The Tokugawa Shogunate
Religion in the Edo Period

The Battle of Sekigahara: October 21, 1600
Nobunaga ~ Hideyoshi ~ Ieyasu
From the Sengoku Period to the Tokugawa Shogunate
The Sengoku (Warring States) ended with the successive rule of three great warlords, each of whom managed to emerge above all other lords to unify Japan under a single authoritarian government in his day. They were Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582), Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598), and Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616). Each was a man of strong individual character, and each had a distinctive attitude toward religion.
Oda Nobunaga
Nobunaga, a cold, ruthless warrior, generally hated religion. ... It was he who, in the process of bringing all Japan under his sway, slaughtered the monks of Mount Hiei and burned their temples in 1571, and who received the surrender of the Ikko ikki in 1580.
Ironically enough, it was also during Nobunaga’s heyday that a totally unexpectd new politico-religious force arrived in Japan: Europeans and with them Christianity. ... Some lords and not a few others were baptized; by the death of Nobunaga, less than thiry-five years after the missionaries first came, as many as 150,000 Japanese were Christians. Nobunaga was not among them, although he seemed more sympathetic to the foreigners and their creed than to the despised native Buddhists. (IJR, 171)

Toyotomi Hideyoshi
He who lives by the sword will die by the sword, it is said, and so it was with Nobunaga, who died quelling a fairly minor rebellion in some of his own following. He was succeeded by his most brilliant general [Toyotomi Hideyoshi]. ... At first this dictator seemed complacent towards religion, without the vindictiveness of Nobunaga. He allowed Tendai, Pure Land, and Nichiren groups to become active again, and remained on cordial terms with the Christians. Then, suddenly, in 1587, he turned against the missionaries in an edict forbidding their activities; why is not entirely clear, but it is likely that he came to fear the faith’s growing power. ...
The ruler seems to have had advice that, as the example of the Philippines and the Americas made clear, missionaries were not seldom followed by European regiments and colonial governors. ... The twenty-six martyrs of Nagasaki described in Chapter 2, both European and Japanese, both Franciscans and Jesuits, perished on crosses at Hideyoshi’s order in February of 1597. Hideyoshi himself died the following year. Christians were given a short respite as power shifted, after some vicissitudes, to the third great warlord, Tokugawa Ieyasu. (IJR, 172-4)
Tokugawa Ieyasu
After well over a century of almost constant conflict between power-hungry warlords, Japan was ready for peace, and the Tokugawa were ready to impose it. For their two-and-a-half centuries, if not quite the well-regulated, clockwork society its masters envisioned, Japan was without external war and suffered only internal disturbances. With peace came, as it usually does, relative prosperity despite famine years, and considerable cultural creativity. However, poverty and unrest in the countryside only grew worse as the yeras advanced, even as the commercial sector became more and more prosperous.
However, it was not a time of peace for Japan’s remaining Christians either. The Tokugawa regime, alarmed by news of Eurpoean expansion, desirous of a society without significant internal dissent, and determined that Japan must cut itself off from the rest of the world, enacted increasingly harsh decrees against Christianity, until by 1623 the religion was subjected to unspeakably cruel persecution. Christians were tortured until they recanted or died, and were forced to spit or stamp on crucifixes. ... Some Christian families remained faithful, however, throughout the long Tokugawa era; when missionaries finally returned in the mid-nineteenth century, they found Kakure Kirishitan, “Secret Christians,” who, without priests, had kept alive sometimes garbled versions of the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary, and the Creed, and who worshiped by such ingenious devices as placing a crucifix behind a Buddhist image. (IJR, 175)
Buddhism itself was organized and controlled by the Tokugawa government. Each family was required to have membership in a Buddhist temple. Every temple, in turn, was made a branch of a well-regulated major temple, like Mount Koya in Shingon, Mount Hiei in Tendai, the two Honganji in Jodo-Shinshu, or their major auxiliaries, which trained and supplied priests for the local level. Japanese Buddhism had no geographical divisions or responsibilities, like the diocese or district in many Christian churches; each priest and local temple looked to its main temple for guidance and, if need be, the resolution of difficulties. ... [T]he Tokugawa ordinances meant that Buddhism now was at least a nominal part of the life of every village and family. (IJR, 175-6)
Every family was legally required to belong to a Buddhist temple and had to be questioned periodically by the temple priest. “At one stroke, all Japanese were incorporated administratively into the existing Buddhist structure.” Births were registered and deaths were recorded in the local temple to which the family belonged. ... The general situation tended to stifle religious devotion, especially at parish Buddhist temples where family membership was obligatory; temple members’ “relationship with Buddhism often came to be more formalistic and pragmatic rather than a matter of individual religious conviction.” The Japanese historian Anesaki has described the general situation: “For the people at large religion was rather a matter of family heritage and formal observance than a question of personal faith.” ...

