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Terms to know:
Yayoi people
Yamato culture
horserider theory
Sun Line
Prince Shotoku
Taika Reform

What we know about Japanese culture before written historic documents is, like all cultures at this stage, pretty limited. We know that as early as 10,500 BC, there were people living on the islands that we now call Japan. These people were of various ethnic types, probably including ocean voyagers from the south seas (by way of Taiwan and the Ryukyus), and migrants from the Asian mainland.

We can break these two groups down a bit more, and show that the culture of the people who lived in the area of Kyushu (the southernmost of the main islands of Japan) primarily displayed cultural styles of southern seas peoples, including huts built on stilts, and heavy dependence on seafood. The migrant cultures from the mainland displayed some variant cultural habits and ethnic differences. One group appears to have been ethnically related to Koreans and to steppe nomad groups present on the mainland of Asia around the same time, the other more caucasian in appearance. This period is known as the incipient Jomon period and lasted from 10,500 BC or so to about 8,000 BC. The majority of archaeological finds on this culture come from the Kanto plain, in the area around what is now Tokyo. The Jomon people were pretty uniform in their use of pottery decorated with rope patterns (from which the Japanese name for the culture - Jomon - comes) and shaped in a kind of inverted bullet shape. The fact that they made pottery at all is important, since most human groups seem to have developed pottery as a storage and carrying system after developing agriculture. The Jomon developed pottery well before they began any kind of organized farming, and perhaps even before settling down into permanent villages. Certainly they developed pottery before any human group had developed agriculture, making them perhaps the first pottery-makers in the world. This also demonstrates that there in no necessary causal link between the development of an agricultural society and the creation of pottery, which had long been an assumption of archaeologists.

After 2500 BC the Jomon culure began to develop a simple agriculture, and created sedentary villages of a rather large size. These villages consist of houses made in pits, with thatch roofs and dirt floors. This culture has been able to provide quite a lot of information about itself from the midden piles (garbage heaps) that village inhabitants left behind, as well as from broken tools, pots, and other possessions that can be found at various levels in the pit floors of their dwellings.

By 300 BC, migrations of people from the North China Plain began to arrive in Japan in substantial numbers. These people, who are known today as the Yayoi people, brought with them more sophisticated agricultural techniques than the Jomon culture had, as well as specialists in metalworking, pottery, and other important skills of the pre-industrial world. Their arrival in Japan appears to have driven out or absorbed the Jomon people, so that by 300 BC, it is fair to say that the Yayoi culture is the dominant one in the main islands of Japan, and the culture and language that came to exist within that culture after 300 BC is the culture and language that provided the basis for historical Japanese society.

The Yayoi culture had within it the beginnings of a very carefully organized socio-political system. Although by the first three centuries of the Common Era (1-300 AD) there was as yet no identifiable 'government' or state, the society itself became rather rigidly hierarchical. Regional landholding elite clans, known as uji exercised power and patronized associated clans who provided certain services for them. These service clans were known as be (pronounced "bay"). The uji-be relationship was complex, and be appear to have served in various capacities, including that of military or political advisor, metal-smith, tool-maker, cloth-maker, etc... In all, the uji-be system provided for numerous more or less independent political and economic units in competition with each other for resources.

