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  • Death and Social Order in Tokugawa Japan: Buddhism, Anti-Christianity, and the Danka System
  • Laura Nenzi
Death and Social Order in Tokugawa Japan: Buddhism, Anti-Christianity, and the Danka System. By Nam-lin Hur. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2007. Pp. 550. Hardcover. $55.00.

The premise of Death and Social Order in Tokugawa Japan: Buddhism, Anti-Christianity, and the Danka Systemby Nam-lin Hur is that "for a majority of the Edo temples, land property was simply not a dependable source of income" (p. 8). Where, then, did they find enough resources to survive and, in some cases, actually thrive? As Nam-lin Hur puts it, "The answer is simple: death" (p. 9). Thus begins a lengthy and detailed study on the place and meaning of death and death rituals in Tokugawa Japan. At the center of Hur's investigation is the dankasystem, which required all households to register under a Buddhist temple. This is, in other words, a study of what the author himself refers to as an "economy of death" (pp. 9, 13).

Death and Social Orderis divided into four main sections. Part 1, comprising chapters 1 through 3, follows in chronological order the creation of the temple certification system and its significance as part of the anti-Christian policies of the early Tokugawa shoguns (Ieyasu to Tsunayoshi, 1600–1709). Affiliation was initially required only in the case of Christian converts who had recanted their faith once the persecutions began; only later was it extended to the populace at large. Hur follows the political and economic trajectory of the dankasystem and its evolution from ad hocrequirement to consistent, systematic, and "nationwide" policy involving the creation of the Office of the Inspector of Religious Sects (Shūmon Aratameyaku) in 1640 and of standardized certificates of affiliation. Once the process was completed, lack of affiliation would have prevented anyone from being treated "as a legitimate citizen" (p. 87).

Part 2 (chapters 4 through 8) switches to the rise of funerary Buddhism, of temple-directed rituals, and of memorial services. Within this section, chapters 5, 6, and 7 form a sort of narrative interlude of their own. The focus on the economic aspects of death is momentarily set aside while Hur examines in great detail Buddhist rituals at the time of death, posthumous memorial services, and the deification of ancestral spirits.

Part 3 (chapters 9 through 12) will be of special interest to social historians. Here Hur looks at the on-the-ground consequences of the dankasystem and at the ways in which theory (the "system" as conceptualized by political and religious institutions) met, and had to come to terms with, reality. Hur begins by reminding readers that the system was in fact sustained by a "triangular structure" (p. 219) consisting of the Tokugawa government, the religious establishment, and the actual patrons, all of which benefited—albeit to different degrees and in different ways—from its existence. This meant, among other things, that no single entity exercised full control over it, a factor that, predictably, resulted in tensions, squabbles, and a good amount of reciprocal animosity. Hur introduces a lively gallery of characters who antagonized, abused, exploited, or interfered with the dankasystem: shugenjacompetitors, [End Page 398]disgruntled patrons, corrupt clergy engaged in virtual extortion, and critics pointing out the absurdity of a certification requirement borne out of anti-Christian campaigns and still in existence long after Christianity had been eradicated. Chapter 11 offers an especially good discussion of the tensions that ensued when theory met practice. Here Hur argues that the use of lavish funerals provided a status-enhancing opportunity for wealthy commoners, despite the existence of sumptuary laws that attempted to curb all funerary excesses. Chronologically, part 3 provides examples that lead all the way into the bakumatsuperiod.

It is to the bakumatsuand early Meiji periods that the final section, part 4 (chapters 13 and 14), is dedicated. In this final segment Hur examines yet another challenge to funerary Buddhism, the one coming from the Shinto camp. He traces the origins of Shinto funerals to the late sixteenth century and then describes their heyday in the...


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