Japan’s Prehistory and Early Mainland Asia Influences

The first people in the archipelago probably walked there via temporary land bridges from the Asian mainland more than 30,000 years ago. There is some archeological evidence that people from Southeast Asia also reached Japan by water in prehistoric times.

Archaeologists have used the art of Japan’s earliest known culture to name the first period of Japanese prehistory. A jomon was a rope pressed into a clay vessel to form a design; the clay pot was then fired to imprint the design. It is now the name given to a people who from approximately 11,000 to 300 BCE lived a simple nomadic lifestyle of hunting, fishing, and gathering edibles. Evidence of Jomon culture has been found from Okinawa to Hokkaido. The only surviving evidence of early Jomon culture are remains of their pottery used as containers, but more sophisticated implements from the late Jomon period (2000 BCE), such as the remains of serving bowls, have been unearthed.

By approximately 300 BCE, in parts of the present-day islands of Kyushu and Honshu, individuals were engaged in a much more sophisticated lifestyle than in the Jomon era. More important, the people of the Yayoi culture, named after an excavation site in the Tokyo area, were assured a steady food supply because they adopted wet field or irrigated rice cultivation. Agriculture enabled these early Japanese to build permanent communities and devote time to activities other than hunting for food. Even during these times, the more advanced Chinese and Korean civilizations were important in Japanese development since wet field rice cultivation almost certainly came to Japan from the Asian mainland.

Although there is still some controversy, wet rice agriculture almost certainly reached Kyushu from Korea around 400 BCE and had gradually spread north by the beginnings of the Common Era. People during the Yayoi period produced a variety of implements, including large jars and urns; used two other East Asian imports, bronze and iron, for making weapons; and established some sea trade with the Korean Peninsula and China. Surviving Chinese records reveal that representatives of that nation’s government visited Japan as early as 57 CE.

Although the Chinese had visited the archipelago probably beginning sometime between the third and fourth centuries CE, a wave of Korean immigrants militarily and technologically dominated the more primitive Yayoi culture. These Korean intruders also engaged in some of the same practices in their new land as on the Korean mainland. These immigrants have come to be known as Kofun, or ‘‘Tomb People,’’ because they buried their leaders in huge keyhole-shaped tombs. By 250 CE, Japanese culture resembled that of Korea more than it did earlier Yayoi culture. Such tomb artifacts as textiles, pottery, coins, and mirrors indicate that regular contact was maintained with the Asian mainland. Also, the arrival of military technology from the Asian mainland, particularly the skill of riding horses, enabled some powerful families to gain power through coalitions.

One such coalition, who lived on the Yamato plain near present-day Osaka and Kyoto, extended their political power to the point that they controlled all of Japan except northern Honshu and Hokkaido. The Yamato rulers were in contact with the Chinese and built alliances with Korean sovereigns. Also, Yamato leaders, who were both male and female, established the principle of hereditary succession to the throne. The first Yamato rulers were probably both religious and political leaders as well as prosperous rice farmers. Wet rice cultivation formed the base for the emerging Yamato state, and for much of Yamato clan power. The first Japanese emperors emerged from the Yamato rulers. Rice is much more than a food in Japanese culture, and even today, Japanese imperial rituals are mostly about planting and harvesting rice.

By the time of the Yamato rulers, elements of indigenous religious practices that are now organized as Shinto, or ‘‘way of the gods,’’ were already present in the archipelago. Shinto, which will be discussed in detail in a later chapter, is based on nature worship and is intimately connected to such venerable Japanese cultural icons as rice, sake, sumo, and even Mount Fuji.

An event as historically significant as the beginnings of Shinto occurred in 552 CE when Buddhism was introduced to Japan from the Asian mainland. Buddhism, which originated in India and spread to China, eventually reached Korea and then Japan. According to legend, the king of the Korean state of Paekche, in the process of requesting Japanese military assistance, sent gifts to the Yamato rulers that included Buddhist sutras, a statue of Buddha, and a letter of praise for the religion.

The advent of Buddhism in Japan, whose influence would be limited to aristocrats for hundreds of years, caused extreme controversy in Yamato ruling circles. Although two powerful clans, the Nakatomi and the Mononobe, opposed the strange new spiritual import, a third influential clan, the Sogas, who had ties to the Yamato ruler, were leading proponents of Buddhism. Buddhism had initial setbacks. After the Soga clan adopted a Buddhist image as their house kami, an epidemic occurred that the Nakatomis, who were Shinto ritualists, blamed on the new religion. Eventually, though, the Soga clan defeated the Mononobe clan in war in 587 CE, thereby insuring Buddhism’s survival in Japan. Buddhism is still an important religion in contemporary Japan, and it is extensively discussed later in this book.

Koreans probably played an important role as an organized Japanese state emerged in the sixth and seventh centuries. The first head of organized Buddhism in Japan was a Korean Paekche priest, several of the compilers of the first Japanese law codes were Korean, and at least one member of the imperial family was Korean. However, early Korean influences on Japan waned with the fall of the Paekche kingdom; the assimilation of the original Korean immigrants, many of whom were granted land and Japanese surnames; and increased Japanese direct contact with imperial China.

The desire of educated Japanese to learn more about Buddhism not only had profound eventual religious implications but also helped to increase the level of general knowledge in Japan. Japanese Buddhist priests traveled to China for religious instruction and then returned to Japan with technology and ideas ranging from better tools and weapons to governmental innovations and philosophy.

Although several important Chinese imports, including wet rice cultivation, iron, and a writing system, had come to Japan through Korea or directly from China, a Chinese-based knowledge explosion occurred between the late sixth century and 838 CE. The Japanese government, eager to learn from what was perhaps the world’s most advanced civilization at the time, sent at least 19 separate missions to China between 600 and 838 CE. Missions, usually numbering more than 500 individuals, included official envoys, students, Buddhist monks, and translators. Many Japanese who braved these often dangerous trips stayed in China for as long as 20 to 30 years.

