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The enigma of power in medieval Japan

by Florian Coulmas

THE GATES OF POWER: Monks, Courtiers, and Warriors in Premodern Japan, by Mikael S. Adolphson. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2000, 456 pp., $29.95 (paper), $60.00 (cloth).

Who rules Japan? This question has a modern ring to it and has been belabored by many a student of political science. It is of considerable interest to ask this question, for a change, about the past. “The Gates of Power” does just that. It investigates the “enigma of Japanese power” in the Middle Ages, focusing on the period from the late 11th to the late 14th centuries.

The table of contents speaks of monastic developments, temples, religious conflicts, Buddhas and “kami” or gods. Yet this book has very little to do with religion, that is, with the contents of a religious creed or creeds as understood today. Rather it is about political history and the system of government that prevailed in medieval Japan.

That religion and politics are separate entities is a modern idea that in former times had little basis in reality, in Japan or anywhere else. Religious institutions have always been about power, both spiritual and secular. In medieval Japan, no emperor could ignore the influence of Buddhist temples or, indeed, rule against them.

Mikael S. Adolphson investigates the influence on politics of three of Japan’s most powerful temples: Kofukuji in Nara, Enryakuji in the outskirts of Kyoto; and Koyasan in Kii Province, south of Kyoto.

“Gates of power,” or “kenmon,” is a historical term referring to influential families, the noble elites, of the late Heian to Muromachi eras. The historian Toshio Kuroda used it to refer to other elites that also had a share in ruling Japan: the court nobles, the military and the religious establishment. Adolphson has adopted this usage, hence the title of his instructive book.

What we learn from it is that these three gates of power were both competing for influence and intensively interacting with each other. They ruled Japan jointly, constituting as it were a triple-branched system of government, each branch pursuing its own interests in such a way that the other two would not become too powerful.

The three temples that are the focus of the book all received patronage and visits from the Heian nobility and the Imperial court, where, in turn, they maintained a presence. Abbots were commonly appointed by the court. It is not unreasonable to regard a temple as first and foremost a corporation; the court-appointed abbot, then, was the prototypical “amakudari.” For example, in 1156, Saiun, the son of Emperor Horikawa, became the head of the Buddhist Tendai sect, which used Enryakuji on Mount Hiei as its headquarters. Personal links of this sort were instrumental in securing mutual support and cooperation.

There were, of course, also institutionalized structures of interdependence. Taxes were set aside to support monks, and the established temples could expect financial assistance in some measure from the government. At the same time they carried out rituals for the court and provided spiritual guidance.

Temples, along with their branches, were power networks that the Imperial court and influential members of the nobility tried to control. Throughout the period under discussion here, Kofukuji was the power base and family temple of the mighty Fujiwara clan.

Establishing new temples and sects was thus a consequential affair. The granting or withholding of recognition was a crucial instrument with which the court could control the clergy, because the absence of noble patronage meant active antagonism.

However, where temples saw their interests in jeopardy, the monks did not resort to silent prayer and the spiritual powers of their gods, but rose in protest and even took up arms. As Adolphson describes in fascinating detail, the highest-ranking temples developed strategies for pressuring the court that often led to violent confrontations between monks and warriors. Protests of this kind were so common that they were known by a special term, “goso.”

But goso, Adolphson argues, rather than disturbing the power equilibrium, were part of the system, “an accepted means of communication (negotiation), though performed outside established structures.” They provide another piece of evidence that supposedly holy temples were in fact earthly power centers, although they didn’t really stand a chance in a serious fight. Staging a goso in the capital for an unreasonable cause carried the risk of damage and injury at the hands of the defending warriors. On the other hand, however, warriors who harmed monks during a protest were often punished and reprimanded by the court. In a sense, the goso was a constitutive element of the age’s shared rulership.

One particularly interesting aspect in this connection is the symbiotic relationship that developed between Buddhism and Shintoism. Religious protests were not restricted to Buddhist temples, but were often backed up by Shinto shrines. While the link between secular power and Buddhism, the imported and hence prestigious elite religion, grew ever closer, to the extent that Buddhism enjoyed the privileges of a state cult, the old folk religion of Shinto — with which, of course, the Imperial family had a special relationship — was not pushed aside. Rather than confronting each other, both religious organizations cooperated, forming temple-shrine complexes in mutual support of their claims to Imperial patronage and secular power.

On the spiritual level, too, tolerant coexistence effected fusion. Shinto kami emerging as local manifestations of bodhisattvas and buddhas provide evidence of the long-lasting accommodating attitudes between Buddhism and Shintoism and their shared interest in securing their position vis-a-vis the nobility and the warrior class.

“The Gates of Power” offers new insights into the dimensions of government in premodern Japan. While focusing on the crucial role of Buddhism from the 11th through the 14th centuries, it also prompts the reader to reflect on the intricate balance between power elites and the complex interdependencies of religion and politics.