Ancient Japan

The Japanese people are the custodians of the land of the rising sun, the name they give their ancient island kingdom that straddles the far eastern edges of Asia and the north Pacific.

Armored Samurai Yoshimura by Utagawa Yoshitaki
The Ancient Japanese Empire

Clay Mask, Kamegaoka site in Aomori; Jomon Period, 1000 to 400 BCE

Japan does not appear in history until 57 AD when it is first mentioned in Chinese histories, where it is referred to as “Wa.” The Chinese historians tell us of a land divided into a hundred or so separate tribal communities without writing or political cohesion. The Japanese do not start writing their histories until around 600 AD; this historical writing culminates in 700 AD in the massive chronicles, The Record of Ancient Matters and the Chronicles of Japan. These chronicles tell a much different and much more legendary history of Japan, deriving the people of Japan from the gods themselves. The Japanese are late-comers in Asian history. Preceding their unification and their concern with their own history in the latter half of the first millennium AD is a long period of migration and settlement.


The Geisha, the traditional Japanese ideal of beauty

Where did the Japanese come from? Why did they settle the islands? What did life look like before history was written down? In order to get a handle on ancient Japanese history, it helps to consider that it is driven by outside influences. The first involved the settlement of Japan by a group of peoples from the Korean peninsula in the third century BC. Overnight they transformed the stone-age culture of Japan into an agricultural and metal-working culture. These early immigrants are ultimately the origin of Japanese language and culture. The second great push in Japanese history was contact with China from 200 AD onwards. From the Chinese, who demanded that Japan be a tribute state to China, the Japanese adopted forms of government, Buddhism, and writing. While Japanese culture ultimately derives from the immigrants of the third century BCE, the bulk of Japanese culture is forged from Chinese materials—a fact that will drive an entire cultural revolution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as scholars attempt to reclaim original Japanese culture from its Chinese accretions.

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Jomon Culture in Japan

The Jomon people were some of the earliest people to establish villages in Japan

Although the Japanese do not settle Japan until the third century B.C., humans had lived in Japan from about 30,000 B.C.. For Japan was not always an island. During the Ice Ages, it was connected to the Korean peninsula by means of a land bridge. All four main Japanese islands were connected, and the southern island of Kyushu was connected to the Korean peninsula while the northern island of Hokkaido was connected to Siberia. Stone Age humans crossed this land bridge in much the same way they crossed the Bering land bridge into the Americas. We can date these humans back to around 30,000 B.C. from the flint tools that they left behind.

Then around 10,000 B.C., these original inhabitants developed a unique culture which lasted for several thousand years: the Jomon culture. As with all preliterate people, all we know of them comes from fragments of artifacts and the imaginative guessing of anthropologists and archaeologists. Jomon means “cord pattern,” for these people designed cord patterns on their pottery—the oldest of its kind in human history. Pottery, however, is a characteristic of Neolithic peoples; the Jomon, however, were Mesolithic peoples (Middle Stone Age). All the evidence shows that they were a hunting, gathering, and fishing society that lived in very small tribal groups. But in addition to making pottery, they also fashioned mysterious figurines that appear to be female. An ancient goddess worship?

We divide the Jomon into six separate eras—ten thousand years, after all, is a long time and even preliterate cultures change dramatically over time. These eras are the Incipient, Initial, Early, Middle, Late, and Final Jomon periods.

The Kofun Cuirass, a well preserved example of early Japanese armor

The Kofun Cuirass, a well preserved example of early Japanese armor

The Incipient Jomon, which is dated from about 10,500 B.C. to 8,000 B.C. has left us only pottery fragments. These pottery fragments were made by a people living in the Kanto plain on the eastern side of Honshu, the plain on which Tokyo is located. We have little idea what these fragments looked like when they were actually in one piece, but we believe that they were very small, rounded pots. The Incipient Jomon pots are a major challenge to understanding human cultures, for they represent the very first ceramics in human history, predating Mesopotamian ceramics by over two thousand years. The standard anthropological line on the development of human arts asserts that pottery-making developed after agriculture and is characteristic of a more sedentary culture. The Incipient Jomon, however, were hunter-gatherers who lived in nomadic small groups. Yet they developed the art of pottery long before agriculture was introduced into Japan—in fact, the Incipient Jomon invented pottery-making long before any human was introduced to agriculture. The Incipient Jomon, then, demonstrate that pottery-making is a human technology independent and distinct from agriculture.

