Ioannis Gaitanidis and Aike Rots are both scholars of contemporary Asian religion. They have met on different occasions, including academic conferences and workshops, and have visited Japanese religious sites together. They know each other’s work well. They are currently stuck in Chiba (Japan) and Oslo (Norway), respectively, so the following conversation took place on Zoom and via email.


Ioannis Gaitanidis: When I first read your coauthored manifesto, I immediately thought of the journalist Saitō Takao’s 1997 book, Cult Capitalism. Saitō framed his book as a warning: the “company-ism” (kaishashugi) of Japan’s corporate-centered society can have “cult”-like effects.

Originally written in the aftermath of the Aum affair, the book included chapters on paranormal research conducted by Sony Corporation, on the “religion-like” management philosophies of Kyocera Corporation’s emeritus chairman Inamori Kazuo and of business consulting giant Funai Yukio, and on the association between the use of effective microorganisms in agriculture and the beliefs of the Church of World Messianity founded in 1931 by Okada Mokichi, an avid reader of New Thought literature. Twenty-two years later, in the revised edition, Saitō’s message has grown stronger, and the target of his criticism clearer. It is not beliefs in the paranormal that he wants to criticize, but what he sees as a powerful systematic way of using these beliefs and hopes for alternative solutions to human problems to manipulate and control people. What he now refers to as “cult imperialism” (karuto teikokushugi) appears immediately in the (newly written) first chapter, where Saitō criticizes the Japanese government’s usage of the volunteering program for the Tokyo Olympic Games to gather cheap labor and inculcate nationalistic values by using the youth’s wishes to contribute to the economy and to find employment because of their “omotenashi” spirit (“the spirit of selfless hospitality”). To put it in your own words, it sounded to me that Saitō had put his finger on the corporate form.

Although Saitō’s book is famous among Japanese religious studies scholars, it never gave any impetus to seriously consider cases like those detailed by him, in terms other than “the religious roots/religiosity of x” where x is a practice, ideology, or experience that because it appears to be functionally political, economic, or educational, is always assumed to be separate from “religion.” This is why I was really happy that you and your colleagues had given a name to the phenomena critiqued by Saitō. And I was thrilled that this perspective promises (as you point out earlier in the forum) to “free” us from arguments that try to explain out the religious “intonations” in consumer and corporate life as “alternative spirituality” or “spirituality in the workplace.”

In my own attempts to frame the practice and beliefs of the “spiritual therapists” that I have been studying in the last decade, I think I have gone through all the phases (and mistakes!) your original manifesto points out. I have, for example, used calculations of the actual income and expenses of therapists to counter the argument that people in the so-called spiritual business are in it for the money, but failed to go beyond the evaluation of such practice as more than just “the commercialization of therapy as sacred.” And I have also criticized the idea that these practices are essentially new by placing them within the long history of therapeutic techniques of Japan’s religious groups, but (again) fell short of the need to avoid functionalist judgments. Looking back at my more recent work, I think what has somehow (!) saved me from repeating the same faults, has been to adopt a more historical perspective that accentuates the translocal development of specific therapies, and considers the role played by various agents, who in the majority are a priori nonreligious. My paper on the import, development, and eventual decline of aura (film-) photography in Japan came perhaps closer to what I wish I would have written now that I read your paper, but I am aware of its shortcomings, too.

Aike Rots: I am glad to see that you found our article useful, and that it resonates with your own work. I particularly like your comment about scholars pointing out the purportedly “religious” aspects of a practice that “appears to be functionally political, economic, or educational” and therefore is assumed to be a priori separate from “religion.” I think this is a common problem. By saying that something is like religion, originates from religion, or has religious aspects, scholars are implying that it is something other than, or extending beyond, “religion” proper. Thus, “religion” is preserved as an ontologically independent, reified category. Personally, I have long felt uncomfortable with functionalist “implicit religion” discourse of the type “football and pop concerts function as ersatz religion in a secular age,” and with similar uses of “religion” as a metaphor—e.g., “the market operates as religion” or vice versa. This is not because there are no functional similarities between spectator sports, market economics, and institutionalized religion; of course there are. The problem is that such discourse operates on the assumption that religion is pre-given, something which is ontologically separate and essentially different from other core modern societal categories. In these analyses, “religion” (and its derived adjective, “religious”) appears as a natural, sui generis category that in real life may get mixed up with politics, economics, or secular entertainment, but is, fundamentally, a different species. In our article, we question this classification model, arguing that the differentiation of religion from the spheres of economics and politics is quite recent indeed, and that the corporate form precedes such modern differentiations.

