Early Japan (50,000 BC – 710 AD)

Early Japan (50,000 BC – 710 AD)

Editor's Note: This article was originally written for Japan Society's previous site for educator's, Journey through Japan," in 2003. Some of this material has been adapted from the author’s previous work in Martin Collcutt, Marius Jansen and Isao Kumakura, The Cultural Atlas of Japan, Facts on File, New York, 1988.

Early Japanese history is traditionally divided into five major eras: the Paleolithic (c. 50,000 BC – c. 12,000BC), Jomon (c.11,000 BC to 300 BC), Yayoi (9,000 BC – 250 AD), Kofun (300 AD – 552 AD) and Yamato Periods (552-710 AD). While the dating of these periods is complex (see accompanying chart) and the cultures in any case tended to overlap, it is clear that early Japan underwent profound changes in each of these important periods.

1. The Paleolithic Period (c. 50,000 BC – c. 12,000 BC)

The first human beings to inhabit the islands we know as Japan appear to have been stone-age hunters from northeast Asia. Traveling in small groups and using stone-tipped weapons, they followed herds of wild animals including mammoths, elephants and deer across land bridges to Japan that had formed when the seas receded during the ice ages. While many believe that they came earlier, we know for certain that these hunters arrived in Japan at least as early as 35,000 BC. While the tools prior to that time are so crude that there is some debate over whether they were made by humans, surviving late Paleolithic artifacts include finely made blade tools similar to groups in Siberia and the rest of Eurasia, and axes made from ground stone. Since no pottery has yet been discovered, on the other hand, the Paleolithic Period in Japan is also sometimes referred to as the “pre-ceramic” (sendoki) period. This helps distinguish its inhabitants from those of the following eras.

Research in this period has been complicated by the fact that an amateur archeologist named Fujimura Shin’ichi was caught “salting” various sites with alleged very old Paleolithic artifacts. Fujimura’s crime reflected not only his own desire to become famous, but also a Japanese fascination with the origins of the Japanese people and Japanese society. In Japan, the emphasis is on “the older the better,” especially if Japanese origins in any field predate Chinese or Korean developments. Fujimura’s “discoveries” thus fueled a rapidly developing “early Paleolithic” boom that sold newspapers and books and created a self-satisfied stir among ordinary people. All this helps to explain why neither the media (at first) nor archeological specialists saw through the fraud. In perpetuating his fraud, in other words, Fujimura was catering to the sense of Japanese narcissism and exceptionalism (nihonjin-ron) that is not very far beneath the surface of contemporary Japanese public opinion.

2. The Jomon Period (c. 11,000 BC – c. 300 BC)

About 20,000 years ago, the world’s fourth (and most recent) ice age ended. As the climate warmed, the polar ice caps melted and the sea levels rose. The land bridges that had provided walkways for such Paleolithic inhabitants of Japan as giant woolly mammoths, deer and humans were submerged for the final time. The islands of Honshu and Hokkaido were again separated, and Japan was once more isolated geographically. As Japan became hotter (reaching its peak about 3,000 BC), animals such as the wooly mammoth that had traditionally been hunted died out, but fortunately other plants and animals did better, and new, more sophisticated civilization began to emerge.

This new stage in Japanese history is known as the Jomon (literally “cord pattern”) period because it is characterized by the appearance of earthenware pottery that often decorated with marks and swirling designs impressed by sticks, bamboo, vines or rope. The pots were fired in open pits at fairly low temperatures. Thousands of different pots have been found, but the earliest ones (12,000 BC – 5,000 BC) typically had rounded or pointed bottoms so that they could easily be stuck into the ground or in the ashes of a cooking fire. The pottery of this sort is the earliest pottery yet to be found in the world.
Flat bottomed pots became common by the so-called Early Jomon period (5,500 BC – 2,500 BC), perhaps indicating that they were now used indoors on packed earthen floors rather than looser ashes or dirt. Middle Jomon (3,500 BC – 2,500 BC) and Late Jomon (2,500 BC – 1,500 BC) typically had elaborate designs. By later Jomon, large stone jars were made, perhaps for infant burial and religious offerings, while carved stone and clay figures known as dogu became increasingly elaborate. Many of these look like pregnant females, and hence were undoubtedly meant to pray for fertility and a good harvest. Stone fertility symbols have also been found.

