Religion, Power, and the Rise of Shinto in Early Modern Japan

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Stefan Köck, Brigitte Pickl-Kolaczia, Bernhard Scheid
Bloomsbury Shinto Studies
  • New York: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , May
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In the past few decades, careful scholarship has given Western audiences a broader awareness that the ritual forms and beliefs of the Japanese religion Shinto were largely invented in the 19th and 20th centuries. This has naturally engendered curiosity and interest in the forms of devotion and practice found at shrines before 1868. Religion, Power, and the Rise of Shinto, edited by Stefan Köck, Brigitte Pickl-Kolaczia, and Bernhard Scheid, a new addition to the Bloomsbury Shinto Studies series, analyzes the relationship between shrine institutions and secular authority in the Edo period (1600–1868) at the levels of locality, domain, and bakufu (the military government of the entire archpelago). With a focus on the first half of the Edo period, this group of fourteen research papers and one introductory essay covers disparate times and places but can be linked together into a complex supplement to the knowledge of Edo religion.

An exciting addition that this book provides to previous English-language research on Shinto is the expansion of the cast of participants seeking institutional authority over shrines in the early Edo period. Past books and articles have focused on Buddhist temples, the rituals of the officially endorsed Yoshida house, and the rise of kokugaku (nativist studies), but this volume additionally highlights the political decisions of village elders, daimyo (domain lords), and the ritual specialists of the Shirakawa house. The volume editors coin the phrase “domain Shinto” to describe strategic deployment of anti-Buddhist initiatives by a minority of daimyo in the 1660s and 1670s. This domain Shinto often relied on Confucian language, but Confucian scholars did not claim direct control over shrines, leading to an unexpected diversity of implementation throughout different domains.

All contributors to this book make rigorous use of primary sources, and many researchers ground their contributions in years of expertise, for example Jacqueline Stone’s chapter on Fujufuse Nichiren Buddhism, or Sonehara Satoshi’s chapter on the deification of Tokugawa Ieyasu. I would also like to make special note of the chapter by Yannick Bardy, who analyzes two shrines in Izumi Province (now part of Osaka Prefecture) over the course of the Edo period. Bardy’s two concrete examples clarify the confusing web of influences of this time period, and his chapter includes one of the book’s three clearly labeled maps, which are always valuable in discussions of local policy. For educators interested in making use of this book for a class on Shinto or Edo religion, Bardy’s short chapter is well suited to an undergraduate curriculum.

Over the course of this book, readers see shrines entering into a complex debate that pits Buddhism against Christianity, Confucianism, and ancient Japanese chronicles. By the 1660s there were already some seeds of ideas about what makes shrines uniquely ancient and legitimate, although Japanese philology (kogaku) had not yet been developed at this time. In Mito Domain, one magistrate referred to the ancient text Engishiki as justification for seize a shrine from Buddhist control and refurbish its architecture, and another employee of the domain proposed that “in ancient times, an ideal society based on the Way of the Gods (shintō) took shape” (94–95).

In Aizu Domain, however, ancient China was invoked as the correct model for state rituals. Okayama Domain imitated neither ancient China nor ancient Japan, but the latest developments in Confucian administrative technology, what we now call neo-Confucianism in English. Samurai abandoning their affiliation with Buddhism in Okayama would swear joint allegiance to Confucianism and Shinto and pledge to “practice Confucian ceremonies” in their households (167). For its part, in 1665 the bakufu promulgated “a national licensing system for shrine priests” authorized by the Yoshida house, complete with textbooks, robes, and standards of shrine repair (151).

Also highlighted throughout the volume is the interaction of shrines with the temple registration system, which mandated affiliation to Buddhist sects to prevent outbreaks of Christianity. Some shrines objected to the system: at Ise, for example, in 1638 shrine priests objected to being forced to affiliate with Buddhism and obtained an exemption from the shogun. In 1773, the Shinto priests of Tsuchiura Domain joined together in rebellion, also obtaining a limited exemption. In other cases, daimyo organized alternatives to Buddhism. This happened in Okayama in 1669, where, under Ikeda Mitsumasa, nearly the entire population registered themselves with shrines instead of temples. This system rapidly declined after Mitsumasa’s death and was eventually deprecated. James McMullen provides a chapter summarizing Mitsumasa’s own beliefs about legitimacy and authority, which are characterized as being grounded chiefly in neo-Confucianism.

While this book could have been easier to read if re-edited into a unified narrative, the expertise brought by the authors provides a valuable resource for scholars of this period, and the diverse topics covered show that the relationship of Shinto with institutional power in the Edo period is multifaceted and does not lend itself to any sort of simple, linear progression building up to the eventual centralization of shrines. Edo period Shinto systems before kokugaku were to a surprising extent local affairs with very little overarching national structure, regardless of the level of institutional sponsorship. Even the shogun’s endorsement of Yoshida Shinto in practice met with dissent from many corners, and the Yoshida style of ritual was eventually completely suppressed. One finishes this book wondering, considering the many decades of disunity and objections to unifying movements, why was nativist kokugaku such a late development in Shinto history, and why did it spread rapidly across the Japanese archipelago when it did arrive?

About the Reviewer(s): 

Avery Morrow is a PhD student at Brown University.

Date of Review: 
December 22, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Stefan Köck is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, Austria.

Brigitte Pickl-Kolaczia is a doctoral candidate at Austrian Academy of Sciences, Austria.

Bernhard Scheid is a senior researcher at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, Austria.


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