The Nihon Shoki (日本書紀), one of Japan’s earliest chronicles, states that Buddhism was introduced to Japan in 552 CE, when the king of Paekche (백제), one of the three Korean kingdoms, sent a mission to the emperor of Japan that presented, among other things, an image of Śākyamuni (Sanskrit: शाक्यमुनि “Sage of the Śākyas”) in gold and copper, several banners and umbrellas used in Buddhist rituals, and a number of sutras. Nowadays, scholars place the official introduction of Buddhism into Japan in the year 538 CE.


The reaction of the Japanese imperial court was mixed. While the emperor himself and the influential Soga clan (蘇我氏 Soga uji), who had close ties with Paekche, welcomed the new religion introduced by Korean monks, the rivaling clans of the Monobe (物部氏 Mononobe uji) and the Nakatomi (中臣氏 Nakatomi-uji), the latter ancestors of the Fujiwara (藤原氏 Fujiwara-shi) and one of two priestly clans, opposed Buddhism, partly for religious, partly for political and xenophobic reasons. They maintained that the native gods would be offended. These ideological and political struggles lasted for about fifty years until Buddhism was firmly established in Japan.

The new religion became prominent in the reign of the Empress Suiko (推古天皇 Suiko-tennō, 554–628 CE), the 33rd emperor of Japan. Her regent, Prince Shōtoku (聖徳太子 Shōtoku Taishi, 572-622 CE), a relative of the Soga clan, is considered the real founder of Japanese Buddhism. The Empress Suiko asked him to lecture on three Mahāyāna sutras, namely the Lotus Sutra, the Vimalakirti Sutra, and the Sutra of Queen Srimala, and to write commentaries on them. He founded many monasteries, one of them the Hōryū-ji (法隆寺) in Nara, the oldest wooden edifice extant in the world.

In the Nara Period (710-794 CE), under the aegis of Emperor Shōmu (聖武天皇 Shōmu-tennō, 701–756 CE), Buddhism became the state religion. Official provincial monasteries and temples (国分寺 kokubunji) were established in each province, and at Tōdai-ji (東大寺, the Great Eastern Temple in Nara) the world’s most massive bronze statue of the Buddha Vairocana (大仏 daibutsu) was erected. Six schools in China were introduced during this period, and studies of Buddhist teachings began in earnest.

The Six Japanese Schools of Buddhism (南都六宗 Nanto Rokushū)

The Risshū (律宗) Sect, founded by the blind Chinese priest Jianzhen (鑒真), better known by his Japanese name Ganjin (鑑真), 688–763 CE, maintained as its most important principles the strict observation of monastic discipline and the correct transmission of holy orders. The Risshū monks followed a very conservative line of early Buddhism. Another traditional line, the Kusha School (倶舎宗), centred upon the treatise Kusharon (Sanskrit: Abhidharma-kosa-sastra), by the Indian philosopher Vasubandhu). The Jōjitsu School (成實宗 Jōjitsu-shū), transmitted to Japan in 625 CE, was based on the Jōjitsuron (Sanskrit: Satyasiddhi Śāstra), written by Harivarman. The Sanron School (三論宗) was derived from the Madhyamika school in India. A Mahāyāna (Sanskrit: महायान) school, it stressed the śūnyatā doctrine of emptiness. Sanron, the “Three Treatises”, was based on the Mādhyamaka Śastra, the Dvādaśamukha Śastra of Nāgārjuna and the Śata Śāstra of Āryadeva, a disciple of Nāgārjuna and author of several important Mahāyāna Mādhyamaka texts. The Hossō School (法相宗 Hossō-shū), also known as Yuishiki-shū (唯識宗), was derived from the Yogācāra school in India and originated in China, regarding everything as the manifestation of the fundamental mind-principle underlying all phenomena. A small Hossō sect remains in Japan to this day, even though it no longer exists in China and Korea. The Kegon School (華厳宗 Kegon-shū) was based on the Daihōkōbutsu Kegongyō, or Kegon-kyō (Sanskrit: Avataṃsaka-sūtra), with the principal focus of this Mahāyāna sect being the worship of Buddha Vairocana.

All of these six sects were primarily scholastic since their sphere of influence was restricted to monks and did not extend to the common people.

At the beginning of the Heian Period (794-1185 CE), the Tendai School and the Shingon School were introduced to Japan. Valued by the ruling Japanese aristocracy, both featured highly developed philosophical systems and were valued for their supposedly effectual rituals. At the beginning of the Kamakura Period (1185-1333 CE), Zen Buddhism was introduced from China, strongly supported by the dominant military class. The popular sects of Nichiren and Pure Land Buddhism were also established around this time. By the thirteenth century, all major schools of Japanese Buddhism still active today had emerged: the Tendai sect, the Shingon sect, Zen, the Pure Land sects, and the Nichiren sect.