Japan: Table of Contents


Session 83: Buddhist Economies in Japan


Organizer and Chair: Fabio Rambelli, Williams College

Discussant: Robert Duquenne, Ecole Francais d’Extreme-Orient, Kyoto

The purpose of this panel is to investigate the role of economy in Buddhist institutions and ideologies in Japan. A large part of both the metaphorical structure of Buddhism and of the activities of Buddhist people/institutions is deeply economic in nature (the Three "Treasures"), as in basic concepts such as offerings (fuse), merit (kudoku), and dedication (eko). However, doctrinal approaches and scholarship tend either to ignore the presence of economic issues, or to treat them as "degenerated" and not "truly" Buddhist.

The panel addresses a number of related themes in Japanese religious history, ranging from Buddhist economic theories—the transformation of "material" cash (offerings) into "spiritual" cash (good karma), to the management of religious institutions, the economic implications of rituals, and economic conflicts at the basis of the establishment of "Shinto" institutions as separate from Buddhist centers of power. The papers illustrate a sort of double structure connecting Buddhism and economy: on the one hand, religious rituals and concepts have an economic aspect based on a root metaphor ("investments"—offerings—that produce "interests"—karmic benefits); on the other hand, economy had often in the past a religious relevance, as in the case of taxes and royalties collected by religious institutions. It is clear that there are specific ideas of "value," "production," and "exchange" in Japanese Buddhism that need to be clarified. The papers address premodern and contemporary issues in order to show structural continuities and changes in Buddhist economic practices and ideologies throughout Japanese history.


Shrine Estates and the Birth of Ise Shinto in Medieval Japan

William M. Bodiford, University of California, Los Angeles

The birth of Ise Shinto cannot be properly understood without considering the bitter rivalry among the priestly families of the various Ise shrines for control over shrine estates. The founding of Ise estates was accompanied by the constructions of branch shrines controlled by distant kinsmen who collected the offering (i.e., taxes), led pilgrimages (i.e., tribute convoys), organized the local peasants into armed bands of shriners, and fought against local governors, Buddhist monastic warriors, and rival branches of Ise. In other words, Ise estates promoted the same economic and military activities found at the estates of all major shrines and temples. Unlike other religious institutions, however, the Ise shrines—especially the Outer Shrine—initially lacked a convincing body of lore, ritual, and miraculous benefits required to command religious awe. Ise Shinto, the secret teachings of the Outer Shrine, developed in answer to this need.

By examining the development of Ise Shinto within this historical context we can avoid the distortions of Tokugawa-period Nativists who saw in Ise Shinto the nascent first stirrings of their own anti-Buddhist, anti-Chinese agenda. Modern scholars often fail to realize how medieval Shinto arose and functioned within a Buddhist framework. In exploring the above themes this paper aims to demonstrate how economic rivalries fueled the development of new religious discourses in medieval Japan and at the same time to contribute to the ongoing reevaluation of "Shinto" as an ideological construct in the study of Japanese religions.


The Spiritual and Material Economics of Merit Dedication in Japanese Zen

Griffith Foulk, Sarah Lawrence College

The clergy of the various Zen Buddhist denominations in Japan today are, for the most part, priests who support their home temples and families by performing funerals and memorial services for lay parishioners (danka). The rites most frequently performed are monthly and annual sutra chanting services (fugin). Those services, in a nutshell, have three parts: (1) the chanting of sutras or dharanis as a means of producing merit (kudoku), (2) a formal dedication (eko) in which the merit produced is transferred to spirits of the dead and others as offerings (kuyo), and (3) prayers that specify the aims and hope for returns from the offerings. Real money changes hands, in the form of "donations" (de facto fees) that parishioners make to priests in exchange for the performance of such rites. At the same time, the rites themselves represent a kind of economic transaction that takes place on an invisible spiritual plane, a transaction in which merit—good karma in "cash" form—is earned and spent for various purposes.

The paper begins by broadly outlining the religious, social, institutional, and economic situation of the Zen Buddhist denominations in Japan today. It then describes the function and rationale of the two aforementioned economies—the one that exists overtly between priests and parishioners, and the one that is negotiated invisibly within the rites—and explores the complex ways in which the two systems are interconnected. In the process, the paper also presents translations and critical analysis of a number of relevant liturgical texts.


Buddhist Institutions and Economic Policy in Meiji Japan

John S. LoBreglio, Kyoto University

During the Tokugawa period, Buddhist institutions came increasingly to be seen as drains upon the nation’s economic resources. This perception culminated in the unofficial persecution of Buddhism (haibutsu kishaku) in early Meiji and in official economic reforms in which Buddhist temples suffered significant economic losses.

Buddhist institutions were thus faced with two distinct yet related problems. First, they had to compensate for the loss of revenues generated by land holdings and other properties confiscated by the Meiji government. Second, they needed to reform their image as unproductive, economic parasites. Such a facelift was all the more urgent given the importance placed upon enriching the nation (fukoku) by the government.

My paper will describe some representative Buddhist responses to both of these problems. Concerning the first, the varying degrees of economic loss and the variety of responses will be emphasized. Concerning the second, it has been observed that the ability of the Buddhist institutions not only to survive persecution, but to become accepted again as cultural leaders, lay to a great extent in their self-representation as bearers of a pan-Asian ethic appropriate to the modern age (Ketelaar). A central aspect of this ethic was the rejection of Western materialism. This left the Buddhist institutions in the ironic position of having both to encourage economic policies to increase the national wealth while rejecting in principle such material accumulation. I will examine the ideological nature of such strategies and show how Buddhist discourse was employed and transformed toward this end.


The Economy of Salvation: Capital, Productive Practices, and Soteriology in Medieval Japanese Buddhism

Fabio Rambelli, Williams College

Throughout Japanese premodern history, but especially until the fourteenth century, Buddhist temples controlled more or less directly vast portions of central Japan and exerted their dominion over large masses of people. The control over the economy was a step in the process through which dominant Buddhist institutions in medieval Japan attempted to establish their social and political hegemony. Agriculture, hunting and fishing, trade, and all professional activities within the temples’ manors were described as interactions with the "invisible world" of buddhas and kami. As such, the economy was directly related to salvation and the acquisition of karmic benefits. A specific soteriology claiming that this world is the Pure Land (shido soku jodo) acquired political and economic relevance.

The paper presents specific cases of sacralization of productive activities and labor during the late Heian and Kamakura periods. In particular, it deals with labor and offerings in manors belonging to religious institutions, and with the sacred cycle of agriculture which constituted the ideological basis of annual taxes (nengumai). It also addresses the theoretical status of the belongings of religious institutions (butsumotsu) and priests (somotsu). Such economic ideology and practices were fundamental features of premodern Buddhism. However, as a result of the anti-Buddhist policies of the Meiji government, sacralization of everyday productive activities is today more evident in the activities of Shinto institutions, as in the case of company shrines. The paper ends by raising issues of continuity and change in Japanese religious economy.