Religious freedom as a tool for American occupation

Jolyon Thomas, an associate professor of religious studies, discusses his award-winning book, ‘Faking Liberties: Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan.’

When the United States occupied Japan after World War II, it used the idea of bringing “religious freedom” to the nation as a powerful tool to abet and justify imperialistic tendencies, according to Jolyon Thomas, associate professor of religious studies in the School of Arts & Sciences.

Researcher Jolyon Thomas on left book jacket on right
Jolyon Thomas, associate professor of religious studies in the School of Arts & Sciences

In his book, “Faking Liberties: Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan,” which won the 2020 American Academy of Religion Book Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion: Analytical-Descriptive Studies, Thomas analyzes pre-war Japanese law and argues that Japan and its people had a dialogue on religious freedom that preexisted American occupation.

In an OMNIA Q&A, Thomas discusses the purpose of his book, how religious freedom was used as a tool to demonize and occupy Japan, the inherently contradictory nature of freedom, and the unfinished work of securing freedoms, religious and otherwise, for all.

Why is the idea of religious freedom in American-occupied Japan fraught?

After World War II, Americans stationed in occupied Japan claimed to be bringing religious freedom to a country where it didn’t exist. They described Japan’s existing constitutional guarantee of religious freedom as fake and then claimed to be instituting what they called real religious freedom in its stead. What’s striking to me, and what I delve into in the book, is that when the American occupiers were making such claims, they downplayed the fact that they had significant internal disagreements with one another about what real religious freedom was and they overlooked the inconvenient truth that Japan and the Japanese people had been talking about the meaning and scope of religious freedom for decades before the occupiers arrived.

This story is by Katelyn Silva. Read more at OMNIA