SOAS University of London

Centre for the Study of Japanese Religions

Japanese Buddhism: The Development of an Idea in the Context of Empire (1880s-1940s)

Orion Klautau (Heidelberg University)

Date: 13 March 2014Time: 5:00 PM

Finishes: 13 March 2014Time: 6:30 PM

Venue: Russell Square: College Buildings Room: Kamran Djam Lecture Theatre

Type of Event: Lecture


The understanding that Buddhism as practiced in the Japanese archipelago differed in a variety of senses from that of other “Buddhist Nations” has occupied a canonical position at least since the Kamakura Period (1185–1333). Around that time, Japanese Buddhists employed the so-called sangoku (“three-nation”) model that traced Buddhism’s development from India through China to Japan as the basic frame for narratives on their common past. Intricately linked to the idea of mappō (“age of declining Dharma”), the sangoku discourse provided, at least until the late medieval period, the basic historico-geographical framework for the construction of both positive and negative self-images of Japanese Buddhists. After the Meiji period (1868-1912), however, when the establishment of a common national identity – vis-à-vis both the Western powers and other Asian countries – became the order of the day, this type of traditional rhetoric asserting the uniqueness of Japanese Buddhism saw yet another new development. In modern Japan the diffusion of Buddhism eastwards came to be, for instance, reimagined within a social Darwinist framework, which in turn led to an understanding of Japan – theoretically the last country Buddhism took root in and the nation in which it was most “alive” – as “the fittest land” for this religion. This presentation will focus on the historical development, from the mid-Meiji period onwards, of such discourses asserting the distinctive features of “Japanese Buddhism”. It will discuss, among others, the ideas of Murakami Senshō (1851-1929), professor at the then Tokyo Imperial University and one of the most important figures in the establishment of Buddhism as an academic discipline in modern Japan. Another key focus is the thought of one of Senshō’s most important successors, Takakusu Junjirō (1866-1945), responsible for compiling the famous Taishō Tripiṭaka. Lastly, we will attempt to understand how this discursive framework developed within the context of the Fifteen-year War (1931-1945), when narratives emphasizing the global mission of Japanese Buddhists reached new heights.


Orion Klautau holds a B.A. from the University of São Paulo (2002) and a Ph.D. from Tohoku University (2010). At the latter, he studied religion and Japanese intellectual history. In April 2013, Klautau joined Heidelberg University’s Cluster of Excellence “Asia and Europe in a Global Context”, where he is a co-coordinator of the mini-cluster “Political Legitimation”. Klautau’s first monograph, Kindai Nihon Shisō to shite no Bukkyō Shigaku (Hōzōkan, 2012), investigated the politics of the academic knowledge of Buddhism in modern Japan. His current manuscript project, tentatively titled The Idea of Japanese Buddhism: History, Modernity, and the Nation-State, expands upon his earlier work, focusing on issues such as Buddhism’s intellectual transformation in the Bakumatsu context, and discussions surrounding its legal status during the 1890s.

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