The Initial Jomon, which lasted from 8,000 B.C. to 5,000 B.C. is distinguished by the fact that we have pretty complete pots (isn’t archaeology exciting?) that were used to boil food. Like the fragments from the Initial Jomon, these aren’t just plain old pots, but are intricately decorated in the “cord-like” structure that characterizes Jomon.

The Early Jomon, from 5000 to 2500 B.C., corresponds to the single most interesting couple thousand years in human history. At the end of the last ice age, around 14,500 years ago, the world began to slowly warm. Between 5000 and 2500 B.C., the world reached its warmest in the millenia following the ice age—during this period, the average global temperature was about four to six degrees farenheit higher than it is today. Never again would the world be as warm as it was in these two centuries. Here’s the exciting thing: corresponding the steady warming of the earth was the development of agriculture, the single most important technological invention of human beings. Corresponding the warmest period since the last ice age were tremendous innovations in human habitation. It was in this period that human beings all over the world began to live in a more sedentary manner—at the beginning of this period, human beings begin to live in substantially sized villages; towards the end of this period, the very first human cities appear. The Jomon were no exception to this world-wide phenomenon. Completely cut off from all other humans, the Jomon also began to live in large villages in a settled lifestyle. These villages consisted of large pit-houses; the floors of these houses are about a foot below ground level. It seems they lived in extended family groups. The Jomon also developed their pottery work even further: they began to fashion figurines. It’s not clear what they are, animal or human, but they are the first Japanese sculptural art.

In the Middle Jomon, from 2500-1500 B.C., the Jomon migrated from the Kanto plain into the surrounding mountainside. While the Old Kingdom Egyptians were building pyramids, the Yellow River kings developing the first centralized states in China, and the Sumerians building the very first urban centers, the Jomon, who had no awareness of people off their island, began to live in very large villages and developed very simple agriculture or proto-agriculture. They were no longer hunter-gatherers, but rather a skilled and settled people that developed increasingly sophisticated artwork with magnificent decorations. Their figurines now distinguish between animals and humans, and their human figurines have tantalizing but perplexing gestures whose meaning is now lost to us.

The Late (1500-1000) and Final (1000-300) Jomon corresponded to the neoglaciation stage in modern climactic history. The world cooled noticeably (colder than today), and the Jomon migrated back down to the Kanto plain. At this point, the Jomon developed an identifiable religion—they produce a remarkable number of figurines and stone circles constructed outside the main villages begin to appear. The figurines they produce are largely heavy female figurines which suggests that the Jomon religion was a goddess religion.

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The Samurai of Japan

A Japanese woodcut depicting two Samurai fighting on a rooftop

A Japanese woodcut depicting two Samurai fighting on a rooftop

Samurai is the term for the military nobility of pre-industrial Japan. According to translator William Scott Wilson: “In Chinese, the character was originally a verb meaning to wait upon or accompany a person in the upper ranks of society, and this is also true of the original term in Japanese, saburau. In both countries the terms were nominalized to mean “those who serve in close attendance to the nobility,” the pronunciation in Japanese changing to saburai.”

Originally the emperor and nobility employed these warriors. In time, they amassed enough manpower, resources and political backing in the form of alliances with one another, to establish the first samurai-dominated government.

As the power of these regional clans grew, their chief was typically a distant relative of the emperor, and a lesser member of either the Fujiwara, Minamoto, or Taira clans. Though originally sent to provincial areas for a fixed four-year term as a magistrate, the toryo declined to return to the capital when their terms ended, and their sons inherited their positions and continued to lead the clans in putting down rebellions throughout Japan during the middle and later Heian period.

