The brief history of Japan: From the beginnings to the Edo period
A complete journey trough the human spirit
Japan has a special place in my heart, this is the country I admire the most from all I`ve ever visited. Nothing compares to it, always leaves me speechless or just simply don’t get it, but this is why I love it so much. My impression is that people in Japan are strongly ambivalent, sometimes they seem to think polarized: interestingly enough they are very liberal – or may I say – don’t give a damn about things that other people kill for (like religion), and take other areas of life extremely serious (let’s think about their relationship with food or the strict tea ceremony). They travel through the whole dimension of human spirit, or if I want to play the psychoanalyst I`ll say that they are constantly kept dragging by the superego and the id. On one hand they live in a highly regularized society, they are less tolerable towards expressing human needs freely, on the other hand they tend to be brutal and instinct driven when they serve a still alive fish for sashimi.
Of course admiring a country as a visitor from a comfortable distance is not a big deal, living their everyday life it’s a totally different story. There are lots of articles and news about Japanese perfectionism, fatigue and burn out, the karosi, when someone commits suicide in order to escape from the hamster wheel or simply his or her body cannot stand the load anymore. For us, at least where I am coming from, it doesn’t make any sense, we consider it simply deviant – but this kind of attitude and approach led to the Japanese economic miracle. All these are happening behind the scenes. And this miracle, and not just in terms of economy, but also in terms of this weird ambiguity, what impressed me so much every time I visited Japan. And I must admit it keeps on attracting me.
This is why I would like to process my experiences from Japan more thoroughly, embedding them into the historical and social context. I am planning to start dynamic series on Japan`s brief history, culture and society, touching on the main sights of a particular historical period and what we shall focus on and visit if we want to understand Japan. I call it dynamic series as I barley scratch the surface of this amazing place and hopefully I will be able to return many times to the country – wait for it – of the rising sun!
Tribes and trade
So let’s start from the begging. Where did the Japanese exactly come from? A well-regarded theory is that present-day Japanese are descendants of both the indigenous Jomon people and the immigrant Yayoi people, who arrived to Japan from East -, North and even from Southeast – Asia. The earliest archeological evidences of existing culture derive from the Paleolithic, circa 50.000 years ago BC. Early Japanese people used to live in tribal families by the 3rd centuy BC. That was the turning point when the class society started to develop and inhabitants started to trade with China and Korea. These countries also served as models for the foundation of future Japanese state and the source of buddhism.
Heydays of Buddhist art – the Nara period
In the 3rd century AD the most influential tribe, the Jamato family started to consolidate its power and having followed a Chinese model they laid down the foundation of Japan in Nara between 300 and 400 AD. The present imperial family considers itself as straight descendant of the leader of the Yamatos, Jimmu, who was by the way the great grandson of Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun. At least they say so.
In the following decades they led a couple of campaigns against the Korean peninsula. Returning home they implemented plenty of practical professions learned from the Koreans like weaving, shipbuilding and metal processing. Today it seems to be a common popular conception that Korea is a copycat of Japan, which is of course quite an ignorant opinion. This example proves however that there was a time when it was the other way around.
This was also the time when Buddhism appeared in Japan and after the empire consolidated its power, in the 8th century, it also became the official religion of Japan for a short period. The lavish Buddhist temples of Nara prove why this century is called the heyday of Buddhist arts. I had the chance to visit Nara park during the time of sakura, the cherry blossom festival, and indeed it was a mesmerizing experience – let me share the itinerary later as part of the series.
But first back to the story: so the Buddhism, actually a particular Buddhist monk became so influential that he meant real threat to the imperial power. This resulted into a serious decision from Emperor Kammu`s end who relocated the capital from Nara to Yamariso in the 8th century, where he established a new seat called Hejankjo, the eventual Kyoto, which is why this era is known as Heian-period. Although Kyoto remained the official capital and the home of emperors by 1868, it lost its real importance quite soon, as the most powerful shoguns (the warlords) placed their seats near Tokyo.
Rising of the samurai – the Heian period
The Heian period brought relative stability and peace to the hectic atmosphere. In line with this arts and artists got much more appreciated by noble class. On the other hand peasants were suffering from high taxes and gangs of bandits who kept on attacking villages and robbing the harvest as well as their animals. In order to ease their situation they started to seek protection of influential daimos (feudal lords) and as a result a feudal system had been settled over the years. The daimos were also in steady conflicts with each other and even with the emperor, who was kept at bay by the daimos` private armies. The members of these armies were hired from the military noble class, the samurai. Eventually two samurai family started to rise up from the continuous fight for power, the Minamoto clan on the North and the Taira clan on the West. After a 10 year long bloody civil war in 1185 eventually the Minamotos grabbed power. The head of the family, Yorimoto placed his seat near the future Tokyo, in Kamakura, which is why this era is called the Kamakura-period and lasted by 1333.
Bushido and Zen Buddhism – the Kamakura period
In the Kamakura era arts were less appreciated, they were seen as a sign of decadence. The period`s respected philosophy was the bushido instead, the samurai`s strict and military approach to life. Due to the well established trade relation with China Zen Buddhism also started to spread across the country. This particular wing of Buddhism believes that only meditation and introspection is the true and only way to enlightenment, the sacred texts and rituals were considered useless. One of the most memorable event of these centuries is the legendary defeat of the mongol troops led by Kublai Khan thanks to the kamikaze, the „divine wind” which was actually an enormous typhoon near the Japanese shores.
Guns, gods and arts – the Muromachi period
In 1338 the Asigaka clan grabbed power and moving their headquarters back near Kyoto they established a new shogunate in the Muromachi district of the city. Over the 200 years of their reign the Asigakas kept on spending extravagantly, yet were infamous for being strict and cruel. This was escalated into another civil war in which the local daimos not only fought each other but also the emperor himself. To make things worse peasants also rose up against the unbearable burdens and suppression which all in all managed to weaken the feudal system and opened the way to strengthen the foreign trade relations. Not only China became a significant trade partner again, but this was the time when Japan welcomed the first European sailors, namely the Portuguese and Spaniards. They were the one who sold the first guns and – as it usually happened in the history – their Jesuit missionaries were also eager to introduce Christianity.
Over the centuries of Muromachi era the strict bushido philosophy finally got expressed in different forms of arts: this was the time when tea ceremony and Noh theater also appeared. The pure, simple and moderate forms that characterize Japanese art till date also started to evolve in this period. The most important art work from these centuries is the Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto, which introduction I`d like to dedicate more time to in the series.
Attempt for consolidation – Azuchi-Momoyama period
The following period, the Azuchi-Momoyama era also got its name from the headquarters of the two most powerful shoguns. In 1573 Oda Nobugana defeated the warlords of Kyoto and attempted to consolidate the country that was still suffering from seemingly endless civil war. After his death General Toyotomi Hidejoshi took care of his legacy and continued his work on consolidation. As a first command he banned the missionaries out of the country as Christianity was spreading rapidly and he concerned that people will attribute more power to the one God than to their daimos or even to the shogun himself.
After the Portuguese the first Dutch and British traders also landed by the shores of Japan. Due to the fast paced economic development Japan became such confident in its own power by the end of the 16th century that it made a bold step by leading an eventually unsuccessful campaign against Korea. In 1600 Tokugawa Ieyasu ended the reign of the Toyotomis. Ieyasu is still considered one of the most important shoguns who built the foundation of the Edo period, Japan`s feudal absolutist era, that brought relative peace and stability for the next 265 years.