History (chronological table)

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Official Introduction of Buddhism

According to the Nihon Shoki, the oldest chronicles of Japan, Buddhism, begun by Buddha in faraway India, traveled through China and across the Korean Peninsula to arrive in Japan in 552 in the time of Emperor Kinmei. However, “The Gangoji Engi” tells it came in 538, in the time of Emperor Senka.


The struggle for acceptance of Buddhism

The progressive Soga Inamone supported this new religion called Buddhism that came from abroad, but the conservative Mononobe no Okoshi was set against it. Their opposition intensified over time. Buddhism was persecuted during this time.


The defeat of the anti-Buddhists by Soga no Umako

However, in 587, Soga no Umako chose his nephew and son-in-law Umayanodo no O, (later called Prince Shotoku) to form an army together to defeat the anti-Buddhist leader Mononobe no Moriya, eventually paving a path for Buddhism in Japan.


Foundation of Asuka-dera (predecessor of Gangoji)

The following year (588), Umako used the opportunity of having his nephew appointed Emperor Sushun, he initiated the land deal in Asuka, Takaichi-gun, and began constructing a formal Buddhist building. This temple was the predecessor of Gangoji, Hoko-ji, which, because of the location, was changed to Asuka-dera.

To launch this construction of Japan’s first Buddhist temple, King of Kudara made an offering of Buddha’s ashes, and subsequently sent priests, temple engineers, Roban forging method experts, tile experts and painters. The Japan’s first tile made by these tile experts were transferred when the temple was moved to the current location in Nara. Even today, the Main Hall and Zen Room roofs have several thousands of these tiles. The round tiles are especially noteworthy for how they cover the roof. They’re famous in Japan as Gyoki-roofing.


Asuka-dera in Asuka, Takaichi

Asuka-dera was the birthplace in Japan for both the Three Treatises and the Hoso theories, making it the source of Buddhism. The Soga clan helped import culture from the mainland, but also it became the center of politics, diplomacy and trade. It is not an exaggeration to say that the culture of the Asuka Era emanated from Asuka-dera. Dosho, the Japanese envoy to the Tang Dynasty in China who returned, should never be forgotten.


The Heijo-kyo and Gangoji transfers

In 710, Empress Genmei moved the capital to Nara,even as this temple was also moved to the new capital in 718. The temple name was changed from Hoko-ji (Asuka-dera) to Gangoji. The name Asuka-dera, derived from the place name Asuka, continued on, and the land where Gangoji was moved became Asuka in Heijo (Nara).


Asuka in Heijo (Nara)

The following famous Manyo poem found in Gangoji no Sato was written by female poet Ootomo no Sakanoeno Iratsume:
I like the original Gangoji temple in Asuka,
but it’s also good to see the new Gangoji
in this gorgeous Nara Heijo-kyo

(Manyo-shu, the collection of Japanese short poems, volume 6)

For the aristocrats who moved from Asuka, Taichi-gun, to the new capital in Nara, the feeling of standing on the new temple grounds of Gangoji in Asuka in Nara, surrounded by many temple buildings, must have been amazing just as the longing for their home in the old Asuka must have been intense. Ootomo no Sakanoeno Iratsume wrote the poem in 733. Around that time, most of the construction was probably finished.

Moving an authentic temple like Daikandai-ji or Yakushi-ji is a very difficult task, but the temple was originally built for the prosperity of the Soga clan. When Soga no Iruka was executed, it was thought that this temple was supposed to be left in the old capital, Asuka in Takaichi.The project ended up being eight years late, but it was finally moved to Nara. There is a lot of speculation about trouble with money and a deep interest in what actually happened.


Gangoji in Nara

Meanwhile, Gangoji was making progress. Priests kept the lead in scholarship among several temples and grasped the authority that came with the new capital.
All we have left to remember that temple is the Todai tower remains (historically designated site), the remains of the small shrines to the west (historically designated site), Gokuraku-do Hall (national treasure), and the Zen Room (national treasure).
But the five-story miniature pagoda (national treasure), placed in Horin-kan Hall used to be the principal piece of the Nishi Shoto-do Hall, as the West tower itself. This miniature pagoda is famous for being the only five-storied pagoda from the golden age of the Nara Era.

