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How we see others,
how others see us

Proceedings of the International Symposium
Paris, 13 and 14 December 2001

Nineteenth-century Europe’s encounter
with Japanese Buddhism

Fumihiko Sueki
Professor at the University of Tokyo

In Europe, Roman Catholic missionaries of the sixteenth century were the first to describe Japanese religion. Although they wrote significant reports about it, they held assumptions and prejudices from their Christian standpoint and sometimes caused great misunderstandings. In the seventeenth century, the Tokugawa government closed Japan to Westerners and information about the country became very limited in Europe. A History of Japan written by a German doctor, Engelbert Kaempfer (1651–1716), was the only reliable source on Japan in the eighteenth century. However, the description of Buddhism in his chapter on religion was very brief because he dealt mainly with Shinto. 

Europe thus had little knowledge of Japanese Buddhism until the nineteenth century. Another German doctor, Philipp Franz von Siebold (1796–1866), was the first scholar who tried to describe Japanese Buddhism objectively. Despite his good intentions, he did not succeed because the ideas of Japanese Buddhism were so different from the general perception of religion in Europe. His main source on Buddhism was the Butsuzô zui (Collection of Buddhist Images), by Ki no Hidenobu, a popular guidebook of Buddhist images with over 800 illustrations. Siebold used only small sections of the Butsuzô zui in his book, Nippon, and then asked his assistant Johann Joseph Hoffmann (1805–78) to study it in detail. Hoffmann revised the German translation and added voluminous notes referring to Indian and Chinese sources. He published his translation as an appendix to Siebold’s Nippon.

Although Hoffmann’s translation of the Butsuzô zui was the first scholarly work on Japanese Buddhism, it went almost unnoticed in the academic world. Émile Guimet (1836–1918), the founder of the Musée Guimet, which contains the largest collection of Asian religious art in France, was perhaps the only person who paid attention to Hoffmann’s work. When Guimet arrived in Japan, he based his collection on the Butsuzô zui, the text of which he had become acquainted with through Hoffmann’s translation, systematically collecting fine Buddhist statues during his short stay in the country.

In this paper, I investigate the development of European understanding of Japanese Buddhism in the nineteenth century, as an example of how we comprehend other cultures.

Siebold on Japanese Buddhism

From 1639 to 1854, in the Edo period, Japan was closed to foreigners and only Dutch merchants were permitted to stay in Nagasaki. Siebold, by pretending to be Dutch, was able to stay in Nagasaki from 1823 to 1829. During this period, he opened the Narutaki School and taught young Japanese students, who were eager to study the newly introduced Western sciences instead of traditional Chinese and Japanese sciences. These students became leaders of the progressive enlightenment movement in the late Tokugawa period.

 In addition, Siebold had been instructed to collect information on Japan by the Dutch Government. He collected a great deal of material and asked his Japanese students to submit reports on various aspects of Japanese culture in Dutch. Because he could not read Japanese, his students were invaluable informants. He was interested in both the nature and society of Japan. In 1828, he was accused of trying to take a number of items out of the country that were barred from export; among them a map of Japan produced locally. Some of his students were imprisoned and he himself was expelled. It was after his return to Germany, from 1832 to 1851, that he published Nippon, a twenty-volume encyclopedic work on Japan.

The religions of Japan are described in Part 5 of Nippon, which is entitled ‘Pantheon of Japan’ and consists of three chapters: Chapter 1 is an outline of Japanese religions, Chapter 2 is on Shinto and Chapter 3 is on Buddhism. There is also an appendix, ‘The Japanese Buddhist Pantheon’ (Das Buddha-Pantheon von Nippon), Hoffman’s German translation of the Butsuzô zui.

Siebold was sympathetic to Shinto because it is a simple religion which had its origin in ancient Japan and which rejected idols. On the other hand, he was critical of Buddhism, the doctrines of which he divided into two types: a higher and a lower. The higher type was philosophical and based on ‘nothingness’. The lower type was a popular system of idol worship, which he criticized as sacrilegious polytheism. 

