Buddhism in Japan

The Meiji Restoration and the Secularization of Buddhism


After the Meiji Restoration, the government sought to promote Shintō as the sole religious foundation of a new nationalist cult centered on the figure of the emperor. Buddhism became a willing collaborator in this enterprise. Major changes to long-established practices took place, as Japanese Buddhism developed into a secularized organization espousing doctrines far removed from the original teachings of Shakyamuni.

Removing Buddhism from the Center of Power

During the Edo period, Japanese Buddhism worked with the shogunate and enjoyed a position of influence and authority in society. But as political power shifted from the samurai class to the emperor following the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the position of Buddhism suddenly became unstable. The new government’s policy was to use a modernized form of Shintō, Japan’s indigenous religious tradition, to bolster centralized state control under the figure of the emperor. To a large extent, this policy was inspired by the example of the European powers, which had built their modern colonial empires on the foundations of Christianity.

For centuries, Buddhism in Japan had existed alongside Shintō, and the two traditions had become closely intwined, resulting in a unique form of syncretism. During the Edo period, Buddhism had if anything held the upper hand in its relations with Shintō—but now, the tables were turned, and Buddhism was regarded as an obstacle standing in the way of government policy. The Meiji government needed a way to remove Buddhism from the structure of power and elevate Shintō to a position of unrivaled precedence.

The government issued an order legally separating Buddhism and Shintō, which had been intricately bound together as part of the power structure during the Edo period. The purpose of the law was not to press people to abandon their Buddhist faith, but to weaken the ties that bound Buddhism to state power.

But the close relationship that Buddhism had enjoyed with government control during the days of the shogunate had led to widespread resentment of the religion, and these frustrations exploded following the new law separating Buddhism and Shintō. A wave of anti-Buddhist violence spread throughout the country. This movement, known as haibutsu kishaku in Japanese, led to the destruction of numerous Buddhist temples and the ejection of Buddhist priests from positions of power. In some areas, almost all the Buddhist temples—sometimes numbering more than a thousand in a single region—were destroyed or seriously damaged.

Subsumed by State Shintō

The haibutsu kishaku movement brought widespread devastation, but also presented an ideal opportunity for reform. Buddhism could no longer count on the generous protection it had enjoyed from the shogunal government—and had also lost the support of the masses. How was Buddhism to survive and develop without this support? The different sects of Japanese Buddhism now began to look for new ways forward.

At first, the Meiji government planned to use Shintō as the sole religious foundation for the new emperor-centered government. But masses of important information about the population, including details of births, deaths, marriages, travel, and migration, remained concentrated in Buddhist temples under the danka system of parishioner registration. Dismantling this system would have presented formidable difficulties, and eventually the government changed its mind about Buddhism, realizing that it could potentially provide useful assistance in solidifying government control. The government started to think of Buddhism as an important partner in governing the country. State Shintō was by now regarded not simply as a religion but as symbolic of the essence of the Japanese state. Buddhism, meanwhile, was recognized as an officially approved religion, whose job was to serve and work alongside the national government.

This policy suited Buddhism, which had been reduced to a low point by the iconoclastic violence that followed the Meiji Restoration. Sects like the Nishi Honganji school took a lead in developing positive relations with the Meiji government, developing new strands of Buddhist thought that combined elements of State Shintō with more traditional Buddhist teachings, and started to concentrate on providing support for the Meiji government, such as by developing new doctrines that presented the emperor as a living embodiment of the Buddha.

Behind this collaborative relationship between the Meiji government and the Buddhist sects lay an apprehensiveness about Western nations, which seemed set to dominate the world through a power structure built on the Christian faith. Both the government and the Buddhist sects regarded Christianity as the advance guard of Western imperialism, and they were determined to resist. Both parties agreed on the need to work together to keep Christianity from gaining a foothold and extending its influence in Japan. This policy of trying to restrict Christian influence later crumbled in the face of pressure from the Western powers, though, and Christianity eventually found wide acceptance—if not widespread belief—in Japan. Ironically, however, not long after this even the Christian churches that had put down roots in Japan were coopted into the emperor-centered system of State Shintō. This system of spiritual control, deliberately constructed by the government, had swallowed all other religious organizations in the country, including Buddhist and Christian sects.