The death of a person sets in motion a series of rites and ceremonies that culminates in the observance of a final memorial service, most commonly on the thirty-third or fiftieth anniversary of death. Between a person’s last breath and the final prayers said on his behalf, his spirit is ritually and symbolically purified and elevated; it passes gradually from the stage of immediate association with the corpse, which is thought to be both dangerous and polluting, to the moment when it loses its individual identity and enters the realm of the generalized ancestral spirits, essentially purified and benign. ...
       An outstanding feature of the ceremonies for the dead is that from start to finish they are primarily the responsibility of the household and its members, for all of whom, regardless of sex and of age at death, these same devotions will be performed in some degree. Indeed, the longer the time since a person’s death, the more likely that only household members will look after his spirit. Many people will attend the funeral; fewer will attend the rites of the forty-ninth day; and the number will dwindle over the years as the memorial services are marked. The priest, too, has less and less to do with rites for the deceased as time passes. It can be said without exaggeration that the household members alone, through their observance of the rites, prevent the ancestors from becoming wandering spirits. ...
During the first forty-nine days after death, steps are taken both to separate the spirit of the newly dead from its association with the corpse and to free it from its attachment to the world of the living. To achieve these ends the survivors undertake first to confuse the spirit. The coffin may be carried in a circle around the room of the house where it has rested and only then be borne outside for the funeral procession. The mourners may return from the grave by a route other than that taken by the procession. The path of the cortege may be swept clean in order to obliterate the footprints of the mourners and prevent the spirit from using them to find its way back home. The funeral service itself ends in the symbolic separation of the corpse or ashes and the spirit: a temporary memorial tablet representing the spirit is taken away from the cemetery and serves as the object of veneration during the first forty-nine days. ...
The temporary tablet is first set on a low table in front of, but not within, the altar, and it is often accompanied by a photograph of the deceased, candles, an incense burner, and a bell or gong. On the forty-ninth day in most instances ... the temporary tablet is disposed of and the photograph put away. A permanent tablet, inscribed with the deceased’s posthumous name, is placed with the others already in the altar, to be separated from them only once when it is singled out for special treatment at the first bon. On that occasion the tablet will be placed on its own altar in the main room of the house and will be the object of far more elaborate offerings than are made to the other tablets. It is obvious that the special bon altar for the newly dead is constructed “to keep the observance for purified souls of distant ancestors from contamination with mourning for the newly dead.” ... With the conclusion of the rites of the first bon, the spirit is thought to have begun the long process of becoming an ancestral spirit. Over the years, on occasions marked by successive memorial rites, the dead person becomes more and more remote and fades from the memories of family members. At length, the final services are held for the individual ancestral spirit, which thereupon passes from the ranks of the household dead into a larger collectivity [i.e. it becomes one with the family’s ancestral kami]. (Religion in the Japanese Experience, 186-8; cf. 128-9)
To the present day, the organized sects of Japanese Buddhism have not been able to escape completely the unfavorable stigma of disinterested affiliation. Both enlightened priests and devout laypeople have often deplored the inertia of Tokugawa “feudal” patterns of Buddhist ancestor worship and have lamented the lack of a strong, personal Buddhist faith in the setting of parish temples. (Japanese Religion, 146-7)
In medieval China, a new school of Confucian philosophy arose. It continued the ancient sage’s humanistic emphasis on a harmonious social order and the realization of one’s true inner nature as the supreme good. But, influenced by Taoist and Buddhist thought, the tradition now took on a more metaphysical cast. What ultimate view of nature, and of humanity, best led to true humanism and the good society? According to Zhu Xi (1130-1200), the leading Neo-Confucianist, the key is the discovery and contemplation of li (Japanese, ri) or fundamental principles. Everything has its own li, and it is from the supreme li of heaven (tenri in Japanese), earth, and humankind that all else derives. The second most important Neo-Confucianist, the idealist Wang Yangming (1472-1529), considered the li to be ultimately in the mind. (IJR, 176)
The Tokugawa government was interested more in the organizational powers of Neo-Confucianism than in its cosmological theories. Tokugawa Ieyasu apparently saw in Neo-Confucianism a suitable philosophy for stabilizing and ordering the state. What the Neo-Confucian tradition amounted to was a heavenly sanction for the existing political and social order. Neo-Confucianism in this period served as the main intellectual rationale justifying the existence of the four social classes and their support of the Tokugawa government. The rulers or superiors were advised to be just and benevolent; subordinates were taught to be obedient and respectful. (Japanese Religion, 148; cf. IJR, 177-8)

