Shosan Suzuki, author of anti-Christian attack pieces in the 17th century, is cited by economic historian Shichihei Yamamoto as "the founder of Japanese capitalism." That's more than coincidence: Shosan hated Christianity and knew that an increasingly corrupt Buddhist priesthood could not become the centerpiece of a Japanese culture able to turn back foreign ideas. Shosan proposed an alternative: "All occupations are Buddhist practice. Through work we are able to attain Buddhahood."
He gave spirited advice to merchants: "Throw yourself headlong into worldly activity.... Your activity is an ascetic exercise that will cleanse you of all impurities. Challenge your mind and body by crossing mountain ranges. Purify your heart by fording rivers.... If you understand that this life is but a trip through an evanescent world, and if you cast aside all attachments and desires and work hard, Heaven will protect you, the gods will bestow their favor, and your profits will be exceptional."
Jodo Shinshu especially grew through its development of a "nonmonastic priesthood." Jodo Shinshu priests did not shave their heads. They dressed in ordinary clothes most of the time, with religious robes reserved for services. Priests emphasized that they were part of a "community of fellow seekers" and were not gurus. They debunked "self-power" (jiriki), the attempt to move toward nirvana through meditation and immersion in freezing water or hours of mantra-chanting.
Such time would better be used, they said, in "self-effort," doing works that aided in economic advancement for a family or a society. Jodo Shinshu believers were to help others out of a sense of gratitude to Amida Buddha. One Jodo Shinshu teacher praised the altruism of merchants: "They go out early in the morning and return late at night. They do not avoid the elements nor do they dislike hardship and misery. They cover their bodies with cotton clothing and fill their mouths with vegetable food. They do not dare to throw away a piece of thread or a scrap of paper."
Jodo Shinshu priests also taught that the kugyo (hard ascetic practice) of ordinary life is at least as important as anything that goes on at monasteries. To people who worried about going astray by not meditating and chanting mantras, they emphasized the beauty of everyday labor performed with right intentions. Bodhisattvas were said to be impressed by the diligence of one merchant, Takata Zenemon, because "carrying lampwicks and bamboo hats, he went out into the mountain districts.... He diligently for over 50 years exerted himself practicing strenuous economy. But with honesty as a basis, he worked without minding labor that was hard to endure, and was answered with heavenly considerations."
This thinking spread beyond Jodo Shinshu circles, but the crucial breakthrough was Shinran's insistence that the bodhisattvas did not care if their names were never mentioned. One 17th-century book, Shimin Nichiyo, answered questions such as this one from an artisan: "I am busy every minute of the day in an effort to earn my livelihood. How can I become a Buddha?" Jodo Shinshu tracts responded, Don't worry, stay busy: "Cheerfully do not neglect diligent activity morning and evening. Work hard at the family occupation. Do not gamble. Rather than take a lot, take a little."
At first such teaching was seen as useful for those without a priestly vocation, but as corruption within Buddhism increased, secular activities started to be seen as equally worthy to religious ones, and eventually as superior. Ishida Baigan in the early 18th century argued that merchants should not be low in social status but high, for they followed "the way of the townsman" that was more socially useful than the way of the priest or the samurai. Hosoi Heishu late in the 18th century lectured throughout Japan on the way that people in everyday tasks could display the good karma-creating virtues of modesty, diligence, and frugality.
Jodo Shinshu believers and others, in short, provided for Japan a Buddhist version of the "Protestant ethic." First, they said that tasks outside the religious sphere were worthwhile contributions to the creation of wa (harmony). Business was religion, a Jodo Shinshu tract proclaimed. "The business of merchants and of artisans is the profiting of others. By profiting others they receive the right to profit themselves.... The spirit of profiting others is the bodhisattva spirit. Having a bodhisattva spirit and saving all beings, this is called bodhisattva deeds.... The secret of merchants and artisans' business lies in obtaining confidence through bodhisattva deeds."
When the United States in 1853 forcibly opened Japan to Western commercial and cultural influences, Japan was ready to compete. Nakamura Masanao translated an ordinary English self-help book, packaged it as Tales of Men Who Achieved Their Aims in Western Countries, and had a perennial bestseller in Japan, where warnings about idleness and exhortations to constant effort fit well with the desire for kugyo.
Many missionaries, mostly Protestant, came to reopened Japan in the late 19th century and lived in "foreign settlements" in Nagasaki and other cities. Today, Nagasaki's second-biggest tourist attraction, after the atom-bomb site and museum, is Glover Garden, location of some "exotic Western-style houses" built in the late 19th century. Tourists stare at the faded curtains and furniture as we look at videos of the Titanic's underwater wreckage: The display is cold and lifeless, and that's probably the way Christianity often appeared.