In 749, newly cultivated rice fields of different sizes were given to temples according to their rank. At the time, 39,668,000㎡ was allocated for Todai-ji temple and 19,834,000㎡ for Gangoji, while 9,917,000㎡ for Daian-ji, Yakushi-ji and Kofuku-ji temples, and 4,958,500㎡ for Horyu-ji and Shitenno-ji respectively. This shows Gangoji’s status at the time.


The Great Buddha enlightenment and Gangoji

In 752, the Great Buddha at Todai-ji was completed. A Buddhist ceremony to consecrate the new image was held. Ryuson of Gangoji was the lecturer before the altar, reciting the Avatamsaka Sutra. The Gangoji priests dedicated three poems. Here is one of the poems:
The former name of Gangoji is Asuka-dera (Horyu-ji) that is the first authentic Buddhist temple in Japan. Asuka can be expressed with two different Chinese characters. One literally means “flying birds”, another is derived from the name of the god. I dedicate this poem to this notable temple.
(Digest Records of Todai-ji Temple)

A recitation of the poems was presented to Empress Koken and Emperor Shomu at the ceremony in the Great Buddha hall where all military and civil officers attended.
The Emperor called Gangoji the new capital as Asuka-dera and it became the source for Buddhism, we can understand the confident spirit of the priests who were proud of the temple origin.


Chiko and the Chiko Mandala

Chiko, who appeared in connection with this temple at the end of the Nara Era, was famous for his scholarly work on the Three Treatises. In his later years, he specialized in research on the Jodo sect, and was known for being Japan’s first real Jodo sect scholar. Late, he left the famous Amitabha Jodo Henso-zu, which became known as the Chiko Mandala, (2 sides, designated as important cultural property). Chiko’s living quarters were known as Gokuraku-bo. The Chiko Mandala is deified as a principal image.


Gangoji, one of the seven great temples of Nanto

During the first half of the Heian Era, Gangoji played an instructive role on various fronts among the seven great temples. It produced many famous priests, beginning with Gomyo, contributed to the spread of Japanese Buddhism, and introduced Urabon-e Buddhist ceremony known as Obon, and Kanbutsu-e to celebrate Buddha’s birthday. It is thought that systematic charitable works have begun from this temple through Buddha chanting ceremonies, such as Monju-e and Butsumyo-e. For the aristocrats who lived in Heian-kyo, a pilgrimage to the seven great temples was a return home to the soul and experienced a great amount of joy.

In the second half of the Heian Era, the central government, which had supported the temples, revoked their authority, and deriving income from the manors and temple estates became difficult. As Tendai and Shingon sect temples prospered, and as those temples with ties to aristocrats grew, other temples went down a path of decline.


The formation of Gokuraku-bo Hall

In the process of that collapse, one thing that kept Gangoji alive was the Chiko Mandala left by Chiko. In the late Heian Era, when part of the Buddhist priests’ living quarters at Horyu-ji were remodeled, and the Shouryou-in deifying Prince Shotoku was built, Gokuraku-bo was formed out of priests’ living quarters to enshrine the Chiko Mandala. It rode the surging wave of Jodo Shinko. One section was known as Gokuraku-bo, and the remodeled priests’ living quarters known as Gokuraku-bo, Gokuraku-do Hall and the Mandala Hall was becoming the center of Nanto Jodo Shinko faith.


How the commoners supported Gangoji

In those times, this temple wasn’t supported by the government or the aristocrats. Instead, the support came from the nameless commoners within the social class.
After the Kamakura Era in the Middle Ages, various faiths were mixed, such as the Jodo sect focusing on the Chiko Mandala, faith in Prince Shotoku and Kobo Daishi’s Shingon faith. Crowds gathered for all of these faiths together, and this temple and its traditions could barely remained in later years.
Today, for the image of Prince Shotoku, Koyou-zo (important cultural property) and the seated statue of Kobo Daishi (important cultural property) as well as the 2.425-meter high seated statue of Amida Nyorai (Amitabha Tathagata) made in the early Heian Era (important cultural treasure), it’s fair to say that these pieces tell the story of the conditions of faith at that time. Also, the East Gate (important cultural propery) was moved from the Todai-ji Sainan-in in the end of the Middle Ages.


