Control, repression, and tolerance in early modern Japanese religion


Speakers and abstracts


The beginning of Japan’s Early Modern Period (1600–1867) saw a fundamental change in the relation between “religion” and “politics”, or, more precisely, in the ways that political leaders interfered with religious matters, repressed certain groups as “heretics” and lent their support to others who in exchange helped them sustain their rule. In the wake of anti-Christian persecution, Buddhist schools loyal to the government, in cooperation with administrative institutions, developed a system of coercive “registration at Buddhist temples” (tera-uke). This was arguably the most important and far-reaching measure of religious control under the ruling Tokugawa regime leading to a completely new relationship between Buddhist temples and their clients (danka system).

In the early phase of this system, variations existed. One major variation is the subject of a project named “Shintō-uke: Religious control via Shintō shrines,” carried out by the organizers of this conference. In a nutshell, shintō-uke was an attempt to substitute registration at Buddhist temples by registration at Shintō shrines. This phenomenon was confined to a few domains only, and even within these, it lasted only for a few decades during the second half of the seventeenth century. Nevertheless, shintō-uke provides a unique vantage point on the problems and dynamics of the incipient tera-uke system.

The main objective of this conference is to arrive, together with leading specialists in the field, at a clearer picture of the backdrop against which shintō-uke developed. We wish to explore the agents, guidelines, and obstacles which shaped religious policies at the various levels: bakufu, han, and local village; head temples and rural temples; old shrines and new shrines; and finally patrons of Shintō such as the court and its substitutes (Yoshida, Shirakawa).

Some of the more specific topics and questions of relevance include:

  • Christians and other outlawed and marginalized religious groups: repression and tacit toleration
  • Buddhism as an agent of the state
  • Temporal and regional varieties of religious administration in villages, towns, and metropolitan areas; economic costs; death and funeral rites
  • Danka seido as an autopoietic system of control
  • New conceptions of kami, shrines, and the court: separation of shrines and temples in early Tokugawa
  • Confucian critique of Buddhism

Conference report

by the student assistants Leonora Pillhofer, Natalie Schnauder and Benedikt Weiser

This was our first time to assist at an international symposium. While it was our task to serve some basic needs of the participants such as finding their way to the institute and getting their presentations on a computer, we were able to gain first insights into the “backstage” matters of such an event. All in all, these four days proved quite a challenge due to the participant’s unsatisfiable thirst for coffee. The three of us did our best to provide the much needed beverage while also being able to get into contact with international researchers.

The symposium provided an environment for discussion and exchange about topics relating to the main topic “Control, repression, and tolerance in early modern Japanese religion”. It was initiated by a keynote speech of Prof. Nam-Lin Hur from the University of British Columbia who talked about the political power held by Buddhist institutions established through death and prayer rites during the early modern period in Japan. Afterwards the participants as well as the general audience were invited to the welcome reception. Accompanied by drinks and snacks first discussions between the participants took place and continued at a dinner at the restaurant Salzamt.

The next day was introduced by Stefan Köck and a self-introductory round. Following this was the first panel with talks on Christianity and anti-Christian policies in Kyushu by Katja Triplett and Carla Tronu. The presentations were held within panels of two lectures each and each panel lasted for approximately one and a half hours. After each panel was either a lunch break or a small coffee break providing the participants with the opportunities to converse outside the fixed presentation and discussion setting. The other panels on the first day concerned policies issued by the Tokugawa government to enforce their power over religious institutions and the relationship between Confucianism and Shinto.

On Friday morning lectures continued on the topic of Confucian Shinto. Following this were talks on religious policies issued in certain local areas and local priestly networks. Afterwards the participants of the symposium rejoined at a local Austrian-style restaurant for the conference dinner. Local wine and regional food provided a pleasant atmosphere for the guests to mingle and let the day come to an end.

Saturday was the last day of the symposium and consisted of three presentations. They discussed the Tokugawa government’s stance towards heterodox activities within early modern Japanese religious landscape and the relationship between faith and politics in nineteenth century Japan. The whole symposium concluded with a final discussion concerning the publication of the research presented and discussed during the four days of the symposium.

While we unfortunately could not always follow the talks and discussions due to other essential tasks behind the scenes, we enjoyed gaining new knowledge regarding the relationship between politics and religion in early modern Japan. The fact that we were not always able to understand all of the talks and discussions made us realize that there will be much to learn in the future.


  • Yannick Bardy (University of Lille)
  • W.J. Boot (Leiden University, Prof. emer.)
  • Hayashi Makoto (Aichi Gakuin University, Nagoya)
  • Nam-lin Hur (University of British Columbia)
  • Inoue Tomokatsu (Saitama University)
  • James McMullen (University of Oxford)
  • Kate Wildman Nakai (Sophia University, Prof. emer.)
  • Sonehara Satoshi (Tohoku University, Sendai )
  • Jacqueline I. Stone (Princeton University)
  • Mark Teeuwen (University of Oslo)
  • Katja Triplett (Leipzig University)
  • Carla Tronu (University of Kyoto)
  • Anne Walthall (UC Irvine, Prof. emer.)
  • Stefan Köck (Austrian Academy of Sciences)
  • Brigitte Pickl-Kolaczia (Austrian Academy of Sciences)
  • Bernhard Scheid (Austrian Academy of Sciences)