On Qualifying Religious Literacy: Recent Debates on Higher Education and Religious Studies in Japan



This article describes and analyzes controversies in Japan brought about by an intercollegiate educational project on religion. The project team, consisting of selected members of the Japanese Association for Religious Studies and the Japanese Association for the Study of Religion and Society, has been planning a new system for qualifying undergraduates as “specialists in religious cultures” (shūkyō-bunkasi). It is anticipated that students with this qualification will be engaged in various occupations that require knowledge of different cultures. The project reflects an increased awareness that the academic study of religion should play a social role and be recognized as worthwhile by the public. This article will focus upon the academic and pedagogical challenges that the project members faced in the process of planning a system to assess and qualify students’ literacy in religious traditions. It will argue that religious literacy involves the dynamic ability to put knowledge into practice as well as to reflect continuously upon previously acquired knowledge.


This article is a report on work that scholars of religion across colleges and universities in Japan1 have recently undertaken together. Over three years ago, some members of the Japanese Association for Religious Studies (JARS) began to plan a new nationwide qualification system for undergraduate students as specialists in “religious cultures,”2 or shūkyō-bunkasi seido. They organized a task force of which I have been a member from its beginning. A similar working group was formed in a smaller academy, the Japanese Association for the Study of Religion and Society (JASRS).3

Although at the outset the idea of certifying students as “specialists in religious cultures” (shūkyō-bunkasi) was welcomed by many scholars of religion, the task force members gradually realized that it was not as feasible as it initially seemed to be. In addition to financial challenges, we have faced a number of both pedagogical and academic problems. In particular, there have been disagreements over the extent to which the aims of shūkyō-bunkasi should be codified and how to construct exams to assess achievement. We have engaged in intense debates, and I hope that this report of their outcomes can contribute to discussions about what religious literacy entails and how it can be achieved and assessed.

Background and Aims of Shūkyō-Bunkasi

In the past decade, the Japanese Ministry of Education and Science4 has urged Japanese colleges to reform themselves structurally to become more competitive both domestically and globally. In addition, Japan's recession and a continuing decline in the birthrate have spurred competition among colleges. Market forces have resulted in two notable consequences to Japanese colleges. First, faculties are expected to put equal weight on education and research; those in smaller colleges are further pressed to place the needs of students before anything else. Second, programs in the liberal arts have been downsized, including those of religious studies. Students have been flowing to departments with clear vocational purposes that provide apparent “pay-back” soon after graduation.5

On the other hand, more Japanese now recognize that many public issues in this age of globalization have a religious dimension. While Japanese educators formerly excluded religious matters from teaching as much as possible,6 those who now advocate global citizenship education admit that some form of non-confessional religious education is needed in public schooling. The new official guidelines for high school teaching (sin-gakushū-sidōyōryō) issued in 2009 state that more topics in religion should be included in civil education.7

This situation has frustrated Japanese scholars of religion. Whereas few Japanese would argue against the necessity of including religious topics in intercultural education, religious studies – always much smaller in scope than in North American undergraduate curricula (Fujiwara 2005) – has been losing ground in higher education institutions. To counter this, Japanese scholars of religion have been attempting to increase the presence of religious studies across colleges, and the idea of shūkyō-bunkasi is one such attempt.

The aim of shūkyō-bunkasi is to foster religious studies in higher education in order to enhance the well-informed understanding of religions, which has potential for conflict resolution in both international affairs and domestic relationships with newcomers in Japan. Eligibility for the qualification is not limited to those enrolled in the departments of religion or theology. Rather, students in other departments, such as history, education, policy studies, management, or those in law and medical schools, are encouraged to register for the qualification. In this way, even at colleges that lack programs of religious studies, interested students can receive substantial education about religions and can also obtain a formal qualification as a mark of their achievements. Furthermore, as the number of students who register for the qualification increases, scholars of religion will have greater leverage to maintain and add courses in religious studies and thereby resist downsizing.

