Meiji Buddhist Reform

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The collapse of the Tokugawa regime and the wave of changes accompanying the restoration of imperial rule and the formation of a new government at the start of the Meiji period (1868–1912) stimulated directly and indirectly numerous significant changes in Japanese Buddhism. The harsh critiques of Buddhism by Confucians, Nativists, and Shintoists during the waning years of the Tokugawa period (1600–1868) and at the start of Meiji culminated in the state-mandated separation of Buddhist and local elements of worship (which came to be identified as Shintō), triggering a brief but exceedingly violent suppression of Buddhism that lasted until 1871. Numerous Buddhist clerics were forcibly laicized, monastery lands were confiscated, and many temples and works of Buddhist art were destroyed. Even after the overt violence subsided, Buddhists were left reeling by an end to state support, government-mandated institutional centralization and restructuring, and the end to state enforcement of traditional protocols of Buddhist discipline, particularly the prohibitions against such clerical infractions as eating meat, marriage, and abandoning clerical dress or tonsure. An additional threat to Buddhism was posed by the growing influence in Japan of foreign Christian missionaries and Japanese Christian converts, who, along with domestic critics of Buddhism, characterized Buddhism as decadent, corrupt, impotent, and outdated.

Buddhists responded to the challenges of the Meiji period at the denominational, clerical, and lay levels. At the institutional level, leaders of the main Buddhist denominations availed themselves of the growing centralization of denominational governance in an effort to end the clerical abuses that they believed had helped bring Buddhism to its troubled state. Such leaders as Fukuda Gyōkai (1809–1888), Shaku Unshō (1827–1909), and Nishiari Bokusan (1821–1910) called on the Buddhist clergy to voluntarily preserve traditional Buddhist praxis, especially adherence to the precepts, and to ground themselves thoroughly in traditional Buddhist learning. These reform efforts gave rise to the adoption of strict new denominational rules and the creation of centers for clerical education that evolved into such sectarian universities as today's Ryūkoku, Ōtani, and Komazawa universities. The main branches of the Jōdo Shinshū, in particular, sponsored travel and study in Europe and the United States by such important contributors to the construction of modern Japanese Buddhism and Buddhist studies as Akamatsu Renjō (1841–1919), Kitabatake Dōryū (1820–1907), Shimaji Mokurai (1838–1911), Nanjō Bun'yū (1849–1927), and Takakusu Junjirō (1866–1945).

Groups of clerics, working independently of the denominations, began movements that aimed to reform clerical practice, meld Buddhist and Western styles of philosophy and scholarship, and restructure denominational governance. Notable among the cleric-led movements that sought to extend Buddhist morality into day-to-day social life were Kiyozawa Manshi's (1863–1903) Jōdo Shin-based "spiritualist" movement (Seishin shugi); the pro-temperance Hanseikai (Self-reflection Society), which was led by such Nishi Honganji notables as Takakusu Junjirō, Murakami Sensho, Inoue EnryŌ, and Furukawa Rōsen (1871–1899); and Shaku Unshō's Tokkyōkai (Morality Society). Other clerical reformers, for example, Kuruma Takudō (1877–1964), Tanabe Zenchi, and Nakazato Nisshō, worked for the acceptance of clerical marriage and the creation of an educated Buddhist clergy that was totally engaged with family, social, and national affairs.

Lay Buddhist movements, stimulated by the growth of a literate middle class, were also a major feature of the religious landscape during the Meiji era. Such former clerics as Inoue Enryō, Ōuchi Seiran (1845–1918), Daidō Chōan (1843–1908), and Tanaka Chigaku (1861–1939) founded new lay Buddhist organizations that ran the political gamut from liberal to very conservative. These groups variously sought to create a new Buddhism that would play an integral role in the daily lives of their members, give Buddhism intellectual parity with Western religion, philosophy, and science, and, at the same time, provide solid ideological support for the new Japanese nation-state. Ōuchi's Sonnō Hōbutsu Daidōdan (Great Association for Revering the Emperor and Worshipping the Buddha) and Tanaka Chigaku's Nichiren-based, lay religious groups that evolved into Kokuchūkai (National Pillar Society) were vehemently anti-Christian and strongly nationalistic. These movements served as influential models for many of the Buddhist-based new religious movements that arose in the first half of the twentieth century.

See also:Clerical Marriage in Japan; Japan


Collcutt, Martin. "Buddhism: The Threat of Eradication." In Japan in Transition, ed. Marius Jansen and Gilbert Rozman. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986.

Grapard, Allan G. "Japan's Ignored Cultural Revolution: The Separation of Shintō and Buddhist Divinities in Meiji (Shinbutsu Bunri) and a Case Study: Tonomine." History of Religions 23 (February 1984): 240–265.

Ketelaar, James Edward. Of Heretics and Martyrs in Meiji Japan. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990.

Snodgrass, Judith. Presenting Japanese Buddhism to the West: Orientalism, Occidentalism, and the Columbian Exposition. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

Richard M. Jaffe

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Meiji Buddhist Reform

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