Historically, the term "shinbutsu bunri" (神仏分離) refers to the policy of the Meiji government (1868-1912) of separating Shintō and Buddhism in order to re-establish the divine status of the emperor as prescribed by Shintō belief. Some members of the Meiji government were influenced by kokugaku (国学), a nativist academic movement that had emerged in the Edo Period and that focused on the Japanese classics, rather than Buddhist, Confucian, and Chinese sources. Hirata Atsutane (平田篤胤, 1776-1843) in particular, one of the Great Four of Kokugaku, dreamed of establishing a Shintō-oriented government modelled on the rule of the legendary Emperor Jimmu. The nativists began to separate Shintō and Buddhism, which had been partially syncretised since the early Heian Era (794-1185).

This syncretism is called Shinbutsu-shūgō (神仏習合, "syncretism of kami and buddhas") and had started with the advent of Buddhism in the 6th century. Instead of supplanting Shintō, Buddhism was assimilated and Buddhist temples and Shintō shrines were attached to each other, as shrine-temples or temple-shrines. While local beliefs did not fully merge with the new religion, the two were linked to each other, and often kami were regarded as manifestations of Buddhas. Some syncretic Buddhist movements within the Tendai sect ("Sannō Ichijitsu Shintō") and the Shingon sect ("Ryōbu Shintō") went further and united not only kami and Buddhas but religious concepts as well.

In 1868, the Meiji government enacted the "Kami and Buddhas Separation Order" (神仏判然令 Shinbutsu Hanzenrei), a decree that forced Buddhist priests to relinquish their positions and that stipulated that all Buddhist images were to be removed from Shintō shrines. Although the government did not intend to disestablish Buddhism per se, the decree triggered a nationwide anti-Buddhist outburst referred to as Haibutsu kishaku (廃仏毀釈, lit. "abolish Buddhism and destroy Shākyamuni").

As a result, thousands of temples were closed, their land confiscated, and temple bells smelted for bronze. Bettō (別当), monks who performed Buddhist rites at shrines and jingūji (shrines part of a temple) were given the choice of either returning to lay life or to become Shintō priests.

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The burning of sūtras during the Haibutsu kishaku (unknown source).

During the Tokugawa shogunate, anti-Buddhist sentiments had been festering, also thanks to the danka system (檀家制度 danka seido) in which each household was required to register with a particular temple. The temple would conduct all funeral, memorial, and other services in exchange for remuneration and partial provision for the upkeep of the temple. In the Edo Period, danka degenerated into a system of monitoring and controlling the populace, not least to find hidden Christians and other unwelcome elements.

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The smelting of temple bells (Tanaka Nagane, 1907)

In some areas, official antagonism escalated into a full-blown outbreak of violence against temples, statues, and priests. According to some estimates, nationwide up to 40,000 temples were destroyed. In some provinces, 80 per cent of all temples were demolished. In Chōshū, modern-day Yamaguchi Prefecture, Buddhist temples had practically ceased to exist. The Haibutsu kishaku movement declined around 1871 and resulted in the formation of a reform movement within Japanese Buddhism.

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The Yakushidō (薬師堂) at the former Tsurugaoka Hachimangū-ji. It was dismantled in the late 1860s.

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Tsurugaoka Hachimangū-ji during the haibutsu kishaku. The two Niō statues (仁王) were moved to Jufuku-ji Temple.


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Hidden yagura close to the Tenen Hiking Course in Kamakura. Most of the Buddhist statues have been decapitated during the haibutsu kishaku.

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More decapitated statues around the Tenen Hiking Course in Kamakura.

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Decapitated statues of monks at
Mount Nokogiri, Chiba Prefecture. Most statues were later restored.

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