Colonial Korea – Korean Buddhism from 1876 – 1910

In Front of the Daeung-jeon Hall at Tongdosa Temple in 1915. (Picture Courtesy of the National Museum of Korea).


The modern relationship found between Japanese and Korean Buddhism can be divided into two distinct time periods. The two time periods are from 1876-1910 and 1910-1945. For the purposes of this post, we’ll primarily be focusing on the first of these two time periods in this relationship. This time period, from 1876-1910, was first established when a Japanese Buddhist branch temple was built in Busan in 1877, which was one year after Japan forcibly opened Korea through the Japan–Korea Treaty of 1876.

This pre-colonial period ended some three and a half decades later in 1910 when Japan annexed Korea and promulgated the Temple Ordinance (jisatsu rei) in 1911. Rather interestingly, the earlier pre-colonial period between Korean and Japanese Buddhism was far more dynamic and less formalized than the subsequent 35 years of colonial occupation.

The Japan–Korea Treaty of 1876. (Picture courtesy of Wikipedia).

The Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) remained a Chinese-oriented nation that refused to receive envoys. This bothered the Japanese, who wanted a more diplomatic policy based on modern state-to-state relations. This was done through force, and eventually the Japan–Korea Treaty of 1876 was signed on February 26, 1876. This treaty opened up Joseon to the Japanese, while also terminating Joseon’s status as a tributary state of the Qing Dynasty (1636–1912). In the process, three ports were opened to Japanese trade in Busan, Incheon, and Wonsan. But not only did this treaty open Joseon up to economic trade and commerce, but it also allowed for cross-cultural contact like Japanese Buddhist missionaries to the Korean Peninsula

It’s during this pre-colonial period that numerous Japanese Buddhist missionaries travelled to the Korean Peninsula to “assist” Korean monks in modernizing Korean Buddhism through the establishment of modern schools for monastics and a central office for the newly formed Korean Buddhist administration. It’s also at this time that Korean Buddhists start to enter the volatile political and social climate at this time in the waning years of the Joseon Dynasty. In fact, numerous Korean monastics turned to Japanese Buddhists for political and social institutional support. Examples of this support were especially prevalent after Japan made Korea a protectorate in 1905. At this time, Korean monastics turned to Japanese priests for protection against growing exploitation at the hands of local Korean officials and Japanese police. Additionally, anti-Japanese armies forced temples to act as their bases, while threatening the Korean temples if they didn’t comply. So by registering their temples as branches of with Japanese Buddhist (and the backing Japanese authorities), Korean monastics believed it would provide them with a modicum of protection.

So, in a way, both Japanese and Korean Buddhist relied and used each other for their own interests during the pre-colonial period. Korean Buddhists used Japanese Buddhists for protection and modernization, while Japanese Buddhists used Korean Buddhists to gain a foothold in their expansionist missionary policies for Japan. And it’s to this dynamic that we now turn.

The Japan-Korea Treaty of 1876: First Missionaries

After the Japan–Korea Treaty of 1876 was signed, the southern port city of Busan was opened to Japanese merchants. Over less than a decade, the port cities of Wonsan in 1879 and Incheon in 1884, were also opened to the Japanese. At this time, the Japanese population was quite small in Korea. However, after the Japanese victory in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, the Japanese population on the Korean Peninsula rapidly increased.

The Battle of Phungdo as part of the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895. (Picture courtesy of Wikipedia).

Many of these Japanese immigrants were in fact Japanese Buddhists and Buddhist monks. These monks mainly came to Korea at first to serve their own people. However, upon their arrival, these Japanese missionary monks quickly realized that Korean Buddhism was “failing.” So it was at this time that these Japanese missionary monks decided that “Korean Buddhism must rely on Japanese monks to survive,” whether the Korean Buddhists knew or wanted it.

Japanese Buddhism

Korean Buddhism is a form of Mahayana Buddhism. However, because of the Neo-Confucian movement during the Joseon Dynasty that suppressed Korean Buddhism, Korean Buddhism started to falter because of the dominant lineage-oriented practices of Seon Buddhism in Korea. Because Korean Seon Buddhism was attacked on most sides, those practicing were highly reduced in their numbers; and in turn, they weren’t able to transmit these teachings and traditions to the next generation of monastics. Simply put, political decisions were having a dire effect on the once healthy practices of the Buddhist traditions on the Korean Peninsula.

A map of Japan during the Azuchi–Momoyama period. (Picture courtesy of Wikipedia).

Around the same time, Japanese Buddhism didn’t have strong political support either during the Azuchi–Momoyama period (1573-1600), which was the final phase of the Sengoku period (1477 – 1573), and the Edo period (1600-1868). At this time, Japanese Buddhism was in full-out competition with both Neo-Confucianism (like in Korea) and Shinto beliefs. Japanese Buddhism would slowly lose this battle of influence, which would come under strict state control. While the emperor was the object of worship as a living god in Shinto beliefs, Buddhist beliefs were banned by order of the Meiji era (1868-1912) government in 1868. It was at this time that Japanese Buddhist temples and their priceless art were either destroyed or sold. This strong anti-Buddhist policy saw Japanese Buddhists not only marginalized but also persecuted, as well. It made Japanese Buddhists appear as though they were the enemy as Japan took a Japan-first policy with a form of Shinto freed from “foreign” Buddhist influences. It was a political movement that was attempting to free the Japanese spirit from outside/foreign corrupting influences and Buddhism was on the frontline of this social and political debate. In reality, the policies were xenophobic and helped Japan build upon their expansionist policies with Korea, Manchuria, and Taiwan squarely in their sights.