The design of shūkyō-bunkasi was as follows. First JARS, along with its related academic associations, sets up an executive committee to present a model – but flexible – curriculum for shūkyō-bunkasi, for example:

Required CoursesCredits
Introduction to World Religions4
Introduction to Religious Studies4
Religions in the Contemporary World4
Japanese Religions4
Electives (histories of specific religions or issues such as4
religion and gender, religion and ethics, religion and art)20 Total Credits

Second, each candidate college submits its curriculum for shūkyō-bunkasi, along with syllabi, for the committee to examine and determine whether it matches the model curriculum; if it does not, the college is asked for modifications. Both the committee and the college then notify students as to whether the college has become a member of the system. Third, students start taking courses designated in their college's shūkyō-bunkasi curriculum. Fourth, the committee compiles a qualifying test, and students who complete the required curriculum and pass the test are accredited as shūkyō-bunkasi's.

The task force members are aware that providing exams and issuing certificates is not enough. Shūkyō-bunkasi must be recognized in the business world so that corporations will value it when recruiting students. In order to be successful, shūkyō-bunkasi needs to be a qualification perceived favorably in job markets.

In a Teaching Theology and Religion article on the impact of recent education policies on religious studies in Britain, John Hinnells stated that the British Government had recommended that some humanities departments “boost tourism,” emphasizing the link between education and wealth creation (2004, 128). Hinnells was, of course, lamenting the practical pressures exerted on British universities. I was both amused and ashamed because our task force was seriously considering “boosting tourism,” or at least supporting it, by promoting shūkyō-bunkasi to the tourist industry!

The idea of issuing special certificates in certain subject areas distinct from degrees for students is not entirely new in Japan. In 2003, the Japan Sociological Society established a system to qualify students who have taken a designated series of courses and acquired a proper method of social research as “specialists in social research” (shakai-chosasi's). It has been fairly successful, with 163 member colleges and over two thousand students newly qualified as shakai-chosasi's in 2008. However, shakai-chosasi is limited to students majoring in sociology.

Other positions obtained by qualifications that are popular among students in humanities and social sciences are schoolteachers, curators, librarians, social workers, social welfare officers, and social education officers. Many of these qualifications are national and regulated by state organizations. A number of students try to obtain these qualifications as a way to enhance their resumés, even if there is little chance that they will work in that area. The most popular and competitive qualification in the private sector is that for clinical psychologists, which can only be obtained at the graduate school level. Shūkyō-bunkasi is, therefore, a somewhat unusual project for academics in the humanities; the Japan Historical Society has never planned to issue certificates for specialists in Japanese history, nor has the Society for Japanese Literature ever considered qualifying specialists in Japanese literature.

On the other hand, licensing exams are offered by various organizations. The most common are the Official Approval of Practical English Skill (a Japanese version of TOEFL), the Assessment of Chinese Characters Proficiency, and the Assessment of Information, Communications, and Technology (ICT) Proficiency. There are also unique certifications such as the assessment of knowledge about Kyoto culture and history, manners and customs proficiency, and railway timetable proficiency, to name a few.

Problems of Shūkyō-Bunkasi

When we asked our students in 2008 whether they would want to obtain shūkyō-bunkasi, roughly half of them gave a positive or somewhat positive answer.8 Motivating students does not appear to be a problem, especially if shūkyō-bunkasi can elicit positive reactions from some of the business world. Nonetheless, task force members were divided as we continued to examine the design of shūkyō-bunkasi. We faced financial as well as academic and pedagogical problems, and I would like to present two of the latter.

The Problem of Stating a Unified Aim

The task force was first divided as to whether and to what degree we should articulate the aim of shūkyō-bunkasi to the public. Although we agreed that learning in religious studies can and should have a social role, some of us argued that the aim of shūkyō-bunkasi should be described as briefly as possible for the sake of neutrality. In other words, it should be up to students to decide how they would use the license. Others were concerned about possible abuses of the qualification and argued that JARS should clearly explain the aim of shūkyō-bunkasi and what would be expected from students who earned the certificate, even if those expectations were not always met.