Probably the greatest 19th-century evangelistic success came through the efforts of Captain Leroy Janes, a Civil War officer who came to Japan at Tokyo's request to help Japan upgrade its army. By day he offered military instruction but in optional evening sessions he spoke of Christ to such effect that 35 of his best students, knowing they would face persecution, signed their names to a bold declaration. Their statement read, "In studying Christianity we have been deeply enlightened and awakened. The more we have studied it, the more filled with enthusiasm and joy we have become. Moreover, we strongly desire that this faith might be proclaimed over the whole Empire." The students agreed that their goal was, "with no concern for our lives, to make known the fairness and impartiality of this teaching."
The government quickly dismissed Janes, but his students became the leaders of Christianity in Japan and stood firm when anti-Christian Japanese demanded that officials "Destroy Heresy, Manifest Orthodoxy." One book, Tales of Nagasaki, called Christians insurrectionists because they saw God as "the Great Prince and the Great Father," which meant that emperors would have to be "little princes and little fathers." Christ, the book declared, "deceived the ignorant lower classes, making them follow himself until his evil design of murdering the sovereign of the country and seizing the country and people for himself being discovered, he was put to death by crucifixion. He was a most traitorous animal."
The book also charged Christians with saying that "the most unfilial and disloyal can go to the very top place in heaven if they only love the Lord of Heaven." That actually was true, and Buddhism used any footholds it could gain as it fought for its life in Japan against a dual threat: the Shinto nationalist emphasis that Japanese political leaders adopted in 1868, and the revival meetings (known in Japan as ribaibaru) that Christians regularly held. Japanese often make a strict delineation between uchi and soto (inside and outside, those who belong to the group and those who don't), and those who followed the Bible had to face the shunning reserved for those on the outs.
Christians such as missionary M.L. Gordon were in turn developing stronger critiques of Buddhism, and particularly "the most powerful, popular and progressive Buddhist sect," Jodo Shinshu. Gordon concluded that it differed hugely from early Buddhism. "Shakya [Buddha] taught also the doctrine of Nirvana, which is really annihilation," he wrote. "These Buddhists point the believer to the Peaceful Land in the West, with its myriads of pleasures, which appeal to the eye, ear, taste, and other senses. Is there not here an irreconcilable difference?"
Buddhists fought back high and low. A missionary in 1875 wrote that the biggest obstacle Christians faced was not Japanese criticism "but infidelity imported from Christian lands," as Buddhists circulated books by Charles Darwin and other scientists that "laid the Christian religion captive." Japan was emphasizing scientific and technological development, and Buddhists denounced the purported irrationality of Christianity. While carrying on intellectual battle, Buddhists also employed soshi, physical-force men (hired thugs) to disrupt Christian activities.
Other falloffs in Western biblical devotion hurt efforts in Japan. Missionaries who had been influenced by "higher criticism" to interpret the Bible in a liberal fashion often blew an uncertain trumpet. Some said that Amida Buddha and the Pure Land were figments of imagination, but so were Jesus and heaven. Such teachers certainly did not make Christian ideas worth dying for; if Christ did not live and die and gain resurrection, the Apostle Paul would be among those to tell Japanese that Christianity was not worth living and perhaps dying for. Rev. David Busk, vicar at Nagasaki Holy Trinity Church in Nagasaki, says his late 19th-century predecessors were "clergymen in black frock coats. They were very dignified. They were not martyrs."
The next half-century of Christianity in Japan proceeded on lines established by 1890. Perhaps 1 percent of the Japanese converted to Christ. Charles Eliot noted in his 1935 book on Japanese Buddhism that "the worshippers of Amida in Japan are numerous, prosperous and progressive, but should this worship be called Buddhism? It has grown out of Buddhism, no doubt: all the stages except the very earliest are perfectly clear, but has not the process of development resulted in such a complete transformation that one can no longer apply the same name to the teaching of Gotama and the teaching of Shinran? The phenomenon has, so far as I know, no precise parallel in the history of religions."
During the 1920s and 1930s, Japan step-by-step removed the religious liberties that had been granted in the 1860s, and liberalized Protestant churches rarely fought back. When authorities urged attendance at Shinto shrines as a "civil manifestation of loyalty," Christian school groups often complied. The Religious Organizations Law (Shukyo dantai ho ) of 1939 gave Japan's government the right to disband religious groups whose teachings conflicted with the "Imperial Way." When the Japanese government pressed for the formation of the Nihon Kirisuto Kyodan (the United Church of Christ in Japan), a union of 34 Protestant denominations, a few churches would not go along, but most accepted the new order.
Many churches danced around questions posed by government officials: How could God, who you say is the Creator of all, have created the Emperor, who is a divine being himself? Will God's kingdom inevitably replace the Emperor's rule? Is the Emperor a sinner? In 1942 government officials arrested 42 Pentecostal pastors and charged them with teaching the sovereignty of Christ upon His return. After World War II many churches apologized for their complicity, but the opportunity to bear witness was gone. Some missionaries arrived with American occupation forces after the war, but Christianity is still the faith of perhaps only one in a hundred Japanese.