Levi McLaughlin is Associate Professor at the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at North Carolina State University. He received his Ph.D. from Princeton University after previous study at the University of Tokyo, and he holds a B.A. and M.A. in East Asian Studies from the University of Toronto. He has worked as a research assistant at Kokugakuin University in Tokyo and was a visiting research fellow at the University of Michigan’s Center for Japanese Studies, the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore, and the Center for Asian and Pacific Studies at the University of Iowa. He was previously an Assistant Professor of Religion at Wofford College.
Levi’s research focuses primarily on religion in modern and contemporary Japan and considers how the category “religion” takes shape in the contexts of politics, education, and related spheres. He is the first non-member, non-Japanese researcher to spend years as a participant observer of Soka Gakkai, a highly influential lay Buddhist organization that is affiliated with the political party Komeito (part of Japan’s governing coalition) and claims the largest membership of any modern Japanese religious organization. His publications and presentations to date have centered on grassroots-level experiences of Soka Gakkai members, and his work considers how this organization challenges widely accepted religion parameters through its doctrinal, cultural, and political initiatives.
His most recent scholarship builds on this project to investigate religious dimensions of contemporary Japanese politics by expanding on his Soka Gakkai and Komeito research to investigate a burgeoning network of religious and religion-affiliated nationalists who wield significant influence on government in Japan today through Shinto organizations, ethics training groups, corporations, and other ideologically motivated activism. This work includes ethnographic and documentary investigations of Nippon Kaigi, the Association of Shinto Shrines, and numerous affiliated organizations and individual activists.
Since 2011, Levi has examined religious responses to earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disasters in Japan. This has taken him to the evacuation zones of Fukushima and into family homes in temporary housing facilities adjacent to communities devastated by the tsunami across Japan’s northeast. He has published and presented widely on this topic and is now applying his findings to theoretical investigations of ways post-disaster religious aid initiatives in Japan are contributing to global discourses on healing, spirituality, and trauma. Most recently, he has written and presented on religious dimensions of Japan’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Forthcoming publications return to Levi’s earliest research endeavors, which built on his long-term ethnographic engagement as a violinist within Soka Gakkai musical ensembles. Future writing will include analyses of aesthetics, performance, and their effect on life courses and institution-building within religious organizations.
Articles and book chapters by Levi appear in English and Japanese in The Asia-Pacific Journal, Asian Ethnology, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Sekai, the Social Science Japan Journal, and other publications. Levi is co-author and co-editor of Kōmeitō: Politics and Religion in Japan (IEAS Berkeley, 2014) and co-editor of the special issue “Salvage and Salvation: Religion and Disaster Relief in Asia” (Asian Ethnology, June 2016). His book Soka Gakkai’s Human Revolution: The Rise of a Mimetic Nation in Modern Japan was published by the University of Hawai`i Press in 2019.
Levi teaches courses on Asian religions (particularly traditions of Japan and China), the history of modern Asia, theories and methodologies of the study of religion, religion and politics, Buddhism, the anthropology of religion, fieldwork methodology, and religion and development.
Ph.D. Religion Princeton University 2009
M.A. East Asian Studies University of Toronto 1998
B.A. Japanese Studies University of Toronto 1996
Area(s) of Expertise
Asian religions (particularly traditions of Japan and China), history of modern Asia, theories and methodologies of the study of religion, religion and politics in Asia, Buddhism, anthropology of religion, fieldwork methodology, and religion and development.