Long before history, said the ancients, the sun goddess, Amaterasu, ruled over Japan, bringing light, warmth, and fertility. Under her guidance, the natural patterns continued—spring, summer, fall, and winter—all in their order. Then, Amaterasu’s brother Susanoo, the ill-tempered god of storms and the underworld, caused trouble, demolishing the ridges between rice fields in the spring and letting spotted colts loose, to lie down on the ripened rice, in autumn. Dismayed, she protested by shutting herself in a mountain cave and plunging the earth into darkness. Now it was the other deities who became distressed. In the words of one of the earliest chronicles, their cries “were everywhere abundant, like summer flies; and all manner of calamities arose,” until someone hit on the idea of staging a festival outside the cave, to tempt her with loud merrymaking. When the goddess peeked out to see what all the noise was about, they pulled her from the cave, sealed the entrance, and assured the return of light.
Thus runs one of the mythological explanations of Japan in ancient times. The scientific story is duller—and more reliable. In the geographers’ account, Japan (called Nihon by the Japanese themselves) is an archipelago of four major islands and 7,000 smaller ones off the eastern shore of the Eurasian land mass. It has a small land area, covering just 145,000 square miles, which could fit into the United States twenty-five times over. Its population, on the other hand, is huge: roughly 127 million, or more than 40 percent of the U.S. population in the early twenty-first century. Largely without natural resources, it is forced to rely on imports from around the world to run its industrial plants.
If the scientific facts are more reliable, the legends are probably more insightful, for they give us a glimpse of the country’s soul, a suggestion of what mattered to people as the stories evolved. Amaterasu’s cave escapade, for example, illustrates the profound way people’s lives and the natural patterns have been shaped by mountains. Steep slopes make up three-fourths of the country’s land area, and those slopes sit atop four tectonic plates, which have shifted and collided across the millennia, forming lush green peaks and valleys even as they have produced horrific earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. The mountains also have forced almost all the people onto a few major plains, where they live crowded together in some of the world’s most densely populated spaces. And the storm god’s deviltry speaks of the temperate-zone seasonal patterns that have for so long dominated Japan’s annual cycle of planting and harvesting, worshiping and celebrating. When an enthusiastic newspaper correspondent wrote generations ago about “glorious cherry—the queen of flowers . . . the beautiful emblem of the true sons of the Yamato’s land,” he was heralding a seasonal blossom-viewing ritual that had inspired people since the Japanese began calling their land Yamato more than 1,500 years ago.
Gyobo Iwaya Cave in the Takachiho region of eastern Kyushu, near where the sun goddess, Amaterasu, reputedly hid herself in a cave to protest the storm god’s reckless pranks; the myths say 800 deities gathered here to devise a strategy for getting her to come out. Photo by Jeremy Hunter.
Another of the prehistoric tales—that of a queen sailing off to conquer Korea—illustrates the impact that location has had on Japan’s historical development. According to the Kojiki (Record of ancient matters), the empress Jingu one day received divine instruction that “there is a land to the west,” filled with “gold and silver, as well as all sorts of eye-dazzling precious treasures,” that was hers for the taking. When her skeptical husband said he saw “only the ocean” to the west, he was struck dead, and it fell to Jingu to subdue Korea. Few historians believe the tale, but no one questions the importance of one of its key themes: that Japan’s location just off the coast of continental Asia would have a monumental influence on the country’s history. In prehistoric times, the islands were connected to Asia by land bridges, but for the last 18,000 years or so they have lain 130 miles off the continent. That has placed Japan close enough to its Asian neighbors to allow for rich cultural interchange yet far enough away to keep it independent, a fact that has given foreign relations a unique character: sometimes constructive, sometimes destructive, sometimes unusual, but always dynamic and interesting.