In other words, institutionalized religions and for-profit businesses are not only functionally but also structurally similar. Both are grounded in the same organizational, ideological, and perhaps even eschatological logic. This is why, in our article, we criticize the growing body of scholarship on the “marketization,” “commodification,” or “commercialization” of religion on conceptual grounds (while acknowledging the empirical contributions of this scholarship). The underlying assumption of the “-ization” terminology is that religion has become subject to market forces, commercial competition, and the need to cater to consumers—influenced by global capitalism, apparently—as if it was not always already economic and political. What are ritual offerings if not an exchange, a means to establish and maintain a reciprocal relationship? And what are temple or monastic communities if not, essentially, corporations that manage capital, power, and relations between human and more-than-human stakeholders?

I should stress that my coauthors and I do not mean this as a value judgment, neither negative nor positive. I think our analysis differs from Saitō in this respect, as Saitō is outspoken in his criticism of “cultish” corporate practices. While we may be critical of certain types of corporate action—especially those that exploit human and natural resources—our point is not that religions operate like corporations and, therefore, are morally imperfect. We question the reification of “religion” as something ontologically different from economics and politics. We suggest that a focus on the corporate form may help scholars of religion rethink formations of power, publics, ritual stakeholders, and foundation narratives, without having to decide whether the cases in question qualify as (implicitly) religious or not.

You mentioned some important topics that I think need further investigation. First, I am curious about the connection between electronics multinationals, New Age thought, and Shinto ideology. You gave the examples of Sony and Kyocera. In my own research on Shinto shrines in contemporary Japan, I have also come across these companies. Kyocera chairman Inamori, for instance, sponsored an extensive forest revitalization project at Tadasu no Mori, an old sacred forest in Kyoto that belongs to the World Heritage-listed shrine Shimogamo Jinja. In our article, we discussed the corporate philosophy and mythology of Panasonic. It all makes me wonder: Is there something special about electronics companies and their founders that make them especially eager to seek divine patronage and engage in corporate myth-making, more so than other industrial sectors? Or is this entirely coincidental?

Second, I am intrigued by Saitō’s connection between corporate ideology and effective microorganisms. I always associated effective microorganisms with alternative agricultural practices: the “natural farming” and permaculture promoted by Fukuoka Masanobu, the bokashi technology used by the development NGO OISCA (affiliated with the new religion Ananaikyō), and similar organic farming practices promoted by new religions such as Ōmoto and Seichō no Ie. But now I wonder: Are these practices really as “alternative” as I imagined them to be? Or are they embedded in larger corporate structures, and is their “alternative” image part of the branding? What are your thoughts about this?

IG: Yes, Saitō was undoubtedly influenced by the further “othering” of religion in post-1995 Japan, and his emphasis that these phenomena are end-of-twentieth-century developments shows that he is too engaged in moral accusations to consider the incommensurability of his argument. As you mention, the success of corporations, like Panasonic, has in a sense always been dependent on some kind of ideological work. And, to your first question, although the presence of many electronics companies in this list may be coincidental, it would not be difficult to imagine that the double character of these products, these “familiar” machines that nevertheless always keep evolving, makes them ideal carriers of myth-making. In the 1980s, the idea of a “New Science” (an English word coined in Japan), which had been used to identify the growing number of translations that followed the success of Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics, was temporarily espoused by several journalists, businessmen, and scholars. The 1984 Franco-Japanese symposium on “Science, Technology and the Spiritual World” (Kagaku, Gijutsu to Seishinsekai) held at the University of Tsukuba, and the five edited volumes that were subsequently published based on that event, testify of significant interest at the time in (again) the functional crossings between technological development and religious concepts. However, “New Science” arguments were also embedded in a Cold War/Japan as Number One-type of East vs West narrative where, for example, the concept of “ki” was going to offer the answer to Western scientific dilemmas.

