Karma and Punishment: Prison Chaplaincy in Japan

Jason Danely

In recent years, Japan’s criminal justice system has gained increasing attention, in large part because of its remarkably low incarceration rate compared to other highly developed nations with large urban populations. While there have been active debates on this topic, relatively fewer works have looked at the historical development of the Japanese prison and the ways it came to represent and produce Japanese social values. Adam Lyons’ Karma and Punishment: Prison Chaplaincy in Japan not only makes a major contribution towards filling a gap within the broader debates regarding crime and punishment, but it also makes a compelling and fascinating argument about the role of religion in the establishment of the modern prison and probation system and its continuing influence on public perceptions of justice. This is a fascinating story, told with sensitivity by Lyons, through the historical archives alongside the voices of chaplains today. The result is an impressive and original account of Japanese religious and penal history in the making of the modern nation.

Early on in the book, Lyons presents the astonishing fact that despite Japan’s low crime and incarceration rate, it boasts more prison chaplains than the United States, where more than 20% of the world’s prisoners are held. In fact, Japan’s chaplain-to-prisoner ratio (1:29), far outstrips countries where the incarcerated populations are more likely to identify with a particular faith tradition. Even more intriguing is that this notable involvement of religious professionals in matters of social welfare is somewhat of an anomaly in Japanese society. Why are there so many chaplains in prisons, compared to hospitals, hospice care, or services for poor and homeless people? Questions like these are part of what hooked me into Karma and Punishment, which not only provides answers, but also gives us broader frameworks with which to contextualize them.

Buddhist prison chaplaincy may seem to be a rather narrowly focused topic for a book that weighs in at well over 300 pages with notes, but this is far from the case. As Lyons moves seamlessly from historical documents to ethnographic vignettes, he uncovers a story about not only chaplains, but also about the relationship between religion and the state more broadly.

The central claim is that Japanese chaplaincy emerged as, and still remains a strategy for Buddhist institutions to secure power and legitimacy within the modern secular state and society. At the same time, Buddhist priests gave new modern institutions like the prison a level of moral legitimacy, and secured the state’s superiority over religious clergy. In other words, the symbiotic relationship between Buddhists and prisons had the effect of aligning the foreign institution of the prison with local moral values. At the same time, modernized Buddhist doctrine came to fit the needs of modern secular governance based on “civilization and enlightenment” (bunmei kaika).

This unlikely pairing of religion and the state makes sense when we consider the context of chaplaincy’s origins in the upheavals of the Meiji era. In the first chapters of Karma and Punishment, Lyons describes how Shin Buddhists, whose existence was under threat by a wave of anti-Buddhist movements in the late 19th century, found a place in the state’s favor by arguing that the proselytization of the dharma was completely in line with the goals of the Emperor and the state. In practice, this proselytization was not about winning converts; rather, it was about “doctrinal admonition” that could lead prisoners to reform their ways and becoming good citizens. The word for “doctrinal admonition” (kyōkai) would literally become the basis for the first “chaplains” (kyōkai-shi). Lyons argues that doctrinal admonition, as it came to define the role modern Shin Buddhism in the new Japanese nation-state, located moral threat in bad karma that one could purify through an interior process of reflection and reform. Lyons notes the ways this redemptive moral narrative resembles Christian models of sin and salvation, even while Shin Buddhists had been actively involved in the persecution and forced conversion of Christians. Yet while Christian chaplaincy developed a tradition of attending to the suffering of the prisoner, Buddhist chaplaincy is focused more on the promotion of state ideology.  As the State sought to strengthen and formalize its own political ideology, so too did Shin Buddhists, whose practice of moral admonition evolved into a central component of doctrine and occupational practice.

In a fascinating analysis of Shin Buddhist writings on chaplaincy, Lyons elaborates the claim of the centrality of doctrinal admonition and how it aimed to promote not only a more harmonious society, but also an ideal of harmony between Buddhism and the state. One way this developed is through notions of karma that could be more easily linked to carceral logics and civic moral aims of the state. Apart from these official discourses, Lyons also details key historical events that illustrated the political power of Shin Buddhists as a result of their status in the penal system. In the Sugamo Prison incident, for example, several Buddhist chaplains resigned in protest of a move to reduce the number of Shin Buddhist chaplains and introduce Christian chaplains. Ultimately, this had effects that rippled all the way to the Diet, where a bill was quickly passed that would legally secure Shin Buddhist control over chaplaincy. This control was not limited to the prison facility, but extended to a network of volunteer “probation groups” and so on.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this book is that way Lyons shifts to more ethnographic methods and perspectives in the second half. Guided by existential anthropologist Michael Jackson’s notion of the politics of storytelling, Lyons visits prisons, speaks to chaplains and addresses the controversial topic of the death penalty. Through his extraordinary access to several important and experienced chaplains and his exceptionally fortuitous involvement in the committee revising the Chaplain’s Manual in 2014-16, Lyons gets under the surface of official accounts and into the debates and negotiations about what the role of chaplain really means. While I cannot do justice to the nuance and sophistication of Lyons’ perceptive accounts of chaplains’ lives, two points stand out as important departures from the pre-war chaplaincy. First is the way chaplaincy was reframed as a role that functioned to fulfil prisoners’ newly enshrined constitutional right to religious freedom. While Shin Buddhists would continue to exert a strong dominance, Lyons also describes Shinto and Tenrikyo chaplains as well (including a detailed account of a Tenrikyo group chaplaincy session in an appendix).

Second, the right to religious freedom also pushed chaplains away from doctrinal admonition toward more modern psychological notions of spiritual therapy for suffering prisoners. One result of this was that chaplains often felt caught between their moral obligation to the prisoners and their personal objection to the criminal justice system. Chaplains would be removed from their duties and unable to care for prisoners if they publicly criticized the criminal justice system, and they struggled with complicity in ways that were not apparent in earlier iterations of Japanese chaplaincy. This ambivalencetowards the role of the chaplain was most pronounced in chaplaincy for those facing the death penalty, but it is also a running theme in the conversations Lyons had with chaplains featured in the book.

This combination of historical and ethnographic perspectives is what makes Karma and Punishment so unique, exciting, and valuable for broadening our understandings of the relationship between religion and the state in Japan today. It is remarkable that despite the breath-taking wealth of sources Lyons uncovers in his research, he is still able to articulate such clear and compelling claims, about both the development of chaplaincy and its current state. Karma and Punishment is a must-read for anyone who is interested in these topics, but I hope it is also read by criminologists, religious studies scholars, and carceral anthropologists, all of whom will no doubt find assumptions about chaplaincy challenged in productive ways. The lucid writing and organization of the book keep it accessible to students, while the extensive notes are a treasure trove for other researchers.