This course will examine the major religious traditions of Japan (Shinto, Buddhism and the so-called “New Religions”) with a particular focus on the harmonious co-existence of religious diversity from the ancient past to the contemporary period.

The breakdown of grades for the course is as follows:

  Class Participation
40%   Shinema Rebyuu: Two “Cinema Review” Essays (2x20%)
20%   Temple Visit Paper
10%   Contemplative Event Paper
20%   Final Exam

You final grade will ultimately depend on my assessment of your performance in each of the above areas, though the following descriptions should provide you with a rough idea of the defining characteristics of students within particular grade ranges:

APossesses a deep understanding of the major concepts and themes of the course. The “A” student is able to consistently identify and explain key ideas in the readings, develop genuine insights into the broader significance of these concepts, and demonstrate a high level of intellectual engagement in class discussions.
BDemonstrates a serious commitment to the course and a strong grasp of the major concepts and themes but with less depth and/or consistency than the “A” student.
CDemonstrates a reasonable effort to attend class and participate in discussions as well as a basic grasp of the course material.
DDemonstrates a minimal commitment to the course and a weak grasp of basic concepts and themes.
FFails to demonstrate an acceptable degree of effort in the course through low attendance, inability to discuss basic concepts and themes, missed assignments and/or plagiarized work.
Learning Outcomes
Upon completion of this course, students will be able to:
  • discuss the contemporary significance of Japanese religion through the analysis of two films
  • provide an objective description of a Buddhist service and a detailed discussion of a specific ritual
  • engage in and reflect upon the contemplative dimension of religion
  • identify ways that Japanese religion has been influenced by other cultures and developed over time.
  • explore questions about religious experience and the nature of being human by analyzing religious texts, objects, events, and ideas using methods common to the humanities/religious studies
  • explain the global significance of Japanese religion with particular emphasis on Japan’s unique perspective on religious pluralism
Class Participation
The Class Participation mark will be based on your ability to demonstrate that you have made a sincere attempt to read and understand the assigned material. Although the quality of your comments will obviously be taken into consideration, all attempts to seriously engage the readings — from sharing your perspective on the material to simply asking a relevant question — will enhance your grade.
Writing Assignments
All written work should include appropriate references to academic (peer-reviewed) sources using either MLA (brackets with author and page number) or Chicago Style (footnotes). Papers should be submitted online at Blackboard/Assignments by the specified due date, after which your grade will go down by one degree (e.g. B+ to B) for each day that the paper is late. Essays that contain significant instances of plagiarism will receive a 0 and be reported to the Office of Academic Affairs. All submitted work may be used for program assessment (with names removed).

