Buddhism in Japan

Edo-Period Buddhism as Part of the Apparatus of Shogunal Control


The many new Buddhist sects that arose during the Kamakura period competed ruthlessly for influence and supremacy during the tumultuous centuries that followed. But with the return of centralized government control in the Edo period (1603–1868) the sects were brought together under the authority of the powerful shogunate. This was a time of stability and consolidation for Japanese Buddhism, which became an important part of the political apparatus, helping the government keep tabs on the population and playing an important role in tax collection.

From Conflict to Stability

Buddhism in Japan today is made up of many different sects or schools, each with its own set of teachings, normally drawing on traditions and doctrines associated with a particular set of sutras. Most of these sects came to prominence during the Kamakura period (1185–1333), during the years of diversification of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In many cases, each sect drew support from a particular social class. The sects successfully maintained their own teachings and networks of temples with the support of the faithful, each drawing from a different stratum of society. It was during this period that the understanding of Buddhism as a set of teachings that could help alleviate human suffering became widespread throughout Japanese society. This marked a new phase in the history of Buddhism in Japan, as people from different classes across society embraced the teachings.

In the sense that Buddhism became widespread, of course this popularization of the faith was a positive thing. But the Buddhism that permeated society at this time was not a unified religion, but an amalgam of different schools, each with its own set of doctrines and beliefs. If we focus on this aspect, the medieval period can be seen as one in which the sectarian struggle became more serious. Japanese society shifted from a society dominated by the aristocracy to a more composite and inclusive power structure that incorporated the newly dominant samurai class, as well as farmers and merchants. Buddhism kept step with these changes, and became a more composite, competitive community, with the various sects supported by their adherents from different sectors of society.

The antagonisms and conflicts between the sects led developed on a variety of levels, from doctrinal debates on street corners to actual violence between armed militias. Of course, on an individual level, there were many monks who remained above the fray and behaved with understanding and tolerance toward other sects. But in general, the medieval period was a time of ongoing, regular conflict, with the various sects vying for supremacy and dominance.

This era of conflict and confusion, with nobles, warriors, merchants, and farmers all involved in the struggle for dominance, continued until the sixteenth century. But when the Tokugawa shogunate reunited the country under a strong centralized government, these conflicts were brought under control and an era of political stability began. Until the sixteenth century, when power was dispersed, the Buddhist sects sheltered under the protection of the various authorities and competed for power. But once political authority was consolidated, the situation changed, and the sects were brought under the authority of the shogunate.

The Edo Period lasted for some 250 years, from the early seventeenth century until the second half of the nineteenth. During this time, Buddhism in Japan enjoyed a long period of stability.

Temples as Part of the Apparatus of Government Control

Unifying the disparate world of Japanese Buddhism was not part of the shogunate’s plans. The authorities were interested in Buddhism for their own purposes, and were eager to tap its potential as a tool for helping to rule the country and maintain order in society. The basic policies of the shogunate were as follows.

First, grant the sects a certain degree of economic wealth and religious authority, both to limit discontent and to ensure that the sects submitted to government authority. Second, tap the potential of the huge number of Buddhist temples situated in every part of the country to monitor and control the population on an individual or household level. And third, use Buddhism as a religious bulwark to protect the country against Christianity, whose adherents the government suspected of forming a vanguard for Western forces who wanted to invade and conquer Japan.

These policies suited the interests of Buddhism too, and the sects were happy to conform. As a result, there were no major conflicts or disturbances involving Buddhism during the Edo period, and the sects enjoyed stability and prosperity while carrying on their religious activities in line with government policy. Two systems that came into being during this period survive into the present and continue to play an important role in Japanese Buddhism to this day.

The Main Temple-Branch Temple System (Honzan Matsuji Seido)

On instructions from the shogunate, all the temples in each sect were ranked, and a strict hierarchy was imposed, with a main temple (honzan) at the head of a number of branch temples (matsuji). The pyramid-like hierarchy that still exists in Japanese Buddhism today is a survival of this system. This system made it easy for the shogunate to control Buddhism and its adherents. In the original form of Buddhism as it was founded by Shakyamuni in India, all members of the sangha, or community of monks, were equal, and a hierarchy would have been unthinkable. From the Edo period, this system imposed a strict ranking on all temples, and even led to the emergence of a similar hierarchy among the monks who belonged to the temples. These developments introduced into Japanese Buddhism a new element of discrimination according to rank.