The distinctive armor of the Samurai, a masterwork of ancient armor in the National museum of Japan

The distinctive armor of the Samurai, a masterwork of ancient armor in the National museum of Japan

Samurai fought at the naval battle of Dan-no-Ura in 1185. Because of their rising military and economic power, the warriors ultimately became a new force in the politics of the court. Their involvement in the H?gen in the late Heian period consolidated their power, and finally pitted the rival Minamoto and Taira clans against each other in the Heiji Rebellion of 1160.

The winner, Taira no Kiyomori, became an imperial advisor, and was the first warrior to attain such a position. He eventually seized control of the central government, establishing the first samurai-dominated government and relegating the emperor to figurehead status. However, the Taira clan was still very conservative when compared to its eventual successor, the Minamoto, and instead of expanding or strengthening its military might, the Taira clan had its women marry emperors and exercise control through the emperor.

The Taira and the Minamoto clashed again in 1180, beginning the Gempei War which ended in 1185. The victorious Minamoto no Yoritomo established the superiority of the samurai over the aristocracy. In 1190, he visited Kyoto and in 1192, became Seii Taishogun, establishing the Kamakura Shogunate, or Kamakura Bakufu. Instead of ruling from Kyoto, he set up the Shogunate in Kamakura, near his base of power. “Bakufu” means “tent government,” taken from the encampments the soldiers would live in, in accordance with the Bakufu’s status as a military government.

Over time, powerful samurai clans became warrior nobility, or “buke”, who were only nominally under the court aristocracy. When the samurai began to adopt aristocratic pastimes like calligraphy, poetry and music, some court aristocrats in turn began to adopt samurai customs. In spite of various machinations and brief periods of rule by various emperors, real power was now in the hands of the Shogun and the samurai.

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Japan During the Warring States

The Musketeers of the warring states period after adopting western rifles

The Warring States period was a time of social upheaval, political intrigue, and nearly constant military conflict in Japan that lasted roughly from the middle of the 15th century to the beginning of the 17th century.

Although the Ashikaga shogunate had retained the structure of the Kamakura bakufu and instituted a warrior government based on the same social economic rights and obligations established by the H?j? with the J?ei Code in 1232, it failed to win the loyalty of many daimyo, especially those whose domains were far from Kyoto. As trade with China grew, the economy developed, and the use of money became widespread as markets and commercial cities appeared. This, combined with developments in agriculture and small-scale trading, led to the desire for greater local autonomy throughout all levels of the social hierarchy. As early as the beginning of the 15th century, suffering and misery caused by natural disasters such as earthquakes and famines often served to trigger armed uprisings by farmers weary of debt and taxes. The Sengoku period consisted of different periods of fission and fusion.

The Onin War (1467–1477), a conflict rooted in economic distress and brought on by a dispute over shogunal succession, is generally regarded as the onset of the Sengoku-jidai. The “eastern” army of the Hosokawa family and its allies clashed with the “western” army of the Yamana, and fighting in and around Kyoto lasted for nearly 11 years, after which it spread to outlying provinces.

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Japanese Culture: Buddhism

The Shinto Temple, the center of worship for the state religion of Japan

Nichiren (February 16, 1222 – October 13, 1282), born Zennichimaro, later Zesho-bo Rencho and sometimes called Nichiren Shonin or Nichiren Daishonin, was a Buddhist monk in 13th century Japan, and founder of Nichiren Buddhism, a Buddhist movement which continues today.

He was an extremely controversial figure in his own time, and his Buddhism continues to be controversial today. During his lifetime, he sought reform of Buddhism within Japan. Nichiren believed that the teachings contained in the Lotus Sutra were given by the Buddha Shakyamuni. Not all scholars today believe that the Lotus Sutra was written by Shakyamuni. Many believe it was written by one of his later followers.

