Jolyon Baraka Thomas

Jolyon Thomas Portrait

Associate Professor of Religious StudiesGraduate Studies Chair



213 Cohen Hall


Jolyon Thomas researches religion in Japan and the United States. His first book, Drawing on Tradition: Manga, Anime, and Religion in Contemporary Japan, appeared from University of Hawai`i Press in 2012. His 2019 University of Chicago Press monograph, Faking Liberties: Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan, received an Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion (Analytical-Descriptive Studies) from the American Academy of Religion in 2020. His third book, Difficult Subjects: Religion and the Politics of Public Schooling in Japan and the United States, is under contract with University of Chicago Press. Thomas is also co-editing The New Nanzan Guide to Japanese Religions.


Note from Prof. Thomas to prospective graduate school applicants:

I am actively recruiting advisees who are interested in the research areas listed below, and I am also open to advising dissertations on other topics related to religions in/of Japan, the United States, and their respective empires. All prospective applicants should read the "advice for prospective grad students" on my website before applying. 

For those interested in working on Japanese religions (my primary area of training, but not my only area of intellectual interest), I am particularly eager to mentor dissertations on politics, law, empire, media, and/or gender, race, and ethnicity. While I can mentor dissertations dealing with all time periods of Japanese history, I have a strong preference for topics that focus on the mid-nineteenth century to the present. Projects that overlap with Modernity, Science, and Secularism; Politics & Publics; and American Religions (including Asian American religions) are especially welcome. I like projects that aim to intervene in conversations about how we think about religion. 

For applicants who want to work on manga and anime, I prefer projects that study these products seriously as media and deal with the methods of production, industrial dynamics, and material forms these mediums take. Frankly, I am not interested in projects narrowly focused on one particular author or series, and it is a heavy lift to convince me that a full dissertation can be conducted on "religious themes" in manga or anime. I will be most persuaded by potential projects that use manga and/or anime to theorize about how we might understand religion in new ways, whether in Japan or outside of it. (Basically, I'm looking for projects that will correct for the many conceptual and theoretical flaws in my 2012 book.) Projects that connect with recent trends in the study of religion and visual/material culture will be the most competitive. Note that our department has particular strengths in the study of visual/material religion, so the right project could be a good fit not only with my expertise, but also with the strengths of other faculty members here.

I am particularly keen on building out our "Politics and Publics" research field. Projects that deal with such topics anywhere in the world are suitable, but the most competitive projects will deal with the US, Japan, or their respective empires (broadly conceived) and will build on existing RELS faculty strengths while pushing in directions beyond our individual areas of publication and research. Speaking strictly for myself, topics related to religion and the economy or religion and institutions (schools, hospitals, prisons, etc.) are especially welcome. Topics related to religion and law also highly encouraged, as are topics tying politics and publics to material culture.  

For those interested in "Modernity, Science, and Secularism," I am particularly keen on exploring secularism in its politico-economic forms, but I am open to all projects in this area. My current obsessions are schools and taxes.  

Office Hours
R 1–3

PhD, Religion, Princeton University (2014)
MA, Asian Religions, University of Hawaii at Manoa (2008)
BA, Religious Studies, Grinnell College (2001)

Research Interests

Religion and media (manga, anime, and live-action film)
Religion and law (especially but not exclusively religious freedom)
Religion and education (especially tax-funded education)
Religion and capitalism (especially related to land, taxes, and tax exemption)

Research Areas
(listed in alphabetical order)
American Religions
Asian Religions
Childhood, Gender, and Sexuality Studies
Material and Visual Culture
Modernity, Science, and Secularism
Politics and Publics
Courses Taught

FALL 2024

"Penitentiaries to PILOTs" (RELS 0088; a first-year seminar)



"Love and Sex in Buddhism" (RELS 3333/6333)

FALL 2023

"The Religion of Anime" (RELS 0790, CIMS 0790, EALC 1550)


"Penitentiaries to PILOTs: Religion and Institutions in Pennsylvania" (RELS 0088)

Selected Publications

Faking Liberties: Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019)

Drawing on Tradition: Manga, Anime, and Religion in Contemporary Japan (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2012)


"Why Scholars of Religion Must Investigate the Corporate Form," coauthored with Levi McLaughlin, Aike P. Rots, and Chika Watanabe, Journal of the American Academy of Religion 88, no. 3 (September 2020): 693–725. 

The Buddhist Virtues of Raging Lust and Crass Materialism in Contemporary Japan,” Material Religion 11, no. 4 (2016): 485–506.

Varieties of Religious Freedom in Japanese Buddhist Responses to the 1899 Religions Bill,” The Asian Journal of Law & Society 3, no. 1 (2016): 49–70.

"Free Inquiry and Japanese Buddhist Studies: The Case of Katō Totsudō," Japanese Religions 39, nos. 1–2 (2014): 31–51.

"Horrific 'Cults' and Comic Religion: Manga after Aum," Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 39, no. 1 (2012): 127–51.

Web Essays

A Study of American Kokutai (American Religion)

Corporate Profit Through Buddhist Kitsch (Sacred Matters)

Domesticity & Spirituality: Kondo is Not an Animist (The Marginalia Review of Books)

Even Religious Freedom Victories Harbor Defeats (Killing the Buddha)

Field Notes on Drinking at a Buddhist Bar (Sacred Matters)

Hitozukuri (Aeon)

Religious Freedom, Weapon of Choice (The Revealer)

Tongue in Cheek, Just in Case (Sacred Matters)

What Is Shintō? (

Work in Progress

Difficult Subjects: Religion, Politics, and Public Education under the US-Japan Security Alliance (under contract; currently revising after external review)

The New Nanzan Guide to Japanese Religions (co-edited with Matthew McMullen, Nanzan University; proofreading)

Animating Action (tentative title; co-authored with Yulia Frumer [Johns Hopkins University] and Aike P. Rots [University of Oslo])


  • American Academy of Religion
  • Association for Asian Studies (elected to the Northeast Asia Council for a three-year term, 2021–2024)
  • International Association for Buddhist Studies
  • Japanese Association for Religious Studies (Nihon Shūkyō Gakkai)
  • Society for the Study of Japanese Religions
  • Commissioner, Japan-US Friendship Commission and Panelist, US-Japan Conference on Cultural and Intellectual Interchange (CULCON)


CV (file)