Politics and Religion in Early Japan
The Integration of Buddhism, Shinto & Confucianism
Buddha, Amaterasu, Confucius
Map showing the transmission of Buddhism from India to East Asia
The Arrival of Buddhism
We are told in the Nihonshoki that in the year 538 or 552 a Korean king sent the Japanese sovereign a Buddhist image, scripture, and other paraphernalia, saying in a letter that all the rest of East Asia worships the Buddha; why not Japan? The date (whichever it is depends on how one reads the Nihonshoki chronology) and the details may not be historical, but undoubtedly reflect the approximate time Buddhism began to make an impact, through Korean immigrants and perhaps also diplomatic contacts, on Japan. (IJR, 93)
Map showing the Yamato Kingdom c. 500 CE
King Syong of Paekche’s Memorial
552 or 538 CE
This doctrine [i.e., Buddhism] is amongst all doctrines the most excellent, but it is hard to explain and hard to comprehend. Even the Duke of  Zhou and Confucius could not attain a knowledge of it. This doctrine can create religious merit and retribution without measure and without bounds, and so lead on to a full appreciation of the highest wisdom. Imagine a man in possession of treasures to his heart’s content, so that he might satisfy all his wishes in proportion as he used them. Thus it is with the treasure of this wonderful doctrine. Every prayer is fulfilled and naught is wanting. Moreover, from distant India it has extended hither to Korea, where there are none who do not receive it with reverence as it is preached to them. (SJT, 100)
The story goes on to say that the emperor was intrigued, but cautious. He asked his principal counselors for advice. One, of the powerful Soga family, urged that Japan should be up to date and accept the latest thing. Two others, of the Nakatomi and Mononobe families, both hereditary Shinto priests, said that the kami would be angry if this intruder was welcomed. The ruler hit upon a cunning solution; he asked the Soga minister to take the image to his house, worship it, and see what happened.
Political Conflict between the Soga, Mononobe and Nakatomi/Fujiwara Clans
Portrait of Empress SuikoWhat happened was that his house caught on fire, and voices were quick to say the kami were angry. So the image was thrown into a river. But then an epidemic broke out, and the cry was that the Buddha was outraged. The altar was restored. It is clear that, in Japanese eyes at the time, Buddhism was nothing more than another form of magic, and the situation soon deteriorated into civil war between the Soga and Nakatomi clans. The Soga initially prevailed. Soga no Umako completed his seizure of power in 592 by arranging for the assassination of the emperor and placing his own niece on the throne as the Empress Suiko. She was a devout Buddhist and appointed as her regent an imperial prince, Shotoku (573-621). ... [Prince Shotoku] quickly grasped that, as an outside force, the new faith could unify Japan because it was not identified with particular clans as were Shinto kami, but only with the imperial house. He founded the first national temple, the famous Horyuji outside of Nara, in 607. This great complex, of which one building remains as the oldest wooden structure in the world, is a magnificent treasure-house of early Buddhist art, some from overseas. There is also a small octagonal edifice called the Yumedo[no] (“Hall of Dreams”) where the prince is said to have liked to meditate. (IJR, 93-4; cf. SJT, 100-1)
Sculpture of Prince Shotoku as Kannon in Yumedono
Established by Prince Shotoku

Click for slideshow of Horyuji
Dharma Wheel Turning
The Sutra of the Golden Light
& the Protection of the State
Emperor TenmuThe full title of this work, Sutra of the Sovereign Kings of the Golden Light Ray (Konko myo saisho ogyo), refers to the Deva Kings who came to pay homage to the Buddha. The sutra is credited with inspiring the first temple built by the court, the Shitennoji (or Temple of the Four Deva Kings). When Tenmu seized the throne in 672, this sutra appears to have influenced his decision to promote Buddhism in the interest of the new regime. His predecessor, Tenchi (Tenji), had been clearly associated with the Confucian political order, and as we have seen, Tenchi’s assumption of power was justified by numerous portents indicating that he had received the Mandate of Heaven. Tenmu found a similar justification in the Golden Light Sutra, which set forth a doctrine of kingship based on merit — merit achieved in former existences and through the wholehearted support of Buddhism. It thus strongly implied that kings rule by a kind of “divine right” not based on any hereditary claim but, rather, on the ruler’s religious merit. In Tenmu’s case, his realm would enjoy peace and harmony from the beneficial influence of Buddhist teachings on public morality, and even the cosmic order would respond to his virtue and bestow blessings on him and his people. Here, then, is a Buddhist claim to religious legitimacy overriding any customary right of dynastic inheritance. It is no wonder that Tenmu held this sutra in particular honor and fostered the growth of Buddhism by ordering every family to have a Buddhist shrine in its house. (SJT, 106-7)
