Against the Ghosts of Recent Past: Meiji Scholarship and the Discourse on Edo-Period Buddhist Decadence

By Klautau, Orion | Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, July 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Against the Ghosts of Recent Past: Meiji Scholarship and the Discourse on Edo-Period Buddhist Decadence


Klautau, Orion, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies


This article examines the process by which the academic discourse on the decadence of early modern Buddhism was developed, especially in the context of Meiji Japan (1868-1912). The predominant framework in which much of the modern research on Edo Buddhism took place was informed, grosso modo, by the assumption that early modern Japanese Buddhism was very distant from what it should essentially have been. The origins of this discourse are usually traced back to Tsuji Zennosuke, but by the time he published his works on the subject, such an image of Edo Buddhism was already the norm among both scholars and clergy. Keeping these aspects in mind, after brief considerations on the role of precept restoration during the late Edo Period, this article will focus in particular on the period from the Meiji Restoration (1868) to the establishment of Japanese Buddhist history as a specific field of study during the early years of the twentieth century. It will also deal to a certain extent with Tsuji's ideas on the subject.

KEYWORDS: Edo Buddhism - Meiji Buddhism - Tsuji Zennosuke - Kinsei bukkyo darakuron - Buddhist decadence

(ProQuest: ... denotes formulae omitted.)

The Pathos of this work: there are no periods of decline... (N1, 6). Overcoming the concept of "progress" and overcoming the concept of "period of decline" are two sides of one and the same thing (N2, 5).

Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project

FOR MORE than thirty years now, studies on earlymodern Japanese Buddhism have struggled to show how lively the "religious life" of the people was during this period. Works in several languages have appeared showing the dynamics of Buddhism at the time.1 There is no doubt that students of Japanese Buddhist History who first studied Tokugawa Buddhism through, for example, Duncan Williams's The Other Side of Zen (2005), would be given a different impression than students who first studied it through Joseph Kitagawa's Religion in Japanese History, published over forty years ago (1966). While Williams intends to demonstrate that Buddhism "was as full of vitality during the Tokugawa period as in any previous era, if not more so" (2005, 6), in his seminal introduction to the history of Japanese religion Kitagawa emphasizes "the moral and spiritual bankruptcy" of Tokugawa Buddhism (1966, 166).

Again, as any scholar of early modern Japanese religion would know, this view of Tokugawa Buddhism did not begin nor end with Kitagawa. The idea that early modern Japanese Buddhism was more decadent than that of other historical periods, which for a long time was the predominant discourse within the field, is usually traced back to Tsuji Zennosuke ... (1877-1955).2 Having developed his research in the institutional framework not of Buddhist studies (bukkyogaku ...) nor of religious studies (shukyogaku ...), but of the field that was then called "National History" (kokushigaku ...), Tsuji left us very important works on foreign relations, as well as on Japanese political history during the Edo period.3

Still, we can say that the work for which he is most remembered is his monumental History of Japanese Buddhism (Nihon bukkyo shi ...), in ten volumes. The first volume on Buddhism in ancient Japan was published during World War II, in 1944, and the final volume, which covered the last part of the Edo period, was published in the year of Tsuji's death, in 1955. In the four volumes regarding the Edo period, Tsuji presents the critical image of a "decadent" Buddhist clergy, introducing documents that depicted priests leading lives more "secular" than the lay people.

Even though the History of Japanese Buddhism is sometimes regarded as the work that first introduced such an image of Tokugawa Buddhism, the "decadence" discourse had already been put forward by Tsuji in a systematic format the 1930s. His articles focusing specifically on the "decadence" of early modern Buddhist priests were first published in different journals in October and November of 1930, and republished a year later in the second installment of his Studies on the History of Japanese Buddhism (Nihon bukkyoshi no kenkyu zokuhen . …

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