Like with all other religions, people have found their own interpretations of Buddhism in different geographical locations, and so the various branches of the religion differ in practice.

Japanese Buddhism is no exception, and in fact, it may be harder to find similarities than differences compared to the Buddhism practiced in India, the origin of the religion. So here’s information on the unique ways Buddhism is practiced in Japan, and how and why it came to be so.

1. Buddhism lands in Japan

Buddhism has two main branches:

  • Theravada – The most classic form of Buddhism that follows the way of the Buddha, Gautama Siddhārtha, most closely. The goal is to achieve personal enlightenment through reasoning and analysis based on personal experience.
  • Mahayana – Although keeping the core values of original Buddhism, criticizes Theravada as being self-centered because it only saves oneself.  The goal is to achieve enlightenment of all beings, not just yourself.

The Buddhism that landed on Japanese shore a long time ago was Mahayana Buddhism. However, the religion quickly mutated into Japanese Buddhism which was much different from the belief Gautama had initiated.

Furthermore, unfortunately, it’s inevitable to state that the history of Japanese Buddhism is a history of corruption for the sake of political convenience.

2. Japanese Buddhism set off on the wrong foot

Buddhism in Japan took off on the wrong foot right from the start when it was formally introduced in the 6th century.

The imperial court at the time tried to import Buddhism, the “hip” religion practiced among people in mainland China and the Korean peninsula. They wanted to try out the religion of the giant continent, as if they were trying out the world’s latest fashion. 

It’s very likely that the imperial court didn’t really understand Buddhism because they seemed to have confused Buddhism with Shintoism, the religion they had practiced for centuries. Here are some facts that suggest so:

  • The first Japanese Buddhist monks were women. Because priests were female in Shintoism, the imperial court thought Buddhist monks should be female too. 
  • The primary role of the female Shinto priests was to pray to the gods to cure wounds and diseases of people in the imperial court. So from the 6th century, the trendier female “Buddhist” monks were granted the honor to take on the task, despite the fact that there is really no god in Buddhism and there is no ability to cure in Buddhist priests.

China and Japan exchanged monks to study and preach, but the language barrier probably didn’t allow any in-depth discourse and it’s highly doubtful that anybody truly understood the core values of Buddhism. 

So basically, the Japanese thought “Other religions can’t be THAT different from Shintoism! I mean come on, there’s got to be a god or two!” and just went with that idea. This confused state more or less persists still now, which we will discuss later.

3. Japan needed help, not enlightenment

It took a few hundred years for Buddhism (if we can still call it that) to reach the general public after its introduction in Japan. Around the 12th century, life was miserable among peasants.

Droughts and typhoons caused crop failure almost every year, and that meant famines and epidemics took many lives very frequently and in massive scale. Writings from that time claim that the whole city of Kyoto smelled like dead bodies and some even ate their children from hunger.

Because things were that bad, people craved for practical help rather than a theoretical one. You can easily imagine that the Buddhist goal of enlightenment didn’t draw any interest.

Taking the time to meditate and reach Nirvana required a lot of thinking. What the Japanese wanted back then was to believe, not think. They wanted to believe that they would be saved in this life or the afterlife as a result of praying the living daylights out of themselves.

From around the late 12th century, the Jodo, a branch of Japanese Buddhism, started marketing the idea that you’d be saved as long as you prayed to the great Buddha. It can be said that Jodo Buddhism is not authentic Buddhism at all as it requires absolutely no thinking. But, that was what people needed at that time.

4. Buddhism was abused for politics

In the 17th century, Buddhism became a tool for governance in Japan and this had great influence on how the religion is viewed by Japanese people nowadays. Christianity played an indirect role (with no intention of causing any harm) in causing Buddhism to be involved in politics.

Catholic missionaries started preaching in Japan from the latter half of the 16th century. These Portuguese Catholics were welcomed by Japanese authorities until the end of the century, as they served as a medium for trade with the West. 

However in 1611, there was a major bribery/fraud scandal among two government officials that abused the power of the Shogun (the ruler of Japan) of the time, and the culprits both happened to be Christians (The Okamoto Daihachi incident). 

The Shogunate had been feeling threat from the growing popularity of Christianity, as it reminded them of A nationwide ban of Christianity was issued from the following year, and just like the witch hunt of middle-age Europe, Christians were searched and punished. 

Here’s where Buddhism comes in. Buddhism was the preferred religion of authority (although many definitely didn’t fully understand the philosophy)  since the 6th century, and there were Buddhist temples everywhere in Japan by the 17th century.

By this age, the Buddhist community in Japan had become ruled and controlled by the government (because in the past, a few Buddhist subbranches had formed empires of followers in significant sizes, holding and exercising military power to threaten the ruling powers’ rule, so they had to be suppressed completely by means of force). The Shogunate thought:

Hey, if we had the temples oversee all the local peasants, we can easily keep everyone – especially the trouble-making Christians – under control.

