An Overview of the History of Japanese Buddhism

Vol 1. The Introduction of Buddhism to Japan

Write by Yukari Misawa

Translated by Roni Glaser

When Buddhism was first introduced into Japan as a foreign culture, the way it was adopted was not always to its fullest extent. Similarly, exports of modern Japanese culture received abroad often only present one side of it. For example, nowadays, there are many Buddhist approaches to psychotherapy, but these use only one aspect of it. Just as Georges Méliès’s film A Trip to the Moon, with its famous scene of a missile stuck in the moon with a human face, does not give us any idea of Jules Verne’s original work, the single aspect of meditation alone reveals very little of what Japanese Buddhism itself is, as well as what it is as a culture. In the same way, it is not possible to understand the origins of Buddhism in Japan or what the sutras aim to teach.

In this series of articles, without discussing what Buddhist teachings actually are, I will attempt to give a historical overview of how Buddhism was adopted, indigenised and developed in Japan. Readers who wish to know more can refer to the bibliography. However, as non-Japanese-speaking readers may find these books difficult to understand, I very much hope that they are translated into English.

The Introduction of Buddhism

It is said that Buddhism was introduced to Japan in 538 or 552 CE. An older acquaintance of mine (Japanese) had learnt that this was the year 1212, which is the Japanese calendar (the Imperial Era)1 and the year 552 CE in the Western calendar.

From these two theories, nowadays it is the year 538 that has become the standard. This year is calculated from the book “Gangōji Garan Engi Narabi ni Ruki Shizaichō(Origins of the Gangōji Monastery and Its Assets)2, while the latter theory, 552, is calculated from the “Nihon Shoki(The Chronicles of Japan).

By far the best known of the two books is the Nihon Shoki3. Why, then, was a family temple record, albeit a major national project, considered an appropriate primary source for calculating the arrival of Buddhism? This is because of the nature of many history books. For many generations, history has been written by those who hold the reins of power. In the same way as Margaret of Anjou was labelled an evil woman, history books written after a power struggle tend to contain the information that suits the rulers of the time. In the Nihon Shoki, the first half of the 6th century is often unreliable, perhaps to cover up the political turmoil of the time. In comparison, the Gangōji Garan Engi Narabi ni Ruki Shizaichō is simply a record of the temple’s origins, and can therefore be considered less arbitrary. At any rate, Buddhism initially came to Japan from Baekje, and this question cannot be pursued without an investigation of the history of the Korean peninsula.

It should be added that the first official introduction of Buddhism to Japan was from Baekje, but it would be rather hasty to assume that Japan adopted Buddhism from Korea and China alone. Many aspects of Japanese culture come from Vietnam, although the Japanese are not very aware of this. It is also said that the ancestors of sushi also came from Vietnam.

Prince Shōtoku (574–622)

There is one person who cannot be avoided when discussing early Japanese Buddhism, and that is Prince Shōtoku. Most Japanese people know his name and at least one story about him. One book about him can almost always be found among biography books for children. He was born the son of Emperor Yōmei (year of birth unknown–587), and upon the accession of Empress Suiko (554–628), he became regent. He sent political delegations and students to China, established the Twelve-Level Cap and Rank System4 and the Seventeen-Article Constitution5, compiled history books and was the first to establish a centralised government in Japan6.

The reason why Prince Shōtoku is important to Japanese Buddhism is that he introduced Buddhism as a major element of politics. It could of course be said that he just used it as a political tool, but it is also important to note that he himself was later treated as a saint in Japan in the Christian sense of the word. Although Taishi-Shinkō (the Prince Shōtoku faith) is mostly just fantastical legends, the question is not whether they are true, but the fact that he was believed to be a supernatural hero.

As with any religion, the essence of the teachings is not the only thing that make a religious community what it is. Another important aspect of religion is the way in which it becomes a culture through the union of human aspirations and beliefs in the supernatural merged with rational teachings. We will touch upon this topic in the next section, but from the point of view Buddhist studies or theology, these aspects of religion are easy to dismiss, and I think that they explain why humanity needs religion in the first place.

As for the sense of Buddhism Prince Shōtoku actually had, we can see from the Sankyō Gisho (Annotated Commentaries on the Three Sutras), which he is said to have written, that he attached great importance to the Lotus Sutra7, the Srimaladevi Simhanada Sutra8 and the Vimalakirti Sutra9. The Lotus Sutra in particular is so important to Japanese Buddhism that it has given rise to the chant “nam-myōhō-renge-kyō9. We do not know whether these were the only Buddhist scriptures to come to Japan, but in a way, the Lotus Sutra could be said to correspond to a very Japanese view of religion. This is because the spirit of the Lotus Sutra is well in accordance with the Japanese concept of “ya-o-yorozu-no-kami” (“countless gods”, literally “eight-million gods”), which holds that gods dwell in all living beings and things (animism). From an academic point of view, the Lotus Sutra was written at a time when Mahayana Buddhism was being criticised by Theravada Buddhism in order to justify its ideas and beliefs. The essence of this is summarised in the phrase: “all sentient beings have the potential to become Buddhas”.

