Japanese Royal Family and Buddhism

views updated


Although the royal family of Japan, headed by the tennō (heavenly monarch), has since 1868 been identified by the Japanese media and government with Shintō, it long led a religious life dominated by Buddhism. It was, indeed, the prince-regent ShŌtoku (574–622) who was identified as having the greatest impact on the early history of Buddhism in Japan, in emphatically supporting Buddhism in early proclamations, in supporting the construction of major temples such as Shitennōji in Ōsaka, and in writing—or, more likely, sponsoring—one or more of the commentaries on Buddhist scriptures that have been attributed to him.

The eighth-century sovereign Shōmu combined a deep faith in Buddhism with an effort to incorporate the faith into his effort to undergird his authority. Following several years of natural disasters and pestilence, while queen Kōgō administered a new and extremely active sūtra-copying bureau, Shōmu hatched a plan to establish a national system of provincial temples and nunneries (kokubunji). He surprisingly described himself at the dedication of the Great Buddha at Tōdaiji in Nara as a "slave" of the Three Jewels (a reference to Buddha, his teachings, and his community).

Although the period after Shōmu was infamous for the undue influence of clerics over the ruler, whatever qualms the family and court had vis-à-vis the Buddhists were no longer evident by the early ninth century, when sovereigns balanced support of the Nara schools with that of the new Tendai and Shingon schools. From the 830s on, Buddhist rites formed an increasingly large role in the ritual life of the royal family and court: The Shingon monk KŪkai successfully petitioned for the inauguration of the annual esoteric Latter Seven-Day Rite (go-shichinichi mishiho), to be conducted from January 8 through January 14, simultaneously with the long-established exoteric Misai'e (Gosai'e) rite for the welfare of ruler and realm, and for the construction of the palace chapel, Shingon'in in Kyoto.

Increasing domination of the royal family by the northern Fujiwaras from the late ninth century on was also marked by an effort to promote the ruler's authority in religious terms. For example, the increase in the number and volume of accession rites performatively represented the ruler's sanctity and grace on a grand scale. As part of this effort, the court, in the name of the acceding ruler, sponsored the Great Treasures Offering (ichidai ichido daijinpō hōbei) and the Buddha Relics Offering (ichidai ichido busshari hōken), both of which were made to native shrines throughout the realm. The offering of remains of the Buddha (housed in small stŪpas) to non-Buddhist religious institutions and local deities (kami), while seemingly odd, was focused especially on Usa Hachimangu shrine in Kyūshū, where the local gods had been venerated since at least the early ninth century as both the spirit of the legendary ancient ruler Ōjin (ca. early fifth century) and the bodhisattva Hachiman. Meanwhile, tennō were sometimes cremated in Buddhist ceremonies, and the royal family increasingly sponsored Buddhist masses to memorialize their dead.

Royal culture and Buddhism

The retired ruler Uda (867–931) became the first retired tennō to become a monk (in), entering the Shingon order at Ninnaji Monastery in Kyoto and receiving the denbō kanjō initiation as acarya (ajari) there. Thus Uda set the precedent not only for royal relatives to often head Ninnaji but for princes to serve regularly as abbots of the so-called O'muro royal-temple compound (monzeki) in Ninnaji beginning in the late eleventh century, and, from the twelfth century on, effectively ruling over the entire Buddhist community. (Cloistered rulers also tended to have close ties with the Tendai temples Onjōji and the monzeki Shōren'in, both near Kyoto.)

At the same time, Uda also established the pattern for a former tennō to engage in politics while donning clerical robes. From the late eleventh century on, retired sovereigns (insei) increasingly replaced the Fujiwaras as rulers, while symbolically demonstrating their religiosity by elaborating on precedents set by figures such as Fujiwara no Michinaga (966–1027) and those around him. Thus, retired tennō Shirakawa (1053–1129) established magnificent temples and multiple stūpas as expressions of his grace, and his son Toba (1103–1156)—on better terms with the Fujiwaras—established the Shōkōmyō'in chapel and treasury (hōzō) near Kyoto, housing a Buddhist scriptural collection and other treasures in apparent imitation of the Fujiwara chapel Byōdō'in, also near Kyoto, which similarly featured an Amidist sanctuary and a scriptural treasury (kyōzō). This "royal culture" of powerful aristocrats and cloistered sovereigns, particularly with its emphasis on demonstrating largess and religious devotion as well as an increasing interest in acquiring knowledge of esoteric Buddhism—and influence over the clerical appointment system—was one of the primary factors that influenced Tendai and Shingon monks and temples of the medieval era. Under this influence, Buddhists increasingly sought to produce large iconographic collections (the first, Zuzō shō [ca. 1135–1141], was reputedly produced by order of Toba), to establish large treasuries of scriptures and other objects, and to specialize in particular tantric rites (shuhō) of concern to the royal family.