Another of the timeless ancient myths describes Izanagi, a creator of the Japanese islands, returning from a visit to the underworld covered with filth. “I have been to a most unpleasant land, a horrible, unclean land,” he complained. “Therefore I shall purify myself.” So saying, he “dived into the middle stream and bathed,” giving birth to a new deity with each movement and demonstrating yet one more thing that has made Japan what it is: water. Down the mountain slopes every spring rush hundreds of rivers that irrigate the fields and power the hydroelectric plants. Around the country’s 18,500 miles of coastline surge the vast Pacific waters that provide endless varieties of fish for city markets and seaweed for evening tables. And from the clouds that blow in from the south every spring and summer fall the heavy rains that flood paddies and make Japan one of the world’s biggest producers of rice. The country may not have much gas, oil, iron, or coal, but it compensates through the use of water.
If Japan’s natural setting has produced a vibrant culture, however, it has frustrated those who want detailed information about the past, as the land’s early millennia are shrouded in mystery. For reasons that never have been satisfactorily explained—but which sprang at least partly from the archipelago’s isolation from the continent—writing came late to Japan. Not until at least the fourth century CE, tens of thousands of years after people began inhabiting the islands, did they take up the brush and begin to communicate on paper, and even then they used Chinese characters, or kanji, to transcribe their own spoken language. As a result, we are left with nothing but archaeological artifacts, myths, and spotty foreign observations to tell us what happened well into what we call the “common” era.
Traditionally, historians have divided Japan’s early centuries into three eras. The Jomon period, dating as far back as 16,500 years ago, lasted until the fourth century BCE, and was named for the sophisticated jomon (rope-marked) pottery produced by a society of hunters and gatherers. The culture that followed, named Yayoi—for the place in Tokyo where many of its artifacts have been found—saw the emergence of wet-rice agriculture, iron and bronze implements, and the country’s first towns; it existed roughly from 300 BCE to 300 CE. The third period, Kofun, is named for its large earthen mound-tombs, many of them huge, which preserved the holdings of a rising ruling class between the fourth and seventh centuries. In recent years, scholars have tended to explain Japan’s early emergence less in terms of the rigid Jomon-Yayoi-Kofun labels, however, and more as a gradual evolution, with occasional sharp curves, from the preagricultural epoch through the rise of agriculture and finally the development of a state.
People have inhabited Japan for at least 35,000 years, but we know more about its geology than its inhabitants before 10,000 BCE. Across most of the millennia, the human population apparently rose and fell with fluctuations in global temperatures. By the peak of the last great cold or glacial era 18,000 years ago, Japan probably supported no more than a few hundred people living in caves or on mountainsides and hunting free-roaming animals. A period of global warming then set in, and the population began to grow—and change. By about 6,000 BCE (the early Jomon period), temperatures had surpassed those we now consider normal, and as a result the oceans rose to perhaps eighteen feet above today’s levels, shrinking the islands’ land mass and precipitating Japan’s first significant advance in civilization, as people were forced to live closer to each other. Animals were driven into mountain valleys, making them easier to hunt. The people—who were shorter than the mainlanders, with men averaging a little over five feet and women just under—began building shelters for protection; some constructed dugout canoes and began traveling far out to sea, to fish with harpoons and hooks. They also began trading stone implements, which now were being made in significant numbers, and there is evidence that exchanges with people on the Asian continent became fairly common. Archaeological discoveries also suggest the growth of religious ceremonies in these early Jomon years, many of them connected with fertility or with appeasing the spirits of the dead, and they reveal people eating more and more plants and nuts.
To the very end, Jomon remained largely preagricultural, with food provided by hunting, fishing, and foraging, but its inhabitants showed increasing sophistication in the ways they put their lives together. The era’s most distinctive development lay in the production of what many archaeologists consider to be humankind’s earliest pottery, with artifacts dating from as early as 14,500 BCE. Although clay figurines were made earlier in Europe, there is no evidence of ceramic vases anywhere else at this early date. Equally impressive was the creative nature of the pottery, much of which generally is thought to have been crafted by women, as it was in other ancient societies. Archaeologists have found more than 250 different types of vessels across the archipelago, decorated with rope impressions, rouletting, clay applique, and marks made by pressing fingers, nails, or shells against the clay. The pots were used for a variety of functions: boiling seaweed, steaming vegetables, serving and storing food, holding plants, and decorating. Their makers, in other words, were both skilled and innovative, their functions both utilitarian and artistic.
