In this book, James Mark Shields persuasively makes a case for examining political trends in modern Japanese Buddhism that were: (1) “progressive” insofar as they were concerned with “broad-based social welfare” and with refashioning society in a way that would “enhance social (and economic) equality” (18); (2) “socialist,” insofar as they were characterized by morally tinged “critique of the capitalist economic system” and opposed to “feudalistic” land ownership (20–21); or (3) “radical” insofar as they were “politically engaged” and “in conscious opposition to the hegemonic ideology (or ideologies) of any given period” (22). He rejects simplistic accounts that would paint Buddhists as either “martyrs” or “collaborators” in a period generally characterized by imperialism and military adventurism, showing how the resistance/complicity binary interferes with understanding modern Japanese Buddhists (and their politics) on their own terms. The result is a laudable overview of the diversity of Buddhist opinions and political commitments in the half-century leading up to the Asia-Pacific War, albeit one that clearly privileges the “resistance” side of the aforementioned binary. The book has six content chapters bookended by an introduction, prelude, and conclusion. The introduction lays out Shields’s definitions of operative terms and describes the primary task of the book, which is “to examine in detail the intellectual genealogy and alternative visions of progressive and radical Buddhism that emerged during the five decades leading up to the Pacific War” (6). The prelude reveals the diversity of Buddhist progressive commitments through an anecdotal account of three generations of the Akamatsu family (Renjō, 1841–1919; Shōtō, ?–1921; and Katsumaro ?–1955). Chapter 1 covers what Shields calls the “Buddhist Enlightenment movement” from the mid-1880s to the early 1910s. Chapter 2 examines the lives of Murakami Senshō (1851–1929) and Kiyozawa Manshi (1863–1903), two figures who inspired the lay-centric reform movements discussed in the following chapters. Chapter 3 discusses the lay-oriented New Buddhist Fellowship (Shin Bukkyōto Dōshikai) and its “discovery of society” as a site for Buddhist activism and critique. Chapter 4 covers “renegade priests” such as Takagi Kenmyō (1864–1914) and Uchiyama Gudō (1874–1911) who died as martyrs for leftist or antiimperialist causes. Chapter 5 describes Leo Tolstoy’s influence on several different individuals and “Buddhistic” intentional communities in the Taishō era (1912–1926). Chapter six covers the 1930s, examining the socialist activism of Seno’o Girō (1889–1961) and his Youth League for Revitalizing Buddhism. Throughout these chapters, Shields repeatedly anticipates the arguments of his conclusion. This is where the normative aspect of his project comes to the fore. As he tells it, Buddhists have a responsibility to take the insights of Marx and the political project of socialism seriously, particularly because the well-known Buddhist analysis of suffering as an integral aspect of the human condition has rarely engendered political orientations dedicated to eradicating the actual suffering of human populations (3, 252). Readers will find Shields’s ruminations in this closing chapter either fascinating or frustrating. For those who look to the Buddhist tradition for resources that can be used in the pursuit of social justice, the chapter will highlight the tantalizingly unfinished project of wedding the Marxian diagnosis of economic disparity to the Buddhist diagnosis of human suffering. For those who see religious studies scholarship as primarily re-descriptive, Shields’s closing argument may seem unnecessarily prescriptive: Shields seems to want Buddhists to be better Marxists. Setting aside the ethical question of whether scholars of religion have the right or responsibility to engage in this sort of moralizing, the re-descriptive aspect of Shields’s work provides an opportunity to think about scholarly method. He summarizes a wide range of primary source materials generated by Buddhists who were interested in political and economic reform, but it is unclear whether the intellectual influences that he traces are always as direct as he suggests. While he is quick to note the influence of Marx or Tolstoy on Japanese Buddhists, at times the evidence for this influence seems circumstantial, indirect, or ahistorical (e.g., 114). Intellectual influence also appears mostly unidirectional. Although Shields begins and ends the book by wondering what Buddhism might have to offer progressive politics in general and Marxist criticism in particular, for the balance of the book he traces the influence of European thinkers on Japanese individuals without showing how Japanese visions of “progressive” or “radical” Buddhism influenced non-Japanese actors. (His discussion of Japanese Buddhist contributions to the 1893 World Parliament of Religions is an exception; see 42–44, 54–55.) Throughout, Shields