World History 1 196 - 12.3.3 Early Japan

East of Korea and Manchuria lie the four major islands and thousands of smaller islands that make up modern Japan (Figure 12.27). The early history of Japan probably began as long as fifteen thousand years ago, when the islands are thought to have physically separated from Korea at the end of the last ice age. But archaeological research in Japan has uncovered artifacts such as arrowheads and spearpoints made from bone and antlers that date from even earlier, closer to 16,500 years ago. This early time is known as the Jōmon period, which lasted until the fourth century BCE.

A map is shown with land in beige and water in blue. Mongolia is labelled in the west and Russia, China, North Korea, and South Korea are labelled in the middle and Japan is labelled in the east. The Pacific Ocean is labelled in the east and the Sea of Japan is labelled between China and Japan. Along the coast of the Sea of Japan, the city of Vladivostok is labelled in southeastern Russia. P’yongyang is labelled in North Korea and Seoul is labelled in South Korea. The city of Tokyo is labelled on Japan’s east coast. In Japan, form the north to the south, these areas are labelled: Strait of Tartary, Sakhalin, La Perouse Strait, Hokkaido, Tsugaru Strait, Honshu, Shikkoku, Kanmon Strait and Kyushu. In the Sea of Japan these labels are shown: Japan Basin, Yamato Basin, and Tsushima Basin.
Figure 12.27 This modern map of Japan and Korea shows their proximity to each other and to China. Their closeness explains how Buddhism and other cultural elements such as writing were able to spread from China to Korea and then to Japan in the premodern period. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

The centuries from about 300 BCE to roughly 300 CE marked a new agricultural era in Japan known as the Yayoi period. Crops such as millet and rice began to be cultivated, both probably from Korea and China. After around 300 CE, we have evidence of a complex urban culture, such as burial mounds of a large new ruling class. These kofun, meaning “old mounds,” give this era of Japanese history its name, the Kofun period. Lasting until the sixth century CE, this time saw an intensification of cultural exchange and foreign relations between Japan and Korea. In either 538 or 552, for example, King Seong of Baekje in western Korea sent emissaries to Japan along with Buddhist scriptures and a statue of the Buddha, marking the introduction of Buddhism into the country. About a century later, intense warfare on the Korean Peninsula prompted the migration of countless Koreans to Japan, most of whom were welcomed there. In fact, Emperor Tenji employed many skilled Korean technicians and craftspeople to build fortresses along his coastline.

During the Kofun period of the late third to sixth centuries, the arrival of Buddhism in Japan coincided with the rule of the Yamato clan, a group said to have descended from the goddess Amaterasu. The Yamato began to dominate the island of Honshu, one of the four large islands of Japan where another aristocratic clan, the Nakatomi, supervised the court’s religious ceremonies at the imperial palace. The indigenous religion of Japan, Shintoism, held that many gods and spirits must be revered and honored, such as the spirits of trees, rocks, mountains, streams, and former rulers and chieftains. Amaterasu, for example, was the Shinto goddess of the sun. The Nakatomi clan, along with the Mononobe clan, opposed any religion, particularly foreign, that might threaten the dominance of tradition. However, the Soga clan chose to support Buddhism, in opposition to the other two clans.

In the seventh century, the ruler of Japan was Empress Suiko, the daughter of a Soga mother who came to power in 593 after the assassination of her brother King Sushun. For the next three decades, she ruled with her nephew and adviser, Prince Shotoku. In 594, early in her rule, Buddhism became a state religion. This was not the end of Shintoism, but it began a parallel system that continued to the present. In short, by the end of the sixth century, both Shintoism and Buddhism were influencing the cultural makeup of Japan.

In keeping with the ancient East Asian tradition of embracing and borrowing from Chinese culture, the Soga rulers of Japan, like the Koreans in the sixth century, sent envoys to China. These envoys brought back Confucianism, which soon became a way to govern based on principles of appropriate and ethical behavior, as happened in China and Korea. An unusual feature of government in Japan at this time, however, was the adoption of a cap-rank system, which marked an official’s rank by the color of cap worn; purple was the most prestigious.

