The development of early Japan to c.700 CE

September 24, 2012 11:40 am

Introduction: the geographic element

Certainly one of the most vibrant and influential cultures in the later twentieth century has been Japan.  Despite the fact that it is mountainous, small (being roughly 2 percent the size of the United States) and has few natural resources, Japan is still one of the most productive industrial nations in the world.  At first glance, Japan seems to be a mirror image of Great Britain, since both are small island nations just off the coasts of Eurasia.  Indeed similarities do exist, such as the relatively independent existence each island nation has maintained in relationship to the respective continental cultures with which they are most in contact.  However, significant differences also exist between the two cultures.
Three main geographic factors have influenced the history of Japan.  First of all, Japan is an island nation consisting of four main islands (Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu) and thousands of islands that reach nearly to Taiwan.  Japan’s closest point to Korea on the mainland is still 115 miles away, some five times the distance between Britain and France.  This relative isolation has had two main results.  For one thing, it has led to fewer invasions of Japan, thus creating less need for a strong central government.  It has also let Japan pick and choose the influences it has taken from other cultures, in particular China, since it is close enough to the continent to absorb foreign influences, but isolated enough to be able to reject the aspects it does not want.  One of the most striking characteristics of Japanese culture has been its ability to blend select elements of foreign cultures with its own native innovations to create something uniquely Japanese.
The second important aspect of Japan’s geography is its mountains, which cover 72 percent of the land.  This has led to some political fragmentation throughout much of Japan’s history, although its extensive coastline helps tie Japan together through communication by sea.  The mountainous landscape has also severely restricted the amount of available farmland, forcing Japanese peasants to intensively cultivate what little land is available.  This has led to both a crowded and necessarily cooperative society that values the group, loyalty, and obedience to authority over the rights of the individual.  The introduction of Confucianism after 400 C.E., with its emphasis on strictly defined social roles, further reinforced this trend.
Finally, except for forests, which cover 55 percent of its land, Japan is poor in natural resources.  This has forced its people to be resourceful traders and manufacturers, especially since the late 1800’s when the Industrial Revolution vastly increased Japan’s dependence on outside resources.  Overall, Japan’s geography, in particular its isolation, caused civilization to come considerably later than it did elsewhere for many of the high civilizations of Eurasia.

Early elements of Japanese culture

Early Japan seems to have had a number of different peoples migrating to its shores and influencing its early culture.  Among the earliest were the Ainu, a Caucasian people quite distinct from the Mongolian stock that most Japanese are descended from.  Some 17,000 Ainu still inhabit the northern island of Hokkaido.  However, the primary influences on Japan’s early culture were of Mongolian stock.  From about 250 B.C.E. to 300 C.E., a culture from Asia known as Yayoi predominated, introducing rice agriculture, iron and bronze technology, and weaving.  Yayoi society seems to have been matriarchal, with women holding high positions as priestesses or shamans.  Only much later in Japanese history would women be reduced to a more subservient role in society.
By the third century C.E., cultural influences probably introduced from Korea, in particular better iron weapons and fighting from horseback, led to the Yamato period of Japanese culture (c.300-710).  At first, the country was divided between numerous warring clans, known as Uji, each with its own patriarchal chief and guardian deity.  Gradually, the Yamato clan unified most of Japan under its rule, claiming divine descent from the sun goddess Amaterasu.  The imperial family in Japan today still traces its lineage back through the Yamato clan in the fourth century.  Since there was no real distinction between governmental and religious functions in early Japan, the imperial family’s duties have always been largely concerned with religious ritual.  The burden of these ritualistic duties would hinder the emperors in the exercise of real political power so much in later centuries that they would often abdicate their thrones to their sons so they could be free to rule.
The emperors were especially concerned with their duties in Shinto, a uniquely Japanese religion that was emerging at this time.  Shinto, which means “Way of the Gods” and is still popular in Japan, concerns itself with reverence for the forces of nature, which affect Japan so profoundly (e.g., typhoons, earthquakes, and volcanoes).  It has no written texts or organization, being centered on shrines to local deities, known as kami.  Worship is simple, consisting mainly of clapping (to get the kami’s attention), bowing, and possibly making offerings.  Shinto largely focuses on ritual purification to remove impurity caused by contact with physical dirtiness, sex, childbirth, wounds, and death.  The modern Japanese insistence on baths and cleanliness probably derives from this aspect of Shinto.  The most important Shinto shrine at Ise is sacred to the sun goddess and has helped provide a national focus of loyalty to the imperial family associated with that deity.

