Paola Cavaliere. Promising Practices: Women Volunteers in Contemporary Japanese Religious Civil Society. Leiden: Brill, 2015. 300 pp. $126.00 (paper), ISBN 978-90-04-28216-2.
Reviewed by Tim Graf (Heidelberg University)
Published on H-Japan (February, 2018)
Commissioned by Jessica Starling (Lewis & Clark College)
Gendered Civic Engagement in Contemporary Japan
In Promising Practices, Paola Cavaliere sheds light on the pragmatic and often unexpected ways that women in Japan today empower themselves through participation in religion-related volunteer groups. The monograph introduces volunteering as a source of women’s agency and suggests directions for understanding Japanese faith-based volunteer groups as venues for women’s social-identity construction. Eschewing pretense that religion merely works to oppress women, Cavaliere argues that within faith-based volunteer groups, defined by the author as “civil society organisations with an institutional affiliation with a religious organisation” (p. 1), understandings of gender are not merely derived from sponsoring religious institutions. Based on a survey and interviews, the book shows how women’s participation in volunteer groups sponsored by religious organizations challenges dominant gender stereotypes. Scholars and students will find Promising Practices useful for its presentation and analysis of data that demonstrates women’s efforts to expand their roles in society through volunteer activity. The social maps the author draws are valuable contributions to the scholarship on religions, particularly as the author’s approach also encompasses assessing how surveyed women volunteers negotiate policy issues pertaining to gender in interactions with neighborhood associations and governmental organizations.
It is through this focus on interactions between different civil society networks and public institutions that Cavaliere presents fascinating perspectives on what women do in their everyday lives as volunteers and how they see themselves in the world. My only real criticism of Promising Practices concerns the rather narrow yet vague focus on religiosity employed by the author, along with the little space that women volunteers were given to express themselves in their own words. Women’s religious beliefs and practices beyond the limited context of participation in faith-based volunteer groups are largely ignored. It is for these reasons that as a reader, I found it difficult at times to distinguish between the author’s explicit and implicit understandings of religion on the one hand, and the connotations ascribed to the term by her informants on the other. I will address some of the methodological and theoretical implications resulting from this choice of focus on religion further below.
Cavaliere’s study of women volunteers is based on a survey of eighty-two respondents in five faith-based volunteer groups sponsored by three different religious organizations in and around Tokyo: Shinnyoen and Risshō Kōseikai, which are two Buddhist New Religions, and the Roman Catholic Church of Japan. Forty-six women of different social backgrounds and age were interviewed by the author as part of her fieldwork. The book comprises six main chapters: chapter 1 outlines the state of research on gender, religion, and civil society factors. It also explores the tradition of maternalism. Chapter 2 examines the targeted volunteer groups and presents profiles of the religious organizations that sponsor the five surveyed faith-based volunteer groups. Chapter 3 introduces women volunteers in faith-based groups through the lens of the questionnaire and situates these findings by drawing on the scholarship on volunteering. Chapter 4 presents six life stories of seven women volunteers. In portraying their lives, the author demonstrates how women volunteers construct their identities and how they perceive their role in society. In chapter 5, the author aims to zoom in on the role of religiosity, as it relates or does not relate to women’s volunteering. Chapter 6 focuses on group dynamics, habitus, and group customs, examines interactions with external actors, as well as traces women volunteers’ trajectories. Three appendices provide additional information on the survey process, the interviewees, and other actors. The questionnaire and interviews, however, are not disclosed. “Interviewees,” Cavaliere explains, “describe their biographical experiences, the interaction inside and beyond the volunteer group, the relationships with the religious organisation, the ties they build, and the trajectories they attempt while engaging in social activities” (p. 10).
Contrary to what the book’s subtitle, Women Volunteers in Contemporary Japanese Religious Civil Society, might suggest, Promising Practices is primarily concerned with the interplay of civic engagement and gender-related factors in volunteering women’s constructions of social identity. The volume does not present broader perspectives on Japanese religious civil society and the social history of religious volunteering, nor does it go into detail about religious identity construction, the religious motivations of volunteers, or strategies of religious legitimization through volunteer activity. Temple Buddhist and Shinto-based volunteer associations are also not addressed, yet this is part of what makes Cavaliere’s study exceptional, as it draws our attention to some of the venues where women volunteers are currently most active. Within her focus on women’s activities, the author is able to show that the teachings of sponsoring religious organizations are not the driving reasons for women to join faith-based volunteer groups, which are “not necessarily of a religious character,” as Cavaliere explains, “nor are members exclusively religious affiliates” (p. 1).
This apparent absence of “faith” in faith-based groups should not come as a surprise, nor does it imply that women volunteers do not practice religion. The question is how faith and religion are being defined, and how these definitions relate to the choices being made about which aspects of religion are to be investigated in the context of volunteering in Japan. Over the past twenty years, scholars of Japanese religions have shown that religious practitioners are not necessarily familiar with the beliefs and norms of their affiliated religious institutions, nor are these institutions and their teachings monolithic. Picking up on this argument, Cavaliere avoids simplifying understandings of religion in discussing some of the conceptual problems resulting from understandings of religion as “belief.” At the same time, the author presumed that women volunteers would express themselves and their civic activism using religious terminology: “Because of their close relationship with the religious organization, it was expected that volunteers would talk about their civic duties in religious terms, at least occasionally” (p. 187). Counter to her initial expectations, however, Cavaliere explains that “the results largely invalidated this assumption” (p. 187). In any case, it would have been informative, and captivating, to learn more about the author’s self-reflective process, as including such content would have helped readers grasp how Cavaliere’s conception of religion altered in the course of her fieldwork and research. Here I wonder if shifts in assumptions about women’s religiosity affected the study’s methodology in any way, or the ways that questions on religion were framed.
