The Emergence Of Japan
The Rising Flood Of Asian Culture, 300-1300


The rise of Japan after the sixth century was part of a much larger
process in which a number of new fringe cultures developed rapidly in the
shadows of the old major civilizations. In Europe, Africa, southeast and
central Asia, Korea, and Japan, these later "third round" civilizations were
able to appropriate the cultural experience of centuries without developing
through the much slower process of trial, error, and conditioning. The
results, however, were compromises. In its early evolution, for example, Japan
borrowed much from China; but this cultural raw material was mingled and
reworked into a new Japanese pattern.


Geographic, Ethnic, And Historical Backgrounds

Much that is distinctive in Japanese culture has resulted from geographic
factors, which provided harsh challenges but maximum national security. The
inland sea marked by the islands of Kyushu, Shikoku, and Honshu, with their
lush and beautiful sheltered plains, was the center of Japanese civilization
until the twelfth century. Yet even this area, along with the other 3000
islands of the archipelago, has frequently experienced earthquakes and
typhoons. Location was the most important early factor; approximately 200
miles of water separate the highly populated islands from the mainland.
Isolated as they were during their early history, the Japanese were secure
enough to experiment with new ways while retaining a deep attachment to their
land and its traditional culture.

Ethnically, the Japanese are of mixed origins, a result of many
prehistoric migrations from the mainland, by way of Korea and Southeast Asia,
through the island chain to the south. The resulting common ethnic community
was predominantly Mongoloid, though darker and hairier than Asian mainland
types. The language was derived from the basic Altaic family of northern Asia,
which also produced Mongol and Korean variations. As the Japanese population
expanded and moved north, after the second century A.D., it began
exterminating and absorbing the Ainu, a people of less developed culture, who
had first occupied the area. This process continued into the modern era.

In ancient times, the mountainous Japanese islands facilitated the growth
of numerous small tribal states, each ruled by a hereditary chieftain who
claimed descent from a tribal deity. According to Japanese folklore, one of
these chieftains named Jimmu ("Divine Warrior"), a descendent of the sun
goddess, began the current line of Japanese emperors in 660 B.C. Historians
generally believe that the present imperial family originated with the most
powerful ruling group - the Yamato clan - which emerged in Kyushu and whose
chieftains, beginning in the first century A.D., led the conquest eastward
against the Ainu in Honshu.

The religion of the Japanese, known as Shinto, or "Way of the Gods," was
a simple worship of natural forces and ancestral spirits, with no organized
priesthood or ethical system. The chieftains served as priests as well as war
leaders. With the growth of Yamato power, Shinto centered primarily on the sun
goddess as the divine ancestress of the Yamato and, eventually, of all the
Japanese people.

Agriculture was the basis of the economy. The nobles controlled the land,
which was worked by peasants and slaves. Clans engaged in constant struggle
for land and against the Ainu. Warfare was the order of the day, and the
dominant role in society was played by noble families, whose fighting men were
equipped with bows and iron swords and rode horses. Unlike China, where
scholar-bureaucrats eventually rose to positions of dominance, the warrior
class maintained its social prestige and political power through most of
Japanese history. But despite this military emphasis, early Japanese society
was largely matriarchal, as was evidenced by the prevalence of female deities.
Women enjoyed a social status comparable to that of men; children were raised
within the wife's family household; and women rulers were common until the
eighth century.

During the first few centuries A.D., the Yamato clan settled on a plain
north of modern Osaka and extended its power in central Japan. Its chieftain
began to regard himself as a kind of emperor, while the other clan chieftains,
some of whom had better lineage than their Yamato overlord, were attached to
his court. Thus the Japanese state emerged as a loose association of clans
under the suzerainty of the Yamato.

Influences From China And The Taika Reforms

After the third century, when the Han dynasty extended its sway over
Korea, Chinese culture began to reach Japan. At first the process was very
gradual, but in the sixth century, when the Japanese began consciously
borrowing Chinese ways, a new age in Japanese history began.

Buddhism was the main vehicle for transporting Chinese culture to sixth
century Japan. In 522, a Korean king presented to the Japanese court an image
of the Buddha, some Buddhist texts, and a recommendation of the new faith as
"hard to comprehend" but "excellent" and widely adhered to in Korea. Whether
or not they were moved by this particular plea, Yamato rulers embraced the new
faith, with its accompanying Chinese values, even more fervently than
contemporary Germanic tribes in Europe accepted Christianity. Before 600,
Buddhism and respect for Chinese culture had spread throughout Japan.

