Lecture 19: Japan: 20'000 BC - AD 784

Our review of early Japanese history must begin with same insight that guided our discussion of Islam. Namely, that for much of its history Japan has been insular, without being isolated. There was a time of isolation of course, from roughly 1603 until 1867, after the Japanese reacted negatively to the arrival of Europeans. But in the times both before and after this period, Japan borrowed from outsiders and put the techniques acquired to domestic use. The first period of borrowing, during the Yamato State, will be the subject of our discussion today.
The Yamato State was Japan’s first full-blown civilization. It existed from roughly 250 BC until AD 784. However, before we can discuss the Yamato State, we must consider a series of contextual issues that will help us understand Yamato’s historical significance.
First, we need to consider Japan’s geography. Located off China and Korea’s coasts, Japan comprises a group of islands, the four largest of which are Kyushu, Shikoku, Honshu, and Hokkaido. Japan has not, however, always been cut off from the mainland. There were two land bridges in both the north and the south that affected the population’s composition. I will discuss the bridges again.
Second, we must be aware of problems with the Japan’s written sources. The two texts that historians rely on for their knowledge of the Yamato State date only from the eighth century. The Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters) was written in 712 and the Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan) in 720. This problem is, of course, similar to the one that we confronted in India.
Third, we need a general understanding of Japan’s social system. In general Japanese society was divided into three groups, the uji who were nobles, the be who practiced trades, and the yatsuko who worked the farms. Above these three groups were tribal chiefs, who negotiated with the uji and the be to maintain and extend their power. (There was also another category of person, household slaves, but they were not numerous.)
Finally, we must consider religion. Japan has its own domestic religious tradition, Shinto, which is still practiced there today. Shinto has ancient animist roots. It was based on the belief that spirits populated the world, and that they could reside in just about anyplace in nature. These spirits, called kami, affected the lives of Japanese and, therefore, had to be placated by proper rituals. This is a key insight for understanding very early Japanese history, since early political leaders were shamans, priests who had the power to placate the gods. The most powerful kami lived in the most impressive places, such as mountains. Consequently, the most powerful families tried to associate themselves with the most powerful kami. This was the case with the early Yamato state, as I will discuss.
Now we turn to ancient Japanese history. We will divide this history into four parts, and what you will notice as we progress through these periods is how Japan, for most of its ancient past, was a backwater. This would change with the Yamato State.
The first period is Paleolithic (28,000 BC – 10,500 BC), and was during this time that two land bridges connected Japan to the mainland. The bridges facilitated the immigration of peoples from both north and south until they disappeared around 18,000 BC. During this time nomads roamed Japan, hunting animals and gathering fruits, nuts, and edible plants. The animals hunted included a native Japanese elephant, which has since become extinct.
The second stage is Mesolithic (10,500 BC – 7,500 BC). This period saw improvement in hunting techniques, as people shifted from using chipped stones to using polished ones for their weapons and tools. At the same time pottery began to appear, which is the first indication settled life on the island.
The third stage is called Jomon (7,500 BC to 250 BC). This term is problematic, because it is based on local Japanese events, rather than a larger thematic structure. The word Jomon is Japanese, and means “cord-like,” in reference to patterns that appeared on ancient Japanese pottery. The Jomon people were, in fact, Mesolithic. They lived in small villages that usually comprised no more than six huts, though some places were bigger. The total number of villages increased regularly, and early signs of trade became apparent. Then around the year 1000 BC, a big change became apparent, as the first signs of organized agriculture appeared, including the cultivation of rice, millet, barley, and some wheat.
The appearance of agriculture takes us to the next stage of ancient Japanese history, the Yayoi period (250 BC – AD 250). The name Yayoi is as problematic as is Jomon, since it refers to a space on the University of Tokyo’s campus where the first evidence of this civilization was discovered. The Yayoi were in the Neolithic stage of ancient civilization, which meant that they began to use more complicated weapons and farming implements than peoples in earlier stages. These people were not native Japanese, but probably came from China or Korea.
The Yayoi people’s arrival begins a period of cultural ferment in Japan. If we consider what was going on in other parts of the world, at the time, we can see how important this ferment was for the course of Japanese history. Just a few examples: by 250 BC, the Chinese had already built their first empire, the Roman Republic was fighting Carthage, and India had already spawned a world religion.
