Asuka
Prince Shotoku, adoption of buddhism, enlightenment and great political reforms
538 AD - 710 AD
author Armand Sadovschi, February 2018
Asuka represents the beginning of the Japanese enlightenment, a period which has been compared, from a cultural perspective, with the ancient Greco-Roman culture. A writing system is introduced together with Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. After some struggles, Buddhism becomes a state religion in parallel with Shintoism, enforcing the legitimacy of the emperor. Arts and architecture are heavily influenced by the Korean kingdoms and China. Popular and cultivated literature flourishes under the guidance of inspired Japanese political leaders educated according to the Chinese model. Prince Shotoku, Emperor Tenji and Emperor Kanmu become national heroes. Under their guidance, Japan was reformed and became strong enough to challenge the Chinese domination of the Korean Peninsula. The speed and quality of the changes are comparable to the ones from the Meiji Restoration. In the end, Japan lost the war in Korea but the defeat led to innovations which contributed further to the country’s development. It was the beginning of a Japanese national conscience.

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Asuka jidai represents the first phase of Classical Antiquity in Japan. Alongside the following stages, Nara and Heian, this period is characterized by the rise of unprecedented cultural effervescence and complex political reforms. The exact reverse situation was happening in Europe, where after the fall of the Roman Empire, the continent entered a Dark Age from a cultural, political, economic and demographic point of view. This proves that absolute standards and concepts can’t be applied when trying to understand universal history or even comparative history. The Classical Antiquity of Japan deserves to be compared with the might of the Greco-Roman world.

The era is named after Asukadera, the first important capital of the Yamato kingdom, located in northern Nara Plain. As in the previous era, Shinto traditions convinced emperors to move the capital when they ascended to the throne. Other important capitals were Naniwa and Fujiwara Kyo. Asuka jidai ends when the political center is moved by the new emerging clan Fujiwara, to Heijo Kyo, later named Nara.

Due to political reasons, the important clans from the Yamato court were divided into two sides. The first party was represented by old Japanese royal families that supported Shintoism and wanted to ban the heretical Buddhist religion. The opposition was composed mostly of influential noble families that had Chinese or Korean descent and wanted Buddhism to be recognized as an official religion with equal rights as Shintoism. The internal balance of power was constantly shifting, but in the end a compromise was reached and most of the elite was pleased. The core of this system still works in today’s Japan.

Japan went through an ecumenical and gnostic experience illustrated by mystic experimentation. Even from the beginning, six different forms of Buddhism were introduced into Japan, each originating from a different part of China, which in their turn modified the Indian teachings. In the next centuries the official canon would be tinted by division into more sects. Likewise, the political elite combined Buddhist sacrality with Confucian ethics in order to bolster their authority. At the same time, besides some main deities, Shintoism is tributary to different local myths sometimes mixed with Taoist rituals.

Political organization, social stratification, economic conditions, the arrival of even more waves of educated Chinese and Korean immigrants and missionaries, the massive imports of books from China and Korea - all these stimulated a cultural explosion. The artistic side of this was portrayed by highly complex pottery production, the spread of religious and secular paintings, and by the intricate architecture of Buddhist monasteries and sculptures. Additionally, spirituality was expressed by the vivid appearance of books dealing with major philosophical, historical, political and religious dilemmas.

Historians managed to discover and preserve Japanese documents from Asuka jidai. This scrolls are mostly written in Classical Chinese and reveal the first written records from the archipelago. Political elites became far more aware of their common identity as they governed inspired by a plan for the country as a whole. We observe the slow rise of the national state of Japan, one of the earliest processes of this kind in universal history. Innovative reforms that can be compared only with the ones from the Meiji restoration are conducted by enlightened rulers like prince Shotoku Taishi, and by emperors like Tenji and Tenmu.

In the propitious context of the Asuka jidai, popular culture was also producing works of universal value. The most impressive opera is ‘Manyosh’, which is translated as ‘The collection of ten thousand leaves’, containing 4,500 poems. It was composed over the course of a century, between Middle and Late Asuka, and was inspired by philosophical and religious views. Many of the poems were collected from farmers and commoners, including women, a very rare phenomenon in that period of time. Both popular and elite manifestations from the era were called ‘the culture of Hakuho’.

