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The Ancient Japanese

Yayoi-Japanese | Myths among the ancient Japanese | Rise of the Yamato family

The Yayoi-Japanese

Before the 200s BCE, Japan was sparsely populated with people who were still using stone tools and living by hunting, fishing and gathering food that grew wild. Then, in the 200s, on Japan’s major southern island, Kyushu, people with iron and bronze tool making and wet-rice agriculture appeared. The new culture – today called Yayoi-Japanese – is believed to have come from Korea, across 200 miles of sea where such ways of living already existed.

The 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.

Japanese jar from 1st to 3rd centuries

Japanese jar from 1st to 3rd centuries

With a greater supply of food, the Yayoi-Japanese rapidly grew in number.  They were perhaps healthier than other peoples in Japan, and they continued to spread and to displace native peoples. By the end of the first century they had pushed into northeastern Honshu. They pushed against and absorbed those called Ainu – a people with blue eyes and lighter skins, and with more hair than most Asians.

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 like other agricultural people.

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. Politics common to other agricultural people had developed among the Japanese. 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, members of Japanese 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 the descendants of a sun goddess.


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