A Brief Look At Edo Period Buddhism in Japan


A while back I read a fascinating book on the life of a famous Japanese monk named Tetsugen who was a prominent figure in the Obaku Zen school. The book also provides a helpful look at Japanese Buddhism during the pre-modern Edo Period also called the Tokugawa Period.

Not much is written in English about Buddhism at this time in Japan. Instead, most writings focus on the much earlier Kamakura Period and Heian Period because of the charismatic founders that loved back then: Honen, Nichiren, Shinran, Dogen, Kukai and Saicho. Some books also imply that by the Edo Period Buddhism, now firmly under state control became moribund and corrupt. The rise of Neo-Confucianism at this time also helped to overshadow and even undermine Buddhism.

However, recently I finished a couple books that helped change my view on this:

So this is a brief look at Buddhist institutions at the time.

Parochial “Danka” System

After 100+ years of civil war in Japan, the victorious Bakufu (幕府) government ran a tightly-controlled, military society designed to prevent any further warfare. Stability was critically important. This was not only to prevent attacks from samurai armies, but also peasant rebellions such as the famous “ikko-ikki” rebellion, and also monastic armies such as Enryakuji on Mount Hiei.

The new government used many tools to help control society, and one of those was religion. As I posted before, the new Neo-Confucian teachings from China became popular, but also Buddhist institutions became tools of state control, using the danka (檀家) system, or “parochial” system.

Japanese Buddhism held a monopoly on funerals and death rites because Shinto considered death to be polluting, while Confucianism was focused on this world. Thus, the new bakufu used this to their advantage and passed new laws requiring all Japanese citizens to register their family at the Buddhist temple of their choice (terauke 寺請). This became a contentious issue for Japanese Christians in the Western regions, leading ultimately to the disastrous Shimabara Rebellion.

This also strongly affected Buddhist institutions as well as monastic institutions were co-opted by the state to track citizens, but also created strong ties between temples and local parishes. Interestingly, this danka system still exists today, though it’s quickly evolving in modern times.

Rise of Scholar Buddhism

One side-benefit of this danka/terauke system often ignored until recently was that it de-politicized Buddhist institutions and led to a scholarly “revival”. As we saw in the case of the famous Zen monk Tetsugen, many monks were rediscovering their own schools and teachings, and doing research that had been neglected in the centuries of warfare and political instability.

The increase in scholastic Buddhism also led to an increased demand for Buddhist texts, which until then were obscure or preserved only in rare hand-copied versions. Unlike mainland Asia, which had developed block-printing centuries earlier, Japan did not use block-printing to mass-produce Buddhist texts until the middle of the Edo Period. Although Tetsugen was not the first, the efforts of his students helped bring a flourishing of Buddhist resources.

But what’s remarkable about the Edo Period in general is the explosion of literature. Japanese society as a whole, not just monks, became very literate and the demand for books of all subjects also increased.


Yet another side-effect of the danka/terauke system was the increasing sectarianism between Buddhist sects that persists today. Whereas mainland Asia tended to merge various strands of Buddhism into a single cohesive religion, the Bakufu’s system of control prevented this. Instead, various Buddhist schools were encouraged to “stand out”, but promoting their own system, their own teachers, their own temple network and their own history. This coincided with the scholarly revival, but also forced a clean division between Buddhist sects that might have otherwise merged over time.

As with the danka/terauke system overall, this too is gradually changing, and it is more common to see temples that blend practices such as a Pure Land temple holding meditation classes, but still when compared to Korea, which unified Buddhism under Jinul and the Jogye Order around the same time, Buddhism in Japan is considerably more sectarian and plays out today even in overseas communities.1

Popular Buddhism

In addition to monastic communities in Edo-Period Japan, popular religion also flourished and became an important part of daily life for Japanese both in the countryside and in the urban settings. For example, the constant moving back and forth of the samurai class meant that remote temples often established branch temples in the capital of Edo. In time, Edo became a very religiously diverse place, drawing sects and teachings from all over Japan.

Additionally, pilgrimages to remote locations were very popular. Among the most popular Shinto shrines for pilgrimages were Mount Kumano, Konpira shrine in Shikoku and the Ise Grand Shrine.

Buddhist pilgrimages were popular too, even if they were often an excuse people to relax, and let their hair down. Among the most popular were:

  • The Shikoku 88 sites pilgrimage associated with Kukai, which is still very popular to this day. Due to the cost and luxury of the trip, abbreviated versions appeared in places like Edo.
  • Shinran’s 24 holy sites of Pure Land Buddhism. This pilgrimage was comparatively more solemn and not popular with beggars who would otherwise line up along pilgrimage roads and make considerable profit.

Many of the traditions that surround popular Buddhist holidays celebrated today in Japan, such as Hanamatsuri, had their roots in Edo period popular religious trends.


Far from being moribund, Japanese Buddhism in the Edo Period was a tightly-regulated, but stable and flourishing institution that developed a mass appeal and scholarly revival not found in previous generations. Modern Buddhism has many roots that grew out of the Edo Period, and although times have changed, the echoes of the past can still be seen in the Buddhist community today.

1 I never really grasped this until I visited a local Vietnamese Buddhist temple which was so familiar in some ways, yet so different.


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

One thought on “A Brief Look At Edo Period Buddhism in Japan”

  1. There is so much here to ask about, so much to smile about for me personally because it reminds me at every sentence the character of Western Christianity as I studied the evolution of its ceremonies, politics, ambitions, saints, corruption, and national aspirations and cultural adaptations to the conditions of the time. Only the philosophical emphasis , and ornate ceremonies are different, it seems. Here is so many lines of thought to pursue that I think I am somewhat overwhelmed. . Your links also invite further questions. But I have to get ready for classes tomorrow, and I have to wash up in the kitchen etc. As you can see I am initially overwhelmed by the similarities with Western Christianity as a political organization, as an economic organization, as a social and psychological preserver of parts of the status quo in some places and perhaps a modest revolutionary in the next door region, but careful not to get too rowdy ;-), all because lines can be interpreted with so much delightful/hideous flexibility. It was often probably seen by the participants as a condition wheere competition pushed one to the edge of survival. Priests were often more clever than their lords, but they didn’t have the direct authority, so they had to dapt and adopt in order to gain whatever they wanted, like women do and at the same time to preserve their way of life. . It must have been tough. The Shinto and Buddhist institutions saw what the government could do in their attempts to exterminate the influence of Christianity. Lessons were learned by the quick witted..


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