The founder of Buddhism was Gautama Buddha, who lived in Northern India in the sixth century BCE. His personal name was Siddhartha, and his family name was Gautama. He was given the title of "Buddha" after he attained enlightenment and realized the ultimate Truth. "Buddha" means the "Awakened" or the "Enlightened One". He generally called himself the "Tathagata" (Sanskrit name), while his followers called him Bhagava, the Blessed One. Others spoke of him as Gautama or Sakyamuni (specially in the China and Japan).
Currently Buddhism is considered as the fourth largest religion in the world (the first three are Christianity, Islam and Hinduism).
Buddhism as a religion evolved since that time in sixth century BCE and spread outside of India. There were two main practiced forms of Buddhism. One is called "Theravada" and second one is called "Mahayana". Some schools of Buddhism equate Theravada to "Hinayana" and as a original Buddhist faith that was started in India. But that notion was rejected by many historical and contemporary (Indian) Buddhist scholars. They claim that Theravada was the original practiced faith and then Hinayana and Mahayana originated from Theravada. In any case, in my opinion after reading many books about Buddhism, I have concluded that Theravada and Hinayana are similar in practice, so I will use the Theravada and Hinayana practices interchangeably. Mahayana as a practice started many centuries later, probably first century BCE. Comments are welcome, use my Contact Me
The main difference between Theravada and Mahayana, is that Theravada believes in only one Gautama Buddha as the god or enlightened one and all followers should enlighten themselves. But Mahayana believes that the followers should not only seek their own enlightenment but also help the suffering. Due to these flexibility of teachings in Mahayana over the years various figures of worship and many Buddhas (past, current and future Buddhas) have emerged in addition to the original Sakyamuni Buddha. These Buddhas can be humans or super-humans that have achieved enlightenment by practicing the faith to the fullest extent, just like the Gautama Buddha did.
The Hinayana faith spread to countries south of India, like Sri Lanka. Whereas the Mahayana faith, which means "Great Vehicle" became widespread in eastern Asian countries like Korea and China (northwards from India through Nepal and Tibet). It is said that Buddhism started to gain popularity and adoption Korea and China, between 50 and 100 AD.
Now to the beginnings of Buddhism in Japan.
Although traces of Buddhism can be found in Japan before 500 AD, they were mainly practiced by the immigrant Chinese and Korean populations. It was not known or practiced by the Japanese at that time because Japanese practiced their indigenous faith of Shintoism.
It is said that in 545 AD and again in 552 AD, King Seimei, ruler of a peninsula in ancient Korea called Kudara, sent a Buddhist statue and presents representing Buddhism to then Emperor of Japan, Emperor Kimmei. Along with these artifacts there was a letter of sorts, recommending the Buddhist religion to Japan and extolling it's virtues. At that time the Japanese Emperor's closest nobility was sharply divided in accepting Buddhism. One part of the nobility rejected the foreign religion pledging their continuing allegiance to Shintoism. The other part was happy to accept Buddhism. Thus there was a period of great conflict between these opposing factions costing many lives.
All through these internal conflicts between Japanese nobility, King Seimei kept sending various Buddhist artifacts to Japan, worked hard to get Japanese Emperors to accept and adopt Buddhist religion. As a result the influence of Buddhism started to grow on the Japanese rulers and people.
Emperor Yomei (successor of Emperor Kimmei and Emperor Bidatsu, both had a very short reign as Emperors of Japan) became a great supporter of Buddhism and was the first Japanese Emperor to be converted to Buddhism. The Crown Prince Shotoku Taishi (572-621)
, the son of Emperor Yomei was an ardent supporter of Buddhism.
Prince Shotoku Taishi was also responsible for quelling the last remnants of the rebellion against the adoption of Buddhism in Japan. Prince Shotoku eventually became a great Buddhist Theologian, Scholar and a Preacher. He built many Buddhist temples in Nara and in the current day Kyoto such as Horyuji and Rokkakudo Temples. By the time of his death Buddhism had taken a firm root in Japan with over 46 temples and nearly 1400 trained Monks. For these contributions Prince Shotuku Taishi is very much revered as a great Buddhist Monk and recognized as great patron of the early Japanese Buddhism.
Unfortunately the Buddhist preachings that were imported at that time from Korea were too complicated, so a Buddhist sect called Sanron that started in 624, three years after Prince Shotoku's death was short lived.
Despite this initial hiccup, the centuries following Asuka period, Buddhism in Japan took off and had gone through many transformations owning to many respected and learned Buddhist Monks. As with other religions of the world, different thought processes have evolved into different faiths of Buddhism in Japan, each having contributed to the growth of Japanese Buddhism in it's own way.
This evolution of Japanese Buddhism is described in the next page.