Japanese jar from 1st to 3rd centuries
Prince Yamato Takeru, of the 300s CE. Note the sword
Before the 200s BCE Japan was very sparsely populated with people who were still using stone tools and living by hunting, fishing and gathering food that grew wild. Then, in 200s, on Japan’s major southern island, Kyushu, a culture with iron, bronze, tool making and wet-rice agriculture appeared. The new culture is believed to have come with migrants, perhaps from Korea – the shortest distance from the Asian mainland, where such ways of living already existed.
People with the new culture, called Yayoi-Japanese, expanded against native people, and around the time of Augustus Caesar they reached the Kanto plain, where Tokyo would one day be. They raised horses and cows, hunted and fished, and grew rice where they could. From their contacts with the Asian mainland they acquired the potter's wheel, and they improved their kiln techniques. From China and Korea they imported coins, bronze mirrors, bracelets and beads, iron and bronze knives and swords. They began smelting their own iron, making swords, saws, nails and clamps.
With a greater supply of food, the population of the Yayoi-Japanese grew rapidly. They were perhaps healthier than other peoples in Japan, and they continued to spread and to displace native peoples. By CE 100, the agricultural Japanese had pushed into northeastern Honshu. They pushed against and absorbed those called Ainu, who are believed to have lived more in the northern half of – a people with blue eyes and lighter skins, and with more hair than most Asians, perhaps accounting for the greater hairiness of today's Japanese.
Soon a highway system facilitated movement of people and goods, and the Yayoi-Japanese developed a fleet of ships that moved goods up and down Japan's coast and between Japan and the Asian continent. Closer ties between Japan and Korea developed. Literate Koreans and Koreans with other skills were in great demand in Japan, and such Koreans who came to Japan were given noble rank. The Yayoi-Japanese imported iron from Korea, with which they made plows, hoes, sickles, axes, adzes and chisels.
A Chinese report called the Weizhi (Wei records), dated for the year 297, described the Japanese as having developed a society not much different from other civilizations. The report described Japan divided into numerous states, or kingdoms, and as having class divisions. The Chinese described Japanese men who were most wealthy as having four or five wives, and they described some Japanese households as having slaves. They described people of lower rank as getting off a road and kneeling to show respect to people of higher rank, and people paying taxes to their local lords. The Chinese described some Japanese common folk as having become vassals, and a new class of warriors as having appeared, with horses and military technology imported from the continent.
According to the Chinese the Japanese had no theft. Members of families were described as responsible for one another, and the violations of law or custom by one member of a family brought retribution against the entire family – similar to other peoples organized by clan. In other than light violations of law, the entire household of the offender and his relatives were exterminated – a strong incentive to refrain from crime. And according to the Chinese, the Japanese treated women equally at community meetings, and clans were sometimes headed by a woman.
One such clan leader was an unmarried woman called Queen Himiko, who according to the Chinese, controlled a large part of Kyushu between the years 183 and 248. Himiko meant Sun Daughter, reflecting the belief among the Japanese that their chiefs were descendant from a sun goddess.
After Queen Jingo's death, Ojin is said to have ruled alone - until the year 310 BCE, when he was 110 years-old. After his death he was deified as Hachiman, the God of War. In Tokyo, Kyoto and Kamakura (just south of Tokyo), beautiful temples were built in Ojin's honor, and Japan's warriors into modern times would pray to Ojin as they embarked upon battle.
Being basically similar to other peoples, territorial conflicts arose between local rulers. Some rulers gained in territory and some lost. Greater territory among the winners meant more wealth, more available manpower, bigger armies and more military strength. Competition among the kingdoms created insecurity, which inspired the belief in growth for the sake of power. A ruler had to keep growing or he would be swallowed by one who had. So among the rulers were attempts to expand, which produced more war.
One of the more successful ruling families was the Yamato. The Yamato family dominated the agriculturally productive plain in the southwest of what today is Japan. As elsewhere in the world of civilization and empire, those rulers whom the Yamato conquered remained as local lords and paid tribute to the Yamato ruler. The local lords were watched by Yamato subordinates territorial administrators, technical experts and scribes. A hierarchy of authority had developed, with the local lords remaining proud of their family and conscious of their own powers and potential powers.
The Yamato rulers called themselves Tenno, or heavenly ruler, and the Yamato family believed that they were directly descended from Jimmu and the gods and that they ruled by divine right. The Yamato spread their rule northward onto the Kanto plain and to most other areas populated by the Yayoi-Japanese.
According to Japanese legend, during the 300s CE, the Yamato spread their rule to the southern coast of Korea, to an enclave they called Mimana, and that the Korean kingdoms of Paekche (Baekche) and Silla were soon paying the Yamato tribute. Koreans scholars do not accept this claim. [READER COMMENT]
Also in the 300s, it is claimed, more Koreans were moving to Japan: weavers, smiths, irrigation experts, and teachers of Chinese writing and Chinese arts. And the Koreans brought with them to Japan more ideas on Chinese law, medicine, science and social and political organization.
In the 400s, Japan built more complex irrigation systems, and Yamato emperors raised various families to a position of responsibility over specific matters, such as the military, supervision of religion, technological projects and over territorial administration. Yamato rule was developing toward a Chinese-style bureaucratic state. And in the mid-500s would come the Buddhism that had recently been adopted by Goguryeo (Koguryo) and Paekche.
The Cambridge History of Japan, Volume I, Ancient Japan, 1993
The Sources of Japanese Tradition, by Ryusaku Tsunoda and William Theodore de Bary, Volume I, 1965
Japan, from Prehistory to Modern Times, by John Whitney Hall, 1991
Blog from Japan
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