This form of submissive and compliant Japanese Buddhism would have devastating long-term effects on Japanese Buddhism’s institutional support of Japan’s overarching nationalistic goals towards its neighbours. And it’s in this regard that Japanese Buddhist missionaries first entered the Korean Peninsula as immigrants. In total, there were seven major settlements of Japanese Buddhism in pre-colonial Joseon built by these migrants. There was the Otani-shin of Pure Land Buddhism, The Honpa Hongan-ji Branch of the True Sect of Pure Land Buddhism, Jodo-shu, Shingon-shu, Nichiren-shu, Soto Zen, and Rinzai-shu.

Difference and Similarities between Korean and Japanese Buddhism

While there were some similarities between Japanese and Korean Buddhism at this time, there were also differences, as well. For instance, because of their persecution in Korea, as well as because of the individual centred nature of Seon Buddhism, Korean Buddhists and their temples were often located away from urban areas in the mountains of the Korean Peninsula.

In contrast, Japanese temples in Japan were typically located in urban areas. This was then replicated in Korea with Japanese Buddhist temples. And when Korean monks were finally able to re-enter urban areas after 1895, Korean Buddhists started building temples in these urban areas like in Seoul. In addition to these newer temples being built in urban areas, the construction of roads also brought once isolated mountain temples closer to cities through the construction of roadways and railway lines.

Another change that was adapted by Koreans from Japanese Buddhism first took place in Japanese Buddhism in April, 1872, when a government edict ended the status of Japanese Buddhist precepts as state law. What this then allowed was for Japanese monks to marry, eat meat, and it stopped the regulation of the shaving of heads and what they wore. This was then transmitted to Korea through Japanese Buddhist missionaries, so it wasn’t all that uncommon to find Korean Buddhist temples in this pre-colonial era to have shrine halls stocked with wine and cigarettes. Additionally, hotels were built nearby these temples at this time. Some Korean monks even began to smoke, drink wine, and even eat meat, which broke the traditional doctrine found in ahimsa (non-violence).

Of these eventual changes, it was arguably the marriage of monks that was the greatest evidence of Japanese Buddhist inroads on the Korean Buddhist tradition. Traditionally, Korean Buddhist monks believed in Buddhism’s foundational teaching that the world is sorrowful and that this sorrow is caused by the “clinging/attachments” formed in this world. Korean monks, thus, considered a life without attachments to be the most honourable way to achieve enlightenment. Celibacy, therefore, was thought to be essential in a monk’s life. As a result of this custom, Koreans didn’t recognize married monks as legitimate members of the Buddhist religious community. Of course, there were Korean monks that did in fact marry, but they left the Sangha, or “Seungga – 승가” in Korean.

At first, the Government-General of Chosen recognized this Korean tradition in the early years of Japanese Colonial Rule (1910-1945). In fact, only unmarried monks were allowed to be abbots of temples. However, the presence of Japanese monks, most of whom were married, and with their increasing contact with Korean monks, influenced the change in allowing Korean monks to marry. It appears as though a large number of Korean monks whole-heartedly accepted this change because in 1926 the Japanese colonial authorities allowed married monks to be eligible, where they were once ineligible, to become abbots of temples. As a result, during Japanese Colonial Rule, most of the abbots at temples were married.

But with the marriage of abbots and monks, they would inevitably have families. These families would then become an economic burden not only to the monks and abbots, but they would also become an economic burden to the temples that they managed and where they resided. This would become a serious problem for the temple. Often Korean lay supporters would stop contributing to temples when they discovered that the abbot of the temple was married. And because lay supporters weren’t contributing and donating and withholding their support, and because children still needed to be fed, clothed, and educated, abbots and monks would turn to non-traditional sources of income like opening the temple up as a tourist centre or as banquet halls for larger gatherings.

Shift of Power: Japanese Missionaries and Korea

Up until 1910, there were only a couple hundred Japanese Buddhist missionaries that had visited or lived in Korea. These stays tended to be shorter in duration. Conversely, only a few Korean monks had visited Japan to study Buddhism.

During their stays, Japanese monastic missionaries viewed Korean Buddhism as “superstitious, backwards, and nearly extinct.” They believed that this was largely caused by the anti-Buddhist policies of Joseon. As a result, these missionaries believed the only way to resuscitate Korean Buddhism, which was ailing and ultimately failing the Korean population, was to adopt a stronger version of Buddhism, which just so happened to be Japanese Buddhism.

Korean monastics, at the start of pre-colonialism in 1876, knew that Korean Buddhism needed to modernize to stay relevant. And they needed to do this socially and politically to help elevate Buddhism’s lowly status in Korea. After five hundred years of marginalization under Neo-Confucian oriented policies during the Joseon Dynasty, it had devastated Korean Buddhism. It was to this, and increasing contact with Japanese monastic missionaries with obvious power from the state, that Korean Buddhist turned for political and social capital especially as Japan grew in influence and power on the Korean Peninsula.

The Baekje Kingdom (18 B.C. – 660 A.D.). (Picture courtesy of Wikipedia).

