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Today accounting for more than 75% of the Japanese population, Buddhism is a religion omnipresent throughout the country. It is the second most popular religion behind Shintoism, which has more than 90% followers. Today let's discover its origins, its history, its evolution over the centuries as well as what really remains of it today.

The arrival of Buddhism in Japan

Buddhism was already present in Vietnam when it first appeared on Japanese territory, when King Seong of Baekje (former South Korea) sent emissaries to meet the emperor. Japanese Kinmei (reign: 509-571) in 552. These emissaries brought back to the emperor an image of Buddha as well as certain sutras which marked the first official point of contact between the Buddhist religion and Japan. We specify official because it is possible that some Japanese have already discovered this religion previously following commercial contacts with China, particularly under the impetus of the ancient Silk Road. What is certain is that Buddhism arrived well after Shintoism, which remains the ancestral religion of the Land of the Rising Sun (Shintoism dates back to at least 500 BC).

The development of Buddhism in Japan

Although welcomed in the 6th century on the territory, Buddhism was not immediately integrated into Japanese customs. It took around fifty years for Prince Shôtoku-Taishi to democratize this religion by building numerous Buddhist temples and publishing commentaries on sutras. So much so that in 627, fifty Buddhist temples were already built for 800 monks and 700 nuns. Shôtoku-Taishi is still considered the main founder of Buddhism in Japan today.

Buddhism then became the state religion in the 8th century under the leadership of Emperor Shomu, who also erected the 16-meter statue of Buddha which still sits at Tōdai-ji (the great temple of the East). There are still many statues of Buddha found throughout Japan. The country's artistic talents will gradually contribute to giving rise to a large part of the temples that we know today. The rise of Zen gardens also arose during this period when their initial purpose was to represent Buddha's paradise. Little by little, powerful clans adopted this religion and it gradually spread throughout Japan.


However, what is important to understand is that the Buddhist religion and its religious instructions have not been frozen in time. They have evolved over the centuries and major periods that Japan has known. There has therefore always been cohabitation between the different Buddhist currents which were taught in temples and schools. This was never really a problem since they were just different ways of achieving the same ideal: “awakening”. Nevertheless, we can easily cite three major periods of Buddhism that Japan experienced:

  • Hīnayāna Buddhism
  • Mahāyāna Buddhism
  • Vajrayana Buddhism

The end of Buddhism in Japan?

In 1868 during the Meiji restructuring, Buddhism was banned and many temples were burned. Whereas until now the cohabitation of the Shinto and Buddhist religions had not posed any problems because they both share a fairly similar philosophy. The pro-Shintoists who gained power decreed that Buddhism was a "disturbance to public order" and that therefore this religion must disappear.

However, the Buddhist religion having now been anchored in Japanese customs for too long (more than a millennium) they were unable to permanently erase it from the country. Consequently the banishment was lifted a few years later, but a policy of more lax religious practice was put in place, particularly with regard to the chastity of the monks.

Buddhist schools in Japan

As mentioned in the previous chapter, Buddhism is a religion that evolved over time and naturally its schools and the instruction it gave evolved with it. It would take too long to list and trace all the Buddhist schools that emerged in Japan, but six of them from the Nara period still remain popular:

  • Hossō 's school
  • The Jojitsu school
  • The Kegon School
  • Kusha 's school
  • Ritsu 's school
  • The Sanron school

Three of them are still standing: Hossō, Kegon and Ritsu.


Today, Japan has thirteen major schools which trace the progressive opening of the different Buddhist instructions in Japan. But the oldest remain the three from the Nara period (710-794) mentioned above. The others are respectively the Tendai school and the Shingon school for the Heian period (794-1185), and the Nichiren, Jōdo shū, Jōdo shinshū, Yūzū nembutsu shū, Ji, Rinzai, Sōtō and Ōbaku schools which are the more recent and dating from the Kamakura period (1185-1333).

To conclude, the main difference between these schools is not so much in their very essence but in their way of teaching and practicing. Buddhism being a philosophical religion which advocates wisdom and self-awakening, it much more often takes the form of meditative and spiritual practices.


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