Was the Japanese Buddhist Mission to Korea an attempt by the Japanese to gain political control?

Various Japanese Buddhist sects sent missionaries to Korea under the notion that they were to protect Japanese citizens in Korea. Hwansoo Ilmee Kim proves this to be very much the opposite in Empire of the Dharma; Korean and Japanese Buddhism.  Throughput chapter 3, Kim explores three different sects of Buddhism and what their respective missionaries achieved. In order to answer the overarching question, a sub-question must be asked. Where the missionaries really missionaries or were they politician’s in disguise?

I will take the example of Okumura Enshin of the Higashi Honganji (Otani-ha) sect and Sano Zenrei of the Nichirenshu sect as my two case studies; these two studies will be compared and contrasted in order to find a suitable answer.

Okumura Enhsin was a prominent figure in the Korean court, and he went as far as converting Yi Tong’in who would later become a prominent  Korean official to Higashi Honganji. In this case, it can be argued that Enshin’s influence was that of a politician as he was able to exert control over a prominent official. However, this can be discounted because even though Yi did convert his name to a Japanese one because of Enshin. Yi still advocated for pro-Korean reform and tried to push Korean favor internationally. On the other hand, Kim does make clear that Enhsin had an aim of converting like-minded officials to Higasho Honganji. Overall, in this stance it can be argued that Enhsin was a political monk and that he aimed to exert political control in Korea, in terms of speaking of Japanese political control it can be clearly argued that Enshin’s main aim was to push the Japanese favor, Kim makes this very clear by quoting Elliot Griffs by stating “Christianity has made in its ranks in Japan, but is determined to forestall the exertions of Christian missionary in the Korean peninsula.” While the political influence may not seem evident at first when a historical narrative is added, it makes the political influence clear. Japan had outlawed Christianity as it was becoming too ingrained in their society and was beginning to encroach on their political system, and thus they went into isolation. When Japan re-emerged from isolation, they gradually became the dominant power in East Asia and Korea was its closest landmass, and therefore, in order to make its mark the most important. By trying to persuade another country to abandon an religion and to further your interests is a very political move. This is precisely what Enhsin is doing and what he succeeded to an extent to do, however when his main political alliances died and disappeared the Higashi Hinganji were then replaced by Nichirenshu. The fact that Enshin lost favor not because of religion but because of his political motive speaks volumes about his role as a politician. Therefore, it can be argued the Buddhist Missions to Korea was to gain political control.


Sano Zenrei was one of the most successful missionaries in the Buddhist missions. However, his achievements are considerably diminished in history. He paved the way for Japanese control and the success of Nishi Honganji (Honganji-ha). Unlike Enshin, Zenrei’s immediate aim was to gain the favor of the imperial family and get the anti-Buddhist law lifted. Zenrei was successful in this, even though the law was re-enacted three years later, this was the first significant breakthrough for the Japanese in the Korean court. The fact that Zenrei was able to lift the ban shows the amount of political clout that he had. His approach was looked down on by other monks. Who believed that monks should stay in their traditional roles instead of being invested in politics. Zenrei’s breakthrough in the Korean government was a success for the Japanese instead of the Koreans. With this being said, Zenrei is looked down on because he was a Japanese monk who succeeded while other Koreans did not. Once again, the Japanese political clout is being seen. This level of political clout can only really be attributed to a politician instead of a monk. While Zenrei was a monk, he had left Japan due to resistance of his own sect and came to Korea in order to preach. When taking this into account, as he was technically ostracised from his sect, he was not working for a religious aim but more for a political objective as he would not have succeeded as far as he did not have political backing. Therefore it can be concluded that Zenrei was more of a politician than a monk, and the Buddhist mission were more of a political move than a religious one.

Overall, when looking at the two case studies, there is strong political presences and religion is instead regulated to the background and is seen as more of a thinly veiled excuse for Japanese citizens to be in Korea. Therefore it is not out width the realm of possibility that the Buddhist Missions were more of political move on the Japanese’s part to gain some control of the government prior to the annexation of Korea.