Provincial Temple System (Kokubunji, Rishoto)

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Twice in Japanese history the state has established a provincial temple system for the purpose of political unification and state legitimation. In emulation of the national temple network instituted in seventh-century China, Emperor Shomu (701–756 c.e.) set out in 741 to enhance the state's power through the authority of Buddhism. One official temple (kokubunji) was designated in each of the sixty-seven provinces; Tōdaiji in Nara was the network's central temple. These were each to be staffed by twenty clerics who would pray for the state's protection. Provincial nunneries (kokubunniji) were also established, each housing ten nuns to pray for the atonement of wrongdoing. This system declined when the capital was moved from Nara to Kyoto in 794. None of the provincial kokubunji emerged as temples of national importance.

The brothers Ashikaga Takauji (1305–1358) and Tadayoshi (1306–1352), the founders of the second shogunate, implemented another system of provincial temples. At the urging of Zen cleric and shogunal adviser Musō Soseki (1275–1351), temples called ankokuji were designated between about 1338 and 1350 in every province to mourn victims of ongoing warfare. Pagodas containing religious relics contributed by the imperial court were also constructed in each province. Called rishōtō, they were usually five stories in height and were erected at Shingon or Tendai (Chinese, Tiantai) temples. Ankokuji were mainly family temples of prominent local warriors within the Five Mountain (Gozan) Zen network. The conceptual precedent for this temple-pagoda system was the kokubunji, but there were also antecedents in Chinese and Indian Buddhist practice. The countrywide establishment of temples and pagodas also bespoke territorial control, reflecting Ashikaga political ambitions. With the shogunate's decline at the end of the fifteenth century, the temple-pagoda system weakened; today twenty-eight pagodas remain, but no temples.

See also:Hōryūji and Tōdaiji; Japan


Collcutt, Martin. Gozan: The Rinzai Zen Monastic Institution in Medieval Japan. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Tamura, Yoshio. Japanese Buddhism: A Cultural History. Tokyo: Kosei, 2000.

Suzanne Gay