In the course of Asuka jidai, Japan became a major regional power with a total population of over six million people. Meanwhile, the Sui dynasty of China was replaced by the Tang dynasty, bringing forth one of the greatest periods in the history of China. From the middle of the period, Japan lost its influence in Korea. Japanese and Chinese civilizations had no equal in terms of sophistication or in economic, military and political power. For example, in this timeline we can distinguish five great Arab poets, six Japanese poets, ten Chinese poets and only three from Europe.

By traditional dating, Asuka jidai started when the Korean kingdom of Paekche sent a diplomatic mission to spread Buddhism in Japan and Emperor Kinmei accepted the gift. Other historians think that the event was just a symbolic one and consider that Asuka jidai started fifty years later, when Buddhism was really imposed as a legitimate religion by the Soga clan. Moreover, from an aesthetic perspective, taking into consideration arts and architecture, Asuka jidai emerges only in the middle of the next century. Another group of researchers considers that Asuka is just the extension of the Kofun jidai because the changes in this timeline were not so radical.

Those who do not consider Asuka as an epoch just name the timeline of Kofun and Asuka as Yamato because there was a certain continuity in the political system. According to them, Buddhism and other relevant reforms were only firmly imposed when the capital was moved to Nara. It was a western way to look at the history of Japan that is now more contested. Those against the view give two main reasons. Firstly, Japanese history is unique and generalizations are not useful for understanding what happened. Secondly, discoveries from the last decades point to the need of rethinking the whole period.

The Age of the Warring States is considered by the vast majority of historians as one of the darkest and bloodiest periods of the history of China. It all started when the Jin empire was divided into three parts. From there many more kingdoms declared independence and tried to bring all of China under their might. A series of alliances and coalitions were formed, followed by betrayals and assassinations. Frustrated by the constant stalemate, many factions started to engage in horrific war crimes, torture and executions. Finally, the conflicts ended when the Qin dynasty won the war. The unmatched violence stimulated various existential questions.

Constant warfare and death convinced many contemporaries that society had lost its basic morals. Countless scholars were impressed by those events and started to think about human nature and the very sense of human existence. This is why The Age of the Warring States is somehow overlapped by The Hundred School of Thought, a name given in order to honor the peak of Chinese ancient philosophy. Because a central authority disappeared, a very wide range of ideas could be discussed, free from censorship. Many scholars were hired as advisors or experts by the various warring kingdoms.

Ironically, the lack of morals and cruelty without limits pushed the elite to engage in a spiritual revolution. Taoism and Confucianism were created in that special context, and Chinese Buddhism was marked by it. The Hundred School of Thought had a tremendous influence over the culture of east and central Asia from ancient times till the present. For the Asian world, its main characteristics and consequences can be compared with the ancient hellenistic philosophy, medieval renaissance or to the modern enlightenment from Europe.

Taoism or Daoism is an ancient religion that originated in China approximately two thousand five hundred years ago. Some historians think that Taoist ideas were first introduced in Japan in the Early Kofun era. Regardless where the truth lies, it is certain that a major wave of this mystical belief entered the country in the same timeline as Buddhism and Confucianism. Shamanistic priests, who practiced Shintoism, were taught by immigrants the theoretical concepts and the practical ritualistic ways of different forms of Buddhism, Confucian ethics and Taoism. Actually, from a dogmatic point of view, all of these four major religions intermingled in a unique set of ideas and practices.

According to tradition, Taoism was founded by the Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu, who wrote the book ‘Tao-te ching’. The meaning of the title and the exact date of apparition is still debated but it probably meant ‘The way of virtue’. Lao-tzu was somehow contemporary to Confucius, living in the period of Warring States of China. Taoism really expanded under the Han Dynasty, two hundred years after the death of its creator. In the last part of the Han Dynasty rule, this religion was banned because of constant rebellions, only to be rehabilitated under the Tang emperors, who claimed to be descendants of Lao-tzu.

‘Tao-te ching’ and ‘Zhuangzi’ texts represented the philosophical part of Taoism. The second part was far more mystical, combining even older shamanistic traditions and rituals with the divinization of the universe and celestial bodies. Taoism had two inseparable faces, a philosophical and a religious one. The first heavily influenced Confucianism and Chinese Buddhism. The second one worked really well with Shinto beliefs when it was introduced in Japan. On the other hand, it is important to highlight that even original Taoism was divided into many sects in the course of history.

