Departmental Bulletin Paper Reconceiving the Secular in Early Meiji Japan : Shimaji Mokurai, Buddhism, Shinto, and the Nation

KRÄMER, Hans Martin

30pp.63 - 77 , 2017-07-24 , International Research Center for Japanese Studies
In the early Meiji period, Japanese Buddhists had to come to terms with a number of profound changes. The prime challenge for the clerical elite was the radically new religious policy of the Meiji government, no longer favoring Buddhism in the framework of the early modern temple registration system, but rather privileging Shinto in its attempts to find a suitable place for Japanese religions in the modern Japanese nation state. Institutionally, Buddhism was faced with the Great Promulgation Campaign initiated under the auspices of the Ministry of Edification from 1872 onwards. Anyone who wanted to continue religious teaching needed to join the campaign; at the same time, Buddhists were prohibited from engaging in sectarian proselytization while teaching under the campaign’s umbrella. Priests of the Jōdo Shinshū were active in overcoming this impasse, and among them Shimaji Mokurai of the sect’s Honganji branch was particularly effective. As a member of the first group of Japanese Buddhists to travel to Europe in 1872, he combined the traditional scholarship of a Buddhist priest with modern Western knowledge gleaned in France, Great Britain, and Germany. Drawing on premodern Japanese terminological precedents, Shimaji first conceptualized the separation of the spheres of politics and religion and, slightly later, that of “religious and secular teaching.” Out of this separation, a concept of “religion” first appeared in Japan. Shimaji’s intellectual move to separate a sphere of “religion” in order to free Buddhism from the restraints of early Meiji religious policy has structural parallels with the political ideology of secularism as described by Talal Asad. Contrary to Asad’s assumptions, however, secularism clearly is not purely a Western project. The case of Shimaji shows how Japanese thinkers and political actors drew upon their local tradition as well as new Western knowledge to come up with their own solutions to specific political problems that arose in the transition of Japan to the modern era.

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