Once Japanese Buddhist missionaries arrived on the Korean Peninsula, they immediately perceived that Korean Buddhism was on its last legs through centuries of neglect. As a result, they created a construct in which Japanese Buddhism could be the savior of Korean Buddhism. In effect, Japan hoped to return a previously given favour. Centuries earlier, Korea had introduced Buddhism to Japan through the Baekje Kingdom (18 B.C. – 660 A.D.) in 552 A.D. Now, by re-introducing Buddhism, through the guise of Japanese Buddhism, to the Korean Peninsula, the Japanese would be returning Buddhism to its proper place in Korean society. Thus, Japanese Buddhist believed it was their obligation to reform and help modernize Korean Buddhism.

Motivated by their Buddhist teachings and Japanese ideology, the missionaries presented their form of Japanese Buddhism as a solution to what was ailing Korean Buddhism. As a result, these Japanese monastic missionaries didn’t value learning about the Korean Buddhist tradition. Instead, they were bent on power and the motivation to convert.

Now, it’s time to take a closer look at each decade that ensued starting in 1876 and continuing on until 1910 and the interactions found between Korean and Japanese Buddhism on the Korean Peninsula.

Various Japanese Buddhist Sects and Branches that Entered the Korean Peninsula

But before we can take a closer look at the Japanese missionaries, we should first better understand their mission and the guiding principles of each sect that they were working under. In total, there were seven major settlements of Japanese Buddhism in pre-colonial Joseon built by these monastic migrants. There was the Otani-shin of Pure Land Buddhism, The Honpa Hongan-ji Branch of the True Sect of Pure Land Buddhism, Jodo-shu, Shingon-shu, Nichiren-shu, Soto Zen School, and Rinzai-shu.

Otani-Shin of Pure Land Buddhism

The first Japanese Buddhist sect to work in Korea was the Otani-Shin Branch of Pure Land Buddhism from Jodo Shin-shu. A year after the completion of the Japan–Korea Treaty of 1876, Okubo Toshimichi (1830-1878), the minister of Home Affairs, and Terajima Munetada, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, asked the abbot of the headquarter temple in Kyoto, Higashi Hongan-ji, to begin their mission in Korea.

Ōkubo Toshimichi (1830-1878). (Picture courtesy of Wikipedia).

In 1877, Okumura Enshin arrived in Busan with another monk and soon established a branch temple of Hongan-ji. In that same year, this socially active Japanese Buddhist sect opened a welfare agency and established an elementary school for Japanese children in Korea. This branch temple in Busan also encouraged young Japanese monks to travel to Korea as missionaries. Later, a language school was opened to help Japanese monks attempting to learn the Korean language.

Later, and in 1879, when the port city of Wonsan was opened to Japanese immigrants, Okumura traveled to Wonsan from Busan with two young monks to establish a Buddhist temple. Two years later, a temple was in fact built in Wonsan. When these monks first arrived in Wonsan, there were very few Japanese residents in the city. Also, Korean residents in the city were hostile towards the Japanese Buddhist missionaries. In fact, the Koreans prevented the Japanese from entering the market area. Eventually, and with the message of Pure Land Buddhism at the heart of his mission’s teachings, Okumura gradually won over the trust and respect of the Korean population of Wonsan. Over time, these monks would be allowed to enter the market; and eventually, the town market would be open to all Japanese.

The Honpa Hongan-ji Branch of the True Sect of Pure Land Buddhism

One of the more successful sects to enter Korea was the Honpa Hongan-ji branch of the True Sect of Pure Land Buddhism of Jodo Shin-shu. This Japanese sect would first begin their efforts in Korea in 1894 with the landing of the monk Osu Tetsunen on the Korean Peninsula. Upon his arrival, he met the Korean king and visited all the major cities. During these travels, he studied the potential for spreading the teachings of his sect.

In 1899, Nakayama Yuinen, and several other monks were sent to Busan and established a Japanese Buddhist temple in 1900. In 1903, another temple was established in neighbouring Masan. And in 1904, another temple was built in Daegu. The headquarters for this sect would eventually be located in Yongsan in the southern outskirts of Seoul. And by 1911, their headquarters were moved inside the Seoul city limits. This sect was especially interested and eager to work with Koreans. Over time, this sect would have the most number of Koreans in their sect more than any other Japanese sect.


In 1897, the Jodo-shu, which was another Pure Land Sect, also started their work in Korea. They opened Japanese schools for locals in 1901 such as the Gaeseong School, the Hannam School, and the Haeju School. In 1906, they opened the Myungjin School that was uniquely made for Joseon monks under the modern educational system. Most of the students that were enrolled at this school were senior leaders in their 30s and 40s. Some of these senior leaders were even sent overseas including to Japan for advanced studies or experience.

In total, the Jodo-shu had 12 regional temples in 1906 in Gyeongseong, Incheon, Gaeseong, Suwon, Busan, Masan, Daegu, Gunsan, Ganggyeong, Pyeongyang, Jinnam, and Haeju. This sect also had 16 Japanese monks and some 3,600 followers. Additionally, some 32,500 Koreans were involved with organizations directly related to this sect. And some of these Koreans even took over the management of the Wonheungsa Temple in 1907 which formerly used to be the headquarters for all Buddhist temples in Korea.

King Gojong of Korea (r. 1864-1907). (Picture courtesy of Wikipedia).

In 1908, ten thousand yen was provided by King Gojong of Korea (r. 1864-1907) for the Jodo-shu to build a head temple in Seoul. The propagation of Pure Land Buddhism was dominated by the two aforementioned sects. In fact, Jodo-shu was never very strong in Korea. With that being said, an influential monk from this sect, who resided at Tongdosa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do attempted to make the temple a branch of Japanese Pure Land Buddhism. The Korean monks at Tongdosa Temple discovered this plot and had the Japanese monk removed. Later, Jodo-shu ceased work among Koreans and solely concentrated their efforts on the Japanese residents in Korea.


