From marxism to religion:Thought crimes and forced conversions in imperial Japan

Adam Lyons

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


This article examines the role of prison chaplains in the forced conversion (tenkō) of political prisoners in imperial Japan in the wake of the repressive Peace Preservation Law of 1925. The records of the Shin Buddhist prison chaplaincy indicate that chaplains understood tenkō as a religious problem. Shin chaplains contributed to public order by converting politically disruptive and criminalized beliefs (that is, commitments to Marxism) into socially acceptable religious aspirations contained in an apolitical private realm. Correctional bureaucrats and Shin chaplains sought to discourage political activism by supplanting it with introspection, and they understood this turn as an effect of religion. The success of tenkō programs was taken as evidence of religions’ capacity to contribute to the public good. The article concludes that the most enduring legacy of the tenkō program was the development of Japan’s modern probation system for adult offenders initiated by the passage of the Thought Criminals Protection and Surveillance Law of 1936.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)193-218
Number of pages26
JournalJapanese Journal of Religious Studies
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2019
Externally publishedYes


  • Peace Preservation Law
  • Prison chaplaincy
  • Religion and state
  • Shin Buddhism
  • Tenkō
  • Thought crimes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Religious studies


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