The Butsuzô zui was the main source for Siebold’s explanation of the lower type of Buddhism. He chose three figures as examples of Buddhist idols: Fu-daishi, Shakyamuni and Amida. Shakyamuni is the founder of Buddhism and Amida is the most popular Buddha in Japan, but who is Fu-daishi? He is completely unknown other than to specialists of Buddhist history. He was a lay Buddhist in sixth-century China who was known as the inventor of bookcases that rotated on an axis, used for storing Buddhist scriptures. He is not a popular deity and certainly should not have been given a prominent place in an introductory explanation of Buddhism.

Why did he play such an important role in Siebold’s explanation of Buddhism? He was chosen simply because he appeared at the beginning of the Butsuzô zui. The observations on Fu-daishi were only a translation of the description therein. Why then does he appear at the beginning of the Butsuzô zui? Probably because he is thought to be a protector of Buddhist scriptures and Buddhism. In fact, the three deities – Fu-daishi, Shakyamuni and Amida – discussed by Siebold are simply the first three to appear in the Butsuzô zui. Almost all his explanations of Buddhism were translations and summaries of various passages of that work. His chapter on religion even contains the table of contents as a note.

The Butsuzô zui was first published in 1690, but the enlarged five-volume version published in 1783 became very popular and was reprinted several times. Siebold used this enlarged version. In spite of its popularity, the book was not highly regarded in Japan and never became an object of research by scholars because it was neither a scholarly work nor a profoundly religious one. It not only included orthodox Buddhist images such as Shakyamuni and Amida, but also popular deities such as the Seven Gods of Good Fortune, and should be regarded as an encyclopedia of popular worship in the Edo period. 

Siebold’s choice of this work as the basic source for the ‘lower’ type of Japanese Buddhism was reasonable. However, he failed to present an accurate image of Japanese Buddhism. The section on Buddhism of his book was fragmentary and had no comprehensive viewpoint. Why did Siebold fail to understand Buddhism?

What he referred to as the ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ types of Buddhist doctrine were not as clearly divided as he thought. As he had not understood the higher type, he could not correctly describe popular worship. For Siebold, the higher type of Japanese Buddhism seems to have been the Zen philosophy based on ‘nothingness’, a form of Buddhism already known in the sixteenth century from the reports of Christian missionaries. According to these reports, one of the main topics of debate between Buddhist monks and Christian missionaries focused on the respective merits of teachings about the existence of the God and the ultimate principle of nothingness.

Siebold did not seem to really understand this philosophy of nothingness and did not develop its explanation. It was so different from Christian theology that it was only in the twentieth century that Zen philosophy became popular in the West through the proselytizing of D. T. Suzuki. Understanding other religions is truly a difficult task.

As for the lower type of Buddhism, Siebold was prejudiced against it because it was polytheistic and heterodox. His contempt for popular Buddhism was based partly on the Christian monotheistic tradition. In addition, his informants about Japan, his students, belonged almost entirely to the warrior (samurai) class and they denigrated popular Buddhism as superstition. Because they did not understand popular Buddhism very well, Siebold failed to obtain reliable information about it. For these reasons, he could not himself make full use of the Butsuzô zui and asked his assistant Hoffmann to study it.

Hoffmann and the Butsuzô zui

Johann Joseph Hoffmann was a very interesting person. Born in Würzburg, the same city as Siebold, he was a singer in his youth. When he met Siebold at a hotel in Antwerp in 1830, he was attracted by his stories about Japan and became his assistant. He studied so assiduously that he quickly mastered the Japanese language and helped Siebold to complete his major work Nippon. He became the first professor of Japanology at Leiden University and published a book on Japanese grammar in 1868. 

