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Buddhism Becomes Japan’s State Religion

Arrival of Buddhism in the Yamato Polity

Buddhism in Japan came by way of the Kingdom of Baekje (present-day South Korea). Buddhist monks had visited Japan before the sixth century AD. However, it was only during the tumultuous period of the wars between the Korean kingdoms of Baekje, Silla, and Goguryeo that Buddhism became Japan’s state religion. This occurred around 527 AD according to the Bible Timeline with World History.

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During the middle of the sixth century, King Seong of Baekje decided to retake the land in the Han river valley that once belonged to his kingdom but was conquered by Goguryeo many years back. He sent an offer of alliance to the king of Silla, as well as the Gaya confederacy, to help him wrest the valley from the kingdom of Goguryeo. The leaders of the two kingdoms agreed to help the Baekje army drive out the Goguryeo troops, but the king of Silla betrayed King Seong and switched sides to the king of Goguryeo. They drove the king of Baekje and his troops out of the Han river basin and occupied the area themselves.

Enraged that his plan had backfired and his efforts came to nothing, the king of Baekje reconsidered his strategy. He already made an alliance with the Southern Liang, as well as the Eastern and Western Wei dynasties of China, but he needed a powerful ally in the distant east to counter Silla and Goguryeo. To this end, he prepared gifts—a golden statue of Buddha and some Buddhist texts—and sent them to the Yamato ruler in Japan (then called the land of Wa); these gifts arrived in 552 AD.


“Rock cut seated Buddha statue”

Kimmei, the Tennō or Heavenly Sovereign of the Yamato polity, called together the clan leaders who were under his rule to discuss whether he should accept the gifts from Baekje or not. Some clan leaders opposed the acceptance of the gifts because they were suspicious of any foreign influence especially on their religion, but the leader of the Soga clan convinced Kimmei to accept the gifts. Kimmei accepted the gifts King Seong sent to him and in return, he sent some troops to help the King of Baekje. However, the offensive King Seong launched with the help of the Japanese troops ended only in disaster; he was killed in battle against King Chinhung of Silla who then conquered a large tract of Baekje territory to enlarge his own.


News of the disastrous battle in the Korean peninsula reached Japan which made the Tennō reconsider his earlier decision of accepting the gifts sent by the unfortunate king of Baekje. He regretted his decision later when an epidemic swept the capital, a sign that he took as the old gods’ punishment for his acceptance of Buddhism. Fearful of the gods’ wrath upon the land, Kimmei had the statue of Buddha thrown into a canal and ordered the destruction of the Buddhist temple. But his efforts to stop Buddhism from spreading in Japan were too late; many people had already adopted the teachings of Buddha although Shintoism was still widely practiced.

Prince Shotoku and Buddhism as State Religion

Japan descended into a brief, tumultuous period when the Soga clan leader Soga no Umako had the emperor—and his nephew—Sushun assassinated. Emperors Kimmei, Bidatsu, and Yomei were long dead by then, and no one else was fit to rule Japan at that time. He convinced Kimmei’s daughter and Bidatsu’s widow, Princess Suiko, to accede the throne now that Emperor Sushun was dead. Hesitant at first, Suiko eventually accepted the offer but Sugo no Umako also appointed emperor Yomei’s son, Prince Shotoku Taishi, as coregent.

Prince Shotoku was famous for his capable administration of the land, sound foreign policies, and reorganization of the government appointment system from inheritance to meritocracy. He also issued Japan’s Seventeen-Article Constitution (Jushichijo no Kempo) and was known as one of Japan’s first statesmen. Shotoku Taishi and Suiko Tenno were both devout Buddhists, but the prince was credited as the one who made Buddhism the state religion in 594 AD—a year after he was proclaimed as coregent. The construction of Buddhist shrines all over the Yamato polity and the arrival of Buddhist priests from the Korean peninsula continued to increase during the joint rule of Empress Suiko and Imperial Prince Shotoku Taishi.

Picture By Adityamadhav83Own work, CC BY 3.0,
Brown, Delmer Myers. The Cambridge History of Japan. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Louis-Frédéric, and Käthe Roth. Japan Encyclopedia. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002.
“Nihongi: Chronicles of Japan from the Earliest Times to A.D. 697/Book XIX.” – Wikisource, the Free Online Library. Accessed August 09, 2016.
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