One central theme in the Lotus Sutra, which was emphasized by Nichiren and is emphasized in Nichiren Buddhism today, is that enlightenment may be attained in a single lifetime. He was born in Kominato, which today lies in the Japanese prefecture of Chiba. He began his formal Buddhist study at the Seichoji Temple at eleven, where he eventually became a priest. It was at the Seichoji Temple that he first came to believe in the pre-eminence of the Lotus Sutra. On April 28, 1253, he declared his intention to preach the Lotus Sutra and Nam-myoho-renge-kyo as the true Buddhism. At the same time he changed his name from Rencho to Nichi-ren. “Nichi” means “sun”, and “ren” means “Lotus”.

He began in the city of Kamakura, where he petitioned rulers to have his form of Buddhism instituted as the state religion and all other sects forbidden. He wrote a religious treatise called the Rissho Ankoku Ron (On Establishing the Correct Teaching for the Peace of the Land), in which he attributed a series of natural disasters including tsunamis and earthquakes as well as foreign invasion (i.e., the Mongols) to the improper practice of the Buddhists.

When Nichiren presented his writing to the rulers, there was a violent backlash against him, especially among the priests of the other Buddhist sects. He was persecuted several times, and exiled at least twice (to the Izu peninsula, and three years on Sado Island).

Nichiren continued to teach his belief in the Lotus Sutra and Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, writing more treatises. Kaimoku Sho (The Opening of the Eyes), Kanjin no Honzon Sho (The Object of Devotion for Observing the Mind) were written while in exile on Sado Island. Also on Sado Island, he composed the Gohonzon, a mandala which he intended as a graphic representation of the essence of the Lotus Sutra–the Mystic Law of cause and effect, which underlies all phenomena in the universe.

He entered a voluntary exile on Mount Minobu in 1274, where he was to spend the rest of his life. He wrote two more major works there, and continued to teach his disciples. The writings were the Senji Sho (Selection of Time) and the Hoon Jo (Recompense of Indebtedness), which was written in memory of his Buddhist teacher, Dozen.

He died in October 1282 at Ikegami, Tokyo, where he had travelled to take medicinal baths for his failing health. He was accompanied by his six disciples – Nissho, Nichiro, Nikko, Niko, Nichiji and Niccho – and other followers. With the exception of Nikko, who dedicated his entire life to helping eternalize his teachings, the other five disciples to a man turned their back on Nichiren’s philosophy.

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The Ainu

The Ainu of Hokkaido, the original inhabitants of Japan

The Ainu are aborigines of Northern Japan. Estimates vary on the age of Ainu people and culture, but it reached its height in the 13th and 14th centuries. Today, it is close to extinction. Centuries of oppression, racism, and forced assimilation policies have contributed to the annihilation of the Ainu culture. Modern socialization and the fear of marginalization has led recent generations to deny their Ainu identity. Urban Ainu in particular face problems of alcoholism, homelessness, and violence.

“Ainu” means “human.” They live by hunting, fishing, farming, and selling crafts to tourists. They have an animistic spirituality that regards all things, including inanimate objects, imbued with life and spirit.

Ainu are heavily bearded and have thick wavy hair. Their mix of European and Asian physical traits contrasts so sharply from other indigenous peoples of Asia that their origin is uncertain. Some theories hold they are of Caucasian descent; others think their distinct features are a result of isolation that allowed them to remain racially unchanged.

The Japanese chronicles “Kojiki” and “Nihonsyoki” refer to them as descendants of an ancient people called Emishi. Today the term Ainu is used to denote the indigenous people of Hokkaido in Japan and Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands, in Russia.

An Ainu woman showing her distinctive facial tattooing

An Ainu woman showing her distinctive facial tattooing

The Ainu people regard death as the separation of soul and body. The body remains in this world and the soul goes to the other world where it is met by ancestors. The other world is underground, and a mirror image of this one, with the same structure but reversed space and time.

Souls stay in one world until they are ready to return to the other. Then they are reborn back into this world. All living creatures repeat this eternal shifting between the two worlds. There is no distinction of Heaven and Hell, but the souls of extremely bad persons may be rejected by their ancestors. A shaman is summoned to convince the ancestors to accept the soul. Extraordinary attachments to or profound grudges against this world can cause the deceased to cling to strongly to this world. Again a shaman is called, to convince the recalcitrant soul to let go.

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