Shingon-shu, which is a form of tantric Buddhism, entered Korea from Kongo-ji Temple on Mt. Koya in Japan. The teachings of Shingon-shu were based on early Buddhist tantras. For this reason, they were often labelled as Japanese Esoteric Buddhism or Orthodox Esoteric Buddhism.

Kongo-ji Temple. (Picture courtesy of Wikipedia).

A branch temple was first established in Busan in 1898. By 1909, the temple in Japan was officially named Kongo-ji and became a self-sufficient temple with Mida Seisho as their first abbot. In 1913, the building of the main hall, which is known as Hondo, was started and completed in the following year. The building would cost 19,000 yen, and the total amount was contributed by the Japanese residents of Busan.

Elsewhere in Korea, and in 1905, Shingon-shu came to Seoul for the education of the Japanese residents in the city. In 1907, they expanded into the Daejeon region. Like the Jodo-shu, the Shingon-shu were passionate about converting locals.


Nichiren-shu was a highly nationalistic sect of Japanese Buddhism. Nichiren-shu was a combination of several schools from four of the original Nichiren Buddhist schools that dated back to Nichiren’s original disciples.

It first started its work in Korea in 1881. At this time, only one missionary, Watanabe Nichiun, was sent to Busan. In 1889, the abbot of Myokaku Temple in Kyoto visited Busan and saw great opportunities for work in Korea. Through their missionary efforts, the sect increased the number of temples in major cities throughout Korea such as Hoguksa Temple in Seoul and Myogaksa Temple in Incheon. Another missionary monk, Asahi Mitsu, also came to Korea and organized a group named the “Nichiren Foreign Mission,” where they were “notorious for attracting believers from the lower classes through the syncretic worship of Inari [from Japanese mythology. A god primarily known as the protector of rice cultivation].” Nichiren-shu made great efforts to absorb Korean Buddhism, as a whole, into their Japanese sect. Ultimately, they would fail.

Soto Zen

After Nichiren-shu failed to absorb Korean Buddhism, the Soto Zen, having first started their work in Korea in 1902, sought to bring Korean Buddhism into their school. The leading monk of this movement was Takeda Hanshi (1863-1911). In 1889, after studying medicine in his youth and later becoming a monk at the age of 23, Takeda came to Korea and visited places he found interesting. Soon he became suspicious to Japanese authorities and was sent back to Japan. In 1895, he returned to Korea and became involved in the assassination of Empress Myeongseong (1851–1895) that very same year. He was sent to prison in Hiroshima but was freed the following year. Amazingly, he was allowed to return to Korea with a government official’s support. During his stay in Seoul, Takeda befriended Pro-Japanese leaders and later became an advisor to the Pro-Japanese movement Sicheon-gyo, which was a branch of Cheondo-gyo.

Thought to be Empress Myeongseong (1851-1895). (Picture courtesy of Wikipedia).


Rinzai-shu was one of three Zen sects alongside Soto and Obaku. They emphasize kensho, or “gyeonseong – 견성” in Korean. This is meant to be a gateway to authentic Buddhist practice, and it means “seeing one’s true nature.” This is subsequently followed by many years of post-kensho training to help embody this practice in everyday life. In 1907, this Zen sect was curious to see how Japanese residents were doing in Korea, so they decided to do missionary work at this time on the Korean Peninsula.

The Mid-1870s in Korea

Now, after better understanding the different Japanese missionaries and their missions, we can take a closer look at each decade that ensued starting in 1876 and continuing on until 1910 and the interactions found between Korean and Japanese Buddhism on the Korean Peninsula.

In 1877, with the opening up of Korea through the Japan–Korea Treaty of 1876, there were numerous Buddhist sects that were pleased with this change. With the ending of persecution during the early Meiji era, these Buddhist sects were ready to support governmental policies through their missionary work. Not only would this help support Japanese domestic policies, but it would also help transmit their idea of what Buddhism should be. First among the various sects to help support this ideology was the Honpa Hongan-ji Branch.

Using this zealotry, Okubo Toshimich (the Home Minister) and Terajima Munenori (the Foreign Minister) instructed Hongan-ji’s administrative head, Kennyo, to quickly send the missionary monk Okumura Enshin to the Korean Peninsula to open a missionary centre (betsuin). This was done in October, 1877, when a missionary centre, also known as a “branch temple,” was opened in Busan for the Japanese. The space for this missionary centre was leased by the Japanese consular in Busan inside the consulate building. The official aim of the opening of this centre was to promote and propagate Buddhism among the Japanese residents of Busan; however, the real intentions of this missionary centre was to create relations and form bonds with Korean “progressives” inclined towards Buddhism. Ultimately, it was the goal of the Japanese government to utilize these Korean progressives towards liking and initiating the reforms that took place throughout Japan during the Meiji period, but this time, in Korea.

Konoe Atsumaro (1863-1904). (Picture courtesy of Wikipedia).

