April 23, 2015

Japan's (ir)religious wars

Japan's wars over religion have never been all that religious. To be sure, rabble-rousers like Nichiren sowed doctrinal strife no less than did Martin Luther. But the Thirty Years' War didn't follow, in large part because the church in Japan has only rarely not been subservient to the state.

Then there was that whole Aum Shinri Kyo business, but I'll leave the fringe element out of the discussion and focus on the Napoleons. Though there's not much in the way of open theological debate to be found, wars involving religion could get pretty nasty.

In 1571, Oda Nobunaga razed the Buddhist temples on Mt. Hiei, killing upwards of 20,000. At issue was the power of Tendai Buddhist "warrior monks" at Enryaku-ji monastery. They'd aligned themselves with rival warlords and exerted undue influence (Nobunaga believed) over Kyoto politics.

Though home to Tendai Buddhism since 788,
no building on Mt. Hiei dates to before 1571.

The Portuguese first arrived in Japan in 1543, bringing with them guns and Jesuits. Although he openly declared himself an atheist, Nobunaga was fascinated by western culture, quickly learned how to use the musket in large-scale offensives, and gave the Jesuits wide latitude to proselytize.

That latitude ended with his assassination in 1582. His successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, was already suspicious of Christian influence in the fractious western half of the country. The Jesuit Gaspar Coelho made things worse by promising Hideyoshi arms and warships that would never be forthcoming.

When the Hideyoshi realized he was being conned, Coelho threatened a coup. But Hideyoshi at the time commanded one of the largest armies in the world. Although Coelho's petitions for military support were summarily rejected by his superiors, Hideyoshi was convinced he had traitors in his midst.

The Tokugawa shogunate doubled down on Hideyoshi's policies to expunge Catholic influence from the country. As far as the shogunate was concerned, if the Catholics weren't all in with them, they were against them, so against them they were deemed.

In 1637, the Shimabara Rebellion culminated in the siege of Hara Castle. When the castle fell in early 1638, some 37,000 Christian peasants and masterless samurai died or were executed.

After Shimabara, only a small contingent of Protestant Dutch traders was allowed to occupy a tiny island near Nagasaki. Again, though as merciless as the Inquisition in forcing adherents to abandon their beliefs, at issue was the consolidation of power and an isolationist foreign policy, not theology.

These fears of foreign influence were not unfounded. Two centuries later, the Satsuma domain (just south of Nagasaki) armed itself with British weapons and warships and led the revolt that overthrew the shogunate.

Shimabara was also largely a problem of local governance. The governor of Shimabara was subsequently executed for cruelty and incompetence. The message: if the peasants revolt, they'll be executed; if you gave the peasants good reasons to revolt, you'll be executed too.

In the mid-19th century, a final religious conflict arose when the Meiji government switched the state religion from Buddhism to Shinto. For 250 years, the Buddhist temples had grown fat and corrupt under the patronage of the shoguns, who used the temples as tools of control via the census.

Over a period of four years, popular uprisings following the Meiji Restoration in 1868 destroyed tens of thousands of Buddhist temples and works of art (though resulted in few deaths). The haibutsu kishaku was basically a super-condensed, hyper-kinetic version of the English Reformation.

Like Catholicism in 16th-century England, Buddhism was down but not out. During the 1930s and 1940s, Zen Buddhism saw a resurgence (side-by-side with the state-sponsored Shinto-based emperor cult) as the "spiritual backbone of the military army and navies during the war."

But in the late 19th century and ever since 1945, deprived of its power to tax and compel affiliation, Buddhist temples have had to attract parishioners the old-fashioned way: with goods and services. Buddhism now dominates the lucrative funerary business in Japan.

As if by a cosmic gentleman's agreement, Shinto gets the first half of life, including coming-of-age ceremonies, weddings, and the blessing of inanimate objects like dolls, needles, and buildings; Buddhism get the second half. Though both Shinto and Buddhist temples hold doll funerals.

After which they'll be cremated (the dolls, that is).

And, of course, a Christian wedding is fine too (if the Shinto rite doesn't suit your tastes or wallet: renting wedding kimonos for the bride and groom alone can cost several thousand dollars).

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# posted by Blogger Katherine Woodbury
4/24/2015 6:25 AM   
The article about doll funerals is fascinating! I found the whole idea sweet if a little mystifying--but I think my mystification is my Western never-throw-anything-away mindset. I just couldn't help but wonder, "What would a Toy Story sequel make of this?"