Yayoi culture came to Japan from across the Sea of Japan. Many of these immigrants were fleeing the wars fought by the Han in China and Korea. One specific example is the Han invasion of Korea in 108 BC that led to the creation of a Chinese puppet state called Lo-Lang. The Chinese and Korean immigrants brought with them Chinese culture and practices. These practices originally appeared in Kyushu, before spreading north to other area. Chinese bronze mirrors appeared as did Korean stone daggers, as well as iron and bronze weapons. (The Chinese knew how to work iron, and Korea had plentiful sources of iron ore.) In addition, there was a major increase in the use of specialized farm implements, including plows, hoes, sickles, and axes.
The Yayoi did not displace the Jomon, but coexisted with them for some time. There is evidence of different types of villages living peacefully next to each other. Over time, however, Yayoi culture spread through all of Japan, and the connections the Yayoi had with China became fundamental for Japan, as the Yayoi became identified by others as the first Japanese. The first Chinese record of the Japanese people appeared in a text called Wei Chih (AD 297), in which the Japanese are identified as Wo. Their political structure is described as fractured, with more than 100 separate kingdoms. The text also describes one particular kingdom called Yamatai, which was probably located on the island of Kyushu. This kingdom was headed by a queen named Himiko, who seems to have been some sort of shaman. She lived from about AD 183 until AD 248, and was in direct contact with the Chinese kingdom of Wei.
Himiko highlights some general themes for early Japanese history. First, she was a shaman reveals the fundamental importance of animistic religious beliefs to the development of Japanese culture and politics. Second, Himiko’s power was based on her clan. That is, early Japanese political arrangements were based on family connections, though Japanese clans were not based entirely on blood. Third, by Himiko’s time rice cultivation was spreading and becoming more sophisticated. As we have seen in other civilizations, the increase in food production led to greater wealth and, ultimately, war. Finally, Himiko’s reign points to the central theme f0r understanding the next thousand years: the story of early Japan is the story of a sinicized, bureaucratic state, assuming control of traditional clan structures. The tension that this created in Japanese history would run into the twentieth century.
The Yamato kingdom first appeared around AD 250 on Honshu. It was a monarchical state that was based on wealth derived from rice production. Like other civilizations, it buried its kings amidst splendor, in what are called burial mounds (kofur). Over the centuries, these mounds became bigger, as the kingdom became wealthier. Using new techniques of government, this kingdom spread its influence throughout Japan by force. By AD 350, most of Japan was under Yamato control. China was, at this point, in no position to shape events in Japan. In AD 313, the Korean kingdom of Koguryo invaded the Chinese puppet state of Lo-Lang and defeated it. China responded over the next few centuries with repeated invasions in Korea. These wars tied China down, while also increasing the number of refugees that fled to Japan. Japan turned inward in response, integrating these refugees and their skills. There is no record of contact between Japan and China until AD 413.
This period of integration is marked by an increase in administrative control through the development of the uji-kabane system. Here the spread of rice cultivation was central, since the state was built on agricultural communities. Under this system the uji assumed control over local areas in exchange for recognition from the state. Leaders among the uji were then given a special title kabana, which established their political preeminence in the area. The state, in turn, received its tax payments from the locals.
Having set the stage for the rise of Yamato, I want to offer an overview of its history. Historians generally divide Yamato’s history into three stages. Stage one (250-399) marks the period of its rise. Stage two (400-499) is its height. Stage three (500-650) is the period of decline.
During the first stage the monarchy was centered on the great mountain of Miwa, in which lived a powerful kami that oversaw the Yamato state. This stage also saw the appearance of great burial mounds and the general increase in state power. Around 350, however, power shifted to a new area within Yamato near the modern city of Nara, which was in the center of a rich agricultural area. The leaders in Nara were in constant contact with Korea, which lead to the importation of numerous new skills in weaving, metal working, irrigation, and a new script. Thus, by the fifth century, when the second stage began, the Yamato state was both powerful and wealthy. An example of this increase is the appearance of even larger tomb mounds and in a new form, the keyhole. One Yamato king, Ojin, built a tomb so large that, according to modern estimates, it would have taken 1000 people, working from morning until night, four years to complete the work.
During the sixth century, the Yamato state entered a period of decline, as the central power became weaker and some members of the uji assumed more control. Three events were important to the course of events. The first was the arrival of Buddhism in Japan in the year 538. Initially, many in the elite saw Buddhism as a threat, since it undermined the importance of the kami and the Shinto system. Soon, a split emerged among the Japanese nobility, with some families supporting Buddhism and others opposing it. The next great event happened in 562, when an eastern Korean kingdom called Silla attacked another Korean state that was friendly to Japan called Kaya (Mimana). (It was once believed that this state of Kaya was a Japanese colony, but this is now doubted.) The loss of this connection deeply affected Japan and led to the fear of invasion.
