5 Japanese Religious Leaders That Transformed Japan

Updated on July 23, 2020
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ScribblingGeek earned a bachelor's degree in communication studies in 1999. His interests include history, traveling, and mythology.

Five religious leaders who shaped the current spiritual landscape of Japan with their thoughts and beliefs.
Five religious leaders who shaped the current spiritual landscape of Japan with their thoughts and beliefs.

1. En no Ozunu (役小角), AD 634–???

Shugendō (修験道) is a Japanese syncretic faith that incorporates Mahayana Buddhism, Vajrayana Buddhism, Chinese Taoism, and various Japanese shamanistic beliefs. The founder of the faith is widely accepted to be the ascetic En no Ozunu, although little is verifiable about this mysterious mystic. It is only said that he lived during the seventh century, that he perfected his supernatural abilities at Mount Katsuragi and the mountains of the Kumano region, and that even the Imperial Court valued his knowledge of herbal medicine.

Legends about En no Ozunu’s supernatural achievements are plentiful, though. For example, the ascetic is said to be served by two Japanese yokai (supernatural creature) named Zenki and Goki. The Heian Era compendium Shoyoku Nihongi also described En no Ozunu as capable of commanding natural spirits and ogres, and bounding them when they disobey.

While heading to China on a pilgrimage, the mystic was even said to have explained the wisdom of the Buddhist Lotus Sutra to 500 tigers while in the Korean Peninsula.

In addition, as the founder of Shugendō, En no Ozunu was the first Japanese yamabushi (山伏). The current distinctive appearance and practice of these mountain ascetics is largely based on classic depictions of En no Ozunu.

Shugendō itself continues to attract significant numbers of practitioners in Japan too, with the Three Mountains of Dewa in Yamagata Prefecture the most famous Shugendō pilgrimage site. In recent years, classic Shugendō practices, such as endurance testing under a raging waterfall, also found popularity with foreign visitors seeking more unique Japanese experiences.

Statue of En no Ozunu, with his servant yokai Zenki and Goki, at Kimpusen Temple.
Statue of En no Ozunu, with his servant yokai Zenki and Goki, at Kimpusen Temple.

2. Kukai (空海), Ad 774–835

More commonly referred to as Kōbō-Daishi (弘法大師, the master who propagated Buddhist doctrine) within Japan, the founder of the Shingon Branch of Japanese Buddhism is widely considered Japan’s most important historical religious leader.

In his 30s, he visited China, during which he received esoteric initiation from the Chinese Master Huiguo. Following Kukai’s return to Japan, he was notably involved in several significant public projects. Other than the important appointment of administrative head of Todai-ji, i.e. the Office of Priestly affairs, Kukai oversaw the construction of Kyoto’s Tō-ji and the restoration of the Manno Reservoir.

Lastly, he successfully petitioned Emperor Saga for permission to establish a mountain retreat at Mount Kōya. This retreat eventually became the headquarters of Japanese Shingon Buddhism. Shingon Buddhism also grew into one of Japan’s foremost Buddhism branches.

Today, temples, shrines, and historical sites honoring Kukai are found throughout Japan, including at remote locations such as the countryside of Shikoku. Some Shingon followers also believe that the master monk has not passed from this world but is still at Mount Kōya, “asleep” in a state of perpetual meditation. They believe that the master is patiently awaiting the arrival of Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future, while still watching over Japan.

Altar to Master Kukai at Daishoin, Miyajima.
Altar to Master Kukai at Daishoin, Miyajima. | Source

Creator of the Modern Japanese Language

Kukai is also credited with the creation of the Japanese Kana system of writing. Prior to the creation of the system, written Japanese entirely used Chinese logographic characters.

3. Saichō (最澄), Ad 767–822

A compatriot and personal friend of Kukai, Saichō was the founder of the influential Tendai School (天台宗) of Japanese Buddhism. He also established the famous Enryaku-ji monastery complex on the outskirts of Heian-kyō (Kyoto). In the centuries to follow, Enryaku-ji and the Tendai School will both play heavy roles in the religious and political landscapes of Japan.

Ordained at the age of 20 at Tōdai-ji, Saichō spent significant time at Mount Hiel (the future site of Enryaku-ji) meditating on Buddhist doctrine, following which he traveled to Tang Dynasty China on an official pilgrimage. During the journey, it is believed that he met Kukai, an encounter that developed into a long friendship.

After arriving in China, Saichō resided at Mount Tiantai where he was trained in Chinese Tiantai Buddhism methods of mediation, thought, and practice. After returning to Japan, Saichō worked tirelessly to achieve official recognition for a new school of Buddhist practice in Japan. His efforts paid off in AD 806 when Emperor Kammu permitted the establishment of the Tendai School headquarters on Mount Hiel.

Of note and as mentioned above, Enryaku-ji became a significant player in Japanese politics in subsequent centuries. At its peak, not only was the complex huge, it was home to a powerful army of warrior monks known as sōhei (僧兵).

This monastic army became so powerful, even leading Japanese warlords feared it. In 1571, Oda Nobunaga notoriously attacked and massacred the complex in an effort to squash potential military opposition. The monastery, however, ultimately survived the catastrophe and was rebuilt in the early years of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

In addition, one of the chief advisors of Tokugawa Ieyasu i.e. the first Tokugawa shogun, was a Tendai School priest named Tenkai (天海). In his role as advisor, Tenkai further cemented the role of the Tendai Buddhist School in Japanese pre-modern politics.

