How Japanese Became Buddhists
Roughly speaking, it was about 2000 years ago that Japan came to appear in the human history (written history).
In a Chinese official history book written in the 5th century, it is stated that the king of Na of Japan (then called Wa) sent an envoy to the Emperor of the later Hang dynasty who in return gave a gold seal to the king of Na in AD 57. (This seal was actually found to have been buried in a small island of Kyusyu, the nearest major region in Japan to the Korean Peninsula, in 1784.)
It is noteworthy that Buddhism was brought into China about 2000 years ago, that is, roughly in the same period of Na's envoy being sent to China.
The next descriptions about Japan in Chinese official history books is about famous Yamatai kingdom and queen Himiko reported in a Chinese official book, the History of Wei, written in the late 3rd century. Queen Himiko practiced a kind of shamanism, according to the history book. No influence of Buddhism in Japan was reported. Queen Himiko, one of the most mysterious figures in the Japanese history to date, died around 248. It is still not known whether or not Himiko was one of ancestors of the Imperial Family of Japan.
It is now widely believed that Buddhism was brought into Japan in 538 from a kingdom in the Korean Peninsula. But, there was a division of opinion among powerful people around the then Japanese imperial court, called the Yamato court, as to whether the court should accept Buddhism. Through some conflicts, finally the camp of major clans and noblemen who wanted to introduce Buddhism into the Yamato court won. One famous figure who contributed to the first official introduction of Buddhism into Japan was Prince Shotoku. He is known as the founder of the (original) Horyuji Temple in Nara (a region where ancient capitals of Japan were mainly placed).
So, Buddhism was introduced into Japan by the imperial court taking an initiative. Successive emperors became believers of, or protected, Buddhism, though they practiced the original religion called Sinto, most probably the extension of shamanism For example, Emperor Shomu (701-756) built one Buddhist temple in each province. The number of these imperial Buddhist temples (called Kokubuji) is believed to be about 60. The main temple placed above these Kokubuji temples was Todaiji of Nara, that was well known for its Great Buddha Hall with the world's largest bronze statue of the Buddha.
So, for 500 years after the introduction of Buddhism into Japan around 500, this religion was mostly respected as a new teaching brought into Japan from culturally advanced regions, namely India, China, and part of the Korean Peninsula. For noblemen of the imperial court in Yamato (presently Nara Prefecture) and then Kyoto, Buddhism is an advanced teaching that could enhance their status, thus making it easier to acquire respect and obedience from farmers and other common people. In other word, Buddhism in Japan in these periods was not intended to save farmers and common people but to contribute to the ruling by the imperial court, noblemen, and local elite families.
It was at the end of the era of the rule by noblemen in the imperial court of Kyoto, called the Heian Era, that such Buddhist monks came to appear as would in earnest try to save common poor people. So, Honen (1133-1212) started to teach that for people to be saved through believing in Buddhism, there was no need to learn difficult Buddhist creeds, written in Chinese, and to be engaged in hard discipline, which were impossible for farmers and common people. Honen taught that only if one recited Namu Amida Butsu, his soul would be saved, since Namu Amida Butsu meant "I have become a believer of Amida Buddah.(a celestial buddha described in the scriptures of Mahāyāna Buddhism)."
This is a revolutionary way of teaching. It is as if one would be taught that if one wanted to be saved through believing in Christianity, one should recite I Believe in Christ without reading the Old and New Testaments or practicing any Christian discipline.
So, it took more than 500 years for Buddhism to become a religion for ordinary or poor common Japanese since the religion was first introduced into Japan around 538.
And, after Honen, various new leaders appeared in the Buddhist sector in Japan from the 12th century to the 13th century, who tried to diffuse the religion among the general public not only among noblemen and local influential families. And, the era of Japan changed from the era of the rule by noblemen to the era of the rule by samurais. This new era is called the Kamukura Period, since those samurais who took over political power from the imperial court in Kyoto established their capital in Kamukura, 400 km east of Kyoto.
