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Reviewed by:
  • Empire of the Dharma: Korean and Japanese Buddhism, 1877–1912 by Hwansoo Ilmee Kim
  • Trent Maxey (bio)
Empire of the Dharma: Korean and Japanese Buddhism, 1877–1912. By Hwansoo Ilmee Kim. Harvard University Asia Center, Cambridge, Mass., 2012. xxvi, 415 pages. $49.95.

Hwansoo Ilmee Kim’s lengthy study examines interactions between Korean and Japanese Buddhism during the decades leading up to the annexation of Korea in 1910. Kim uses the fluidity and uncertainty of that period to challenge the prevailing narrative animated by imperialists and collaborators. His narrative is more nuanced, foregrounding the complex motives under lying the collaborative relationships sought by Korean and Japanese Buddhist clergy. Those collaborations, in turn, created the institutional and discursive foundation for modern Korean Buddhism. The book thus addresses both the history of Korean Buddhism and the politically charged task of interpreting the personal and institutional ties accompanying Japan’s encroachment into and eventual annexation of Korea. Organized into seven chapters, in addition to an introduction, conclusion, and postscript, the book also supplies the reader with extensive supplementary materials, including maps of relevant Buddhist temples in Seoul; a chronology; a key to significant individuals, movements, and organizations; and a glossary. These materials greatly aid readers unfamiliar with either Korean or Japanese Buddhist history and suggest the book is meant to address a wide audience. At the same time, given the overlap of the material covered in some chapters, one feels the book could be significantly shorter without sacrificing the focus and strength of its argument. [End Page 422]

Kim draws on Pierre Bourdieu’s theoretical apparatus of habitus, capital, and field to shed light on the relative autonomy with which Korean and Japanese Buddhists entered into a game of exchange. This attempt to “bring to light the agency and voices of Buddhists” from Japan and Korea guides Kim’s historiographic intervention and explains the chronological focus of the volume (p. 2). Kim argues that the uncertain future of Korean and Japanese relations in the decades between 1877 and formal annexation in 1910 created a context that “abounded with converging and diverting visions, interests, and strategies among Korean Buddhists, Japanese Buddhists, and the state” (pp. 2–3). Within this context, a dichotomizing master narrative of imperialistic aggression and passive victimization gives way to a more complicated form of encounter guided by differentials in social and political capital. Despite this search for nuance, Kim ends his introduction with a stark and provocative question: who benefited most from this exchange between Korean and Japanese Buddhism? His conclusion at the end of the book that Korean monastics by far benefited more than their Japanese counter parts indicates the boldness with which this book intervenes in both the history of Korean Buddhism and the precolonial encounter between Japan and Korea.

The argument in support of this bold claim unfolds unevenly over the course of seven chapters, which draw from a wide range of Korean and Japanese sources. Particularly notable is the way in which Kim draws on the histories of the five most active Japanese Buddhist sects in Korea as well as the private letters of Korean and Japanese clergy. The focus of analysis shifts frequently across and within the chapters, between intimate biographical accounts of key clerics and broader, institutional and political histories. Chapter 1, for instance, lays out the history of Korean Buddhism through the five centuries of Chosŏn Korea, counterposing it with the modern re-configuration of Buddhism in post-Meiji Japan. Korean monastics were systematically marginalized by the Neo-Confucian orthodoxy of the Chosŏn court, proscribed from entering the four gates of Seoul, and given a modicum of official recognition only as soldier-monks. Their position at the margins of the Korean sociopolitical order cast the seemingly elevated status of Japanese Buddhist clergy in attractive light. In an efficient summary of developments in post-Restoration Japan, Kim underscores how the demands of a modernizing state forced painful institutional reforms upon Buddhist sects there. Japanese Buddhists arrived in Korea as modernizers possessing considerable social and political capital, having reformed their sects into highly centralized and largely autonomous organizations and begun to counter Christian missions by defining Buddhism as a Pan-Asian...


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pp. 422-426
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