‘Zhuangzi’ was also written in the Age of Warring States and was the second important book of Taoism. The style is allegorical and had the goal of teaching an ethical guideline for how to live your life in desperate conditions. It is considered a masterpiece of Classical Chinese literature, and even the first important ancient text of the Chinese civilization. Many Chinese writers, historians, religious figures and philosophers were influenced by this scroll created by the philosopher Zhuang Zhou. He was one of the greatest later representatives of the ‘Hundred Schools of Thought’.

The most common method of understanding social reality used by social science is the comparative method. Taoism can be better explained if it is compared with other forms of spiritual introversion. The main principles are pretty similar to the hellenistic and Roman stoicism. Taoism encourages the annihilation of passions and detachment from worldly things. People should live in harmony with nature and the wise must adapt to the surrounding environment. Understanding that the individual is just a insignificant part of the cosmology is the key element that can also be found in Buddhism.

If stoicism is centered around reason and virtue, Taoism is closer to an amoral position in which man must be neutral and look beyond good and evil. That means that no party is right in an absolute sense. This philosophical and moral position was highly compatible with Shinto cosmogony. Furthermore, the biggest difference between Taoism and Confucianism is that the latter focuses more on a hierarchical social and political order, symbolized by numerous political rituals, habits and manners.

Confucianism was created by the famous philosopher and politician Confucius as one of the founding paradigms of The Hundred Schools of Thought. More an ethical guide on how to live your life than an abstract religion, Confucianism focused on the morals of individuals. Even though Confucius died just before the Age of Warring States, he observed that the basic morals and traditions of the Chinese people were being lost. The scholar valued social order and harmony and concluded that the only way to obtain a just peace is to educate society starting from the lower levels and moving up. Only in a world where a child respects his parents can we expect that a subject will be faithful to the emperor.

For an important period of time, Confucius was credited as the author of the ‘Four Books and Five Classics’, the major collection from early Antiquity of Chinese philosophy, allegorical history, mythology and literature, all influenced by Confucian teachings. Historians now believe that the scrolls were written by scholars inspired by Confucius, who continued his work during the Age of Warring States. This means that, like Taoism, Confucianism evolved under the stimulus of total war and famine.

From a historical perspective, Confucius considered that his ideas were not new. He said that he just wrote about the wisdom of the common people from immemorial times, concepts that were lost after the fall of the Zhou dynasty which ruled China five hundred years before Confucius. If his statement is true, it might indicate that the Chinese civilization was even more evolved and sophisticated from an early age and that historians should rethink the whole period.

Under the Han dynasty, Confucianism battled for supremacy with Taoist dogma. When the representatives of the latter religion rebelled several times, Confucianism won the favors of the rulers. After the fall of the Han, Confucianism was forgotten for hundreds of years only to be restored by the Tang emperors, who also accepted Taoism. Applying these philosophical ideas proved to be very effective in governance, contributing to the Tang glory. Afterwards, the scholars from the Song dynasty made Confucianism even more practical by adding new political and administrative ideas. It was called neo-Confucianism.

Even though Confucius is still venerated as a holy person by numerous Chinese, in many ways Confucius was more a political thinker than a religious figure. The doctrine can be better understood as a combination of intriguing idealistic concepts that bear some resemblance to the philosophical systems of Plato and Aristotle. Just like in the book ‘The Republic’ by Plato, Confucius imagined an ideal society based on a strict hierarchical order, where every individual was an important part of the whole system, ruled by an enlightened, brave and wise leader.

Other thinkers from social sciences compare Confucius with Renaissance ideas and with Immanuel Kant. The reason is simple. It’s true that the Chinese philosopher pleaded for a rigid society ruled by an educated elite, considered by some as authoritarian. On the other hand, Confucius strongly opposed any abuses made by the sovereigns against common people. From his perspective, punishment should not be inhumane because its purpose is to educate. Kings have the duty to respect and protect human life, to guarantee the military and economic security of the people.

The ideas of Confucianism are very balanced, favouring conservatorism and political stability in order to avoid chaos and anarchy, but also highlight the utmost importance of the general well-being of the people. In a sense, it was a compromise between an authoritarian order, personal freedoms and social security. Some scholars make the parallel between Confucius and Kant because they believe that the Chinese thinker was the main founder of a human rights doctrine from an Asian perspective. Even though this is still open to debate, specialists can’t deny that Confucianism played a monumental role in the history of Asia.