It would, of course, not be difficult to point out here that the founders of large successful corporations like Apple, Amazon, and Tesla tend to also be proponents of orientalist messages of New Age millennialism (and effectively so, through their space domination programs). So, to come to your second question, these connections are definitely less “alternative” than they may appear to be. In my current book manuscript, I examine the use of the concept of “spirituality” in several Japanese settings to try to understand why this has happened. I mean, to put it into your words, I want to find out why the “-ization” terminology (such as “the sacralization of the market” and so on) has come to be considered “alternative” and the consequence especially for those who make a living from therapeutic practices associated with such “alternative” messages.

The truth is that, indeed, neither the commercialization of religion nor the sacralization of the market (or any other type of -ization going in either direction between “religion” and “market”) are telling us anything about what is happening on the ground. Let us take the example of Masanobu Fukuoka, who you mention in your second question, and who became famous for his Shizen Nōhō: Wara Ippon no Kakumei, later translated in twenty-seven languages, including in English as The One-Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming. There are two very interesting facts about Fukuoka and his bestseller. First, according to research in the background of Fukuoka’s ideology, religious terminology does not appear in his earlier work. Fukuoka seems to have come to employ concepts such as kami (Shinto deities) only after he felt increasingly pressured to explain his techniques to a global audience. His audience wanted him to be “alternative,” albeit espousing some sort of “Eastern spirituality.” Perhaps he sought this status, too. And here is the second interesting fact: The editor who discovered Fukuoka and published the original version of The One-Straw Revolution (in 1975) is Masuo Masuda, the founder of the publishing house that became famous in the 1980s for the Japanese translation of Shirley MacLaine’s Out on a Limb, a popular American New Age classic.

The concept of effective microorganisms—namely, mixtures of natural microorganisms that are assembled and used for their alleged ability to regenerate soil fertility—is another fascinating case too complex to just categorize as “New Age science.” The idea really reached a wider audience in Japan with the publication in 1993 of Chikyū o sukuu daihenkaku (An Earth Saving Revolution). The author, Teruo Higa, a professor at the University of the Ryukyus’s Department of Agriculture, was praised by the aforementioned celebrity-business consultant Funai Yukio, and went on to promote his ideas nationwide. Higa gained the interest of several politicians, who in 2013 formed an all-party parliamentary group, which includes a current minister, to promote these organisms in Japanese society. Takeo Samaki, a well-known science educator, former professor at Hosei University, and editor-in-chief of the science magazine RikaTan, has been very critical of Higa and the propagation of what he considers para-scientific theories. The sheer variety of stakeholders in this story—scientists, politicians, agricultural businesses and religious organizations —demonstrates the ubiquity of these associations, not their alternativity. I am sure you must have come across these in your own research, in Japan, but also in Vietnam, perhaps?

AR: So your point is that practices, technologies, and ideas that are actively promoted and framed as “alternative” by journalists and academics are not always alternative in the sense that they challenge the status quo; that, in fact, they may be embraced and promoted by powerful corporate or political leaders? This strikes me as a very important observation. I think “mindfulness” is a good example of this. Inspired by the transnational, engaged Buddhism of Thích Nhất Hạnh, the popularization of these practices in North America and Europe in the 1960s and 70s took place within an emergent Buddhist counterculture. At some point, however, the counterculture became mainstream: mindfulness and related meditation practices were incorporated in a variety of supposedly nonreligious settings, by numerous educational, governmental, and for-profit institutions, which can hardly be considered alternative. Many authors and Buddhist practitioners have lamented this development and condemned the “commercialization” of these practices—“McMindfulness,” as Ron Purser has called it—arguing that this constitutes a neoliberal cooptation and a corruption of “original” mindfulness practices. As Purser argues, “if we are to harness the truly revolutionary potential of mindfulness, we­ have to cast off its neoliberal shackles, liberating mindfulness for a collective awakening.” According to this view, mindfulness was, originally and essentially, anti-capitalist and anti-establishment.

