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  • War and Faith: Ikkō Ikki in Late Muromachi Japan
  • J. P. Lamers
War and Faith: Ikkō Ikki in Late Muromachi Japan. By Carol Richmond Tsang. Harvard University Asia Center, 2007. 275 pages. Hardcover $39.95/£25.95/€36.90.

War and Faith: Ikkō Ikki in Late Muromachi Japan offers us an extensive study of the Honganji religious institution and its leagues (ikkō ikki), a subject that hitherto has not been dealt with at monograph length in the English language. The popular image of premodern Japanese history, Carol Richmond Tsang states in the introduction of her book, has been dominated by samurai, and recent studies have tended to view Honganji and its leagues predominantly as a roadblock on the road to unification and early modern state formation. It is time, she holds, to deal with the "broad phenomenon of ikkō ikki . . . on its own terms" (p. 7).

The main question Tsang sets out to answer is how the Honganji leagues became such a formidable military force in the hundred years between the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Additional arguments for putting the leagues center stage are their one-time prominence in late medieval Japan, their historical legacy, the general lack of attention to religion in Sengoku history, and the opportunity provided by the leagues to study how "religion and religious belief played out in a society in conflict" (p. 4). There can be no doubt that War and Faith is an ambitious project of impressive scope: ikki in general and the ikkō ikki in particular are notoriously intractable subjects, as they occurred over a long interval of time, over a large geographical area, and were based on an apparently paradoxical doctrine. More seriously, the available sources make it difficult to grasp the significance of the lower levels of the sect.

Tsang provides a neat typology of the various forms of ikki that function as the key building blocks of her study. She also works from a set of concise definitions. In the Amidist branch of Buddhism, as she puts it, there is "only one way to achieve salvation: the worship of Amida, a Buddha who had vowed to save all sentient beings by having them reborn in his Pure Land" (p. 3). Shinran, the founder of True Pure Land Buddhism, had advocated the doctrinal concept of tariki ("other power"), calling on believers to rely entirely on Amida's power in order to enter his paradise. Self-reliance (jiriki) was simply not an option in Shinran's doctrinal universe. [End Page 485]

These definitions are anchored in a crisp outline of the institutional and doctrinal development of Honganji. Within the broader array of True Pure Land sects, Honganji distinguished itself by insisting on a bloodline legitimacy. Whereas other, competing sects went back to disciples of Shinran, and thus "valued a teaching lineage" (p. 13), the Honganji leadership traced its origin to Shinran's direct descendants and based its claim to religious preeminence on this privileged ancestry. Family and marriage politics, as Tsang correctly emphasizes, thus became an important and distinctive feature of Honganji, inextricably connected to the sect's internal government, social status, and political power.

In society at large, Honganji was a modest force until roughly the middle of the fifteenth century. Even so, the general spread of Amidism throughout Japan—not necessarily of the Honganji variety—paved the way for the sect's subsequent success. It was Japan's descent into the centrifugal chaos of the Sengoku era that propelled Honganji's rise. Under the inspiring leadership of Rennyo, its eighth head priest (monzeki, a term Tsang renders as "Patriarch"), Honganji benefited in no small part from the political and social chaos that convulsed Japan in the wake of the Ōnin War (1467—1477), growing both in membership and organizational strength.

Throughout her study Tsang argues for a social upgrade of Honganji's following— or, to be more precise, a more general appreciation thereof. Early adherents of Honganji came mostly from nonfarming backgrounds. They were merchants and artisans, not predominantly peasants, as is often thought. Late in the fifteenth century, a gradual change occurred in Honganji's membership "as its teachings spread into the countryside and attracted a...


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