Specifically, the House of Peers, Duke Konoe Atsumaro (1863-1904), instructed Okumura’s superiors as follows about their mission in Korea:

“Recently various Western states are paying close attention to the Eastern affairs, and, if we will not establish long-term strategy now, the consequences would be difficult to cope with. As the advanced state of the East, our country should show an example of altruistic care about others, and, for this sake the negative feelings about Japan spread among the Chinese and Koreans, have to be cleared away, and the states of East have to be induced to the closest cooperation. But government alone cannot manage to do all these things. That is why it is necessary to borrow the strength of religion and education”

In total, and at this time in Busan in 1877, there were only about 300 Japanese residents in the city. Rather obviously, besides ministering to the small Japanese population, Okumura’s missionary efforts were squarely focused on Korean monks. It was through these monks that Okumura hoped to establish a Japanese Buddhist presence in Korean Buddhism, culture, and even politics, if possible.

Upon the missionary centre being opened in Busan, Okumura was visited by 8-10 Korean visitors (and some days up to 50) a day. These Koreans were lay people and monks. They had tea together, wrote Chinese characters together, discussed recent affairs, and even talked about Buddhist doctrine and the worship of Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise).

Beomeosa Temple in 1909. (Picture courtesy of the National Museum of Korea).

One of the more frequent visitors to Okumura at the missionary centre was the monk Honhae (Buddhist name Janyun) from Beomeosa Temple. He made his first visit to Okumura on February 9, 1878, which was almost immediately after the mission had first opened. Monk Honhae would make repeated visits to the centre in June and December, 1878. While there, Honhae would exchange expensive gifts with the Japanese.

The reason for these interactions, highlighted by the visits of the monk Honhae to the missionary centre in Busan, is that for the longest time Korean Buddhists were viewed as occupying the “base” status in Neo-Confucian Joseon society. And once the Japanese Buddhist missionaries entered the Korean Peninsula, Korean Buddhists saw that there might be an opportunity to advance their lowly position in society. Rather obviously, the Japanese mission was protected by the consular officials, and Korean Buddhists were interested in learning if this potential protection could extend to them, as well. Of course, Korean Buddhists understood the transformative change that had taken place in Japan during the Meiji period. They just wanted to see if this same incorporation of religion into modern society was in the minds of Japanese Buddhist missionary; and by proxy, the Japanese authorities, through their influence on Joseon society. In a way, the Korean Buddhist were putting out feelers to help anticipate the change that was starting to take place in the mid-1870’s on the Korean Peninsula.

An example of Okumura’s efforts to bridge the divide found between Korean and Japanese Buddhists in Busan was the furthering opening of a language school in 1879 in Busan. At this school, Koreans were taught Japanese, while students from Japan could learn Korean. After they were finished at the schools, these Japanese-speaking Korean students of Okumura were used as interpreters by the consular offices. This type of example in Busan was then used throughout Korea as an example of how Japanese Buddhists could transmit their tradition and teachings to Korea and beyond.

The Monk Yi Tongin in the 1870s

Besides the Beomeosa Temple monk Honhae, and the hundreds of others that visited Okumura at the missionary centre in Busan in 1878, is the rather interesting Korean monk named Yi Tongin. According to Okumura’s diary, one of the first encounters he had with Yi Tongin took place over three days from December 9-11, 1878. Together, they discussed numerous things including how to protect and restore Korean Buddhism to its former place in Korean society. To be fair, this was a common concern brought to Okumura at the missionary centre by other Korean monks during this time. Okumura described Yi as a man who “always was concerned with the love of his country and protecting the [Buddhist] law.”

Such a quote only reinforced the idea that both Okumura and his superiors approved of Yi’s political views and hoped that the Korean monk would and could be used by them to help further their political and religious agenda on the Korean Peninsula. To further this idea, and recorded in Okumura’s diary in June, 1879, Okumura states that Yi could be trusted and “promoted to responsibility” because of the monk’s “patriotic” and “Dharma-protecting” intentions, as well as his views on the “decay of the fortunes” of the Joseon state. These ideas, rather obviously, must have been in full accordance with the ideas of the Japanese officials.

After secretly sailing to Japan in June, 1879, Yi, whose first place of residence from June, 1879 until April, 1880, was at Hongan-ji Temple in Kyoto, just so happened to be the headquarters of the Honpa Hongan-ji Branch. While there, he immersed himself in Japanese language study, as well as inspecting various aspects of Japanese society.

Eventually, Okumura himself would return to Japan and Hongan-ji Temple on March, 19, 1880. Upon his return, Okumura had Yi quickly re-ordained; this time, as a Japanese monk in the Honpa Hongan-ji Branch on April 5, 1880. Later, Yi was taken to Tokyo on April, 6, 1880, where he was introduced to Foreign Ministry dignitaries from April 9-11, 1880. Yi would also meet Fukuzawa Yūkichi (1835-1901) and other important personalities interested in “Korean reforms.” And by “reforms,” this was just a euphemism for making Korea compliant with the Japanese model of reforms in close subservience to the Japanese Government. 

Evidence towards Yi’s efforts to be compliant with the Japanese model of reforms in Korea was that he suggested that Korea should repair roads, which would allow for the secure and unimpeded access of Japanese merchandise not only in the port cities of Korea but all throughout the nation, as well. Yi also suggested Korea should obtain a loan from the Japanese government for developing mining throughout the Korean Peninsula, while also reclaiming new land for further development. Yi also suggested that several dozens of Korean students should study in Japan a diverse range of subjects. And that Japan was “to be taken as an example, model, and the guiding spirit for Korean reforms”. But perhaps most incendiary of all his ideas was Yi’s criticism of Empress Myeongseong’s circle for monopolizing the state power and its extremely inefficient decision-making and policy implementation. Ideally, the “brotherly” Japan would help “defend” Korea from “Western humiliations.” And that ultimately, it would be much more moral for Korea to share the profits developed by and with Japan, who were their “brethren” than it was to align with Western “aliens.”