Confucianism, another Chinese belief system that would eventually be just as influential on Japanese thinking as Buddhism, also gained the attention of those Japanese elites who were eagerly absorbing new knowledge from China. Early Japanese political leaders valued the teaching of Confucius for its practical utility—its stress on the need for good government along with ethics, social hierarchy, harmony, duty, and respect for authority. Confucianism’s teachings are still an important part of the belief systems of contemporary Japanese, and they are addressed later in this book.

Buddhism and Confucianism as well as other Chinese-derived ideas received a powerful boost from Prince Shotoku, who served as imperial Yamato regent from 593 until his death in 622 CE. Shotoku was a strong advocate of Buddhism and gave it official government approval. Although there was some opposition to Buddhism from Shinto priests and powerful families, Buddhism took root in Japan without the substantial bloodshed that historically accompanied the introduction of a new belief in many other countries. While it would be centuries before Buddhism became a popular religion with the common people, it was highly favored among the nobility, at least partially because Buddhismwas known to be the religion of an advanced Chinese civilization.

As Japan moved from a land ruled by a clan to a country with an organized government, Shotoku also promoted Chinese ideas in his so-called 17-point constitution in 604, which affirmed the power of the emperor, Buddhism, and the Confucian notion of harmony. Following Shotoku’s death in 622, there were blood feuds between factions for power, but in 645 a pro-China faction led by the founder of the Fujiwara family and an imperial prince engineered a coup d’ietat. The next year, the new government initiated the Taika, or ‘‘Great Reforms.’’

The intent of these reforms, most of which were modeled after the Chinese Tang dynasty and based on Confucian ideas, was to transfer power from clan and family leaders to the throne and its representatives. The separate domains ruled by clans became provinces, and Chinese taxation systems and law codes were adopted. All agricultural land supposedly belonged to the Yamato emperor, and bureaucrats of different ranks, who theoretically earned their positions by merit, were to run the national government.

Even as many Chinese-based reforms took root in Japan, its leaders altered or ignored Chinese political models that did not fit their culture. In Japan, powerful families not only had extensive property and armed retainers but also monopolized leading government positions. In China, by contrast, important positions in the imperial bureaucracy were increasingly awarded to candidates who had successfully passed examinations and weren’t necessarily from powerful aristocratic families.

This situation provided the Chinese emperor with a means to disempower the aristocracy. The Japanese emperor had no such political weapon. While China had powerful emperors, Japanese emperors gradually became politically weak leaders, and individuals acting in the emperor’s name made important decisions. Although Japanese culture would later become quite sophisticated, in the sixth through the ninth centuries, the upper classes in Japan viewed Chinese civilization as much the superior source of knowledge. The few literate Japanese were extremely familiar with Chinese literature. Japanese also adopted many Chinese techniques in weaving, lacquerware, metallurgy, orchestral music, dance, architecture, sculpture, and painting. Still, as in government and politics, the Japanese either changed certain Chinese practices to fit their culture or rejected them entirely. Chinese food and eating habits were not accepted during this time in Japan. Even the emperor might have a Chinese-style palace but live in private quarters that would retain the Japanese tradition of cedar-bark roofs and pillars of plain, undecorated wood. Until 694, after the death of an emperor the capital would be moved, but on that date, Emperor Temmu’s widow, who succeeded Temmu, moved the capital to a new site that was named Fujiwara a few miles in the southern part of the Nara plain. The new capital was modeled after the then Chinese capital Loyang, but political infighting and natural disasters influenced the court in 710 to move the capital a few miles north to a site that has historically come to be known as Nara.

The new capital, which became Japan’s first permanent seat of government, was laid out in direct imitation of the Chinese Tang dynasty capital, Chang’an. Shortly after the capital’s founding, the earliest two surviving Japanese books, the Kojiki, or Record of Ancient Matters, and the Nihon Shoki, or Chronicles of Japan, were completed in 712 and 720, respectively. These books contain both mythology and historical information. The Kojiki attempted to use written Chinese to represent the Japanese language phonetically, but the Nihon Shoki was written in conventional Chinese script. The modest number of books that circulated in Japan at this time were written with Chinese characters. It would not be until the 800s that Japanese people would devise their own writing systems to accompany the already centuries-old spoken language.

However, Japanese technology was already significantly advancing. While Nara was the Japanese capital, one of the world’s greatest architectural projects, the construction of the enormous Todaiji Temple containing the more than 52-foot-high Great Buddha, was completed under the leadership of Emperor Shomu, perhaps themost devoutly Buddhist sovereign in Japanese history. An estimated 10 percent of the Japanese population contributed to the project, and 50,000 carpenters and more than 370,000 sheet metal workers were involved in construction. Approximately 10,000 Buddhist priests were in attendance as well as many other visitors from foreign countries during the dedication ceremony in 752 (Stanley-Baker 1984, 46–47; Varley 1973, 24–25).

Emperor Shomu’s project probably did imperial power more harm than good as the costs of Todaiji placed enormous strains on government finances. Also, after Todaiji was built, the Buddhist temples that surrounded Nara housed many priests who attempted to intervene in politics. Partially because of a fear of the growing influence of the great Nara temples, in 784 Emperor Kammu first moved the capital 30 miles to Nagaoka. However, feuding families, the assassination of the emperor’s brother, and a series of natural disasters caused the emperor in 794 to move the capital to a village 10 miles north of Nagaoka. The new capital was named Heian (‘‘peace and tranquility’’). The new city that was laid out on the checkerboard pattern of Chinese cities would later come to be known as Kyoto. Kyoto remained Japan’s imperial capital until 1868.