Buddhist accession rites and Shintō

Moreover, during the same period, particularly in the O'muro at Ninnaji, the enriching of esoteric Buddhist teachings with worship of native deities produced novel teachings and ritual practices that attempted to confer legitimacy on the ruler, and were later referred to as Goryū Shintō. At the latest, by Go-Uda's accession (late thirteenth century), the ruler often underwent an esoteric Buddhist consecration rite (sokui kanjō) as part of the accession process. The initiation of retired tennō Go-Daigo in the fourteenth century into what would later be deemed the "controversial" Tachikawa line of Shingon was, indeed, an elaboration of this trend. Moreover, the first use of the term Shintō was established in and through the so-called kenmitsu institutions of Shingon and Tendai. Even the emphasis on the three royal regalia was forged in the milieu of those institutions to legitimize royal rule amidst the impending split into rival lines: The jewel (magatama) was newly emphasized and was commonly compared to the wish-fulfilling jewel and Buddha relics of the treasuries of esoteric temples such as the Shingon temple Tōji.

In spite of the rising prominence of nativist scholars such as Motoori Norinaga (1730–1801), the royal family remained devoted Buddhists until the Meiji restoration in 1868, when mid-level samurai returned the Japanese government from Tokugawa warrior rule to royal rule in the name of the tennō. Rituals such as the Latter Seven-Day Rite were no longer held in the palace, and any public relationship between the royal family and the Buddhist community was dissolved—a government policy that has continued to the present.

See also:Aśoka; Meiji Buddhist Reform; Nationalism and Buddhism; Politics and Buddhism; Tachikawaryū


Abe Yasurō. "Hōju to Ōken: chūsei to mikkyō girei" (Jewels and royal authority: esoteric Buddhist rites and the medieval era). In Iwanami kōza tōyō shisō 16: Nihon shisō 2. Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1989.

Abe Yasurō. "Shukaku hosshinnō to inseiki no bukkyō bunka" (The prince-monk Shukaku and the Buddhist culture of the cloistered-rule era). In Inseiki no bukkyō, ed. Hayami Tasuku. Tokyo: Yoshikawa Kōbunkan, 1998.

Amino Yoshihiko. "Igyō no Ōken: Go-Daigo/Monkan/Kenkō" (Awful royal authority: Go-Daigo/Monkan/Kenkō). In Igyō no Ōken. Tokyo: Heibonsha, 1987.

Kamikawa Michio. "Accession Rituals and Buddhism in Medieval Japan." Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 17, no. 2/3 (1990): 243–280.

Maki Toshiyuki. "Go-Uda tennō no mikkyō juhō" (The ruler Go-Uda's initiation into esoteric Buddhism). In Kodai/chūsei no shakai to kokka, ed. Osaka Daigaku Bungakubu Nihonshi Kenkyūshitsu. Osaka, Japan: Seibundō, 1998.

Okano Kōji. "Mudoen senji/isshin ajari/sōzu chokunin" (Royal orders without official monastic identification/aristocraticappointed ācāryas/directly-appointed bishops). In Inseiki no bukkyō, ed. Hayami Tasuku. Tokyo: Yoshikawa Kōbunkan, 1998.

Ruppert, Brian D. Jewel in the Ashes: Buddha Relics and Power in Early Medieval Japan. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center and Harvard University Press, 2000.

Uejima Susumu. "Fujiwara no Michinaga to insei: Shūkyō to seiji" (Religion and politics: cloistered rule and Fujiwara no Michinaga). In Chūsei kōbu kenryoku no kōzō to tenkai, ed. Uwayokote Masataka. Tokyo: Yoshikawa Kōbunkan, 2001.

Brian O. Ruppert

About this article

Japanese Royal Family and Buddhism

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article