Japan: Peeps at History - John Finnemore

The Coming of Buddhism

The brother of the Emperor came to the throne under the title of Yuriyaku Tenno. He was a very violent man, and we read that he slew another prince of the royal house. This prince had two young sons whose names were Oke and Woke, that is, Great Basket and Little Basket. After the death of their father these boys fled to a distant province to hide themselves, and there became cowherds, and were safe from the anger of the Emperor Yuriyaku. Many stories of Yuriyaku are told among the Japanese. Once he was making an imperial journey when he espied a house built with a raised roof in the style of a royal palace. He demanded the name of the owner, and was told it belonged to a noble named Shiki. The Emperor flew into a rage and ordered that the house should be burned down at once. But Shiki made haste to seek pardon. He prostrated himself before the angry ruler and humbly begged forgiveness for being so stupid as to build such a house. And he offered a present, a white dog wearing a coat of cloth and led by a cord. The Emperor was pleased with the dog, so he forgave Shiki and the house was not destroyed.

Upon another journey he saw a beautiful girl washing clothes in a river. He talked with her, and when he was leaving the place he said to her, "Do not thou marry a husband. I will send messengers to conduct thee to my palace." Then he went on his journey and all thought of the poor girl passed from his mind. But though the Emperor had forgotten, the maiden did not forget. Year after year she expected the messengers but they came not. And the years went by until she had become an old woman. But she had received the all-powerful command of the Emperor and she still waited. At last she said to herself, "My face and form are lean and withered; there is no longer any hope for me at the palace, where all the attendants are young and beautiful. And yet, if I do not show my mighty sovereign how truly I have awaited his command, the disappointment will be more than I can bear." So she took such humble gifts as were at her command, and went to the palace and laid them before the Emperor.

[Illustration] from Peeps at History - Japan by John Finnemore


He looked with surprise upon the poor gifts and upon the withered form which was humbly bent before him. "What old woman art thou?" demanded the Emperor, "and why dost thou come before my throne?" Then she said, "On such and such a day in such and such a year I received the command of my sovereign that I was to await the coming of messengers to conduct me to the palace. And I have waited through many, many years, and now all hope has gone. Nevertheless, at the last I have come to show that I was faithful to my lord's behest." And the Emperor was filled with sorrow and cried out: "I had utterly forgotten my command; and thou hast spent the years of thy prime in vain, waiting for a summons that came not. It is too pitiful." So he gave the old woman many rich presents, and consoled her as well as he could.

When Yuriyaku died he was followed by his son. Five years later the son died, and now there was no one to fill the throne. There had been such fierce quarrels in the royal family and so many princes had been slain that no heir of the true blood seemed to exist. Search was made on every hand but all in vain, and no one knew anything of the two young princes Oke and Woke, who had fled to a distant part of the land when their father was slain by Yuriyaku.

Now it happened that a new Governor was sent to this distant province, and one of the first things that he did was to attend at a feast made by a rich man. It was in the household of this man that Oke and Woke were serving as humble labourers. After the feast there was drinking and dancing and singing, and the two princes, now young men, were called upon by their master to sing and dance, for they were famous among their fellows for their gifts. They could sing songs which no one else had heard, songs which they had learned in their boyhood at the Court of the Emperor, and not taught in any other place. When they came forward, the Governor, fresh from the Court, listened to them in great surprise. How came it that these cowherds could sing famous Court songs, such as common people were not allowed to learn? He made inquiries, and found at length that the cowherds were really princes and members of the imperial family. He brought them to the palace, and their friends gathered around them, and in turn they became emperors and ruled over Japan.

There is no name of great importance among the rulers that followed until we come to the time of the Empress Suiko, who held sway from 593 to 628. Under her the land was really ruled by her nephew, Shokotu Taishi, a name which means "Great Teacher of the Divine Virtue." This name was given to him because he was the principal founder of Buddhism in Japan, and the Japanese Buddhists still hold his memory in great reverence. Many stories are told of Shokotu. It is said that he could talk as soon as he was born, and that he had so strong a memory as never to forget a name, a face, or a fact which he had once seen or known. He had a wonderful power of attending to many things at the same moment. He could listen to eight suitors at once and give a proper answer to each of them. Because of this he was known among the people by a title which meant Prince of Eight Ears.

Shokotu became a very earnest Buddhist, and took as his teacher a priest who had come over from Korea. He built many Buddhist temples, and great men who wished to win his favour built others, and Buddhism rapidly spread and pushed aside the older Shinto faith. But it only pushed it aside, it did not destroy it. So strongly was the ancestor-worship planted in the hearts of the people that the Buddhist priests were compelled to accept it, and the Buddhist temple and the Shinto temple stood side by side—nay, more, very often the same priest did duty in both temples. Shinto-worship had been a very simple affair. The Shinto follower paid homage to the gods whom he considered to have been the ancestors of the Emperor, to the memory of great men, and offered up prayers to the gods of wind and fire and pestilence, and to the domestic gods who were supposed to rule over his home, the goddess of food, the deities who had under their charge the kitchen, the gate, and the cauldron. But the Shinto priest had no sacred book and taught no code of morals; he spoke neither of heaven nor hell, he did not say that this thing was good and that was bad, but men were left to do as they pleased.

Buddhism changed all that. It brought in sacred books and uttered the first commandments which the Japanese had ever heard. It forbade lying, stealing, intemperance, murder, and other forms of evil-doing. It reared splendid temples filled with chanting priests, who marched in processions before altars decked with flowers and blazing with candles, while clouds of incense filled the air. All the active minds of Japan followed Shokotu in supporting this new faith, and Buddhism became triumphant.

The adoption of this faith brought about a great change in the habits of the people. The Old Japanese ate flesh as freely as any other food. Buddhism forbids the taking of life, and so its disciples must forego a meat diet. Yet the Buddhist rule was never strictly observed in Japan, for fish continued to be eaten, and under cover of this concession meat was sometimes sold. For instance, over certain cook-shops appeared a notice that "mountain whale" could be obtained there. Now those who understood purchased this "mountain whale," and obtained for their money excellent venison, procured from the herds of deer which swarm in some parts of the country: the sign was a pious fraud. Still, speaking broadly, it may be said that the Japanese abandoned meat as a regular article of food on the adoption of Buddhism.

[Illustration] from Peeps at History - Japan by John Finnemore


Shokotu died in 622, and it is said that two years before his death the earliest chronicle of Japanese history had been put together. We can easily believe that this had been carried out under the sway of so wise and good a ruler, who strove his utmost to do his best for Japan, but no trace of this book is left: it is believed that it was burned in 645. But the work was not delayed for long. In 673 the Emperor Temmu came to the throne, and he gave orders that the ancient traditions and records should be arranged and set down in one book. There was an officer of the household who had a wonderful memory, and as the records were arranged this man learned them by heart. But the Emperor died in 686, long before the work was finished, and for twenty-five years the chronicle lay in the memory of the officer. An empress succeeded, and by her orders the traditions were set down at the dictation of him who had learned them, and the chronicle thus made exists to the present day. Eight years later a second chronicle was published, and upon these two books rests much of the authority for the life of Old Japan.