The introduction of Buddhism in Japan

March 28, 2011

While I am not so much into the history of Buddhism generally speaking, I am intrigued by the facts surrounding its introduction in Japan.

There are two theories on how it was introduced. The first one is based on the famous Nihon Shoki (720), the other on an early history of Yamato’s first great temple entitled “Gangouji Garan Engi Narabi ni Ruki Shizaichou” (元興寺伽藍縁起并流記資財帳?, “Origins of the Gangouji Monastery and Its Assets”), also known as Gangouji Garan Engi, compiled by an unnamed Buddhist monk in 747.

– According to the Nihon Shoki accounts, Buddhism was introduced in Japan in 552, the thirteenth year of the Kinmei reign, when King Songmyong of Paekche sent to the Japanese Emperor an envoy bearing (together with a plea for military aid against Silla) a Sakyamuni idol,  two Buddhist scriptures and and a message in which Songmyong recommended the adoption of Buddhism on the grounds that this religion had greatly benefited the rulers of other lands. Emperor Kimmei, says the Nihon Shoki, “leaped for joy”, but his ministers were less jubilant: while Soga no Iname was enthousiastic, Mononobe no Okoshi was reluctant, being concered to offend the native kami, on whose benevolence depended the abundance of the harvest and the health of the state

Since the ministers were divided on the issue of the adoption, Kinmei had Soga no Iname perform Buddhist rituals experimentally. Iname turned his house into a temple and started to worship the new god. But the experiment was followed by an epidemic that Soga opponents attributed to the displeasure of the kami. Accordingly, Kinmei had the statues cast into the Naniwa Canal and the temple was burnt to the ground. The chronicle item concludes with the report that, on that day, winds blew and rain fell under a clear sky.

– The Gango-ji engi agrees that a presentation of Buddhist scrtiptures and statues was made by King Songmyong and that this episode was followed by a conflict between powerful families, among those the Soga clan supported the adoption; but says that it happened in 538, rather than in 552.

The scholars are more likely to follow this second theory, since the Gango-ji engi is considered a more objective source (while the Nihon Shoki is strongly influenced by the aim to glorify the Emperor) and because the other accounts display some inconsistencies (e.g. the envoyee from Paekche is not mentioned otherwise; and more remarkably the texts presented to Kinmei appeared to be inspired from a later translation).

The debate on the introduction of Buddhism was inspired not so much by spiritual concerns, but rather by power and personal interests. The main supporters of the new religion were the members of the Soga clan; they considered Buddhism a way to increase their influence since they had Korean heritage – Soga no Iname’s ancestors names Soga no Koma (蘇我 高麗) and Soga no Karako (蘇我 韓子) are references in Chinese characters to Koguryou and Gaya region respectively; moreover we can notice how, during Soga no Umako’s time of influence, the capital was temporarily transferred to Kudara Palace in Nara.

The opposition to Buddhism came from families such as the Mononobe, who unlike the Soga had ancient Japanese origins and were motivated by conservatorism and some kind of xenophobia, and the Nakatomi, who had a personal interest as well since they claimed descent from divine clan ancestors “only a degree less sublime than the imperial ancestors” and were High Priests of Shinto purification rites.

The conflict deveoped into a war between the mentioned clans.

In 584, a statue of Maitreya and other Buddhist images were sent from Korea to Soga no Umako, who restored the worship and built a new temple and had a girl ordained as a Buddhist nun. Again, an epidemic swept through Japan and the images were destroyed by Mononobe no Moriya.

The conflict ended only in 587, when Soga no Umako won military over his opponent at the battle of Kisuri.

The reason why he didn’t install himself as a new Emperor is speculated and the most accepted answer is that he was 1. part of an immigrant although powerful clan 2. the main sponsor of Buddhims, while the Emperor was strongly related to worship of native agricultural kami.
In Paekche, foreign kings had troubles governing the native Han population; Umako might have known this and preferred another policy.

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