Religion in Tokugawa Japan


Tokugawa Japan (1603-1868) is one of the more remarkable periods in Japan’s storied past. For more than two-and-a-half centuries, Japan enjoyed peace and a steady advance in economic and technological spheres. Its political system consisted of three branches. The emperor resided in Kyoto and provided legitimacy by granting titles to officials and aristocrats. The second, and most powerful of the three branches was the shogun. The shogun and his advisors made Edo (now known as Tokyo) the realm’s military capital. Just as the emperor bestowed titles on the aristocracy, the shogun chose military personnel to act as governors of semi-independent domains. These military bureaucrats, also known as daimyo, ruled from castles within the boundaries of their allotted lands. Eventually there came to be over 250 daimyo and each oversaw the inhabitants within their territory. Of the three political branches in Tokugawa Japan, it was the daimyo that had the greatest contact with the rank-and-file samurai, merchants, artisans, and farmers.

The Tokugawa era is so rich in historical documentation that there are detailed studies of the myriad of activities between 1600 and 1868. For example, visual art during this period rose to unprecedented heights as it encompassed subject matter beyond the heretofore predominantly religious content. Woodblock printing began during the era as did the kabuki theater. Tokugawa Japan’s society evolved to the point that it became one of the most literate and urbanized countries on the planet.

Religion also played a crucial role in shaping Tokugawa culture. This essay explores the role of religion during this important period.  To present this subject, it is helpful to review the four main religions that were part of Tokugawa Japan: Confucianism, Buddhism, Shinto, and Christianity. Each of these belief systems played a role in shaping Tokugawa society. Before exploring each of these faiths, however, an examination of the historical context of religion just prior to the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate is in order.

Historical Context

Tokugawa Japan emerged from a period of extreme chaos. Known as the Sengoku period (1467-1603), the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in Japan were filled with continual upheaval. Japanese termed the chaos as “the warring states age,” which echoed back to a similar period in China where civil war toppled state after state (475 B.C. – 221 B.C.). What is of significance for this article is that the process of reunifying Japan (1560-1603), which was led by three successive military leaders, had a great deal to do with religion. In short, religion’s influence was simultaneously feared, disregarded, and then finally embraced by Japan’s putative leaders. Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582), the first unifier, was hostile toward religion, particularly Confucianism and Buddhism. He ignored the Confucian precepts of deferring to authority, choosing rather to live by the philosophy that might makes right. He toppled the existing shogun authority, and followed the Machiavellian idea that it is better to be feared than loved. Nobunaga especially despised Buddhist institutions in Japan. Many Buddhist monasteries had grown into large semi-autonomous temple towns during the Sengoku era as thousands of people sought protection against marauding armies sweeping through the land. These temple towns enjoyed tax free status and were protected by armies of monks. Nobunaga feared the power of these religious institutions and set out to destroy them, even killing ten thousand monks in just one battle. For Nobunaga, religion was a major impediment to Japan’s reunification.

Following Nobunaga’s assassination (1582) Japan was subsequently unified by two of his generals, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and then Tokugawa Ieyasu. Like Nobunaga, each of them feared the nefarious power of religion, this time Christianity. Yet at the same time, both Hideyoshi and Ieyasu were attracted to aspects of all four religions noted above; in fact, Ieyasu became deified following his death. Thus, from the very outset of Tokugawa Japan, religions were paradoxically distrusted and embraced by its leaders and their subjects.

Confucianism in Tokugawa Japan

Confucius (551 B.C. – 479), a scholar from northeast China, is given credit for establishing China’s dominant worldview. But as he noted in his day, his teachings were not original in nature; rather, he transmitted the works from China’s ancient sages. These doctrines made their way over to Japan and became integrated into its social and political system, and were included in Japan’s seventh century Seventeen Article Constitution.

While Confucianism was a major thread running through the fabric of Japan’s pre-modern religious system, it truly came to prominence during the Tokugawa era. Its first shogun had a lot to do with this. Tokugawa Ieyasu fought in over a dozen major battles, and rose to establish the most impressive shogunate in Japan’s history.  As Tokugawa Japan’s first shogun, Ieyasu was drawn to neo-Confucianism. It eventually became the established orthodox social/political doctrine of Tokugawa Japan.

