Buddhism Arrives in Japan

Buddhist images and scriptures sent to Japan as a form of tribute from the Korean kingdom of Paekche caused factional strife and bloodshed among the Japanese nobility but began the process by which Buddhism became a major influence on the cultural life of the Japanese court and eventually a popular religion.

Summary of Event

Tradition states that Siddhārtha Gautama, the historical Buddha, was born around 566 b.c.e. in what is now Nepal. It was not until one thousand years later, however, that Buddhism, after having spread through most of Asia, found its way to Japan. [kw]Buddhism Arrives in Japan (538-552)
[kw]Japan, Buddhism Arrives in (538-552)
Japan;538-552: Buddhism Arrives in Japan[0110]
Religion;538-552: Buddhism Arrives in Japan[0110]
Cultural and intellectual history;538-552: Buddhism Arrives in Japan[0110]
Soga Iname
Soga Umako

Buddhism first spread to China in the first and second centuries c.e., then began to take root on the Korean peninsula because of the heavy Chinese cultural influence on this area. During this period, Korea was divided into three kingdoms—Paekche Paekche kingdom , Koguryŏ, and Silla Silla kingdom . Paekche, in the southwest part of the peninsula, was under constant military threat from its neighbours, so in the sixth century, it turned to Japan, at that time in the first stages of the consolidation of central power, for military and political support. Although the scholarly theories concerning the relationship between Japan and Paekche differ, it is widely believed that the Korean kingdom was the subordinate power. Although Paekche was militarily subordinate to Japan, because of its proximity to China, the kingdom was more advanced culturally. The Paekche king Sōng Sōng , reportedly the first leader of his country to become an ardent Buddhist, sent a delegation to the Japanese court bearing Buddhist images and scriptures as a form of tribute. The images were of the historical Buddha, shaped in copper and gold, and the scriptures were a number of sutras containing the basic teachings and traditions of Buddhism.

According to the Nihon shoki (compiled 720 c.e.; Nihongi: Chronicles of Japan from the Earliest Times to A.D. 697, 1896; best known as Nihon shoki), a collection of oral traditions, the mission from Korea arrived in the year 552. There are very few surviving sources of information concerning this embassy, and at present, many scholars have doubts concerning the validity of the date given in the Nihon shoki
Nihon shoki . There are a number of ongoing debates, but the year 538 is widely regarded as the likely date.

However, despite this confusion regarding the date, the Nihon shoki gives valuable details regarding the initial reception of the new religion in Japan. It reports that King Sōng sent a memorial along with the mission, describing the Indian origins of Buddhism and the transmission of the faith to China and stating that despite the difficulty of understanding its philosophy, Buddhism was superior to all other doctrines. The king of Paekche also boasted that even Confucius, the most important figure in the Chinese intellectual tradition, had not attained a knowledge of the faith. He also promised that Buddhism offered worldly benefits of unimaginable magnitude, fulfilling all the prayers and wishes of its believers.

The chronicle also states that the Japanese emperor Kimmei Kimmei was overjoyed at the arrival of the new faith and asked his ministers if it should be adopted officially. The representatives of the Soga family favored the official adoption of the faith, but conservative forces, including two other powerful families, the Mononobe Mononobe and Nakatomi Nakatomi , opposed it. These clans supported the national faith, Shintō Shintō[Shinto] , a form of ancestor and nature worship that lacked the complex doctrines and iconography of the newly introduced Buddhism. The Nakatomi and Mononobe advised against the worship of foreign deities for fear of incurring the wrath of the gods of Japan. The Nakatomi, in particular, opposed the new faith because their position of influence at court was largely through their traditional role in Shintō religious observances. The Soga, on the other hand, wielded their influence at the imperial court through the important role that they played in financial and political dealings. Therefore, they were interested in increasing central power at the expense of the other clans, and their interest in the new religion had political dimensions.