In the seventh century the Yamato regime deliberately attempted to
establish a centralized absolutism modeled on T'ang China. A group of young
Japanese, including students recently returned from China, seized power in 645
and proclaimed the new order, with the Yamato ruler named as Tenno, or
"Heavenly Emperor." The resulting Taika (Great Change) reforms asserted the
absolute authority of the monarch at the expense of the former clan
chieftains. The reformers also established a centralized bureaucracy, a legal
code, a tightly controlled provincial system, a standing army, and a land tax
similar to that of the T'ang.

From the beginning, differences between Japanese and Chinese societies
required drastic adjustments. Most positions in the Japanese bureaucracy, held
by members of the old clan nobility, quickly became hereditary. Recruitment
through an examination system, after the Chinese model, never developed in
Japan. The newly asserted power of direct taxation could not be effective at
any distance from the court, so the emperors were forced to grant tax-exempt
estates to some nobles in return for their services or support. Such estates
also tended to become hereditary.

The reforms nevertheless exerted a great impact upon Japanese society,
not the least being the construction of Japan's first city, Nara, as a capital
where the new ways could flourish. Built in the early eighth century, Nara was
carefully planned as a miniature version of Ch'ang-an, with broad streets,
imposing new palaces, and many Buddhist edifices. Some of these temples and
monasteries still survive as among the best remaining examples of T'ang
architectural style. Scholars, priests, and artisans from the mainland were
welcomed at Nara, and later at Kyoto, the second capital, also copied from
Ch'ang-an. Chinese culture-carriers found ready apprentices among the
Japanese, including the first Japanese historians, who recorded, in Confucian
contexts, myths and legends of the past which supported the emperor's right to
his throne as a descendent of the Sun Goddess.

A New Japanese Order: The Heian Period, 794-1185

A recreated Japanese cultural and political system, part traditional,
part Chinese, part imperial, and primarily feudal, came into being during the
Heian period. In 794, a Confucian trained emperor built a new capital at
Heian-kyo (now called Kyoto) to free himself from the growing political power
of the Buddhist clergy; here the imperial court remained for nearly a thousand
years, until 1868. During the next three and a half centuries, "peace and
tranquility" (a literal translation of "Heian-kyo") generally characterized
Japanese life. The era of Chinese-inspired reforms was over. Imperial
authority weakened, and a court aristocracy flourished without much political
power. What was left of central government came under domination of the
Fujiwara family, while local lords became practially independent in the
provinces.

By the tenth century, the Fujiwara family was accepted as the source of
hereditary regents, who ruled the country for figurehead emperors, a system
continued, in varied forms, to the present. Fujiwara Michinaga (966-1027), who
held dominion over the court for thirty years, was the brother of two
empresses and the father of four, the uncle of two emperors, the grandfather
of two more, and the great-grandfather of another. Controlled by such a web of
family intrigue and influence, the Heian court functioned in accord with its
own stately rhythms. The sacred emperor performed his ceremonial duties, some
Shinto and some Buddhist. Fujiwara women, as imperial consorts, produced
future emperors. Monarchs were pressured to retire to Buddhist monasteries
when their male heirs, usually little boys, were old enough to perform the
prescribed rituals. As maternal uncles or grandfathers of the
child-sovereigns, Fujiwara regents managed affairs until the emperors matured
and abdicated in their turns.

While the Fujiwara, the puppet emperors, and the effete court nobles
played their formal roles at Heian-kyo, political power was shifting toward
the provinces, where many local lords were becoming independent governors and
military commanders. Some of the strongest and most adventurous lords
organized campaigns against the Ainu, seizing and colonizing territories with
their followers. A network of feudal relationships, linking land grants with
pledges of personal loyalty and service, developed among these provincial
nobles and their subordinates, often completely outside imperial authority.
The bushi (warrior) lords and their mounted samurai retainers, generated a
primitive value system, the code of Bushido, which stressed courage,
endurance, discipline, and loyalty unto death. The long-range effect of the
Bushido tradition among Japanese men was recognized by many American soldiers
in World War II.