Besides the German translation of the Butsuzô zui (Das Buddha-Pantheon von Nippon), he also translated Wanenkei (Chronological Table of Japanese History), Senjimon (Lesson from a Thousand Letters) and other works. Siebold was an encyclopedist whose interest covered both natural and human sciences and who was skilled at fieldwork rather than philological studies. In contrast, Hoffmann was a skilled philologist. He never travelled to Japan and his knowledge of the language was not conversational but based on reading classical texts. This contrast between the two scholars helped make their cooperative works successful. 

The differences between the two reflect the change in Oriental studies in nineteenth-century Europe. Philological studies of Indian and Chinese classics began in the mid-nineteenth century and took the place of studies based on fieldwork. The study of Indian Buddhism began with the manuscripts that the European Buddhist scholar Brian Houghton Hodgson brought from Nepal. He published the Illustration of the Literature and Religion of Buddhism in 1841. The French Orientalist Eugène Burnouf studied Buddhism through these manuscripts and published L’Introduction à l’histoire du bouddhisme indien in 1845. Thus was European Buddhology born in the 1840s.

The volume on religion in Nippon was published between 1832 and 1839, but the translation of the Butsuzô zui by Hoffmann was published in 1852. European Buddhology thus arose between these two publications. Hoffmann’s method was similar to the above-mentioned philological works on Indian Buddhism; in fact, he referred to them in his notes.

Hoffman’s text is not just a straightforward translation, but also a result of his comparative study of religion. His book includes many notes and comparisons of Japanese deities with those found in Indian and Chinese sources. It is surprising that Hoffman, who was not a specialist in religion, studied Indian and Chinese religions so diligently that his translation and notes are worth reading even today. He was so enthusiastic about this work that he made the lithographs for the illustrations himself.

Unfortunately, his work was long ignored. In fact, nobody except Émile Guimet, as further discussed below, paid much attention to it. Two factors contributed to this state of affairs. First, the Butsuzō zui was included in Siebold’s Nippon and was not published as an independent book. Second, the Butsuzô zui was not a classic that everybody felt obliged to read, but was only a popular guidebook. The value of the work has only recently been recognized.

Incidentally, the manuscripts by Siebold and others that were used for the Nippon are preserved at the Ruhr-University in Bochum, Germany. I had the opportunity to investigate two manuscripts related to the Butsuzô zui in 1997. One (M1) is a German translation of the whole Butsuzô zui copied by Siebold, and the other (M2) is the revised version of the sections on Shakyamuni and Amida written by Hoffmann.

In fact the translator of the former manuscript was not Siebold, because he could not read Japanese. I discovered evidence that it was first translated into Dutch by Yoshio Chûjirô (1788–1833), an interpreter of Japanese and Dutch in Nagasaki who became a student at the Narutaki School. He was so loyal to Siebold that he was eventually arrested in 1828 for helping Siebold with his ‘espionage’, and his social activities were forbidden afterwards. This was the first step.

The second step was the translation of the Dutch version into German. The translator may have been Siebold, but it is more probable that Bürger, a German assistant of his, translated it. M1 is not the original manuscript, but a clean and final copy.

The third step was the revision of the sections concerning Shakyamuni and Amida by Hoffmann (M2). I found that some parts of Siebold’s explanation of Shakyamuni and Amida in the Nippon were virtually the same as the revised version by Hoffmann. This means that Siebold used Hoffman’s translation in some cases.

The last step was Hoffmann’s translation and publication. This last translation is different to both M1 and M2. Hoffmann revised the translation again and completed a final version.

In this way, four persons – Yoshio, Bürger, Siebold and Hoffmann – were associated with the translation as it was revised and revised again. We can see how carefully the text was studied and that the last version by Hoffmann is thus a very scholarly work.

