Jolyon Baraka Thomas is a renowned scholar, author, and educator, as well as an expert on Japanese culture and religion. He serves as Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, where he teaches courses on topics including the intersection of Shinto and politics and the role of religion in popular anime.
Thomas was born in Des Moines, Iowa and first became intrigued by Japanese culture after watching martial arts movies as a child. His interest grew after his mother visited Japan and his family hosted Japanese foreign exchange students at their Iowa home. At age ten, he traveled to Japan for the first time as an exchange student himself and fell in love with the country and culture; after earning his BA in Religious Studies from Grinnell College in 2001, Thomas returned to Tokyo to teach and immerse himself in the study of Japanese language.
Thomas earned his Master’s in Asian Religions from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, in 2008, and his PhD in Religion from Princeton University six years later. He published his first book, Drawing on Tradition: Manga, Anime, and Religion in Contemporary Japan, in 2012, and has written extensively on topics that range from religious freedom in post-World War II Japan to the experience of drinking at a Buddhist bar in Tokyo. His current writing efforts focus on the role of religion in American and Japanese public schools, and the history of religion and tax policy.
NichiBei Connect sat down with Thomas to discuss his unique professional journey, and the mentors who helped him along the way.
How did you first become interested in Japan as a country and a culture?
When I was growing up in Des Moines, I watched a lot of bad ninja movies. [Laughs.] I developed an Orientalist fascination with Japan—in my young imagination, I pictured it as this radically different place full of martial artists.
My first non-media exposure to Japan came through my mother, who is an artist. Des Moines has a sister-city relationship with Kofu-Shi in Yamanashi Prefecture, and she went to Kofu-Shi via an artists’ exchange program. She came back with cool toys, great photos, and lots of stories. All of that made Japan feel a little bit closer and more accessible to me.
A couple of years after that, my family hosted Japanese foreign exchange students, all of whom came from Kofu-Shi. And when I was in fifth grade, I had the opportunity to go to Japan on exchange as well.
What was that experience like?
I had the best time. I got to stay with the host family that my mother had lived with previously, and just had wonderful experiences meeting lots of different people. I got to engage with many aspects of Japanese culture, and to see life organized in a way that I’d never experienced before.
I was so stimulated that when I returned to the U.S., the first thing I said to my parents in the airport was, “Can I go back?” Fast-forward twelve years: an opportunity arose for me to move to Japan. I leapt at the chance. I’ve been going back and forth between Japan and the U.S. ever since.
What sort of opportunity allowed you return to Japan?
I was a religious studies major in college, and I was training to be an elementary school teacher. I was in the middle of my student teaching semester when the American woman I had been dating got a job in Japan. She moved there, and even though we broke up, we still exchanged emails. She put the idea of moving to Japan into my mind. I thought it was a great idea, so I applied for a teaching job, and after I was hired, I moved to Tokyo in January of 2002.
When I moved, I made a deal with myself—I had to stay in Japan for at least one year, and I had to learn as much of the language as possible. For a lot of expats living in Japan, it’s very easy to stay within an English-speaking bubble. But I had a problem when I got there—it was the first time I could remember being illiterate, and it drove me nuts. I felt itchy all the time because I couldn’t understand the messages that were around me. So I started using every opportunity to put pieces of the puzzle together.
How did you do that?
I started by looking at the Romanized versions of train station names on my commute and comparing them to the hiragana and kanji versions. Doing that helped me figure out the sounds of certain Japanese characters. Soon I graduated to simple conversation. I was a vegetarian at the time, so I mastered ordering vegetarian meals at restaurants. Then I used manga that was oriented towards children to develop my vocabulary. It took a lot of painstaking work with the dictionary, looking up every other word. But before I knew it, I was able to blast through manga series and talk about them with my students. That language proficiency helped me fully transition to life in Japan.
How should Americans who visit Japan approach breaking out of the English-speaking bubble themselves?
I want to preface my answer by saying that it’s important to connect with people who come from the same country as you, and who speak the same native language—there are psychological benefits that come from being able to easily express yourself and be understood. Even if you move to Japan and are highly motivated to learn Japanese, don’t feel like you are required to avoid relationships with other people who speak English.
That said, as far as breaking out of the bubble, my best advice is to pursue a hobby with Japanese speakers. You’ll develop friendships with people who may or may not speak fluent English. Over time and by necessity, you’ll speak Japanese more and more because you’ll want to learn about those people.