Another thing that Yi Tongin did, besides narrowing the divide found between Korean and Japanese Buddhism, and the social and political implications that ensued, was to buy a lot of “Enlightenment” goods that included glasses, matches (unknown before in Joseon Korea), spyglasses, lamps, watches, and photographs of European buildings. These were partially meant to be sold in Seoul and partially presented as gifts to those leaders that were sympathetic to the ideas being advocated out of Japan towards the bond that needed to form between the two nations.

An obvious part of Yi’s mission to Japan, outside his Buddhist links, was to help develop exports, Japanese trade, loans, and education. Yi’s actions, as well as his Japanese counterparts, can be viewed as a crude form and first try at furthering the “dependent development” that was to form in early pre-colonial Korea.

What’s so unique about this situation with Yi at its centre is that a monk is typically discouraged through his vows to not seek personal gain and profit. And yet, Yi Tongin was one of the first commercial traders in Korea that also promoted a dependent modernization of Korea on Japan. The man was a living contradiction.

However, this paradox shouldn’t be all that surprising considering the extent of trade activities and property accumulation by the largest and richest Korean temples at this time in Korean history. So Yi Tongin’s efforts to spearhead trade between the two nations is rather understandable in this context.

A more specific example of this burgeoning relationship can be found at Beomeosa Temple to whom Yi Tongin was affiliated for at least part of his monastic career. Beomeosa Temple was among the largest and richest in the southern provinces. In 1871, Beomeosa Temple possessed about 1,300 majigi (1 = 495.87 –991.74 m2) of land, plus an additional 2,000 majigi of land owned by its hermitages. As for the wealth of the temple, it was mainly amassed through the donations of the land for conducting posthumous devotional services for Jejeon, as well as for commercial purposes like rice-milling. Much of this growing wealth was accumulated in the latter portions of the Joseon Dynasty with the weakening of Neo-Confucian government policies.

Eventually, Yi Tongin’s ways would catch up with him. Over time, Yi would develop into something of a bit of a braggart. And with this bragging came vanity. Yi would proudly present himself as the “king’s secret emissary to Japan.” He in fact presented himself to the jail warders in Dongnae (part of Busan) as such, who in turn eventually arrested him on charges of espionage on December 18, 1880. And before his arrest, he carelessly told the British diplomat that the Korean government should be overthrown. All of this contributed to Yi Tongin’s disappearance and assumed death. Those Koreans that were pro-Japanese were afraid that a relatively emotional and impulsive monk would spill their secrets. And for that, he was made to disappear.

It should be noted, however, that Yi Tongin wasn’t the only monk at this time that engaged in this newly burgeoning enterprise between Korea and Japan. In fact, and in 1880-81, there was a group of Korean monks that were fully interested in cooperating with the Japanese. These monks were willing to receive Japanese education and eventual re-ordination. This group would form in Busan around Okumura.

And so now, it’s to the 1880s that we turn our sights.

The 1880s in Korea

The initial work conducted by the Japanese Buddhist missionaries in the mid-1870s onward started to accelerate in the 1880s. For example, the Otani-Shin Branch of Pure Land Buddhism of Jodo Shin-shu was joined by the Nichiren sect in 1881 on the Korean Peninsula. They did this when they built a temple called Myokaku-ji (or Myogaksa Temple in Korean) in Busan. This was then followed in 1882, when the sect constructed a temple in Wonsan. This effort was led by Arai Nissatsu (1830-1888). The Nichiren sect, which was officially recognized in 1876, was known as one of the leading proponents of a modernizing version of “state-protection Buddhism.” This was a highly nationalistic form of Japanese Buddhism.

Katō Kiyomasa (1562-1611). (Picture courtesy of Wikipedia).

This isn’t to say that the Otani-Shin Branch of Pure Land Buddhism of Jodo Shin-shu stopped what they were doing. On the contrary, they established another temple in 1890. Rather interestingly, the Otani-Shin Branch felt that they built this new temple where the invading Katō Kiyomasa (1562-1611) and his armies were based during the Imjin War (1592-98).

At the same time of this missionary growth, and at the beginning of 1880, the early Korean radical “Enlightenment” group, which was a collection of like-minded pro-modernization and pro-Japanese individuals, gradually had its leaders replaced. This group, which initially was rooted in a vague interest towards Japan, was replaced with an ideology that was almost unquestioning towards its acceptance of Meiji ideology. This ideology was a firm and complicated economic and political ideology that would link the two as nations as highly unequal partners. This marginalization was a precursor to what would take place to the rest of the nation leading up to Korean annexation in 1910.

It was also in this decade that Korean temples started to reach out to Japanese Buddhists for protection. Korean Buddhists realized that the Japanese Buddhists were backed by the Japanese authorities. As a result, and because of disputes over temple lands and/or their property, the Japanese Buddhists with the backing of Japanese authorities were increasingly helpful towards positively resolving these disputes in favour of Korean temples.

Yujeomsa Temple from 1919. (Picture courtesy of the National Museum of Korea).

An example of this can be found at Yujeomsa Temple. On August 3, 1880, a monk from Yujeomsa Temple visited Okumura to resolve a dispute. This monk asked “to help Korean monks in their predicament.” Restricted and constrained by their historical low status in Korean society, temples faced official extortion, greed, and trading. So a close relationship with Japanese monks that were close with Japanese authorities proved to be favourable not only to the given temple but to Korean Buddhism as a whole.