The Jomon pottery reveals a gradual but distinct improvement in the quality and organization of life on the islands. By perhaps 5,000 BCE, many communities were staying put, living in a single location throughout the year, collecting emergent plants in the spring, gathering nuts in the fall, and fishing and hunting all year long. They also were using the rope-marked pots to evaporate ocean water and produce salt, which would preserve the produce they gathered over the summer. As the era advanced, they began living in constructed houses, most often pit dwellings with low walls and thatched roofs that maintained a fairly constant temperature year-round. Communities of anywhere from 30 to 200 households congregated in some regions, disposing of their wastes in shell mounds on the edges of the settlements; in one northern Honshu site, archaeologists have found more than 600 dwellings, though it is not clear that all were in use at the same time. These relatively safer, more settled conditions also fueled an increase in the population, which may have reached a quarter of a million by about 3,000 BCE, before it dipped again during another global cooling in the late Jomon years.
This clay pot, from the third millennium BCE, illustrates the rope markings and elaborate designs typical of the Jomon era. TNM Image Archives.
By about 1,000 BCE, a shared, country-wide culture had begun to emerge. That does not mean that there were no regional differences. Indeed, peoples in different areas are known to have developed their own specialties by then, with the northern Umataka people making talc and jade jewelry, and the people of central Japan creating pots and figurines bedecked with fertile, auspicious animal symbols. Alongside the variations, however, came increasing similarities in pottery and implement styles that revealed regional intermingling. When the earliest chronicles said the first emperor was “enabled to establish the world in peace” by shaping the “clay of the Heavenly Mount Kagu” into eighty platters of sacred clay and then sacrificing “to all the Gods,” they were transmitting myths rather than history, but they also were describing a spreading cultural connectedness.
The most puzzling of the shared characteristics is a negative: the absence, even late in Jomon, of key elements that characterized life in Japan’s advanced Asian neighbor, China. Indeed, one of the most enduring questions about Japan’s prehistoric past is why a land that had produced the world’s first ceramic vessels, a country that had imported continental foodstuffs such as yams, taro, and millet, failed for more than a thousand years to emulate two of early China’s most striking features: the development of a sophisticated writing system and the production of bronze vessels. What is clear is that the effects of being situated off the fringe of the continent were powerful, even at this early stage. Separated from the rest of Asia by treacherous seas, the Japanese would find it easy to adopt certain continental offerings while ignoring others.
During the transitional time between the Jomon and Yayoi periods, the continental influence became much stronger. Indeed, the relatively quick appearance after 300 BCE of iron implements and wheel-formed pottery, along with the rise of the archipelago’s first regional centers, once led scholars to speculate that Japan might have been invaded. Today, historians and archaeologists generally have a different opinion. From a combination of artifacts and reports by Chinese officials, they have concluded that Japan now experienced an upsurge of immigrants from Korea, where wars and political struggles were forcing people from their homes. These newcomers introduced continental practices and technologies that the people of northern Kyushu then adapted and spread throughout the islands.
Wet-rice farming was at the heart of the new culture. Rudimentary agricultural practices had begun in earlier centuries—after an ancient god produced rice from her belly and “sowed . . . the rice seed in the narrow fields and in the long fields of Heaven,” according to one legend-but it was not until the Yayoi years that planting and harvesting became the primary means of securing food. Archaeological surveys of more than a hundred Yayoi-era paddies show a revolutionary change in the way rice was produced, as villagers started using the farming techniques of the immigrants from the continent, along with their iron and bronze implements. They began to open new fields (often in wet swamps), to plant the short-grain rice seeds used in Korea, and to dig ditches that would bring water to dry paddies. They also began to domesticate pigs for meat, even as they continued to hunt wild animals and gather herbs, nuts, and mountain plants. And they worked the fields with new implements made of wood, stone, and iron: axes, hoes, rakes, and mallets. They also began constructing wooden storage bins, placing them on stilts to keep grains drier in humid areas.
