The invention of religions in East Asia

Authored by: Jason Ānanda Josephson

Routledge Handbook of Religions in Asia

Print publication date:  September  2014
Online publication date:  September  2014

Print ISBN: 9780415635035
eBook ISBN: 9781315758534
Adobe ISBN: 9781317636465


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In 1703 London was abuzz with news that a native of Japanese-occupied Taiwan (Formosa) had arrived on England’s shores. A popular dinner guest, this exotic foreigner regaled the Royal Society – Britain’s premiere scientific organization – with accounts of his far-flung homeland (Keevak 2004). His celebrity status culminated in the publication of a widely read book that contained one of the first accounts of Japanese religions in the English language, An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, an Island subject to the Emperor of Japan (1704). 2 Unlike the comparatively monolithic religious landscape of eighteenth-century Europe, the Japanese were said to have three distinct indigenous religions (Psalmanazar 2007). One of these religions was idolatrous, another focused on the worship of God in nature and a third was essentially atheistic and philosophical. While a contemporary reader would surely reject the expression “idolatrous” as pejorative and inaccurate, she would be forgiven for seeing in this tripartite schema an early reference to a way of describing East Asian religions that is still popular today. One does not have to engage in strenuous research to find the religions of Japan described as Buddhism, Shinto and Confucianism (with Christianity appearing in the modern era). Furthermore, scholars of China are generally accustomed to seeing a triad of Chinese religions with Daoism (also written Taoism) occupying the place reserved for Shinto in Japan.

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