I am studying the history of ideas in modern Japan, roughly from the mid 1800’s to the 1940’s. I combine interests in the history of science, religion, ideology and politics, and I study these aspects in a comparative light, looking at developments in Japan and Europe. I have written on the religious reception of evolutionary theory in modern Japan. I am currently investigating the role of Buddhism among key policy-makers and strategists in the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy in the early twentieth century.
Evolutionary Theory and Religion in Japan
My book, Darwin, Dharma, and the Divine: Evolutionary Theory and Religion in Modern Japan (forthcoming, Hawai’i University Press & The Weatherhead Institute at Columbia University, 2017) demonstrates that evolutionary theory was neither passively accepted in Japan nor uncontroversial, but played active and controversial roles in modern Japanese thought. Evolutionary theory was a major concern to Buddhist, Shintō, Confucian, and Christian thinkers, who actively debated and contested the theory. As the Japanese redefined their relation to the world and to nature, and built a modern nation-state, evolutionary theory became an intellectual battleground. Japanese state ideology became increasingly hostile to evolutionary theory. Intellectuals and religious thinkers actively and constructively, and often critically, appropriated evolutionary theory for a wide variety of ends. The religious reception of evolution in Japan was dominated by a long and continuous fear of the idea of nature and society as a cold, materialist, world, governed by a mindless “struggle for survival.” This aversion engendered many religious thinkers, philosophers, and biologists, to find holism, cooperation, goodness, and the divine within nature and evolution itself. It was this drive that shaped much of Japan’s modern intellectual history, and changed Japanese understandings of nature, society, and the sacred.
My article, “Spencerism in Japan: Boom and Bust of a Theory” re-examines the appropriation of Herbert Spencer in Japan. It appeared in Global Spencerism: The Communication and Appropriation of a British Evolutionist, edited by Bernhard Lightman (Brill, 2015).
I have also written on the evolutionary biologist Oka Asajirō (1868-1944), whom I believe was a pioneer in the philosophy of biology in Japan.
Buddhist Thought in Modern Japan
I am interested in how Buddhist ideas changed during modernization, and how Buddhism inspired and shaped modern Japan. I am currently studying Nichiren Buddhism: why did it inspire and motivated such a wide variety of people in modern Japan, including philosophers and religious thinkers, military leaders, terrorists and political activists, poets and writers?
My article “Nichirenism, Utopianism, and Modernity: Rethinking Ishiwara Kanji’s East Asia League Movement” examines Ishiwara Kanji’s ”East Asia League Association” (Tōarenmei kyōkai, or East Asia LeagueMovement, Tōarenmei undō), a Pan-Asianist, political, and religious organization formed in 1939 and active throughout the war and well into the 1950s, and explores how this movement can be seen as one important variant of the modern lay Nichiren Buddhist organizations that sprung up in Japan in the first half of the twentieth century. It explores the character, history, world view, and practical goals of this movement, and argues that it was committed to an alternative course of modernization that can be characterized as a Nichiren Buddhist utopianism.
I am currently also studying Nichirenism among key figures in the Imperial Japanese Navy.