Robert Bellah's Search for Community and Ethical Modernity in Japan Studies

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This article explores Robert Bellah's engagement with Japan in formulating his communitarian critique of American individualism. Bellah's early contribution to post-World War II modernization studies, Tokugawa Religion: The Cultural Roots of Modern Japan, embraced the Weberian framework of social development, but it also described a system that departed from Weber's narrative of liberalization and rationalization in important ways. Bellah argued that in early modern Japan, the profit motive was contained by social obligations and ethical rules. Through his explorations of Japan, Bellah articulated a critique of liberal individualism, drawing on Japanese cultural nationalism in his search for a modern, capitalist system that could be contained by overarching cultural and moral values. One finds a surprising resonance between Bellah's ideal of American civil religion and the ideas of interwar philosopher Watsuji Tetsurō and Watsuji's own critique of liberalism and popular democracy as lacking cultural foundations. Bellah's engagement with Watsuji reveals the tensions within Bellah's thought and in his subsequent call for community in America as a means of overcoming the excesses of American individualism. This article considers both the contributions and the limits of Bellah's attempt to invoke Japan as an alternative modernity in Japan studies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)467-494
Number of pages28
JournalJournal of Asian Studies
Issue number2
StatePublished - May 1 2016

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Cultural Studies
  • History


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