Convenient Gods: Worship in Tokugawa Japan - Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History

Convenient Gods: Worship in Tokugawa Japan

Armstrong State University

Today, the average American would probably think of an exclusive hotel if something was described by the terms money, power, lodging, convenience and prestige. In premodern Tokugawa Japan, however, these words together best represented the culture surrounding religion, especially among Samurai. In the Tokugawa era, shrines became locations for the poor and destitute to attempt to survive and popular priests became tools for the ambitious to increase and consolidate their power without an official position.

In Katsu Kokichi’s book entitled Musui’s Story: The Autobiography of a Tokugawa Samurai, we see an extensive cross-section of the life of a low-ranking samurai living in the waning years of the Tokugawa regime. Due to the fact that Katsu’s finances and social status varied wildly throughout his life, we are allowed a glimpse into the different nature of worship and the utilization of religion for people in different social and economic contexts.

Enoshima Benten Shrine in Ando Hiroshige’s 53 Stations of the Tokaido, no.7 (ca.1830)
Enoshima Benten Shrine in Ando Hiroshige’s
53 Stations of the Tokaido, no.7 (ca.1830)

For those in poverty, shrines and the culture of pilgrimage and alms often dominated the relationship between an individual and religion. This can be clearly and repeatedly seen in Katsu’s autobiography when he, as a child, ran away from his home and family and fended for himself on the roads of Japan. After being robbed and very nearly stripped by thieves, themselves using the excuse of traveling to “the festival at Tsushima Shrine in Owari” (24) to escape, Katsu became reliant on the Ise Shrine to provide for his well-being. Although he was initially advised to pray at the shrine, he instead spent the daytime “[begging] for alms” and often took shelter in “roadside shrines” (24) at night. Eventually, Katsu fooled a priest at the Ise Shrine into believing that he was a pilgrim from Shinagawa there to “pay [his] respects at Ise” (25) which affords him a bath, “an assortment of delicious looking food” (28), a comfortable night’s rest, a ceremonial amulet, and even a loan of one thousand coppers for his travel. After leaving the Ise Shrine, Katsu “visited shrines along the road and filled [his] belly with all sorts of good food” (28−9).

For those in a more stable position in life, religion served as a way to utilize and display one’s prestige and influence over people. As an adult, confident that he had great influence despite his lack of “official employment,” Katsu proudly “set up an association” for Yoshida Hyogo, “a Shinto priest of the Marishiten cult in Sarue in Honjo,” but quickly withdrew his support when Hyogo acted “as if he owned a million koku of land somewhere off in Nishinokubo” (74−5) and talked “rot and nonsense” to one of Katsu’s friends. After great discourse between Kokichi and Hyogo, Kokichi noted: “In my opinion Hyogo was a thoroughly bad sort. I severed all connections with the association. The other members that I’d persuaded to join left, too, and I heard that the whole thing fell apart” (79). The moment Katsu himself was no longer the center of praise and attention, the cult for which he worked so hard became no more important to him than a footnote on hearsay.

An unknown shrine near Mishima in Ando Hiroshige’s 53 Stations of the Tokaido, no.12 (ca.1830)
An unknown shrine near Mishima in Ando Hiroshige’s
53 Stations of the Tokaido, no.12 (ca.1830)

Even in the ages of retirement, when one would expect a person to grow closest to their faith as they approach the end of their life, religion was merely a means of retaining an ounce of power and respect. Katsu, as well as at least one of his acquaintances, became a “lay Buddhist priest” and even “took the religious name of Musui” (128) after his retirement but showed no sign of special piety or devotion to any god; Buddhist, Shinto or otherwise.

Even though poverty, respect, and age all led to different manifestations of religion in the lives of Tokugawa samurai, they all used religion and worship in a similar way: to improve their lives as far as it was convenient for them. Whether through begging for alms, building clubs or gaining title, the exercise of religion in Tokugawa Japan was clearly more focused on earthly society and culture than on devotion and worship.

About the author

Robert J. Nix is a junior studying history at Armstrong State University. His research interests include colonial settlement, religion, and historical artifacts.

Recommended citation

Robert J. Nix, “Convenient Gods: Worship in Tokugawa Japan,” Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History 1, no. 1 (Spring 2011).


Katsu K?kichi. Musui's Story: The Autobiography of a Tokugawa Samurai. Translated by Teruko Craig. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1991.

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