Deva King of the North
Deva King of the West
Then the Four Deva Kings, their right shoulders bared from their robes in respect, arose from their seats and, with their right knees touching the ground and their palms joined in humility, thus addressed Buddha:
     “Most Revered One! When, in some future time, this sutra of the Golden Light is transmitted to every part of a kingdom — to its cities, towns, and villages, its mountains, forests, and fields — if the king of the land listens with his whole heart to these writings, praises them, and makes offerings on their behalf, and if moreover he supplies this sutra to the four classes of believers, protects them, and keeps them from all harm, we Deva Kings, in recognition of his deeds, will protect the king and his people, give them peace and freedom from suffering, prolong their lives, and fill them with glory. Most Revered One! If when the king sees that the four classes of believers receive the sutra, he respects and protects them as he would his own parents, we Four Kings will so protect him always that whatever he wishes will come about, and all sentient beings will respect him.” …
     Then Buddha declared to the Four Deva Kings:
     “Fitting is it indeed that you Four Kings should thus defend the holy writings. In the past I practiced bitter austerities of every kind for 100,000 kalpas [eons]. Then, when I attained supreme enlightenment and realized in myself universal wisdom, I taught this law. If a king upholds this sutra and makes offerings in its behalf, I will purify him of suffering and illness and bring him peace of mind. I will protect his cities, towns, and villages and scatter his enemies. I will make all strife among the rulers of men to cease forever.” (
SJT, 107)
Deva King of the East
Deva King of the South
Ise Naiku (Inner Shrine)
Existential vs. Essentialist Shinto
Empress JitoEmperor TenchiThe subsequent Emperors Tenchi (reigned 661-671) and Temmu (r. 671-686), together with the latter’s widow, Empress Jito (r. 686-697), were strong sovereigns who promoted Buddhism but also made sure that Shinto, under Nakatomi leadership, would have an enduring place in the court and the nation. It was during this time that the Ise Grand Shrine, with members of the Nakatomi clan as chief priests of the Naiku [Inner Shrine] dedicated to Amaterasu (a position they held till 1872), came into prominence as the main imperial shrine. Temmu also ordered the compilation of the Kojiki, the official record of ancient Shinto myths legitimating the imperial lineage, though the book was not completed until 712. (IJR, 96)
Kojiki and Nihonshoki
Kojiki & Nihonshoki
To review, antedating the two chronicles’ treatment of kami as celestial deities involved in creation, we find evidence of three other senses of kami. First, once Japan organized into settled communities there was formal recognition of ujigami as deities who specifically related to the political/religious leadership in the uji. These were the probable precursors to the celestial deities cited in Kojiki and Nihonshoki. Second, considering awe-inspiring natural phenomena to be kami seems to be a phenomenon going back to earliest times. Third, equally old is the idea of the spirits of the dead having an awesome power that can be managed by granting them kami veneration. With this expanded context for the origins of Shinto in mind, let us return to the texts that initiated this discussion: Kojiki  (Record of ancient matters) and Nihonshoki (Chronicles of Japan). (SWH, 80)
Kojiki is rich in detail about the mythic preliterate period from the origins of Japan to the imperial rulers of the sixth century. In comparison, Nihonshoki has much more detail about the emperors from the sixth century up to the date of its writing. In this respect, the two narratives complement each other. Furthermore, on most points of overlap the two chronicles either agree or at least do not blatantly contradict one another. And, finally, both texts offer a mytho-historical justification for the Japanese imperial system: both trace the lineage of the emperors back to the celestial kami at the time of creation. Whatever their commonalities, however, the differences between the two texts are equally important for understanding Shinto spirituality and its institutional history. The most obvious difference is that the chroniclers wrote Kojiki mostly in Japanese, Nihonshoki totally in Chinese. This suggests different intended audiences. (SWH, 80-1)
In these ancient Shinto developments we find the basis for establishing an essentialist Shinto spirituality as a (if not the) state religion. We can easily construct the basis for such an ideological argument to be propagated among the Japanese people. It would go something like this:
As explained in Nihonshoki and Kojiki, you are indebted to the kami deities for your personal existence and the existence of your world. Given this dependence, you are internally related to the kami deities.
