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Korean Buddhism and the Influence of Japanese Buddhists in Korea during the Colonial Period

By Edited Jan 6, 2016 0 0


Korean Buddhism was reformed in the late Choson dynasty.In this article, I will examine the impact of the Japanese missionaries who arrived in Korea from 1870 onwards. The two main sources used in this article are Henrich Sorensen's 'Japanese Buddhist Missionaries and their impact on the revival of Korean Buddhism at the close of the Choson dynasty' and Robert Buzzwell Junior's 'Imagining Korean Buddhism'.

My main argument is that despite the aim of the colonising Japanese government being to control the Korean population, the overall impact of the missionaries on Korean Buddhism was a positive one.

Historical Background

The Kyoto Dynasty (935-1392) was one of spleandour for Korean Buddhism. However, towards  the end of the Choson Dynasty (1392-1912), things had begun to change. In the early Seventeenth Century, anti-Buddhism laws meant that it was forbidden for monks or nuns to enter the main cities, or the capital Soeul. These laws were primarily created by the neo-confucian government to prevent monks from engaging in politics. However, they were later used as a means of surpressing Buddhism.

So, the Eighteenth Century saw a steady decline in Korean Buddhism, with a bad economy, and a falling number of monks.  The first half of the Nineteenth century saw a few limited efforts to revive.  An important factor to bear in mind here is that Buddhism in Japan was at this time going through the Meiji Reform. The Jodo and Nichiren schools of Buddhism saw themselves as modern representatives of Japanese Buddhism, and began to travel to Korea.

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Japanese Missionaries head for Korea

In 1876, the Kanghua treaty was signed, and meant that Korea had to open three ports to Japanese trade. The first Japanese missionaries arrived in Korea in 1877, exactly one year later.  Their primary aim was initially to teach the Japanese immigrants. However, the secondary aim was that the Japanese government of the time saw this as an opportunity to control the Korean population.

The Jodo Shinshu and the Jodo school were the most active amongst the missionaries. The first school to send Japanese missionaries to Korea was the Otani branch of the Jodo Shinshu. The Honpa Honganji of the Jodo Shinshu began operating in 1894.

The Nichiren school's first missionary was Wanatabe. This school was successful until the late 1890's. The Soto school (Zen) had only a minor influence. The Shingon school, however offered no impact on the Korean Buddhist population. It had three small temples, which catered only for the Japanese.


The impact of Okumura should be considered because his work demonstrates that Japanese missionaries had their best interests in the good of the Koreans. Okumura set up social facilities including a primary school for the children of the Japanese immigrants and a language school for the monks. The Koreans set up merchant's guilds to protect local markets from the threat of cheaper and mass produced goods. In 1881, Okumura mediated an incident in which the government overseer of the wonsan market was attacked by a mob of Japanese. He won the good will of the locals.

Sano Jenrei

Sano Jenrei, who arrived in Korea in 1895 believed that to spread his teachings, it was essential to have the anti-Buddhist ban lifted. After 400 years, the ban was lifted that same year that Sano Jenrei entered. This was firstly due to political pressure and secondly due to Sano's close co-operation with the Japanese authorities.

The lifting of the bad increased missionary priests conversion efforts greatly. The Jodo Shinshu began converting amongst the local Koreans and the Nichiren schools among the Korean Monks. This led to a rapid expansion of the Korean Buddhist community. Buddhist hospitals and education welfare centres were put on a par with those created by the Christian missionaries from the Western World.


Yi Hoe-Gwang

Yi Hoe-Gwang (1840-1925) was a pro-Japanese Monk who attemped to merge the Soto and Won schools. In 1910, Yi travelled to Japan to negotiate the details of this 'merger' with the head of the Soto school. The failure of this caused a major split in the Korean Sangha between the anti-Japanese and the pro Japanese.

The 'Japanisation' of the Korean Clergy

A major difference made to Korean Buddhism at this time was the Japanisation of the Korean Clergy, allowing the clergy to marry. A charge in markhood was, of course, a radical move. The results were drastic - approximately 50% of the clergy disrobed and a further 40% got married.  For married clergy, monks were tied down and less able to travel. Their families needed some source of guaranteed income and they took out private properties and employment.  This meant less time for meditation and religious practice.

Korean Buddhism and the Dragon King Beliefs

Buzzwell argues that there is a link between Korean Buddhism and the Dragon King beliefs. The Mahayana Nagas were uncovered at the bottom of the sea. By emulating from these mythical beliefs, Korean Buddhism integrated itself into the Buddhist macro-culture. Arguably, there is no distinctive Korean Buddhism anyway, because most Korean schools are Chinese.

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The Overall Impact of Japanese Missionaries on Korean Buddhism

It is indeed true that the Japanese Buddhist missionaries had a negative effect on Koreans since 1910. Marriage weakened the spritual level and committment of the Sangha. Also, the pro and anti-Japanese split made it impossible for the Sangha to set up a unified front against the local government.

However, three Korean schools were directly influenced by Buddhist Missionaries: The Chanhua, Chingak and Hsing schools. Also, two denominations were directly influenced - Taego and Won Pulgyo. After 1945, the Korean Buddhist Sangha strove to rid itself of the Japanese influence.

However, I would argue that without the Japanese missionaries, it is doubtful whether Korean Buddhism would have become the lively, popular movement that it is today. Many sincere Japanese Buddhists help the Korean Buddhists to throw off what Sprensen refers to as the 400 year old Confucian straight jacket, so it could be returned to it's former glory.

So, What is Korean Buddhism?

In my opinion, there is a religious and ethnic Korean Buddhism that has been evidently shaped and influenced by the Japanese missionaries in the late Choson Dynasty.



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