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Buddhism made it's way from China into Japan as early as 467 when five monks from China traveled to Japan as stated in the Liang Shu, a Chinese Historical treatise. However, the "official" date at which Buddhism was introduced to Japan is set at 552 in the Japanese Nihon Shoki, a Japanese history documenting The Chronicles of Japan. In 552 a mission from Korea sent by Seong of Baekje (who he himself made Buddhism the state religion in his Kingdom of Kudara), included Buddhist monks, an image of Buddha and sutras.
Buddhism in Japan started out slow because 1.) Shinto, the native religion of Japan, was already strong, 2.) Buddhism was also a bit complicated for the every day person and 3.) repression by certain clans. However, when Empress Suiko openly encouraged the acceptance of Buddhism it gained ground and momentum. Once Buddhism finally did gain some traction there were some conflicts with Shinto at first but the two religions were soon able to co-exist and even complement each other.
During the Nara Period (710-794) many great Buddhist monasteries such as Todaiji were built in the capital of Nara and gained strong political influence. This is one of the reasons why the capital was moved out of Nara to Nagaoka in 784 and then Kyoto in 794, to escape the ever increasing power of Buddhist monks. Of course moving the capital to Kyoto had little effect as Buddhism soon followed and many incredible temples were built in Kyoto too. Not only did monasteries have religious power but during the Heian Period (794-1185) some monasteries even created formidable warriors called "Sohei", warrior monks that held considerable power. One of the most famous temples for these "Sohei" warriors is Enryaku Ji on Mount Hiei near Kyoto.
It was also during the Heian Period (794-1185) when two new sects of Buddhism, the Tendai sect in 805 by Saicho and the Shingon sect in 806 by Kukai, were introduced to Japan. These sects, especially the Tendai sect, branched further into more sects (Such as the Jodo sect in 1175 and the Jodo-Shinshu sect in 1224) during the Heian and continuing into the Kamakura Period (1185-1333). The Kamakura Period was also the time in which the most famous "Zen Sect" was introduced from China. Although the Zen beliefs were slightly complicated, Zen Buddhism was popular among the members of the military class. Interesting though is that in modern times, Zen Buddhism has more popularity outside of Japan than in Japan itself.
During the Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1573-1600) and Edo Period (1600-1868) Buddhism lost much of it's power in Japan as Shinto once again gained popularity and influence among the people, politicians and Imperial Family. Foreigners and their beliefs were pushed out and Japan closed itself off to the rest of the world. Furthermore, during the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912), the government was very "anti" Buddhist to the point of even trying to eradicate it. "Buddhism" was associated with the Shoguns (although the Shoguns themselves fought many battles with militant monasteries, especially the Jodo sects) and the Imperial Family/government wanted nothing to do with it. It was during the Meiji Restoration that Shinto became the "State Religion" and Buddhists found themselves in a very tricky situation... it was either listen and adopt to what the government wanted or... die.
Imperial Japan, (1912-End of World War 2) was another "tricky" time for Buddhism in Japan. Shinto was the "State" religion and Buddhists feared for the worst. The people, the military and the Imperial Family itself were all "super" pro-Shinto. Most all Buddhist temples supported Japan's Militarization (well... they had too), but a few defied this new militaristic Japan and found themselves targeted and "banned" by the military. Most Buddhist temples and sects managed to navigate this troubling time very shrewdly and survived the Imperial Japan period.
After the war and "Fall of Shinto", Buddhism once again started to once again take the lead in religious beliefs in Japan but the "level" of belief has waned. Japan has seen a growth in post war movements of "Lay Believers" of Buddhism... those who "think" they are Buddhist but really don't understand why or how. Most Japanese practice Buddhism (and Shinto) in one way or the other (around 90% of Japanese funerals are conducted according to Buddhist beliefs) and most know the customs and or basic beliefs but do not "practice" Buddhism on a regular basis.
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