Levi McLaughlin

Associate Professor, North Carolina State University

Bio and Research Interests

Religion, politics, Japanese studies, ethnography, disaster, music, aesthetics, and other topics


Books, articles, and other writing

Interviews, Podcasts, Activism, Other Media

Links to webinars and other resources


A path leads away from the black sand beach at Kujukurihama

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. He is expanding on his Soka Gakkai and Komeito research to examine 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 how life courses and institution-building take shape 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.


Please contact me via the links at the bottom of the page with questions about accessing publications.

Full CV


McLaughlin, Levi. Soka Gakkai’s Human Revolution: The Rise of a Mimetic Nation in Modern Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2019.

Edited Book

Ehrhardt, George, Axel Klein, Levi McLaughlin, and Steven S. Reed, eds. Kōmeitō: Religion and Politics in Japan. University of California, Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies Japan Research Monographs, 2014.

Edited Special Issue

Fountain, Philip, Levi McLaughlin, Michael Feener, and Patrick Daly, eds. “Salvage and Salvation: Religion, Disaster Response, and Reconstruction in Asia.” Asian Ethnology Vol. 75 No. 1 (June 2016)

Refereed Articles

McLaughlin, Levi, Aike P. Rots, Jolyon B. Thomas, and Chika Watanabe. "Why Scholars of Religion Must Investigate the Corporate Form." Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 88 Issue 3, 693-725 (September 2020)

McLaughlin, Levi. “Japanese Religious Responses to COVID-19: A Preliminary Report.” The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus Vol. 18 Issue 9 No. 3 (1 May 2020)

McLaughlin, Levi. “Hard Lessons Learned: Tracking Changes in Media Presentations of Religion and Religious Aid Mobilization After the 1995 and 2011 Disasters in Japan.” Asian Ethnology Vol. 75 No. 1 (June 2016), 105-138.

Fountain, Philip and Levi McLaughlin. “Salvage and Salvation: An Introduction.” Asian Ethnology Vol. 75 No. 1 (June 2016), 1-28.

McLaughlin, Levi. “Religion in Japan Since the 2011 Tsunami.” Oxford Handbooks Online (12 April 2016)

McLaughlin, Levi. “Komeito’s Soka Gakkai Protestors and Supporters: Religious Motivations for Political Activism in Contemporary Japan.” The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, Vol. 13, Issue 40, No. 1 (12 October 2015)

McLaughlin, Levi. “What Have Religious Groups Done After 3.11? Part 1: A Brief Survey of Religious Mobilization after the Great East Japan Earthquake Disasters.” Religion Compass 7/8 (August 2013), 294-308.

McLaughlin, Levi. “What Have Religious Groups Done After 3.11? Part 2: From Religious Mobilization to ‛Spiritual Care.’” Religion Compass 7/8 (August 2013), 309-325.

McLaughlin, Levi. “Did Aum Change Everything? What Sōka Gakkai Before, During, and After the Aum Shinrikyō Affair Tells Us About the Persistent ‛Otherness’ of New Religions in Japan.” Article for special issue “Japanese Religion Since 1995” of the Japanese Journal of Religious Studies. Erica Baffelli and Ian Reader, eds. (April 2012), 51-75.

McLaughlin, Levi. “All Research is Fieldwork: A Practical Introduction to Studying in Japan as a Foreign Researcher.” The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus Vol. 30, Issue 1, No. 10 (26 July 2010)

McLaughlin, Levi. “Faith and Practice: Bringing Religion, Music and Beethoven to Life in Soka Gakkai.” Social Science Japan Journal 6-2 (October 2003), 161-179.

Refereed Chapters

McLaughlin, Levi. "Disasters." In
Baffelli, Erica, Andrea Castiglioni, and Fabio Rambelli, eds. The Bloomsbury Handbook of Japanese Religions. London: Bloomsbury, 2021, 27-34.

McLaughlin, Levi. "Soka Gakkai's Impact on Constitutional Revision Attempts." In Hardacre, Helen, Timothy S. George, Keigo Komamura, and Franziska Seraphim, eds. Japanese Constitutional Revisionism and Civic Activism. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2021, 161-174.

McLaughlin, Levi. “The Soka Gakkai Economy: Measuring Cycles of Exchange That Power Japan’s Largest Buddhist Lay Organization.” In Brox, Trine and Elizabeth Williams-Oerberg, eds. Buddhism and Business: Merit, Material Wealth, and Morality in the Global Market Economy. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2020, 76-92.