In 604, Prince Shotoku wrote a statement of seventeen articles of government, sometimes referred to as Japan’s first constitution. The state was then under great stress, divided among semiautonomous clan-based units. Not surprisingly, the constitution emphasized the Chinese Confucian precepts of a unified state ruled by one sovereign, the meritocratic rather than hereditary system of civil service, and the rights and obligations of the rulers and the ruled.

The Soga clan came to a violent end in 645, marking the rise of the Nakatomi family and the Fujiwara clan. Agitation and civil war persisted until 672, when King Temmu and Jito, his wife and later successor, came to the throne and initiated the Taika Reforms. Seeking to adopt the centralization instituted by the Tang, who came to power in China in 618 CE, Temmu and Jito started to build a capital at Fujiwara-kyo in 694. When it burned down a few years later, they built another at Nara to resemble the Tang capital of Chang’an, inaugurating the Nara period in Japanese history, which lasted until 794. Other reforms included a system of taxation, conscription, and labor service that came to be known as the Taihoo Code (701). An administrative and penal code system based on that of Tang China was established in 718.

After the death of Emperor Shomu in the mid-750s, conflict characterized the remainder of the century. In 794, Emperor Kammu moved his capital about twenty miles north to Heian-kyo, the site of today’s Kyoto, ending the Nara period. Heian-kyo remained the capital of Japan until 1868. This larger city symbolized Japan’s increasing power over all the major islands, with the exception of the northern island of Hokkaido. Emperor Kammu took his Fujiwara patron with him to the new capital. Throughout the ninth century, Fujiwara advisers became increasingly powerful at the expense of the emperors, many serving as regents and even as emperors themselves.

Gender roles became more rigidly defined during this period, and many non-elites were officially categorized as peasant, artisan, or merchant. Even the system of writing changed. Chinese script had been the traditional writing style, particularly among scholars. However, many words in Japanese were pronounced differently than Chinese writing allowed. Thus a new script called kana began to develop, to more accurately depict the way the words were pronounced in Japanese.

The most famous work written in kana is TheTale of Genji, the story of the romantic escapades of Hikaru Genji, a fictional emperor’s son. Genji is removed from the line of succession for political reasons, and now a commoner, he decides to pursue a career as an imperial officer. Along the way, he has various romantic entanglements, secret love affairs that produce offspring believed to be the emperor’s, and something like a midlife crisis, a reflection of the Buddhist belief in the transience of life. Widely considered the world’s first novel, Genji was composed in the eleventh century by Murasaki Shikibu, a noblewoman and lady-in-waiting in the Heian Court. It skillfully portrays the forms of entertainment, manner of dress, daily routines, and moral code of the Heian nobility at the height of the Fujiwara clan’s power. While the facts surrounding much of Murasaki’s life and the composition of her magnum opus are not known, what is not disputed is Genji’s critically important place in the literary canon of world literature, with the work often considered one of the world’s oldest complete novels and a master class of Japanese literature. What is also not in dispute is that the work was composed by a woman from a powerful family at a time when the role of women around the world was still secondary to their male counterparts. It leaves us to wonder how much powerful and influential literature could have been composed by other women should they have been given the opportunity and resources that Murasaki was able to leverage during her career.

Beyond the Book

The Tale of Genji and Japanese High Society during the Heian Period

Composed in the eleventh century and attributed to female writer Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji opens a unique window into the culture of Japan during the late Heian Period from the eighth to twelfth centuries. The story reveals many aspects of aristocratic life at court, from the styles of clothes worn to the musical instruments played and the mores and values that guided interpersonal and public relationships.

