Impacts and Effects of Buddhism in Japanese History
Japan History

Research Report
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Buddhism did not originate in Japan nor was it the sole religion in lives of the Japanese people.  Many Japanese people practice Shintoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism together and at the same time.  The three have in a way fused to form a moral code or ethical religion for the Japanese people.  However, Buddhism itself has had a great impact in the historical development of Japan, leaving a lasting presence.  From its arrival in 552AD to the present, Buddhism has been a major factor in the lives of the Japanese people.

Historical Background

Buddhism originated in India with the life of the historical Buddha between the fifth and sixth centuries BC (Saunders 19).  There are hundreds of different Buddhist sects throughout Asia and Japan, but they are all based primarily on the Four Truths.  The first Truth is the existence of suffering.  That is to say every act of life involves suffering such as birth, sickness, death, or frustration.  The second Truth teaches that this suffering exists because our continual desire for something.  Desires cause suffering because people can never truly be satisfied.  The third Truth teaches the stopping of desire for rebirth and lastly, the fourth Truth is the way in which to stop the suffering.  The fourth Truth leads to the Eightfold Path.  The eight phases of the path are as follows: right vision, right representation, right word, right activity, right means of subsistence, right application, right presence of mind, and finally right positioning of the psyche (Saunders 52-54).  The ultimate goal for a Buddhist is complete comprehension of the Four Truths and to reach the state of Nirvana.  The Eightfold Path is psychophysiological training that leads one towards the state of Nirvana.  In this state there is an extinction of all desire attaching to existence and there is no longer a connection with the world of sentient beings (Saunders 66-67).

Research Report

The Buddhist religion was actually ideal for Japan upon its arrival, traditionally known as 552 AD, brought to Japan by the Korean Kingdom of Paechke.  The religion that was indigenous to Japan was Shinto or “the way of the gods.”  Historically Buddhism spread by assimilating native deities; thus the Japanese were able to keep the gods all ready in place (Matsunaga 6).  Also, Buddhism was not simply a new religion to the Japanese but also a new culture with new ideas from their neighbors of mainland Asia.  Prince Shotoku is known as the father of Japanese Buddhism because he had such strong feelings toward it.  His last words were allegedly “avoid evil, undertake good, purify the mind: this is the teaching of the Buddhas.”  This statement alone is one the most perfect summations of the Buddhist teachings.  Basically the Prince understood Buddhism far better than those around him at the time (Matsunaga 13).  The Prince understood the teachings of Buddhism as a proper understanding that would remain an undercurrent in the Buddhist movement in Japan. For the most part the aristocracy dominated Japanese Buddhism and was not ready for the philosophical aspects it had to offer.  The people were more taken with the rituals and temples.  The government had taken control of Buddhism and began incorporating rituals into the developing court life (Matsunaga 23).  Further development would take place in the Nara Period, which would begin in 710 and end before the close of the eighth century in 784.

In 710 the Japanese capital was moved to the city of Nara and a government was formed to match the system like that of the Chinese capital.  Buddhism during this time finally but slowly began to exert its influence over Japanese life and culture.  For example, people began the practice of cremation rather than mound burial and Buddhist images were used in honoring the dead.  Also monks and monasteries began to look deeper at the Buddhist teachings rather than just the general principles.  Thus six sects grew out of and came to existence during the Nara period (Saunders 102).  The government also remained in close connection with religion during the period.  These six sects not only greatly influenced the Japanese government but also laid a foundation for Japanese Buddhism.  During this time there was a great influx of ideas politically as seen in the building of a Chinese model capital, but also a great influx of Buddhist ideals and teachings continued (Matsunaga 26).

As this development continued the Buddhist teachings made their way out of the monasteries and began attracting the attention of the educated class (Tamura 49).  Buddhist scholars absorbed numerous theses, moral codes, and rules and regulations from mainland Asia.  They took these ideas and formed a Japanese interpretation and assimilated it into the culture, setting the stage for further development (Matsunaga 137).  Many serious practitioners emerged and practiced good works in accordance with Buddhist principles.  Many social developments in Japan came out of these good works such as raising the level of learning for society as a whole, the founding of lodgings for religious practitioners, hostels for the destitute and homeless, dispensaries, and hospitals.  Buddhist temples became the primary centers for learning during the Nara Period (Tamura 59-60).  Buddhist power and influence became so strong in Nara that it began involving itself in secular matters.  The government felt as though it was being over-run and the capital was moved to Kyoto in an attempt to make a new start (Saunders 134).

