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  • Empire of the Dharma: Korean and Japanese Buddhism, 1877–1912 by Hwansoo Ilmee Kim
  • James Mark Shields
Empire of the Dharma: Korean and Japanese Buddhism, 1877–1912. By Hwansoo Ilmee Kim. Harvard University Asia Center, 2013. 444 pages. Hardcover $49.95/£36.95/€45.00

Hwansoo Kim’s Empire of the Dharma is a significant contribution to the field of Buddhist studies, even while the author’s argument is deceptively simple: the relationship between Japanese and Korean Buddhists in the period of the Japanese colonization of Korea is “one that abounded with converging and diverging visions, interests and strategies” (p. 3). In short, Kim is saying, things are not as clear-cut as they are usually portrayed. In particular, he demonstrates that the actors on the Korean side had considerably more agency in making their decisions than is commonly thought, and also that they cannot be so easily condemned for “collaboration” with their Japanese coreligionists and occupiers. The book’s primary thesis is nicely encapsulated in the following remark toward the end of the book’s final main chapter:

Korean Buddhism’s own Korean government could not fulfill what it promised in the 1902 Temple Ordinance. … [With its 1911 Temple Ordinance] the colonial government of Japan was about to do more for lifting Korean Buddhism’s low status than any government of the previous five hundred years. Without doubt, though, the colonial government was not doing this altruistically. It was a strategic move to achieve hegemony over religious matters.

(p. 336)

From a theoretical perspective, Kim draws on Pierre Bourdieu’s tropes of “habitus,” “capital,” and “field” (pp. 17–20). While there is some logic to this connection, I wonder [End Page 326] whether it is necessary to invoke French abstractions to reiterate Robert Buswell’s rather straightforward point that Buddhist monks, priests, and institutions are, in the end, all too human.

Chapter 1, “The History of Buddhism in Korea and Japan,” is, as the title indicates, a historical overview of the precolonial period. While Kim’s summary of Meiji Buddhism covers familiar territory, his summary of Korean Buddhism in the late nineteenth century provides a succinct and valuable overview of the less familiar struggles of Buddhism in Korea during this period. Most worthy of note is, once again, Kim’s willingness to add complexity to the standard story, according to which Japanese Buddhists were solely intent on promoting the agenda of the emerging imperial state. Most also had “religious” (i.e., missionary) interests, and were thus in competition with each other for state support.

The second chapter, “Encounters between Japanese Priests and Korean Monks,” turns the focus away from the broad sweep of historical trends and toward the direct encounter of Japanese and Korean Buddhists in the 1880s, 1890s, and first decade of the twentieth century. The three figures chosen by Kim—Okumura Enshin (1843–1913), Katō Bunkyō (?–?), and Shaku Unshō (1827–1909)—display a diversity of intentions, reinforcing Kim’s thesis regarding the complex motivations in Japanese Buddhist “imperialism.”

These mixed intentions are well evidenced in the following comment: “The Japanese priests’ collaboration with Korean monks to reassert the significance of Korean Buddhism opened up a new era for the Korean sangha. However … Japanese Buddhist missionaries’ aggressiveness to recruit Korean monastics, driven by sectarianism, caused trouble, creating further instability and resentment among Koreans” (p. 109). And yet, whatever their sectarian and nationalistic motivations, the efforts of at least some of these Japanese priests to spark a revival (or, at least, halt the “decline”) of Korean Buddhism were sincere—and also occasionally effective, as when Nichiren priest Sano Zenrei successfully petitioned in April 1895 for an end to the anti- Buddhist laws of the Chosŏn regime (p. 126).

In the fourth chapter, “Regulations, Alliances, and Backlash,” Kim explores in some detail the reaction of the Korean government to the growing power of Japanese Buddhist sects, particularly the Jōdoshū, which “ironically … stimulated the Korean government to abandon its longstanding indifference toward Buddhist monks and to bring all the temples and monks into the government system” (p. 153). However, the resulting Temple Ordinance of 1902 was undercut by political instability in Korea, which was turned into a...


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