The Politics of Religion in Early Tokugawa

by Justin Aukema
June 9, 2016

Takashi Fujitani notes that there are two dimensions to politics "the administrative and the symbolic” (37). For the three big unifiers of Japan prior to the advent of the Tokugawa Period, religious symbols were important tools for solidifying political power.

(Oda Nobunaga, Wiki Commons)

Nobunaga’s main rival was the militant monks of the Buddhist Honganji sect, Ikkō ikki. This religious cult/peasant movement were upset with the warrior classes that had been ravaging the country during the Warring States Period and saw them as disrupting their efforts to achieve an earthy Buddhist paradise. Yet as Nobunaga fought the Ikkō, he realized the great power that religious belief had over mobilizing its believers as a fighting force. Thus instead of trying to entirely eradicate the Ikkō’s religious beliefs, he attempted to insert himself into their worldview. For example, the Ikkō believed that they were public citizens of the realm (tenka). Nobunaga adopted this language, casting himself as protector of the realm and the emperor (Ooms 29-32).

Nobunaga carefully manipulated religious belief and symbolism as a tool in his military conquest. Like other daimyo and warlords at the time, he portrayed himself as a divine ruler and sought to demonstrate this through actual displays of power. Thus when the emperor bestowed on him the title of shogun he rejected it on the grounds that it would have made him subservient to the emperor. Moreover, when he built his Azuchi castle in 1579, he had a special room built for the emperor to come and pay him respect. Nobunaga also maneuvered other religious symbols. In his castle he had a model Buddhist stupa and a shrine to the Shinto deity Bonsan. Outside his castle walls he allowed Christians missionaries to build a seminary (Ooms 35-6).

(Toyotomi Hideyoshi , Wiki Commons)

When Nobunaga and his son were killed by the armies of the daimyo Akechi Mitsuhide, his successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi continued Nobunaga’s policies of adeptly manipulating religion in service of power. Hideyoshi was famously suspicious of Christianity, and he saw missionaries as a threat to his goal of national conquest. In 1587 he expelled foreign Christians from the country and began persecuting Japanese Christians. Hideyoshi employed the language of the “native” Shinto to serve as a contrast to the “foreign” Christian religion. In a 1597 letter to the governor-general of the Philippines, Hideyoshi wrote that Japan “is the land of the kami, and kami is mind (kokoro), and the one mind is all-encompassing. [...] Without kami, there would be no spirits or no Way. [...] to know Shinto is to know Buddhism and Confucianism” (ctd. Ooms 46). He also asked “Would you be pleased if Japanese were to come to your country, spread Shinto doctrines and mislead the people?” (ctd. Ooms 47). Ironically, the fact that he thought this would be “misleading” the people indicates Hideyoshi’s only facile support for Shinto.

See an excerpt from Hideyoshi’s edict banning the Propagation of Christianity here.

Hideyoshi adeptly maneuvered Buddhism toward his political aims as well. In 1588 he declared an edict that all swords in the land would be taken out of the hands of anyone who was not a member of the warrior class, namely farmers. This was a concrete step to prevent further peasant uprisings (ikki) from threatening his rule. However, in the edict, Hideyoshi sought to convince the devoutly Buddhist populace by claiming that their requisitioned weapons would be used to build a great Buddha statue in Hōkōji (Ooms 48).

See an excerpt from the edict declaring the collection of swords here.

(Tokugawa Ieyasu, Wiki Commons)

Finally, the transformation from warlord to divine ruler was completed with Tokugawa Ieyasu and his successors. Namely, the Tokugawa rulers sought to limit and delegitimize the power of the imperial court and place themselves as the key figurehead of the nation instead. This was most clearly realized under the third Tokugawa shogun, Iemitsu. He marched the largest army ever assembled (307,000) through Kyoto on the last imperial visit in 1634; following this, no Tokugawa shogun paid tribute to the emperor for the next two-hundred and thirty years. Instead, the Tokugawa rulers placed themselves at the geographical and symbolic center. Under the system of sankin kōtai, daimyo from throughout the land traveled to Edo to pay tribute to the Tokugawa family. Moreover, the imperial family even sent yearly delegations from 1645 to pay their respects at the tomb of Ieyasu in Nikkō (Ooms 54-5).

(Yomeimon, Tōshōgū Shrine, Nikko; Wiki Commons)

The Nikkō shrine complex where Ieyasu was memorialized was an important quasi-religious and symbolic structure for the Tokugawa. Iemitsu invested 1/7 of the treasury to remodel the shrine into the grand structure it is today. From this time, Ieyasu was referred to as shinkun, meaning “divine ruler.” It is important to note that, at first, that only the warrior class was allowed to worship at the Nikkō mausoleum. Moreover, it was purely a military symbol – the shrine promised no salvation in the present or life to come, nor did it purport to give any special powers, healing or otherwise (Ooms 57, 60).

In sum, as Herman Ooms has written, under the three big unifiers, “military power, the naked instrument of domination, was transubstantiated through association with the sacred into political authority of a religious character” (61) and that the idea of “sacredness” was used as a political tool by the rulers.  


Columbia University. East Asia for Educators. “The Edicts of Toyotomi Hideyoshi: Excerpts
from Collection of Swords, 1588.” Columbia University, 2009.

Columbia University. East Asia for Educators. “The Edicts of Toyotomi Hideyoshi: Excerpts
from Limitations on the Propagation of Christianity, 1587.; Excerpts from Expulsion of
Missionaries, 1587.” Columbia University, 2009.

Fujitani, Takashi. Splendid Monarchy: Power and Pageantry in Modern Japan. University of
California Press, 1996.

Ooms, Herman. Tokugawa Ideology: Early Constructs, 1570-1680. Ann Arbor, Michigan:
University of Michigan Center For Japanese Studies, 1998.

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