Observing Religion in Japan Through History

This timeline will be used as a tool to chronologically organize the phenomena we learn in class, and simultaneously provide historical context to see how the information fits into place and time. Note: Any sources that aren't from class readings or slides are listed, and the link is put in the "Find Out More" button.

0000-01-01 17:43:24


Christianity was introduced to Japan in the mid-1500's, with the arrival of Francis Xavier. Generally, Christianity is nowhere near as popular in Japan as it is in many Western cultures, but it isn't nonexistent. Christmas is often celebrated, and Jesus has found places in multiple "new religions," so says Reader. Reader claims that part of Christianity's inability to widely establish itself in Japan is due to the fact that it does not recognize or incorporate certain aspects of existing Japanese religions, such as the attitude towards ancestors. Sources: Reader, NPR

0200 BC-01-01 22:12:35

Pure Land Buddhism

Pure Land Buddhism started in India and eventually spread across eastern Asia. Pure Land Buddhism teaches that there is a Pure Land of Amida Buddha in which people can be born into and after that life achieve nirvana. The practices to get into the pure land are also usually simpler and easier that the practices of other Buddhist sects. Sources: RJP 16, BBC

0500-01-01 22:57:27


Nakayamadera temple is in Osaka, said to be built some time in the 6th century, and is there to honor Kannon. Kannon is known to be related and tied to childbirth and conception. Because of this many people, especially women, will go to the temple and pray for many different reasons connected to infants and pregnancy. These include praying for conception, a safe pregnancy and delivery, and also for the well-being of the souls of dead or unborn babies. Source: RCJ chapter 6

0538-01-01 22:13:51

Introduction of Buddhism Into Japan

Buddhism was introduced to Japan through trades with Korea. The sect of Buddhism that was first shared was Mahayana Buddhism. According to Asia Society, the first artifacts brought over were Buddhists writings and a picture of the Buddha himself. Sources: Slides from class, Asia Society

0557-01-01 00:00:00

Tendai Buddhism

Tendai is the Japanese name for the original Tiantai Buddhism, which was started in China by Zhiyi. It was brought to and spread throughout Japan by Saicho. Saicho taught the beliefs of "One Vehicle," which stated that anyone can attain Buddhahood because all are equal. Mt. Hiei is regarded as the geographical "capital" as it were, of Tendai Buddhism as that is where Saicho founded his first temple. Sources: www.tendai.or.jp, BlackBoard readings

0600-01-01 07:04:40

The Jingi Cult

The Jingi cult does not have a clear history or origins, as some of the first known larger texts in Japan were the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki. But there are some records of the Jingi having shrine practices, and having connections to the court and sometimes a higher social standing. Some interpret the Jingi as the origins of what would later be dubbed Shinto. Sources: Teeuwen and Breen reading

0624-01-01 22:12:35

The Buddha

Buddha as a general term is a specific type of being. However, there is also "the Buddha" who is known as the founder of Buddhism, and also called "Buddha Shakyamuni." He was born as prince and extremely sheltered by his father, the king. He accomplished a number of things and overcame a number of obstacles on the path in which he eventually became enlightened, and thus became a Buddha. Sources: Slides from class, aboutbuddha.org

0650 BC-01-01 22:12:35


Buddhism originated in India and gradually diffused across Asia. It reached Japan about 600 CE, where it was readily incorporated into Japan's existing culture and religious practices. There are multiple sects of Buddhism, which differentiate mainly in their beliefs on achieving enlightenment. Sources: Reader, and Minneapolis Institute of Arts

0650 BC-01-01 22:13:51


Samsara is the six-life cycle from Buddhist beliefs. In order from the "most ideal" position to the "least ideal," the lives are: Buddhas/gods, titans, humans, animals, hungry ghosts, and hellbeings. According to Buddhist beliefs, one can move up and down these levels in different lives through karma. Good deeds will bring karmic rewards and a likelihood of moving upwards, and bad deeds will inflict karmic retribution and bring one down the levels. Once in a lower level (i.e. animal, hungry ghost, or hellbeing) it is regarded as very difficult to move up. Sources: Slides form class, BlackBoard readings

0699-01-01 22:12:35

En no Ozunu

En no Ozunu, or En no Gyoja, was an ascetic who lived on Mount Katsuragi. Many different stories make up his legend, and he was known for his powerful magic. He was banished in 699 to an island near the Izu peninsula, and one alleged reason for this was that En bound and trapped a god that did not complete his orders. Source: RJP 32