And, this Kamakura Period of Japan (1185-1333) roughly matches the Era of the Crusaders in Europe (1096-1436). The Crusaders first exalted authority of the Vatican. But, the final failure in establishing the permanent territorial occupation in Jerusalem led to disenchantment with the Vatican. It cultivated the religious sense and awareness among ordinary Europeans in addition to interest in trade with the East. The movement to the Renaissance and the Protestant Revolution started after the Era of the Crusaders in Europe.
In Japan, with the success of the samurai rule in the Kamukura Period, the subsequent periods of Japan were all the eras of samurais but not of noblemen in the imperial court in Kyoto. Along with samurais, merchants in Japan also started to take key roles in economy. This movement reached its summit in the Tokugawa Period when the Tokugawa shogun governed Japan as the head of the samurai class, though the Tokugawa regime closed the nation for more than 200 years. In this Period Japan could enrich its culture so that it could well absorb Western culture and civilization when it opened the nation to the world in the middle of the 19th century.
However, 1000 years after the introduction of Buddhism into Japan, Christianity was brought into the country by European Catholics. As an extension of European activities in the Age of Geographical Discovery, Francis Xavier came to Japan to propagandize Catholicism in 1549. After Xavier, scores of Christian missionaries came to Japan till the early 17th century. But, the then samurai rulers of Japan found political influences of Portugal and Spain behind those Christian missionaries. And, Japanese samurais and farmers who believed in Catholicism looked like denying the authority of samurai leaders. Furthermore, Christianity looked like gaining great popularity in the general public since Xavier came to Japan. So, the Tokugawa shogun, who led whole Japan at the time felt a kind of threat in the religious power of Christianity, banned Christianity and closed the nation to prevent European Christian missionaries from coming into Japan in 1639.
Meanwhile, in the Tokugawa Period (1603-1868), every Japanese citizen was forced to belong to a Buddhist temple. Birth and death of every man or woman were registered in a Buddhist temple that existed in his or her village or town. Samurai rulers, including Tokugawa shogun in the capital Edo (presently Tokyo) and local samurai feudal lords, governed people though the Buddhist temple system. Accordingly, Buddhism became a kind of daily matters for everyone in Japan though most of people did not read Buddhist scriptures written in classical Chinese. I this Period, children learnt easy versions of various Buddhist teachings, in addition to Confucius teachings, in schools established in temples whose main function was to teach children how to read and write and calculate. In this context, today's Japanese, almost all descendants of farmers, merchants, or samurais of the Tokugawa (Edo) Period can be regarded as Buddhists.
Before Buddhism, a kind of shamanism was practiced in Japan though ancient Japan had some diplomatic ties with China where Buddhism was introduced at almost the same time Christ Jesus started his mission around Jerusalem. And then, around 500, Japan introduced Buddhism considering the religions would contribute to enhancement of Japan's status since Buddhism was practiced in China, the then culturally advanced empire. After 1000, there appeared movements among Japanese monks to apply Buddhism to the general public, including farmers and local people. Japanese unique schools of Buddhism were established. And after 1500, facing the influx of Catholicism that looked like making Japanese believers rebellious against the samurai authority, the samurai regime closed the nation to prevent influences of the Vatican. And, during the period of closing the nation, Japanese people were closely linked to Buddhist temples by the samurai regime. However, the Meiji Restoration carried out around 1867 abolished samurai rule in Japan and paved the way for modernization and Westernization. Freedom of religion was assured. Japanese Christians came not to be punished by the Meiji Government. However, a great majority of the Japanese people have continued to accept Buddhist ways of rituals, including funerals, and they visit Buddhist temples on special occasions such as the year-end/new-year holidays.
So, without specific sense to Buddhism and consciousness of their being Buddhists, Japanese are mostly Buddhists if they don't think they are Christians, though they respect Shinto as they respect their ancestors.
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Pro 11:23 The desire of the righteous is only good: but the expectation of the wicked is wrath.
Pro 11:24 There is that scattereth, and yet increaseth; and there is that withholdeth more than is meet, but it tendeth to poverty.
Pro 11:25 The liberal soul shall be made fat: and he that watereth shall be watered also himself.