Considering my own research on Buddhist prayer monasteries in Shizuoka and Kanagawa and Buddhist responses to the March 2011 disasters in the Tohoku area, I furthermore wonder how faith-based volunteer groups as explored by Cavaliere respond to regional needs, and whether women in rural areas express themselves and what they do with religion differently from volunteers in Tokyo. Being asked about their motives and practices, the representatives of temple support associations in rural areas that I interviewed often refrained from describing their practice as religious activity, nor did they describe themselves as volunteers. They also often did not know what Buddhist sect a prayer temple belonged to. But the same groups conducted annual visits to prayer monasteries, where members combined ludic and recreational activities with ritual prayers to local mountain ghosts on behalf of their local communities and purchased protective amulets for a later distribution back home. Some groups even help organize temple festivals, as well as invite priests to their neighborhoods for celebrations, where recreational activities blend with earnest religious commitment, community service, and opportunities for self-fulfillment, albeit without receiving much attention by scholars and the media. Interactions between local neighborhood associations and Buddhist prayer monasteries, moreover, suggest that careful consideration is needed when it comes to environmental characteristics and the profound role of material culture and locale in enabling the status of religious sites as hubs for civil society groups.
This is not to say that a discussion of religion-related civic activism requires an in-depth evaluation of material religion, nor to stress that a study of volunteering needs to be focused on rural communities, but rather to emphasize that much of what surveys and interviews reveal about individual religious beliefs and practices relates to how and under what kinds of circumstances such questions are framed. Here I suggest that providing some broader perspectives on religious civil society in Japan, along with a bit more context on the surveyed women’s religious identities, beliefs, and practices beyond their participation in faith-based volunteer groups would have been helpful for readers to grasp what religion entails in the eyes of informants. Chapter 5 on the elusive role of religiosity is, after all, only thirteen pages long, which makes it the shortest main chapter. Chapter 4 on women’s voices, by contrast, is sixty-six pages long, but it contains little that made women’s individual religious beliefs and practices tangible to me. Promising Practices presents fascinating perspectives on “how women participating in volunteering sponsored by religious organizations tended to use their religious identity strategically by sourcing purposely from the organization’s spiritual and practical resources as and when needed” (p. 223). But still I wonder why only the volunteer groups’ teachings and values—and within this context, only specific teachings, norms, and practices with a presumed connection to volunteering—were chosen as a framework for comparisons with women’s individual religious identities.
With that being said, it has to be stressed that assessing women volunteers’ religiosity did not constitute Cavaliere’s only goal for her study. The author is to be complimented for expanding the scope of research on religion, gender, and social activism to the hitherto understudied field of faith-based volunteer groups. The strongest part of the book, in my view, is its exploration of social maps and how women volunteers transfer skills and resources within and beyond faith-based volunteer groups in interactions with different civil society networks, governmental institutions, and other actors. The topology of faith-based volunteer groups promises to be fruitful for future studies on religion-related volunteering. In order to demonstrate the broader relevance of her findings, Cavaliere furthermore draws on general theoretical concepts of practice . In so doing, the author makes her work accessible to scholars of different disciplines. Perhaps a wider audience could have been reached, however, had the excellent theoretical reflections in Promising Practices been balanced with some more mundane perspectives. This could have been achieved by providing more space for volunteering women to express themselves in their own voices, or by adding self-reflective observations on the author’s role in the investigation. Lowering the book’s price might also make it more accessible. What Paola Cavaliere has to say about what women in Japan do—and don’t do—with religion in the context of volunteering is certainly of interest for women and men beyond academic circles.
In sum, I enjoyed Promising Practice for three important reasons: First, for illuminating how women’s agency plays out on the ground and showing how women make use of religion strategically to empower themselves. Second, for challenging scholarly claims that religions in contemporary Japan merely work to perpetuate and solidify persistent gender stereotypes. And finally, because the book invites us to understand faith-based volunteer groups as embedded networks. Paola Cavaliere’s study is remarkable in many ways, but what made this book stand out for me most was to learn how women in Japan today collaborate in transferring knowledge and resources within and across different types of volunteer organizations, neighborhood associations, and public institutions to make their own and other people’s lives better.
. For instance, concepts put forth in Anthony Giddens, The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1984); Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990), and Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York: Routledge, 1993); Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, Cambridge Studies in Social Anthropology no. 16 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977); and Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social an Introduction to Actor-network-theory, Clarendon Lectures in Management Studies (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).
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Tim Graf. Review of Cavaliere, Paola, Promising Practices: Women Volunteers in Contemporary Japanese Religious Civil Society.
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