Are There ‘Religion’ and ‘the Secular’ in Premodern Japan?

Scholars working on premodern Japan tend to project ‘religion’ and ‘the secular’ upon the socio-cultural context they study. My contention is that there was no ‘religion’ in premodern Japan. Therefore, there was no ‘secularity’ in premodern Japan, either. Hori

Without the category ‘religion,’ ‘the secular’ does not exist: “A secular realm emerges when ‘religion’ is separated out from other spheres of life” (Teeuwen 2017, p. 39). In the Japanese context, the idea of ‘religion’ was first brought to Japan in the 1850s. This was soon followed by the Meiji Restoration in 1868, which represents the beginning of the modern era in Japan. It was during the early years of the Meiji era (1868-1912) when ‘religion’ was gradually understood and translated into Japanese in a definitive way (e.g. Josephson 2012; Maxey 2014; Isomae 2003 [English translation, 2014]). In this light, there was no ‘religion’ in premodern Japan. Therefore, there was no ‘secularity’ in premodern Japan, either. Theoretically, this post echoes Jason Josephson’s The Paradoxes of Secularism in Contemporary Japan, which was posted on October 13, 2014. My conclusion in this post also supports Josephson’s view which he expressed one of his other works.

Scholars working on premodern Japan tend to project ‘religion’ and ‘the secular’ upon the socio-cultural context they study. For example, Kleine (2013, p. 6) argues that “in Japanese elite discourse from at least the Heian period (794-1185) on [sic] a clear conceptual distinction was made between ‘religion’ and ‘the secular’.” Referring to Niklas Luhmann’s systems theory, he asserts: “wherever we find a social system in which communication is organized by the guiding distinction or code transcendence/immanence and views immanence under the perspective of transcendence we have religion” (Kleine 2013, p. 10).

The problem is that Kleine and Luhmann’s systems theory assumes the universality of the distinction between ‘immediate’ and ‘transcendent,’ so as to maintain this distinction through their trans-historical and cross-cultural interpretations. According to Loy (1996), however, this distinction historically emerged specifically in the civilizations of India, Judea, and Greece, but not in other places such as Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and Japan. In the latter four civilisations, “there was no transcendental/secular dualism” and they are characterised by “tighter embeddedness in a sacralised social nexus” (Loy 1996, p. 169).

Kleine’s claim is that between the beginning of the ninth century and the latter half of the twelfth century, the concepts of ōbō (“the ruler’s law”) and buppō (“the Buddha’s law”) constructed emic equivalent of the religious-secular dichotomy guided by the transcendence-immanence binary. In my view, however, this dyad did not represent the transcendence-immanence binary. At the conceptual level, for example, the ōbō and the buppō were complimentary to each other, and the dyad was characterised in their historical context as “a relationship of mutual dependence and assistance” (Kuroda 1996, p. 275). The ōbō and the buppō were paired concepts, like left and right or up and down. This cannot be translated into ‘transcendence’ (“Everything that is undeterminable and intangible or unavailable for human beings in their ordinary condition” (Kleine 2013, p. 11)) and ‘immanence’ (presumably, everything that is determinable, tangible, and available).

To clarify this point of my contention, I would like to refer to a contemporary example. Steven Heine’s Sacred High City, Sacred Law City, for example, “examines the function of traditional religiosity and sacred space in contemporary Japan in relation to the secular” (p. 33). Heine defines the secular as “the body, the physical, the temporal, and the mundane as opposed to the soul, the spirit, the eternal, and the transcendent” (p. 33). Nevertheless, as his discussion progresses, it becomes more and more obvious that the religious-secular or sacred-profane distinction he is utilising as an analytical framework starts collapsing. For instance, summing up his examination on “the function of traditional religiosity and sacred space in contemporary Japan in relation to the secular,” Heine comments, “the sacred is for the most part seamlessly interfused with the secular” (p. 59). Then, a little further on, he claims: “In Japan, sacrality is such a strong cultural force that its effects spill naturally over their boundaries and fit comfortably and uncompromisingly into the secular realm” (p. 62). Given this, he finally admits that “the sacred and the secular are intertwined to the point of inseparability” (p. 62). In other words, the religious-secular and the sacred-profane binaries are useless for the analysis of cultural phenomena Heine has endeavoured to investigate.

Other scholars imagine ‘the secular’ in premodern Japan, in terms of the religious-political distinction. Paramore (2017), for example, conceptualises ‘secularism’ in premodern Japan in terms of the “interaction between the political and religious” (p. 23) and he claims: “The conceptual existence of two realms [‘politics’ and ‘religion’] was never in doubt” (p. 24). My contention to this kind of claim is that it is almost impossible to detect ‘religious’ and ‘political’ as separate entities from each other in the premodern Japanese context. The Ritsuryō Codes of the eighth-century, for example, gave particular rights to Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. Some assume that this is an example of interaction between ‘politics’ and ‘religion’ (e.g. Reader, 2004). However, such distinction would not make sense when the Ritsuryō statecraft is explained like this: “Ritsuryō ideal was … to create a soteriological community with the emperor functioning simultaneously as the chief priest, the sacred king, and the living kami” (Kitagawa 1987, p. 88). Here the function of the emperor and the role of the state here encompassed the modern notions of ‘religion’ and ‘politics,’ and they are not conceptually differentiated from each other.

