Cultural Groups— Jomon Yanoi Epoch

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  1. Japanese Geography

  2. Cultural Groups—

    1. Jomon

    2. Yanoi Epoch

      1. Religious Beliefs

      2. Practices

    1. Yamato Clan

      1. Background of Clan

      2. Efforts at selective borrowing from China

      3. Prince Shotoku

        1. Impact of this Prince on Japan

        2. Ritsuryo system

  1. Taika (Great) Reform

  2. Nara Period (710-94)

    1. Reforms

    2. Challenges during this period

  1. Heian period: (800-1200)

    1. Reforms

    2. Shoen

    3. Fujiwara Family

    4. Fall of Heian Period


Japan is made up of four main islands in the Pacific Ocean. Rice has been the dietary staple since prehistoric times. Only a small portion of the land is level and farmable — so that the population is clumped along the coastal land plains.  Honshu, the biggest island, is also the most heavily populated. Though dwarfed by China, the Japanese islands contain a territory larger than Great Britain. They are separated by a significant amount of water from mainland China — 250 miles apart at the narrowest point (much wider than the waterway between the British Isles and Continental Europe). Historically, the Japanese have been more culturally isolated than other Asian cultures.

The islands are poor in natural resources, but beautiful, with very temperate climate. The beauty of the natural world is reflected in the strong aesthetic sensibility of the people. The limited resources of the island encouraged the formation of a hardworking, disciplined people, who were ruled throughout much of Japanese history by strong legal codes and warrior elites.

Japanese written records date from about 500 AD, but archeological evidence shows Japanese culture had been evolving for several millennia before that time.

Jomon culture: (3rd millennium BC): The Jomon were the first Japanese civilization, hunter-gatherers.  They were probably of diverse East Asian descent, and had begun migrating to the islands by boat around 5000 BC. The bulk of the settlers likely came from the Korean peninsula or Manchuria. Once on the islands, they became relatively isolated from the upheavals of the mainland, and developed a distinctive culture, language, and physical appearance.

Yanoi epoch: In the last centuries BC, wet-rice agriculture and ironworking, wheel-turned pottery and bronzewear appeared in Japan.

Until early 5th century AD, most of Japan was divided into hundreds of clans (extended family-based groups), whose members worshiped a clan deity and claimed decent from a common ancestor. Each of these clans was dominated by a small warrior aristocracy, who drew their support from the peasantry (90% of the population). They had a small slave population as well. Early Japan was notable for its rigid social distinctions, indicated by different sorts of tattoos and body markings which denoted the warrior elite. Japanese women held a powerful position in society, in contrast to the low status enjoyed by Chinese women in the same period. Early Japanese households were matriarchal, and women also played key roles as shamans (priests), clan leaders, and later empresses.

The importance of women was shown in the Shinto religion,  Japan's native religion. Shinto followers worshipped numerous gods and spirits associated with the natural world, among whom Amaterasu, the sun goddess, was a key figure. People prayed to gods and spirits of natural world, and to their own deified  ancestors, who occupied positions as lesser deities. Early Shintoism had no moral code; it was primarily a religion of rituals.

By the third century AD, archeological evidence shows a highly aristocratic culture — huge burial mounds appear, surrounded by moats and guarded by clay figures — clearly the tombs of important people. Mounted clay aristocrats were shown wielding iron weaponry. This cultural pattern, of a society dominated by an aristocratic warrior elite, would persist into the 7th century.

In the first centuries AD, Japan imported a wide range of ideas, technologies, institutional models, and finished goods from China, and adapted them to their own civilization. These early centuries of Chinese influence (1st to 5th centuries AD) was largely indirect, coming through the Koreans.

Korea, Vietnam, and Japan were all cultural borrowers from China. Japan's difference was that it didn't share a land border with China, unlike the other two, and it wasn't under Chinese occupation, so that it could be more selective.  In contrast to Vietnam, which was ruled by the Chinese for nearly a millennium, and Korea, which was intermittently under Chinese rule, the Japanese initiated and controlled the process of cultural borrowing from China. The influence of China on Japan was sea-based rather than land-based; spread by merchants and monks, rather than by conquering armies.


The Yamoto Clan is the oldest still-ruling dynasty in the world; their descendants are still the ruling dynasty of Japan today (although their power as imperial rulers was sharply curtailed after W.W.II).

Beginning in the 3rd century AD, new patterns of rice growing and new artisan skills enhanced the standing of the Yamoto clan chieftains, who extended their control over most of the main Japanese island of Honshu.

The Yamato clam grew to increasing dominance in the 4th and 5th centuries.  As the Yamato clan gained power, an imperial cult developed, centered around the sun goddess, who was the personal deity of the family. The priest-chief of the Yamato claimed descent from the sun goddess, which provided a powerful source for legitimacy.

