Lecture explores relationship between religion, politics in Japan

Thursday, January 9, 2020 - 4:04pm

Levi McLaughlin, Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at North Caroline State University, discusses the role of religion and politics in Japan at Weiser Hall Thursday afternoon.

Levi McLaughlin, Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at North Caroline State University, discusses the role of religion and politics in Japan at Weiser Hall Thursday afternoon. Buy this photo
Allison Engkvist/Daily

Approximately 50 people came to Weiser Hall Thursday afternoon for a presentation from Levi McLaughlin, Toyota Visiting Professor of Japanese Studies. The Center for Japanese Studies and the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures hosted the lecture as part of the CJS Noon Lecture Series.

In his lecture, McLaughlin discussed the relationship between religion and politics in Japan. He is a professor at North Carolina State University and the author of “Soka Gakkai’s Human Revolution: The Rise of a Mimetic Nation in Modern Japan.”

Addressing the complex nature of religion in Japan, McLaughlin shared a personal experience he had visiting Japan a few years ago while staying with his friends’ parents.

“They had kept one room entirely for this huge, Buddhist altar,” McLaughlin said. “We were talking about why I was there and the topic of religion, and as he was replacing the water in the altar, he goes, ‘We’re not religious,’ and I wish I was filming this because it’s the perfect example of what it’s like to talk about religion in Japan.”

He noted how religion in Japan ties into the public’s relationship with the royal family.

“Many regard some access to the royal couple as access to the divine and treat it as a life cycle,” McLaughlin said. “The events surrounding the emperor and the royal family is in a way, constituent of their own identities.”

Additionally, McLaughlin said there are other religious groups such as Buddhists, Christians and New Religions branched under the Liberal Democratic Party who impact politics in the country. He said these groups influence legislation, mobilize votes, create power for politicians and impact public discourse. 

McLaughlin also discussed specific religious groups such as Jinja Honcho and the Soka Gakkai. He said these groups have the power to possibly disrupt the government in its current state. 

Rackham student Sophie Hasuo, who does research in the Center for Japanese Studies, said the lecture challenged her understanding of Japanese national belonging.

“It complicated the whole religion and politics division that you can connect to other regions as well,” Hasuo said. “It brought a human centered perspective to a really complicated topic that only scholars grapple with.”

Allison Alexy, Women’s Studies and Asian Language and Cultures assistant professor, said the lecture taught her more about the interaction of politics and religion in Japanese culture.

“I think it was a really fascinating talk about the intersections of religion and politics in Japan in ways that are largely invisible to people, even those involved in them, certainly to outsiders,” Alexy said.

To conclude the talk, McLaughlin addressed challenges in studying the true effect of religion of the Japanese political situation.

“On the one hand, we have to account for divergent organizational types — many of which reject the label ‘religion’ but from an editing perspective look really religious,” McLaughlin said. “What is important is to follow people, activities, information flow and money to truly understand Japanese politics.”