The Japanese court decided that the Buddhist images should be given to the Soga, who were free to worship them. The court noble Soga Iname Soga Imane converted his residence at Mukuhara into a temple and enshrined the sacred image there. However, at the same time, an epidemic broke out in central Japan. The Nihon shoki reports that it did not abate for an extended period and caused many deaths. The court decided that the outbreak of disease was a result of the presence of the Buddhist images. The Mononobe and Nakatomi officials responded by burning the temple that the Soga had created to house the images and discarding the statue in a canal. However, this chain of events was followed by other catastrophes that were interpreted as ill omens. As a result, the new faith and the Soga clan alike gained more and more influence at the imperial court. Soga Umako Soga Umako , the son of Imane, received permission to restore the temple and sacred image. The struggle between the various clans for influence over the imperial court intensified after this point, and Buddhism was to remain a point of contention for the next fifty years. However, the new religion had taken root in Japan and proceeded to gain converts, first among the imperial family and members of the court and eventually among the population at large.


The arrival of Buddhism in Japan had the immediate effect of touching off a power struggle between the influential Soga family and the Mononobe and Nakatomi families who favored Shintō, the native faith. By the early seventh century, the Soga had effectively gained power over the imperial court and resorted to armed conflict in order to break the Mononobe family. It was not until 645, however, that the power of the Soga was brought to an end with the assassination of the family’s leaders as a result of a plot by the Nakatomi, supported by the imperial prince Naka no Ōe. By this time, however, Buddhism had become a major part of the cultural life of the imperial court and was no longer tied to the fate of the Soga family. By the eighth century, Buddhism had surpassed the philosophical and cultural influence of Shintō among members of the Japanese court.

Despite its popularity, however, in the early stages of Japanese Buddhism, the faith was pursued mainly for its potential for producing worldly benefits, and a real appreciation of the philosophical complexities of the religion was missing. The Buddhist images, for example, were thought to offer protection against disease. Gradually, Japanese Buddhism developed increasing philosophical complexity as Chinese and Korean monks made the journey to the Japanese islands and Japanese monks traveled to the continent to learn more about the faith. Travel by land;Buddhists Several hundred years after the introduction of Buddhism in Japan, the monk Saichō Saichō founded the Tendai sect Tendai sect , and Kōbō Daishi Kōbō Daishi (Kūkai) founded Shingon Shingon sect ; these sects offered an eclectic mix of continental ideas and the monks’s own philosophical innovations. Centuries later, monks such as Shinran Shinran and Nichiren Nichiren founded popular sects that caused Buddhist teachings to spread rapidly among the masses, and the Zen Zen Buddhism sect, which took root in Japan in the late twelfth century, had an immeasurable impact on the warrior society that was bringing the entire country under its power. From a single Korean delegation in the mid-sixth century came a religion that can now claim more than 95 million believers in a country whose total population is a little more than 125 million, remaining one of the dominant religious and philosophical forces in Japanese life.

Further Reading

  • Aston, W. G., trans. Nihongi: Chronicles of Japan from the Earliest Times to A.D. 697. 1896. Reprint. Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle, 1972. The standard translation of one of the earliest works of Japanese history. Provides details about the arrival of Buddhism in Japan and the cultural climate of the times.
  • Sansom, George. A History of Japan to 1334. Vol. 1. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1958. Decades after its initial publication, the first volume of Sansom’s three-volume study of Japanese history is still a detailed and authoritative work on the subject.
  • Sonoda, Kōyū. “Early Buddha Worship.” In The Cambridge History of Japan, Ancient Japan, edited by Delmer M. Brown. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. A detailed summary of the events surrounding the introduction of Buddhism to Japan as well as the historical debates surrounding the issue.
  • Tamura, Yoshio. Japanese Buddhism: A Cultural History. Translated by Jeffrey Hunter. Tokyo: Tuttle, 2001. A detailed assessment of the cultural implications and historical development of Japanese Buddhism from the introduction of the faith to modern times.