Confucianism entered Japan at the same time as Buddhism and had a tremendous impact. Firstly, in the Asuka jidai, the ideas based on political order strengthened the legitimacy of a central government, a phenomenon which would eventually lead to the creation of the Japanese emperor as an untouchable institution. Later on, Confucianism and neo-Confucianism became the favourite ethics for the Japanese elite. In the Middle Ages, this slowly evolved into a strict and chivalrous way of life, embraced by the samurai. For the general public, it is known under the name ‘Bushido’, the way of the warrior.

Buddhism was officially introduced to Japan by a special mission sent by the Korean Kingdom of Paekche. Clans were divided on the matter of funding this new religion. The coalition of immigrant families led by the Soga clan wanted financial state support for this new religion while another coalition of Shinto clans led by the Mononobe clan advocated for banning these foreign mystical traditions. Emperor Kinmei managed to arbitrate a compromise. Buddhism was tolerated and Soga had the right to built monasteries with their own funds but the Yamato state stood aside.

In the early stage of Buddhism in Japan the expertise of Korean and Chinese immigrants was vital for the construction of monasteries. They provided new methods of woodworking, metalworking, painting and sculpting. In less than a century since its introduction, Japan built forty-six monasteries that housed over 1,300 priests. They were converted by Korean and Chinese missionaries that were sent by Sui and Paekche, but also by solitary adventurers that even visited India before settling in Japan. Many of them were scholars specialized in Chinese administration techniques, Confucianism, poetry, medicine or history.

Soga and Mononobe started to mobilize troops and allies. Soga no Umako promised that if he were supported, he would coordinate the assimilation of Buddhism in the whole of Japan. Practically, he was saying that the clans that were faithful to him would be rewarded key positions both in central and local administration. Mononobe promised only to keep the status quo. Soga’s offer was better and so Umako managed to obtain a clear victory, avoiding a bloodbath in a civil war. Six years later, the new Empress Suiko and her regent prince Shotoku recognized both Shintoism and Buddhism as official religions of the state.

Architecture is influenced by three great Buddhist monasteries, the symbols of the era. They are Asuka-dera, Arahaka-ji and Ikaruga-ji. The latter was built by prince Shotoku under the name Horyu-ji but it burned down and was rebuilt at the end of Asuka jidai. The temple is included in UNESCO patrimony because specialists consider Horyu-ji one of the oldest wooden buildings that still exists today, an intriguing fact considering the frequency of natural disasters in Japan.

Historians believe that Arahaka-ji was built at the initiative of prince Shotoku. When the country was on the brink of civil war between Buddhist supported clans and Shinto supported clans, Shotoku allied himself with Soga no Umako. It seems that by the power of his own personality, prince Shotoku managed to rally some supporters from the Soga coalition. He was strong enough to highlight his authority by building Arahaka-ji outside the capital, in the port city Naniwa. Even though he had the potential to contest Umako, their relations remained amicable.

The conflict between Soga and other Shinto clans was, first and foremost, a political one. Shinto chieftains held political authority but they were also the religious leaders in their region. In this way the power of ideological and religious matters was divided between the emperor and local warlords. If Buddhism were to become a religion of the state, the whole paradigm of power would become far more centralized, with the emperor having the supreme power to appoint his ministers. Soga and other immigrants could ascend to important positions to the detriment of those named on the hereditary basis.

Asuka-dera was discovered by archaeologists after the Second World War. The temple was erected by the Soga clan in the middle of the Asuka city, the capital of the Yamato court. In the center of the structure a pagoda was identified. The building had three large golden halls and a lecture hall for scholars. The authors of The Cambridge History of Japan Volume 1 observed that Asuka-dera is the first institutional building that has the main characteristics of Chinese and Korean architecture. It was only the start of foreign administrative, cultural and spiritual influences in the archipelago.

Horyu-ji was built at the height of prince Shotoku’s power, next to his palace Ikaruga. The site was located twenty kilometers outside the Asuka capital, probably indicating that he wanted to separate himself from the influence of the Soga clan and govern with a firm hand. In Inoue Mitsusada’s opinion, Shotoku intended to be closer to Naniwa, in order to directly coordinate foreign relations with Sui China and the Korean kingdoms. In this way he also controlled the flow of trade and could redistribute valuable goods as he pleased.