The clan heads were given lavish burial services, often in mounds shaped like key-holes, surrounded by a ditch or moat. Many of these survive today, and in the excavation of them, we can gain some important information. Sometime around 600 AD, the Yayoi culture seems to change. The grave implements before that time consist of valuable objects prized by the chieftain or clan head buried, and frequently those included not only jewels and ceremonial cups, etc, but also agricultural tools, and small figures of humans called haniwa. These haniwa were placed in the mounds in place of human servants, and they depict the followers and clan members of the deceased in costumes and doing things that they would wear and do in everyday life. Most of them before 600 are in the garb of agriculturalists, weavers, servants, etc... After 600, we begin to see the appearance of haniwa on horseback, carrying swords, and wearing armor. Burial implements include, after 600, weapons, and horse-riding tack. It is clear that a major cultural change occurred sometime in this period - a change to the "Yamato" culture - and that such change was sudden. Gary Ledyard, working on evidence identified by earlier historians has discussed evidence that horse-riding "barbarians" from across the Japan sea, in the area of Korea and Manchuria, may have arrived in the Japanese peninsula around this time with horses, cavalry tactics, and better weapons and technology than the earlier Yayoi people - who were also mainland transplants. This is known as the horserider theory, and its impact is far reaching. Some proponents of this theory even go so far as to suggest that all or most of the uji clans were replaced by warrior clans in this period, and the emperor of Japan, who is supposed to have been a member of an unbroken line of rulers from well before this time, is probably actually a member of the clan which replaced the original sun line. In fact, the current Heisei Emeperor (Emperor Akihito) announced in 2003 that he believed his family had a Korean lineage. This has caused great controversy in Japan, and continues to be an important issue for archaeologists, and those with a political agenda, to argue about.

In any case, with the arrival of the horseriders, or the development of Yamato culture, the current imperial family of Japan (often called the Sun Line) found numerous ways to assert its superiority to other uji even in regions far removed from its center of power in the area we now know as the Kinki - around Osaka, Nara, and Kyoto. As assertion of power, and probably some military maneuvering, brought this clan into a more and more secure situation, the emperors and their advisors began also to organize Japanese society. This was very difficult for a number of reasons. First of all, the uji-be system had created a set of relatively autonomous, locally powerful houses who did not easily submit to authority, nor did they see themselves as a part of any kind of unified political system. Convincing them that they were occupied much of the Sun Line's energies. Beyond that, Japan in this period had no towns, or even what we might call villages. The only settlements consisted of just groups of residences around land owned and controlled by the local clan - kind of a compound. Because of the fact that the Sun Line was also really just an uji, or clan, itself, this was its situation, too. Also, because of the religious belief that death polluted the place where it occurred, the Sun Line was forced to move its compound/capitol each time an emperor died, meaning that not only were there no cities or towns, but no permanent capitol, either. This caused difficulty in organizing and ruling society.

Prior to the creation of the first permanent capitol city of Japan, in Heijo-kyo (what is now called Nara) in 710, the imperial court went through several stages in its process of organization and creation of legitimacy. One of the first to assist in this process was Prince Shotoku (574-622) who is given credit for four major contributions. First, in 607, he sent a mission of Japanese to Sui Dynasty China. There, they learned about Chinese law, philosophy, and state organization. After a number of years, they brought back what they had learned.

Second, Prince Shotoku was a great supporter of Buddhism. There is no clear point at which we can say for certain that Japanese first became aware of, or began to practice, Buddhism. However, a gift of a Buddhist Sutra from one of the three Korean Kings of the time apparently set the stage for imperial adoption of the religion as one of its pillars of legitimacy. Prince Shotoku promoted this, building temples all over Japan with the money collected by the imperial house for the project. Prince Shotoku may have been a devout Buddhist, but he clearly also hoped that the use of Buddhism would give the imperial clan something that the other uji did not have - something more than the traditional "shinto" relations to gods of nature. Buddhism, with its universal appeal, strong universal theologies, and foreign (Indian and Chinese) origin seemed to be able to lend weight to the imperial claims to be leaders of Japan both in religious terms, and in their claim to be accepted by other rulers from outside of Japan. Prince Shotoku clearly hoped that Buddhism would bolster the imperial line's power.

Third, Prince Shotoku is given credit for creating the so-called Constitution of 17 Articles (though, in fact, historians now believe that while he may have approved it, he did not in fact write it). This "constitution" was nothing like the modern style constitution we think of when we think of the American Revolution, for example. Instead, it was a series of articles not at all concerned with the common people of Japan, but deeply concerned with the way in which the ruling elite related to each other, and with the prevention of corruption, etc...

