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Interview with Timothy Smith, Research Award Recipient 2019

Each year, the recipients of the 20th Century Japan Research Awards visit the University of Maryland to use the materials in the Gordon W. Prange Collection. They often spend a week or more on campus. At the end of their stay, they are asked to reflect on their research experience.

One of the two recipients of the award for 2018-2019 is Timothy Smith, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His research topic is, Clean Minds, Messy Realities: Shifting Trends in Contemporary Tenrikyo.”


How did you learn about the research award, and why did you apply for it?

I first learned about the Twentieth Century Japan Research Award through a posting on H-Net, however, I was inspired to apply after hearing rave reviews from Jolyon Thomas, a past recipient  of the award. His latest book, Faking Liberties, addresses a number of topics related to my research. I also had noted a gap in our understanding of how the group I study, Tenrikyō, transitioned from a Shinto organization into its own unique religion in the post-war era. Ultimately, I applied hoping that I might find publications and records about Tenrikyō’s reorganization during the occupation – and thankfully, I found all of that, and so much more!

What motivated you to focus on this research topic?

I first started studying the history of Tenrikyō during my master’s program, out of an interest in the so-called “New Religions” of Japan, how such a category came to be, and what kind of impact being defined as a “New Religion” had on religious organizations.  As I worked on my thesis, I found that there were two major gaps in our understanding of Tenrikyō. First, I was struck by the lack of contemporary studies regarding Tenrikyō, leading me to conduct fieldwork among Tenrikyō communities today. Encountering a rising generation of young leaders who are seeking to reshape Tenrikyō to address the issues and concerns facing contemporary Japanese society, I wanted to contrast this with the post-war process of “restoration” within the religious organization. As Tenrikyō had become a form of “sectarian Shinto” in the years leading up to World War II, in the post war era, leaders of the organization sought to redefine themselves as separate from Shinto, yet also adapt their institutions to address the concerns of their time. Rather than a “return to the original,” “restoration” was redefined as a form of innovation.

This leads to the second gap in our understanding of Tenrikyō – the history of Tenrikyō in the immediate post-war era, and the way leaders of the organization grappled with balancing the restoration of practices and beliefs that had been suppressed in war-time Japan with introducing new, relevant programs and institutions that would appeal to and aid the post-war populace. This is the source of my somewhat strange project title: Tenrikyō believers seek to “sweep away the dusts of the mind,” to achieve happiness through “clean minds and hearts.” Yet, members today must  also face the messy realities of a Japan facing myriad forms of precarity, of flagging interest and trust in religious institutions, and of the internal struggles between innovators and traditionalists.

Which material in the Prange Collection left the biggest impression on you?

In general, I was amazed by the sheer variety of materials in the Prange Collection. Beyond books on a wide range of topics, the collection holds many newspapers, magazines, periodicals, posters, pamphlets, children’s books, and reference materials. I was especially surprised to find that the collection even contained materials like phone books and similar directories, things that we often think of as wholly disposable in our own time, but which could be invaluable for some researchers in the future!

More specifically, and somewhat more personally, I was surprised by a pair of letters I found in one of the books I was working with. Many of the materials in the Prange Collection contain ephemera related to the censorship process, including notes regarding mandatory revisions and deletions, and documents regarding author and publication details. This particular book had been compiled and published by the grandfather of a friend and interlocutor I had worked with during my fieldwork in Japan, and contained within were two letters detailing the publication and introducing himself as the person responsible for its compilation and publication, hand-written by his grandfather. It was incredible to find such a connection between the historical and ethnographic sides of my research.

How would you describe the research experience at the University of Maryland

Excellent! As I noted during the talk I gave while visiting campus, my biggest “complaint” is that I found far more material than I could possibly engage with in one visit – which is the best kind of problem to find oneself with! (I am already looking forward to visiting the Prange Collection again in the near future, to continue working through the long list of materials I have found – and to stumble upon even more unexpected finds beyond that list!) I have to thank Kana Jenkins and Amy Wasserstrom for their help in utilizing the Prange Collection to the fullest, as well as the kind support of all of the librarians, staff, and student workers in Special Collections. I was also happy to receive such a warm welcome from the UMD History Department, who gave me the opportunity to give a talk on my research while visiting. I received some great questions, advice, and feedback on my project from those in attendance, and I hope to stay in touch with the historians and   scholars of Japan I met at UMD for years to come.

Do you have any suggestions for fellow researchers using the collection?  

Do not hesitate in asking Kana and Amy for help! They are both incredibly kind, generous, and brilliant. The first morning I arrived at the University of Maryland, Kana was kind enough to give me a tour of the stacks, during which she showed me a number of materials related to my project that I would never have even thought to look for! From children’s books produced by Tenrikyō, demonstrating how younger generations of believers were being taught about their faith, to reference indexes listing all of the Tenrikyō churches extant during the occupation era, they were able to help me find a diverse array of materials that I would have otherwise overlooked.

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