Arts are defined by the Tori style, after the name of a Japanese sculptor with Chinese descent. Besides the three great temples Asuka-dera, Arahaka-ji, and Horyu-ji of the Asuka jidai, many more works of art were created in this timeline. A different phase of aesthetic ideals began after the Taika reforms, the new form of expression being called Hakuho culture. From this period, more Buddhist works of art and buildings have been preserved in Japan than in contemporary Korea and China. Now archaeologists are working together in order to reconstruct the artistic expression of the area, beyond national borders.

Kuratsukuri Tori was the nephew of a Chinese immigrant and the main artist from the first part of Asuka. His works are inspired mostly from the aesthetics found in the Northern Wei dynasties, before the unification under Sui. The main characteristic is the ideal of symmetry, a thing that can be observed in his opera, Asuka Daibutsu and the Shaka triad. Asuka Daibutsu is a three meter high statue of Buddha, the oldest one from Japan that is still preserved today, under the protection of UNESCO patrimony.

Hakuho culture emerged in the second part of Asuka jidai and represents the beginnings of Japanese literature and music. The only collection that preserved these popular and elitist forms of wisdom is Man’yoshu. Not only did people from all classes contribute with personal or folklore creations, but the nobles even held competitions of music, Chinese poetry and Japanese poetry generally called Waka. Japanese poetry was later divided by critics of literature between tanka, short poems, and choka, long poems.

Historians are still debating over who compiled Man’yoshu. Some think that it was created at the order of several emperors, being a huge project, and others hypothesize that the principal author was the scholar Otomo no Yakamochi. The main theme of ancient Japanese literature is the allegorical link between nature, the cyclical passing of seasons, with human nature and existence. Literature and arts in general further evolve in Nara and Heian jidai, proposing subjects closer to modern western paradigms like existentialism and expressionism.

Man’yoshu is divided into three main categories. The first is composed of poems about the elite, court life, small politics and their adventures when they traveled in all corners of Japan. Numerous regions of the archipelago were still dominated by wildlife, so the depictions of a lost part of nature represents an invaluable national and international treasure. The second theme is related to love poems linked with romantic descriptions of nature and to the sad idea that everything is fleeting. Finally, the last part contains poetry about death and afterlife. Shinto myths are combined with the imported religions.

Artists were protected by political authorities, and many members of the court hired them for various works. Starting with Prince Shotoku’s reign, craftsmen, painters, poets, dancers and musicians were no longer obligated to pay taxes at all, or they were just symbolic. Thanks to that policy, more Buddhist buildings and objects from Japanese Classical Antiquity survived compared to the larger Korea and China area of spirituality, where the Buddhist traditions arrived earlier.

Horyu-ji is a symbol for how cosmopolitan the world was even in ancient times. Archaeologists speculate the possibility that materials and models for the building of the temple may have come from the Silk Road. The pillars of the monastery resemble the ones in ancient Greece and the five floor pagoda of the Horyu-ji, the part that still lives on, is inspired from India and China.

A century and a half before Asuka jidai, the northern part of China was involved in a chaotic conflict that created sixteen small kingdoms. The period was characterized by both foreign invasions from Mongolian tribes and civil war. After numerous battles, Northern Wei finally unified all of them. China was divided between Northern dynasties and Southern dynasties. Ambitious generals disintegrated Northern Wei. The north was again separated into four parts: Western Wei, Eastern Wei, Northern Zhou and Northern Qi. Finally, general Yang Chien unified northern China and conquered the Southern dynasties. He became Emperor Wen-ti, the ruler of all China and founder of the Sui dynasty.

Although short lived, the Sui dynasty is very important because all of China was at last under one authority. Relative peace and a cohesive government gave birth to the perfect conditions for the development of the Chinese civilization, arguably the most advanced in the world at that time. The Sui dynasty is also relevant because after more than one hundred years with no diplomatic contacts, motivated by political instability, Japan sent emissaries to the Sui court. Unlike any previous encounter between the two countries, this time the Yamato ambassadors wanted to be treated as equals or at least as the main allies of China.