But was it? Or are such ideas grounded in lingering Western fantasies about Buddhism as a liberation movement; a tradition of egalitarian pacifism that is opposed to oppressive state regimes? The historical reality, as we know, is quite different. Like Christianity and Islam, Buddhism may have begun as a radical countermovement; but like those two, after the mythical founder’s death, it was soon incorporated into ancient state apparatuses. How else could it gain legitimacy and power, and spread geographically? In premodern and modern times alike, Buddhist institutions in south, east, and southeast Asia have played important roles in legitimizing state as well as corporate power—and they continue to do so in a number of countries, including Thailand, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Bhutan, and Myanmar. It is a mystery to me why so many Western observers—journalists, practitioners, as well as some academics—still cling to the idea that Buddhism ought to be, and was originally, anti-establishment and anti-capitalist.

One of the main proponents of mindfulness in the United States and Europe, from the 1960s onwards, was the aforementioned Vietnamese Buddhist leader Thích Nhất Hạnh. An eloquent speaker, prolific writer, and outspoken religious pluralist, Thích Nhất Hạnh has many followers globally. In Western media, he is often praised for his commitment to interfaith dialogue and his peace activism. The fact that he had to live in exile—not only during the Second Indochina War, but also several decades afterwards—no doubt added to this image as an alternative pacifist, opposed to the military-industrial complex. After all, in the minds of many Americans, the term “Vietnam” signifies little more than a war and a traumatic national experience. This may well explain why his ideas were embraced by people in protest movements looking for “alternative” lifestyles and religious identities. Scholars have also contributed to the idea that Thích Nhất Hạnh’s views constituted a break with tradition, accusing him of inventing a new type of Westernized Buddhism that, in the words of Nguyen and Barber, did “not have any affinity with or any foundation in traditional Vietnamese Buddhist practices.”

I disagree with both these portrayals of Thích Nhất Hạnh. Yes, he has successfully translated and adapted his message to different audiences; arguably, this is his creative, innovative genius. However, this does not mean that his ideas represent a break with tradition. There is little “alternative” about his message to honor one’s ancestors, follow ritual traditions, and live in accordance with established moral principles. Contrary to what Nguyen and Barber suggest, this message is grounded in “traditional Vietnamese” worldviews. Thích Nhất Hạnh’s teaching is practically oriented, which is why it has become so popular; but it is also culturally conservative and, ultimately, focused on preserving social balance. He stands in a modern tradition of engaged Asian Buddhists who wanted to reform society by repairing dysfunctional institutions, but not revolutionize it, and who did so by drawing on tradition, not rejecting it.

I would argue that Thích Nhất Hạnh’s practical, this-worldly, and essentially conservative orientation is quite compatible with modern capitalism. Indeed, his focus on the public good, and on cultivating human resources as productive members of a collective, corresponds to the corporate form as we describe it in our article—not to mention his successful branding. Thus, contrary to what authors like Purser suggest, modern mindfulness practices are not a distortion of some original, “alternative” Buddhist practice; they are a continuation of it, albeit a selective one. As a Buddhist monk, Thích Nhất Hạnh may reject unnecessary luxury, but he is not anti-capitalist per se—and I don’t think he ever has been. In fact, it is no coincidence that his supposedly “Western” Buddhism has attracted so many followers in his home country. After all, it fits well with twenty-first century Vietnamese religious trends: religious practice as a vehicle for social mobility; the widespread patronage of powerful deities that can provide material blessings; the renewed popularity of charismatic mediums and preachers; the presence of wealthy temple institutions (called “pagodas” in the Vietnamese context) that promote a type of prosperity Buddhism, and so on.