As for “possible abuses,” there was concern that some religious groups might require their members, proselytizers in particular, to obtain shūkyō-bunkasi's and thereby try to claim that they had special authorization from JARS. The qualification might thus be used for sectarian purposes rather than interreligious-cultural understanding. Therefore, some members of the task force believed that shūkyō-bunkasi should be publicly known as a qualification for promoting dialogue and peace among religions, and also serves business, social policies, and welfare by enhancing mutual understanding and avoiding conflicts among people with different beliefs.

The task force was also divided as to whether we should qualify students as shūkyō-bunkasi by educating them about religions only, or if we should teach them something more. Traditionally, religious studies in Japan has been polarized: scholars of religion in the Tokyo area have been more aligned with empirical and social scientific methods, while those in the Kyoto area have been more philosophical.9 In order for the members of JARS to work together for the new system, shūkyō-bunkasi needed to be approved by Kyoto-type scholars aiming at the spiritual growth of students through education, as well as by Tokyo-type scholars. However, Tokyo-type scholars fear that the Kyoto-type idea of shūkyō-bunkasi might make the entire system resemble confessional religious education. A Tokyo-type scholar suggested naming this qualification shūkyō-bunkasi, specialists in “religious cultures” instead of “religions,” to avoid confusing education for shūkyō-bunkasi with confessional religious education. The word “religious culture” implies that religion is a part of culture rather than transcending it, or at least that teachers of shūkyō-bunkasi only explore the cultural aspects of religions and not their truth claims.10

Tokyo-type and Kyoto-type religious studies have thus been separate but equal. If JARS's project of shūkyō-bunkasi is confined to the empirical side of religious studies, it might upset the balance of the association. In the case of shakai-chōsasi's (specialists in social research), the impacts of the qualification system on sociology are not altogether a blessing. Since departments of sociology began to emphasize courses in social research, both education and academic studies in sociology have gradually become research centered and dismissive of theoretical studies. A founding member of shakai-chōsasi reported that sociologists realized that the theories of Durkheim and Weber had no meaning for their students, while knowing how to conduct social research could convince them of the usefulness of sociology. Although interviewing people or handing out questionnaires can excite students easily, this is not a desirable outcome for the balanced development of Japanese sociology. It is, therefore, not unreasonable that some scholars of religion are worried that the introduction of shūkyō-bunkasi might cause the philosophy of religion to become less popular and robust in colleges.

On the other hand, more social scientific-oriented task force members have attempted to collaborate with the Japan Society for Study of Education and with the Japanese Society of Cultural Anthropology by insisting that shūkyō-bunkasi is intended for intercultural citizenship education and not at all for confessional religious education. This attempt has been unsuccessful. Many members of The Japan Society for Study of Education still seem allergic to “religion” and believe that promoters of any form of religious education have more or less reactionary agendas. The Japanese Society of Cultural Anthropology is generally more radical than JARS and therefore suspicious of academies serving social needs, not to mention serving business needs, too. Making an academic study useful for society may open it up to the risk of being used for certain causes. In addition, anthropologists are more skeptical than scholars of religion about the generalization of religious categories that would be necessary in order to craft a qualifying exam for shūkyō-bunkasi.

The Problem of Providing a Unified Final Exam

According to the original design of shūkyō-bunkasi, students would be required to take a final qualifying exam after completing the designated courses. But what kind of exam would properly assess the quality of shūkyō-bunkasi? Moreover, how could the members of JARS, being so diverse themselves, reach consensus regarding what to include in the exam? The task force members soon began arguing over these questions.

A leading member of the task force insisted that a multiple-choice test (five answer choices for each question) would be the most objective way to assess student proficiency. He provided this example:

Q.Which restaurant is the most inappropriate for your Muslim guest?
A.1. A soba (buckwheat noodle) restaurant.
2. A tonkatsu (pork cutlet) restaurant.
3. A sushi restaurant.
4. A yakitori (grilled chicken) restaurant.
5. A tempura (fried dish) restaurant.

Although this question seems to be simple and clear enough, some members noticed that not every question would have a single unique answer to which all members of JARS would agree – there are many political issues and highly debated historical facts for any religion. One obvious example would be trying to formulate a question and answer about Yasukuni Shrine, a controversial Shinto shrine that honors World War II criminals.