I also recommend doing your best to participate fully in your local community. I didn’t get to do this much because I was living in Tokyo, where people tend to politely ignore one another. But a lot of my friends and colleagues who lived in rural areas were very diligent about chipping in right away with community events. Engaging with those around you is a great way to develop Japanese language ability, and to learn the local dialect, which will often vary from hyojungo (the Tokyo dialect). You can foster a lot of goodwill and develop wonderful relations by actively engaging in your local community.
What is the most exciting aspect of your career right now?
I’m just finishing up a book about religion and public education that deals with both Japan and the United States. It’s my third book, and it feels like a maturation of sorts—I’ve really dialed in my writing voice and figured out a new way of pursuing some of the intellectual questions that have long excited me. And this book is a way of bringing together my two majors in college, which were religious studies and elementary education.
This is going to sound weird, but I’m also really excited about writing a book about taxes. [Laughs.] I believe that taxes are literally and figuratively the arena in which we establish our values, and it’s long perplexed me that organizations like religious institutions and universities are tax-exempt. I’m interested in thinking about the history of tax exemption as a strategy for governance, and the political economy of treating certain organizations as “special.” I think that working on this book will reveal for me—and hopefully for other people—a lot about what Japan and the United States value, and why.
Have mentors played a big role in your life and career?
Absolutely. An important early mentor of mine was named Edmund Gilday. He sparked my interest in religious studies and Japanese studies at Grinnell College. He also helped me figure out that college assignments were not about satisfying the professor, but about satisfying my own curiosity, which was a really important early lesson that helped me become the scholar I am today.
When I was getting ready to move from Iowa to Tokyo, he handed me a detailed bus map of Tokyo and said, “When you move there, you’re going to spend most of your time traveling underground, but you have to walk the city to really understand it. Places that seem far away by train are actually a short walk from one another.” That was fabulous advice. I wound up making a habit of wandering by foot around Tokyo, and it’s still one of my favorite things to do in the city.
Did you have other notable mentors?
My Master’s thesis advisor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, George Tanabe, Jr., provided a lot of academic encouragement and support. Without George’s mentorship, I might have just earned a Master’s degree and then fizzled out.
I also must credit him with one of the major opportunities of my career. When the University of Hawaii press asked George whether he wanted to write a book on manga and religion in Japan he said, “No, but I have a student who’s writing his thesis on this very topic. You should have him write the book.” As a result, my first book was published before I had a PhD. George facilitated that not just by brokering the introduction, but also by giving me very fierce comments about the manuscript. I’m utterly indebted to him for that rigorous level of training.
When I was in Japan, I received significant mentorship from a lot of my Japanese colleagues, too. Shimazono Susumu is a leading scholar in Japanese religion who took me under his wing. Fujiwara Satoko facilitated a stint at Tokyo University for me and is somebody with whom I’m still in close collaboration. And my doctoral supervisor at Princeton, Jackie Stone, is relentlessly curious and constantly interested in building positive relationships with Japanese scholars.
How can young people follow your example and connect with the right mentors in the U.S.-Japan relations space?
Every high school, college, and university is different. There may or may not be somebody at your institution who is a Japan specialist, or who has a connection with Japan. If there is, connect with that person as a first step. Then there’s always the option of cold-emailing people who might be able to give advice about language learning opportunities or study-abroad programs. Professors are very busy. We can sometimes be slow to respond to email. But I usually will take the time to respond to messages asking for that kind of advice.
Also, don’t cut yourself off from opportunities just because you don’t have the money, or because you think your family would never let you go. It’s important to take that first step, contact someone, and ask a question. After that, the next step becomes a lot easier.
If you’re interested in traveling to Japan, gather information and then talk with your family in a way that’s collaborative and focused on problem-solving. How can you work together to make a trip to Japan possible? Or go to your trusted mentors and say “I really want to do this program, but my family can’t afford it. Do you know any way that I might be able to get a scholarship?” Be courageous enough to ask questions like that, even if they feel potentially embarrassing. If you’re earnest and honest, a lot of times you will find people who are willing to help.
Can you elaborate on the idea that college assignments should be about satisfying the student’s curiosity, and not about satisfying the professor?
That’s a very important lesson; I wish I had learned it earlier. When I went to college, I was apathetic, and was more interested in partying than studying. I failed two courses. I was put on academic probation, and almost got kicked out. Then in my second year, everything clicked into place, largely because of that message I received from Edmund Gilday—that my college experience was really about me, and not my professors’ expectations.
