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Robert Van Bergen

Buddhism Brought to Japan

The Japanese must  believe that their emperor is a god. They are allowed to believe anything else besides this, and neither the emperor nor the government cares, so long as they remain faithful in that one point. When, therefore, missionaries from other countries come, they are allowed to preach whatever they please, but if any one should dare express a doubt about the emperor's being a god, the punishment would be swift and sure.

In the seventh century such missionaries came from Korea, and taught the Japanese how to work in metal and in wood, to make porcelain, and to raise silkworms and make silk. The Japanese were very glad to learn all this, for they are an industrious people, and always glad to be taught anything that may benefit them. But some of these missionaries also preached a new religion, and told them that Buddha (boo-dah)  was the greatest of all gods. Some of the Japanese liked this new religion, and became Buddhists, that is, believers in Buddha. This did not at all interfere with their belief in the emperor. The missionaries had brought with them images of Buddha, and they wanted temples in which to place them. So one nobleman gave them his house and they made a temple of it. But it happened that just then a pestilence swept over the country, and it was rumored that the emperor's ancestors, who had all become gods, were angry at having a rival. So the people burned this new temple and flung the image of Buddha into the sea. But after that another pestilence broke out; and besides this, there was a severe earthquake, and a flood which drowned a great many people along the coast. This frightened the people, for they imagined that Buddha was angry. So they built a new temple, and afterwards a great many more.


Temple in Tokyo

Until the missionaries came, the Japanese did not know how to read and write. The Koreans had learned these arts from the Chinese, and they now taught them to the people of Japan. Chinese writing is very difficult to learn; for instead of having letters from which all words can be formed, the Chinese have a character for each separate word. But the Japanese are hard students and learn quickly, so they not only mastered the Chinese way of writing, but later went one step farther; they modified the signs and made them stand for sounds, and now they have, in addition to their characters representing words, a syllabary or table of forty-seven signs for syllables. Books were brought over from Korea, and very soon the Japanese began to write the history of their country, a part of which I have told you.

All this made great changes in Japan. Up to this time, every able-bodied man had been a warrior whenever war broke out. But now only the strongest were taken, and the old and weak were left to till the rice fields or to engage in other business. The warriors were the most powerful of all the people. Next in rank came the farmers, then the mechanics, and last of all, the merchants or traders.

But the greatest change was in the court of the emperor. There had been no war for some time, and the emperors having little to do, passed their time in reading the books brought over from Korea. That they might not be disturbed, they appointed ministers to attend to the collection of the taxes, to see that the people kept at their work, to protect the weak, and to punish offenders. So, after some time, these ministers grew accustomed to have all the power, and when a new emperor ascended the throne who showed signs that he wanted to reign himself, his ministers quickly had his head shaved; that is, they made a Buddhist priest of him, shut him up in a convent or cloister, and put his son, if he had any, or else some nephew or cousin, on the throne.


Buddhist priests.

The people did not know anything of what was going on in the big palace where the emperor lived. They were taught and believed firmly that he was a god, and his ministers took good care that he was never seen outside the walls around the palace grounds. If he ever did go out, he was placed in a sort of cage fastened to a bullock cart, and hidden from view by bamboo curtains. The houses of each street through which he passed were ordered to be closed, and the windows covered with shutters; and those who happened to be in such a street were compelled to kneel down, their hands fiat on the ground before them, and their heads bent low upon the hands. Most of the emperors from that time on were mere babies, who, as soon as they were old enough to show a will of their own, were quickly and quietly placed in a convent. But you will see, as we proceed, that the men who were in power did not use their authority to oppress the people and make themselves rich. They thought what they did was best for Japan, and they did not care for wealth.


Emperor Kwammu.

The first real capital was at Nara (nah-rah). If ever you visit Japan, you must not fail to make an excursion to this place, which is within a short distance of Kyoto (kee-yoh-toh)  and Osaka (oh-sah-kah). It is situated in the south-central part of the island of Hondo, in a most beautiful spot, on the edge of a fertile plain surrounded by mountains. You may still see the long avenues of old trees, and some of the grand temples, once so plentiful, but now so few that the Japanese call them "ruins among the rice fields." Those that are left have finely colored paintings and images of gilded bronze; and near one of them is a huge statue of Buddha, also made of bronze. At eventide you will hear a loud and melodious booming. It is from the great bell, struck at that time, and on calm days it can be heard at a distance of twenty miles.

From Nara the capital was transferred to Kyoto, also in a most beautiful location. All foreigners coming to Japan are certain to visit that old city, which remained the capital until 1868. There they find not only a great number of temples, but streets with stores, where the finest products of Japanese art are for sale. There are dainty silks, beautifully carved metals, porcelain,—so thin that it is almost transparent,—and articles in lacquer ware, for which these people are famous all over the world. And with all this, it is such a queer city! There are houses nestling on crags against the mountain side. And if you go at night near the dry bed of the river, you may witness a scene that seems as if taken from the Arabian Nights,—thousands of booths, each lit up with the many-colored paper lanterns, a countless number of which seem to be flitting to and fro. These lanterns are carried by people who go in and out of the booths, where they seem to be having a perpetual picnic. For the Japanese, when they go out after dark, always carry a lighted lantern, to prevent accidents.


The emperor's court.

But now, as the court is established in quaint old Kyoto, I must tell you of the clans of Japan.