Ancient Japan

The Yamato State

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The Yamato . . .
peninsula, on the southwesternmost portion of the island of Honshu, has historically been the region through which cultural influence from the mainland has passed into Japan. Beginning in 300 A.D., a new culture distinguished itself from Yayoi culture in the area around Nara and Osaka in the south of Honshu. This culture built giant tomb mounds, called kofun , many of which still exist; these tomb mounds were patterned after a similar practice in Korea. It is from these tomb mounds that these people derive their name: the Kofun. For two hundred years, these tombs were filled with objects that normally filled Yayoi tombs, such as mirrors and jewels. But beginning in 500 A.D., these tombs were filled with armor and weapons. So we know that around this time, a new wave of cultural influence had passed over from Korea into Japan.


Japan Atlas
Yamato Japan
   The earliest Japanese state we know of was ruled over by Yamato "great kings"; the Yamato state, which the Japanese chronicles date to 500 A.D., that is, the time when a new wave of Korean cultural influence passed through southern Japan, was really a loose hegemony. Yamato is the plain around Osaka; it is the richest agricultural region in Japan. The Yamato kings located their capital at Naniwa (modern day Osaka) and enjoyed a hegemony over the surrounding aristocracies that made them powerful and wealthy. They built for themselves magnificent tomb-mounds; like all monumental architecture, these tombs represented the wealth and power of the Yamato king. The keyhole-shaped tomb-mound of Nintoku is longer than five football fields and has twice the volume of the Great Pyramid of Cheops.


   According to the Japanese chronicles, the court of the Yamato kings was based on Korean models for the titles given to the court and regional aristocrats were drawn from Korean titles. As in Yayoi Japan, the basic social unit was the uji ; what had been added was an aristocracy based on military readiness. This military aristocracy would remain the single most powerful group in Japanese history until the Meiji restoration in 1868. The various aristocratic families did not live peacefully together; the Yamato court witnessed constant struggles among the aristocratic families for power.

   During this period, Japan had a presence on the Korean peninsula itself. Korea was in its most dynamic cultural and political period; the peninsula itself was divided into three great kingdoms: Koguryo in the north, Paekche in the east, and Silla in the west. Paekche understood the strategic importance of Japan and so entered into alliance with the Yamato state. This connection between the Yamato court and Paekche is culturally one of the most important events of early Japanese history. For the Paekche court sent to Japan Korean craftspeople: potters, metal workers, artists, and so on. But they also imported Chinese culture. In the fifth or sixth century, the Koreans imported Chinese writing in order to record Japanese names. In 513, the Paekche court sent a Confucian scholar to the Yamato court. In 552, the Paekche sent an image of Buddha, some Buddhist scriptures, and a Buddhist representative. These three imports—writing, Confucianism, and Buddhism—would transform Japanese culture as profoundly as the Yayoi immigrations had done.

Prince Shotoku
   The most important period in early Japan occurs during the reign of Empress Suiko, who ruled from 592 to 628 A.D.. In the latter years of the 500's, the alliance between Paekche and the Yamato state broke down; this eventually led to the loss of Japanese holdings on the Korean peninsula. Waves of Koreans migrated to Japan, and, to make matters worse, the powerful military aristocracies of the Yamato state began to resist the Yamato hegemony.


Japan Reader
Prince Shotoku

The Seventeen Article Constitution of Prince Shotoku
   The Yamato court responded to these problems by adopting a Chinese-style government. In the early years of the seventh century, they sent envoys to China in order to study Chinese government, society, and philosophy. At home, they reorganized the court along the Chinese model, sponsored Buddhism, and adopted the Chinese calendar. All of these changes were adminstered by Prince Shotoku (in Japanese, Shotoku Taishi, 573-621) who was the regent of the Yamato court during the reign of Empress Suiko. His most important contribution, however, was the writing and adoption of a Chinese-style constitution in 604 A.D.. The Seventeen Article Constitution (in Japanese, Kenpo Jushichijo) was the earliest piece of Japanese writing and formed the overall philosophic basis of Japanese government through much of Japanese history. This constitution is firmly based on Confucian principles (although it has a number of Buddhist elements). It states the Confucian belief that the universe is composed of three realms, Heaven, Man, and Earth, and that the Emperor is placed in authority by the will of Heaven in order to guarantee the welfare of his subjects. The "great king" of earlier Japanese history would be replaced by the Tenno, or "Heavenly Emperor." The Seventeen Article Constitution stressed the Confucian virtues of harmony, regularity, and the importance of the moral development of government officials.

   Shotoku, however, was also a devout Buddhist. The second article of the constitution specifically enjoins the ruler to value the Three Treasures of Buddhism. The overall Constitution, however, is overwhelmingly Confucian.

The Taika Reform
   The constitution was followed by a coup against the ruling Soga clan, from which Shotoku was derived. The new emperor, Kotoku Tenno (645-655), began an energetic reform movement that culminated in the Taika Reform Edicts in 645 A.D.. These edicts were written and sponsored by Confucian scholars in the Yamato court and essentially founded the Japanese imperial system. The ruler was no longer a clan leader, but Emperor that ruled by the Decree of Heaven and exercised absolute authority. Japan would no longer be a set of separate states, but provinces of the Emperor to be ruled by a centralized bureaucracy. The Reform Edicts demanded that all government officials undergo stringent reform and demonstrate some level of moral and bureaucratic competency. Japan, however, was still largely a Neolithic culture; it would take centuries for the ideal of the Chinese style emperor to take root.
Japan Reader
Taika Reform Edicts

Richard Hooker



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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 8-22-97