The 1890s in Korea

In the beginning of the Sino-Japanese War, Seoul was occupied by Japanese troops and the country as a whole was placed under the pro-Japanese cabinet of Kim Hongjip (1842–1896) in July, 1894. It was at this time that Japanese Buddhists activities in the capital became far more aggressive. And the leader in this shift was the Nichiren sect.

Kim Hong-jip (1842–1896). (Picture courtesy of Wikipedia).

The Nichiren sect believed that by “granting an unparalleled favour” to the “feeble and impotent” Korean monks that it would convert them into the Nichiren sect. One of these Nichiren sect leaders was Sano Jenrei, who was a ranked monk of the sect that was dispatched to Korea. Sano succeeded in gaining the strong support of the Japanese Consulate. With this strong support, Sano was able to persuade Kim Hongjib to convince the Korean throne to allow Korean monks to finally be permitted to enter the capital after hundreds of years of banishment. Previously, Japanese monks were freely able to enter and build temples in Seoul. And yet, Korean monks were still barred while foreign nationals were able to enter the capital. So the obvious ability of the Japanese Buddhists to obtain this amazing concession from the Korean state strengthened the pro-Japanese inclinations in Korean Buddhists that were already forming.

On March 29, 1895, King Gojong of Korea granted permission to Korean monks to enter Seoul. With the main symbol of Korean Buddhist suppression being eliminated, the status and prestige of Japanese monks, on the part of Korean Buddhists, soared to unprecedented levels. Now, at least in part, Korean Buddhist monks could join their brethren in Seoul. Something for which the Japanese missionary monks had already enjoyed for two decades.

An example of the appreciation that Korean Buddhist monks had towards Japanese Buddhist missionaries can be found in a quote by the monk Sangsun, who was a well-known and educated monk from Hwaseong’s Yongjusa Temple:

“We, monks, used to live as the basest and lowest in this country, and were prohibited from entering the capital for the last five hundred years. Amidst our usual melancholy, by a lucky incident, the friendship with neighboring [Japanese] state became strengthened, and You, respected preceptor, came from afar to compassionately bestow a great favor upon us. You allowed us, Korean monks, to throw off the 500-years old humiliation, so that we can see the royal capital now. All of us, monks of this country, feel gratitude to You, and wish to use the opportunity to visit the capital in order to pay You our highest respect…”

The 1900s in Korea

However, as soon as Korea fell under Japanese “protection” with the humiliating signing of the Japan –Korea Treaty of 1905, which was forced on King Gojong of Korea on November 17, 1905, Japanese influence over Korean Buddhism grew in strength and virility. The Japanese Buddhists started to build missionary schools in the form of Korea’s own local “modern Buddhist” education institutions. And while these “Korean Buddhist Schools” looked to be native in origin, they were in fact sponsored and directed by Japanese “advisors.”

The Japan–Korea Treaty of 1905. (Picture courtesy of Wikipedia).

Three months after Korea became a protectorate in February, 1906, a group of younger Korean monks, led by the residents of wealthier temples in the vicinity of Seoul, organized a “Buddhist Study Society – Bulgyo Yeonguheo, 불교연구회.” This Society proclaimed that the Japanese teachings on Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise) were their doctrinal basis. Furthermore, they invited Inoue Kenshin, a Japanese Jodo sect monk, to be their “advisor.” In fact, as soon as the Society formed, it petitioned the Interior Ministry to grant them permission to establish a modern Buddhist school. And on February 19, 1906, the permission was speedily granted. Afterwards, these monks urged every temple throughout the Korean Peninsula of importance to send two younger monks to study the “freedoms and rights’ theories of our times” in the new school. And on April 10, 1906, the school was named “Myeongjin-haggyo – The Advancement in Enlightenment School.” And finally on May 8, 1906, they opened their doors. As a result of this school, it helped mold a new era of modern Korean Buddhist education and thinking along Japanese Buddhist and political lines.

Rather strangely, but interesting all at the same time, is that one of the most important and popular subjects taught at the school was land surveying and measurement techniques. This hearkens back to the previous predicament that temples like Yujeomsa Temple were facing at the hands of greedy officials who were looking at temples as easy targets to enrich their own personal finances at the expense of temple landholdings. With this in mind, these temples needed well-qualified land-surveyors, and what better people than Japanese-backed surveyors to advocate for?

Geonbongsa Temple in 1912. (Picture courtesy of the National Museum of Korea).

However, Yujeomsa Temple wasn’t the only temple having its rights infringed upon and in need of protection at this time. In fact, and in February, 1906, several temples in the Mt. Geumgangsan region (modern day North Korea) suffered repeated encroachment by mine developers on their land. And in February, 1907, the governor of Pyonganbuk-do Province deprived Myohyangsa Temple of its rice fields under the pretext of “returning” the land to the state. At the same time, Geonbongsa Temple became the location of a heated battle between Japanese troops and the Confucian-led Righteous Army guerrillas, who suffered great losses. 

Under such an atmosphere of chronic lawlessness and fear, it made sense that an increased number of temples attempted to formalize their ties to Japanese Buddhist sects in the hopes of preventing future damages and intrusions.