The Four Classes





The separation into four classes of samurai, farmers, artisans and merchants, like the five relationships, is part of the principles of heaven and is the Way which was taught by the Sage (Confucius). (Hayashi Razan; Religion in the Japanese Experience, 115)

The Five Relationships

Ruler and Subject

Parents and Children

Husband and Wife

Elder and Younger Brother

Friend and Friend

Neo-Confucianism was seen by its advocates as a rational and moral force in society (particularly in politics) that corresponded to the structure of the universe and the nature of life. The rulers may have had personal preferences for Buddhist piety and some sympathy for Shinto teaching, but the government support of Neo-Confucian teachers and advisers was an expression of political duty, in the interest of preserving the social order. The intention of the government policy supporting an official school of orthodox Neo-Confucianists (who taught people the nature of the moral order) was to create moral citizens and thereby preserve social stability. The government sought to tie the political system and social stability to support for Confucian (Chu Hsi) principles, and banned heterodox teachings. (Japanese Religion, 150-1)
To know the way of heaven is to respect heaven and to secure humble submission from earth, for heaven is high above and earth is low below. There is a differentiation between the above and the below. Likewise among the people, rulers are to be respected and subjects are to submit humbly. Only when this differentiation between those who are above and those who are below is made clear, can there be law and propriety. In this way, people’s minds can be satisfied. ... The more rulers are respected, and the more the subjects submit humbly, and the more the differentiation is made clear-cut, the easier it is to govern a country. (Religion in the Japanese Experience, 115)

