Buddhism: Studying the Pathway of Enlightenment in Japanese Society

Buddhism is one of Japan’s principal religions, and the fourth-largest practiced belief in the world. Buddhism has had a great impact on Japanese society, bringing with it incredible cultural influence that is evident up to this day in Japan. Learn more about Buddhism in Japan as you scroll!

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction to Buddhism
  2. Study Buddhism in Japan
  3. Fast Facts - What’s allowed? What’s not?
  4. Summary

Introduction to Buddhism

Buddhism is the belief of alleviation of one’s existential suffering caused by ignorance, greed, and impernance. That the continuing cycle of life and death of a human being is a result or repercussion of their own actions, i.e. karma. The ultimate goal in Buddhism is enlightenment or Nirvana (the principal ideology of the religion) and achieving freedom from the endless life and death cycle, as well as ending suffering. 


The starting point of Buddhism can be traced back to the 5th century BC in Nepal. The religion was founded on the teachings of Siddharta Gautama. Born a prince, he renounced his royalty to become a wanderer of life and sought the truth of human suffering and liberation from it. He tried various methods including fasting and breath control. He found his answer in meditation and achieved “awakening”. Continuing on to spread his teachings, he attained Nirvana upon his death and became the Buddha having been released from all earthly suffering.   

※ Asia Society, "Buddhism in Japan"

Distinctive features of Buddhism

Buddhism usually revolves around practices involving rituals, meditation and mindfulness, refuge and pilgrimage, self-control, and studying of teachings.

Despite its singular identifiable start, the religion has expanded greatly with the emergence of Sutras and other newly written texts within the few centuries surrounding the Buddha’s death. These gave rise to different understanding and interpretations about the Buddha’s early life and his conception. Ultimately, Buddhism was separated into three main classifications of schools; Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana.


Meaning “School of Elders”, this school has been the anchor of Buddhism and the basis from which the other schools have emerged. With the most traditional of teachings, it highlights an individual's achievement of salvation as opposed to a group faith and emphasizes on living a monastic life. They do not believe in many of the other school’s teachings, such as the Mahayana school’s Mahayana sutra. They seek to attain freedom from earthly suffering and the circle of life and death.


Meaning “Great Vehicle”, they believe that salvation is open to all who follow the teachings of Buddha and non-exclusive. Other than the basic teachings of Buddha scriptures, they adhere to the Mahayana sutras whose origins cannot be confirmed but considered by scholars to be composed as early as 1st century BC. Unlike the Theravada school whose goal is to become Arhat or Arahant (one who has achieved Nirvana), the goal of Mahayana is Bodhisattva, someone who is within reach of Nirvana but helps others to get to that point. 


Meaning “Diamond Vehicle”, also known as Esoteric Buddhism, believes that enlightenment is achievable in the current lifetime. Along with Mahayana, they believe that religious faith can be shared by those who have already been enlightened to help, out of compassion, their fellow brethren to achieve enlightenment as well.

Buddhism in Japan

Spreading to its neighbouring countries of India and China, Buddhism made its way east, through Korea to finally reach Japan in the 6th century BC.

The principles of Mahayana Buddhism were introduced to Japan by Korea as one of their missions of diplomacy including gifts of religious texts and an image of Buddha. The religion had a difficult start as conflicts with Japan’s main religion, Shinto arose. Fortunately, they were able to overcome their differences and co-exist in peace with Buddhism growing to become one of the two main faiths in Japan alongside Shinto.

By the 7th century BC, temples had been built, monastic communities were growing, and artisans skilled in crafting Buddhist artifacts were increasing. Slowly but surely, the religion was spreading to the rest of the land. Finally, in 592, Buddhism became deeply rooted in Japan with the help of Japan’s first empress, Empress Suiko who was a devout believer. She actively promoted Buddhism, giving orders for the building of temples and the creation of artifacts. Another great contributor was Prince Shotoku, nephew of Empress Suiko, who commissioned the building of temples including the famous Shitenno-Ji (四天王寺) in Osaka and World Heritage site Horyu-Ji (法隆寺) in Nara.

Over time, the coexistence between Shinto and Buddhism became more apparent with Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines being built next to each other. Started during the Nara period (710-794), there were even religious complexes consisting of both Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines called Jingu-Ji (神宮寺 Meaning Shrine-Temple) and the appearance of a Shinto artifact in a Buddhist temple or vice versa. Unfortunately many of these Jingu-Ji have been destroyed or artifacts removed upon governmental order during the Meiji Restoration period (1868) in a bid to abolish Buddhism.

There is no possible way to complete in a single article the entire story of Buddhism and its influence in Japan. How it has entwined itself into Japan’s history and culture is another scope of study by itself. If you are interested to learn Buddhism or its history and culture, read on below to find out more.

※ Asia Society, "Buddhism in Japan"

Study Buddhism in Japan

Are you interested in studying Buddhism in Japan?