Finally, Prince Shotoku is given credit for the institution of the system of hat ranks, by which every person attending the emperor at court wore a hat specific to the office he held. These hats then were symbols of rank, and granted specific authority and responsibilities. This system further delineated the hierarchy of power relations at court, creating a system by which the emperor could claim to rule an organized government in which specific responsibilities were delegated by the emperor to those below him. If one wanted to attend court and play in the power politics of the day, one had to have a hat rank, and thus implicitly accept both the superiority of the emperor and the imperial family (during Prince Shotoku's life, the emperor was actually a woman - Empress Suiko - and could be either male or female), and their right to place him above or below other clan leaders in society.

In 646, very soon after the death of Prince Shotoku, and immediately following a narrow scrape in which the imperial clan defeated what may have been an attempt by the Soga clan to usurp the throne, Emperor Kotoku, along with his advisor Nakatomi no Kamatari, and Crown Prince Naka no Oe, created a set of legal reforms known collectively as the Taika Reform. Based to some degree on what scholars had brought back from their study of Sui Dynasty China, the Taika Reform was primarily a land reform. Japan (as it was - really only including what is now known as the Chugoku and Kinki regions - the area roughly from the southern edge of the island of Honshu to just north of Osaka) was divided into roughly equal plots of land, all of which were declared to belong solely to the emperor. The land was then distributed to people based on their status, with most peasants receiving roughly equal shares, in the manner of a Chinese land distribution scheme. The emperor thus derived income from the rents paid on this land (taxes), and those who worked the land recieved income from their produce. This standardization of land tenure and practice enabled a budget to be created, centralized taxation, and the creation of a bureaucracy, again on the Chinese model. The Taika Reform also standardized service in the army, and created a uniform body of law on which Japan was to be governed.

In 710, the process of centralization took another step in the creation of the new permanent capitol city at Heijo-kyo (today's Nara city). While there were at least two previous capitol cities (Asuka-kyo, Fujiwara-kyo) in Japanese history by this time, neither had lasted long, and neither were so much a part of the plan to centralize the state than was Heijo-kyo. This was not only the first really permanent capitol (remaining capitol city from 710-784), but was, like the Taika Reform, designed at least partially on the Chinese model - in this case, the T'ang Capitol, Chang'An. Although one key difference was that Nara never had walls, and Chang'An had immense walls, the layout of the city, from the direction in which streets were pointing to the grid-pattern divided into four distinct districts, was very close to its T'ang Empire model. This had the effect of geographically emphasizing the centralization of power, and dramatizing the emperor's position, in a sort of cap to the Taika Reform program.

Nara's key problem, however, was the power of Buddhist temples, who had gained their legitimacy as aids to imperial legitimacy in the time of Prince Shotoku, but which had become far too powerful in politics by the Nara period. Buddhist temples' ability to influence politics and the possibility of another usurper, this time a Buddhist monk, of the imperial throne led the emperors to conclude that a new capitol city had to be built, within which no Buddhist temples were to be allowed. By 794, the completion and population of Heian-kyo, now known as Kyoto, was complete, and Heian became the capitol, beginning the so-called "Heian Period" in which this city would serve as Japan's political center for a millenium.

The new capitol at Heian-kyo was also modelled on Chang'an, but the resemblance really ended there. though an imperial university was founded in Heian-kyo, for example, in order, like the Chinese, to produce scholars who could pass confucian examinations and become able administrators, in fact, no one who was not of noble court rank was able to enter the university, and if one was of noble court rank, one had a job at court whether the exams had been passed or not. In other words, unlike the developing Chinese meritocracy based on the Confucian Examination System, in Japan power was based on connections, family lineage, and proximity to the emperor himself. For this same reason, even though Heian-kyo was planned and built in a grid pattern with straight criss-crossing streets in a rectangular shape, the pattern of settlement was uneven, with the majority of people settling in the north-east, near the imperial palace and the Kamo River, and almost no one settling in the southwestern corner of the city's grid. My point here is that Japan, and Japanese culture, was in fact very different from that of China, and the lack of fit between the design of Heian-kyo and its settlement pattern is one obvious physical way to see that difference. Of course, there were other differences as well.