The scenes and events described in The Tale of Genji have been depicted in paintings and drawings over the centuries, weaving the story more deeply into Japanese identity by bringing to vivid life the setting for this ancient tale. One of the central themes in the story is of love and unrequited love. Genji finds his ideal woman in the form of Lady Fujitsubo, who is his stepmother, and therefore his love for her is forbidden. At one point in the story, he kidnaps a young girl (Murasaki), who he discovers is actually Lady Fujitsubo’s niece. To satisfy his desire for Lady Fujitsubo, he educates the young Murasaki to be like his womanly ideal before finally marrying her (Figure 12.28).

An image is shown on a gold and yellow background. In the image, dark water is seen swirling in a twisted manner in the top right with two green masses on top and two colorful fowl swimming. At the left, a simple house is seen with an open wall facing forward and a black screen wall seen at the back. Green shutters are rolled up on the open wall and inside two women sit wearing large multicolored robes that take up the whole room. A wood porch surrounds the house and in the right front four women with long black hair are seen surrounding a large white round object. They were multicolored robes and have very white faces. Bushes can be seen at the left and right.
Figure 12.28 This scene from a seventeenth-century paper album rendered on paper and consisting of twenty-four album leaves shows the young female servants playing in the snow as Genji and Murasaki watch from their veranda. This scene of childish play was likely intended by the artist to emphasize the youthfulness of Murasaki. (credit: “The Tale of Genji (Genji Monogatari)” by Gift of Mary L. Cassilly, 1894/Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain)

Many of the illustrations that accompanied the novel’s texts provide exquisite detail on the novel’s content and reveal both a close reading of the text as well an intimate knowledge of imperial customs. Consider this mid-seventeenth-century handscroll fragment showing the funeral of Lady Aoi, Genji’s first wife (Figure 12.29).

A richly colored image on a gold and yellow background is shown. At the top left, a large white sheet is draped over a fence. Two figures in dark blue robes with white flowers kneel on the ground with their hands on the ground, their hair in a tight bun atop their heads. To the right are three bald men sitting with legs crossed on the ground in white robes and blue pants. In the top right of the image stands a large group of people. Nine are bald and dressed in long black robes, one with a richly decorated shawl over the black robe in gold, red, and blue colors. One woman with a white face and pale pink robe stands at the front of the group with a fan in her hands. Another figure with a blue cloth on their head and multicolored robes stands next to her. In the far right corner are three men in white clothing and black hair piled tightly on top of their heads sitting on the ground. In front of them is a bald man in white pants and a long black shawl standing in front of a small table covered in a highly decorative tablecloth and gold bowl on top. In the middle of the image, a long rectangular table covered in a red and green richly decorated tablecloth holds many gold objects. A woman in a multicolored robe and head covered in a blue cloth bows with hands together in front of the table. Behind her two women with long black ponytails in red and white decorated robes stand, one with a gold fan in her hands. In the bottom forefront, the backs of many people can be seen, most wearing dark gray robes with black hair tightly wound on top of their heads. Two people at the right wear multicolored robes. Black objects are seen in the left forefront and gold cloudlike images obscure some of the people.
Figure 12.29 This funeral scene from chapter nine of The Tale of Genji dates to the mid-seventeenth century CE and was rendered on a paper handscroll in ink and gold. Here we see a high-ranking Tendai monk wearing orange and performing rituals in front of an ornamented altar as many priests from various temples gather around. The attending monks are arranged hierarchically and are recognizable by their elaborate clothing. (credit: “‘Leaves of Wild Ginger’ (Aoi), from the Phantom Genji Scrolls (Maboroshi no Genji monogatari emaki)” by Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1912/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The story of Genji was enormously popular in Japan and illustrations of him and about the story continue to be made. In the nineteenth century, artists using woodblock printing often elaborated on the themes in the story by putting Genji in more modern scenes (Figure 12.30).