Sui capital was Daxing and in the last ten years of existence the center of political power was moved to Luoyang. The surface of the empire was approximately 3,000,000 square kilometers, representing 2% of the land area of the world, with an estimated population of fifty million. The failed military campaigns would bring about its rapid downfall but after a short civil war the Sui dynasty was replaced by Tang, a royal family that managed to extend the empire and bring its long awaited stability. Tang reign is considered by many historians as the ‘Golden Age of China’.

China under the Sui dynasty was a multinational empire formed under military force. In order to maintain its cohesion, Emperor Wen-ti tolerated different religions and customs. A unified and peaceful China shortly provoked the reactions of the three kingdoms of Korea: Koguryo, Paekche and Silla. The Koreans thought that Sui would try to re-establish its colonies in the peninsula. Japan’s attention was also directed to the new shift of power, seeking an opportunity to recapture Mimana province, located on the southern part of Korea. At the same time, the Japanese were fascinated by the impressive infrastructure, administrative and cultural projects of Sui China.

Koguryo was worried about the rise of the Sui empire, because it was the state which in the past had defeated the Han and Jin empires, expelling the Chinese settlers from Korea. Now Koguryo once more had a common border with Sui and its first response to the potential threat was to built fortresses and raise all their available army. Paekche, who held the central part of Korea, was also alarmed by the gloomy possibility of being surrounded by Koguryo from the north and Silla from the south, both being supported by the Sui. Japan had the advantage of being located far away, so they waited to see how the balance of power would evolve.

Realizing that he had no chance of winning in a direct conflict with Sui, Yongyang, the king of Koguryo, accepted to pay tribute. Then, after approximately ten years, maybe because he felt that his position was consolidated enough, Yongyang ordered a raid into China. The Koreans had 10,000 troops, mostly cavalry. Having speed and the advantage of surprise on their side, at the start of the campaign they obtained some notable victories, managing to kill and take many Chinese prisoners. In the end Yongyang was defeated in the face of an invading force of 300,000 Sui soldiers. Yongyang resumed the tribute system.

It should be noted that unlike most other empires, the Chinese did not rely on tribute as a source of income or as a human resource that could be recruited and integrated into the imperial forces. The Chinese empires saw themselves as the center of the cultivated world. They mostly requested symbolic gifts as a form of acknowledgment that the region was under the Chinese civilization’s sphere of influence. Having the favor of the emperor was a matter of prestige for foreign sovereigns, being considered closer than others to the Chinese model. It was an enlightened practice for that violent period, one that can be found only in the Modern Era.

Faced with the brute force shown by China in Koguryo, Paekche immediately accepted to pay tribute. On the other hand, it is right to say that the Sui dynasty also had a strong ‘soft power’ policy. In exchange for allegiance, they offered important trade rights. This was very appealing for any possible smaller partner, considering that Sui represented the most important commercial center in the world with the fastest growth and the biggest internal market. Moreover, they sent emissaries with experts that could help in religious, cultural, administrative, infrastructure and military matters.

In the time of the Northern and Southern dynasties of China, Paekche openly and constantly supported the Southern dynasties. But the Sui dynasty was formed after a northern general conquered the south. This is why Paekche was in a delicate situation, struggling to fight both Koguryo and Silla, and with Japan as its only possible ally that was too far away to send effective military support in time.

Silla didn't sent a mission to Sui, considering they were safe because the Chinese were busy with dealing with Koguryo. Japan saw this as an opportunity and prepared to invalidate Silla in order to restore their control over Mimana province. More than 10,000 soldiers were mobilized in Kyushu and prepared to embark an invading fleet. Mimana was conquered after six short battles. Anticipating the immediate danger, Silla pledged allegiance to Sui and the military campaign was canceled because Japan risked bringing into the war a coalition formed around the Chinese empire.

In the context of the Chinese protectorate over Korea and the retreat from Mimana, Japan decided to send, after more than one hundred years, an official mission to the Sui court. The Japanese emissaries presented themselves as speaking in the name of Empress Suiko, the great queen and the daughter of Heaven, suggesting that she was the equal of the Chinese emperor, who proclaimed himself as the son of Heaven. This irritated Wen-ti, but he forgave the diplomats for their barbarism, recognizing that Wa was the most privileged state of their protectorate system and was entitled to have some influence over Korea.