Of course, it is natural for scholars to have differing opinions on topics of religion. A problem arises, however, when one of them is chosen for a qualifying exam conducted by JARS, because it would imply that JARS officially authorizes a particular view about a certain religious issue. The member who gave the example above argued that it should be possible to ask an objective, unproblematic question which would have a single answer about any matter, including Yasukuni. The question he suggested was, “Which country criticizes Yasukuni Shrine the most?” This was stunning, more so because less than an hour before the same member had said that the most important aim of shūkyō-bunkasi would be “conflict prevention.”11 This incident revealed that the task force had a long way to go if we were going to design the exam together.

It is not easy to reach consensus about even the most basic historical facts. It is true that the National Center Test, the standardized multiple-choice exam for university applicants organized by the Ministry of Education and Science, sometimes asks questions about the history of religions for social studies subjects. The answers can be seen as national standard interpretations and must actually be taken as such by high school teachers and students. However, the task of compiling a nationally unified exam at the level of higher education to be conducted by an academy like JARS would be far more complicated. A colleague noted that scholars in Buddhist studies, for example, would have trouble reaching consensus about even the life of Buddha, and he himself does not believe that it would ever be possible.

Even if Japanese scholars of religion do reach agreement on questions and answers, problems will remain. Statements like “Muslims do not eat pork” or “The people of country A most criticize Yasukuni” can create or reinforce stereotypes. This is, indeed, a tricky point. In intercultural education it is vital to uncover and overcome stereotypes – racial, cultural, gender, and otherwise, as stated in Eurydice Network's (an educational information network founded by the European Commission) guideline for intercultural education:

Thus the intercultural approach calls for ability on the part of teachers and indeed other school staff to react to ethnic or racist kinds of stereotyping by pupils. Initially, this presupposes that teachers themselves are capable of protecting their own behaviour from the influence of cultural stereotypes and that they then possess the arguments needed to discuss stereotyping by pupils. (2004, 62)

Likewise, according to the Council of Europe project, The New Challenge of Intercultural Education: Religious Diversity and Dialogue in Europe, “A key principle of the study of religious diversity in the context of plurality . . . is the avoidance of stereotyping” (Keast 2007, 33). In contrast, the proposed multiple-choice exam of shūkyō-bunkasi, which describes the characteristics of each religious tradition in an unsubtle, univocal way, risks promoting stereotypical understandings of each religion. Even the seemingly safe question about restaurant choice is not entirely innocuous.

This problem was raised in the 1980s when multicultural education was introduced in Britain and the United States. Education for cultural diversity had a danger of describing each culture as a closed system, with a fixed understanding of ethnicity (Jackson 2004, 127). The problem has not yet surfaced in Japanese higher education in religious studies, possibly because it is common for college teachers to assess students by papers or essay exams, not multiple-choice exams. We expect that students have learned about basic dietary restrictions of some religions, but we do not ask them, at the end of a term, simplistic questions with yes or no answers. Would it solve the problem if we add “most” to shūkyō-bunkasi questions, like “most practicing Jews do not eat pork”? Or is the problem more fundamental?

There are a few other problems concerning the exam for shūkyō-bunkasi that would arise if the exam were given as a final, comprehensive assessment of learning outcomes. First, there would be many people not enrolled in any college who could answer the restaurant question and other questions asked in the shūkyō-bunkasi final exam. If students can obtain a certificate by passing the exam, why then couldn't other people whose knowledge level was equal to the students’? What about students who learn about religions independent of formal education? Why can they not become shūkyō-bunkasi's if they demonstrate competence? If shūkyō-bunkasi is limited to students who are enrolled in special programs offered only by member colleges, it would appear as though some departments and scholars of religious studies were profiting rather than serving public interests.

Second, it is probable that the final exam will affect the contents and methods of education. Both teachers and students may increasingly emphasize memorizing over thinking, and begin to “teach to the test.” Students who opt for shūkyō-bunkasi might prefer learning generally and passively to pursuing a particular issue deeply. In other words, the system may well not encourage excellent teaching of religious studies.