Agriculture changed island life dramatically. More people began to live in villages, and they built bigger houses. They dug wells to maintain the water supply and wove textiles to make clothing. They made pottery on a turntable, allowing workmen to produce utilitarian dishes and cups in greater numbers. Trade flourished along the coast too, even as society grew more stratified and regional centers emerged to dominate the affairs of scattered hamlets. And many of the elements of Shinto, Japan’s indigenous religion, took root: the belief that each mountain, river, or rock had a god-spirit or kami; the appeal to shamans and rites to appease those spirits; the celebration of sex and fertility; and the use of water to purge pollution.
Excavations of one of Japan’s first significant towns, Yoshinogari in northern Kyushu, provide concrete illustration of how dramatically life had changed by the middle Yayoi years. The digs there, carried out in the late 1980s, show a lively commercial life, with the residents of more than 350 dwellings engaged in a range of jobs, from weaving and bead-making to the casting of bronzes. They also indicate class differences, with commoners and officials inhabiting separate areas, separated by a moat. Large storehouses, thought to have housed tax grains collected from surrounding villages, suggest the region’s growing political sophistication, as those in the central town came to dominate surrounding hamlets, while headless skeletons and arrow-pierced bones in the commoners’ graves give evidence of the battles that made Yoshi-nogari dominant. It also seems clear, from the scores of glass beads and the Korean-style dagger in the rulers’ burial site, that the people of Yoshinogari were actively engaged in international trade.
Our most detailed knowledge of the Yayoi centuries comes from Japan’s first written records, prepared not by the nonwriting Japanese, but by Chinese observers of what they called the land of Wa, a fertile place “warm and mild” enough for people to “live on raw vegetables and go about barefooted” even in winter. At the end of their own dynastic histories, Chinese writers often appended brief reports on the “barbarian” countries, notes that bring Yayoi society to life in ways no accumulation of artifacts ever could. A simple visitor’s comment, for example, that early-Yayoi leaders “from time to time send their tributes” to Chinese rulers gives us a level of understanding about evolving relationships and Japan’s own changing political structure that artifacts will never afford.
These records speak a good deal about Yayoi lifestyle and values. They show a law-abiding, hardworking people, probably living in northern Kyushu, who loved pleasure and valued creativity. According to the History of the Kingdom of Wei, the Japanese of the third century CE wore “pink and scarlet” makeup, ate with their fingers, drank liquor, lived for as long as a century, observed class distinctions, and treated men and women equally, though “men of importance” had as many as five wives and the higher classes kept slaves. The writer reports that “all men, old or young, are covered by tattoos” that are supposed to keep away malicious spirits when they go fishing. The men wore their hair down over their ears and often dressed in loincloths, while women wore “an unlined coverlet . . . by slipping the head through an opening in the center.” Fishermen were “fond of diving into the water to get fish and shells,” and when people made ocean voyages, they took along a “fortune keeper” who appeased the spirits by staying away from women and leaving his hair uncombed and his body unwashed. If the journey went well, he was given gifts, possibly even slaves; if it failed, he was killed.
Both the written records and the archeological evidence depict an organized, competitive society, with at least thirty power centers, which the Chinese called “countries,” struggling for dominance by the early Common Era. The regional rulers insisted that commoners bow when “high-echelon men” passed. And they fought for supremacy. The Wei history describes “disturbances and warfare” that had been going on for many decades: a reference to the very move toward centralization that Yoshinogari’s thirty-foot-deep moats, watch towers, and headless skeletons illustrate so vividly.
