A Tradition of Giving

(Pure Land Monks collecting contributions from the public on Shijo in Kyoto on March 16.)

Before I post the second part about Tokyo, I pulled out a post I’ve been working on for a little while now. It’s more on the cultural and historical side, but closer to what this blog used to be about, namely lots of traditional Japanese culture and history. . .

Shortly after the quake, feeling powerless to help, I began reading about charity in the Japanese middle ages (a hard to define period of roughly 400 years that covers from the end of the Heian period to the beginning of the Edo period). At that time, charity was a major means of rebuilding sites of worship and infrastructure. In my own experience, having been involved in the past in various creative and academic endeavors that tried to collect donations for their activities, I became familiar with the common perception that Japanese culture doesn’t include a custom of donation or charity. But considering the history and the response after the quake/tsunami/nuclear reactor disaster, I want to disagree. Japanese do engage in philanthropy, though perhaps justifiably not always for the same causes or in the same way as in other countries.

So, this post is going to be a little bit about my research in relation to my recent experiences. I noticed  already in that first paragraph that I use different vocabulary when I talk about my research than when I talk about recent events. I’ll try to say things clearly, but please bear with me. What I’m writing about has to do with today, not just with the distant past, because I think the past can help us deal with the present. Sometimes simply knowing it has been done before makes it easier to do again.

The first week I was in Kyoto, I met with a friend from Germany for coffee. It happened to be his birthday, so we went to have drinks at his favorite bar later in the afternoon. Although it was his birthday, he ended up paying for my drink (cultural differences). As I was going from the bar to meet with another friend, a former colleague, for dinner, I saw Pure Land monks on Shijo, a major shopping street in Kyoto, chanting and collecting donations. I promptly donated the cost of the drink I’d just had. Then when I saw another group of them, I gave the last of the money in my wallet. Again, not the smartest move on my part, because I couldn’t find an open ATM after that. In the end, my colleague friend paid for dinner. . .

However, what excited me about these monks more than the groups of university students and other volunteers collecting money (although I gave to them as well), was how their activities draw on a long tradition of charitable work that reaches back to the time when their denomination was just developing in the middle ages.

In the middle ages, New Buddhists were some of the most active promoters of charity work (called kanjin in Japanese). This work later developed into huge open air performances of noh and other popular performing arts. The money collected from admissions to the performances were used for various causes. I imagine they must have been something like outdoor benefit rock concerts. (Maybe I can find an illustration sometime to show you what they looked like.)

Pure Land Buddhism was the first of a string of populist Buddhist movements in the middle ages. These are generally called New Buddhism. New Buddhism broke Buddhism out of the institutions that claimed authority over the religion. These already established institutions had temples where participants operated in complex hierarchies with aristocratic members and government support. Pure Land was the first New Buddhist movement. By stripping the religion of its complex rituals and focusing on a simple chant (the nembutsu) and wholehearted faith, Honen, the founder of Pure Land Buddhism, made Buddhism appealing to the masses.

Therefore, the masses began engaging in Buddhism, believing that chanting nembutsu would allow them to be reborn in the Pure Land of the Amida Buddha after death. As a result many also began taking care of their dead within the Buddhist faith. Why is this important when talking about charity? Because most of the charitable causes taken on by Buddhist monks were rather religious. For example, the great Buddha in Nara was rebuilt at the end of the 12th century by a monk named Chogen with donations from religious believers (it had been burned down by Heike warriors in 1180). By donating to the cause, people believed they were helping their own deceased family members. Most donations were small, but Chogen was able to appeal to large numbers of people and thereby gather the required funds.

More secular projects were soon also taken on by the monks who worked as charity organizers (kanjin hijiri), walking all over the land, collecting money, materials, and labor for projects that included rebuilding bridges as well as temples. Considering that monks such as those of the Ritsu sect conducted charitable work for the poor, for lepers and outcasts, I imagine they must have collected donations for this purpose as well although that would be called seeking alms, not kanjin. In any case, since at this time in Japanese history the central government was weak, Buddhist monks, who were seen as reliable and trustworthy, took over this kind of social and infrastructural work (so says my advisor, Matsuoka Shinpei). These monks seemed to function much as non-profit or non-government organizations do today.

(Note: You might be familiar with the story of the Noh “Ataka,” the same story as that for the kabuki “Kanjincho.” In it, Yoshitsune and his retainers, including Benkei, pretend they are kanjin hijiri, so that they might be able to pass a check point along a road.)

Later, Buddhist monks began to create massive performance spectacles to bring in money for community projects. (Performers were in a very, very low social class, so this work had a socially supportive aspect as well.) A lot of the performance content incorporated themes based on the missionary work and memorial services for the dead of New Buddhism. That is why my advisor says so many Noh plays deal with the dead, but explaining that belongs in another post. . .

Since the East Japan Earthquake, there have been benefit concerts like the Concert for Japan by the New York Japan Society, in which performers of traditional Japanese arts performed, but that tradition is different since it is based on a Western, secular, high society tradition of bazaars, auctions, and benefits for charity. The monks I saw in Kyoto, then, are the only people I’ve seen so far who are really drawing on the Japanese tradition of charity in their work. (Please tell me if you are aware of something else!)

What I would like to see is traditional actors and performers joining in, supporting the relief efforts, and giving  new meaning to the tradition of kanjin. In the process, I imagine support for the traditional arts would improve. As long as representatives of the traditional arts keep to themselves and their communities and don’t engage in contemporary issues, they are seen in the wider public as irrelevant to society. If they want to bring in new audiences and new participants, the traditional arts better reach out and help people, thereby creating community beyond their own base through activities such as charitable work (examples of which may be found in their own tradition). Building community is based on a mutual give and take, and also on a willingness to listen. Traditional artists, are you watching the news? Can we count on your support in the relief and rebuilding efforts?

4 thoughts on “A Tradition of Giving

  1. Thank you for sharing these great photos, and great stories.

    I was of course familiar with the idea of Benkei and Ushiwakamaru pretending to be collecting donations (for the rebuilding of Todaiji if I remember right). But I’d never really given it too much further thought as to systems or customs of charity giving in medieval Japan. However much it may have changed since then, as things surely have changed, it is interesting to ponder the impact of those modes of charity-giving on the modern day case, and interesting too, of course, to see these wonderful pictures of traditional monks against a modern cityscape backdrop, collecting in a manner connecting in whatever way to a long tradition, for a very modern and contemporary purpose.

    1. Dear Travis,

      I thought of you when I wrote that note. Thanks for responding to it! Yes, I think Yoshitsune and Benkei were pretending to collect donations for the reconstruction of Todaiji. I mentioned in this post that Chogen collected donations for the reconstruction of the great Buddha in Nara. That’s also Todaiji. So, Yoshitsune and Benkei were pretending to have some sort of relationship to Chogen. Make sense?

      How are your performances going?


  2. Hanna, thank you once again for a blog that is so careful and well written. I did learn a lot!
    Only slightly “connected” is a Yu Tube post, I found yesterday. Maybe you know it already.
    It made me smile and then cry.” Song for Japan” (Come on Nipon! YOMIGAERE)
    It’s from Sweden – I wonder, how the $$ or Yen will make their way to Japan ! BUT:
    The world is in this together – everybody in a different way.
    Thanks for writing, you are making a difference.

    1. Dear Christiane,

      I found the video you mentioned! It’s great! Some people talk about a fear of Japanese nationalism and isolationism due to all the “ganbare Nippon” slogans and such. But I think with all the international support that fear is unnecessary. Let’s keep it up! Let’s show Japan the world cares!


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