What Is “Religious Literacy” and What Is It For?

Our discussions finally led the task force members to a more general question of religious education: “What is ‘religious literacy’ that is suitable as a learning outcome of undergraduate education?” During our debates, some members started using “literacy” to describe something more than memorized knowledge. One used the phrase “religious literacy” to mean the ability to discern between “safe” religions and “dangerous” religions, or the ability to recognize activities of “cults” in disguise. Another member understood the phrase to mean media literacy, the ability to judge the relevancy of news and information on religions in general. But these do not exhaust meanings that the phrase connotes. I will describe two notable uses of the word and then present my own suggestion.

The phrase “religious literacy” seems to have gained international currency lately. In his popular work Religious Literacy, Stephen Prothero defines it as “the ability to understand and use in one's day-to-day life the basic building blocks of religious traditions – their key terms, symbols, doctrines, practices, sayings, characters, metaphors and narratives” (2008, 15). In American public life, he adds, Christian literacy is most important: “You may be a Hare Krishna, a Jain, or an atheist yourself, but to be religiously literate in contemporary America you need to be familiar with Bible characters such [sic] David and Goliath, Bible stories such as the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, and Bible phrases such as ‘an eye for an eye’ and ‘the love of money is the root of all evil’ ” (16).12 This notion of religious literacy is expanded by Eugene Gallagher, who argues that it “must involve not only a degree of mastery of basic information . . . but also some insight into how people use that basic information to orient themselves in the world, express their individual and communal self-understanding, and give their lives direction and meaning” (2009, 208).

Andrew Wright used the term over a decade prior to Prothero to develop a post-liberal approach for religious education in Britain (as public education at the primary and middle school level). Wright criticized the modern, liberalist (in other words, phenomenological) assumption of religious education that is centered on “experience,” and argued that religious language is not an expression of inner experience but a picture of reality.13 Religious literacy is, therefore, an immersion “in the various public linguistic traditions that seek to account for the ultimate nature of reality,” and this should be the aim of religious education rather than encouraging students to empathize with other people's experiences (1996, 174). Recently, Wright has introduced a more comprehensive term, “spiritual literacy,” as the aim of “critical spiritual education.”

[Teachers should] Encourage the emergence of spiritual literacy by doing the following: (i) promoting development in pupils [from different spiritual traditions] of the skills of listening, accepting difference and otherness, arguing a case, dealing with conflict and distinguishing between fact and opinion; [and] (ii) welcoming genuine and open debate. (Wright 2000, 136)

His “religious literacy” thus implies much more than being familiar with religious vocabulary. It includes critical judgments as well. He intends to let students examine the different truth claims of various religions and choose one for themselves, rather than creating a superficial harmony by teaching that all religions are the same at their roots.

Wright's concept of religious literacy is not utilitarian enough for shūkyō-bunkasi, which must appeal to the business world. Nevertheless, the element of active and critical judgment can be incorporated into the religious literacy acquired by a shūkyō-bunkasi. At the same time, as Gallagher argues, it is important to go “beyond the general exhortation to think critically” and be more specific about the types of skills that must be cultivated (Gallagher 2009, 220).

As I understand “religious literacy,” what is necessary in business or social life should be not merely the accumulation of knowledge about religious traditions, but rather an ability to use that knowledge to react actively and properly to actual religious matters. For example, a shūkyō-bunkasi is not a person who merely knows Muslims do not eat pork. He or she is a person who knows what to take into consideration and how to respond if a client asks for a drawing of a Muslim for a sightseeing poster or a school textbook. A shūkyō-bunkasi should be able to decide whether in this situation it is appropriate to draw a Muslim with a big white turban and a long beard. If it is stereotypical and inappropriate, but the client prefers a Muslim with a big turban or a black chador for the sake of easy understandability, he or she should be able to explain the rationale for a more appropriate alternative.