The neo-Confucianism embraced by Ieyasu and subsequent Tokugawa shoguns was best articulated by the twelfth century Chinese scholar, Zhu Xi (1130-1200). In short, the teachings of Zhu Xi emphasized the rationality of the observable universe rather than the Buddhist notion of matter’s impermanence and illusion. Neo-Confucianism asserts that everything we see in this world can be reduced to its simplest essence, which is called li. There is a purity in everything that we see. But that purity—whether it is the essence of a tree or the essence of an individual—is oftentimes diluted by things in the world that we cannot see, an invisible energy which is called qi. Thus the goal of one’s life is to get beyond the qi that might adulterate one’s true essence and come to a true realization of the purity and simplicity of our nature, the li.

One very important aspect of neo-Confucianism was an emphasis on a heaven-mandated system of reciprocal relationships that must remain in place for the continuance of social harmony. The five prescribed relations were those between ruler-subject, father-son, husband-wife, older brother-younger brother, and friend-friend. In each of these relationships there is a dominant figure, and the inferior party must always live in deference to that superior individual. At the same time, the superior in the relationship must act with benevolence toward the lesser party, and serve as a guide toward virtue. The Tokugawa officials used this paradigm to divide Japan’s society into four groups, from the superior to the inferior. They were identified as samurai, farmer, artisan, and merchant. The creation of a very schematized social system in Tokugawa Japan allowed the samurai, which represented about six percent of the population to rule over the rest of Japan. For two-and-a-half centuries, farmers labored to pay for the samurai to live in urban settings—many of whom had no real jobs and lived off of the farmers’ taxes. Neo-Confucianism legitimized a state of martial law that lasted almost three hundred years, though there was no immediate military threat.

Shinto in Tokugawa Japan

Unlike the other three religions noted in this essay, Shinto was not a foreign faith imported to Japan and is not a world religion. As an indigenous religion, Shinto dates back to the very beginning of Japan’s history. It is a belief system that evolved rather than having an identifiable individual founder. There are deep strains of animism in early Shinto, with an emphasis on fertility, physical cleanliness, mythical origins of Japan’s imperial family, and innumerable deities inhabiting or representing nature’s objects and phenomena, such as Mount Fuji and annual typhoons.

While the formation of State Shinto did not come into full expression until the Meiji era (1868-1912), during Tokugawa times Shinto evolved a bit due to three different developments. First, the noted rigidity placed on social class distinction also physically separated the farmers from the rest of Japan’s social structure. For the most part, samurai were forbidden to live in rural areas among the peasants. Villages became a world unto themselves, often with a Shinto shrine dedicated to the village’s mythic founder. The number of shrines in Edo Japan numbered almost 111,000, which meant that if they were equally divided among the rural areas, there would be two shrines per village. The neo-Confucian dictate that legitimized separation of social classes made it so that villagers identified with their local shrine and dealt with the need for spiritual purification at that shrine. These local shrines also served as entertainment centers where young virgin women performed ceremonial dances. Noh plays, sumo matches, and archery contests also occurred in areas adjacent to the local shrine.

Secondly and more importantly, the tenets of Shinto continued to develop during Tokugawa Japan. This is most clearly seen in the Warango (also known as the Japanese Analects) which was the leading Shinto text during the Tokugawa era. The emphasis in the Warongo is on a single almighty deity and an internal spiritual purity, rather than the traditional prominence devoted to physical cleanliness. In short, what became important in Shinto was one’s motive rather than one’s action. To be sure, one needed to avoid those things that polluted a person such as blood, feces, and a corpse. But according to the Warongo one could be physically pure but remain spiritually polluted due to selfishness, bitterness, hatred and greed. A section from the Warongo demonstrates this doctrinal emphasis on inner purity: “That the God dislikes what is unclean, is equivalent to saying that a person who is impure in heart, displeases God. He that is honest and upright in heart is not unclean, even though he be not ceremoniously so in body. To God, inward purity is all important; mere external cleanliness avails not. This is because God is the Essential Uprightness and Honesty, and therefore, it is His Heavenly Ordinance that we should lead an honest and happy life in harmony with the Divine Will. If a man is pure in heart, rest assured that he will ever feel the Divine Presence with him, and possess the immediate sense of the Divine within him.”[1]

The final development of Shinto during Tokugawa Japan was an increase in visitations to prominent shrines, that might even be labeled “national shrines.”  While Tokugawa Japan was certainly not a unified country, the increased visitations to notable shrines such as the Ise Grand Shrine in Mie prefecture and Izumo Taisha in Shimane prefecture kept the notion of a national history alive throughout the realm. The more numerous visits to these shrines developed because of increased availability of literature and literacy throughout Japan’s social classes. Combined with a rising economy in many rural areas, a pilgrimage became more than a daydream for many Japanese farmers as greater information and resources facilitated journeys to Japan’s most famous shrines. Increased visits to prominent shrines also occurred toward the end of Tokugawa times when increasing economic hardship combined with external threats created anxiety for many Japanese. In 1830, for example there were five million visitors to the Ise shrine—an astounding number given that the population of Japan at the time was around 35 million. The Tempo era (1830-1844) was one of Japan’s worst periods for unprecedented internal and external crises, and so we see that at the very outset of that dark period, millions gathered at Japan’s most famous Shinto shrine looking for guidance.