One characteristic that set Yayoi Japan apart from China was the prominence of women in powerful positions. The people of Wa did more than merely treat both genders equally; they chose women as leaders. The first important person referred to by name in the Wei—or any— record is Himiko, an unmarried woman in a place known as Yamatai, who took the reins of state after decades of war and, as “Queen of Wa,” presided over a pacified realm in the early third century. The Wei account says that she had the ability to divine spirits, was assisted by a younger brother, and had “one thousand maidservants, but . . . only one manservant.” When violence flared under a male successor, officials turned to another female, Himiko’s teenaged relative Iyo, who restored order again. Though the location and specifics of Himiko’s rule remain unclear, historians regard her as one of a number of local chieftains who fought for control of ever-expanding territories. Some scholars suggest that the fighting might have been triggered partly by climate warming in the Yayoi era, which raised sea levels, flooded agricultural areas, and caused competition for land.
These Chinese accounts also describe a people keenly aware of the power and sophistication of Korea and China. They make it clear that the Japanese kingdoms had long been sending representatives to the continent. Himiko, the Wei history says, sent three tribute missions to the Chinese emperors, giving them slaves and cloth. Iyo sent thirty slaves and 5,000 “white gems,” in addition to many pieces of carved jade and twenty bolts of brocade cloth. And the Chinese emperors responded with gifts of their own, including scores of bronze mirrors and warrants certifying the gift-givers’ rights to reign in their own regions.
Japan by the fourth century CE, while far from unified, was thus taking on the appearances of a country, replete with settled communities, market towns, local leaders fighting for control, and formal interchanges between regional overlords and foreign officials—what today we would call diplomacy. Moreover, the appearance at this time of great mound-tombs suggests that the political order was moving toward something more substantial and more permanent. Called kofun (“old mounds”), these tombs gave evidence to the rise of a rich ruling class and lent their name to an epochal period, from about 300 to the mid-600s CE, when Japan developed a centralized state structure and moved from the foggy mists of prehistory to the greater clarity of records-based history. A few burial mound sites already had been constructed in the middle Yayoi years, one of the first being the fifteen-foot-high, 130-foot-long mound in Yoshinogari. But it was at the end of Yayoi that they proliferated, showing up by the tens of thousands, primarily in the Nara region of central Honshu. Many of these tombs were huge—some of them as long as 1,500 feet—and more than 5,000 of them were shaped like keyholes, surrounded by up to three moats. On the inside, they contained objects that had been important in the lives of the deceased, particularly bronze mirrors and jewelry. On the outside, they were surrounded by as many as 20,000 clay figurines, called haniwa, that represented nearly every aspect of Japanese life and society: scholars, houses, peasants wearing earrings, horses, nobles, dancers, tattooed men, musical instruments, animals. Some think the haniwa were used to keep the mounds from eroding, others that they were meant to protect the departed from malingering spirits—but all agree that they demonstrated quite vividly the wealth of the emerging ruling class and the impact of continental culture.
Japan’s move now toward a centralized system was propelled in significant ways by events on the continent. The third through sixth centuries marked a time of incessant warfare in China and Korea, and the battles forced new waves of uprooted families, particularly from Korea, to come to Japan, where they intermingled with local populations. They brought with them irrigation technologies and a writing system; they provided expertise for building temples and pottery kilns; they demonstrated accounting techniques and suggested new administrative structures, as well as new dyeing and weaving methods. The immigrants also brought saddles and bridles, facilitating the use of horses in Japan’s regional wars. Some scholars propose that the Korean immigrants actually took over the Japanese power structure in these years, but most think they were simply assimilated, teaching new skills and assisting in local power struggles.
Clay figurines (haniwa) such as this young maiden surrounded the mound tombs of powerful figures in the Kofun era of the fourth to seventh centuries. Though the precise purpose of haniwa remains unclear, they tell us much about life in the era before writing: that women wore dresses and hats, that horses were used in battle, and that men sometimes wore tattoos. TNM Image Archives.