Unlike Neolithic humans in China and other cultural centers, the Paleolithic and Jomon period inhabitants of Japan subsisted primarily by hunting, fishing and gathering rather than settled agriculture. They may have cultivated some millet and herbs, but most likely they simply knew where to find and gather edible plants, and how to help preserve their food with salt. They also lived on nuts, fruit, roots, deer, wild boar and, where available, sea food. Obsidian (a glass-like stone) was a prized material for arrowheads. In the early period, individual hunters prowled for game, but soon bands of hunters were formed. The dog, the only domesticated animal known to the Jomon Japanese, joined in the chase.
The Jomon people typically lived in small villages of six to ten dwellings per village. The standard house was a pit scooped in the earth with a makeshift grass or brush-wood roof held up by five or six posts, and an interior central fireplace with stone slabs. Each dwelling was large enough to accommodate between four and eight persons, and most settlements were at least semi-permanent. Most communities probably tried to be self-sufficient, but there was some local or regional exchange, with, for example, salt from the coastal regions being traded for stone (for tools and arrowheads) from the mountains. In Late Jomon communities (2,500 BC – 1,500 BC) there are house pits considerably larger than their neighbors. These may have been the homes of village chiefs, or places of worship for one or more villages.

Archeologists have estimated the population of Jomon Japan at between 125,000 and 250,000, with the peak population about 5,000 BC and then declining. Skeletal remains suggest that the adults were about five feet six inches tall or quite high for human beings of this period. They decorated themselves with lacquered combs, bone hairpins, shell earrings and other ornaments. Life expectancy was probably about 30 years, with death rates highest among new born and those over forty. While some linguists have detected traces of Southeast Asian languages in modern Japanese speech, it seems likely that the language the Jomon people spoke was related mainly to Korean, Chinese and other Altaic (i.e. Mongolian, Turkish) languages. By the end of this period, in sum, the Jomon Japanese clearly had a complex community life.

3. The Yayoi Period (900 BC – 250 AD)

In 1884, some distinctive pottery – clearly different in style and technique from Jomon pots – was unearthed in the Yayoi district of modern Tokyo. This district gave its name to a relatively brief but decisive period of Japanese culture in which Late Jomon culture was overlaid with a new and more advanced culture based not only on new pottery forms, but also the mining, smelting and casting of bronze and iron, and the irrigation and cultivation of rice. Yayoi culture varied by region, but overall was a culture unique to Japan. It has been traditionally dated from 300 BC to 300 AD, but scholars now think that it developed from at least 800 or 900 BC to 250 AD.

Rice cultivation was one characteristic of the period. Rice had been grown in the Yangtze River basin in China from at least 5000 BC and in Korea from about 1500 BC, but apparently did not reach Japan until about 300 AD. Probably small groups of immigrants from the continent brought rice cultivation techniques to Japan where they and the Jomon peoples began to prepare special fields that had ample supplies of water and develop the necessary seeding, weeding and harvesting skills. The earliest fields were natural wetlands, but gradually the Yayoi people learned to construct irrigation canals that could supply the right amount of water. To round out their diet, the Yayoi people also gathered wild plants, cultivated fruit, hunted and fished.

The Yayoi period also saw the extensive use of metal. Practical iron tools from Korea (such as axes and knives) have been found in the oldest Yayoi sites in the western part of Japan and even in a Jomon site from the same period in the northern island of Hokkaido. Ritual bronze objects such as mirrors, swords and spears also came from China and Korea. Eventually the Yayoi people learned to mine, smelt and produce these items on their own. One example of this local manufacture was the bronze, bell shaped objects known as dotaku. The idea for these objects may have come from the continent, but they quickly developed into a uniquely Japanese style. They appear to have symbolized divine spirits, and hence to have been used for religious fertility symbols.

Yayoi pottery also reflected technological improvements. The pots were normally fired at higher temperatures (850 degrees Celsius or 1500+ degrees Fahrenheit) than was Jomon pottery. Unlike Jomon pottery, the surfaces of these pots were generally smooth with geometric designs. There were many different kinds of this pottery, ranging from cooking and storage pots to more formal vessels used for burial and religious purposes, but it was clear that all were made by quite sophisticated artisans.
The Yayoi people looked rather like the inhabitants of Northeast Asia and hence more closely resembled modern Japanese than did the more South China and Southeast Asia looking Jomon. Some of the differences may have been due to a better diet, but most likely the slow trickle of immigrants moving from the more northern areas of Asia through Korea to Japan greatly increased in this period. They lived in villages that were in many ways similar to those around the lower Yangtze River in China. As many as 30 households may have lived together at one time in houses that were oval in shape and over 48 square meters (1500+ square feet) in size. These houses had roofs of thatched material that were supported by heavy beams and posts. The floors were set into the ground, but protected from flood damage by earthen walls. There was usually a hearth for cooking and warmth in the center. Cultivated rice and other foods could be stored in jars or in specially designed storehouses. Wooden fencing marked off their fields, some of which were larger that 400 square meters or more than 4,300 square feet. Judging from implements found in the area, cultivation was done with stone reapers, wooden rakes and hoes.