The perception that Japan was losing power led to a coup in 587, in which a family named Soga assumed control of Japanese government. The Soga were Buddhists and for the next 70 years they spread Buddhism and maintained control over Yamato Emperors by ruling in their name as regents. In 592, for example, one Soga, Soga no Umako had one emperor deposed and put his niece on the throne, the Empress Suiko. Unfortunately, for the Soga, imperial politics led to the appointment of a regent who was not a Soga. His name was Prince Shotoku, and he fought to maintain the imperial line’s privileges against noble encroachment.
Prince Shotoku’s regency is considered to have been an Age of Reform, with some calling it the Asuka Enlightenment, that name being taken from Shotoku’s capital city. He tried to regain Japanese influence in Kaya, by sending two expeditions to Korea in 595 and 602, though both of them failed. He is, however, remembered mostly for the way that he combined Buddhism and Confucianism as a means for reforming the state. Shotoku was a convinced Buddhist, and he did his best to expand the religion’s influence by supporting new monasteries and cloisters. One example is the magnificent Horyu temple, which was founded between 601 and 607. His governmental reforms were, however, the most important part of his reign. In 603, he introduced a Confucian system of 12 ranks that was associated with state service. The higher the rank, the more power a person had within the state. In 604, he introduced a 17-article constitution that organized the structure of government. Among other things, it made clear that government ministers had specific responsibilities and worked for the emperor. It also gave the government a uniform system of laws.
Shotoku’s reforms changed the relationship that Japan had with the outside world. He opened relations with the Sui dynasty and even offended the Chinese emperor by assuming equal status. Until that point, Japan had been a tributary state. However, in a letter Shotoku referred to the Chinese emperor as coming from the land of the setting sun and the Japanese emperor as leader of the land of the rising sun. This period marked a crucial time for the Japanese. After borrowing heavily from the mainland for centuries, Japan was now an independent self-conscious kingdom with its own traditions and ideas. Japan would continue borrowing from mainland cultures, but as an equal. (Later, Japan would assume it was superior to other countries.)
Prince Shotoku died in 622 and the Soga family made a brief comeback. In 643, the Soga managed to kill both Shotoku’s son and his entire family. Shotoku’s influence extended beyond his death, however, as students whom he had sent to China to study the T’ang dynasty returned, bringing with them imperial ideas. The Soga were wiped out permanently, when two people influenced by these ideas, Prince Nakano Oe and a Soga rival Nakatomi Kamatari defeated all the emperor’s enemies. These two men then instituted a great land reform that cemented the central government’s power. In 646, they eliminated all private property and allocated individual holdings to all people old enough to cultivate land. The landholders agreed, in exchange, to pay a fixed tax. These men also reorganized the government, making local officials responsible to the central government. They even went so far as to institute what we would call a complaint box, so that citizens could report government abuses in their locality. Taken together, these reforms are called Taika, which was taken from the name of the era that began with that year.
One result of these reforms was a return to military conflict. The problems in China and Korea had not subsided, and in 663 Japan sent an expedition to Korea to help the friendly state of Paekche in its war against the Kingdom of Silla, which had allied with T’ang China. The combined Silla-T’ang force destroyed both Paekche and the Japanese forces. This defeat set in motion more reforms and the building of special fortifications in Kyushu to defend against a Silla-T’ang invasion, though such an invasion never came.
The reforms of this period worked reasonably well and Japan prospered. In 710, the imperial capital was moved to Nara, probably because it was more defensible. The government continued to use Chinese methods to maintain its political control. In 743, however, the government had to allow the reappearance of private property through a law that guaranteed private control over new lands. Under the old system no one had any incentive to develop new fields, since the government would have given the land away to someone else. This new edict, however, guaranteed private control to anyone willing to invest in land clearance. This decision would have important long-term consequences, as some nobles became so wealthy through land reclamation that they challenged central control.
The Nara period runs from 710 to 784, and it is considered by many Japan’s golden age. In literature, the first great texts appeared that I mentioned at the start of this lecture. In art and architecture, distinctive Japanese styles appeared. It was also a period of extreme social mobility, as knowledge of Buddhism or statecraft made it possible to improve one’s fortunes. Perhaps the most important Nara achievement, however, is the construction of Japan’s most famous Buddhist shrine the Todai Temple, in which stands the Great Buddha of Nara, the greatest expression of Japanese belief in Buddhism. Still, Nara, for all its local greatness, was deeply influenced by Chinese forms. Japanese students went to T’ang China to study not only Buddhism but also Chinese politics. In addition, Nara was designed as a smaller version of the T’ang capital of Chang’an. Japan was independent now, but its debts to China, the Middle Kingdom, were great. We will continue with more on eight-century Japan next time.

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