The Parishioner System (Danka Seido)

This government-mandated system required everyone in the country to register details of their family as danka (parishioners) with the local Buddhist temple. This system gave the shogunate access to personal information about people on a household level, making it easier to keep tabs on the population. Information on individuals—births, deaths, marriages, travel, and details of when someone moved house—was kept in temple records. This made the temples extremely valuable to the government, as essential parts of its apparatus for monitoring and controlling the population. Because the system was applied on a family basis, it was no longer possible for individuals to choose a temple based on their own beliefs. Once a family was registered with a certain temple or sect, that was normally it: Subsequent generations of the family automatically would continue to be members of the same temple. Even today, it is common for Japanese people to ask, “What sect is your family?” or “What temple do you belong to?” That these questions are still routine shows that this system continues to function even today.

One important purpose of the danka system was to flush out any Christians who might still be clinging to their outlawed faith. By tying the entire population to a Buddhist temple, the system sought to make life difficult for Christians. But many Christians stayed true to their faith in secret even while pretending to go along with the rules. Although the two and a half centuries of the Edo period are often portrayed as a time of peace, for Japan’s Christians, they were a time of harsh and unforgiving religious persecution.

Operating under the authority of the shogunate changed the nature of Japanese Buddhism profoundly. The religion lost the energy and ambition that had pushed it to expand as much as possible in earlier times. Instead, Buddhism was now content to live peacefully in line with the status quo. In a sense, this marked a return to the conditions of early Buddhism, when Shakyamuni’s community of monks had kept themselves to themselves and lived peacefully under the protection of locally powerful figures. But there was a major difference. Japanese Buddhism in the Edo period was left undisturbed because it had been coopted into the political systems of shogunal power. Secular activities were now an essential part of the work of Buddhist temples, which played an important role in collecting taxes and ensuring that people toed the line.

Buddhism as a Subject for Scholarship

At the same time, this period of peace and stability encouraged people to study Buddhism more objectively, and scholars became interested in trying to understand the true nature of the Buddhist religion. Let me list just a few of the important scholarly developments in this period.

Scholarly Analysis of Buddhist Texts

Many scholar monks made important contributions to the understanding of Buddhism during this period. They subjected the vast corpus of Buddhist texts to rigorous and scrupulous philological study, producing scholarly editions of them, and developing Buddhist studies as a worthy field of scholarship. The texts they used were limited to the Chinese translations of the Buddhist texts—very few scholars in Japan at the time had access to texts in Indian languages—but even so, a new perspective was established that treated Buddhism as a subject for serious study.

Movements to Restore the Vinaya Pitaka

As I have mentioned before in this series, one of the things that made Buddhism in Japan unusual was that there was no true sangha, or community of priests. The Vinaya Pitaka code that was designed to maintain discipline and order within the sangha had no effective force in Japan. During this period, some monks began to recognize the disadvantages of this deficiency, and this led to a movement to bring Buddhism closer to the original teachings of the historical Buddha. This movement was particularly pronounced in the Shingon sect. Ultimately, this movement did not lead to a revival of a true sangha in Japan. But it did at least give birth to a community of monks, albeit few in number, who understood that a Buddhism that lacked a true sangha was missing something essential to its true nature.

Reexamination of the Mahayana Corpus

People who were not practicing Buddhists, or who resented the position of power and prestige that Buddhism enjoyed under Tokugawa rule, also started to study the religion from a critical viewpoint. These skeptical scholars were the first to put forward the view that the contents of the Mahayana canon did not represent the true teachings of the historical Buddha. Perhaps the most influential of these scholars was Tominaga Nakamoto (1715–46). Tominaga carried out an objective analysis of Buddhist scriptures and argued based on the textual evidence that the Mahayana sutras and related commentaries were not the words of the historical Shakyamuni but had in fact been written over a period of many centuries by a diverse authorship quite distant in time and space from the historical Buddha. Not surprisingly, this theory provoked an angry rebuttal from the Buddhist authorities of the time. But Tominaga’s work was reevaluated during the Meiji era (1868–1912), and today is regarded as one of the most impressive discoveries in Japanese intellectual history.

By and large, the Edo period was a good one for Japanese Buddhism, which solidified its position and prestige under the protection of the shogunate. But when Tokugawa rule crumbled in the 1860s, the revolutionary fervor that swept the country brought dramatic change to almost all aspects of national life. Even Buddhism was not immune to these upheavals. In fact, the religion was about to face perhaps its greatest crisis since its arrival in Japan, as we will see in the next installment in this series.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: A priest addresses family members at a Buddhist funeral. Many families in Japan today still belong to the same Buddhist sect and temple to which they were allocated by the danka system in the Edo period. © Pixta.)

religion Buddhism history Edo period