Whatever the situation, the immigrants touched almost every area of Kofun-era life. Japan’s population grew from well under a million in the late Jomon cold period to an estimated five million by the end of the warmer Kofun years. And people lived better. While coastal hamlets suffered sometimes from pirates’ incursions, most villagers had better incomes, better rice strains, and better protection against nature’s whims, thanks to the new agricultural practices. A new clay cooking stove, called a kamado, made interiors less smoky and saved fuel. Religion became more complex now as the animistic practices of Shinto were challenged by the more organized, scripturally based doctrines of continental Buddhism. Within the ruling classes, new social relationships also emerged, as rulers designated prominent clans, called uji, to serve the court and assist with administration. The uji in turn controlled lesser families, called be, which were given specific tasks such as providing religious services, making saddles, serving as scribes, or running the kitchens of the powerful. These groups provided a basis for much of the social structure that would dominate status relationships for many centuries.
As society grew more uniform, a king-centered central state began to take shape. The story of its creation is told most interestingly, though hardly accurately, in Japan’s earliest extant writings, the eighth-century Kojiki (Record of ancient matters) and Nihon shoki (Chronicle of Japan). Intended to justify the legitimacy of the emerging line of chieftains—often referred to as the sun line, because of their reputed origin in the sun goddess, Amaterasu—these works relate as fact Japan’s most fundamental myths. They describe the divine origins of the land, in which the gods Izanagi and Izanami gave birth to each island, one after another. They narrate the descent of Amaterasu’s grandson, Ninigi no Mikoto, from heaven to bring order to the islands. And in a tale that would shape Japan’s self-identity in later centuries, they tell how the first emperor, Jimmu, journeyed to the Kinai plain of central Honshu—a “fair land encircled on all sides by blue mountains” at “the centre of the world”—to begin “the Heavenly task” of imperial rule. Many of these tales drone on with mind-numbing lists of rulers and gods; others exude energy and fantasy. All of them, however, bespeak an effort by emergent families in the Kinai region to force diverse local and regional traditions into an overarching central story.
The more factual record of the emergence of the Yamato clan from Kinai as sovereigns during the Kofun years, which was put together by historians using a combination of artifacts, Chinese records, and the Nihon shoki, may lack the supernatural elements, but it is almost as interesting. Now the struggles among regional rivals continued even more intensely, with families from the Kinai region gaining preeminence by the 500s. In the early fourth century, Kinai lords such as Ojin and Nintoku appear to have fought battles as far away as northern Kyushu and Korea. They also sought legitimacy from the continent, both by adopting Chinese rule patterns and by securing written approbation from the Chinese rulers. The chronicles tell us that Nintoku, for example, carefully observed the Confucian precept that officials must look out for the welfare of their subjects. Climbing a tower and seeing that “no smoke arose in the land,” he concluded that “the people are poor, and . . . in the houses there are none cooking their rice,” and then declared a three-year moratorium on farmers’ labor taxes even though his own palace was crumbling. The chronicles give a different description of the late fifth-century leader Yuryaku, who failed in his ambitious efforts to conquer southern and eastern Korea. They say “the Empire censured him, and called him ‘The greatly wicked Emperor,’ ” because he killed potential rivals so often and so wantonly.
The triumph of the Kinai rulers in the 500s and 600s as overlords of much of central and southern Japan (though not of the entire archipelago) was propelled, once more, by an interplay of continental and domestic elements. At home, the vicious struggles among regional rivals were balanced by the frequent construction of alliances, with relationships often cemented by marriages between powerful families. The foreign impact on this process showed up partly in the tactical military advantage that resulted from the use of imported horses and partly in the contributions of immigrant Korean craftsmen, scribes, and administrators to the building of the Kinai state, which by the mid-600s was centered in the gentle hills of Asuka, south of present-day Nara.
Equally important to the process was the foreigners’ introduction of Buddhism. According to a Nihon shoki account, a Korean ruler sent the Asuka officials several scriptures and a statue of Buddha in the 550s—and in so doing, set off another power struggle. Two influential clans that had supervised the Yamato court’s religious ceremonies, the Nakatomi and Mononobe, opposed the continental religion as foreign, while the rising Soga family espoused it. The intensity of their rivalry is apparent in an oft-told tale that had the Soga placing the Buddha statue in their home, only to have it thrown into a canal by worried officials when a pestilence hit the area. The struggle actually had more to do with political ambitions than with religious ideas or superstitious fears, however, and when Buddhism eventually triumphed, it left its mark on almost every facet of national life. It also propelled the Soga to political dominance.
