Peasant Revolts as Anti-Authoritarian Archetypes for Radical Buddhism in Modern Japan

in Journal of Religion in Japan
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The late Meiji period (1868–1912) witnessed the birth of various forms of “progressive” and “radical” Buddhism both within and beyond traditional Japanese Buddhist institutions. This paper examines several historical precedents for “Buddhist revolution” in East Asian—and particularly Japanese—peasant rebellions of the early modern period. I argue that these rebellions, or at least the received narratives of such, provided significant “root paradigms” for the thought and practice of early Buddhist socialists and radical Buddhists of early twentieth century Japan. Even if these narratives ended in “failure”—as, indeed, they often did—they can be understood as examples of what James White calls “expressionistic action,” in which figures act out of interests or on the basis of principle without concern for “success.” Although White argues that: “Such expressionistic action was not a significant component of popular contention in Tokugawa Japan”—that does not mean that the received tales were not interpreted in such a fashion by later Meiji, Taishō and Shōwa-era sympathizers.

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Walthall 1991c: 36–37. Sōgorō’s fame was so widespread by the end of the nineteenth century that at least two versions of his story were translated into English: George Braithwaite’s Life of Sogoro: The Farmer Patriot of Sakura (1897)—prefaced with several biblical passages enjoining sacrifice as well as an appeal to the Japanese to embrace “the love of the Lord Jesus Christ”—and Viscount Hayashi Tadasu’s For His People (1903).

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