Buddhism in Tokugawa Japan

The dominant religion in Tokugawa Japan was Buddhism. This faith originated in northern India around 500 BCE.  It reportedly came to Japan through Korea around 540 CE and was eventually adopted by members of Japan’s imperial family. As noted earlier, Buddhism became such a powerful religious institution that wholesale slaughter of its priests became part of Oda Nobunaga’s strategy in reunifying Japan. But Tokugawa Ieyasu restored the fortunes of the Buddhist clerics with his devotion to the Tendai sect of Buddhism. Ieyasu was posthumously deified as an avatar of the Buddha of Healing and given the name Tosho Daigongen.

In 1614, Tokugawa Ieyasu ordered every Japanese family to register at a Buddhist temple, in essence becoming part of the Buddhist sangha (church). As noted further below, this was to help eliminate Christianity from Japan. In essence, every Japanese during Tokugawa Japan was a Buddhist and every funeral was a Buddhist ceremony. There were three main Buddhist sects practiced during Tokugawa Japan: Zen, Nichirin, and Jodo.

Zen, also known as Chan Buddhism was a branch of Buddhism developed in China around the sixth century CE and eventually came to Japan via Korea. A key doctrine in Zen is discovering one’s Buddha nature through intense, disciplined meditation. There is not a great emphasis placed on outward worship or memorizing sacred texts among Zen practitioners; rather, the focus is on the inner life and self-discipline. Followers of Zen often have a mentor to help them along the path to self-realization. During Tokugawa times, Zen Buddhism was most popular among the samurai. The emphasis on discipline and a contemplative life played well with a military class known for its dedication to physical and mental toughness. This branch of Buddhism also set the samurai apart from the rank-and-file Japanese. The peasants did not have the luxury of time for meditation; theirs was not a life of contemplation but of back-breaking work in the rice fields.

A second important branch of Buddhism in Tokugawa times was Nichirin. The doctrines emphasized in this sect centered on a particular sacred text in Buddhism, the Lotus Sutra, which included numerous sermons by the Buddha. Nichirin was more exclusive in nature than Zen or Jodo. In fact, proponents of Nichirin  believed that any other sect of Buddhism was spiritually harmful and led people astray. The Lotus Sutra emphasized reverence for the Buddha along with commands to defer to the sovereign, government, teachers, and parents. This code of behavior also fit with the neo-Confucian ideal of a relationship-based political and social system.

Tokugawa Japan’s most popular branch of Buddhism was Jodo Shinsu.  Founded by Shinran (1173-1263) this faith provided the greatest opportunity for salvation to the poor and disenfranchised. Labeled “the devil’s Christianity” by the European priests who arrived in Japan during the sixteenth century, there are elements of Jodo that sound a lot like Christianity. A quick overview of Jodo teachings include the story of the Buddha Amida, who in ancient history lived a perfect life on this earth. His accumulated righteousness was so great that he vowed that anyone who would call on his name and trust in the goodness provided through Amida’s righteous life would go to “heaven” or the pure land immediately following death. Accompanying this belief was the notion that humanity had fallen into such a state of wickedness that enlightenment from one’s own goodness was impossible. This creed was attractive to farmers who did not have the opportunity to develop their minds and could not economically contribute to Buddhist institutions and yet could still have eternal bliss based on faith and calling upon the Buddha Amida.

While the Japanese followed various forms of Buddhism during Tokugawa Japan, the Buddhist temple served as the center of culture in urban and rural settings. Education was largely promulgated at temple schools with priests serving as instructors. Prior to Tokugawa times almost all art was religious-based. Hence the temple stored the art collection as well as local reports and registers. The temple also served as a place of refuge where abused wives could receive a valid divorce from a rogue husband.

There was also an aspect of entertainment to Buddhism and art during Edo Japan. Religious scrolls depicting pictures from various sacred texts including scenes of heaven and hell were part of temple art collections. It was not uncommon for Buddhist nuns to travel with these scrolls. For a fee, they would unroll the scrolls as villagers, mostly children and women, would listen as the nuns told stories using the art as illustrations. In 1691 Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1716) one of the few Westerners that traveled in Tokugawa Japan observed the nuns telling their stories and he noted that the crowd grew most excited when the nuns showed pictures of a burning hell and described the tortures awaiting some in the next life.