Japanese had borrowed China's writing system before the Nara Period (even before Prince Shotoku, who as far as we know was able to read and write). The problem with this was that the Japanese and Chinese languages were actually very different from each other, both in terms of thought and grammatical patterns. So Chinese did not easily work for the writing of Japanese. There were many techniques used for approsimating Japanese meaning. Among these, one solution was to do all reading and writing in Chinese, even though one probably only spoke Japanese. This was extremely difficult to master, and only a few did. Another solution was to use Chinese characters, but only for their sounds, divorcing the pictograph from its visual meaning. This was, as may be expected, also extremely difficult, especially since there are often a myriad of Chinese characters which are pronounced in the same way, meaning that a Japanese word might be written in any one of several different ways, even in consecutive sentences. Still another was to write in Chinese characters, giving them Japanese pronunciations and Chinese pronunciations, but to also use their pictographic meaning to represent the meaning in Japanese. Since numerous words and concepts existed in each language that were untranslatable into the other, this was also extremely difficult to use. A final, and late, solution, was the development of kana systems of syllables. These syllabaries function somewhat like an alphabet, although each "letter" represents a full syllable sound, rather than just a part of one. Creating these phoenetic syllabaries vastly simplified writing (the two syllabaries created were katakana and hiragana. Both were based on Chinese characters which shared the same sound as the kana symbol, but the Chinese characters were highly simplified to make the kana.

During the Heian Period, writing and literacy would become increasingly common among the upper class (women, for one, became increasingly literate, as did lower-level court officials), and poetic conventions for standard forms such as the waka and nagauta came to be recognized and refined. A source of great entertainment, but also serious enough to use in letters, formal speech, and conversations with friends and lovers, these poems became a very subtle and symbolic communication system, and have constituted one of the major strains of Japanese literature and scholarship ever since.

By the tenth century (900's) the pattern of rule became quite settled in Heian-kyo. Because most emperors married in a matrilocal pattern (that is to say, the marriage takes place between a man and a woman, but the couple's residence is with the wife's family, and the child is raised in the wife's home) in which the emperor, who had to be at the palace, was usually largely absent from the lives of his empress and children, who were raised by their maternal grandparents. This meant that children were often as loyal to their grandparents' family as they were to their father. Several large and important families came to understand this, and to try to manipulate this reality to obtain increased power for themselves without ever trying to usurp the throne. One such family, whose success rate was high, were the Fujiwara, actually probably descended from Nakatomi no Kamatari, whose loyalty to Kotoku in a very tight situation had prompted the new emperor to bestow upon him the clan name of Fujiwara.

In any case, powerful court families like the Fujiwara (but not only them) tried to marry their daughters to the emperor, and if the progeny of such a union were in line for the throne, to train the young child to be loyal to the mother's clan. In the case of the Fujiwara, who were most successful with this strategy, after raising one emperor, it became possible to have the boy crowned when he was very young. Since the youth had not yet reached his majority, the Fujiwara grandfather became his regent, ruling in his place until the real emperor could rule. Once the boy turned adult, however, if there were an heir available, he would abdicated his throne in favor of the crown prince, who also turned out to be a child of the emperor and a Fujiwara daughter. In this way, Fujiwara could maintain their positions as regents (virtual emperors) without usurping power in a legal sense at all.

By the mid-tenth century, changes were under foot that would eventually lead this system to collapse.

First, the cost of maintaining an army in an island nation where the majority of threats to imperial power had been subdued, and for which other natural enemies did not exist or could not easily access the coastlines meant that Japanese emperors and their regents gradually began to move resources away from the 'public' army, and toward other needs and luxuries. When soldiers were needed, if imperial forces were inadquate, the imperial government turned more and more frequently to mercenaries, whose work was effective, and could be paid for on an as-needed basis.