Kokutai: illustration depicting the "national body" (kokutai) with an emperor in the center of the Shingon Buddhist Womb Mandala
The emperors and empresses are the direct descendants of these kami, and given their special role it is through them you contact your link with the kami. Therefore, if you are Japanese, you must be Shinto; if you are Shinto, you owe absolute allegiance to the emperors or empresses and to the government serving them.
Given the standard account of Shinto presented at the opening of this chapter [i.e., the “essentialist” explanations of Shinto that typically appear in Western books on Japan], one might assume that such an argument was forcefully made and that essentialist Shinto spirituality predominated in Japan from this time forward. ... In fact, the kind of argument theoretically posed here was not to gain any prominent influence for a thousand years. Contrary to expectations, a more existential, rather than essentialist, form of Shinto spirituality became the norm. (SWH, 90-1)
Buddhist deity under a Shinto torii with a red Japanese sun (representing the integration of Buddhism and Shinto)
Confucius with concentric circles demonstrating relationship between humaneness (ren) and ritual propriety (li)
Confucianism & the State
Prince Shotoku’s 17-Article Constitution
Sculpture of Prince Shotoku
Although Shotoku was a devout Buddhist, it was to Confucian models that he turned for guidance when faced with the enormous task of state building. His most crucial problem, the establishment of the court as the central authority, was well met by the teachings of Confucianism as it had developed during the great Han empire. According to these teachings, the universe consisted of three realms, Heaven, Earth, and Man, with man playing a key creative role between the other two. The basis of all authority and order lay in Heaven and was manifested to Earth by the stately progress of the sun, moon, and planets across the firmament. It was the duty of the ruler to make sure that his country was governed in accordance with the pattern established by Heaven. ... A regular, determined system of government was exactly what was needed in Japan during Shotoku’s time. The statement of the Han Confucian ideal of government itself is found in article III of his constitution: “The lord is Heaven, the vassal, Earth. Heaven overspreads; Earth upbears. When this is so, the the four seasons follow their due course, and the powers of Nature develop their efficiency.” ... Shotoku’s own respect for Chinese learning is obvious from his constitution, which makes no mention of traditional Japanese religious practices or the Japanese principle of a hereditary line of emperors. (SJT, 41-2)
Confucius (551-479 BCE) lived at the midpoint between the establishment of the Zhou dynasty (c. 1040 BCE) and the creation of the first truly centralized empire, the Qin dynasty (221-207 BCE)a time when it was clear that the old system had somehow failed, though it remained unclear whether it would be better to look for a solution in the past or the future. The so-called Analects of Confucius represent a compilation of his oral teachings (compiled posthumously by his students, probably over numerous generations) that collectively though by no means systematically present his solution to this collapse of the sociopolitical order. By the middle of the 2nd century BCE, Confucianism had become the “official” philosophy of the Chinese empire, which was now a centralized, highly bureaucratic state.
Prince Shotoku's 17 Article Constitution
I. Harmony is to be valued, and contentiousness avoided. All men are inclined to partisanship and few are truly discerning. Hence there are some who disobey their lords and fathers or who maintain feuds with the neighboring villages. But when those above are harmonious and those below are conciliatory and there is concord in the discussion of all matters, the disposition of affairs comes about naturally. Then what is there that cannot be accomplished.
