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Of Heretics and Martyrs in Meiji Japan

by James Edward Ketelaar

Buy the book: James Edward Ketelaar. Of Heretics and Martyrs in Meiji Japan

Release Date: 08 March, 1993

Edition: Paperback

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Buy the book: James Edward Ketelaar. Of Heretics and Martyrs in Meiji Japan


Insight into modern Japanese Buddhism

This book is an academic study of the persecution of Buddhism in Japan in the first half of the Meiji era--i.e., in the late nineteenth century. It may be of interest to different readers for different reasons:

(1) It's a study of a particular period in JAPANESE HISTORY, highlighting "the dominant ideological concerns of the period and the consequences of those concerns for individual and institutional action."

(2) It's a study of PERSECUTION and responses to it, using as a case study the Meiji Buddhists, who managed to transform themselves from heretics to martyrs.

(3) It's a study of JAPANESE BUDDHISM. Meiji Buddhism was "caught in the crossfire between Shintoists, enlightenment thinkers, nationalists, imperialists, economists, Confucians, and the newly emergent scientists and historians . . . as they did battle over the correct interpretation of 'civilization and enlightenment.'" Japanese Buddhism not only survived persecution but, in responding to this persecution and also to critiques from within, managed to reconstitute itself as nonheretical. This was done so effectively that the Meiji persecution of Buddhism "is all but forgotten in chronicles of Japanese history," and the "modern Buddhism" produced by the Meiji Buddhists came to be central to Japan's self-understanding.

Ch. 1 examines the critiques of Buddhism in the Tokugawa era that set the stage for persecution in the Meiji era--historicist, nativist, and economic critiques. Ch. 2 examines the Meiji persecution of Buddhism and some Buddhist responses to it. Ch. 3 examines the creation of a national ideology and the institutions designed to promulgate it, including the Great Teaching Academy, and the Buddhist-led countermovement that closed the academy and transformed Buddhism "from a persecuted other to a paradigmatic martyr of the illustrious heritage of the nation." Ch. 4 examines the 1893 World's Parliament of Religions in Chicago and its role in Japanese Buddhism's self-(re)definition as modern, cosmopolitan, and universally applicable. And Ch. 5 examines the way in which a unified vision of Meiji Buddhism and a new history were created and how they were used in producing a Buddhist claim to religious universality.

I read this book mainly to learn about the Japanese Buddhism that was transmitted to the U.S., and I was interested to learn that it wasn't just Western Buddhists who were responding to accusations that Buddhism is passive or who were touting Buddhism as an eminently rational religion. Japanese Buddhists were already refiguring Buddhism as socially useful and as compatible with an enlightened society and a scientific worldview.

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