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  • Empire of the Dharma: Korean and Japanese Buddhism, 1877–1912 by Hwansoo Ilmee Kim
  • Vladimir Tikhonov
Empire of the Dharma: Korean and Japanese Buddhism, 1877–1912 by Hwansoo Ilmee Kim. Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2013. Pp. xxvi + 415. $39.95.

Hwansoo Kim’s study is one of the few recent monograph-length works of anglophone scholarship1 on the largely underresearched issue of Korean Buddhism’s precolonial (pre-1910) and early colonial interaction with Japanese Buddhism. The reasons why this topic has been relatively neglected are manifold. In South Korea, the field of “national history” (kuksa) has been―until very recently―dominated by the nationalist paradigm, in which all interactions between Koreans and Japanese in modern times were classified into either acts of Korean collaboration with Japan or acts of national anti-Japanese resistance. No “gray zone” between the two categories was allowed. Thus Korean Buddhist monks who allied themselves with Japanese Buddhist missionaries and their sects or attempted to utilize modern Japanese Buddhist models for the modernization of Korea’s own Buddhism were invariably chastised as “pro-Japanese” (ch’inil) traitors, or, at the very least, criticized for their deplorable lack of national consciousness. This classification scheme did not distinguish between institutional Buddhism’s collaboration with the colonial authorities (1910—1945) and pre-1910 Korean-Japanese Buddhist encounters. It painted both as interrelated acts of betrayal. Kim’s study rightly argues against this, pointing out that before late 1909 neither Japanese Buddhist missionaries in Korea nor their Korean counterparts were aware of Japan’s coming annexation of Korea, and thus they were interacting on incomparably more equal terms than under the conditions of colonial rule (p. 72). The traditional narrative also assumes that Korean monastics completely identified with their state/nation and that Japanese Buddhist monks were their state’s agents par excellence. Here, too, Hwansoo Kim highlights the fact that the traditionally subordinated status of Korean monastics in a Neo-Confucian society was hardly conducive to an early development of state-nationalist consciousness, whereas Japanese Buddhists [End Page 184] were motivated as much by their own religious and sectarian agendas as by nationalism. In a way, the nationalist scholarship in South Korea was used to reduce Korean-Japanese modern Buddhist encounters to the politics of imperialism and anti-imperialist resistance; since resistance was not easily identifiable in the relationship between Korean and Japanese monastics after the 1880s, Korean scholars largely neglected the topic. Anglophone scholarship has in fact mentioned the Japanese connection in modern Korean Buddhism, especially in works that explore colonial-era Buddhism in Korea.2 But modern Korean-Japanese Buddhist ties are rarely dealt with in monographlength English-language works, partly because of the scarcity of scholars able and willing to digest the mountains of primary sources in both Japanese and Korean languages. Kim is indeed one of the few scholars who could attempt this academic feat, and he proves that he was up to the task.

The introduction surveys the existing literature and defines the book’s objectives and theoretical basis. Chapter 1 serves as an introductory chapter on the history of Buddhism in both Korea and Japan before the end of the nineteenth century. Its conclusions―which mainly rely upon secondary sources in Korean and English and, to a lesser degree, Japanese―are persuasive. Whereas Japanese Buddhism represented a formidable institutional and ideological force by the end of the Meiji period owing to its 71,730 temples, 53,268 abbots, active participation in the state-induced ideological campaigns, and demonstrated zeal for sending monks to study in Europe, Korean Buddhism, which had only about 7,900 fully-ordained monastics by the early twentieth century, was in much worse shape, still relegated to the bottom of the Neo-Confucian social hierarchy. Subsequently, in Chapter 3, “Japanese Buddhist Missions in Korea,” Kim narrates an episode that shows the extent to which contempt for Buddhism was internalized in Korean society even during the last precolonial decade. The centuries-old ban on Buddhist monastics’ entrance into Seoul was repealed in 1895 through the lobbying efforts of a Japanese Nichiren sect missionary, Sano Zenrei (1864—1917); however, Korean authorities reinstated the ban in 1898, when, in...


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