Ernils Larsson receives Donner Institute Research Prize 2020

Ernils Larsson has been awarded the Donner Institute’s 2020 research prize for his doctoral thesis on the relationship between state and religion in Japan based on how the nation’s courts have reasoned in legal disputes related to Shinto. In total, eight research publications were nominated for the prize.

Japan’s Constitution prohibits the Japanese state from engaging in religious activities or using public funds to fund religious institutions and activities. But where is the line between religion and tradition? Should Shinto, which was Japan’s state religion until World War II, be considered a religion or as part of Japan’s national identity? At the heart of his doctoral thesis Rituals of a Secular Nation: Shinto Normativity and the Separation of Religion and State in Postwar Japan (2020), Larsson (Uppsala University) examines how Japan’s courts have dealt with the role of Shinto in the public sphere.

After World War II, in 1947, the so-called “Shinto Directive” was issued in Japan, which meant a complete change in the status of Shinto. In practice, the directive meant that Shinto went from being part of the national identity to a religion that citizens could engage in privately. Far from everyone is happy with the Shinto Directive. The question of whether practices at Shinto shrines are considered religion or tradition has been highlighted in many legal cases since Japan regained its independence in 1952, and remains an issue of great political importance.

Religion and law are an exciting field of research, not least because it raises the question of who has the right to define religion. What happens when different views on how religion should be understood meet in a context that requires a straight answer? Where some Japanese see a religion, others see a tradition or cultural expression. And who’s right? The legal cases that I have worked on reflect a larger conflict over Japanese identity, with great relevance to the political development in the country, says Ernils Larsson.

Ernils Larsson received a doctoral scholarship from the Donner Institute in 2019 to complete the doctoral thesis that has now been awarded this year’s research prize.

About the Donner Institute Research Prize

The Donner Institute’s research prize, worth 5,000 euros, recognises outstanding research in the field of religious studies at a Nordic university. The prize has been awarded since 2010. This year, eight nominations were submitted by professors, supervisors,and researchers in the field between 20April and 31 May 2020.

The Board of the Institute notes the following in its prize motivation:

Larssonresearch has been carefully conducted. His material is written in Japanese. It is therefore a demanding task for a Nordic researcher. His analyses are solid and appropriately motivated. The work is pedagogically wellstructured. It is easy for the reader to imagine the situation in postwar Japan that is relevant to the purpose of the book. In the last chapter, Larsson conducts an important critical discussion about the possibilities of using the term religion’ in a meaningful way in legislation. He thus touches on conceptual issues that the ongoing discussion on post-secularity raises.

The Donner Institute for Research in Religion and Culture is a private research institute in connection with Åbo Akademi University Foundation. The Institute’s activities have two main areas: research and library activities. The Donner Institute’s research library is the largest in its field in the Nordic region and is open to the public. The research focuses on the field of religion in a broad sense.

Ernils Larsson’s doctoral thesis Rituals of a Secular Nation: Shinto Normativity and the Separation of Religion and State in Postwar Japan is available in the Donner Institute’s research library.

See also this article in which Ernils Larsson describes his research (in Swedish).

For more information, please contact Ruth Illman, Director of the Donner Institutefor Research in Religion and Culture: tel. +358 50 517 5917, e-mail: