In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Buddhism in Japan

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Digital Resources
  • Modern and Contemporary Buddhism
  • Combinatory Practices
  • Site-Specific Studies
  • Intellectual History
  • Social and Cultural History
  • Ritual Studies
  • Buddhism and the State

Buddhism Buddhism in Japan
Lori Meeks
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 November 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 November 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0080


European missionaries and philologists undertook the earliest Western-language studies of Japanese Buddhism. In North America, the study of Japanese Zen gained popularity during the period before World War II, largely through the efforts of D. T. Suzuki. The establishment in the United States of Japanese studies centers during the postwar period, combined with the growth of religious studies departments in the 1950s and 1960s, has also played an essential role in the rise of Western-language research on Japanese Buddhism. Until recent decades, studies of Japanese Buddhism tended to focus on the Kamakura period (1186–1333 CE), which scholars once regarded as the era during which Japanese Buddhism became “Japanese.” Although researchers deconstructed this view in the 1980s, its legacy is still evident in the disproportionate number of studies focused on the founders and teachings of the more prominent of the “new schools” of Kamakura Buddhism: Pure Land, True Pure Land, Nichiren, and Zen. Linked to this scholarly admiration of the Kamakura period was a certain distaste for the periods that came before and after, especially the Heian (794–1185), early modern, or Tokugawa (1603–1868), modern, and contemporary periods. Before the Kamakura period, the accepted scholarly narrative held, Japanese Buddhism was an elite tradition unconcerned with the needs of commoners, and after the medieval period, it fell into a state of degeneracy. Over the past several decades scholars have challenged this narrative and have encouraged the study of neglected historical periods. Reflecting larger trends in the study of religion, early work on Japanese Buddhism also tended to focus on doctrine, scripture, and charismatic religious founders or leaders. As larger shifts in the humanities began to influence religious studies, literary, cultural, and social-historical studies of Japanese Buddhism became popular, especially during the 1990s and 2000s. This period also saw the expansion of local histories and site-specific studies, which ground the study of Japanese Buddhism in particular cultural and geographical contexts. In recent decades scholars have also confronted the largely anachronistic narratives of sectarian scholarship, which sought to locate the roots of modern Japanese sects in premodern history. New studies on combinatory practices and site-specific cults, for example, move beyond the sectarianism characterized by much early scholarship and also emphasize the historically constructed nature of categories such as “Buddhism” and “Shinto.” This bibliography begins with the basics: General Overviews, Digital Resources, and Primary Sources in Translation. From there, works have been organized thematically rather than chronologically, with one exception: studies of Modern and Contemporary Buddhism have been grouped together.

General Overviews

The best English-language introductions to the study of Japanese Buddhism are Bowring 2005 and Swanson and Chilson 2006. Bowring’s work, written as a single narrative, contains a detailed synthesis of English-language work on Japanese Buddhism. The Swanson and Chilson volume, in contrast, is a multiauthored work featuring up-to-date introductions to various subfields in the study of Japanese religions, and practical advice for scholars and graduate students undertaking research in these subfields. For undergraduate courses, Earhart 2004 remains the most accessible textbook, though instructors may find it useful to supplement this work with passages from Kasahara 2001 and Matsuo 2007. Blacker 1986 is a classic in the field, though parts of this work are now outdated. Matsunaga and Matsunaga 1974 and Kashiwahara, et al. 1994 both employ methodological approaches that are now considered outdated, but they may be useful reference works if read with a critical eye.

  • Blacker, Carmen. The Catalpa Bow: A Study of Shamanistic Practices in Japan. 2d ed. London: Allen & Unwin, 1986.

    Groundbreaking in its holistic approach, this ethnographic study examines large trends in Japanese religions that exceed simple categories like “Buddhism,” “Shinto,” and “folk tradition.” Some details are now out of date, though, so readers may want to supplement Blacker’s classic work with a more recent overview of Japanese religions.

  • Bowring, Richard John. The Religious Traditions of Japan, 500–1600. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

    Excellent, up-to-date summary of English-language scholarship on Japanese religions. Focuses primarily on Buddhism, although Bowring does make important contributions to scholarly dialogue about the medieval emergence of “Shinto.”

  • Earhart, H. Byron. Japanese Religion: Unity and Diversity. 4th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth-Thomson Learning, 2004.

    Comprehensive yet accessible textbook for undergraduate students of Japanese religions.

  • Kasahara, Kazuo, ed. A History of Japanese Religion. Translated by Paul McCarthy and Gaynor Sekimori. Tokyo: Kōsei, 2001.

    Lengthy (648 pp.) collection of essays on religious life in Japan, spanning from prehistoric times through the contemporary period. Because the book is a translation of a Japanese volume first published in 1977, it does not represent cutting-edge research in the field. Many will still find it useful for the classroom, though.

  • Kashiwahara, Yūsen, Kōyū Sonoda, and Kōyū Sonoda. Shapers of Japanese Buddhism. Translated by Gaynor Sekimori. Tokyo: Kōsei, 1994.

    Translation of a 1968 work focusing on the lives of great monks who “shaped” the development of Japanese Buddhism. Although this “great man” approach to the study of religion is quite outdated, readers may find the book a useful as a reference work full of biographical data on major monastic figures.

  • Matsunaga, Daigan, and Alicia Matsunaga. Foundation of Japanese Buddhism. 2 vols. Los Angeles: Buddhist Books International, 1974.

    Example of the now outdated view that the Buddhism of the Heian period was “aristocratic,” while that of the Kamakura and Muromachi periods can be characterized as a “mass movement.” Also exemplifies the sectarian emphasis of early scholarship on Japanese Buddhism. That said, these volumes do provide a wealth of historical detail, and their attention to doctrinal tenets is also useful.

  • Matsuo, Kenji. A History of Japanese Buddhism. Folkestone, UK: Global Oriental, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1163/ej.9781905246410.i-280

    Great factual overview for those new to the field. Although the analysis presented here is overly general and even simplistic in places, the book is dense with useful data—both historical and contemporary—not readily found in other English-language introductory volumes.

  • Swanson, Paul, and Clark Chilson, eds. Nanzan Guide to Japanese Religions. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2006.

    Must-have reference work for graduate students in Japanese studies. In addition to state-of-the-field essays by major scholars in the field, this book also contains numerous “how-to” essays that walk readers through the challenges of conducting fieldwork in Japan.

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