As the population increased and more conflicts over land and water rights occurred, Yayoi village leaders gradually evolved into village chiefs, villages coalesced into chiefdoms, and fighting between chiefdoms became common. By the last century of the Yayoi (150 AD – 250 AD), confederations of chiefdoms had developed into political bodies that ultimately laid the foundation for the ancient state.
One of these confederations was a legendary “nation” known as Yamatai-koku (the country of Yamatai). Chinese records indicate that this “nation” was ruled over – at least religiously -- by a priestess known a Himiko (literally “Daughter of the Sun”). She is said to have sent an envoy to China in 238 BC and to have received a gift from China in return. Early chronicles suggest that she may have been the Empress Jingu, a powerful ruler who Japanese sources claim lived at the same time. The location of her capital of Yamatai is also unclear, as over 50 different sites in northern Kyushu and the Kansai (Osaka-Kyoto) area on the main island of Honshu have been suggested. While little is certain about both the capital and its rulers, in sum, it does appear that Yayoi Japan was gradually developing into a strong and sophisticated state.

4. The Kofun Period (300 AD – 552 AD)

By 250 AD, the building of large tombs became so strikingly different from what had gone on before that the period from around 250 AD to the introduction of Buddhism in 552 AD is now commonly called the Kofun or “Old Tomb” period.

These tombs reflect the power of an extensive political regime. They have been found from southern Kyushu to northern Honshu. Shapes varied from round to square to “keyhole” shaped. One striking example, the alleged tomb of Emperor Nintoku (who may have ruled in the early 400’s) near modern Osaka, covers over 80 acres and hence -- except for the extraordinary tomb of the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty (c. 200 BC) in China -- is bigger than all of the tombs of the world.

As might be expected from the size and sophistication of these tombs, a great many personal effects have been recovered from the inside including jewelry, mirrors, and tools that were meant to accompany the dead spirits in an afterlife. Because many tombs from the 5th and 6th century also contain horse bones and trappings, it seems probable that a horse riding and militarily sophisticated aristocracy may have come into Japan at this time, either by a sudden invasion or a gradual process. A particularly rich art form known as haniwa also developed in this period. These gradually developed from simple cylinders into complex clay figures of important members of the traditional society as well as buildings. Carefully laid out, again in hopes of being useful or bringing comfort to the spirits, thousands of beautifully made haniwa have survived to this day.

The Yamato Period (552 AD -710 AD)

The number and size of these tombs suggest that by the 5th and 6th centuries, Japanese society was becoming more sophisticated. As it did so, a shifting confederation of intermarried tribal chieftains began in this period to call itself the Yamato people. “Yamato” refers both to the area around Nara and to the clan that eventually founded the present day imperial line in Japan. Particularly in literary works, the word is also often used to refer to Japan as a whole.

While historians are still divided on whether these chieftains came from Korean immigrant families, the Yamato chieftains themselves claimed descent from the Sun Goddess Amaterasu. They used this religious symbol, their military supremacy, intermarriage and the awarding of titles to extend gradually their power from the Kansai (Kyoto-Osaka-Nara) area to other parts of Japan. The Yamato chieftains were called Great Kings (okio or okimi), one of which apparently claimed the right to be the most powerful king by the 5th or 6th century. From this time on to the present, blood ties were a powerful factor in the imperial family’s power.

Yamato society was organized into clans (uji), occupation groups and slaves. Because of their traditional power, loyalty and service the Yamato court, the Soga, Mononobe and Nakatomi clans were given special titles and allowed to be in attendance at the newly forming imperial court. There they made themselves useful by performing both state duties and religious worship. Beneath them, the so-called occupation groups (be) produced special products (such as paper, cloth, arms or agricultural products) or performed other hereditary services such as grooms or scribes. Less skilled or pleasant tasks, such as burying the dead, were performed by slaves (be).

