.

Now I would like to briefly examine the religion category in Japan in order to demonstrate a sociology of religion category.

In his book The Invention of Religion in Japan, Jason Josephson demonstrates how the concept of ‘religion’ was introduced to Japan in the mid-nineteenth century. When Japanese translators first encountered the English word ‘religion’ in the 1850s, there was no indigenous equivalent. It was during the Meiji period (1868-1912) that the term ‘religion’ was gradually indigenised as a concept which included Christianity and Islam as well as Buddhism, with cultural baggage from the West, denoting a Christian notion of belief, especially that of Protestantism. ‘Religion’ as a newly imported concept was translated into Japanese in a number of different ways, but in the 1880s the word shūkyō established its place in the Japanese language as the translation of the term ‘religion’.

Importantly, the social category of shūkyō was constructed outside the realm of the Shinto national ethos (or ‘Shinto secular’). The state classified Buddhism, Christianity and sectarian Shinto (which had divorced from the state-authored Shinto institution) as shūkyō and utilised them as a means of ‘moral suasion’. Through the operation of interpellating or hailing particular groups and value orientations as shūkyō, the state had successfully made them docile and mobilised them for propagating the national ethos to the population. Any popular movement outside this state-religion coalition, which did not harmonise with the orthodoxy of Shinto secular, constituted the heterodoxy called at best ‘pseudo religions’ (ruiji shūkyō), and at worst, ‘evil cults’ (jakyō). They were subject to harsh persecution.

The social category of shūkyō was reformulated after the Second World War during the Allied Occupation between 1945 and 1952. While the pre-war category of shūkyō was limited to the ‘three religions’ (i.e. Buddhism, Christianity, sectarian Shinto), the post-war category of shūkyō includes various other faith groups, which would have constituted the pre-war heterodoxy. They are currently termed (mainly by scholars) as ‘New Religions’ (shin-shūkyō) or ‘new New Religions’ (shin-shin-shūkyō). Importantly, it also includes Shinto, which constituted the pre-war Japanese secular. After Japan surrendered to the Allies on 15 August 1945, the first task of the Allied authority was the demolition of the pre-war Shinto secular. The so-called Shinto Directive, issued by the Supreme Commander for the Allied Power (SCAP) on 15 December 1945, effectively reduced Shinto to the status of a voluntary organization by defining Shinto as a religion.

In addition, the post-war Japanese religion category was configured as an ostensible entity which is somehow distinguishable from the state. However, this constitutional separation has not been clear-cut. One example is ‘official visits’ by the prime minister and his cabinet to the Yasukuni Shrine. The interpretation has been polarised along ideological lines between right and left. The Japanese right perceives visiting Yasukuni as an expression of patriotism, while the left sees its veneration as a ‘religious’ act, therefore, in breach of the constitutional separation of religion and state.

Another example of the ambiguity of the term is how the Japanese term shūkyō is deployed strategically in people’s everyday language. For example, most Japanese people associate the term shūkyō with Christianity and Islam as well as ‘New Religions’ and ‘new New Religions’. The stereotypical image of these specifies that adherents show their commitment to daily practice of their faith, including a participation in activities to propagate their beliefs to others. For this reason, the Japanese are likely to identify themselves as ‘nonreligious’ (mushūkyō) when they are asked the question: ‘Do you believe in any religion?’ The claim of mushūkyō could be seen as an expression of the social norm, to which the emphasis on personal faith is fundamentally alien. The social norm of mushūkyō discursively and symbolically eliminates shūkyō from the structure of social relations, as a source of conflict, disharmony, or ‘pollution’, in order to maintain the existing order.

What various sociological studies of ‘Japanese religion’ have indicated, but not discussed extensively, is that the term ‘religion’ has been employed strategically at different levels of society, in order to distinguish what is called ‘religion’ from what is in turn defined as nonreligion or the secular. What remains to be investigated critically are the ways in which the boundaries between religion and nonreligion or the secular, are demarcated.