Culture Of The Heian Period

The court at Heian-kyo produced an artificial culture, largely imported
from China; but behind this facade of Chinese traditions and aristocratic
pretensions, the Japanese by the tenth century had developed a cultural
perspective quite distinct from China's. Although also nature lovers, the
Japanese were much less scholarly than the Chinese and more moved by
intuitional preferences for balance, restraint, delicate precision, and
economy. Indeed, "cultivation of the little" has been identified as a
characteristic Japanese culture trait, which may have resulted from people
living closely together on small secluded islands.

Perhaps the most obvious signs of Chinese influence were the temples.
Generally, they followed the characteristic T'ang style and were lavishly
adorned with both imported and Japanese statues of the Buddha, executed in
bronze or wood and showing the typical benign expression of the Gandaran
schools. Surviving temples include the Horyuji at Nara and the Phoenix Hall of
the Byodoin at Uji, not far from Kyoto. The latter features perfect symmetry
extravagant decoration, and striking contrasts of white and bright red colors.
Although symbolizing the Buddhist paradise, it also expresses the Japanese
appreciation of the harmony between a subject and its natural setting. The
hall stands beside a pond, its reflection creating an inverse picture of the
building in the water.

Painting developed from Chinese models but, like architecture, soon
showed a distinctive Japanese flavor. Buddhist themes predominated at first,
but later artists chose more secular subjects drawn from everyday life. The
new Japanese style, known as Yamato-e, was noted for its use of bright colors
and for filling in finely sketched outlines. It was often used in decorating
sliding doors and screens, but it was most commonly seen in picture-scroll
illustrations for literary works.

Heian literature, while reflecting clearly the aristocratic life of its
setting, was even more independent of Chinese influence than the other arts.
Most Japanese intellectuals were men, trained to write in Chinese characters
that could not easily represent Japanese syllables or thought; upper-class
Japanese women, on the other hand, were not as well educated in Chinese and
therefore wrote in a phonetic script, expressing Japanese sensitivities in
charming poems, diaries, and novels. These works contained analyses of
personal feeling that had no precedents in Chinese literature. The finest
example is undoubtedly The Tale of Genji, a long novel by Lady Murasaki, who
depicted her narrow court life with great psychological profundity and
aesthetic appreciation for human emotion. As Lady Murasaki explained in the
words of her hero, Genji, an author does not only write to tell a story but to
express an "emotion so passionate that he can no longer keep it shut up in his
heart" or "let it pass into oblivion." ^3

[Footnote 3: Quoted in Ryusaku Tsunoda et al., eds., Sources of Japanese
Tradition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958), pp. 181-182.]

Well before Lady Murasaki, in the early eighth century, the countryside
beyond Heian-kyo had begun producing its own literature. The Manyoshu, a
collection of some 4000 poems, reflects a fresh outpouring of the native
Japanese spirit in treating the old religion, the brevity of life, love of
nature, and appreciation of friends. These short poems have never been
surpassed in equating natural phenomena and human emotion, clinching each
point in typical Japanese fashion with a twist of thought at the end of a set
syllabic sentence.

The Kamakura Shogunate

Cultural development continued past the thirteenth century in directions
set during the Heian era, but the Fujiwara regency broke down much sooner as
the result of warfare among the noble clans. In 1185, after a long struggle
still celebrated in Japanese literature, movies, and television, a clique
dominated by the Minamoto clan emerged victorious. Its leader, an outstanding
soldier-statesman named Yoritomo, forced the emperor to grant him the title of
shogun (generalissimo) and established a capital at Kamakura. Subsequent
shoguns paid utmost respect to the emperors and governed at a discreet
distance from the imperial court at Heian-kyo; but the shoguns, not the
emperors, were the real rulers of Japan.

The resulting Kamakura Shogunate was a superfeudal order, designed to
control an earlier one created by the Fujiwara court. It employed constables
and stewards in every province but still relied on a complex web of personal
obligations among local aristocrats and their common adherence to the code of
Bushido. The prevailing values were extended to women, who were now expected
to bear hardships with Spartan endurance; to fight, and if necessary, to die
beside their husbands. Their lives were much harder, but they could hold the
rights of a vassal and inherit property under the code. Kamakura noblewomen
were often successful administrators. One of the ablest was Masako, Yorimoto's
widow, also known as the "nun-shogun", who was the power behind the shogun,
after her husband died.

 

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