Historical portrait of Saichō, religious leader and founder of one of the most powerful branches of Japanese Buddhism in history.
Historical portrait of Saichō, religious leader and founder of one of the most powerful branches of Japanese Buddhism in history.

The First Japanese Tea Master

On another note, Master Saichō is also credited with introducing tea to Japan.

4. Shinran (親鸞), Ad 1173–1263

The founder of the Japanese Jōdo Shinshū (浄土真宗) School of Buddhism led a life full of tribulations.

Born an aristocrat in 1173, Shinran lost both parents early in life, a tragedy that was his first realization of the impermanence of life. Subsequent practice at Mount Hiel (see above) for 20 years then did not afford him enlightenment. Instead, he became more disillusioned than ever.

In frustration, Shinran retreated to Rokkaku-dō Temple to mediate. It was here that he supposedly experienced a vision of Avalokitesvara. The bodhisattva, in the form of legendary Prince Shotoku, directed Shinran to meet Hōnen (法然), another disillusioned monk.

Hōnen had by then developed the foundations for a new school of Buddhist Practice, one that emphasized possible salvation for all through the recitation of Buddha name chanting, or nembutsu (念仏). While historical documents seem to indicate Shinran as only a lesser disciple of Hōnen, it is widely accepted that Shinran inherited the mantle and ministry of his new master.

To exemplify Hōnen’s belief in possible salvation for anyone, and not just for the ordained, Shinran even married and publically ate meat. Both acts are unacceptable for Buddhists monks even today. The acts, naturally, also established a high degree of notoriety for Shinran.

In 1207, Shinran met his next major hurdle in enlightenment when nembutsu was banned by the Shogunate. Defrocked and exiled to remote Echigo (modern-day Niigata), Shinran renamed himself as the “foolish, bald one,” but continued to propagate his beliefs in nembutsu and salvation for all. He enjoyed significant popularity with the commoners of the countryside.

After the ban was lifted five years later, the self-styled religious leader did not return to the capital but instead relocated to a remote area in the Kantō region. 13 years later, in 1224, he completed his magnum opus i.e. the Kyōgyōshinshō, which laid the foundation for the future Jōdo Shinshū school. Shinran passed away in 1263 at the high age of 90. Today, the Jōdo Shinshū, or the True Pure Land Buddhism School, is the most widely practiced branch of Buddhism in Japan.

Historical portrait of Master Shinran. He experienced great tribulations in his pathway to enlightenment. He also led a colorful and controversial life unbound from classic Buddhist doctrines.
Historical portrait of Master Shinran. He experienced great tribulations in his pathway to enlightenment. He also led a colorful and controversial life unbound from classic Buddhist doctrines.

5. Nichiren (日蓮), Ad 1222–1282

Nichiren, founder of Japanese Nichiren Buddhism (日蓮仏教), is one of Japan’s most controversial historical religious leaders. If not the most.

During his lifetime, he was notorious for his negative views towards other schools of Japanese Buddhism. Vice versa, his staunch belief in possible enlightenment for all resonated with the common people of Japan. Nichiren’s doctrines also created a form of Buddhism practice that was far more accessible to commoners.

Born in 1222 in ancient Awa Province (modern-day Chiba Prefecture), Nichiren intensively studied Buddhism from the age of eleven, and in AD 1253, declared that the Lotus Sutra is the highest truth in Buddhism. With the repeated recitation of the name of the sutra a pathway to enlightenment.

His subsequent stinging criticisms of established schools of Buddhism in Japan then led to him exiled to the Izu Peninsula. After he was pardoned, he continued to aggressively promote his earlier views on Japanese Buddhism and politics. This included how he believed Japan’s crisis of then i.e. repeated invasion attempts by the Mongolian Empire, was due to the wrong form of Buddhism being practiced in Japan.

His strong opinions eventually irked so many religious and political leaders, he was sentenced to death. So it’s said, at the moment of execution, a brilliant orb appeared and incapacitated his executors with fear. After escaping death, Nichiren’s popularity continued to grow, culminating with the establishment of a new school of Lotus Buddhism i.e. Nichiren Buddhism.

Today, Nichiren Buddhism not only enjoys significant following in Japan, it has also expanded worldwide. It is also considered one of the largest and most ethnically diverse Buddhist groups in the world.

Statue of Master Nichiren at Nagasaki.
Statue of Master Nichiren at Nagasaki. | Source

© 2020 ScribblingGeek


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    • CYong74 profile imageAUTHOR


      5 weeks ago from Singapore

      Hi Alexender,

      That's another name I considered and came across while writing this article. I didn't include it though for I wasn't sure most Japanese would consider the founder as a key historical religious leader.

    • Guckenberger profile image

      Alexander James Guckenberger 

      5 weeks ago from Maryland, United States of America

      This is interesting. I am reminded of the founder of Konkokyo reading this.

    • manatita44 profile image


      6 weeks ago from london

      Yes, yes, and like Rumi, he is known by poets and scholars of the West. One day I will sing you our Japanese song. It is extremely beautiful!!

    • CYong74 profile imageAUTHOR


      6 weeks ago from Singapore

      Oh yes, Kukai was a renowned artist and poet too. As I wrote into hub, you can't travel Japan without encountering his legacy. :)

    • manatita44 profile image


      6 weeks ago from london

      Very interesting! I have heard of Nichiren and Kobi-daishi, the latter as a Haiku Master. They certainly wielded influence in Japan. Thanks.


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