An image in three panels is shown. In the first panel, a woman with a long face, black hair and highly ornate gray, yellow, blue, and orange robes is facing to the left and walking to the right with a yellow fan in her right hand. A dark tree with pale yellow flowers is seen at the right and more tree flowers at the top left. A multi-colored house is seen in the background with white Asian script written on a blue shade at the top of the open wall. Across the bottom are more pale yellow flowers and a small, grated house on a stick with a flared roof in the bottom right. A red oval with Asian script is seen in the bottom left. In the middle panel, a pale woman with sticks in her black hair is walking to the right in a multicolored ornate robe. The same trees and flowers are seen as in the previous panel, but the little house on a stick is in the left corner. The building behind her shows a brown wall with vertical slats at the top. The last panel shows a woman facing to the left in a very ornately decorated robe in a multitude of colors with an elaborate gold headdress with multiple projections on each side. At either side by her waist a head is seen among the clothes. The far face is pale with objects in the hair while the face in front has black curly hair and a long, pointed nose. The building behind her is brown slatted with a brown round dome at the top. The same flowery trees are on both sides and the little house on a stick is at the bottom right.
Figure 12.30 In this colorful three-panel woodblock print, Genji (left) is shown entering the Gankiro Teahouse, one of the most famous brothels in nineteenth-century Yokohama. Here the artist, Utagawa Kunisada, is likely blending the sensual imagery in the story of Genji with the sensual atmosphere of the teahouse. (credit: “Prince Genji Visits the Gankirō Tea House” by Bequest of William S. Lieberman, 2005/Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain)
  • What do the images suggest to you about gender and social relations during the Heian period?
  • The details in many of the images, like the preceding funeral scene, are sometimes more elaborate than the story itself. What does this suggest about the way the story had become an important part of Japanese culture over time?

Throughout the Heian period, the court supported obscure forms of Buddhism such as Tendai (Tiantai in China) and Shingon. Shintoism retained its status as a key religious tradition (Figure 12.31), but so did these forms of Buddhism. Emperor Shomu had encouraged the spread of Buddhism by ordering a temple to be built in every province and block printings of Buddhist scriptures to be disseminated to the general populace.

A picture of a wooden structure set in the water on the backdrop of a modern city and mountains is shown. The blue sky is also seen in the far back. In the water, three brown sticks stand upright, the middle one taller and supporting a horizontal brown beam and another rounded beam above. The top of the rounded beam is green and decorated with designs. In between the two beams, a dark brown rectangle sits with ornate gold designs within.
Figure 12.31 Originally built in the twelfth century, the Itsukushima Shrine pictured here is an important Shinto symbol of the indigenous religion of Japan and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The prominence of shrines such as this shows that the religion is still a vibrant aspect of cultural life in Japan today. (credit: “The torii gate at the Itsukushima Shrine in Miyajima” by Balon Greyjoy/Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0)

Link to Learning

One of the key religious traditions of Japan is Shintoism. Read this article, particularly the first section, “What is Shinto?” and consider why early people like the Japanese might have developed such a keen connection to nature and the environment. What other religious traditions beyond those of Japan uphold the importance of nature?

During the late eleventh century, a unique facet of Japanese government developed called insei, or cloistered rule, in which the emperor retired from public life to live in a monastery but continued to rule behind the scenes. Initially, at least, this practice was meant to establish a regency of sorts; that is, the cloistered emperor could direct the affairs of state until his son came of age to rule in his own right. In time, however, cloistered rule became unwieldy and prompted chaos in the Japanese state. Often there were several retired emperors at the same time, each with their own troops, who exerted (or attempted to exert) control through cloistered rule. At this time, Heian-kyo began to be called Kyoto, meaning “the capital city.”

An upsurge of violence began in the late 1150s when two families, the Taira and the Minamoto, vied for power. In 1160, the Taira were ascendant, but a generation later, in the uprising known as the Genpei War, the Minamoto triumphed, winning the naval Battle of Dannoura in 1185. The Kamakura period of Japan’s history then began and lasted until 1333. In this period, the imperial capital remained at Heian-kyo, but the warrior families, first the Minamoto and then the Hojo, were headquartered in Kamakura.

