In A.D. 552 (or 538 — experts disagree; some say it never happened) a Korean envoy presented himself at the Japanese court of Emperor Kimmei.
The Korea of that time was split among several perpetually warring kingdoms. The three largest were Kokuli, Silla and Paikche. The envoy was from Paikche, whose defenses were buckling under attack by Silla.
He came, says the 8th-century chronicle “Nihon Shoki,” bearing a plea and a gift. The plea was for military aid; the gift, a “wonderful doctrine . . . of all doctrines the most excellent . . . hard to explain and hard to comprehend,” but through it “every prayer is fulfilled.”
This was not Japan’s first contact with Buddhism, vague word of which had been percolating for some 150 years, but now its time seemed to have come. Emperor Kimmei, says the “Nihon Shoki,” “leaped for joy.”
Kimmei’s ministers were less jubilant. Those who saw in the “wonderful doctrine” and its sumptuous trappings an entry into the dazzling civilization of China were opposed by a nativist faction that saw only danger. Foreign gods, foreign prayers, foreign rites were abhorrent to them. On the benevolence of the native kami depended the abundance of the harvest, the health of the state. The kami must not be offended.
Leading the Buddhist cause was a powerful immigrant clan named Soga. An uneasy compromise was struck: the Soga family would receive the gilt-copper Buddha image presenented by Paikche envoy and worship it privately at home.
Pestilence broke out. It frequently did, but for this epidemic the nativists had a ready explanation: the kami were raining vengeance down on their unfaithful people. The Soga’s household temple was torched, and the image was seized and flung into a canal.
A fire at the Imperial Palace, however, soon gave fresh impetus to the Soga. Construing it as signifying outrage among the Buddhist gods, they promptly set about procuring from Paikche images, sutras, monks, a temple architect and three child-nuns.
Pestilence spread again, spurring on the nativists. The nuns bore the brunt of their wrath, suffering a public whipping.
Then Emperor Yomei fell ill and, defying his nativist ministers, turned to the new religion for succor. The schism widened. In 587 civil war broke out.
The Soga won, decisively routing the native clans.
Why did Japan at that point not become a Buddhist state? Why did Shinto not fade quietly into oblivion?
It very nearly did.
A growing civilization demands outward grandeur. Buddhism’s capacity to provide it was no small part of its early appeal. Wielding power behind a compliant throne, clan chieftain Soga no Umako embarked on a spree of temple building. The Asuka-dera, completed in 596 at Asuka near present-day Nara, was Japan’s first Chinese-style temple. Forty-five others followed before Umako’s death in 626. By the end of the Nara Period (710-784) there were more than 1,000.
The Imperial backing Umako needed came from an individual ranked among the great shapers of Japanese history, the Prince-Regent Shotoku Taishi (574-622). Devoutly Buddhist, Shotoku, like Umako, was an energetic propagator of the faith; unlike Umako, he was a deep student of the sutras — of Chinese literature in general.
He was perhaps the first Japanese — and for 100 years or so the last — to grasp Buddhism’s moral dimension. To Umako and most others, Buddhism was no quest for enlightenment or nirvana but an elaborate, hence potent, brand of magic, whose intricate ceremonies and solemn magnificence would strengthen the state, and the Soga’s fortunes within it.
However little they had in common at the intellectual or doctrinal level, Shotoku and Umako were agreed on one thing: China was the model Japan should look to as it modernized. On this they built their alliance.
That Shinto remained afloat in this Buddhist-Chinese tide is testimony to the power of the native kami — testimony also, perhaps, to the power of vagueness, for what religion could be more vague or inarticulable than Shinto? What philosophy could Shinto put forward to oppose the highly refined one of Buddhism?
None — which is the point.
The Soga were overthrown in a palace coup in 645.
The fact that the coup mastermind, Nakatomi no Kamatari, was a scion of one of the nativist clans defeated in 587 could have meant a Shinto resurgence, but Nakatomi had something quite different in mind. His aim, like Shotoku’s and Umako’s, was a centralized Chinese-style state.
If anything the urgency had grown. China under the dynamic T’ang Dynasty (618-907) was expanding ominously eastward into Korea. Not only Japan’s civilized arts but its military capacity needed to be advanced.
The Japanese court bureaucracy that emerged post-645 was Chinese, or pseudo-Chinese, and Buddhist, or pseudo-Buddhist, in all respects but one. The lone exception was the very powerful Jingikan — “Bureau of Kami Affairs.” This had no Chinese equivalent. Its role was to appoint Shinto priests and see to it that the native kami were worshipped properly.
The kami, evidently, were still very much alive.
The Jingikan survived intact until the Meiji Restoration of 1868, even then serving as model for various successor bodies under which Shinto became the official state religion. So it remained until the postwar Constitution separated religion and government.
The Jingikan turned the Emperor into a kami. Emperor Temmu (reigned 672-686) was apparently the first to style himself akitsukami (manifest kami), meaning a direct descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu — a dignity claimed by all his descendants until Emperor Showa renounced his divinity in a 1946 radio broadcast.
It made perfect sense, given the goal of rapid centralization, given also the nature of kami, which could be anything at all — superhuman, human, subhuman; animate, inanimate.
But from another angle it seems to make no sense at all. What does it mean to be a kami in a Buddhist state? More baffling still, what does it mean to be a kami and a Buddhist?
It means, for one thing, to be Emperor Shomu (reigned 724-749).
Kami though he was, he was a Buddhist in the Prince Shotoku mold, learned and devout. In unabashedly styling himself a “slave of the Three Treasures” (meaning Buddhism), he left an enduring conundrum to future ages more logically minded than his own: Can one religion’s divinity be another religion’s slave?
With smallpox ravaging Nara in 735, Shomu vowed to build a giant image of Roshana Buddha — the supreme universal Buddha of whom the earthly Buddha is a manifestation.
But Shomu had forgotten neither the native kami nor his own divine status. He could hardly afford to. As the historian George Sansom points out (in “Japan: A Short Cultural History,” 1931), “To erect a great Buddha in the middle of the capital and to make it . . . an object of national worship was, on the face of it, a serious blow to the native divinities, unless some means could be found of reconciling the two faiths.”
Fortunately the means were at hand, the sun goddess Amaterasu herself responding to fervent (Buddhist) prayers at Ise Jingu, Shinto’s holiest shrine (in present day Mie Prefecture), with the necessary reassurance. Visiting the Emperor in a dream, she declared the sun and the Buddha to be one and the same.
Work on the image therefore proceeded, years of labor producing the enormous (48.7 meters high) seated Great Buddha that to this day awes sightseers and worshippers at Nara’s Todaiji Temple.
Flimsy though its basis might appear to us, the merger held, its spirit expressed in a poem attributed to the great Buddhist teacher Kobo Daishi (774-835) some two generations after Shomu’s death: “Among the various ways/ to become a Buddha/ the most potent way is/ the way of the kami.”