Guimet and the Butsuzô zui

Émile Guimet showed an interest Hoffman’s work even though everybody else had forgotten it. Guimet’s father was an inventor in Lyon and became very rich because of his discovery of an artificial dye. Émile took over his father’s job, but since his young days had been interested in Eastern religions. He travelled to Japan, China and India from 1876 to 1877 and collected a great deal of Asian religious artefacts which became the basis of the Musée Guimet (Guimet Musée National des Arts Asiatiques), the finest collection of Asian art in France.

He only stayed in Japan for about two months. He arrived in Yokohama on the 26 August 1876, visited Tokyo, Kamakura, Nikko and Kyoto and left Kobe at the beginning of November. He left a record of his travels, Promenades japonaises (Walks in Japan), clearly describing his activities in Japan. He visited many old shrines and temples, met many priests and monks, and bought many Buddhist and Shinto images.

At the time when he visited the country, Japanese temples were in disarray and poverty-stricken following the Meiji restoration in 1868. During the early Meiji era, a movement had begun to persecute Buddhism and the government had ordered the division of Buddhism and Shinto. Until then popular Japanese religion had been a syncretic mixture of the two. The government order threw temples and shrines into confusion. Many Buddhist images escaped destruction only to be sold very cheaply. Guimet could thus easily buy them.

Most of the images he collected were fairly recent, made in the Edo period after the sixteenth century and with little value from the viewpoint of art history. For this reason, his collection was not thought to be of value for a long time. The late Professor Bernard Frank at the Collège de France, the most eminent Japanologist in France, discovered the importance of Guimet’s collection from the standpoint of the history of popular religion in seventeenth- and nineteenth-century Japan. Guimet had collected many images of the deities of popular worship rather than of orthodox Buddhist religion. These are excellent materials for clarifying many of the characteristics of popular religion.

And how did Guimet manage to collect over 200 fine images of popular Buddhism? Professor Frank’s research revealed that he had been guided by the Butsuzô zui and that he had used Hoffmann’s translation. Clearly Guimet recognized the value of the book. His collection includes a copy of Siebold’s Nippon with Hoffmann’s translation, and two copies of the original Butsuzô zui in Japanese. Guimet added the numbers and romanized names of the images in one of the copies, showing that he had used the text to build up his collection. It is quite natural that he read Nippon before his visit to Japan and that he found a good guidebook in Hoffmann’s translation of the Butsuzô zui. Hoffmann’s work, which had been ignored in the academic world, was rediscovered by the person who best knew how to use it. If Guimet had not known Hoffmann’s work, his collection would not have been so systematic.

Professor Frank, who discovered the importance of Guimet’s collection, long forgotten except for some rare antiques, restored the exhibition to its original form. He also published a detailed catalogue of the collection, which he named Le panthéon bouddhique au Japon (1991), as the title of the translation by Hoffmann. In this way, the intention of Hoffmann and Guimet in the nineteenth century to clarify the system of popular Buddhism in Japan was brought to fruition by one of the greatest scholars of the twentieth century. 


According to my research, Europe came to know Japanese Buddhism for the first time in the nineteenth century. At that time, the Butsuzô zui, a popular guidebook of Buddhist images first published in 1690 and revised in 1783 at Edo, was the best source. Siebold and his assistants were the first Europeans to notice the text. Hoffmann’s translation was particularly important and was used by Guimet. In this way, the popular forms of worship of Japanese Buddhism became known in Europe. However, their work would have been forgotten without Professor Frank’s efforts in recent years.

Finally, another problem should be mentioned. Even Hoffmann, who made such valiant efforts to understand Japanese Buddhism, did not adequately understand the philosophical doctrines of Buddhism; in fact, he misunderstood some important doctrinal explanations of the Butsuzô zui. D. T. Suzuki introduced the fascinating Zen philosophy of nothingness, the ‘higher’ type of Japanese Buddhism, to the European world for the first time. However, some scholars have recently criticized Suzuki’s interpretation of Zen philosophy on the grounds that his interpretation was too modern.

The understanding of religions other than one’s own is such a difficult task that many continual and cooperative efforts will always be required to develop it.

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