Materials from the Middle Ages on the faith of commoners and The Gangoji institute for research of cultural property

After the War, under the auspices of the Cultural Properties Protection Law, the remains on the temple grounds of Gangoji Gokurakubo were designated, the buildings and art objects were restored and preserved, and construction was done to protect against future natural disasters. During that work, several tens of thousands of artifacts and Buddhist images attesting to the commoners’ faith (important folk culture properties) were discovered and preserved in the two storehouses (Horinkan). The Gangoji institute for research of cultural property was formed on the temple grounds to preserve and categorize this rare and valuable material. (Public Interest Incorporated Association approved by Cabinet Office). Today, this institute is one of the most important institutes of its kind in cultural preservation, repair and survey of artifacts throughout Japan. Now, the Comprehensive Cultural Asset Center in Minami Kainozuka-cho aims to be an “overall hospital for cultural centers.”
In 1998, Gangoji was designated as a world cultural heritage, as a part of “The Cultural Asset of Ancient Nara”.

Chronological table

Western calendar Japanese calendar Hoko-ji temple and matters relating to Gangoji Domestic matters
In 588 Susbun 1 Soga Umako starts construction on Hoko-ji in Asuka Official Introduction of Buddhism (538)
In 593 Suiko 1 A tower is built at Hoko-ji, Buddha’s ashes are placed Prince Shotoku establishes the Article 17th Constitution (604)
In 643 Taika1 Hoko-ji becomes the base camp for Imperial Prince Nakanoe The Isshi incident (645)
In 653 Hakuchi 4 Gangoji’s Priest Dosho studies in Tang Dynasty of China as an envoy First Buddha’s ashes, sutra, and Zen meditation is introduced to Japan (662)
In 680 Tenmu 9 Hoko-ji takes on more authority as being equivalent to a government-sponsored temple Jinshin War (672)
In 718 Yourou 2 Hoko-ji is moved to Heijyo-kyo and becomes Gangoji The capital transferred to Heijo-kyo (710)
In 729 Tenpyo 1 Prince Nagaya is appointed Gankgo-ji’s officiating priest of the great memorial service. The Prince Nagaya incident (729)
In 732 Tenpyo 4 Gangoji’s Ryuson invites Jianzhen as a teacher of Buddhist precepts to Japan  
In 747 Tenpyo 19 “Gangoji Garan Engi narabini Ruki Shizai-cho” (The History of Gangoji and the Record of the Estates) is published. Rejection of Gyouki (749)
In 752 Tenpyoshoho 4 Chiko writes “Hannya-shingyo Jutsugi” (commentary on the Heart Sutra) Todai-ji Great Buddha enlightenment (752)
In 757 Tenpyo Hoji 1 Five-storied pagoda is built  
In 770~780 During the Houki Era Rejection of Chiko, Keishun makes dining hall The capital transferred to Nagaoka (784)
In 858 Tenan 2 “Gangoji Engi (The Origins of Gangoji)” (account of the introduction of Buddhism) is written To-ji bestowed to Kukai (823)
In 990 Shoryaku 1 Minister of the Right, Fujiwara No Sanesuke calls on Gangoji Genshin writes “Ojo Yoyaku” (The instruction for peaceful death) (985)
In 1023 Jian 3 Fujiwara no Michinaga makes pilgrimage to Seven Great temples  
In 1058 Kohei 1 Rejection of Seigen, the bishop of Gangoji The 1st year of Mappo (the age of decadence) (1052)
In 1066 Jiryaku 2 The great bishops of Gangoji develop Iga Chikuse-go  
In 1099 Kouwa 1 Chiko Mandala is brought at Buddhist service for Fujiwara no Moromichi Beginning of rule by retired Emperor Shirakawa (1086)
In 1106 Kasho 1 Ooe no Chikamichi “Seven Great temples Diary”  
  During the Eikyu Era Yorizane builds a large temple building at Zenjo-in Heiji rebellion (1159)
In 1171 Kao 3 100-day prayer to Buddha engraved on a pillar (repeat only 7 times now)  
In 1180 Jishou 4 "The Nanto Fire according to Heike, Gyokuge-in burns down "  