McLaughlin, Levi. “Electioneering as Religious Practice: A History of Sōka Gakkai’s Political Activities to 1970.” In Ehrhardt et al., eds. Kōmeitō: Politics and Religion in Japan. Berkeley: IEAS, 2014, 51-82.

Ehrhardt, George, Axel Klein, Levi McLaughlin, and Steven Reed. “Kōmeitō: The Most Understudied Party of Japanese Politics.” In Ehrhardt et al., eds. Kōmeitō: Politics and Religion in Japan. Berkeley: IEAS, 2014, 3-22.

Ehrhardt, George, Axel Klein, Levi McLaughlin, and Steven Reed. “Kōmeitō: Politics and Religion in Japan.” In Ehrhardt et al., eds. Kōmeitō: Politics and Religion in Japan. Berkeley: IEAS, 2014, 269-275.

McLaughlin, Levi. “Sōka Gakkai in Japan.” In Prohl, Inken and John Nelson, eds. Brill Handbook of Contemporary Japanese Religion. Brill: Handbooks on Contemporary Religion, 2012, 269-308.

Selected Invited Publications

McLaughlin, Levi. "How to Do Fieldwork: Studying Japan In and Outside Japan." In Kottman, Nora and Cornelia Reiher, eds. Studying Japan: Research Designs, Fieldwork and Methods. Baden Baden: Nomos, 2020, 149-160.

Klein, Axel, and Levi McLaughlin. “Kōmeitō 2017: New Complications.” In Pekkanen, Robert J. et al., eds. Japan Decides 2017: The Japanese General Election. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018, 53-76.

McLaughlin, Levi. “Japan’s Ruling Coalition Gets Religion.” Essay in New Perspectives on Japan from the U.S.-Japan Network for the Future. Washington, D.C.: The Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation, 9 June 2016, 29-34.

Klein, Axel, Levi McLaughlin, and Steven R. Reed. “The Power of Japan’s Religious Party.” Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 4 December 2014.

McLaughlin, Levi. “Sōka Gakkai.” Encyclopedia entry for the World Religions & Spirituality Project hosted by Virginia Commonwealth University (David Bromley, ed.). Posted 1 December 2013.

McLaughlin, Levi. “Reconnecting with Everyday Life: Buddhism through Simple Gestures in the Café de Monk.” Dharma World Vol. 40 (July-September 2013), 22-25.

McLaughlin, Levi. “Tokyo Governor Says Tsunami is Divine Punishment – Religious Groups Ignore Him.” Religion Dispatches 17 March 2011.

McLaughlin, Levi. “SGI-USA no kokujin myūjishantachi” (African-American Musicians in SGI-USA). In Shūkyō to gendai ga wakaru hon 2011. Tokyo: Heibonsha, 2011, 168-173 (in Japanese).

McLaughlin, Levi. “Shinkō to ongaku no yūwa o mitomete: watashi no deatta sōka gakkai ōkesutora” (Toward a Harmonization of Religious Practice and Music: My Encounter with a Soka Gakkai Orchestra). Sekai (June 2004), 182-189 (in Japanese).

Refereed Translation

McLaughlin, Levi. “Using Buddhist Resources in Post-disaster Japan: Taniyama Yōzō’s ‘Vihāra Priests and Buddhist Chaplains.’” In Salguero, Pierce, ed., Buddhism and Medicine: An Anthology of Modern Sources. New York: Columbia University Press, 2019, 164-176.

Interviews, Podcasts, and Other Media

“Buddhism in the Pandemic.” Pedagogy webinar hosted by The Jivaka Project.

“Japanese Religions in Times of Crisis.” Webinar roundtable hosted by the University of California San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy.

Petition to the Association for Asian Studies Board of Directors to engage in concrete measures against anti-Black racism and to foster a new generation of Black Asia scholars.

“Michigan Talks Japan” Episode One.

“Religious Responses to COVID-19.” Japan on the Record podcast.

“Soka Gakkai’s Human Revolution.” New Books in East Asian Studies podcast.

“Soka Gakkai, Kōmeitō and the religious voices of Japan’s political arena.” The Religious Studies Project

“Canadian scholar casts light on Soka Gakkai as group shows change.” Reprinted as “Soka Gakkai expert casts light on Buddhist group’s struggles since enactment of 2015 security laws” in The Japan Times (print and electronic editions) 7 January 2018.

MeaningofLifetv interview on bloggingheads.com.

“Religion and Politics in Japan: A Conversation with Religion Scholar Levi McLaughlin.”