During the Heian Period, Japanese Buddhist development reached somewhat of a standstill.  The government wanted to free itself a little from the overwhelming power Buddhism gained in Nara.  It would not be until the Kamakura Period in 1185 that Japanese Buddhism would have a renewal and reach its golden age (Matsunaga 257).  The Kamakura period began a development of feudal society and a government known as the Shogunate.

A new class, the warriors, ran the shogunate and Japanese society.  The warrior was constantly concerned with death, the impermanence of things, and the gradual disintegration of the world.  Buddhism again helped bring these ideas together as it brought early Japanese ideals together upon arrival in 552.  The emphasis became the idea of salvation and the concept of salvation being available to everyone.  Buddhism continued to become quite popular and eventually began to filter down to the people of Japan.  New sects emerged and for the first time Buddhism was truly Japanese in nature (Saunders 186).  One sect more than any other influenced the life and culture of the Japanese and that sect was Zen.  It had a great influence over art, poetry, and other rituals such as tea drinking.  The military pastime of swordsmanship grew under Zen influence and became known as the art of protecting life.  Zen is also responsible for an approach to architecture and gardens that is predominant in modern Japan (Saunders 225).  The Buddhist golden age would not last however.

Buddhism had expanded its role in Japan and was now rooted in the everyday lives of the common people.  It became hard to stay out of secular desires and eventually became swept up in a war among provinces.  After the Tokugawa took over and united Japan any influences or ideals that might disrupt that unity were either eliminated or sent underground.  Buddhism fell under complete regulation of the government (Tamura 130).  This system would remain in place until the Meiji Restoration in 1868.

Buddhism was greatly criticized during the Tokugawa period and would never again have the strength it had during its golden age.  Shinto would become the state religion of Japan.  There was a great influx of new religions such as Christianity and offsets to Buddhism.  Many have called the period following World War II as an age of alienation.  It is a period in which people have lost sight of the meaning of life and are searching for some sort of spiritual sustenance.  This is the challenge to Buddhism today (Tamura 216).  Still, Buddhism made significant contributions to Japanese life.

Historical Significance

The first major contribution of Buddhism was that it acted as the means of transporting new ideals not only to Japan, but also throughout Asia.  Through the course of Japanese history an enormous amount of Korean and Chinese culture was brought to Japan by the way of Buddhism.  Much of this culture came in various forms.  This spread of general culture and intellect had a profound effect on the Japanese people (Reischauer 296).  Many of the political institutions implemented in Japan came by way of Buddhist missionaries.  There was also tremendous influence in architecture, painting, sculpting, music, and poetry.  Also, Buddhist teachings gave the Japanese a better understanding of philosophy, psychology, and the natural sciences (Reischauer 300).  In regards to religious life Buddhism greatly improved the concepts that originated in Japan through Shinto.  Buddhism greatly enlarged the conceptions of the divine, the destiny of man, and the way in which one can reach a higher destiny.  Buddhism brought a moral and ethical side to the religious lives of the Japanese people (Reischauer 306).

Buddhism was not the only factor in the development of Japan.  Japan probably would have advanced even if Buddhism was not prevalent.  However, Buddhism did act as a guiding light for Japan and much of Japanese culture has been greatly influenced.  Whatever the future for Buddhism in Japan may be, it cannot be denied the significant and lasting impact it had on Japanese development.


Hanayama, Shinsho.  A History of Japanese Buddhism.  Tokyo: Bukko Dendo Kyokai,     1960.

Matsunaga, Daigan.  Foundation of Japanese Buddhism.  Los Angeles: Buddhist Books International, 1974.

Reischauer, August Karl.  Studies in Japanese Buddhism.  New York: AMS Press, 1970.

Saunders, E. Dale.  Buddhism in Japan.  Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1964.

Tamura, Yoshiro.  Japanese Buddhism.  Tokyo: Kosei Publishing Co., 2000.

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Japanese Buddhism-

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