Chinese borrowing: By the late 4th century, the Yamoto clan had brought most of the lowland plains of the southern islands under their control through alliance and conquest, and had also extended their control into South Korea. Their area was still small in comparison to China's conquests, but the new unity brought the Japanese into increasing contract with Chinese culture, which was entered one of its most illustrious phases.

In the 4th century, Chinese script was introduced into Japan and adapted with difficulty to the Japanese language. This was a major turning point for Japanese culture, as a written script made it possible for the Yamoto to begin to build a real bureaucracy and more firmly establish their control over their vassals. It also meant the Japanese could learn from Chinese texts on all manner of subjects, and Chinese works were imported along with Chinese scribes and teachers from the 5th century onward.  Later, Japanese students fluent in Chinese were sent to China to study.

In the 6th century, the Buddhist religion became a pivotal factor in the transmission of Chinese culture. In the period of disunity following the breakup of the Han Dynasty in the early 3rd century AD, Buddhism was widely adopted in China by the various warring states that succeeded the Han.  The pervasive influence of Buddhism on China and the powerful position of the Buddhist monks in the Chinese courts gave great impetus to Buddhism's spread into Korea and Japan. It appeared in Japan in the mid-6th century by way of Korea (in 552, a Korean ruler sent the Yamato some Buddhist documents). It was officially adopted as the religion of the Yamato domains in the late 580s.

Between the 6th and 9th centuries, Japanese culture was greatly altered by Chinese culture (the Sui and T'ang dynasties), but the Japanese adapted Chinese customs and made them their own. In the next three centuries, Chinese culture, brought into Japan both through Buddhism and through Korean influences, profoundly transformed Japanese society.

Japanese rulers attempted to propagate their new religion among their subjects. The bulk of the Japanese populace converted to Buddhism, but without giving up their long-standing Shinto rituals and beliefs. Shintoism and Buddhism developed side by side as the twin pillars of the state in Japan. The efforts of the Buddhist monks were supported by the Japanese elite, who in turn stressed Buddhist scriptures that promoted the need for a strong monarch and a unified and centralized state. Although some elites became highly involved in Buddhist philosophy and practiced highly developed mediation techniques, for the bulk of the illiterate populace, Buddhism was little more than a magical cult with colorful rituals. The common people knew little of Buddha's teachings except for highly mythologized versions of Buddha's life.

Prince Shotoku (r. 573-621) — One of Japan's best early rulers, he played a crucial role in the transmission of Chinese culture to Japan. He was technically a regent for the empress, but was in actuality the ruler, and in this position was responsible for many of the changes to the Japanese state in the 6th and 7th centuries. A devout Buddhist and learned theologian, Shotoku's pro-Buddhist faction won control at the Yamoto court, and with that victory established Buddhism as the official religion of Japan. They used Chinese Confucian principles to organize the government. In addition, Yamato created a centralized government based upon China’s model; it was called the Ritsuryo system.

In 604, Shotoku's government formulated the Seventeen Articles Constitution — guidelines on morals and ethics for the Japanese government and society. Their goal was to transform the Japanese state into a centralized monarchy along Chinese lines by stripping power from the hereditary clans. Both Buddhism and Confucianism proved useful ideological forces for this.

In 607, Shotoku sent his first embassy over to China to learn from Chinese; over a dozen more were sent out in the following years. These were major undertakings —ships full of young men from good families, of potential official class, were sent over for ten years to learn Chinese ways. It was a hazardous mission —the seas were rough, and the Japanese had no compasses, so that their ships were sailing blind. It was a remarkably farsighted move on Japanese's part, and helped bring about one of the greatest technological transfers before modern times. Other ships full of students were also sent over by Buddhist monasteries or went over with trading ships.

After Shotoku's death, the Taika (Great) Reform of 645 pushed Shotoku's reforms to their logical conclusion. It declared the Japanese ruler to be the heavenly emperor, the head of a theoretically centralized land.  It abolished private land ownership, making all land belong to the emperor (a la T'ang China), instituted Chinese-style tax system, and Chinese-style bureaucratic practices and ceremonies. Japan was divided into provinces and counties, which were given Chinese-sounding names. The Taika reform also copied a good deal of the Chinese law code. Japanese women lost ground as a result of the Taika reforms, as they were gradually barred from the imperial succession. Nara and Heian Periods

Unlike China, Japanese eras at this point in history (710bce -1200 ce) are named for the capital's location; Nara and Heian were two capital cities. The same dynasty ruled throughout.