Shinema Rebyuu (Cinema Review)
There is a writing assignment associated with each of the two movies that we will be watching over the course of the semester.
1. Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi)
This 2001 masterpiece by director MIYAZAKI Hayao (which won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature and is the highest grossing film in Japanese history) follows the exploits of a ten-year-old girl who is “spirited away” (
kamikakushi) to the realm of the kami where she faces a variety of challenges before successfully saving her parents and returning to the human realm. For this Shinema Rebyuu you will explore the relationship between the human and kami realms. Some of the questions you may wish to consider include:
  • What is the relationship between humans and kami?
  • How do issues of “purity” affect this relationship?
  • What is the ideal relationship bewtween the two realms?
  • Can humans bridge the gap between the two realms ... and if so, how?
  • Does the film promote Shinto beliefs or should it be regarded as a work of fantasty? Or is this a question that only a gaijin (non-Japanese) would ask (i.e. the question and/or answer is inappropriate and/or irrelevant)?
Your paper should be at least 1500 words and must cite a minimum of four academic (peer-reviewed) sources, including two that were assigned for the film and two that focus on Japanese religion (such as the required texts for the course).
2. The Great Yokai War (Yokai Daisenso)
The underlying theme of the movie focuses on “a fiery spirit called Yomotsumono: a creature composed of the resentment carried by the multitudinous things mankind has discarded” (Wikipedia/The Great Yokai War). While it may be difficult for Westerners to imagine inanimate objects resenting those who discarded them, this is not so uncommon in Japan, where “rites of separation are performed not only for human beings and animals, but also for inanimate objects” (Mortuary Rites for Inanimate Objects). For this Shinema Rebyuu you will explore the religious significance of abandoned objects in The Great Yokai War. Some of the questions you may wish to consider include:
  • How can inanimate objects become yokai?
  • What is the purpose of performing mortuary rites (kuyo 供養) for inanimate objects ... and what does the existence of such rituals sugget about Japanese religion?
  • What is the relationship between kami and yokai ... and how does this help to explain why the yokai in the film feel abandoned? Hint: Michael Dylan Foster notes that “the line between demon and deity is a fuzzy one” (Yokai) and Komatsu Kazuhiko further suggests that “yokai are ‘unworshipped’ kami and kami are ‘worshipped’ yokai” (The Book of Yokai, 21).
  • What does the film’s focus on the theme of “abandoned objects” suggest about “modernity”? Do you see similar critiques in Miyazaki films like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke? Is this a religious theme, a secular critique of materialism in the modern world ... or both?
  • It seems unlikely that the average viewer (Japanese or otherwise) would literally believe in the existence of the yokai depicted in the film, but is this type of “belief” required for the film to convey a “religious” message?
Your paper should be at least 1500 words and must cite a minimum of four academic (peer-reviewed) sources, including two that were assigned for the film and two that focus on Japanese religion (such as the required texts for the course).

Temple Visit Paper
In order to help you gain a deeper perspective on the practice of Japanese religion, we will attend a service at the Nichiren Temple in Bartlett (approximately 20 minutes from campus), tentatively scheduled for Sunday, October 23. (If you cannot attend this service or would like to attend a service at a different Japanese temple, let me know so that I can help you make alternate arrangements.) After the temple visit, you will write a 1500-word reflection on your experience and how it relates to the material that we’ve studied in the course. Your paper should include a general summary of the service as well as a detailed description of a specific ritual (or other element of the service) that you found particularly interesting. You should then explore the significance of your chosen ritual/element through references to at least four academic (peer-reviewed) sources. Your conclusion should explain how the temple visit and additional research helped you develop a deeper understanding of Nichiren Buddhism and/or Japanese religious practice more generally.

Contemplative Event Paper
Each semester, the Department of Religious Studies hosts a number of “contemplative events,” each of which features a brief talk by an experienced practitioner of a particular tradition (religious or secular), followed by a meditative exercise and open discussion. During the semester, you will attend at least one of these events and then write a 750-word paper based on the experience. In addition to describing the event, your paper should explore the significance of the contemplative exercise with regard to the various meditation traditions that we are studying in this course, such as the Buddha’s practice of mindfulness meditation, Tendai Buddhism’s “one-practice samadhi,” Pure Land Buddhism’s “nembutsu samadhi,” Dogen Zenji’s shikantaza (just sitting), or Rinzai Zen’s koan-based tradition. Although you may use “first person” to discuss your subjective experiences at the contemplative event, the rest of the paper should follow the more formal conventions associated with academic writing, including references to at least two academic (peer-reviewed) sources.

Required Texts (Available online at Akademos)

  • de Bary, Wm. Theodore, et al. Sources of Japanese Tradition. Second Edition, Volume 1. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.
  • Ellwood, Robert. Introducing Japanese Religion. New York: Routledge, 2008.
  • Kasulis, Thomas P. Shinto: The Way Home. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2004.
  • Reader, Ian. Religion in Contemporary Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1991.

Virtual Office Hours & Contact Information
I will be available via Zoom at the following times or by appointment:
Monday/Wednesday 4:30-5:30
  ~  Tuesday/Thursday 1:30-2:30  ~  Friday (Tea/Talk) 4:30-5:30
Phone: 630-637-5619
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