The innocent question, “Are you religious?” raised in the Japanese context will evoke an answer which hints at a history that has been repressed in the West. Even if the subject being questioned happens to be praying at a Shinto shrine, the answer is most likely to be negative. Praying and offering homage or worship indicating complete obedience to a national identity – does it seem strange? (It will make no difference if the question is raised in Japanese and the word shukyo is used in place of “religion.”) The act of praying or making an offering at a shrine or of following the practices affiliated with being Japanese are specifically not “religious” but are simply the requirements of being Japanese.
To get at the ambiguity of the question, an ambiguity that is more normative for human history and culture than not, we can raise a similar question in a Western context. Ask someone who stands and sings the national anthem, “Are you religious?” Whatever their answer, the question would not seem to apply to the act of singing or even the act of pledging allegiance to the flag “under God.” They might reply that they are religious, but probably will be eager to explain that the scruples (the original meaning of religious) demanded by the civic faith of the land are not religious. There is only a slight difference between the function of national identity in Japan and the United States. In fact, it is precisely the U. S. and Great Britain that the Japanese had in mind when the Meiji elites began to set forth the understanding that makes up the modern Japanese sensibility. That is, the supposed division between national identity and religion is of recent vintage.
For example, a pre-Christian Roman could not have conceived of separating his religion from his identity with Empire. They were one and the same. In the ancient world the phenomena we might call “religious” permeated daily life. There was no clearly demarcated realm which one might dub religious as the gods were everywhere and everything potentially religious. Even in modern Japan the gods reign over the kitchen, the toilet, the forest, and are in control of life and death to such a degree (even if only dimly acknowledged) that to build a house, buy a car, or raise a child, without following the required practices is, for most, just too dangerous. The notion of religion as a realm apart arises only with the accompanying modern notion of the secular and Japan’s encounter with the West.
The role of Christianity in early modern Japan and ancient Rome seems to have created very similar predicaments for potential converts. Can one be a good Roman or a good Japanese if one does not adhere to the rites required by the state? Can a Christian bow to the emperor so as to acknowledge his supreme power? The original Christians answered this question decisively, acknowledging that certain rites required by Rome were forbidden by the Christian faith. A Christian could not acquiesce to Caesars claim to exclusive or final sovereignty. The faith demanded loyalty to one God and this particular God, unlike the multiplicity of gods, would not allow preeminent loyalty to the state. There would have been numerous occasions (feasts and festival days) on which loyalty to the gods would mark loyalty to the state. The Roman provinces were kept orderly by governors who were simultaneously public cult leaders. No one really cared about private cults so long as they remained private. Notions of personal belief or private faith were allowed but were accorded little importance in terms of true piety – which was synonymous with publicly honoring the traditions. The strange Christian notion that they could not offer sacrifices, light incense, or perform other religious rites for the gods, would have been read as disloyalty to the state. One either pledges his allegiance or he does not and Caesar was not tolerant of insurrectionists
The resolution brought about through the Constantinian compromise, the rise of modernity and notions of the secular, is not to ban oaths, sacrifices, and rites, it is to declare what was formerly religion as religious no more. The positing of this secular space simultaneously posits a separate role for religion, which tended to copy Roman cult practices and organization. It is not Japan which first converted religion into rites of state, it was the West. It was Western Christians who developed a full-blown notion of religion as a realm apart and the profane world of the political as in no way intersecting with the sacred. Constantine’s conversion, Augustine’s two cities, Descartes’ soul and body, are the signposts of the rise of a religious sensibility which no longer need interfere with civic duties – theoretically. (The tension between Church and state was never a settled proposition, as was clear to Japan’s elites.)