Bamboo Page Divider
II. Sincerely reverence the Three Treasures. The Buddha, the Law, and the religious orders are the final refuge of all beings and the supreme objects of reverence in all countries. It is a law honored by all, no matter what the age or who the person. Few men are utterly bad; with instruction they can follow it. But if they do not betake themselves to the Three Treasures, how can their crookedness be made straight?
Bamboo Page Divider
III. When you receive the imperial commands, fail not scrupulously to obey them. The lord is Heaven, the vassal is Earth. Heaven overspreads, and Earth upbears. When this is so, the four seasons follow their due course, and the powers of Nature obtain their efficacy. If the Earth attempted to overspread, Heaven would simply fall in ruin. Therefore is it that when the lord speaks, the vassal listens; when the superior acts, the inferior yields compliance. Consequently when you receive the imperial commands, fail not to carry them out scrupulously. Let there be a want of care in this matter, and ruin is the natural consequence.
Bamboo Page Divider
IV. The ministers and functionaries should make ritual decorum their leading principle, for the leading principle in governing the people consists in ritual decorum. If the superiors do not behave with decorum, the inferiors are disorderly; if interiors are wanting in proper behavior, there must necessarily be offenses. Therefore it is that when the lord and vassal behave with decorum, the distinctions of rank are not confused; when the people behave with decorum, the governance of the state proceeds of itself.
Bamboo Page Divider
VII. Let every man have his own charge, and let not the spheres of duty be confused. When wise men are entrusted with office, the sound of praise arises. If unprincipled men hold office, disasters and tumults multiply. In this world, few are born with knowledge; wisdom is the product of earnest meditation. In all things, whether great or small, find the right man, and they will surely be well managed; on all occasions, be they urgent or the reverse, meet but with a wise man, and they will of themselves be amenable. In this way will the state be lasting and the temples of the Earth and of grain will be free from danger. Therefore did the wise sovereigns of antiquity seek the man to fill the office, and not the office for the sake of the man.
Bamboo Page Divider
X. Let us cease from wrath, and refrain from angry looks. Nor let us be resentful when others differ from us. For all men have hearts, and each heart has its own leanings. Their right is our wrong, and our right is their wrong. We are not unquestionably sages, nor are they unquestionably fools. Both of us are simply ordinary men. How can any one lay down a rule by which to distinguish right from wrong? For we are all, one with another wise and foolish, like a ring which has no end. Therefore, although others give way to anger, let us on the contrary dread our own faults, and though we alone may be in the right, let us follow the multitude and act like them.
Bamboo Page Divider
XII. Let not the provincial authorities or the Kuni no Miyatsuko [i.e. the local nobles whose power was being usurped by the imperial court] levy exaction on the people. In a country there are not two lords; the people have not two masters. The sovereign is the master of the people of the whole country. The officials to whom he gives charge are all his vassals. How can they, as well as the government, presume to levy taxes on the people.
Bamboo Page Divider
XV. To turn away from that which is private, and to set our faces towards that which is public — this is the path of a minister. Now if a man is influenced by private motives, he will assuredly fail to act harmoniously with others. If he fails to act harmoniously with others, he will assuredly sacrifice the public interest to his private feelings. When resentment arises, it interferes with order, and is subversive of law. Therefore in the first clause it was said that superiors and inferiors should agree together. The purport is the same as this.
Bamboo Page Divider
XVII. Matters should not be decided by one person alone. They should be discussed with many others. In small matters of less consequence, many others need not be consulted. It is only in considering weighty matters, where there is a suspicion that they might miscarry, that many others should be involved in debate and discussion so as to arrive at a reasonable conclusion.
Mandate of Heaven: Dynastic Cycle in China
vs (versus)
Amaterasu Emerging from the Cave
Nara: Japanese Capital from 710-784
Chang'an (Tang Dynasty capital)
Nara (Japanese capital based on Chang'an city plan)
The realities of Nara during its golden age were not as idyllic as these temples and stories suggest. For the elite Buddhism of the six schools of Nara was not the only Japanese Buddhism of the period. Far from the capital, out in the countryside, something else was happening. Popular Buddhist teachers and wonder-workers, often called ubasoku from a Sanskrit word for disciple, went about combining Buddhism with native shamanism. Their Buddhism may have been only superficially understood as a potent king of magic giving them ability to heal and work miracles, and they may not have been properly ordained, especially by strict Ritsu standards. But they and their admirers regarded them as something much better than an ordinary ordained monk. ...
