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  • Practical Pursuits: Religion, Politics, and Personal Cultivation in Nineteenth-Century Japan
  • Stephen G. Covell
Practical Pursuits: Religion, Politics, and Personal Cultivation in Nineteenth-Century Japan. By Janine Tasca Sawada. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2004. Pp. xi + 387.

In Practical Pursuits: Religion, Politics, and Personal Cultivation in Nineteenth Century Japan, her follow-up volume to Confucian Values and Popular Zen, Janine Sawada breaks new ground and sets a high mark for future studies on Japanese religions. Practical Pursuits pulls down the sectarian barriers that have defined scholarly and sectarian studies of Japanese religions by looking at the common practice of personal cultivation through a detailed investigation that demonstrates the manner in which members of various groups—from Rinzai Zen to physiognomy movements— [End Page 512] engaged each other directly or indirectly in a conversation that came to shape religious practice in the modern period. The uncovering of what might be called a "common religion" is similar to the work of Ian Reader and George Tanabe in their book Practically Religious. Yet, in the process of exploring the contours of personal cultivation discourse, Sawada also sheds light on shifting lay and clerical identities, state-religion relations, and the development of new religions. The first half of the book is dedicated to an analysis of precedents set in the Tokugawa (Edo) period (1603-1868) and lays the groundwork for later changes during the Meiji period (1868-1912), which are the subject of the second half of the book.

Sawada begins with the provocatively titled first chapter, "Dead Words." While this term derives specifically from eighteenth-century Nativist arguments, it is revealed in the course of the book to be a central theme in Japanese religious discourse. "Dead words" refers to the reaction by Nativists, Confucian scholars, Buddhist priests, and practitioners of various religious movements to what they perceived to be an overemphasis on obtaining a purely intellectual understanding of texts rather than realizing through practice the practical and moral implications of the texts. Here, Sawada introduces us to what she terms the "grammar" of personal cultivation, namely a framework of Confucian language upon which dialogue between often vastly different communities could take place. This "grammar" provided the foundation for broad and diverse conversations about personal cultivation, the content of which may have differed dramatically even as the language used was similar. Sawada also carefully traces the manner in which definitions of "learning" and "cultivation" changed over time, how religion and learning came to be viewed separately in the modern period, and the reactions of religious organizations to these fluctuations in definition.

The "grammar" Sawada describes was used by a broad spectrum of elites and, as she demonstrates, was mediated by leaders of new religious movements. This mix of actors—Rinzai Zen priests, Shingaku leaders, Shintō practitioners, and others—"created their own interpretive conclaves, negotiated between textual systems of knowledge with which they had been imbued and the reality of their social and religious experience" (p. 27). This book brings to light the overlapping conversations between these different groups and peels back the multiple layers of their relations in which conversations over personal cultivation served as a bond between political, religious, and social elites.

For students of Buddhism, the two chapters related to koji (lay) Zen are of particular interest. In these chapters Sawada details the interaction between those using the "grammar" she identifies earlier. In so doing, she begins to clarify how the clergy and elite lay practitioners negotiated new understandings of the boundaries dividing lay from professional practitioners. Sawada introduces evidence to counter the standard view that Zen clergy engaged in an "outreach" effort to expand lay practices in order to overcome the financial difficulties faced by temples in the Meiji period. While she gives evidence that finances were indeed a critical issue, she also shows us that, at least in some cases, the effort was more of an "inreach" by lay members seeking to gain or regain what they believed were traditional personal cultivation [End Page 513] practices. In such cases, Sawada shows, the clergy's reaction varied from resistance to passive acceptance.

It is hard to find points to critique about this very enjoyable book. That...


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pp. 512-514
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