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Hualin International Journal of Buddhist Studies 2.2 (2019): 132–162;
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Buddhism and Business: South and East Asian Perspectives)

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Watanabe Kaigyoku and Buddhist Responses to the ‘Labour Question’ in Early-Twentieth Century Japan

Library of Congress

Abstract: Watanabe Kaigyoku 渡辺海旭 (1872–1933) was a Jōdoshū priest and scholar who contributed significantly to the fields of Buddhist education and social work in Japan, particularly following his return home in 1910 after a decade of study in Germany. Seeking to meld Buddhist ethics with modern methods of social work, Watanabe established the Jōdoshū Workers’ Mutual Aid Society in 1911. An exploration of his writings and the historical context behind the creation of this organization reveals that Watanabe did not envision a radical position for Buddhists on the issue of the ‘labour question’; rather, he imagined Buddhism as a harmonizing influence that could help avoid the pitfalls of unrestrained capitalism, on the one hand, and revolutionary socialism, on the other. The theoretical and practical approaches to social work of Japanese Buddhists like Watanabe should be viewed as early examples of what is now called ‘engaged Buddhism’, a category whose history has largely been restricted to the post-World War II era.

Keywords: Engaged Buddhism, Japanese Labour Problem, Buddhist Social Reform, Watanabe Kaigyoku


About the Author: Cameron Penwell is a historian of modern Japan, with a particular interest in the evolving relationship between religion and society. His research focuses on changing modes of Buddhist social engagement in Japan, specifically in the areas of social work, activism, and politics. He completed graduate studies in Japanese history at the University of Chicago and currently works as a Japanese reference librarian in Washington, D.C.


This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.