From 1180 to 1185, with the help of the samurai, the warrior aristocracy of Japan, Yoritomo, the heir of the Minamoto clan, successfully wiped out all rivals, even eradicating the northern branch of the Fujiwara in 1189. In 1192, he gave himself the title of shogun, or commander in chief. From then on, the military shogun exercised the power of state, while the emperor was little more than a figurehead. Regional lords also had samurai retainers. Samurai adhered to a strict code of behavior called bushi, or “way of the warrior.” One of the expected behaviors was disdain for capture, leading to ritual suicide known as seppuku.

Dueling Voices

Origins and Evolution of the Samurai Class: A Historical Debate

Historians seeking to understand the changing nature of armed force and military organization in early Japan and the origin of the samurai look at the ways in which Japanese society, culture, and economy were influenced by military matters before the eighth century and how this influence prompted the emergence of a new class of warrior-administrators.

The prevailing view today is that the samurai emerged in the mid- to late-Heian period as the result of a weakened imperial system. The imperial court had modeled its administration on institutions imported from Tang China, which included a governing ideology based on Confucianism and a military establishment that depended on a peasant-conscript army. This system proved ineffective in Japan, however, resulting in an inept central government that failed amid warfare and regional rebellion beginning in the early tenth century. The subsequent breakdown in public order prompted people in the countryside to take matters into their own hands. Provincial families armed themselves to defend and advance their private interests, allowing them to reclaim land and gain influence at the Heian Court by acting as regional warlords who could impose stability and security over rebellion. By 1100, therefore, samurai organized in regional bands were emerging as a major force in Japan’s military and political arenas.

Other historians argue that the Heian Court was not inept or inactive and that the growth of private regional armies was well underway by the Heian period rather than being a product of it. This development too, they believe, was a return to familial authority patterns already deeply rooted in Japanese culture. Finally, these scholars contend that the rise of provincial warrior families and emergence of the samurai class was nothing more than the outcome of their being coopted by the central imperial authority, which sought to use them to perform essential military service.

The debate surrounding the origins and evolution of the samurai class may never be resolved. With that in mind, watch the following video of The Evolution of Samurai through Japanese History and then answer the questions that follow.

  • According to the video, what were the origins of the samurai?
  • How does this explanation fit into the discussion of the origins and development of the samurai in this feature box?
  • The video talks about some of the cultural influences that led to the development of the samurai. What were they?
  • What were the symbols of the samurai class? What was the preferred philosophy of the samurai?

In 1268, envoys arrived in Kamakura on behalf of some new rulers in Asia, the Mongols. Though they declared friendly intentions, these emissaries were ignored by the court. In response the Mongols sailed to Japan and invaded in 1274, only to be repelled when a storm arose following bitter fighting (Figure 12.32). Knowing they would return, the ruling Hojo clan built several land- and sea-based fortifications to halt any future invasion. When the Mongols did reappear in 1281, there was no clear victor, but a typhoon arose and scattered the Mongol ships, convincing many that divine winds, or kamikaze, were being sent by the gods to protect Japan.

A faded image on a yellow cracked background is shown. At the left, two figures in orange robes with faces obscured are moving toward the left with bows and arrows and black sheathed swords at their belts. A figure in a green robe and winged gold helmet stands next holding a thin spear with a black sword at his belt. Below him a figure with a similar helmet and orange robe shoots a bow and arrow to the right. To the right of the figure in green is a green figure in a yellow robe and winged helmet shooting a bow and arrow while a black object explodes in front of him with red fire surrounding it. At the bottom right, a black horse is shown bleeding from the belly with its hind legs kicking in the air. A faded and obscure figure with arrows is seen on the horse’s back. A brown branch with a few green leaves is shown behind the horse. Arrows are drawn throughout the image.
Figure 12.32 This scene from an illustrated scroll called Mōko Shūrai Ekotoba from the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century shows the first Mongol invasion of Japan in 1274. It depicts the combatants using arrows as well as bombs. (credit: “Mōko Shūrai Ekotoba 2” by Unknown/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax