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  • Death and Social Order in Tokugawa Japan: Buddhism, Anti-Christianity, and the Danka System
  • James L. McClain (bio)
Death and Social Order in Tokugawa Japan: Buddhism, Anti-Christianity, and the Danka System. By Nam-lin Hur. Harvard University Asia Center, Cambridge, Mass., 2007. xiii, 550 pages. $55.00.

In Death and Social Order in Tokugawa Japan, Nam-lin Hur takes his readers through an extensive investigation of the danka (or patron household, to use the author's terminology) system of funerary Buddhism in that country's early modern epoch. As Hur points out in the introduction, Buddhism permeated Japanese daily life in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when perhaps as many as 250,000 temples and subtemples constituted the predominant established religion for a population of approximately 30 million persons. How, Hur asks in the first of many intriguing questions that provide the analytical scaffolding for his monograph, did the Buddhist institutions manage to penetrate every corner of the country, and where did so many temples find the financial resources necessary to support themselves? Moreover, he inquires, why did ordinary Japanese respond so enthusiastically to the astonishing expansion of Buddhism in the early seventeenth century (nearly half of all temples were newly erected between 1600 and 1631) and then remain dedicated temple-goers for generation upon generation thereafter? And given the explosive growth in religious fervor, how did the newly emerging shogunal and domain governments view the Buddhist establishment and attempt to articulate state and religious interests?

Not surprisingly, Hur locates the genesis of Buddhism's spectacular growth in the anti-Christian sentiment that took hold among shogunal officials in the early seventeenth century. Although Tokugawa Ieyasu initially was neither anti-Christian nor pro-Buddhist, according to Hur, a series of highly visible incidents persuaded the overlord and his successors that Christianity potentially was a seditious doctrine, "an evil force that would destroy political stability and social harmony" (p. 47). In counterbalancing reaction, governing authorities launched "bold and ambitious" policies designed to harness the power of Buddhist deities both "in defending the divine country [and] in providing religious well-being to the Japanese" (p. 45). The ultimate outcome was the establishment of all those temples and the requirement that each Japanese household maintain a family registry at one of them as a means of certifying that its members were not Christians. That is, a representative of each household annually had to appear at the family's temple of record and receive a certificate of affiliation. Local officials then compiled registers of sectarian inspection for submission to higher government office.

For all the shogunate's efforts, however, Buddhism never become a [End Page 147] "state religion" (again, in Hur's gloss), and neither did the shogunate nor individual domains ever provide overly generous financial support for Buddhist establishments. Left largely to their own devices, temples raised funds by leasing some of their property to townspeople for residences and shops, sold votive items such as amulets and talismans, and took in money from prayer fees and donations during temple fetes. But, according to Hur, priests derived their most reliable form of income from the business of death. As families affiliated with temples in order to certify the orthodoxy of their religious beliefs, they also began to die as Buddhists. Priests, quick to seize the opportunity, stepped forward to formulate, conduct, and collect payments for funeral services and an extensive series of postmortem rituals. In time, these practices coalesced into the danka system of funerary patronage between a temple and a set of households that extended from generation to generation and provided a dependable and permanent source of funding for the Buddhist establishment.

Hur spins out an intriguing response to the question of why Japanese were so willing to participate in this "economy of death." As he points out, although families had to obtain annual certificates of faith, the more elaborate danka patronage system was, in fact, a "public custom" that never was written into law. Its blossoming, Hur argues, came about because danka practices resonated with the evolving socio-religious beliefs of ordinary people. Following the lead of pioneering scholars such as Yasumaru Yoshio, Hur sees Japanese religious values making...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1549-4721
Print ISSN
0095-6848
Pages
pp. 147-151
Launched on MUSE
2009-01-15
Open Access
No
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