This move from public to private power, as historian Karl Friday has called it, was accompanied, perhaps even foreshadowed, by another trend or set of trends that made the dissolution of imperial power more likely, and led indirectly to the rise of the samurai (though they would not be called that until centuries later). That trend was the growth of the shoen - private estates held primarily by court-rank clans.

Shoen were one piece in a long tradition of imperial rewards for loyal service. After the Taika Reform, when land had been redistributed, noble families often got larger-than-usual pieces of property consisting of more than one tract. However, as the power system worked through proximity to the emperor, and as the emperor desired to reward his most loyal courtiers for their service, it was not uncommon for the emperor, through his bureaucracy, to grant tax-free status to the noble users of these large estates. As more nobles, through connections, were able to gain tax-free status, more taxes had to be levied on those who did not have such status, and who mostly had smaller plots of land (and, of course, the move from public to private warrior power was also a part of a number of cost-cutting measures taken in order to deal with decreased tax revenues). This meant that, with the level of taxes they paid, it often made more financial sense for commoners to commend (read "give") their land to nobles, who could get tax free status on it, and would charge rents much lower than the taxes paid to the imperial government, and who, in exchange, wanted the farmer to remain on the land and work it. As more commoners commended their land, and more nobles received tax free status, the shoen system began to create a massive financial squeeze on the imperial family. At the same time, noble houses with shoen all over Japan would find themselve in competition with each other. With clan leaders unable to leave the capitol for fear of losing their position at court, and noble managers unable to visit all of the shoen a family might have, it became common to hire local farmers or headmen to manage the shoen, and often those local headmen saw a need to defend the land from others who might want to take it.

Those local managers were often themselves descendents of nobles in Heian-kyo who, being disinherited because they were too far down the family line, moved to the country and took on such service to make ends meet. Some of these clans, including the Heike (Taira) and Genji (Minamoto) clans, were actually branches of the imperial family who could no longer stand in line for the throne. These local managers and toughs, then, took on guard duties, and also became mercenaries, working for the imperial government, or for other noble families who could pay them for their services. They were mostly illiterate, unsophisticated country toughs - swords for hire.

So, we have a number of historical lines coming together at this point. The development of the shoen system, and its consequences for imperial finance and defence; the growth of rural warriors for hire, and the system of retired emperors and virtual Fujiwara control of the imperial institution.

In 1155, the Fujiwara had no emperor to step in, and retired Emperor Go-Shirakawa returned to the throne with the intention to rule as an adult with no regent. This set off the Hogen Disturbance - violence in the streets of Kyoto as factions set about supporting Go-Shirakawa or the Fujiwara-sponsored claimant to the throne. Country toughs the Genji and Taira clans came into the city and settled things down. The reality here is, though, that the paradigm had shifted. Rather than marriage a proximity politics being the sole sources of power in Japan, now the power to do violence, held almost exclusively by these private warrior clans, had the strength to make or break an emperor. Go-Shirakawa and his heir recognized this, and attempted to play the Genji and Heike against each other. In 1179 a war between these two clans led to the Genji (Minamoto) being vanquished. All adult men were killed, but two young boys survived - Yoritomo, and his younger brother Yoshitsune. Both were sent into exile far from the capitol in Heian, and the new head of the Heike clan, Taira no Kiyomori, ruled Japan as regent to the emperor, and controlled Heian-kyo (Kyoto) with his army of samurai.

In 1185, Yoritomo, with the help of his brilliant military commander brother Yoshitsuen, was able to unify most of Eastern Japan from his base around Kamakura, where he had been exiled, and using his Eastern Japan (Kanto region) allies defeated the Heike (Taira). After this event, Yoritomo created an uneasy agreement with the emperor, and went back to Kamakura to create his government - what was called at the time the bakufu, meaning "tent government" - probably a reference to military men. In any case, from 1189 until his death, Yoritomo shared governance powere with the imperial court in Kyoto, and provided all of the emperor's military support. This is the beginning of what we might call "feudal Japan."