0710-01-01 02:28:15


Amaterasu is the Sun Goddess from Shinto mythology, and rules over the area where the kami reside, Takama no Hara. She is the daughter of Izanami and Izanagi, and is written about in both the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki. Her myths differ slightly in content in the two texts, but the general story outlines are similar, as in the story of Amaterasu's retreat into the cave. Sources: Ancient History Encyclopedia, Ambrose reading

0710-01-01 02:28:15

The Nara Period

The Nara period was the time in Japan from 710 CE-794 CE where the capital was located in Nara. Before this time, the capital switched with every new emperor, and Nara was an attempt to establish a more permanent capital. During the Nara period, Japan was going through major progressions and developments, evidenced by the organized layout of the city of Nara itself and the writings of the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki. Buddhism was also growing, and multiple temples were built in the capital. At the end of the Nara period, the capital was actually moved again, partly to get away from the now powerful Buddhist temples and locations. Sources: Slides from class, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

0712-01-01 03:41:24

Nihon Shoki

The Nihon Shoki, meaning Chronicles of Japan, is one of the earliest records of Japanese mythology, language, life, and culture all together, along with the Kojiki. However, the two texts differ in a variety of ways, one of which being the mythological stories told. Many of the major points are the same, but parts of the Nihon Shoki appear to more closely follow Chinese mythology, such as with the creation of the universe. The Nihon Shoki is also more of a trustworthy historical reference than the Kojiki, especially in the later times written. Sources: Konoshi reading, class slides

0712-01-01 03:41:24


Written in 712 CE as the earliest lengthy example of the Japanese writing system, it is also one of the first examples of documented Japanese culture and life, along with the Nihon Shoki. The Kojiki, whose name translates as Record of Ancient Matters, tells much about the beginnings of the universe and Japanese mythology. Kenosha Takamitsu says that it also established imperial legitimacy through these myths. Sources: Slides from class, Konoshi reading, http://linguistics.byu.edu/classes/ling450ch/reports/japanese.htm

0712-01-01 22:12:35

The Japanese Writing System

The earliest lengthy record of Japanese writing is the Kojiki in 712 CE. The development of the modern three-layer writing system was a long process that began with the introduction of Chinese writing. However, the use of Chinese to write Japanese sounds and words proved to be an imperfect practice, as the spoken languages were different from each other. So in order to cover both phonetic sounds and the meanings of words, kanji developed two different readings: onyomi and kunyomi. Because kanji is not very straightforward, two more alphabets, hiragana and katakana were developed in the 9th century for purely phonetic purposes. Hiragana was used mostly by women who were not allowed to write kanji at the time, and katakana was developed by Buddhist priests. Sources: Slides from class, and http://linguistics.byu.edu/classes/ling450ch/reports/japanese.htm

0766-01-01 00:00:00


Dengyo-Daishi Saicho, commonly referred to just as Saicho, is the founder of Japanese Tendai Buddhism. He became a "novice" in the Buddhist priesthood at the age of 14. He decided to reside on Mt. Hiei, somewhat isolating himself, at the age of 20. People argue different reasons for this. Eventually though, he founded a temple there and began to lecture on Tendai Buddhism and The Lotus Sutra, and with the help of other monks and temples Tendai grew in popularity. Source: www.tendai.or.jp

0767-01-01 00:00:00

The Lotus Sutra

The Lotus Sutra is the central text of Tendai Buddhism. The Lotus Sutra teaches that truth is "ultimately beyond the grasp of all conceptual formulations." (415, Tanabe) But this text also teaches that there are multiple ways to reach enlightenment, and that it is actually impossible for everyone to reach it the same way. This was a new thought for the Heian and Kamakura periods. Source: "Muju Ichien's Shinto-Buddhist Syncretism" by Robert E. Morrell in RJP

0774-01-01 22:12:35


Kukai, or Kobo Daishi, is the founder of Shingon Buddhism and a teacher of esoteric Buddhist teachings. He was born on Shikoku island in Japan, and went to school later on to learn about Chinese thought. He is famous for his knowledge on that subject, calligraphy, and esoteric Buddhist philosophy. Sources: www.shingon.org, Kukai BlackBoard reading