The Way of the Warrior

Like earlier thinkers of the Tokugawa period, Yamaga Soko worried about the inactivity of the warriors (samurai or bushi) in the prolonged peace of Tokugawa, and he proposed a code of personal ethics for warriors. His work, entitled The Way of the Warrior is considered the first systematic attempt to set forth what later was called Bushido. The notions of self-discipline and loyalty in this code of life were very influential for popular ethics in subsequent centuries.
When Shinto values such as genuineness, purity of heart, and imperial rule blended with Confucian notions of hierarchy (as embedded especially in the Japanese interpretation of its virtues of filial piety and loyalty), there was an important side effect outside Neo-Confucianism and Shinto institutions per se. A distinctively Japanese understanding of loyalty to one’s lord (and ultimately to the emperor) developed.
This Japanese variant took Confucianism’s emphasis on loyalty and appropriate behavior toward one’s superiors and enhanced it with two Shinto qualities: affect (emotion) and the holographic paradigm. The affective dimension maintained that loyalty does not derive merely from formulas about hierarchical roles. This would make loyalty no more than an external relation. For bushido, loyalty is not role-playing or fulfilling some social contract. In the new Japanese interpretation, loyalty derives at least as much from love, an internal relation with the lord and his house. Such an internal relation reinforces the holographic model of the whole-in-every-part. That is: true loyalty arises from the sincere mindful heart that recognizes how the house headed by one’s lord is reflected within each of its members, including oneself. To turn against one’s lord is to turn against oneself.

In this context, when a vassal could not agree with and follow the command of his lord, seppuku — ritualized suicide — was often the only option. By the holographic model, because the whole is part of the individual, the individual cannot be fully true to oneself and simultaneously oppose the whole. The act of seppuku arises from the double bind of being torn between one’s own position against the whole and one’s identity as reflecting the whole. (SWH, 110-1)
[T]he bushido value system gave the samurai a new sense of place in peacetime society. They could bring their values from the battlefield to the bureaucratic offices, where dedication, absolute loyalty, and discipline were equally important. Bushido ideology articulated its values into a formal system promulgated beyond the military class itself. That is: the bushido mentality became potentially a model for all Japanese — its elements promulgated in the Japanese public schools of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries under the rubric of “moral education.” (SWH, 111-2)

In several regards, the Japanese institutional forms justified by Confucian ideals differed from their counterparts in China. For example, in China the relationship between a soldier and his master was a formal tie that could be formally broken; in Japan the loyalty of a warrior to his master was absolute and lifelong and could not be broken. In China the family took precedence over other social institutions; in Japan the family was a kind of “prototype of social organization” for other institutions. The Japanese family was the training ground and model for loyal participation in larger social and political units — villages, businesses, and even the state. (Japanese Religion, 152-3)
The controversy between the orthodox Chu Hsi school and other schools continued. ... Confucian and Neo-Confucian studies had invigorated historical and philological studies of the Chinese classics, and this carried over to a study of Japanese classics. Interest in Japanese history led to a heightened nationalism and a revival of Shinto studies. (Japanese Religion, 152)
Restoration Shinto
The Movement for a Purified Shinto
Ever since the eighth century, Shinto had been overshadowed by the more highly systematized foreign traditions favored at court and among nobility, but it had remained true to their Shinto heritage and produced theoretical writings. In medieval times Kitabatake Chikafusa wrote a theological defense of the divine ancestry of the emperor and the centrality of Japan based on Shinto ideas. Indeed, the medieval schools of Shinto thought, although borrowing heavily from foreign traditions, pursued the ultimate goal of improving Shinto’s status in Japanese religion. “Loyalists” — those around the imperial court who favored the emperor’s return to power — had always supported Shinto. It is only natural that they were opposed to rule by a military leader and his warriors. There were religious commitments on both sides of this issue. In Tokugawa times, the several lines of Shinto support were united and reinforced by a powerful movement called “Restoration Shinto.” (Japanese Religion, 154)
National Learning (Kokugaku)
Motoori Norinage (1730-1801)
Motoori was especially contemptuous of Buddhist teachings that humans can transcend death and therefore should not be sorrowful at death. He wrote that such teachings are deceptive because they are contrary to human sentiment and fundamental truths of life. Motoori insisted that life is sorrowful and that people must be true to their emotions by marking death with sorrow. This inherent emotional life of human beings is not limited to reflection on mortality but touches all aspects of life and nature: this is what Motoori called “mono no aware.” (Japanese Religion, 157)