In 1185 Bunji 1 Gangoji priests visit the Todai-ji Great Buddha of enlightenment Downfall of the Taira clan (1185)
In 1197 Kenkyuu 8 Buddha’s ashes unearthed at the site of the Gangoji fire Opening of the Kamakura government (1192)
In 1222 Jo-o 1 Donated statement engraved on a pillar by Yukei Jokyu revolt (1221)
In 1244 Kangen 2 Great restoration of Buddhist priests’ living quarters at Gokuraku-bo Eihei-ji is opened by Dogen (1244)
In 1268 Bunei 5 Image of Prince Shotoku, “the Koyou-zo” is made at Gangoji  
In 1273 Bunei 10 Memorial service for Shaka Nyorai enlightenment at old turret of Shoto-in Bunei War (1274)
In 1381 Koryaku 3 Formulas for conjugal harmony and divorce are made Koan War (1281)
In 1368 Kouan 1 Gokuraku Ritsu-in is formed by Koen Doshu Risshi Unification of Southern and Northern dynasties (1392)
In 1394~1428 During the Ouei Era Gokuraku-bo’s East Gate and Taishi-do Hall are built  
In 1451 Houtoku 3 "Peasant uprising leads to burning of Golden Hall, Zenjo-in and Chiko Mandala " Ounin War (1467)
In 1457 Chouroku 1 Rebuild the Zenjo-in, becomes the Kasasagigo Jizo Hall  
In 1481 Bunmei 13 Jinson at Daijo-ji takes the ashes of Ichijo Kaneyoshi, the chief advisor of the Emperor, to Gokuraku-bo  
In 1498 Meiou 7 A miniature shrine for the Chiko Mandala is made by Seiken at the behest of Daijoin Jinson and Gokuraku-bo Yoshitaka The Great Buddha Hall goes up in flames (1567)
In 1602 Keichou 7 Gokurakuin, Gangoji, Jurin-in becomes Shuin-ji, temples protected by the Tokugawa shogunate and exempted from tax Opening of Edo government (1603)
In 1633 Kanei 10 Gokuraku-in and Shoto-in is registered as the branch temple of Saidai-ji  
In 1747 Enkyou 10 1,000-year memorial service is held for Chiko at Gokuraku-in  
In 1859 Ansei 6 Fire in Bishamon-cho burns the large tower, Kannon-do hall Separation of Buddhism and Shintoism (1868)
In 1870 Meiji 3 The land allocated for Shuin-ji is forfeited  
In 1872 Meiji 5 Gokuraku-in without their resident priests, Saidaiji retains them Constitution of the Empire of Japan (1889)
In 1883 Meiji 16 Elementary school is moved, Shinshu sect (Otani school) and Buddhist school is loaned Approval of Shingon legal codes of ancient Japan (1895)
In 1927 Showa 2 Large tower remains are excavated (historical site in 1932)  
In 1943 Showa 18 Tsujimura Taien joins Gokuraku-in, repairs to the buildings designated as national treasures begin (later stopped) End of World War II (1945)
In 1948 Showa 23 Repairs begin again on the national treasure Zen Room at Gokuraku-in (-1951) The Constitution of Japan (1946)
In 1951 Showa 26 The national treasure Gokuraku-in Main Hall is torn down and repaired (-1954) Cultural Properties Protection Law (1950)
In 1955 Showa 30 Gokuraku-in returns to its old name of Gangoji Gokuraku-bo Religious Protection Law (1951)
In 1965 Showa 40 Remains of Shoto-in is designated as historical ruins Ancient City Preservation Law (1966)
In 1967 Showa 42 Gangoji Research Center for Buddhism and Race Resources is established  
In 1977 Showa 52 Gangoji Gokuraku-bo changes its name to Gangoji Japan World Exposition, Osaka (1970)
In 1978 Showa 53 Gangoji Research Center for Buddhism and Race Resources changes its name to Gangoji institute for research of cultural property  
In 1991 Heisei 3 Gangoji’s 1,000 memorial towers taken down, Futoden is built  
In 1998 Heisei 10 Gangoji becomes a cultural asset of ancient Nara and a World Heritage site Hanshin Awaji earthquake (1995)
In 2013 Heisei Era 25 The Cabinet authorizes Gangoji institute for research of cultural property as a public interest incorporated association The Great East Japan Earthquake (2011)

Set in the land of beginnings with a history spanning 1,300 years,
Gangoji is a National Treasure and World Heritage Site of Nara.