So as soon as the Japanese Resident-General, Ito Hirobumi (1841-1909), allowed Japanese Buddhist sects to “assume trusteeship” over Korean temples in November, 1906 with Municipal Order #45. The Residency-General was flooded with applications. The Otani-Shin Branch of Pure Land Buddhism of Jodo Shin-shu succeeded, in time, to assume the “trusteeship” over four temples that included Jikjisa Temple in Gimcheon, Gyeongsangbuk-do. However, its attempts to gain “trusteeship” over other temples like Beomeosa Temple were rejected. While specific numbers are hard to find, it seems as though more than 100 Korean temples attempted to find a Japanese “protector” at this time.

Itō Hirobumi (1841-1909). (Picture courtesy of Wikipedia).
The Jahamun Gate at Jikjisa Temple (date unknown). (Picture courtesy of the National Museum of Korea).

What’s interesting about this application process, and once the application had been submitted, it was understood by the Korean temple applicants that they were going to follow the doctrinal and ritual practices of the given Japanese “protector’s” sect. Rather obviously, especially to the Japanese administrators, they must have realized the motivation of the Japanese Buddhists and why Korean temples were turning to them in their hour of need.

And all of these changes and developments were reported by Korean newspapers like the nationalistic “Taehan Maeil Shinbo – Korean Daily News,” which was founded on July 18, 1904. On November 27, 1906, they reported on one of the first provincial Buddhists that was established, when they wrote:

“In Yongjusa Temple near Suwon, monastic school named ‘Myeonghwa – Enlightened Changes School’ with more than 50 students…A Japanese named Kimura Tanpaku was appointed as the Japanese language instructor.”

The teaching and learning of Japanese was thought to be a sign of “modernity” in the “new” Korea in the 1900s. Furthering this point on the establishment of modern provincial Buddhist schools, they were even some times run by a Korean temple and a Japanese sect like Tongdosa Temple’s Myeongjin School. This school was run by Tongdosa Temple and the Jodo Sect.

There were numerous reports praising these schools like:

“Abbot of Sogwangsa temple in Anbyon county, Hamgyongnam-do Province, Kim Sugong…., turned his attention towards reforms and progress, and, in order to educate the younger monks in the province’s temples, established a branch of Myeongjin School in his temple. He employed a Japanese teacher and shows diligence in the educational matters. In our country too, the monks are advancing forward!”

And another report praising these schools is as follows:

“Abbots of several Gyeongsangbuk-do Province temples – Gwon Hwaung from Daeseungsa and Kim Wolhyon from Gimnyongsa in Mungyeong, Kim Chwison from Namjangsa in Sangju, Yun Poun from Yongmunsa in Yecheon, Kim Tamhwa from Gwangheungsa in Andong – have been practicing compassionate deeds and aspiring to perfect themselves together for quite a long time already. They turned their attention to the differences between the today’s epochal demands and that of the past, and showed their enthusiasm for the new learning. In order to develop the education of younger monks, they established, by the common efforts of the temples from eight local counties, Gyonghung School in Daeheungsa and made it a branch school of Myeongjin School, which lies outside Seoul’s Great Eastern Gate. There are numerous talks that they employ teachers and recruit students now: indeed, the torch of Korean Buddhist wisdom, once extinguished, kindled once again! Everybody praises it.”

With the backing of Japanese schools and their support networks, Korean monks grew increasingly sure of themselves. As a result, Korean monks started to pursue a modernizing agenda of their own for Korean Buddhism. This was starting to become apparent by 1910. In fact, some of the more ambitious Korean monks that graduated from these schools, and who were able to speak Japanese and wanted to continue their studies in Japan, they would soon become a new intellectual core of Korea’s changing Buddhist community. Thus, it was during this early pre-colonial period that the foundations for the early part of Japanese Colonial Rule that would be identified as “modern” and “progressive” with Japanization, were laid during this brief period between 1906 and 1910, when Korea’s modern Buddhist education was formed.


From 1876-1910, Japanese Buddhists, largely through their missionary efforts, were successful in becoming a partner with Korean Buddhists. Because this relationship was so new, there was a lot of fluidity in which the two sides engaged each other, whether it was economically, socially, or educationally. It was something so fluid that it wouldn’t take a more solid form until 1910. However, the foundation blocks for a more nationalistic Buddhism were laid in these years.

One of the keys to Japanese Buddhism’s success was through the educational schools they created, and eventually amalgamated, with major Korean temples. It was also through this program that they were able to protect Korean temples, their land and their property: but at a high price. This went a long way in gaining Korean Buddhism’s confidence and trust.

Another key aspect to this relationship was social. For centuries, Korean Buddhist monks had been marginalized and ostracized. Perhaps the greatest indicator of this change was the allowance of Korean monks to enter cities. While Japanese monks had done this since the Japan–Korea Treaty of 1876 was signed, Korean monks had to wait an additional two decades to do the very same as their brethren. And it was only done through the support of Japanese monastic missionaries. Again, this helped gain the confidence of Korean Buddhists.

And finally, the way in which Japanese Buddhists were able to be so successful was through economic advantages. Korean temples were able to keep what they had through the policing and administration of Japanese authorities that backed Japanese Buddhists on the Korean Peninsula. Also through Korean monks like Yi Tongin, trade was opened up between the two countries through this thawing of Buddhist relations. Buddhism was just one of the devices that helped act as a tool to grow trade.

Buddhism was a common link found between the two countries. It was these foundational efforts of economics, the social, and the educational that helped further the advancements of Japanese Buddhism on the Korean Peninsula between the years of 1876 to 1910.

Gimnyongsa Temple in 1929. (Picture courtesy of the National Museum of Korea).