Although Korean historians play down the possibility, Japanese historians believe that the Yamato dynasty established diplomatic relations with the kingdom of Packche in 366 AD and maintained a foothold in Korea until 562. The dynasty then stayed allied with Packche until Packche and its Yamato allies were soundly defeated in 663. From this point, unable to secure their influence by military means, Japanese rulers turned to cultural and diplomatic contacts with China in what can be described as a great effort at domestic self-strengthening along Chinese lines. By the 6th century, great tombs were still being built, but Japanese society was being transformed by new cultural elements from the continent, the most important of which was Buddhism.

Buddhism probably began to filter into Yamato via Korean immigrants in the late 5th and 6th century. The faith was not taken up very seriously in court circles, however, until the king of Paekche sent in 552 (some sources say 538) Buddhist texts and a gilt statue to the Yamato ruler with words of praise for this allegedly superior faith. The Paekche gift caused conflict in the court both because some did not support an alliance with Paekche and because some worried about the wisdom of adopting a new and alien religion. Several powerful clans (uji), led by the Nakatomi (who were in charge of the traditional rituals) and the Mononobe (who were military specialists) opposed the introduction of this foreign faith, while others, led by the powerful Soga family, argued for acceptance. Buddhism suffered a set back when traditionalists blamed an epidemic on the new faith, but the Soga’s victory over the Mononobe in 587 assured fuller acceptance of Buddhism.

By 593, the Soga has succeeded in placing a relative on the throne as Empress Suiko (ruled 593-628), and she in turn had named Prince Shotoku (Shotoku Taishi, 572-622) as Regent. An enthusiastic promulgator of Buddhism and patron saint of Buddhists, he is said to have founded the great Horyu-ji temple near Nara and to have written the famous 17 article “constitution” (actually moral injunctions) of 604, the second article of which asks his subjects to respect the teachings of the Buddha. He is also said to have been a wonderful Buddhist scholar. (The religious significance of this new faith, as well as the ways in which Buddhism eventually meshed with traditional faiths, is explained in the separate essay on religion, Japanese Religions to 710AD).

Shotoku’s constitution also used the Chinese imperial model to build a stronger imperial state for the Yamato (and now Soga) rulers. A new series of court ranks, symbolized by the wearing of twelve different caps, was intended to promote men of ability and hence weaken the hereditary power of the traditional court chieftains. The document also stressed loyalty, harmony, dedication and ability in government as ideals to be realized in Japanese political life. “When you receive the imperial commands, fail not scrupulously to obey them,” Article 3 declares. “The lord is Heaven. The vassal is earth. Heaven overspreads. The earth upbears.” In another famous statement, he insulted the Chinese sense of cultural superiority by addressing greetings “from the son of Heaven in the land where the sun rises to the son of Heaven in the land where the sun sets.” Shotoku’s statement reflected both a growing sense of Japan’s unique national identity and his sense that the Imperial family held a special place in Japan, above and beyond that of the other, more ordinary clans (uji). Given the power of the Soga family, Shotoku was not able to implement all – or perhaps even many – of his reforms, yet for all that he did set standards to which future rulers, soon to be called “Emperors” (tenno), could aspire.
After Prince Shotoku died, Prince Naka no Oe and Nakatomi no Kamatari, the head of one of the rival Nakatomi clan (uji), in 645 led a coup in which they killed the head of the Soga and his son. Both Buddhism and Shotoku’s political ideals were still respected, but a new Emperor, Kotoku, was installed, the capital was moved to Naniwa (modern Osaka), and the era name was changed to Taika (literally “great change”). Nakatomi no Kamatari became a powerful figure in court, while Naka no Oe later became an Emperor himself.

In 646, these leaders issued the first of a number of edicts that formed the so-called Taika Reforms. The declared aims of the coup leaders were to recover power for the emperor (tenno), and to follow Prince Shotoku’s example by using Chinese administrative codes to create a just and effective administration. Land tenure was also supposed to follow the Chinese ideal of belonging to the Emperor and hence being reallocated from time to time to meet the needs of the peasants. The occupation groups that had formerly supported the clans (uji) were abolished, and the provincial clan chieftains were co-opted into the system by being granted title and offices in the new administrative districts. A new tax system, including taxes in kind, labor or military service was imposed to pay for the new capital, a central bureaucracy, roads, post stations and the military establishment. This in turn called for regular census taking.

As was the case with Prince Shotoku’s “constitution,” the proposed reforms were not easily implemented. Yet again like Prince Shotoku’s constitution, the “great changes” proposed in the Taika reforms had set a course of future reforms that were slowly implemented over time. As new Chinese influenced penal and administrative codes (ritsu and ryo) such as the Taiho ritsuryo of 702 were promulgated, Japan evolved steadily into a new and more powerful imperial state.