Nor is a shūkyō-bunkasi a person who can merely tell “safe” religious groups from “dangerous” ones, passively following a teacher's distinction. Rather, a shūkyō-bunkasi who uses critical judgment is aware of what requires attention when one is asked to draw a map of religions of the world, such as how much detail to include, potential positive and negative effects of including some religions and excluding others, and how the names of religions in the legend should be ordered. Bearing in mind the purpose of the particular map or its expected readers, a shūkyō-bunkasi would personally consider such points and then complete the map for the client. In short, he or she can be both self-reflective and critical of others who merely imitate an existing map or casually choose which religions to include, carelessly perpetuating discrimination.

Religious literacy as an aggregate ability to use one's knowledge of religions to make appropriate judgments and solve problems will be far more welcomed by companies and organizations than religious literacy as simply a stock of memorized knowledge. Such a skill is also a more suitable outcome of college education than the accumulation of knowledge about religious dietary restrictions, famous phrases in the Bible, and so forth, even though such knowledge might be necessary as a basis.

It is also important to note that in everyday reality, a person is not defined exclusively by their religious identity. A person has a gender, ethnic, and national identity and belongs to a political and an economic group as well. Therefore, to resolve conflicts among people with different identities and backgrounds, it is inadequate or even misleading to consider only religious aspects. If a shūkyō-bunkasi can only recognize religious discrimination and is indifferent to gender, ethnic, or class discrimination, he or she will not be able to work through actual situations properly. Ironically, effective religious literacy requires the ability to reflect upon the limits of knowing only about religions.

Other task force members do not necessarily share this understanding of religious literacy. If we should reach agreement, our central concern will shift from writing hundreds of questions for a multiple-choice exam to developing teaching methods that promote critical and analytical skills. This way of orienting shūkyō-bunkasi matches the direction of ongoing higher education reform in Japan as well. Soon after the task force launched the project of shūkyō-bunkasi, the Central Council of Education, an advisory body to the Japanese Ministry of Education and Science, presented a list of academic competencies expected for graduation, using the new term “gakusiryoku” (graduate abilities). It is a non-statutory guideline of common goals for undergraduate education, regardless of faculty or departments. Its basic idea has come from American and British educational systems. According to the Council, students are expected to have acquired the following competencies upon graduation:

  • Knowledge and Understanding

    • • about different cultures from one's own
    • • about culture, society, and nature
  • Generic Skills

    • • communication skills
    • • quantitative skills
    • • information literacy
    • • logical thinking
    • • problem-solving skills
  • Qualities of Mind and Attitudes

    • • self-discipline
    • • teamwork skills and leadership
    • • ethics
    • • a sense of social responsibility as a citizen
    • • commitment to lifelong learning
  • Synthesis of Learning Experiences and Creative Thinking

    • • ability to make use of acquired knowledge synthetically and solve problems found by oneself

Although such top-down reform is being accepted with caution by colleges and universities, and especially by academics, few argue against the necessity to cultivate more general skills instead of merely imparting discipline-specific knowledge.

Current Developments in the System of Shūkyō-bunkasi

After these debates, the task force has changed a few major parts of the original design of shūkyō-bunkasi. First, we have provisionally agreed upon three common learning objectives of shūkyō-bunkasi: (1) to understand the meanings of religious cultures, including beliefs, myths, rituals, and other practices; (2) to comprehend basic facts about different religious traditions; and (3) to be able to analyze the roles of religion in various contemporary issues and their contributions to public discussions. Although there is still room for refinement, we have found a way to express the goals of shūkyō-bunkasi that bridges the philosophy of religion and the social scientific study of religion.

Second, many members are insistent about giving a multiple-choice exam to all applicants, but they have agreed to not call it a “final” exam so that we can avoid making the learning outcomes of religious studies for college students look simplistic and shallow.

Third, the leader of the task force intends to have JARS become the support association rather than the operating organization of shūkyō-bunkasi so that its implementation is not stalled by the years it might take for JARS scholars to reach consensus on the system. This change will allow JARS to evade the risk of officially authenticating any single interpretation of the multiple-choice exam, but it may also diminish the authority and significance of shūkyō-bunkasi.