Click for Todaiji (Daibutsu) Slideshow
By mid-century it was evident that these two levels of Buddhism and of society would have to be reconciled. The devout Emperor Shomu desired to build the Great Buddha as a supreme national temple, but donations of money and labor from outside the capital were skimpy. Clearly, confidence in the court and its religion had fallen to a low level. In a dramatic gesture, Shomu appointed a certain Gyogi Bosatsu (670-749), Gyogi the bodhisattva, a recognized leader of the countryside shamanistic Buddhists, as chief priest of the nation. This was despite the fact that earlier (in 717) the same Gyogi had been arrested for preaching the heretical doctrine that one could be saved through good works.

Shingon Buddhism's Womb World Mandala with Amaterasu (Sun Goddess) in the center
In return, as was no doubt intended, Gyogi won his followers over to the emperor’s cause. Moreover, according to tradition he visited the Grand Shrine of Ise, and there received through an oracle the blessing of the goddess Amaterasu (esoterically identified with Dainichi) on the building of the Todaiji with its Great Buddha. (This was also a step toward the reconciliation of Shinto and Buddhism.) The temple was dedicated in 749, the year of Gyogi’s death. The Emperor Shomu himself then took the monastic robe, abdicating in favor of his daughter Koken. (IJR, 98-9)

Todaiji Daibutsu
Detail from the Hie Sanno Mandara representing the relationship between Buddhist and Shinto deities
Dharma Wheel Turning
Empress Shotoku and Dokyo
Empress Shotoku and Dokyo
The Decline of Nara Buddhism
The abdication of Shomu led to a scandal which did much to discredit Nara Buddhism. Koken herself abdicated in 758, leaving the throne to a young prince named Junnin. She then became romantically involved with an ambitious priest called Dokyo. He persuaded his imperial mistress to depose Junnin. This she did, and for good measure had him strangled. She took the throne again for herself in 764, now calling herself Empress Shotoku. She made Dokyo prime minister and, in 766, chief Buddhist priest of the nation. Not content with these elevations, Dokyo plotted to marry her, seize imperial power for himself, and establish a dynasty. But by this time the lay aristocracy, especially the Fujiwara house, was thoroughly alarmed at what was going on, and not least by  the overwhelming power the Nara priesthood seemed to have, or to want. A timely oracle from the Shinto kami Hachiman thwarted Dokyo’s conspiracies. The Empress died in 770, and Dokyo in 772. With one or two minor exceptions, no empress was again allowed to reign in Japan. (IJR, 99)
Empress Shotoku’s Edict
November 26, 766 CE
We do affirm in this edict our belief that when the Law of Buddha, the Supreme One, is worshiped and revered with perfect sincerity of heart, he is certain to vouchsafe some unusual sign. The sacred bone of the Tathagata which has now been manifested, of perfect shape and unusually large, is brighter and more beautiful of color than ever we have seen; the mind cannot encompass its splendor. Thus it is that night and day alike we pay it humble reverence with our unwavering attention. Indeed, it appears to us that when the Transformation Body of the Buddha extends its guidance to salvation in accordance with circumstances, his compassionate aid is manifested with no delay. Nevertheless, the Law depends on men for the continuation and spread of its prosperity. Thus, it has been due to acts of leadership and guidance in consonance with the Law performed by our chief minister and master [i.e. Dokyo], who stands at the head of all priests, that this rare and holy Sign has been vouchsafed us. How could so holy and joyous a thing delight us alone? Hearken, all ye people, to your sovereign’s will. We bestow on our teacher, the chief minister, the title of king of the Law [sometimes translated as “pope”]. We declare again that such worldly titles have never been of his seeking; his mind is set, with no other aspiration, on performing the acts of a bodhisattva and leading all men to salvation. Hearken, all ye people, to your sovereign’s will. We confer this position on him as an act of reverence and gratitude. (SJT, 120)
Map of Heian-kyo (Kyoto)