Introduction: Japan, East Asia, and the World

Many have the stereotype that until relatively recently, the archipelago’s culture developed largely in isolation from the rest of the world. Although there are critical elements of truth in this assumption, it is incorrect in many respects. Throughout history, some Japanese have interacted in a variety of ways with other East Asians and, at times, with South and Southeast Asians. Japanese and Europeans made important connections in the 16th century. By the latter part of the 19th century, Japan was inextricably involved in world events.

Although a primitive indigenous culture developed on the archipelago that is briefly discussed later, understanding Chinese civilization and its influences on East Asia, including Japan, is as critical a key to historical literacy as comprehending the profound influence of the ancient Greeks on Western cultures. Parts of what we now know as China already possessed an advanced civilization for at least 1,200 years before Japan began this process. The Chinese, just as was the case with the Greeks throughout the Mediterranean and elsewhere, transmitted advanced ways of doing things—and of thinking—first to the northern area of what is today northern Vietnam, then to the Korean Peninsula, and later to Japan.

The Chinese, even more than their Greek counterparts, gave the gift of the first writing systems to the rest of the region. Early China scholar Charles Holcombe describes China as ‘‘an empire of writing’’ (2001, 75). Although Japanese and other early East Asians already possessed spoken languages, educated Chinese introduced writing to peoples who previously could only speak. The critical importance of this action is demonstrated by the fact that the literal meaning for the word ‘‘culture’’ in Korean, Vietnamese, and Japanese is identical: ‘‘the transformation caused by writing.’’ The Japanese word for Chinese written characters, kanji, literally means ‘‘the writing of the Han’’—Han being the name of the Chinese dynasty in power when the Japanese imported a writing system. Even the conventional so-called native term for Japan, Nihon, was chosen in the seventh century for the meaning of the Chinese characters (‘‘origin of the sun’’).

Even more than Greece in the West, to educated East Asians, China was an admired civilization rather than a place. Most Hellenes, with the notable exception of Alexander the Great, dismissed all non-Greeks as ‘‘barbarians.’’ In contrast with the Greek attitude, educated Chinese accepted other peoples who could read written characters and considered only those who could not read Chinese characters and understand China’s belief systems, literature, and history to be barbarians. Educated elites throughout East Asia would share many classical Chinese core beliefs until well into the 19th century. Despite the occasional use of military force, the Chinese state did not, for the most part, force its culture on the region. Thus, the infusion of Chinese culture freely intermingled with existing local cultural practices. Chinese influence was more indirect in Japan than in the rest of the region. Not only were the Japanese islands more remote from China than was the case with northern Vietnam and Korea, but also in crucial early centuries of contact, the Koreans were transmitting their version of Chinese ideas to the Japanese.