In Japanese Buddhism the big lay movements started in the 12th and 13th centuries respectively with Honen introducing chanting Amitabha's name as a sole practice (and his disciple Shinran) and Nichiren spreading the practice of chanting the title of the Lotus Sutra (known as Odaimoku). These are still the two biggest movements in Japan: Pure Land and Nichiren Buddhism. Dogen tried with Soto Zen, but zen meditation for lay followers only became big overseas.
Esoteric Buddhism in Japan was and is limited to the priesthood.
Actually chanting is indeed considered meditation, the great founder of the Tiantai school Zhiyi (600) included it in his 4 practices leading to samadhi: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pratyutpanna_Sutra
. He wrote the seminal 'Mohe Zhiguan' (Chinese: 摩訶止観, Jpn.: Makashikan
In Nichiren Buddhism, chanting Odaimoku is seen as the practice that leads to buddhahood in this very life. Depending on the school you may practice shikan as well.