In order to articulate the Ritsuryō statecraft in eighth-century Japan, Kitagawa (1987, pp. 87-88) utilises the Japanese term saisei itchi 祭政一致, which is translated as “the unity of religious and civil affairs,” and described as the “religio-political structure.” Here is, however,  another layer of problem. This term constructs an illusion as if there were two distinctive realms of ‘religion’ and the ‘politics’ in eighth-century Japan. The term saisei itchi actually originates in the nineteenth century. Mark Teeuwen (2017, p. 47), for example, states: “The Mito scholars’ motto of saisei itchi served as one of the defining slogans of the Meiji Restoration.” That is, the term was derived from a specific branch of kokugaku (literally meaning, “national teaching”) towards the end of the Tokugawa period. Given this, it seems that the ideogram for sai 祭, which is also read matsuri, denotes Shinto ritual with reference to kami: “Clearly, the ‘ritual’ [sai] in saisei itchi was Shinto ritual” (Teeuwen 2017, p. 48). The other ideogram of the pair, sei政, which means ‘politics’ in present-day Japanese, was historically read matsurigoto. The term matsurigoto is derived from the notion of matsuri, which indicates the purpose of human governance in premodern Japan, which was “to celebrate the deities who created the realm and the people” (Harootunian 1988, p. 165). The term matsurigoto contained an element which can be regarded as ‘religious’ in the modern sense. Finally, the word itchi 一致means ‘unity,’ thus the principle of the unification sai and sei. This principle, as surfaced in the nineteenth century, should be interpreted as the ‘purification’ of matsurigoto by eliminating Buddhism (as ‘foreign’ elements, not native to Japan) and (re)united matsurigoto with the purely native Shinto. In the nineteenth century, the Japanese idea of governance was still far off from the modern concept of ‘politics’ and ‘civil administration’ as separate from ‘religion.’ Therefore, translating saisei itchi as “religio-political structure” is seriously misleading. Moreover, applying this to eighth-century Japanese statecraft, where Buddhism (not Shinto!) played an integral role, causes further distortion.

In conclusion, the projection of the religious-secular distinction upon premodern Japan distorts our understanding of Japanese society. Instead we should utilise the emic categories. As long as the meanings of these emic categories are clearly explained, they can be useful analytical tools which can curry subtle nuances in the actual historical context. In this light, I am in agreement with the following assessment by Jason Josephson (2011, p. 594): “scholars working on Japanese Buddhism, Confucianism, and Shinto are now free to pursue their respective research without the confine of the Western category of religion. These traditions can be, and in my assessment, should be, analysed in the premodern period according to indigenous categories (like oshie).”

The argument put forward in this post is discussed further in my book The Category of ‘Religion’ in Contemporary Japan (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).


Harootunian, D. H. 1988. Things Seen and Unseen: Discourse and Ideology in Tokugawa Nativism. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Heine, Steven. 2012. Sacred High City, Sacred Law City. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Isomae, Jun’ichi. 2003. Kindai nihon no shūkyō-gensetsu to sono keifu. Tokyo: Iwanami-shoten.

Isomae, Jun’ichi. 2014. Religious Discourse in Modern Japan: Religion, State, and Shintō. Leiden: Brill.

Josephson, Jason Ānanda. 2011. The Invention of Japanese Religions. Religion Compass 5(10): pp. 589–597

Josephson, Jason Ānanda. 2012. The Invention of Religion in Japan. London: The University of Chicago Press.

Kitagawa, Joseph M. 1987. On Understanding Japanese Religion. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Kleine, Christoph. 2013. Religion and the Secular in Premodern Japan from the Viewpoint of Systems Theory. Journal of Religion in Japan 2: pp. 1-34.

Loy, David. 1996. Lack and Transcendence: The Problem of Death and Life in Psychotherapy, Existentialism, and Buddhism. New York: Humanity Books.

Maxey, Trent E. 2014. The “Great Problem”: Religion and State Formation in Meiji Japan. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Reader, Ian. 2004. Ideology, Academic Inventions and Mystical Anthropology: Responding to Fitzgerald’s Errors and Misguided Polemics. Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies, Discussion Paper 1 in 2004. Available at:

Teeuwen, Mark. 2017. Clashing Models: Ritual Unity vs Religious Diversity. Japan Review 30 Special Issue: pp 39-62.

Steven Heine’s Sacred High City, Sacred Law City (Oxford University Press, 2012)

Mitsutoshi Horii is Professor at Shumei University in Japan. He works at Chaucer College Canterbury, Shumei’s overseas campus in the UK, as Shumei’s representative. He received Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Kent in 2005. His current academic research critically examines the category ‘religion’ in a variety of contexts, including Japanese society and Western social theories.

Forthcoming publications:
The Category of ‘Religion’ in Contemporary Japan: Shūkyō and Temple Buddhism. London: Palgrave Macmillan. (May 2018)
Historicizing the Category of “Religion” in Sociological Theories: Max Weber and Emile Durkheim. Critical Research on Religion (August 2018)
Unintentionally Constructing ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ Religions in Teaching Classical European Social Theories at a Japanese University. In Hijacked!: A Critical Treatment of the Public Rhetoric of “Good” and “Bad” Religion, edited by Leslie Dorrough Smith, Steffen Führding, and Adrian Hermann. Sheffield: Equinox. (2018)

Recent publications:
Contexualizing ‘Religion’ of Young Karl Max: A Preliminary Analysis. Critical Research on Religion 5(2): 170-186. (2017)
The American Imperialism and the Japanese Encounter with ‘Religion’: 1853-1858. Studi e Materiali di Storia delle Religioni 82(2): 838-869. (2016)
Critical Reflections on the Religious-Secular Dichotomy in Japan. In Making Religion: Theory and Practice in the Discursive Study of Religion, edited by Kocku von Stuckrad and Frans Wijsen. Netherlands: Brill, 260-286. (2016)
Critical Reflections on the Category of Religion in Contemporary Sociological Discourse. Nordic Journal of Religion and Society 28(1): 21-36. (2015)


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