Document Type

Contribution to Book

Source Publication

Rethinking Japanese Modernism

Publication Date



Roy Starrs


Global Oriental (Brill)




978-90-04-21003-5; 90-04-21003-2

First Page


Last Page



Comparative Humanities


The half-century between the publication of the Imperial Rescript on Education (kyōiku chokugo 教育勅語, 1890) and the bombing of Pearl Harbor (1941) was one of tremendous institutional and intellectual tumult in the world of Japanese Buddhism. Buddhist sects and scholars were not immune to the changing political and cultural winds. While it is true that by the late 1930s, the majority of Buddhist leaders and institutions had capitulated to the status quo, preaching, in the words of Joseph Kitagawa “the virtues of peace, harmony, and loyalty to the throne,” the previous decades show anything but a continuous progression towards Buddhist nationalism. From the 1890s, Buddhist scholars and leaders such as Murakami Senshō 村上専精 (1851-1929), Inoue Enryō 井上圓了 (1858-1919), Shaku Sōen 釋宗演 (1859-1919), and Kiyozawa Manshi 清沢満之 (1863-1903) were working towards the “reform” of Buddhism along to suit what they saw as encroaching “modernity”—especially Western science. They were joined in the succeeding decades by the intellectuals of the Kyoto School, whose vision was less a “new Buddhism” than a “new philosophy” both suited to twentieth-century Japan and with universal aspirations. Though there is significant variation in the thought of the leading figures of the Kyoto School, Nishida Kitarō 西田幾多郎 (1870-1945), Tanabe Hajime 田辺元 (1885-1962), and Nishitani Keiji 西谷啓治 (1900-1990), their work can be accurately categorized as an attempt at Buddhist “modernism.” What emerges then, from an examination of this fertile period is a debate between two visions of “new Buddhism”—one based on an understanding of “modernity” as a historical locus with specific political and cultural implications, and the other based on a “modernist” understanding of religion as a form of “aesthetics” largely abstracted from historical circumstances. This paper will examine the debate between the two visions of Buddhism during the period leading up to World War Two, as well as its implications for post-war Japanese Buddhism.