So they did. Buddhist temples assumed the role of registrar to serve the following functions:

  • to register everyone living near the temple as a citizen
  • to register each local as a member of the temple
  • to issue certificates that served as proof that each registered local was not Christian

These all meant that all Japanese people were registered as Buddhist and therefore Buddhism became the national religion officially. However, as Japanese Buddhism effectively gained an integral role as a local administrative office of the government, its role as a belief gradually lost substance.

5. Temples became business organizations

Just like how we have to pay taxes to maintain the government and local government, and thus social order, Japanese people back in the 18th century had to pay up their dues to the temple. Local temples needed to collect money because they had to pay up THEIR dues to their superior temples, and also to physically maintain the architecture. 

So local temples found every excuse to get monetary compensation from locals for providing services that seemed religious, at least superficially – annual memorial services for locals’ ancestors, visits to the temple on Buddha’s birthday, Buddha’s Happy Nirvana Day, summer, autumn and spring break, and oh, also plain regular visits.

If a local had decided not to do all these, the family would have been expelled from the temple and thus would have lost social status. So all families were under the mercy of their local temple. Moving to another region to get registered at another temple was not permitted so people were stuck in the area they happened to be born in. 

This act of grounding people to their place of birth in the 18th century still exercise influence today, to some extent. People born in rural areas, after aging, eventually return to their hometowns because their ancestors’ grave is there – in the local Buddhist temple! Unless you have special desires to be buried elsewhere, it’s customary to go into the same grave as your ancestors after death. 

6. Buddhist monks virtually became undertakers

From the point of view of Buddhist temples and monks, they were prohibited from preaching outside their designated geographical zone in return for having a guaranteed number of local worshipers. So instead of allocating their resources on preaching proactively, they focused on providing funeral and memorial services to secure revenue to manage the temple. They really had nothing else to do. 

What happens if everyone had to worship but no one preached about the thoughts and ideals of the Great Buddha? You get a bunch of people who believe that the religion must have something to do with the supernatural but are clueless or ignorant about its core values. 

So from the eyes of most ordinary people, Buddhist monks were bald men (and sometimes women) who came into the house whenever a family member died, sat in front of the body and gave extensive prayers they couldn’t comprehend, got paid and left. And that’s how Japanese Buddhism is generally seen still now. 

Whenever a Buddhist monk comes into sight in town, Japanese people would immediately think of funerals and deaths. So you would never see a monk in a hospital, simply because it would be an offensive, bad joke to invite one. They are considered to be undertakers rather than saviors of souls. 

There are more than 50 universities that provide education based on Buddhist values in Japan and monks are developed through undergoing serious academics there, so it’s not that Buddhist monks are religiously corrupt money-hungry people. It’s how Buddhism had been abused for the sake of political convenience that caused the religion to have failed to gain the kind of social respect it does in some other Asian countries, such as Tibet and Thailand. 

7. Japanese Buddhism now

In Japan, Buddhist monks are paid a salary, and their incomes are taxed, just like any businesspeople. However, temples are not taxed for any monetary gain made through religious activities, such as sales of spelled charms (by having one of these with you, you’re supposed to have better luck with giving birth, love, academics, business or traffic safety, depending on the type you buy) and delivering funeral services.

Furthermore in Japan, Buddhist monks can get married and eat whatever they want just like ordinary people, but they live in temples with huge and beautiful gardens as opposed to ordinary people who are crammed in small apartment rooms.

It wouldn’t be too surprising if some Japanese people held somewhat negative sentiments toward Buddhist monks on some aspects, but in fact most people don’t. Japanese Buddhist monks are seen as ordinary people pursuing a career as a monk. They have their own unique hardships. No hard feelings.

And most people appreciate their maintaining temples in aesthetically fine conditions and opening them up for public visitation, and also providing the venues to celebrate culturally important days like New Year.

The number of foreign tourists coming into Japan climbed from 6.2 million per year in 2011 to 28.7 million per year in 2017, and one of the favorite sightseeing destinations of these foreign guests is temples (it won’t be too long before Japanese monks start giving temple tours in English). It’s partly thanks to these Buddhist temples that Japan has been able to boost tourism so much.

Over in California, people found out that Steve Jobs had been an apprentice of a Zen (Zen is a subcategory of Japanese Buddhism) monk called Hirofumi Otsukawa for 30 years and that his Zen meditation practices may have helped his company to give birth to products with monstrous popularity. Zen was recognized for its practical benefits, and when the religious flavor was taken out of the formula, a new trend came to shape and was called “mindfulness.”

Buddhist temples of the Zen branch hold Zen workshops and seminars for local Japanese people of all walks of life, and the importation of the idea of mindfulness and its benefits have encouraged business leaders to go learn Zen.

Heads of temples have started to make appearances on TV shows and share their intelligence, thoughts and wit. Thus, more people are becoming aware and interested in Japanese Buddhism. The stereotype that the only thing monks ever do is pray at funerals has been changing gradually.

Japanese Buddhism is definitely not the same religion as the one Buddha initiated, but holds several important positions in Japanese society, but their roles are more secular and cultural than religious or spiritual.