In general, people practice Buddhism in Japan by visiting temples and by holding Buddhist funerals. This is in mixture with the indigineous Shinto religion of Japan. So many people may practice these Buddhist rituals culturally. So by being in Japan, you will see the cultural effects of Buddhism in everyday life.

However, for those interested in immersing oneself in the religion, Japan has lots to offer when it comes to Buddhism education, whether you are interested in a degree programme (undergraduate, graduate), a quick meditation programme, or a short term or long term retreat. There’s also online programmes and events you can join from the comfort of your own home!

Japan’s popular schools of Buddhism

Pure Land Buddhism

Part of Mahayana Buddhism, Pure Land Buddhism is devoted to Buddha of Infinite Light “Buddha Amitabha” or “Amida” in Japan. The practice was brought to Japan by monks from Tendai School but eventually became an independent sector through a priest named Honen.

Honen’s disciple, Shinran is considered to be the founder of Jodo Shinshu (also known as Shin Buddhism), the largest Pure Land sect in Japan. Their meditation or mindfulness is focused on the repetition of the name of Amida as a sign of faith and gratitude for their oncoming salvation.

Pure Land Buddhism

Nichiren Buddhism

Another branch of Mahayana Buddhism, the school is centred around the teachings of Japanese priest Nichiren Daishonin. It is one of the biggest schools of Buddhism in Japan. He strongly believed that the Lotus Sutra was the key to enlightenment and that it’s neglect was the cause of disasters around the world. Taiseki-Ji (大石寺), established in 1290 as the head temple of Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism is located in Shizuoka Prefecture till this day.

Shingon Buddhism

Meaning “True Word’’, is a branch of Vajrayana or Esoteric Buddhism that was introduced from China. Shingon believes that by employing the body, speech and mind through special ritual it is possible to obtain the intangible, divine perception of Buddha and encompass oneself in the spirit of the Buddha that inhibits living things. This involves the usage of gestures, characters and mental concentration. Established in 816, the head temple Kongobu-Ji (金剛峯寺) on Mount Koya in Wakayama prefecture. It’s entire surrounding area including its pilgrimage routes have been recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site.

Zen Buddhism

Meaning “Meditation”, is a school of Mahayana Buddhism which has been strongly influenced by Taoism. Zen Buddhism began in China and was introduced to Japan from China around 1191. The key point of Zen Buddhism is to perceive life without the misconception and confusion brought by worldly activities. Zen believes that all individuals have the nature of Buddha within them, and through meditation they are able to attain enlightenment from within themselves.

In present Japan, there are three main schools of Zen. They are Soto, Rinzai and Obaku. The Soto sector is the largest school amongst the three with two head temples;  Eihei-Ji (永平寺) in Fukui Prefecture and Soji-Ji (總持寺) in Yokohama, Kanagawa Prefecture. Both temples offer Zazen learning programmes in English, visit their websites for more details about Zen programmes and schedule of events. 

For beginners who are interested in learning about Zen Buddhism, there is a Beginner’s English Zen Meditation Class held monthly in Tokyo Grand Hotel by Issho Fujita, second head director of Soto Zen Buddhism International Center.

Visa Requirements

The visa you require depends on what type of programmes you wish to join.

For example, if you intend to pursue a university course, that will of course require a student visa. For short term retreats (few days) and meditation programme (hours), a tourist visa or an existing resident visa (work visa, student visa, etc.) is sufficient. For long term retreats spanning a year or a few years, it may be necessary to acquire a cultural studies visa.

Make sure to check with the school you intend to join on what you need!

※ Hitotsubashi University, "Student Guide to Japan Chapter 4. Knowing life in Japan," p.38-39

Fast Facts - What’s allowed? What’s not? 

Religions have the image of having a list of rules. Were you curious about any of the following?

What is forbidden in Buddhism?

In accordance with the Five Precepts (or Five Rules of Training) which are the most important rule of conduct or the basic moral code of Buddhists, a Buddhist is forbidden from

  1. Taking any life

  2. Stealing

  3. Sexual misconduct

  4. Dishonesty

  5. Intoxication

Do Buddhists eat meat?

It depends on the school’s teachings. Some teachings do not allow any consumption of meat, alcohol or even pungent foods (garlic, onions), some allow fish and poultry but not red meat (pork, beef), some are vegetarian on certain days only, whilst some believe it is not completely improper to eat meat as long one does not do the killing.

Again, you will find a wide range of Buddhists in Japan, so while people don’t openly talk about religion much, it should be interesting to go to a temple and learn from the people there themselves.  


Buddhism is a sacred and noble belief in practice worldwide. To understand Japan and its culture better, consider experiencing for yourself what it means to be a Buddhist. 

And if you want to read more about the major religions in Japan, take a look at our article here:

A Look into the Dominant Religions in Japan

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