Another woman leader, Suiko, was on the throne at the beginning of the seventh century, when Yamato kingship became firmly established. The daughter of a Soga mother, she ascended the throne in 593, after her half-brother, King Sushun, was assassinated, and for three decades she and her nephew/advisor Shotoku Taishi acted as co-rulers, establishing Asuka as the center of Kinai power and instigating reforms that would clinch imperial control. Suiko’s thirty-six years in office marked the longest imperial reign from her time until Mutsuhito became the Meiji emperor in 1868.
Shotoku is more famous than his aunt, partly because the Nihon shoki made him into a saint: an infant who spoke at birth, a benefactor who, seeing a starving man beside the road, “gave him to eat and to drink and taking off his own raiment, clothed with it the starving man,” a ruler whose death evoked cries that “heaven and earth have crumbled to ruin.” It is not clear, however, who merits credit for which of the reforms during their joint rule. What is certain is that the reforms were fundamental in consolidating the new king-dominated regime, and that they drew deep inspiration from China, which had been newly unified in the 580s under the Sui dynasty. Korea had become less important in the Japanese mind by now, having fallen under the shadow of its western neighbor. China, by contrast, had become a fountain of advanced civilization and administrative wisdom. As a result, the Asuka government attempted to consolidate rule by implementing Chinese administrative styles and emphasizing Confucian doctrines of loyalty, virtue, and harmony.
In more extensive fashion than ever before, the regime now sent sizeable missions to the continent, partly to engage in diplomatic relations and partly to learn more about China. One of the first of these missions, sent in 607, carried a charge from “the Son of Heaven in the land where the sun rises . . . to the Son of Heaven in the land where the sun sets,” causing the Sui emperor to retort: “If memorials from barbarian states are written by persons who lack propriety, don’t accept them.” The diplomatic niceties got worked out, and across the next two centuries a dozen official missions, sometimes numbering as many as 500 scholars, monks, craftsmen, and scribes, plied the dangerous waters between China and Japan. Some of the travelers stayed for more than a decade before returning home to share the knowledge they had gained. The fact that Japan over the next few generations constructed new land allocation systems, new law codes, new temples, and new capital cities—all based on the patterns of the Sui dynasty and its successor, the Tang— suggests how deeply the Japanese respected their Asian neighbor. It also suggests the self-confidence of Asuka rulers, for whom advanced knowledge abroad was seen as an opportunity rather than a threat.
Using the Chinese model, the Yamato state adopted a new cap-rank system, where status was accorded individually rather than by family, with rank indicated by the color of one’s cap: purple for the highest ranks, followed by green, red, yellow, white, and black. It also compiled new law codes and produced the country’s first official histories, though the manuscripts have since been lost. The most-quoted innovation was a seventeen-article statement of governing principles, issued in 604 and attributed to Shotoku. Sometimes called Japan’s first constitution, it actually was a set of ethical principles. “Harmony,” began the first injunction, “is to be valued When those above are harmonious and those below are friendly, right views of things spontaneously gain acceptance.” No student of Asia can read that without being struck by its Confucian tone. The same is true of articles that demanded “scrupulous” obedience to imperial commands, “decorous behavior,” the avoidance of gluttony, and the selection of “wise men” as rulers. At the same time, several of the admonitions have a distinctly local flavor— the statement, for example, that the “lord is heaven,” and the insistence that officials “attend the court early in the morning, and retire late,” since “the whole day is hardly enough” to complete state work. The absence of Chinese concepts such as the necessity of ruling by “heaven’s mandate” and recruiting officials through exams also demonstrates the independent mind with which the Yamato rulers applied Chinese models. A Chinese overlay added gravitas to the emergent court, but its foundations lay in the rolling Asuka countryside.