0787-01-01 22:12:35


Kyokai was a Buddhist monk who wrote the famous Nihon Ryoiki. He was not actually born in the year 787 CE, but some estimate that he was ordained as a monk sometime between 787 and 795 CE. Little is known about him overall. In the Nihon Ryoiki, he takes seemingly miraculous stories and tales from the populace and uses them as examples of karmic rewards and retribution. Sources: Blackboard Readings, Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, "Miraculous Stories From The Japanese Buddhist Tradition: The Nihon Ryōiki of The Monk Kyōkai" by Kyoko Motomichi Nakamura

0794-01-01 22:57:27

To-ji Temple

The name To-ji means "East Temple," because it was originally one of a pair of temples in Kyoto, or then Heiankyo, when the capital was moved there. The Emperor in 823 gave the monk Kukai (Kobo Daishi) the temple, and Kukai turned it into a seminary. He made it the center of the Shingon Buddhist sect. Source: www.toji.or.jp

0800-01-01 22:12:35

Shingon Buddhism

Shingon Buddhism is a sect of Buddhism founded by Kobo Daishi, or Kukai. It teaches esoteric teachings, and has assimilated elements from multiple sources into its practices, including Hindi elements. Shingon is also known as Mikkyo in Japanese, which means "secret teaching." Source: www.shingon.org

0800-01-01 22:12:35


Mandalas are graphic depictions of the universe. They are important in esoteric Buddhism as a whole and more specifically Shingon Buddhism. The two main types of mandalas in Shingon Buddhism are Womb mandalas and Diamond mandalas. Sources: A to Z Photo Dictionary Japanese Buddhist Statuary, class slides

0815-01-01 00:00:00

Tea Drinking in Japan

While the first records of formal tea drinking practice in Japan were in 815, Moan Eisai revitalized the practice in the 1200's. In association with his Rinzai Zen teachings, he wrote about tea drinking and how it helps spiritually and physically. Tea seeds were spread throughout Japan, and the practice grew in popularity, especially with the rich and Buddhist priests. Source: "Tradition of Tea: History" The Urasenke Foundation

0835-01-01 22:57:27

Okunoin Temple/Cemetery

Okunoin Temple, or Okunoin Cemetery, is on Mount Koya, or Koyasan in Japanese. Okunoin itself is the mausoleum built to honor the monk Kukai (Kobo Daishi). It is said that Kukai never actually died, but rather he is eternally meditating in the lotus position after warning others this would happen and doing so of his own accord. Sources: RJP 33, www.cnn.com

0845-05-01 11:25:07

Sugawara Michizane

Sugawara came from a family of scholars, and became a scholar himself as well as a poet, governor, and a minister to the emperor. Through a political scheme against him, Sugawara was expunged from the capital. After he died, a succession of unfortunate events occurred and to appease Sugawara's presumed angry spirit, he was venerated as a kami known as Tenjin, the "kami of learning and education." (Reader, pg 26) Many students pray to Tenjin for good luck and positive outcomes in academics. Sources: Reader, Encyclopedia Britannica

0845-12-01 09:33:03

Sennichi Kaihogyo

The Sennichi Kaihogyo is an intense Tendai ascetic practice which lasts 1,000 days and involves walking around an extensive trail on Mt. Hiei multiple times. Additionally, one must go nine days without food, water, or sleep. It was founded by a Tendai monk named Soo Osho in the ninth century. Only three men are known to have completed the Sennichi Kaihogyo twice, and one of them died only recently in 2014. Sources: in-class film, the Asahi Shinbun, Robert F. Rhodes "The Kaihogyo Practice of Mt. Hiei" Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, 1987

0900-01-01 22:12:35


Shugendo is a sect of esoteric Buddhism that involves a number of different practices and elements. Those who practice Shugendo are known as Yamabushi, and the religion has a history of revering both Kami and Buddhas, and of mountain ascetic practices. Pinpointing the definitive beginning of Shugendo is difficult, but the Encyclopedia of Shinto says that popularity of mountain asceticism began near the end of the Heian period. Sources: Encyclopedia of Shinto, Shugendo Now, RJP 32, class slides

0900-01-01 22:12:35

Nishi no Nozoki

Nishi no Nozoki is a practice by the Yamabushi of the Shugendo. It involves hanging one of the members over the edge of the mountain and requiring him to answer questions about his transgressions. They even let go for a brief moment and let the person slip a tiny bit. Sources: Blacker "The Symbolic Journey," Shugendo Now