Pre-existing religions and Buddhism

As mentioned above, animistic beliefs have existed in Japan since ancient times and they still exist today as a separate religion (Shintoism). Incidentally, in modern Japan, statistically speaking, almost everyone believes in Shintoism, the pre-existing Japanese religion). This is because, as long as you have an address somewhere in Japan, you automatically belong to one of the shrines. Thus, according to Japanese religious statistics, approximately 60% of the population follow Shintoism, and similarly 60% follow Buddhism. The figures vary according to the way the statistics are calculated, but they are based on a survey of how many Japanese people belong to shrines or temples, and many people who belong to temples also belong to shrines. The former is called the “danka” system and the latter the “ujiko” system.

Because of this national characteristic, which does not consider each religion as separate, when Buddhism was first introduced to Japan, it was regarded as being about another god, about deities from abroad. Some aspects of Buddhism were taken from Hinduism in the first place, so perhaps the religious views of Asia are essentially coexisting religious views.

At any rate, Dainichi Nyorai was considered to be another form of Amaterasu10 and its relationship with Shintoism was inseparable in the subsequent development of Buddhism in Japan.

It is noteworthy that Shintoism and Buddhism still have a joint venture relationship in Japan, whereas Christianity absorbed Celtic beliefs, Norse mythology and Greek mythology.

In this article I have tried to give an overview of when and what kind of Buddhism was introduced to Japan, but this is in fact such a significant issue that a whole book could be written on it. Furthermore, Zen, which is now recognised abroad as the most typical form of Japanese Buddhism, was not even in its infancy at the time, and although it is still one of the two major forms of Buddhism today11, for the layperson it is a special kind of Buddhism, a “Buddhism for monks”. If as many people as possible understand this point, then this article will find its significance.


Japanese calendar: Japan’s own calendar is still in official use today. The year in Japan is now Reiwa 3. Nowadays the calendar is renewed with each change of emperor, but at that time there was no such system in place, so it is thought that the chronology was based on the number of years since the reign of the first emperor.

Gangōji Garan Engi Narabi ni Ruki Shizaichō: “This is the record of Gangō Temple submitted to the office in 747 (Tenpyō 19).” The year of the introduction of Buddhism is given as 538, and the Soga clan’s efforts to promote Buddhism from that time until the Suiko dynasty are emphasised.” From the Sekai Dai-hyakka Jiten (Heibonsha World Encyclopedia), “Gangōji Garan Engi”.

Nihon Shoki: The oldest official history of Japan. It covers the period from the time of the gods (the creation of the country) to Empress Jitō.

The Twelve-Level Cap and Rank System: the first Japanese cap and rank system, established in 603 and used from 605 to 648. The system for appointments of office was established for the first time.

The Seventeen-Article Constitution: it is called a constitution, although it is different from the modern concept of a constitution. It has a strong ethical normative aspect and is more properly regarded as administrative law. However, even today, there is a persistent belief that this was a creation of later generations, a problem that has yet to be resolved.

The centralisation of government in Japan: the question of whether there was a concept of a state called Japan at this time is debatable. However, it is clear that Prince Shōtoku was trying to break away from the situation in which powerful families (local lords) dominated the politics of the Imperial Court, and put the Emperor at the centre of politics.

The Lotus Sutra: The formal name of the Lotus Sutra is “Myōhō Renge Kyō”. It is fair to say that the early conflicts between Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism gave rise to this sutra. It explained that not only monks but also lay people have the potential to become Buddhas.

Srimaladevi Simhanada Sutra: the original Sanskrit text has been lost. The teachings focus on the way of life of lay believers. The sutras teach that this sutra is the most important teaching of Mahayana Buddhism, and that the Buddha himself is the very truth of the teaching.

Vimalakirti Sutra: an early Mahayana Buddhist scripture. It criticises existing Buddhism from a layperson’s position. It praises the important Mahayana idea of “emptiness” (Śūnyatā). Emptiness does not mean that there is nothing, but rather that the nature of the world, and even the sense of self, is changeable and empty.

Nam-myōhō-renge-kyō: more than half of Japanese Buddhism has the repetition of chants (Nembutsu, Daimoku, etc.) as a central part of its doctrine. The two main chants are “namu-amida-butsu” and “nam-myōhō-renge-kyō”. The former advocates taking refuge in Amitabha Buddha, while the latter advocates taking refuge in the Lotus Sutra.

Dainichi Nyorai and Amaterasu: the former is the Buddhist Buddha, the latter the Shinto deity.Today, the largest single sect of Buddhism in Japan is the Sōtō sect (Zen Buddhism), but there are also two sects of Jōdo Shinshū or the “True Pure Land” sect, who chant the Nembutsu, which together outnumber the Sōtō sect. In terms of the number of temples, the Zen and Jōdo sects account for most of them.