IG: A couple of years ago, on a visit to the Zen Center in Athens (Greece), I saw many of Thích Nhất Hạnh’s books in their small library, together with writings by Shunryū Suzuki, Charlotte Joko Beck, Deshimaru Taisen, and other famous figures of the popularization of Zen in Europe and North America. The Center is located on the first floor of a newly built hotel at the heart of the capital, owned and run by a businessman with investments in several sectors, from shipbuilding to multinational clothing corporations. On listening to this story, commentators may argue, as you have rightly pointed out, something located on an argumentative continuum between two ends. On one end, there is the argument that Zen practice for a European elite is corporate corruption and profit-seeking branding of some “authentic” Zen. And the other end is occupied by the idea that Zen meditation offers a coping mechanism in, and sometimes possibilities for emancipation from, an increasingly alienating consumerist society. I think these have been the two ways that “spirituality in the marketplace” has often been explained out in the literature in general and they, indeed, problematically leave “religion” as an ontologically independent category. More recent studies have attempted to show that even these so-called “coping mechanisms” may also well be of a sort of corporate form. But if we stop to think about this argumentation for a bit, there is, I think, something very dark and pessimistic about it.

Indeed, it sometimes seems that scholars consider people as only capable of lying, to others (the one end of the aforementioned continuum) or to themselves (the other end of the continuum), no matter the structural framework—economic, political, religious, etc.—that this corporate form is observed in. I am not arguing that our actions ought to be evaluated independently of the corporate form. But, in my own research, I have struggled to find a way to account for the apparent honesty and sincerity with which individuals engage in these precarious activities of “collective and personal sacrifice.” How are we to understand the actions of company employees that participate in a meditation retreat, for example, without falling into the trap of emulating romantic messages of coping and “alternative seekership,” and without describing them as merely contributors to, if not victims of, the corporate system?

Masao Masuda, the aforementioned publisher of Shirley MacLaine’s books in Japan, did not consider himself to be countercultural in promoting the ecological ideas of Fukuoka or the popular millennialism of Out on a Limb. He thought of these authors as intellectuals whose life experiences could provide insights into how their readers could solve contemporaneous issues. One could argue that Masuda was, therefore, either naïve and/or an editor with a keen eye for future bestsellers. We might never know. But Masuda’s reading in the early 1980s of Shirley MacLaine’s story of self-spirituality and out-of-body experiences as “an example of the social emancipation of a woman” is a fascinating case where concerns on which humans choose to act remain difficult to fit into any one of our preestablished categories of human action.

AR: I think you are making an important point. It is easy to deconstruct the contributions of popular Buddhist leaders and their patrons as somehow insincere, and to dismiss the incorporation of mindfulness or other Zen meditation practices in education, military, and business settings as a type of inauthentic appropriation—either a deliberate lie or a naïve misunderstanding. But such an interpretation would deny the lifeworlds and motivations of the practitioners, their “honesty and sincerity,” as you call it. And is not one of the important tasks of scholars of religion to take seriously—from a critical distance, perhaps, but always empathically—the lived experiences of our interlocutors? This principle should apply to business people practicing Plum Village walking meditation as much as to Christian, Muslim, Indigenous, or other community rituals. I think it is important to acknowledge emic explanations of these practices, not dismiss them.

Personally, I quite admire Thích Nhất Hạnh because of his elegant writing style and because of his attempts to bridge cultural difference by embracing diversity rather than trying to negate it. So the fact that I see his teaching as both continuous with Vietnamese tradition and compatible with modern capitalism—as corporate, essentially—is not a negative value judgement. I have no opinion about what does or does not constitute “proper” Buddhism, so when I characterize Thích Nhất Hạnh’s Buddhism as corporate—and, therefore, easily applicable in contemporary business or other secular settings—I do not downplay its value or suggest that it is somehow inauthentic.

I do think, however, that preserving institutional continuity is an essential feature of the corporate form, and that (as my coauthors and I outlined in our essay here on The Immanent Frame) the promise of a better world in the future can paradoxically justify the continuation of exploitative structures in the present. This can lead to delayed action, not least in the case of the global ecological crisis. Despite ubiquitous commitments to environmental sustainability, few for-profit companies and religious institutions have actively pushed for policy change. Mindfulness may do good things for individuals and increase collective productivity in the present, but it does not encourage radical change, and certainly has not led to the energy transition or other environmental policies that are so urgently needed. Ultimately, corporate entities—states, companies, and religious institutions—are conservative. They can adapt to changing circumstances when needed, but their main commitment is to preserve the institution and its support structures. Systemic change may be a threat to this continuity.