0900-01-01 22:12:35


The Yamabushi were essentially those who practice the Shugendo religion. Most were not married and were famous for doing these practices in the mountains. They were also famous for magic and spiritual power. Sources: RJP 32, bushidopath.8m.com

0950-01-01 00:00:00


Nembutsu is a Pure Land Buddhist practice of saying the name of Amida Buddha in order to be born into the Pure Land. One would say "namu-amida-butsu" and many claim that's all that needed to be done to be born into the Pure Land. The date on this entry comes from an approximation of when Kuya would have taught nembutsu, as he was the first monk to successfully spread it. Source: RJP 26

0950-01-01 00:00:00

Taima Mandala

The Taima Mandala is a painting on a scroll depicting the Pure Land. The Pure Land is dramatically extravagant, with gold, pavilions, and all around beauty. There is also text around the Mandala from the Kanmuryo juke Sutra. Sources: The Met Museum, class notes

1033-04-07 00:00:00


Honen was originally a Tendai monk from modern Okayama Prefecture. He was a huge proponent of the nembutsu as the one way to attain birth in the Pure Land. He reasoned that in the age of Mappo, people will be unable to do anything but the nembutsu practice and so this is all they will need. Sources: RJP 26, Jodo.org

1052-01-01 00:00:00


Mappo is the period of time when it is believed that the Buddha's teachings would be in decline. Some think Mappo is right now. The two preceding ages were "true law" and "copied law," and there will be a future period in which the Buddha's teachings will be on the upswing. Source: Encyclopedia Britannica

1100-03-01 08:14:08

Shikan Taza

Shikan taza, known in English as "just sitting," is a Soto Zen practice. It was first introduced by Hongzhi Zhengjue, a Chinese monk, then bolstered by Japanese monk Eihei Dogen. Shikan taza involves meditating without concentrating on any one thing, but having your concentration be "objectless." Basically, you're just sitting, as the name implies. Source: "Reader on Shikantaza" Roshi Joan Halifax

1185-01-01 07:04:40

Late Heian and Kamakura Periods

During this time the capital was in Kyoto and Buddhism was growing in popularity. The court was losing power, while other groups were gaining. At this time there were three main groups that held power in Japan, called "The Gates of Power": the court still retained a good amount of control, Buddhism's temples meant a lot of real estate and land power, and the warriors were on the rise for when they would mostly take over during the Muromachi Period. Source: Slides from class

1200-01-01 00:00:00

Soto Zen

Soto Zen is a kind of Zen, or Chan, Buddhism. It was introduced to Japan in the 1200's, and Dogen Kigen is regarded as the Japanese founder of Soto Zen. Soto Zen emphasizes lineage and "transmitting the Buddha Dharma" (stone-net.or.jp) down through the generations. Sources: Yampolsky reading on BB, http://global.sotozen-net.or.jp/eng/what/denomination/index.html

1200-01-01 00:00:00

Rinzai Zen

Rinzai Zen is a type of Zen, or Chan, Buddhism. Moan Esai is credited with introducing Japan to Rinzai Zen around 1200. Rinzai Zen focuses on "self-realization" of a "true man without rank." (rinnou.net) Sources: Yampolsky reading on BB, Rinzai-Obaku Zen website

1222-01-01 22:12:35


Nichiren was a Tendai Buddhist monk in Japan who unintentionally started his own new school of Buddhism. Although originally known as Hokkeshu, it grew to be known as the Nichiren school, or Nichirenshu, in the 1500's. He taught exclusively from The Lotus Sutra, which included the principles of suchness, enlightenment being achievable to all, and holding the words of The Lotus Sutra in the highest regard as opposed to other texts. Source: Saicho BlackBoard reading

1333-01-01 22:12:35

Noh Theater

Noh began in the 1300's, and became popular during the Muromachi period. This mode of theater tends to rely on standards and traditions because of government support and intervention in the Tokugawa period. It often depicts stories about ghosts and spirits, and has only a couple actors. Sources: japan-guide.com, class notes

1435-01-01 07:04:40

Yoshida Kanetomo

Yoshida Kanetomo is the founder of "One and Only Shinto," and created an organized, systematic faith with places of worship and its own twist on mythology. One and Only Shinto claims that Amaterasu came and shone her light before the Buddha was on Earth, rather than the more common belief at the time which was that kami were parts reminiscent of the Buddha. The central shrine of this religion is the Daigengu in Kyoto, built by Kanetonomo. Sources: Teeuwen and Breen reading, slides from class.