Nara Period (710-94): Before 710, Japan did not have a permanent capital, not only due to the impermanence of their government, but also to Shinto beliefs. In Shintoism, death was defiling, so that at the death of an emperor or empress, the residence was abandoned or destroyed, and the residence of his successor became the new seat of government. To symbolize the adoption of a more T'ang-style centralized government, a capital city was laid out in Nara in 710. The architecture of the new capital was heavily influenced by Chinese Buddhist temple architecture.  The city was laid out in a grid with a magnificent palace and many temples. Many other great Chinese-style temples were built in the 8th and 9th centuries.

Limitations of Reforms: Despite these legal and material transformations, however, at its core Japanese society was still notably different from Chinese society. The old clan (uji) aristocracy still retained a great deal of power, and preserved much of their independence despite the emperor's exalted claims to greatness. The Japanese economy was still relatively simple, mainly barter-based, and money was rare. The civil service exam method of hiring bureaucracy, the core of the Chinese system, was never adopted at all.

Nara ceased to be the capital after 794, and as a result, few building were added after that date — so that it remains a T'ang period city, unique in the world (T'ang-era architecture didn't survive in China). The new capital was established at Heian (modern-day Kyoto).

Heian period: (800-1200) As the T'ang dynasty in China was declining in the 9th century, Japan turned more towards its own traditions and developed its own distinctive styles. The Heian period was a time when the urge to return to the old ways grew stronger. Japan's ruling elite for the past three centuries had learned all they could from Chinese model, but several fundamental differences between Japan and China remained, meaning that this inheritance needed to be significantly modified to suit the Japanese culture.

Shoen: The core of the Japanese heritage was the old warrior-based feudalism, and in the Heian period, the landed magnates of the Japanese shoen system gained a resurgence of power. Shoen were usually a dispersed collection of tracts owned by a single aristocratic proprietor, who looked up to a patron either at the royal court or at a powerful Buddhist monastery. He had estate managers under him, and farmers under the managers, a formation not unlike European feudalism. This system was very different from anything existing in the centralized Chinese government.

The Heian period was one of general economic expansion, but the central government didn’t benefit. Aristocratic families were powerful enough to evade paying taxes (Buddhist temples didn’t pay them either), and despite the Chinese superstructure imposed on the government, government positions remained hereditary, and went to the sons of aristocrats exclusively. Possessing the capital and labor to bring new lands under cultivation, the aristocrats and powerful monasteries gradually gained ground at the expense of the monarchy — they thrived and grew rich while the monarchy grew poorer. To escape crushing taxation, most of the peasantry placed themselves under the protection of a monastic or aristocratic lord.

By 10th century, the emperors were reduced to mainly ceremonial duties, and real power was held behind the scenes. But unlike in China, where a Chinese royal house would be overthrown once it seemed corrupt and inefficient, in Japan the prestige of the royal house and respect for its hereditary rights was so high that no one attempted to replace the dynasty — they just rendered it less relevant.

Rise of Fujiwara Family: The great families of Japan became the real rulers of Japan in the Heian period, using the Heian court mainly as an arena for their endless intrigues. Rather than supplanting the dynasty, the most powerful families simply married into it. The Fujiwara family soon became the most powerful of the families, supplying the royal house with most of its empresses, monopolizing the high governmental posts, and holding more shoen estates than any other family. The 9th-12th centuries were the "Fujiwara" centuries — they dominated the government behind the stage. The Fujiwara ruled through regents — their children were placed on the throne, and then forced to "retire" as soon as the next child was old enough to squirm through the imperial ceremonies.

Fall of the Heian court: the largest problem was that through the intrigues and background manipulation, the authority of the government gradually declined so as to become a prize hardly worth fighting over. As the power behind an increasingly powerless throne, the Fujiwara slowly went down with the monarchy they themselves had undermined. The Fujiwara and other court families became increasingly dependent on alliances with regional lords to bolster them in their disputes with their rivals. By the 12th century, the Fujiwara were very corrupt, and their power was fading — other clans rose to real power and became more significant, but allowed the Fujiwara to continue their marriage games at Heian.

Japanese culture: From the early Yamoto state to the Heian period, the twin centers of Japanese culture were the Buddhist monasteries and the imperial court. Several different Buddhist sects formed within Japan, all of them imported from China (sometimes by way of Korea). Japanese architecture from this time reflects a mixture of the grandiose Chinese style and the simple lines of Japanese Shinto temples. The court style of the Heian court was elegant in the extreme — particularly striking in a culture only a few centuries removed from the rude life of clan chiefs. Delicate sensibilities governed both dress and decorum. Poetry, prose, and artwork were produced in substantial amounts; the greatest subject was love.

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