makes passing references to contemporaneous social-historical trends such as urbanization, the rise of industrialism, and poverty, but he is most persuasive when he describes the specific political problems that spurred individual Buddhists to adopt progressive stances. For example, Seno’o Girō’s horror at the anti-Korean racism that followed the devastating 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake and his dismay at the destitution that accompanied the economic depression of the late 1920s were clearly crucial catalysts for his development of socialist ideals (214). Similarly, it is significant that the New Buddhist Fellowship rejected political protection and governmental interference in religious affairs not simply because they viewed Buddhist decadence as a direct result of Buddhism’s longstanding and close relationship with the government (99), but also because their Buddhist contemporaries frequently espoused statist attitudes as the government considered controversial legislation concerning religious administration in late 1899 (287 n37). These concrete examples of social and legal historical evidence, when they appear, help ground the book’s relatively abstract discussions of intellectual genealogy. Historians of various stripes naturally prefer different sorts of evidence, and Shields is clearly aware of the pitfalls of focusing exclusively on rarefied intellectual products (132–33). I do not fault him for being an intellectual historian, but I did find myself questioning his interpretations of evidence in one important respect. Because I have written about the New Buddhist Fellowship (NBF) in my own work on religious freedom in modern Japan, it caught my attention when Shields claimed that NBF leader Sakaino Kōyō wrote an essay in response to the state-sponsored 1912 “Three Religions Conference” exhorting the state to stop wasting time on “such meaningless activities when there [were] still many problems to be solved with relation to religious liberty” (164). I promptly looked up the essay in question, but I was surprised to find no explicit reference to religious liberty (shinkyō no jiyū) or even “problems related to religious liberty” therein. I did find Sakaino rambling on for several pages about healthy competition between religions before he talked very briefly about “emancipating” religion from state oversight by abolishing the sectarian administrator (kanchō) system. The essay was loosely related to the ideal of tolerance and nonpreferential treatment, but it hardly constitutes the disquisition on religious freedom that Shields’s rhetoric suggests. The impression that Shields may have slightly misrepresented his sources or skipped over important details is reinforced by the numerous typos, infelicitous transliterations (e.g., two different incorrect transliterations of the word for “newspaper” on 201), and mistaken Chinese characters that pepper the book. Sometimes a translation of a key term on one page will differ from the translation of the same term on another (e.g., the translations of ichinen sanzen on 210 and 211). Collectively, these give the impression of reading and writing done in haste. These shortcomings do not detract from the broader contribution of Shields’s book. He persuasively shows that Buddhists experienced Japanese modernity in multifarious ways. He furthermore proves that many prominent Buddhists had demonstrable commitments to principles that we would regard today as “leftist.” The old model of quietist Buddhists failing to resist state power falls apart in Shields’s hands, and that is a good thing. Some Buddhists were concerned with supporting Japanese imperialism and military adventurism, but others were critical of the state and mobilized Buddhist ideas in pursuit of social justice. Notably, however, few of the movements that Shields discusses can be described as lasting successes. Seno’o Girō was imprisoned and recanted his socialist views while in prison; Uchiyama Gudō was executed for treason; the prominent members of the NBF became far more conservative in middle age, and ultimately they were just as likely to harness their goals to state authority as anyone else (128–31). The question therefore remains of what messages we should take from their failed ideas and abortive activities. Shields would have us make Buddhism a little more Marxist and Marxian analysis a little more Buddhist. I am sympathetic to his progressive politics. But if one problem with earlier studies of modern Japanese Buddhism was that they unfairly imposed contemporary political sensibilities onto the people of the past, Shields’s corrective may not have escaped this same pitfall. © The Author(s) 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Academy of Religion. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Journal of the American Academy of Religion – Oxford University Press
Published: Nov 19, 2017
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