Skip Navigation

The Formation of Medieval Japanese Towns and the Rise of Kamakura New Buddhism

by Matsuo, Kenji, Yamagata University

This presentation explores the relationship between the formation of medieval Japanese towns and the rise of Kamakura New Buddhism which is representative of medieval Buddhism in Japan. The development of Kamakura New Buddhism came about, in part, because of the growth of medieval towns and the emergence of what we would nowadays recognise as "the troubled individual", as increasing numbers of the population started moving away from the old familiar rural life and into the newly-flourishing towns and cities of twelfth and thirteenth century Japan.

The growth of the towns and cities acted as a catalyst for the emergence of a reform group of priests - the so-called reclusive priests or tonseiso priesthood, whose focus of interest, was the sufferings of the ordinary people. This was very different from the sphere of interest of the official monks of the Old Buddhist order, or kanso priesthood. The Old Buddhist priesthood were paid government bureaucrats, whose function was to pray for the protection of the emperor and the country. But, from this time onwards, a reform group, the reclusive priests or tonseiso priesthood, focused their attention on the issues that troubled the ordinary people. Issues which the official priesthood considered a source of religious defilement that must be avoided – namely, the conducting of funerals, the salvation of outcasts, and in particular lepers, the enlightenment of women – until that time, considered incapable of enlightenment - and the collecting of money. This fund-raising was in part for the tonseiso priesthood to live, as they did not receive government salaries, but also for civic construction - for example for the building and maintenance of bridges and roadways for public use.

This change in focus of the reclusive priesthood, the tonseiso priesthood, in turn, directly affected the structure of towns and cities. So that whereas until this period, temples of the so-called Old Buddhism, were situated in the centre of the cities close to the rich and powerful citizens, the temples of Kamakura New Buddhism were built on the edges of the cities close to the defiled outcast population of ordinary citizens and their graveyards. This was an era of immense religious, social and economic upheaval and a very fascinating period of Japanese history.

Conference paper presented at Buddhism In (and Out of) Place Conference held 17-18 October 2004

To print this page, select "Print" from the File menu of your browser.