I had another key epiphany thanks to Jean Ketter, one of my education professors at Grinnell—she taught me that instructors always hold something back from their students, and they do so to preserve their own authority. This helped me recognize that as a student, I was in a position of power. And as somebody who was preparing to be a teacher, I wanted to be very transparent with my students, and never hold anything back from them.
You write on your website that, as the son of a Black father and white mother, you often dealt with the “politely rude question ‘What are you?’” What advice can you offer to readers who find themselves facing similar challenges?
For me, the “what are you?” question prompted a lot of soul searching at a very early age about what it means to be interrogated about one’s existence. It also instilled in me a lot of sympathy for anyone who is similarly ambiguous. Humans rely on shortcuts such as racial categories, gender categories, and sexual orientation or preference. A lot of those shortcuts have built-in assumptions about normalcy and deviance. And I think we must always be vigilant about the assumptions we bring to our interactions and relationships. Even though humans rely on those shortcuts and assumptions, all of us are ambiguous in one way or another.
One of the simplest ways to address this issue is to set an example, and to act in the ways we want others to act. When you meet new people, you might replace the question “What are you?” with “What would help you feel whole?” or “What do you need to flourish in this space?” That sort of approach is more productive than trying to pigeonhole people, and it provides a strong model for others to follow.
The style and tone of your writing – on your website and social media – is smart and informative; but friendly, accessible, and engaging at the same time. How can young people follow your example and communicate effectively online?
If you’re using social media as a professional tool, recognize that it is not your journal, or a blog where you share your most intimate secrets. Other avenues exist for those sorts of writing. There’s a certain freedom that comes from sharing private thoughts with strangers on the Internet—but that’s not the primary way that I recommend using social media platforms. I also don’t recommend feeling like you need to engage with every person who responds to your posts. You don’t owe anybody on the Internet anything, especially if they’re bad-faith actors.
As an academic, I ask myself what key information I have that other people may not know, or if I might be able to disentangle and reinterpret a misleading story that downplays or excludes certain facts. If you focus on a couple of key questions that interest you, and provide information based on your expertise, you can have a very rich social media presence, and one that people will consistently find helpful.
It’s also important to write in a voice that’s accessible, as opposed to fussy and academic. Your job is to make everybody in the room feel smarter, and the way to do that is to communicate in plain and simple language. I sometimes forget that I have an expansive vocabulary, and I’ll default to complicated terms—but I always try to do so in a way that allows people to fill in the gaps and understand what I’m talking about, even if they don’t know the exact meanings of certain words.
Communicating effectively online is a discipline that takes practice, and a skill you can develop through work and practice. It’s a matter of writing, experimenting, and rewriting until you start to get consistent positive feedback.
Why is the relationship between the U.S. and Japan important?
As former military antagonists, the U.S. and Japan do a great job of demonstrating to the world how past conflicts can be overcome through hard work and alliance management. Even with economic competition between the countries—and the obvious power difference that followed World War II and America’s occupation of Japan—the countries still figured out an arrangement that allows them to interact as more or less equal partners. I find it inspiring that we’ve overcome major conflicts to develop such a tight friendship.
What are some key ways you see that relationship playing out today?
In terms of geopolitics, for better or worse, Japan has enabled the United States military to project power in the Asia-Pacific region. By locating bases on the Japanese archipelago, the U.S is able to provide a bulwark against the expansionist ambitions of some other countries in the region. This strategy dates back to the Cold War, and is partly due to the way Japan’s constitution talks about its military—those terms have been reinterpreted several times, but the military’s exact position is still ambiguous. Japan and the U.S. are utterly dependent on each other for global security. It’s a very complicated dynamic that’s characterized by a fraught but fascinating history—and that dynamic is still playing out today.
There’s also a huge amount of cultural cross-pollination between the countries. So many young Americans like me grew up watching ninja movies and falling in love with Japan—and today, anime and J-pop are the hooks that attract many young people to Japanese culture. We often think about Japan’s “soft power” culturally, how Japan has captured the interest of young U.S. citizens—but the U.S. has had similar impacts in Japan through jazz, folk music, fashion, and so many other aspects of American culture. That kind of mutual attraction fosters curiosity, which I would love to see manifest as even more students travel from one country to the other.