Baekje accepted the advanced culture and technology of China, and
went on to adapt and assimilate the foreign cultural elements to
develop a unique culture of its own that was then disseminated to
neighboring states. It maintained amicable relations with Japan,
transmitting continental civilization and technology in exchange
for military assistance. Traces of close interaction between the two
countries still remain in many parts of Japan.
Kudara Kannon, or the Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva from Baekje, enshrined in the Treasure House
of Horyu-ji, in Nara, is one of Japan’s most renowned cultural treasures. The graceful image,
made of gilded camphor wood, stands 209cm tall. Baekje craftsmanship clearly shows in the
unique mandorla, the openwork crown, the smooth curves of the shoulders and waist, and the
tender expression on the face. It is dated to the early to mid-seventh century.
On the fourth day of the tenth month of A.D. 663, the final
battle that would determine the fate of the seven-centuryold
Baekje Kingdom was about to be waged in the lower
reaches of the Geum River. The kingdom’s capital, Sabi (presentday
Buyeo), had already fallen into enemy hands and King Uija surrendered
in 660, but last-ditch skirmishes were ongoing in various
parts of the country. Baekje restoration forces requested their ally
Japan (called “Wa” at the time) to send reinforcements, to which
Japan responded by dispatching a contingent of over 40,000 soldiers
in two phases.
The Baekje-Wa troops and the allied forces of Silla and Tang
China engaged in fierce naval and ground battles over two days in
what was tantamount to a major regional conflict in ancient East
Asia. Victory went to the Silla-Tang alliance. Although the most culturally
advanced and diplomatically savvy among the three kingdoms
of Korea, Baekje was unable to avert its tragic end. In some
ways, the Japanese reinforcements were a testimony to its strong
Even after Baekje’s fall, close relations with Japan continued.
According to the “New Selection and Record of Hereditary Titles and
Family Names” (Shinsen shojiroku), a genealogical record of aristocratic
families of Japan commissioned by the emperor and completed
in 815, one third of the nobility were found to be immigrants,
mostly of Baekje ancestry. Ancient Japan developed its culture
and laid its foundations as a nation largely through exchanges with
Baekje. Even into the early ninth century, descendants of Baekje
immigrants comprised a significant portion of Japan’s ruling class.
Three Mass Migrations
There were three major influxes of Baekje immigrants to Japan.
The first came after the mid-fourth century when, amid frequent
clashes with Goguryeo in the north, Baekje actively sought ties
with Japan to strengthen its defenses. Around this time, Baekje
dispatched two scholars to Japan. The first was Ajikgi (Achiki in
Japanese), who took with him two horses. He initially taught horsemanship,
but when it became known that he was well versed in
the Confucian classics, he became tutor to the crown prince.
Kudarao-jinja, the clan shrine of the royal family of Baekje, still stands in Hirakata, Osaka Prefecture.
In the eighth century, the descendants of the last king of Baekje who settled in southern
Osaka also built Kudara-ji, a large temple where spirit tablets of Baekje kings were enshrined, but
the temple was destroyed in a fire. The current shrine was rebuilt in 2002.
second scholar was Dr. Wangin (Wani in Japanese), who was called
to Japan upon the recommendation of Ajikgi and is known to have
introduced the “Thousand Character Classic” and the “Analects
of Confucius” to Japan. His descendants served in the royal court
for many generations in positions responsible for documentation, accounts, and finance.
After Wiryeseong, the first capital of Baekje later known as Hanseong,
fell to Goguryeo in 475, Baekje moved its capital further
south to Ungjin (present-day Gongju), which prompted the second
mass migration to Japan. Under the threat of aggression from
Goguryeo, Baekje sought to strengthen its alliance with Japan; in
return for Japan’s military assistance, it dispatched large numbers
of professionals with advanced cultural knowledge and technological
expertise. Exchange with Japan flourished under the reign of
the kings Muryeong (r. 501–523) and Seong (r. 523–554). During this
period, when Buddhism was introduced to Japan, Baekje sent Buddhist
architects and artisans as well as technicians and specialists
equipped with new skills and knowledge. They played an active
role in building the foundations of a centralized government from a
confederation of powerful local clans, and the blossoming of Buddhist
culture during the Asuka period (circa 538–710). The mother
of Emperor Kanmu (r. 781–806), who relocated the capital to Heiankyo
(present-day Kyoto) from Nara at the end of the eighth century,
ushering in the Heian period (794–1185), was known to have been a
descendant of King Muryeong of Baekje. This became widely known
when Emperor Akihito mentioned it in public in 2001.
After the fall of Baekje, members of the royal family and ruling
class crossed the sea to Japan en masse and settled there. According
to an account dated 663 from the “Chronicles of Japan” (Nihon
shoki), as they boarded the boat for Japan they cried out, “The
name Baekje has perished today. Will we ever be able to visit our
ancestors’ tombs again?” Based on historical records, their number
was estimated to have exceeded 3,000, including some 60 highranking
government officials. They took key government positions
during Japan’s transition to a centralized power structure in the late
The alleged tomb of Dr. Wangin, or Wani as he is known in Japan, in Hirakata, Osaka Prefecture. An eminent
scholar assumed to have arrived from Baekje in the mid-fourth century, Wangin is attributed with the introduction
of the Chinese writing system to Japan. His descendants are said to have served in various areas of
civil administration in Japan.
Baekje Buddhism and Asuka Culture
Buddhism was introduced to the Three Kingdoms of Korea much
earlier than to Japan through scriptures translated into Chinese
characters. In all of the three ancient states, Buddhism served as
an impetus for political unity, consolidation of royal authority, and
cultural advancement. The same was true for Japan. History books
from China’s Sui Dynasty (581–618) state that writing was introduced
to Japan through Buddhist scriptures from Baekje. In the
mid-sixth century, King Seong sent a Buddhist statue and sutras to
Japan for the first time, and thereafter continued to supply the necessary
human resources until Buddhism took root there. Buddhist
monks as well as architects and artists were dispatched to participate
in the construction of Asuka-dera, also known as Hoko-ji, one
of the oldest Buddhist temples in Japan.
It is said that when the
temple was completed, some 100 courtiers rejoiced wearing Baekje
attire. Early Buddhism in Japan built a strong foothold around
Asuka through close interaction with Baekje.
Baekje used the Chinese written language and Buddhism in its
diplomacy with Japan. It also acted as a cultural conduit between
China and Japan. One example is a U-shaped metal ornamental
hair pin. It is believed that this type of hair pin, which has been
found in tombs in China from the third century onwards, was
brought into Japan by way of Baekje. This is supported by the fact
that such hair pins have been frequently discovered among burial
goods in Baekje-style tombs located in the Kansai region (or the
Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe region). It is interesting that Baekje immigrants
even introduced to Japan the latest fashion items in vogue at
that time in East Asia.
The Kudara Bridge in Higashisumiyoshi-ku, southern Osaka, speaks for historic relations between the region
and the ancient Korean kingdom of Baekje, which date back to the seventh century. The name Kudara,
or Baekje, can be easily found in the names of stations, bridges, and schools around the area that continues
to have a large Korean-Japanese population today.
Twin Buddhist Statues
The Baekje Kingdom vanished when the restoration campaigns
were crushed. But its cultural legacy was revived in Japan. The
temple complex of Todai-ji in Nara, which bears traces of Baekje
influence, is a treasure trove of Buddhist culture which has been
designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. The statue of the Great
Buddha, a national treasure housed in the temple, is known to have
been built by the grandson of a Baekje immigrant who fled to Japan
after the kingdom’s fall. The descendants of Baekje’s royal family
developed a gold mine and donated gold for the statue. The essence
of the Buddhist culture that Baekje had fostered continued to live on
Among the Baekje immigrant settlers, there were two powerful
clans. One was the Aya clan, who settled in Kinai (the capital region)
near the Osaka and Nara prefectures. Most of them were craftsmen,
such as blacksmiths, or involved in production of horse gear,
silk fabrics, and earthenware.
The other prominent immigrant clan
was the Hata clan. They settled in the Kyoto prefecture and surrounding
areas, and were engaged in such fields as sericulture, textiles,
and water control. Descendants of the Hata divided into various
clans with different surnames. Tsutomu Hata, who became the
80th prime minister of Japan in 1994, is a descendant of the clan.
Koryu-ji, constructed in 603 in northern Kyoto, originally
belonged to the Hata family. It houses six Buddhist statues designated
as national treasures. The most outstanding among them is
the wooden statue of the Pensive Bodhisattva, or Maitreya in Meditation.
The image of the bodhisattva in deep contemplation of the
suffering of humans has captivated numerous people over the centuries.
German philosopher Karl Jaspers praised it as “a full representation
of the highest expression of human nature.” An almost
identical twin statue, the Gilt-bronze Pensive Bodhisattva (Korea’s
National Treasure No. 83), is housed in
the National Museum of Korea in Seoul.
The two statues bear a striking resemblance,
especially their smiles. Neither
of the sculptors has been identified, and
controversy is ongoing as to whether they
were from Baekje or Silla. But whatever the
place of origin, what the enigmatic smile of
the two bodhisattvas is conveying is a message
of salvation of all human beings —
beyond Baekje, Silla, or Japan.
