He was educated at the Takakura Gakuryo, the highest educational establishment maintained by the Ôtani branch of the Jodo Shin sect.
In 1876 the headquarters of his sect sent him to England for study. He studied Sanskrit under the eminent Indologist Max Miiller and devoted himself to research in the Buddhist scriptures.
In 1884 he became the first scholar in Japan to receive a Ph.D. degree. He later became a member of the Imperial Japan Academy.
In 1870 he became adopted heir to the priest of a temple called Okunen-ji in the province of Echizen.
He returned to Japan in 1880 and thereafter successively held the posts of lecturer at Tokyo Imperial University, professor of Shinshu University, and president of Otani University.
While in England, he produced an English translation of the Chinese index, Ta-ming san-tsang sheng-chiao mu-lu, appended to the Huang-po (Ôbaku) edition of the Daizôlcyô (Tripitaka), which appeared under the title A Catalogue of the Chinese Translation of the Buddhist Tripitaha by Bunyu Nanjo and served as a model for Western language studies of Buddhism. He also worked with Max Miiller to edit and publish a definitive Sanskrit text of the Sukhâvatï-vyüha (Muryüjü-kyô) and with H. Kern to produce a Sanskrit text of the Saddharmapundanka ( Hokekyô), or Lotus Sutra. Such is the quality of these texts that they continue to be used today. He also produced Japanese translations and explications of Buddhist scriptures.