Tokugawa Shintō against Tokugawa Buddhism:

Religious Reforms in Mito in the second half of the seventeenth century

Brigitte Pickl-Kolaczia

Introduction to Topic

The seventeenth century in Japan saw an unprecedented change in religious policy. For the first time, the government systematically persecuted "heretic" religious groups. Initially, the repression was directed explicitly and exclusively against Christians. However, persecution did not end with the almost complete eradication of Christianity in Japan. Quite the opposite, measures taken to quell the expansion of Christianity continued to be applied to maintain general ideological control until the end of the Edo period in the 19th century.

For that purpose, control of religious affiliation was put into the hands of Buddhist temples. From the middle of the seventeenth century, every Japanese was forced to prove that they were not Christians. This inspection of religious affiliation, known as shūmon aratame 宗門改, was a process during which village officials registered all residents within their jurisdiction based on information they obtained from temples. The resulting obligation to affiliate with a temple put Buddhism in a preeminent position before other religious creeds since the system of temple certificates, tera-uke seido 寺請制度, went hand in hand with a system of temple affiliation, danka seido 檀家制度.

Shūmon aratame through Buddhist temples was to be applied in the whole country. However, there were those, who felt uncomfortable with the power its implementation gave to Buddhism and its institutions. One of those who resisted this prescribed Buddhism was Tokugawa Mitsukuni 徳川光圀 (1628-1701) of Mito 水戸. In the 1660s, he began to implement reforms that would cause the demolition of 1.433 temples (ca. 60%) in his domain. At the same time, he intended to establish system of one shrine per village and to separate Buddhism and Shintō, which had until then existed in syncretic symbiosis. These first efforts of a separation of Shintō and Buddhism can be seen as an early form of the ideology that would lead to radical and violent measures against Buddhism in the early Meiji period.

The aim of this thesis is to examine how these measures were implemented and how they affected not only the clergy, but also the people living in Mito. A question which is of a more general relevance to the religious history of Japan and the emergence of Shintō as independent from Buddhism is to which extent the attempts to separate Buddhism and Shintō and to foster Shintō as the preeminent religion served as precedents for developments in the nineteenth century, when Shintō became the favoured religious tradition by the government. Highlighting the fissures between Buddhism and Shintō puts the topic of this PhD-thesis into a wider perspective and contributes to the understanding of kami-Buddha association (shinbutsu shūgo 神仏習合) and dissociation (shinbutsu bunri 神仏分離).

This dissertation is part of the project “Hanryō shintō: regional Shinto reforms in early modern Japan” ( at the Institute of the Cultural and Intellectual History (IKGA) at the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW) and funded by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) (Project number: P33097)


Pickl-Kolaczia, B. (2021). ’Kami is kami, Buddha is Buddha’: Religious Policies in Mito in the Second Half of the 17th Century. in S. Köck, B. Pickl-Kolaczia, & B. Scheid (Hrsg.), Religion, Power, and the Rise of Shinto in Early Modern Japan (S. 177-189). Bloomsbury Academic. Bloomsbury Shinto Studies

Köck, Stefan, Brigitte Pickl-Kolaczia und Bernhard Scheid, (eds.) (2021). Religion, power, and the rise of Shinto in early modern Japan. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.