Growing Chinese influence

By the fifth century C.E., the growing power and sophistication of the Japanese state was making Japanese society more open to the influence of Chinese culture coming in by way of Korea.  (A list compiled in 815 C.E. showed that more than one-third of Japan’s aristocratic families claimed ancestry from Korea or China by way of Chinese colonies in Korea.)  In addition, two other factors fed into this influence.  For one thing, the Uji system of individual local clans was inadequate for meeting the growing needs of the state, oftentimes challenging or disrupting its authority.  Secondly, the T’ang dynasty, which took power in 618, was taking China to new heights of power and influence that were being felt especially in Japan.
Two of the most important influences from China were Buddhism and Confucianism.  In 552, the Korean state of Paekche presented scriptures and an image of Buddha to the Yamato court.  Despite initial resistance by Japanese nobles, the Soga clan, which then effectively controlled the emperor and government, won Buddhism’s acceptance.  An important side effect of the introduction of Buddhism was the introduction of Chinese writing to Japan.  This led many Japanese scholars to study in China where they would pick up other aspects of Chinese civilization and bring them back home.  Thus Buddhism served as a vehicle for spreading Chinese civilization in much the same way that Christianity spread Mediterranean civilization to North Europe.
Confucianism brought two important elements to Japanese culture.  First of all, its stress on a strict hierarchy of relationships reinforced the already cooperative nature of Japanese society as well as the autocratic social and political order that would emerge.  Second, the Confucian emphasis on merit and education as the means of advancing in government would have some effect on Japanese values.  However, this concept of advancement by merit would meet with stiff resistance from the hereditary Japanese nobility.
In the early 600’s, Chinese, in particular Confucian, influence, sparked a number of governmental reforms.  First of all, in 603 and 604, Prince Shotoku advocated the Chinese concepts of a supreme ruler, a centralized bureaucracy, advancement through merit, and the Confucian virtues. He tried to accomplish this by creating a system of court ranks that would replace the hereditary Uji ranks as the major basis for status.  Prince Shotoku also sent several large embassies to China whose main importance was to bring back even more Chinese culture, which further accelerated the process of Japan’s cultural transformation.

The Taika reforms and rise of the Japanese state

By 700 C.E., the central government was ready for the next step in consolidating its power: the Taika (“great change”).  This set of reforms tried to apply Chinese governing techniques and institutions to Japan in several ways: the establishment of central government ministries, provincial government, law codes, and a taxation system modeled after that of T’ang China.  Central to these reforms was a census to redistribute lands to the peasants, although the emperor in theory owned all these lands and parceled them out among his loyal followers.  In 702, these reforms were formalized in the Taiho law codes.  At the same time, the government established its first permanent capital at Nara, which was modeled after the Chinese capital, Ch’ang-an, being laid out in a rectangular grid along a north-south axis.
The Taika reforms and Taiho law codes increased the power of the emperor and court, but with some typically Japanese modifications.  For one thing, the Japanese never adopted the Chinese doctrine of the Mandate of Heaven, which justified revolution against corrupt rulers.  Therefore, the same dynasty of emperors has kept the throne in Japan throughout its history however unqualified some of them may have been.  Second, resistance by the hereditary Japanese nobles against the Confucian system of promotion by means of an examination system meant that birth, not merit, remained the main criteria for government office.  Finally, since dues to an overlord were cheaper than taxes to the central government, many peasants commended their lands to monasteries and powerful court nobles whose lands were tax exempt.  This created a narrower tax base for the government and a greater tax burden on the peasants who kept their lands.  Despite these limitations, the Taiko reforms and Taiho law codes were still a major step forward in the development of the Japanese state.

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