The most important aspect of Buddhism during Tokugawa Japan was the role of the funeral. Ceremonies for the dead were almost exclusively Buddhist in nature. These Buddhist rituals included bathing the corpse, shaving the deceased’s head, dressing the body in a white cotton kimono and then cremating the dead. A posthumous name was given to the dead along with the creation of two tablets. One of these was placed where the ashes were buried and the second was placed in the deceased’s home. Other rituals included particular prayers and commemorations on certain days and years that marked the anniversary of one’s death.

Christianity and Tokugawa Japan

One of the more intriguing, and lesser known aspect of religion in Tokugawa Japan is the Hidden Christian movement. Adherence to Christianity was punishable by death for almost the entire Edo era, yet there remained a remnant of Christianity, albeit a very syncretized form of Catholicism. The reasons for the ban of Christianity and the Hidden Christians round out this essay on religion in Tokugawa Japan.

The arrival and influence of Christianity in sixteenth century Japan is a fascinating tale. Part of the West’s Age of Discovery included the desire to spread Christianity throughout the globe. An added motive for the spread of the Catholic faith was that the Age of Discovery coincided with the Protestant Reformation. Christopher Columbus’ first trek across the Atlantic Ocean in 1492 came just 25 years before Martin Luther nailed his 95 Thesis to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, which helped launch the Reformation.

The Catholic Counter Reformation was led by a new religious order known as the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). Founded in 1540, this order was characterized by an emphasis on academic prowess, physical discipline and world evangelism. One of the Jesuit founders, Francis Xavier (1506-1552) was the first Western missionary to arrive in Japan. Landing in Kagoshima in 1549, the Basque Jesuit began the task of spreading Christianity throughout Japan. Xavier was soon joined by more Jesuit brothers from Europe. Their strategy was to focus their efforts on conversion of Japan’s leaders, believing that there would be a trickle-down effect if military governors (daimyo) embraced this foreign religion.

Christianity arrived in Japan during the islands’ warring states period, which actually facilitated the conversion of hundreds of thousands of Japanese. The Jesuits were mostly Portuguese and they brought along with them Western goods for trade. These included guns and cannon, which many of the daimyo coveted to assist in their military campaigns. In 1563 a leading daimyo on Kyushu, Omura Sumitada, was baptized into the Catholic faith; this practice was passed down to his samurai and the farmers under his protection. The faith became known as Kirishitan. Between 1563 and 1620, 82 daimyo were baptized along with 300,000 Japanese. This was somewhat surprising in that the three great sins that the foreign priests railed against were idolatry, homosexuality, and infanticide. The idolatry was directed toward those that had any type of Buddhist or Shinto art in their homes. Homosexuality was practiced by samurai and Buddhist monks. Finally, infanticide was the method by which the poor farmers controlled the population so as to have enough food for subsistence.

In 1580 the town of Nagasaki was actually given to the Jesuits and this became the center of Jesuit activity on Kyushu. In fact, it was this southern island that was most influenced by Catholicism due to its distance from Edo and Kyoto. It was also the location most frequented by Western traders, allowing for a greater Western interaction on Kyushu compared with the rest of Japan.

The first overt turn against Christianity in Japan came in 1587 when Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the second of Japan’s three great unifiers ordered the expulsion of all foreign missionaries. He gave them just twenty days to leave his islands. It is probable that this proclamation was based on the Buddhist monks’ growing disdain for this foreign faith which challenged the prevailing religious pluralism enjoyed by most Japanese. This faith’s message included an exclusive claim of truth demanding that baptized Japanese denounce all other religions. But this 1587 law was largely ignored. Just two years later the Catholic priests baptized 10,000 new Japanese converts.

The much more serious move against Christianity in Japan occurred in 1596 due in part to the San Felipe incident. In 1593 Spanish Franciscan priests entered Japan to spread the Christian faith. Unfortunately, bitter rivalries between the Jesuits and Franciscans that had its roots in European politics and ethnic enmity spilled over into Japan. Furthermore, the Franciscans’ method of evangelizing was identifying with the poor and disenfranchised while the Jesuits worked with the elite and were more accommodating in allowing Japanese to practice traditional ceremonies that the Franciscans deemed as antithetical to the Catholic faith. The Spanish had already established much of Central and South America along with the Philippines as part of their empire. Japanese officials were aware of these rivalries and of Spain’s expanding empire. Thus in 1596 when the San Felipe, a Spanish galleon full of Asian goods was on its way to the Americas, it  crashed on to Japan’s shores during a typhoon. Its captain protested the way he and his crew were treated and suggested that Spain would colonize Japan just as it had Central America and the Philippines. Hideyoshi responded by confiscating all of San Felipe’s cargo and ordering the execution of Spanish priests.  In 1597, 26 Christians, including six Franciscan priests and three Jesuits were marched to Nagasaki where they were crucified.

The following year Hideyoshi died and in 1603 Tokugawa Ieyasu was made shogun. He continued the policy of suppressing Christianity: in 1614 he ordered the expulsion of all missionaries and declared the practice of Christianity illegal in Japan. In 1619, 52 Christians in Kyoto were burned at the stake; four years later 50 more were killed in Edo. In 1628 suspected Christians were ordered to visit their local Buddhist temple and publicly step on an image of the Virgin Mary and/or an image of Jesus. This practice, termed fumi-e greatly reduced the number of practicing Christians in Japan. Then in 1637 a rebellion broke out in Shimabara, just northeast of Nagasaki, against the unjust treatment of a cruel daimyo. Though not a religious rebellion, because it was a stronghold of Christianity the shogun equated this rebellion with the Christian religion. When the rebels’ castle fell in 1638 an estimated 37,000 were massacred by the shogun’s forces. The following year an order from Edo expelled all foreigners save for the Dutch who were allowed to live (with many restrictions) on the man-made island of Dejima in Nagasaki Bay. The Protestant Dutch promised not to possess any religious literature or spread their faith in Japan.

Japan closed its doors to the world from 1640 until the middle of the nineteenth century. Yet even for those two hundred years there remained a small underground Christian movement, known as Hidden Christians. Three features characterized this movement. First, it was dominated by poor farmers, as no samurai or official dared to openly or secretly adhere to the faith that would cost them and their families their lives. Second, the Hidden Christians were centered in the extreme western portion of Japan in places like the Urakami Valley (close to Nagasaki) and the Goto and Amakusa islands. The Hidden Christians’ third feature was that their faith was highly Japanized. Some of the main emphases in their practice included disguised dolls that represented the Virgin Mary, an emphasis on prayers of contrition following their denial of their faith due to the practice of fumi-e, and the practice of baptism. The syncretism of their faith is seen in the only Hidden Christian book of instruction that survived the Tokugawa persecution. It is titled Tenchi Hajime no Koto (The Beginnings of Heaven and Earth). In the document the Virgin Mary is actually identified as a twelve-year-old Filipina and the three kings who visit Jesus at his birth are from America, Asia and Europe.

In 1859 a French Catholic priest, Bernard Thadee Petijean from the Paris Foreign Mission Society was allowed to establish a church for the increasing number of Westerners living in Japan. A Catholic Church was built in Nagasaki. Then in 1865 Father Petijean was approached by a woman from Urakami who let him know that there were a good number of Hidden Christians in her village. The foreign priest was stunned by this news, and upon investigation he found that there were a good number of Christians in Urakami, meaning that the Hidden Christians had kept the faith alive for several centuries though they had to do this in secret. When Pope Pius IX heard of this, he called it a miracle.


There was great diversity of religion during Tokugawa Japan. Yet there were common elements in the four major faiths noted above. First, all four had the doctrine that there was a supreme being who gives humans help and care based on the deity’s benevolent nature. For the Confucian follower that being echoed back to Shangdi or the Lord on High; for the Shinto there was Amaterasu the sun goddess from which sprung Japan’s imperial line; for the Buddhists it was Amida; and for the Christians it was deus or God the Father. Also, the four faiths all pointed back to a golden past. For the Christians this was the Garden of Eden; for Buddhists it was the days of Amida; for the Confucian adherents it was the era of the sage kings; and for the Shinto it was the time when Amaterasu sent her grandson to govern Japan’s inhabitants, and subsequently led to Japan’s first reported reigning emperor, Jimmu (660 B.C. – 585 B.C.).

Despite these similarities there was not enough room in Tokugawa Japan for all four religions to co-exist. Christianity was outlawed, not because it was a foreign religion—Confucianism and Buddhism were also foreign in origin—but because of the exclusive nature of the Christian message and the fear that the West would incorporate Japan into their nascent Western empires.

Robert N. Bellah, Tokugawa Religion: the values of pre-industrial Japan (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957), p. 66