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  • Buddhism, Unitarianism, and the Meiji Competition for Universality by Michel Mohr
  • Trent E. Maxey
Buddhism, Unitarianism, and the Meiji Competition for Universality by Michel Mohr. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2014. Pp. xvi + 324. $39.95.

In this unconventional study, Michel Mohr weds a detailed history of the 1887-1922 Unitarian mission to Japan and an abstract discussion of universality. Mohr draws extensively on missionary correspondence housed at the Andover-Harvard Theological Library to examine “the transplant of ideas brought by the Unitarians and the extent to which this ‘graft’ succeeded or failed to take root on Japanese soil” (p. xiii). At the core of the ideas Unitarians attempted to graft onto Japan, according to this study, stands a particular vision of religious universality, a universality that sought dialogue rather than conversion. Mohr argues that this vision, once planted, “set into motion a chain reaction ranging from interest to appropriation and became the locus of a competition involving Buddhist intellectuals” (p. 15).

The book presents this argument in nine chapters, organized into three parts. Part I provides the “gist of the story,” part II presents a closer examination of the interactions between the Unitarian mission and Japanese intellectuals, and part III dissects the final phase of the Unitarian mission. An epilogue turns to a more philosophical discussion of universality. With the exception of the epilogue, Mohr adopts a “sociohistorical” approach throughout, making good use of missionary correspondence to delve into the minutiae of the Unitarian mission and the personalities involved. We learn, for example, that the Unitarians were invited to Japan by Yano Fumio 矢野文雄 (1851-1931), [End Page 502] who first encountered the denomination in London, and that Fukuzawa Yukichi 福澤諭吉 (1835-1901) was an early and enthusiastic supporter. The personalities of Arthur May Knapp (1841-1921) and Clay MacCauley (1843-1925) figure prominently as the successive leaders of the mission. That mission entailed a short-lived school, the Institute for Advanced Learning, an innovative post-office mission utilizing mailed literature, and the construction of the Unity Hall in Mita, Tokyo. Mohr also meticulously traces the often-convoluted connections that linked the Unitarian mission to the Japanese intellectuals he examines. We see Shin Buddhists like Furukawa Rōsen 古河老川 (1871-1899) and Murakami Senshō 村上専精 (1851-1929) come into the orbit of Unitarianism, while Waseda University emerges as a significant focal point of its influence. Kishimoto Nobuta 岸本能武太 (1865-1928) and Abe Isoo 安部磯雄 (1865-1949) figure prominently as sympathizers with the mission, and we learn that the Yūaikai (友愛会) labor movement not only grew with significant Unitarian support but also contributed to the demise of the mission.

At the heart of this detailed reconstruction of the Unitarian mission lies the contention that it introduced a novel and attractive vision of religious universality, a vision that accounts for the disproportionate influence Mohr attributes to Unitarianism in Meiji Japan. Yet Mohr admits that the book’s singular focus on Unitarianism owes more to the available archive than to an assertion that Unitarians were unique in presenting the question of universality in Meiji Japan (pp. 12-14). He warns, in fact, that “we need to be careful not to view everything through the Unitarian lens and also not to overstate the impact of this movement in Japan, in spite of its significance” (p. 210).

True to this warning, Mohr provides detailed biographies of the chief Buddhist interlocutors, especially Furukawa Rōsen, Murakami Senshō, Saji Jitsunen 佐治実然 (1856-1920), and Shaku Sōen 釈宗演 (1860-1919). With the exception of Sōen, these Buddhist figures all belonged to Shin Buddhism broadly defined and were reformers who sought a new form of Buddhism. Murakami Senshō, for example, famously attempted to produce a unified Buddhism. Mohr suggests Murakami’s project “was the result of his immersion in the particular intellectual climate of the 1890s where Unitarian ideas played a central role” (p. 79). Yet it is difficult to attribute Murakami’s project—to reform specific Buddhist traditions and produce a progressive and [End Page 503] unified Buddhism—to the influence of Unitarianism. The sequence appears wrong; it was the desire to rationalize and reform Japanese Buddhism that led Murakami and Furukawa into the orbit of Unitarianism, not...


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pp. 502-506
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