Meanwhile, the gakusiryoku education reform by the Ministry has asked some of the academic societies to develop subject benchmarks. The two systems seem to be essentially different from each other. Whereas the shūkyō-bunkasi system with a multiple-choice exam requires concrete agreement upon each individual religious fact among scholars of religion, the gakusiryoku system requires general agreements upon common learning objectives and levels of achievements. In short, the former is more inductive and particularistic (or piecemeal), while the latter is more deductive and systematic. Furthermore, the gakusiryoku system requires improved teaching methods in order to develop well-rounded and varied skills and understandings. In contrast, students would be able to pass a shūkyō-bunkasi exam even if they took only traditional lecture-centered courses.

It is uncertain at this time whether scholars of religion in Japan are going to be committed to making multiple-choice exam questions, or rather put energy into the education reform along with scholars in other disciplines. In either case, we will need to collaborate with each other more than ever for the betterment of higher education.


Almost no one in religious studies denies the necessity of enhancing well-informed understanding of religions among students. Nor is anyone strongly opposed to treating competency in religious studies as a vocational requirement. What was unforeseen were the difficulties we would encounter attempting to establish standards that would qualify students in the mastery of religious knowledge. Regardless of whether the shūkyō-bunkasi system is successfully implemented in a few years, JARS has reached a more sophisticated view of education because of this process, including its struggles and controversies.

The words “applied religious studies” (ōyō shūkyōgaku) and “clinical religious studies” (rinshō shukyogaku) have been circulating in JARS for more than a decade to describe subjects that make a direct contribution to society, such as bioethics. In contrast, the system of shūkyō-bunkasi now being considered shows an increased awareness that the academic study of religion, not only as “applied science” but also as “plain science,” should play a social role and be recognized as worthwhile by the public. That is to say, we have realized that, in the era of globalization and religious plurality, teaching students basic facts about religions of the world can and should be as important to society as supporting a national bioethics advisory commission. I have argued that religious studies as “plain science” might yet remain socially useless if taught in a traditional lecture style. Active learning methods for higher education need to be developed that enable students to put knowledge about religions into practice in a reflexive and flexible manner.

Instead of mere knowledge acquisition, recent international and regional efforts tend to talk about the virtue of tolerance and the metaphor of interreligious dialogue as educational goals that enable education about religions to be a means of resolving conflicts and creating peace14. While acknowledging the importance of tolerance and dialogue as civic ethics, this article draws attention to problem-solving skills that would be appreciated in business and social work and empower students applying for jobs. Religious literacy is needed to solve practical problems about expressing the particularities and diversities of actual religions.

Even interpreted in this manner, however, religious literacy would be a sham if teachers compile manuals for such problem solving that students simply memorize. If not suited for a manual, neither is this kind of religious literacy suited to assessment by multiple-choice exams. It should be assessed by written and oral demonstrations in classes and, above all, by the ability to demonstrate in job interviews that specialists with advanced religious literacy are not religion-otaku (eccentrics) but rather global citizens ready to work in the real world.


  • 1

    In Japan, both colleges and universities are uniformly called daigaku. That is to say, we do not distinguish between colleges and universities, although there are various types of institutions that in English would be called liberal arts colleges, medical colleges, universities, and so forth. Most daigaku's are four-year institutions and accept students who have graduated from high schools, usually at the age of eighteen. There are also two-year junior colleges called tanki-daigaku (short-term daigaku).

  • 2

    Later in this article I will explain the reason for using “religious cultures” and not “religions and cultures” or simply “religions.”

  • 3

    Founded in 1930, the Japanese Association for Religious Studies has been the most comprehensive society for religious studies in Japan. It numbers over 2,100 members, including both scholars of religions and theologians. The Japanese Association for the Study of Religion and Society was established in 1993 by scholars specializing in the social scientific studies of religions. Many members of JASRS are also JARS members.

  • 4

    Its full title is the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology.