The contested nature of religion in Japan and the open debate of the Meiji government as to how best deploy what is and what is not religious, points to the manipulation of religion by cultural elites aiming to achieve parity with the West. Japan offers a unique hot house for an examination of the role of national identity and religion due to its relatively late development of national institutions. It was with the specific goal of warding off Western dominance, equated with Christianity, that Japan adapted Western institutions of state. Japanese intended to take the Western form of state and fill it with Japanese substance. Great Britain had their monarch, who was also head of the national religion, so Japan would have her Emperor as head of a new State Shinto. But to call this form of Shinto “religious” would create problems with the West and with Japanese who had converted to Christianity. There was the need to isolate the imperial institution and its connection to religion so as to justify these institutions (particularly in the eyes of the West). There was the pressure of the United States to protect Japanese Christians and the recent discovery of hidden Christians around Nagasaki became the focus of the United States and thus the concern of the Japanese government.
At the same time, the Western model posed the puzzle for Japanese as to how the nation-state could create loyalty in the midst of conflicts created by a fragmented religion. Freedom of religion and the maintenance of social order was not a finished process in the West and had not even been posed as a possibility in the East. When religionists perceived that the West was to be the model in early Meiji, Buddhists and Shintoists began vying and arguing for the top spot in the implicit state religion, like Christianity in the West. The leap to State Shinto, the religion transformed into a national polity, points to the reality Japanese perceived at the heart of the Western nation-state. The modern nation-state is religion by another name. (As Peter Berger came to recognize late in his career, the sacred canopy of nationalism functions as religion always functioned.)
The hardening distinction between private piety and the need for public order, hammered out over centuries in the West, became overt political policy in Japan. The Meiji Constitution reflects the attempt to relegate religion to private belief and to posit the belief supporting the public realm as non-religious. The Imperial Constitution enshrined religious freedom (a freedom of private belief) while, according to Trent Maxey, it “sacralized and secularized the imperial institution.” Maxey maintains the constitution “offered the avowedly religious the promise of freedom in proportion to their irrelevance to and undifferentiated treatment by the state.”
What Japanese perceived in 19th century America is the abiding truth that conservative religion, stripped of its anarchic (anti-arche or over and against the principalities and powers) and independent impulses, serves the modern state. The notion of a Christianity independent of national identity did not present itself, even to Japanese who converted to Christianity. Uchimura Kanzo, who became a Christian and studied at Amherst College, reaches the dilemma posed by his new faith. If being Christian was a constitutive part of being American and visa versa, then this necessarily stood juxtaposed to his Japanese identity. Loving Jesus stood opposed to loving Japan. In the end, Uchimura could not abide the Western Church due to its integration into Western national identity, and so he founds the No Church Movement.
This sad history of Christianity made subservient to the state is not simply a cultural problem or a problem of practice. Even the study of religion has been infected. The father of modern religious studies, Mircea Eliade, under the guise of saving religion from the encroachments of the secular, sums up this history in creating a place for religion which is absolutely transcendent and absolutely irrelevant. Religion rises above the mere social, economic, historical, or psychological to its own sui generis category. It is universal by way of being unalterable, irreducible and inconceivable. The sacred maintains it place only in its complete difference from the profane world which people actually inhabit. Eliade’s dalliance with fascism and anti-Semitism embodies the role for religion in the modern state. Even the formal study of religion in the modern university must lend itself to state servitude.
There is a Christianity that has not bowed its knee to the Baal of the age. By definition it is a militantly non-violent, anarchic, destabilizing, critic of Empire. It is on this basis that the upcoming PBI module will undertake the study of religion and culture. World Culture and Religion is a study of religion which aims to demonstrate how Christ exposes and defeats the religio-cultural understanding as it exists in several of the world’s major religions and cultures, most especially Christianity and the United States, as well as how Christ redirects and completes this understanding.
Sign up beginning on January 27th at PBI.
 I am following my nephew Trent Maxey’s excellent work, The “Greatest Problem”: Religion and State Formation in Meiji Japan. Harvard University Asia Center, 2014, and quoting here from p. 185.
 Ibid p. 184.