According to Norinaga, when we use reason to dissolve mystery rather than discover its intimate links with us, we run the risk of distorting the truly wondrous nature of reality. If everything makes sense, there is no room for awe. (Japanese Religion, 115)
Kojiki relates the narrative of creation. Since language must go back to the kami deities, the original story must have been in the words of the celestial kami themselves. According to Norinaga, then, every creation narrative not written in ancient Japanese must already be a translation, if not a transformation, of the true story. Knowing the narrative to be sacred and expressed in the words of the kami, the ancient court storytellers handed down the account verbatim from one generation to the next. Emperors, themselves kami, appointed these storytellers. Therefore, Norinaga reasoned, the Kojiki’s text goes back directly to the words of the kami themselves at the creation. To get back to those words — the kotodama of their sounds as well as their meaning — would be to participate ritually in the act of the creation itself. In chapter 1 we discussed Norinaga’s theory of poetic creativity: the collective resonance of the kokoro in events, words, and poet creates the poem. He assumed the creation of the world had the same structure. While the words of the kami did not themselves create the world, the words spoken were an intrinsic part of the resonance in that creative moment. For Norinaga, in short, Kojiki is a holographic entry point containing in its words the entire kami-filled, tama-charged world. Its reading (with makoto no kokoro) puts one into intimate connection with the ancient ways of the kami(SWH, 114)
Generally, the movement known as Restoration Shinto was not limited to religion but influenced cultural and political developments as well. In terms of organized religious institutions, Restoration Shinto sought to reinstate Shinto as the true Japanese religion, purified of its foreign borrowings. Culturally, Restoration Shinto leaders tried to revive interest in Japanese classics for their own sake. In politics, the movement contributed to the growing support for a “restoration” of imperial rule. Most of these developments within Shinto were theoretical writings for the limited circle of intellectual elite and political leaders, but there also appeared at this time popular Shinto preachers, who drew upon the precedent and patterns of popular Buddhist preachers and Neo-Confucian teachers.
       In late Tokugawa times the patterns of thought in Restoration Shinto became linked to a general dissatisfaction with the Tokugawa government, and they gave rise to nationalist and ultranationalist forces. Restoration Shinto and these related forces play a significant role in the complex events of the Meiji Restoration. (Japanese Religion, 157)
When on the way to these Shrines one does not feel like an ordinary person any longer but as though reborn in another world. How solemn is the unearthly shadow of the huge groves of ancient pines and chamaecyparis, and there is a delicate pathos in the few rare flowers that have withstood the winter frosts so gaily. The cross-beams of the Torii or Shinto gate way is without any curve, symbolizing by its straightness the sincerity of the direct beam of the Divine promise.
The shrine-fence is not painted red nor is the Shrine itself roofed with cedar shingles. The eaves, with their rough reed-hatch, recall memories of the ancient days when the roofs were not trimmed. So did they spare expense out of compassion for the hardships of the people.
Within the Shrine there are many buildings where the festival rites are performed, constructed just like those in the Imperial Palace. Buddhist monks may go only as far as the Sacred Tree known as the Cryptomeria of the Five Hundred Branches (Ioe-no-sugi). They may not go to the Shrine. This, too, is a ceremonial rule of the Imperial Court. ... When I came to reflect on my condition my mind is full of the Ten Evils and I felt shame at so long forsaking the will of Buddha, yet as I wear one of the three monkish robes, I must feel some chagrin at my estrangement from the Way of the Deities.
       And particularly is it the deeply-rooted custom of this Shrine that we should bring no Buddhist rosary or offering, or any special petition in our hearts and this is called “Inner Purity.” Washing in sea water and keeping the body free from all defilement is called “Outer Purity.” And when both these Purities are attained there is then no barrier between our mind and that of the Deity. And if we feel to become thus one with the Divine, what more do we need and what is there to pray for? When I heard that this was the true way of worshipping at the Shrine, I could not refrain from shedding tears of gratitude. [
Religion in the Japanese Experience, 23-5]