Tradition of Japanese Buddhism
Once Buddhism was under direct and strong management of the imperial court in Japan.
Before political power of Japan shifted from the imperial court to the samurai class at the end of the 12th century, successive emperors and the noble class had real power not only in politics but also in religion. In terms of religion, shintoism continued to belong to the imperial authority even after the shift of political power to samurais. But Buddhism started to develop in various ways after the samurai class took over political power from the imperial court. The imperial court lost most of its authority on Buddhists after this power shift, though some major schools and temples continued to keep close ties with the imperial court.
In the Japanese history, the era of the first samurai regime is called the Kamakura Period, since the head of samurai leaders who started to govern all over Japan in lieu of the imperial court placed their capital in Kamukura, 45 km southwest of Tokyo. The Kamakura period continued from about 1185 to 1333.
Before the Kamakura Period was the Heian era that continued from 794 to about 1185. In this era, the imperial capital was established in Kyoto. Before the Heian Period, the imperial capital of Japan was situated mainly in Yamato, presently Nara Prefecture immediately south of the Kyoto Prefecture. The period preceding the Heian Period is called the Nara Period when the giant statue of Buddha was built in Todaiji temple in Nara. Nara Period continued from 710 to 794.
In the Nara Period, many great Buddhist temples were built by emperors living in Nara. But, some great temples, such as Horyuji-temple, were also built even before this Period. Great Buddhist temples started to be built in Nara in the late 6th century, since Buddhism was first introduced to Japan in the early 6th century. But the imperial court in the Nara Period built an official Buddhist temple in each local administrative area all over Japan. It is said that as influences of Buddhists became too strong on the imperial court, an emperor decided to move the capital from Nara (Heijyo-kyo) to Kyoto (Heian-kyo). As it suggests, Buddhism was so popular among the imperial court and in the noble class in the Nara period (though local farmers and the like seem to have still mainly observed primitive shintoism). Even some emperors became believers of Buddhism, though the imperial court kept shintoism in parallel.
Therefore in the Nara Period and the Heian Period, to become high-ranked Buddhist priests is a way of social and political success for some people. Many hopeful local youths went up to Nara or Kyoto to learn in big temples sponsored by the imperial court and become officially certified Buddhist priests. This tradition continued even in the subsequent eras when the samurai class had hegemony over whole Japan.
However, as shintoism was also deeply rooted not only in the imperial court but among the general public, both shintoism and Buddhism were well observed in Japan. And they sometimes shared same facilities in Buddhist temples or shinto shrines. Some doctrines of Japanese schools of Buddhism were influenced by shintoism. It was when the last samurai regime collapsed in 1860s that separation between Buddhism and shintoism was carried out in a compulsory manner. Modern Japan started to put emphasis on shintoism. Even the imperial court virtually avoided its linkage to Buddhism.
Today, there are no Buddhist temples in the Imperial court and no Buddhist temples are sponsored by the imperial court. On the other hand, a shinto shrine is placed in the Imperial Palace in Tokyo and the emperor occasionally sends imperial envoys to some shinto shrines located in various regions all over Japan for ritual purposes.
So, Buddhist temples foreigners today see in Kyoto and Nara reflect the past strong ties between Japanese Buddhism and the imperial court, which is not observed today. Put simply, as Buddhism was once officially and enthusiastically supported by the imperial court, those great temples were built and preserved to date mostly in Nara and Kyoto.
In modern Japan since the Meiji Restoration when the imperial court was shifted from Kyoto to Tokyo, no new temples have been built by the imperial court. But revolutionary samurais who carried out the Meiji Restoration taking over power from the last samurai regime started to use shintoism as a kind of state religion, thus upholding the imperial authority and then consolidating their power base. (On the other hand, the last samurai regime used Buddhism as a means to govern people. Therefore, the modern Meiji government carried out the separation between shintoism and Buddhism so enthusiastically.)
Therefor Buddhism is more deeply rooted in the Japanese people than modern shinoism promoted after the Meiji Restoration. The modern shitoism was passionately promoted by the Imperial Government before and during WWII as a main spiritual pillar of the state. Especially the Imperial military a kind of abused this religious authority to mobilize people to wars. The emperor was positioned by the then Japanese leaders as the central figure of shintoism. The emperor had never been regarded more sacred than in this period between the Meiji Restoration and the end of WWII. Some right-wing politicians requested people to regard the emperor as a god.
However, the modern shintoism linked to the state virtually disappeared with the defeat of the Empire of Japan at the end of WWII. Most of funerals of fallen soldiers were conducted following Buddhism. Buddhism became a kind of emotional support for many unhappy Japanese living in the post-war society and rebuilding the nation. (American Christianity was also spotlighted for some time after WWII, since the US offered huge aid to post-war Japan and many American soldiers were stationed in Japan after WWII.)
But as the first official history of Japan, called Nihonshoki established in 620 was also a book of shintoism, this religion is older than Buddhism in Japan. In other word, old Buddhist temples today sightseers see in Kyoto and Nara were rather symbols of the advanced culture Buddhism of the Heian and Nara Periods. However, influences of Buddhism that deeply penetrated into the souls of the general public, including local farmers, of Japan since the Kamakura Period can be seen in the minds and hearts of today's Japanese as well as some big and small temples situated in various parts of Japan.
So, the Japanese mentality has long and complex historical backgrounds that Western scholars cannot easily comprehend.
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Luk 2:25 And, behold, there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon; and the same man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the Holy Ghost was upon him.