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POWER and CLASS IN JAPAN, 500 to 1336 (1 of 7)

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Power and Class in Japan, 500 to 1336

Power to the Nakatomi Family | Japan's Failed Reforms in the 700s | Japan's Emperors become Figureheads: the 800s CE | The Fujiwara Era, 858 to 1160 – wars among Nobles and Their Samurai | Arrival of the Kamakura Shogunate, 1156-1185 | Rule of Law and Class Privileges in Kamakura Japan | Mongol Invasions and the End of Kamakura Rule in 1333

Medieval Japan and Korea

Medieval Japan and Korea


Power to the Nakatomi Family

Buddhism may have arrived in Japan earlier, but it's said to have arrived around the mid-500s, when the Korean king of Paekche (Baekche) was fighting neighboring Silla and he wished to ally himself with Japan. He presented Japan's emperor with an image of the Buddha and some sacred Buddhist writings and described Buddhism as the religion of the civilized world. The head of an aristocratic clan in Japan called the Mononobe, who led the emperor's military, opposed joining Paekche against Silla. So too did the clan whose leader was in charge of religious rituals at court: the Nakatomi. Both were opposed to the importation of Buddhism, believing that Buddhism would be an affront to the traditional gods of the emperor. The leader of the Nakatomi believed that Buddhists claimed that Buddha had powers superior to all other deities and that Buddhism therefore contradicted his authority.

Japan's emperor sent no troops to Korea, and in 562 Japan was forced from its possession in Korea that it called Mimana. The emperor had his doubts about the wisdom of adopting Buddhism, but he allowed the leader of another clan, the Soga, to worship the Buddha privately as a trial. The Soga had been gaining influence, including marrying their daughters into the ruling Yamato family. The Soga clan leader believed the king of Paekche's claim that Buddhism was the religion of the most civilized, and he believed that Japan should have it.

READER COMMENT: My father told me that the Japanese expression, kudaranai, means "not Kudara" (meaning no good, worthless, not made in Baekche) originated from that period. [Baekche is the Korean kingdom also spelled Paekche] Many Korean craftsmen migrated (willingly or unwillingly) to Japan during the period and affected Japanese culture.

Emishi and Shotoku

Two indigenous Emishi paying homage to Prince Shotoku (From Wikipedia. A sketch made in 1069)

Following the arrival of a Buddhist statue, disease spread among the Japanese, and the Mononobe and Nakatomi spread hostility against Buddhism, claiming that the epidemic was a sign of the anger of the Shinto gods. The Soga's temple at the palace was burned down. But this was followed by the epidemic becoming worse, which was taken as a sign of the anger and power of the Buddha.

The Soga were allowed to maintain their adherence to Buddhism, and a few Buddhist monks arrived from Korea, adding to a small Buddhist community at the capital. The new emperor, Yomei, who had taken power during the conflict and pestilence, was impressed by Buddhism and accepted it, but he died in 587 after only a year on the throne. That year, the Soga clan fought a civil war against the Mononobe and Nakatomi over who should succeed Yomei. The Soga won, and the head of the Soga family, Umako, made his nephew, Sujun, emperor.

Eventually, Sujun wanted to be rid of his benefactor, Umako, but Umako struck first and, in 592, he had Sujun murdered. Then he placed his thirty-nine year-old daughter, Suiko, on the throne and made her twenty-nine year-old nephew, Shotoku, her regent. Shotoku became Crown Prince. He converted Suiko to Buddhism. Buddhist monks acquired high positions in government. Buddhism became the state religion, and its powers were called upon to protect the Japanese nation. Impressed with things Chinese, Shotoku imported Confucianist learning. More Buddhist monasteries were built – while Buddhism was followed by only a small number of aristocrats around the capital.

Shinto continued to be a part of official state functions, and the Nakatomi family leader continued to serve as the Shinto high priest. The cultural diffusion common in the world occurred in Japan as Buddhist doctrine and Shinto began influencing each other. The Buddha, represented by the statue at Nara, became identified with the Sun Goddess of Shinto worship, and Buddhist ceremonies were woven into traditional court ritual.

The Soga family's power was, however, about to end. Their arrogance and posturing had failed to win hearts and minds, and the Shinto-oriented Nakatomi family led a rebellion against them, and they resorted to that which was available in making political changes: In 645, the Nakatomi drew their swords and shed the blood of Soga, while frightened Soga guards abandoned their post. The leader of the Nakatomi, Kamatari, took power and demanded an oath of loyalty from other officials, and outside of the palace the Nakatomi eliminated those whom they found opposing their rule.

Having now become the most influential family, the Nakatomi began selecting who among the royal Yamato family would be emperor – still adhering to their belief that the Yamato family was directly descended from the original king, Jimmu and Jimmu's ancestor, the Sun Goddess. The Nakatomi family continued to run daily court ceremonies. They served as the power behind the throne and occasionally as regent. They ran government ministries and married their daughters into the Yamato family.


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