February 23, 2012

Church and state

Minamoto no Yoshitsune is one of the great tragic heroes of Japanese history and literature. He was one of Japan's most accomplished generals, responsible for demolishing the Taira clan in the late 12th century, ending the Heian Era and ushering in the reign of the shoguns.

But his older brother Yoritomo instead became the first shogun in the Kamakura Bakufu. Presaging the central political conflict in Serpent of Time, after the Genpei War, Yoshitsune backed Emperor Go-Shirakawa, essentially choosing to preserve the old political system.

Emperor Go-Shirakawa later abandoned Yoshitsune as a lost cause (three such fatal betrayals cursed the final years of his life) and appointed Yoritomo the first shogun.

Gendô refers to this historical antecedent to make it clear that sanctuary on Mt. Kôya was no guarantee of safety against a determined head of state.

Throughout Japan's medieval period, the state always held the upper hand over the church. Conflicts between competing Buddhist sects were minor scrapes compared to efforts by warlords and governments to keep the church from interfering with the prerogatives of the state.

The most powerful religion during this time was the Tendai Buddhist sect, founded by Dengyô Daishi (767–822). The proximity of its Enryaku-ji headquarters to Kyôto gave it increasing influence over the secular affairs, to the point of creating a private army of warrior monks (僧兵).

In 1571, after Enryaku-ji sided with his foes, the warlord Oda Nobunaga sent an entire army against Mt. Hiei and burned the temple complex to the ground, killing at least 20,000 men, women and children. None of the structures on Mt. Hiei date further back than the late 16th century.

The second major religious war--that also had little to do with religion--was the Shimabara Rebellion (1637–1638). It began as a tax revolt concentrated among Catholic adherents in Nagasaki, and became a crusade against the brutal anti-Christian persecution of the Tokugawa shogunate.

This persecution arose out of the regime's isolationist and xenophobic policies. It had little to do with theology. Between 20,000 and 30,000 rebels held out for a year against far superior forces, but were pushed back to Hara Castle, where they were eventually overrun and slaughtered to a man.

An actual religious war occurred during the early years of the Meiji Restoration, when the government abruptly adopted Shinto as the state religion. This was done to bolster the nativist ideology that rationalized overthrowing the shogun and restoring the emperor to supreme authority.

After chafing under the thumb of their Buddhist overseers for 250 years, Shinto adherents erupted in a spasm of vandalism known as the Haibutsu Kishaku (廃仏毀釈), which resulted in the destruction of an enormous amount of Buddhist art and architecture, though little loss of life.

Nowadays, it's all bygones. Buddhism and Shinto and Christianity happily exist side by side. Visit Shinto shrines on the holidays, marry in a Catholic church, get buried as a Buddhist, and nobody bats an eye.

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