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(109)Section 5: The Rise and Fall of Polytheistic Civilization II

Chapter 1: The Indus

1-1 Oda Nobunaga—Frontrunner for Religious Freedom

   By the latter half of the sixteenth century, Japan was embroiled in a bloody religious war. The end was in sight, however, when the daimyo Oda Nobunaga (1534-82) set out to put an end to the violence and bring lasting peace back to the nation.
   Originally a low-ranking daimyo, Nobunaga had aspirations of national unification, aspirations that brought him into bitter and bloody conflict with not only a multitude of rival daimyos—he also fell into conflict with every armed Buddhist community.
   His greatest adversaries, however, would be the ikko-ikki Buddhist warrior monks and peasants led by the chief abbot of Hongan-ji temple, Kennyo. The battle with Hongan-ji continued for some ten years and, by its end, Nobunaga had slaughtered tens of thousands of Hongan-ji faithful. It’s what has led some to describe Nobunaga as one of the greatest religious oppressors. It’s also an evaluation that leaves out some very important details.
   While no one at the time would have articulated it this way, Nobunaga’s ambition was the establishment of a religious freedom founded on the idea of the disarmament of Buddhist monks.


   Some Japanese historians have condemned Nobunaga, comparing his killing of tens of thousands of Hongan-ji adherents to the murderous actions of the Chinese communist revolutionary Mao Zedong (1893-1976) and the Cambodian politician Pol Pot (1925-98), but the blood oath (document containing a seal made from the blood of the grantor) that Nobunaga submitted when Hongan-ji finally surrendered and disarmed offers an interesting contrasting portrait of the man.

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▲ Nobunaga ODA  © Old Image / PIXTA

   So what exactly did the document say? In short, it exonerated Hongan-ji of any and all war crimes. It should be said that Nobunaga himself lost many compatriots in the long and brutal battle with Hongan-ji, including his dear brother and his beloved retainers. And many more of his comrades were lost when Hongan-ji unilaterally denounced the peace treaty with Nobunaga.
   But Nobunaga’s document does not request the decapitated heads of any such war criminals. Far from it, not only does the written guarantee absolve Hongan-ji of all crime upon its disarmament and surrender of Hongan-ji, the strongest fortress of the Sengoku period, but it gives Hongan-ji the freedom to practice its missionary work.
   The documents, complete with Nobunaga’s blood seal, exist today under the guardianship of the Hongan-ji sect. If you read the writings today, it becomes fairly clear fairly quickly; Nobunaga believed that killing on the basis of religion was unequivocally wrong. Of course, he did this by implementing policies that worked to disarm the various Buddhist sects.
   Needless to say, the Upside-down History of the World is not a history of Japan. Still, in the scope of world history, there is great value in examining the historical figure known as Oda Nobunaga, not least because, at least here, he deserves an impartial introduction.
   In many ways, Oda Nobunaga was a pioneer of a common, yet still unrealized modern ideal. He sought for religion as a means for peace, not a pretext for violence, namely, violence against those with differing points of view. Sadly, this idea would likely never have materialized had Nobunaga not killed those fervent “faithful.”

Longing for Divinity

   But there was something else that made Nobunaga unique.
In his final years, Nobunaga had aspirations to become a living god. It was his very own self-deification plan. And he had good reason.
   If you remember, Japanese tradition says the emperor, as the descendant of god, is the legitimate ruler of the nation. Not surprisingly, no one was beyond this law. This is why both the samurai, who dominated the court militarily, and their superiors, the daimyo, had only one way of securing power: appointment by the emperor.

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▲ Buddha Footstone (Azuchi Castle) : When Azuchi Castle was built, it was transferred from the surrounding temple as a material for stone walls. © ogurisu_Q / PIXTA

   So what would one do in the event one wanted to overstep the authority of the emperor?
Keep in mind Japan is a polytheistic nation. Unique to Japan, however, is people’s ability to transcend humanity. That is, it is a country where people can become gods. Before Nobunaga, some Japanese citizens of non-imperial blood were posthumously deified for their extraordinary historical contributions.
   But, in what was a highly unusual and unprecedented attempt even in divinely fluid Japan, Nobunaga sought a sort of living divinity. Detailed accounts of Nobunaga’s divine efforts survive today, thanks to the Portuguese Jesuit missionary Luis Frois who arrived in Japan by order of the Roman Curia. In his writings, Luis explains that, besides positioning a statue of himself on the grounds of his political headquarters, Nobunaga made his birthdate a holy day and demanded that his citizens spend the holiday worshiping the narcissistic effigy.
   As Frois somewhat mockingly points out, Nobunaga’s efforts didn’t go exactly as planned. The main problem was that Nobunaga was killed when his own retainer rebelled against him.
   But the man who overlooked this failing was Nobunaga’s subordinate, Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616, in office 1603-05), who would go on to become the first shogun of the third Edo bakufu (third shogunal government). Known also as the inspiration to James Clavell’s (1924-1994) best-selling novel Shogun, Ieyasu inherited Nobunaga’s self-deification plan and actually succeeded.
   While a number of factors contributed to Ieyasu’s success and Nobunaga’s failure—Ieyasu united the country, died a natural death, and did so atop his own tatami mat, to name a few—the main reason was the creation of his very own theology. Ieyasu even thought to have the Buddhist monk Tenkai (1536-1643) create a myth about himself.
   In the myth, Ieyasu is a heavenly god who, after witnessing human suffering on earth as a result of a long and brutal conflict, decides to descend onto the land of the mortals. While his time on earth is wrought with hardship, Ieyasu manages to bring peace back to humanity before expiring and returning to his celestial homeland.
   Not only was the myth accessible to the average citizen, it also positioned the Tokugawa shogun families as individuals descended from a god.
   In fact, the popular tourist destination in Tochigi prefecture known as the Nikko Tosho-gu is a Shinto shrine that deifies Tokugawa Ieyasu as a god. Its religious significance alone makes the shrine unique in the world.

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▲Tenkai Daisojo : As a priest serving as a close adviser to Ieyasu.        © SEAN


   But Buddhism left yet another indelible mark on the archipelago that marked the end of the Silk Road. The religion sowed the seeds for the spirit of what would later be recognized as Japanese-style capitalism. As I mention earlier, it was Max Weber (1864-1920) who explained that the spirit of capitalism was the product of Protestant puritanical ideals. Such an ideal never existed in Islamic society or in Confucian China, which is why true capitalism never fully took root.
   If Weber’s theory is true, then the non-Christian country of Japan should never have been a fertile ground for capitalism. The reality, of course, is that Japan developed into a capitalist machine that would rival the West, and it was a functioning one at that. So how did this happen?
   For the answer, we need to look to the development of Japanese Buddhism.

                < Read the next installment october 1 >

Editor/ Noriko Knickerbocker , Aquarius Ltd.
Translator/ Matthew Hunter , Aquarius Ltd.
©Motohiko Izawa 2018-2019 All rights reserved. No reproduction or republication without written permission.

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Izawa tackles for the first time the mysteries of the world in a historical journey of intrigue and cross-cultural understanding.

Motohiko Izawa

Born in Japan, 1954, Nagoya native. Writer of historical nonfiction and mystery novels.
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