Online Bookreviews

Nam-Lin Hur, Death and Social Order in Tokugawa Japan: Buddhism, Anti-
Christianity, and the Danka System. Harvard East Asian Monographs
282. London and Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2007. xvi +
562 pp. ISBN: 978-0-674-02503-5 (hbk.). $55.00; £35.95; 50.70.

Hur’s study of the danka system—the system that, over the course of the seventeenth century,
eventually required all Japanese individuals and households to affiliate with a Buddhist
temple in order to demonstrate their non-Christian status—and its social, cultural and political
ramifications deserves high praise and a wide readership. It draws on an impressive range
of both primary and secondary sources, and it is the most detailed and comprehensive treatment
of this topic in English. In this study, Hur explores the following themes:
(1) how and why Buddhist institutions came to serve as an administrative vehicle for
the anti-Christian policy of the Tokugawa state, thus resulting in the institutionalization
of the danka system; (2) how Buddhist institutions subjected the entire population
to the danka system, thereby imbuing death rituals and ancestral rites with a
Buddhist character and so incorporating Buddhism into the modus operandi of
Tokugawa Japanese households; and (3) how, under the danka system, the paradigm
of Buddhist death was imposed, contested, and negotiated among the danna
households, Buddhist temples and the state—a process that eventually resulted in
the backlash of the Shinto funeral movement (28).
Hur divides his study into four parts that deal with the origins and initial development of the
danka system, the array of rituals that arose in connection with it, the complications that
manifested themselves as Buddhist temples exercised their power over their affiliated households,
and the attempt (and ultimate failure) of some Shinto activists to replace the Buddhist
system with a Shinto alternative in the late Tokugawa and Meiji period (1868-1912).
For readers of Itinerario, part 1 is likely to be of the greatest interest, since it is here that
the author takes up the impact of Spanish and Portuguese Christians and traders on military
leaders of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries as they went about consolidating
their power after decades of warfare. Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616) emerged at the end
of this process, establishing a regime that lasted from 1600 to 1868. Although Ieyasu wanted
to establish trade relations with the Spanish and Portuguese and was not entirely anti-
Christian, his desire to extend his firm control across Japanese society quickly led him to turn
against both European trade and the foreign religion. Christianity had begun to spread in
Japan in the mid-sixteenth century and it had attracted some domain leaders as well as commoners.
Ieyasu came to fear both foreign missionaries and their converts as subversive elements
in Japanese society. In 1612 he issued a nationwide ban against Christianity and in
1613 he ordered the “padres” expelled. There followed years of often harsh persecution of
the missionaries and Japanese Kirishitan, as the converts were known. Hur carefully chronicles
the unfolding of the governments anti-Christian measures, identifying as the first step
in the development of the danka system the 1614 shogunal order that those Kirishitan who
had “rolled over” to Buddhism—that is, renounced Christianity—obtain a document from
their temple monk certifying that fact. Gradually the religious certification requirement was
extended beyond those Kirishitan who had given up religion to the entire Japanese population,
a process that was more or less complete by the 1660s and that had become a part of
the Japanese way of life by the late seventeenth century. As Hur and others have pointed out,
by the time the danka system was fully instituted, it was clear that Christianity was no longer
a threat. However, in reading Hur’s account, one cannot but help be impressed by the paranoia
of the Tokugawa regime and the extremes to which it went to suppress the religion. As
Hur writes, “The institutionalization of temple certification was slow and extremely brutal”
(104).
In part 2, Hur explains the actual working of the danka system. In his introductory chapter
as well here, he clarifies how the compilation of the registers of households that were submitted
to the government were carried out. People had freedom to select the temple with
which they would affiliate, though that freedom came to be limited in actual practice. From
their dannadera or temple of affiliation they would receive annual certification that they were
not Christian, a certification without which they could not function as legal citizens. Village or
ward heads would then work with the temples to compile a register that would be submitted
up through the layers of bureaucracy, ultimately reaching the shogun’s government. While
individual temples kept registers of their danka (known as kakoch¯o), the registers submitted
to the government (the sh¯umon aratamech¯o) were compiled by village and ward officials.
Once the affiliation with a temple had been established, the danna would incur a range of
obligations to the temple—donations, visits to the temple on certain days, the conduct of
funerals according to temple custom, and so on. Hur chronicles, again as others have done,
the ways in which temples could abuse their authority (with the threat, for example, of moving
a person “off register”) and he notes the occasional attempts by the government to limit
such abuses. But the system was not one simply of exploitation. In the rich array of funerary
rituals that the temples provided, referred to as the j¯usan butsuji or “thirteen Buddhist
rituals”, Buddhism could offer the Japanese a way of dealing with death that neither Shinto
nor Confucianism could match. Shinto associated death with pollution and Confucianism in
Japan did not give prominence to the funerary rituals that one sees in Chinese and Korean
Confucianism. Furthermore, neither religion had the institutional infrastructure that would
enable them to reach the entire population in the way that Buddhism did. Hur’s discussion
of the ritual system in chapters five and six of this section provides an excellent overview.
In part 3, Hur examines the tensions that existed between the temples, the households and
the state in the danka system, each both empowered and restrained by the system, and in
part 4 he explains why it was that even when the new Meiji state took over in 1868 and
attempted to promote Shinto, it could not displace the entrenched danka system. Hur
begins his conclusion to the volume with a bold statement: “For more than two and a half
centuries leading up to the Meiji period, anti-Christianity was the cornerstone of Tokugawa
Japan’s statehood” (364). Whether or not it was the cornerstone of Japan’s statehood for all
of the Tokugawa period, one suspects, is likely to be debated. But Hur has made the case
for the assertion of the sentence immediately following: “The weapon of anti-Christianity
helped the Tokugawa shogunate not only to consolidate its governing structure but also to
hold sway over its people and all political entities of the country.” Every student of Japanese
history, religion, government, and society should read this book.

Paul B. Watt, DePauw University