The Baekje Kingdom vanished when the restoration campaigns were crushed. But its cultural legacy
was revived in Japan. The essence of the Buddhist culture that Baekje had fostered continued to live on
The Legacy of the Ancient Kingdom
The vestiges of Baekje in Japan are scattered
throughout the Kansai region. The
tour exploring the remains of the ancient
Korean kingdom begins as we exit Kansai International Airport, the gateway to western Japan.
The first stop is Osaka, Japan’s second largest city. Prince
Seongwang, the son of Baekje’s last king, spent the rest of his life in
Japan after the kingdom’s collapse. He was given the family name
of Kudara no Konikishi (meaning “king of Baekje”) by the emperor.
Together with other descendants of the royal family, he settled in
Baekje County in southern Osaka where immigrant clans were living.
This area corresponds to today’s Ikuno-ku and still has a large
Korean-Japanese population. One can easily spot stations, bridges,
and elementary schools with Baekje in their names.
It was during the great-grandson Keifuku’s generation that the
Kudara clan moved to Hirakata in the northern Osaka Prefecture.
Keifuku, or Gyeongbok in Korean, donated gold for the construction
of the Great Buddha statue housed in Todai-ji in Nara. He also built
Kudara-ji, a large temple for the clan, but it was destroyed in a fire
and a park now stands in its place. Still standing is the clan shrine
Kudarao-jinja, which was built around the same time near the temple
and has since been reconstructed.
The next place on the itinerary is Nara. Asuka, a village located
further south, is home to the temple Asuka-dera, but it is hard to
find traces of the Baekje people there as their temples were also
moved to Nara after the relocation of the capital. Our first stop is the
temple Gango-ji. It was once one of the powerful seven great temples
of Nara together with Todai-ji and Kofuku-ji, but declined after
the Middle Ages. However, the roof tiles of the main hall, a national
treasure, are worth a close look as tiles from the Asuka period
made by Baekje artisans still remain.
After Gango-ji comes Todai-ji, which is not far off, and then
Horyu-ji. The large temple grounds of Horyu-ji are filled with
numerous national treasures, but the one that exudes the aura
of Baekje is the Kudara Kannon (Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva from
Baekje). Standing over two meters tall, the wooden statue is a
sculptural masterpiece exemplifying the beauty of the human body,
which has long been a source of artistic inspiration. In 1997, the
statue was displayed at the Louvre Museum as part of an exchange
of representative national treasures between France and Japan.
The main hall (right) and
the zen room of Gango-ji, in
Nara. Many of the roof tiles
of these buildings, distinguished
by brownish tones,
were made by Baekje
artisans during the Asuka
period. The temple was
originally founded in Asuka
in 593 and was known as
Asuka-dera or Hoko-ji,
one of the oldest Buddhist
temples in Japan. It was
moved to Nara in 718, when
the capital was relocated
there, and renamed Gangoji.
The five-story pagoda at
Horyu-ji, in Nara, is one of
the oldest wooden buildings
in the world. It was
built when the temple was
reconstructed in the early
eighth century after the
first Horyu-ji, completed in
607, was burned down in
670. The pagoda reflects
the seventh-century Baekje
style. It is 32.5 meters tall.
Next, we board the train for Kyoto and head north. They say you
can’t visit Kyoto without seeing Kiyomizu-dera, another temple connected
with Baekje. Sakanoue no Tamuramaro, a general and shogun
who conquered the Tohoku region during the reign of Emperor
Kanmu, is the one who initiated the construction of the temple. The
main hall, a national treasure, was originally his house that was
rebuilt. The Sakanoue clan is known to have diverged from the Aya
clan. During the era when the emperor’s maternal relatives were
descendants of the Baekje royal family, members of the clan held
key positions in the military and played an important role in opening
the Heian period, pioneering a new future for Japan.
Last is a walk around Kyoto city in a counterclockwise direction,
headed for the temple Koryu-ji. Here, many ancient Buddhist statutes,
including the wooden statue of the Pensive Bodhisattva, await
us. We admire the acme of Buddhist culture and take a moment to
ruminate on the anguish of the displaced Baekje immigrants who
had lost their country.
Clues for Future Relations
With the end of the alliance between
Baekje and Japan, all ties connecting the
ancient Korean peninsula and the Japanese
archipelago were severed, casting a
dark shadow over Korea-Japan relations
ever since. At the end of the 16th century,
Japan invaded Joseon, causing mass casualties
and extensive material damage; in
1910, Japan annexed the Korean Empire.
The deep wounds inflicted during the 35
years of occupation have never completely
healed. How might relations between
Korea and Japan pan out in the future? The
answer may be more easily found if the two
nations recall the open and friendly relations
and cosmopolitan outlook of their
ancestors of 1,500 years ago.