1506-01-01 22:12:35

Francis Xavier

Francis Xavier was a European Jesuit priest. He went on a number of missionary trips to different countries, one of which was to Japan. He called them "the best people yet discovered" (Christianity Today) because he deemed them to have an intelligent, advanced culture, and the ability to be converted. He eventually figured that the best way to get Christianity into Japan was through China, but China did not allow foreigners so he died before he could do so. Source: Christianity Today

1580-01-01 22:12:35

Christovao Ferreira

Christovao Ferreira was a Portuguese priest who went abroad to Japan in an attempt to spread Christianity. After establishing somewhat of a presence, he was captured and tortured by the Japanese government. He ended up apostasizing, and he was not the only one: other priests who had gone and would go to Japan also gave up their faith. Sources: "The Making of an Enterprise:The Society of Jesus in Portugal, Its Empire, and Beyond, 1540-1750" by Dauril Alden, Silence, slides in class

1597-01-01 22:12:35

Persecution of Christians in Japan

Around the 17th century, the Japanese government wanted to unify Japan and reject foreign influence. They decided to attack Christianity, which had been introduced by European missionaries in the years before. Many, many Japanese Christians were punished and executed. In 2008, a ceremony was held to beatify 187 people who died during this time because of their Christianity. Sources: BBC News, slides in class

1600-01-01 22:12:35


A fumie is an item that typically depicts the Virgin Mary or Jesus. Citizens in Japan were required to step on it. It was used as a way to ensure that Christians had renounced their faith. Sources: Silence, slides in class

1600-01-01 22:12:35

Kakure Kirishitan

In the 17th century, Japan's government persecuted Christians and outlawed the religion. Some Christians in Japan were able to keep their faith a secret and remain Christians, or "hidden Christians," Kakure Kirishitan. When the bans on Christianity were lifted, some of these Christians were able to come out of hiding and practice their faith again. Source: "Christianity in Contemporary Japanese Society" by Mark Mullins

1600-01-01 22:12:35


An chai is a tablet in Buddhist funerary practices that "represents the spirit of the ancestor," or the deceased who is being honored. On the ihai is the person's kaimyo, or after-death name. Two ihai are made, one for the household's indoor altar (butsudan) and one for the physical outdoor grave. Source: RCJ Chapter 4

1600-01-01 22:12:35

Danka System

The danka system started in the Tokugawa period as a way to halt the growth of Christianity in Japan and eradicate it there. Essentially each household had to be in association with and support a certain Buddhist temple to ensure that the household was not Christian. Thus, Buddhism took control of many ceremonies and rituals, especially funerals. The danka system is argued as one of the main reasons Buddhist funerals are so common today in Japan. Source: RCJ Chapter 4

1686-03-01 08:14:08

Hakuin Ekaku

While Moan Eisai is considered Japanese Rinzai Zen's original founder, Hauin Ekaku is recognized as the "reviver." He focused on practices involving koan, and is specifically famous among modern-day Rinzai priests. He also created many, many religious paintings. Sources: "Hakuin Ekaku" Masaki Matsubara Oxford Bibliographies

1853-07-08 07:04:40

The West Forces Trade With Japan

Up until this point, Japan had a limited number of trading partners. However, the West was extremely interested in beginning trade with Japan. So in 1853, Commodore Perry came over from the USA with a small piece of the Navy and demanded that Japan open itself for trade. Japan had no navy and thus had to comply, and many other nations soon followed suit, forcing Japan to open up trade with them. Sources: Asia for Educators Columbia University, slides from class

1868-01-01 00:00:00

The Meiji Restoration

Emperor Meiji was put into power when the Tokugawa shogun was overthrown in 1868. What was to come for Japan in the following decades was mass modernization and cultural changes. This included the end of feudalism, industrialization, a national education system, a constitution, and taxes in monetary form instead of payments of rice. During this time, Japan also won two wars: one against China in which they obtained power over Korea and Taiwan, and one against Russia. Source: "The Meiji Restoration and Modernization" from Asia for Educators from Columbia University

Observing Religion in Japan Through History

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