Accepted paper:

An anthropology of Buddhisms? The case of Japan


Dolores Martinez (SOAS)

Paper short abstract:

What happens if we consider the political and economic conjunctures that frame Buddhism and make it local? This is a valid question to ask of Japanese Buddhism, which has in the last 150 years been subject to a number of political and economic changes ending in the decline of Institutional Buddhism.

Paper long abstract:

What problems does the category 'world religion' raise when, as in the case of Buddhism, these religions are affected by the societies in which they are found? What happens if we consider the political and economic conjunctures that frame and make it local? These are particularly valid questions to ask of Japanese Buddhism, which has, in the last century and a half, been subject to a number of profound political and economic transformations. For more than a thousand years Buddhism was practised by Japanese elites and was increasingly incorporated into state structures, subsuming Shinto, Taoism and Confucianism (the latter two which had travelled to Japan from China along with Buddhist doctrine), under one administrative umbrella during the Tokugawa Era (1600-1868). The separation of Shinto and Buddhism (shinbutsu bunri) and the elevation of the former to THE nation's religion in the Meiji Era (1868-1912) saw the beginning of institutional Buddhism's decline; a decline aided by the complete separation of religion and state in the post-war constitution of 1947. This paper will consider this decline through a series of ethnographic encounters beginning in 1984. From fieldwork in a village which was said to practise 'traditional' religion to encounters with Buddhist priests struggling to keep their temples economically viable, the question is: how and why do 72% of Japanese identify themselves as Buddhist, while institutional Buddhism is in terminal decay? Can anthropology add to the broader discussions on modernity, the nation-state and secularism, using Japanese Buddhism as a case study?

panel P71
Anthropologies of Buddhism and Hinduism