The Secular Trap

Let’s return to the early years of the Meiji era. Five years after issuing the edict legally separating Buddhism and Shintō in 1868, the Meiji government came to realize that it could use Buddhism as a partner in governing the country and maintaining control. The government issued an astonishing new edict, decreeing that henceforth Buddhist priests would be allowed to eat meat and get formally married.

The state basically gave a guarantee that anyone who held formal qualifications as a Buddhist priest would be recognized as such, even if he was living a secular life. This edict marked a pivotal moment in the history of Japanese Buddhism, essentially severing the tradition in Japan from Buddhism as it was practiced elsewhere in East Asia.

The Buddha did not forbid monks from eating meat given to them as alms, and in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, where many monks still live as mendicants today, it is accepted that monks may eat meat as long as they are not implicated in the actual slaughter. This was the original lifestyle of Buddhist monks in the earliest days of the religion. But in China and the other Mahayana countries of East Asia, a widespread norm held that Buddhist priests should abstain from eating meat out of respect for all sentient beings.

Japan inherited this tradition and, at least officially, priests were supposed to be vegetarian. With this new edict, the new government scrapped the tradition that priests should avoid meat and remain celibate. The government now said that there was no reason why Buddhist priests should not eat meat, marry, and have children. Obviously, one of the effects of this new ruling was to strip Buddhism of its aura of sanctity and spirituality, and to bring priests down to the same level as the laity. It was a cleverly conceived trap by the Meiji government to deprive Buddhism of its authority and to concentrate prestige in the figure of the emperor.

Japanese Buddhism plunged right into the trap, eagerly embracing the secular lifestyle. Although some priests rejected this edict and preferred to maintain the “purity” of Buddhism, most chose to go along with government guidance and adopted a secularized lifestyle as regular members of society, rather than opting to defend their pride as Buddhist priests.

Once again, we are reminded of one of the things that make Japanese Buddhism different from the traditions in other countries: its lack of the Vinaya Pitaka disciplinary code for the sangha. If Japanese monks and priests had been living in accordance with the teachings of this moral code, surely this government edict would have triggered a serious debate within the sangha. Which was more important: a ruling issued by the national government or the teachings of the Vinaya Pitaka established by Shakyamuni? Surely the view that the sacred teachings should take precedence would have carried the day. And perhaps the sangha would have submitted a petition to the government, pointing out that the new edict was unacceptable as it contravened the disciplinary code that had governed regulated the conduct of Buddhist monks for 2,500 years, and asking the government to retract the edict.

In fact, no such debate took place. Although some people objected to the edict, Japanese Buddhism as a whole chose to discard its sacred character and adopt a secular mode of life. That this was possible at all was a consequence of Japanese Buddhism’s failure to not to introduce the Vinaya Pitaka code to guide the conduct of monks and guarantee the purity and sanctity of the community. The Meiji government unfailingly fixed on the biggest vulnerability of Japanese Buddhism and succeeded in driving the religion out of the center of political influence.

Buddhism and Complicity in War

Having lost its aura of sanctity and become just another member of secular society, Japanese Buddhism became transformed into a kind of professional organization whose role was to cooperate with the government in defending the nation and supporting the emperor-based system of state control. Later, when Japan turned to militarism, the various sects all cooperated in the war effort, raising funds for the fighting, pressing the faithful to join the armed forces, and even teaching that dying for your country represented the supreme path to paradise. Buddhism became shamelessly complicit in a whole range of immoral behaviors that would never have been sanctioned by the Vinaya Pitaka.

But when Japan surrendered unconditionally to the Allies in 1945, the motivation for these behaviors collapsed and Japanese Buddhism was left stranded without any moral purpose. The state authority and the protection it provided had vanished, and Buddhism had already opted to discard much of its religious aura. The direction of political policy in the postwar years was to exclude religion from public settings. With its scope for activity in the public sphere now limited, Japanese Buddhism was forced to find a new role for itself. In the years that followed, Japanese Buddhism made a new start, building on the danka system of registered households that still survived from the Edo period and that now represented its only possible hope of economic survival.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Decapitated Buddhist images, victims of desecration in the wave of anti-Buddhist iconoclastic violence that swept the country following the Meiji Restoration. (© Photolibrary.)

religion Buddhism Shintō history Meiji Restoration