The activity for which Shotoku was best known was his espousal of Buddhism. While scholars argue about whether he kept his Soga relatives in check or smoothed their path to power, they agree that his espousal of that family’s faith was crucial in turning Buddhism into Japan’s most influential religion. He is credited not only with personal devotion but with writing seven commentaries that showed an impressive grasp of Indian Buddhist scriptures. He also advocated state support of the religion and had several temples built, including the Horyuji, north of Asuka, which today holds one of Japan’s foremost collections of Buddhist art. Temples across the Yamato region still honor Shotoku as Japanese Buddhism’s patron saint.
What of life in the countryside during these transitional generations? While the Nihon shoki slights the commoners, it does suggest that the villagers of Kyushu and central Honshu were coming to share both a similar culture and an image of themselves as part of a wider unit, something we today might call a state, even though a full half of the archipelago remained outside the Kinai rulers’ control, and no one had yet used the word Nihon. Chinese visitors’ records from this period describe a land in which status distinctions had become ubiquitous. Officials wore shoes “painted with lacquer, and tied on with strings,” while the lower classes often went barefoot and were not allowed to wear jewelry. Commoners also were subjected to a relatively harsh legal system in which the king himself sometimes sat, cross-legged, as a judge, with punishments ranging from flogging to death. A suspect who denied guilt might be forced to pluck a snake from a jar, on the premise that “if he is guilty, his hand will be bitten.” There were also heavy taxes to pay. Life was not all subservience, however; the Chinese accounts also describe celebrations on the first day of each month, marked by games, archery contests, and drinking. Villagers staged seasonal and religious festivals, too, and liked “chess, betting, juggling, and dice games.” Following Shotoku’s death in 622 and that of Suiko in 628, conditions in the capital turned violent, as the Soga family made a grab for power. According to the early chronicles, the family constructed lavish homes, erected its own ancestral temple, built grand tombs, and even designated a Soga son to receive a cap designated for the king. In response, other ambitious families launched schemes of their own. The result was what the chronicles describe as one of the most dramatic political incidents in all of Japanese history: the murder of the head of the Soga family in front of Queen Kogyoku while she was presiding over a ceremony in 645 to receive a diplomat from Korea. In the aftermath, various other Soga family members were killed, the Soga residences were destroyed, and the Nakatomi family was restored to the influence it had had before Buddhism came.
Though the accounts of the Soga overthrow may be embellished, there is no doubt that the episode presaged important changes in the style of Yamato administration, changes known by later generations as the taika, or “great reform.” Laying the foundation from which Japan’s tenno (emperor) system would develop, the rulers set about in the mid-600s to centralize taxes, create population registers, provide for court appointment of regional governors, and devise a system of state allocation of land to the people. They also created a produce tax to replace labor assessments and asserted that women had the right to remarry. Their basic goal was clear: to assert the total control of the Yamato ruler. As one of the reform edicts, reconstructed in the Nihon shoki, put it: “Now our hearts are one. There shall be one sovereign and ministers shall not oppose his rule. Should anyone break his oath, Heaven will send disasters and earth will send calamities This is as clear as the sun and moon.”
Rival families and factions continued to vie for power over the next few decades, and the impact of the reforms was uneven, with the court’s grip weakening as the distance from Kinai lengthened. Moreover, the northern third of Honshu island remained wholly outside the Yamato kingdom, inhabited by a trading, rice-growing, horse-raising people known derisively in the capital as Emishi or “toad barbarians.”
Nonetheless, the early and middle 600s saw an onrush of state activism that would establish the long-term features of Japan’s imperial state. Continental influences undergirded much of daily life now, from rice-growing techniques to the writing system. The native faith, Shinto, competed with the foreign import, Buddhism, for state patronage. Administrative structures had become relatively well ordered, grounded in a combination of domestic and foreign ideas. And the Yamato clan ruled over the archipelago’s center as sun-descended kings, assisted by other influential and ambitious families. It seemed time, as one of the edicts suggested, to establish a permanent capital.