  • 5

    Precisely, even in a short span of time, one can observe that students’ interests are complicated and fluid. I will address this point at some length to give readers an idea of Japanese students’ interests these days, using the example of the college where I teach, a private liberal arts college in Tokyo with approximately 5,000 students. Its department of social welfare, which was very popular in the nineties, now has difficulty attracting students. Although the demand for social welfare workers is increasing in this aging society, young people have begun to avoid this career because of perceived severe working conditions. As we entered the twenty-first century, the department of creative writing and videographics became very popular. While a majority of young people no longer read classic novels and the department of literature had become outdated, many students had strong interests in expressing themselves by writing stories and creating videos. In earlier times, there were student clubs and circles for such interests, but eventually these activities were added to the regular curricula.
    The climate again changed in 2008. The traditional departments of history and literature revived, receiving an unexpectedly large number of applicants. Despite this upsurge, faculties of history and literature have mixed reactions because of the students’ unbalanced interests within these fields; students are preoccupied with Japanese history and literature, to the neglect of world history and foreign literature. Faculty are afraid that the revivals of the traditional disciplines may be expressions of increased introversion among the Japanese youth. Despite the immense impact of global financial crises, students have not turned to the practical departments. The department of social welfare remains unpopular and the department of education has been struggling. Being a schoolteacher used to be seen as a reliable job selection, but young people consider it to be as difficult as being a social worker and without adequate reward. The department that has been consistently popular over the decades is clinical psychology. Although graduates from the department cannot become counselors without a graduate degree, psychology has been a magnet for young people, presumably reflecting their inward looking tendencies.

  • 6

    Like the United States, Japan upholds the separation of church and state, and religion has not been taught in public schools. This is also due in part to the negative legacy of State Shinto.

  • 7

    The new guidelines, which follow the 2006 revised Fundamental Law of Education (kyouiku-kihonhō), have been criticized by liberal educators who feel that the Ministry is attempting to impose moral education. Accordingly, much attention has been given to interpreting the phrase “religion should be enriched.”

  • 8

    According to a survey conducted by a research group whose organizers are task force members, 14.5% of respondents answered, “Yes, I want to be a shūkyō-bunkasi,” 42.9% answered, “Depending on conditions,” 25.3% answered, “No, not much,” 16.9% answered, “No, not at all.” The data was taken from a survey of 5005 students in various departments of thirty-eight colleges and universities in 2008. http://21coe.kokugakuin.ac.jp/jcsate.html

  • 9

    Kitaro Nishida's philosophy, often compared to Heideggerian existentialism (which may more aptly be described as “religious/spiritual philosophy” than as philosophy of religion) is representative of the Kyoto-style philosophy of religion. Nowadays it is difficult to generalize the type of philosophy of religion typical of the Kyoto area, but a certain religious ethos seems to be prevalent among scholars who were educated in and around the traditional city. The ethos can be exemplified in a comment given by a member of the task force from a Buddhist university in Kyoto: “Shūkyō-bunkasi's should be able to understand the ‘heart (soul)’ of religion, not merely external, patchy individual features of religions.”

  • 10

    The division between theology and religious studies has not been an issue in our discussion of shūkyō-bunkasi. For the general history of religious studies in Japan, see Fujiwara (2008).

  • 11

    The question can be taken as asking students to name the most anti-Japan countries. Moreover, it is doubtful that there is comprehensive international data on the proportion of Yasukuni critics in other countries, and the number of critics in Japan itself.

  • 12

    The level of religion-related knowledge of Japanese people is no higher than that of Americans as described by Prothero. Therefore, task force members thought that, by taking several courses in religious studies, students would be qualified to be called “specialists” in comparison to ordinary Japanese, even if their religious literacy is at the “general education” level.

  • 13

    Nevertheless, he himself departs from traditional realism or fundamentalism by advocating “critical realism,” which combines critical reflection with realism.

  • 14

    See, for example, these resources: “Education about Religions and Beliefs” from the Alliance of Civilizations (http://aocerb.org/); and the Council of Europe project titled “The New Challenge of Intercultural Education: Religious Diversity and Dialogue in Europe (2002–2005)” (Keast 2007).