Rethinking the relationship between state and religion. The role of Japanese buddhism in the early stages of Japan’s modernisation, 1870s-1880s

Start - End 
2015 - 2022 (completed)



In contrast to the traditional narrative that Buddhism was transformed under the influence of Japan’s modernisation in the early Meiji period (1870s-1880s), this project will suggest that Buddhism was an active partner in Japan’s modernising process. In 1872, when foreign travel was still mostly the prerogative of diplomats and government-sponsored students, two Japanese Buddhist missions left for Europe to study the link between Christianity and Western civilisation. Back in Japan, members of the missions were active in the Japanese ‘Enlightenment Movement’ through journal publication and the establishment of societies in response to the intellectual activities of secular thinkers. The investigation of these Buddhist ventures will form the basis of the project. The suppression of Buddhism in favour of a Shinto-based ideology propelled Buddhist thinkers into playing a prominent role in developing a concept of ‘religion’ that suited a ‘civilised’ Japan. In their attempt to align Buddhism with this new concept, they developed notions that supported the state’s project to become ‘a rich country with a strong army’, both in terms of social ideas that sought to stimulate the people’s productivity, and of views that were supportive of Japan’s militaristic expansionism. By addressing these understudied intellectual developments, the project will challenge the narrative of a weakened Buddhism, reconsider its agency in early Meiji Japan, and ask how religion shaped Japan’s modernity.