Many Sui officials and nobles pressured Emperor Wen-ti to take revenge on Koguryo and their independent king for their insulting acts, but the old and wise general was hesitant. Only after his death did his son, Emperor Yang of Sui, decide to take military action. It was a fatal mistake. Having superior war technology and a vast numerical advantage, the Sui empire engaged in four exhausting conflicts with Koguryo. Humiliated and with its treasury depleted, the Sui dynasty was replaced after four years. From a comparative history perspective, it can be said that Koguryo was the Vietnam of Sui.

This time the Koreans avoided fighting on an open battlefield, preferring to resist in fortresses and practicing guerilla warfare tactics. In the face of enormous Sui forces, the strategy was brilliant. Official Chinese chronicles record that one million soldiers with five thousand siege weapons and three thousand ships invaded Koguryo. The battle front of the army stretched over four hundred kilometers and it took a mouth for all the troops to cross the border with their supplies. Although the numbers might be exaggerated, it's certain that the military expedition was one of the largest of the ancient world.

Many villages risked famine because all the produce was confiscated. Farmers rebelled often and prefered to break their hands than accept conscription into the war against Koguryo, a conflict that in their opinion was reflecting the interests of a small elite. The uprising gradually became very serious and Sui had to unilaterally retreat from Korea, accepting a humiliating defeat. In many ways, this scenario is similar to the Vietnam war, where the United States, the superpower of its time, was forced to back down because of heavy casualties and the pressure of public opinion.

Yang wanted to impress the whole world with his power but his army was based mostly on peasants that fought for money or because they were forced to, with no battle experience or proper training and discipline. Their navy was defeated before joining forces with the land invading army that was laying siege to Pyongyang. Without enough food and logistical resources, the Sui troops were forced to lift the siege and retreat. General Eulji Mundeok ambushed the marching army of Yang at the Battle of Salsu by releasing water from a dam and leading a fast counter charge of 10,000 cavalry that annihilated 300,000 Chinese soldiers.

The Battle of Salsu is considered by specialists as one of the greatest disasters in human history. The number of Chinese casualties can be compared only with the major battles from the nineteenth and twentieth century. When it is remembered that the population of ancient times was far lower than in modern times, the size of the tragedy can be truly understood. The Yang emperor ordered the construction of ambitious infrastructure projects. The inability to obtain a decisive victory in Koguryo and the loss of so many men, together with the war and investment expenses made the general population furious.

Four years after the retreat, the rebellions risked becoming a full-fledged revolution because the emperor refused to compromise. In order to avoid further chaos and total disaster, Yang Sui was assassinated by his advisors. Shortly afterwards, Li Yuan, a noble from north China, led an army that defeated all of the Sui descendants, and ascended to the throne as Emperor Gaozu of the Tang dynasty. Japan and the Korean kingdoms now had the difficult mission of appeasing Tang after they had been allied with Sui. The Yamato court took advantage of the knowledge brought by the new displaced immigrants from Sui.

A parallel can be drawn between the emergence of Soga and the Meiji Restoration. In both cases the reformers clashed with the traditionalists on the matter of changing society. The modernization movement had always won because the pressure from the outside was too high. In our case, ideas traveled at a micro level through immigration and at a macro level by the emissaries sent by the Sui dynasty and the Korean kingdoms, especially Paekche. These phenomena are noted in the Nihon shoki chronicles. Concepts from the continent were quickly assimilated by Japan even before Soga took control over the government.

The legend from Nihon shoki says that Soga and Mononobe clans fought at the battle of Shigi. Soga no Umako obtained a clear victory when an archer named Tomi no Obito killed Moriya, the leader of Mononobe. Without a commander, the enemy troops were routed. After his victory over the Shinto clans, Soga no Umako managed to impose an emperor that was favorable to him in the person of Sushun, one of the many sons of the previous great Emperor Kinmei.

Emperor Sushun was angered because the Soga clan had the actual control of political affairs. The chronicles tell us that Sushun, while at a hunting party, boasted that he would kill Umako. In response, Soga no Umako hired an assassin in the person of Yamato no Aya. The mission was successful, and so the reign of Sushun ended with his violent death only five years after his ascension to the throne. Sushun’s grave was discovered by archaeologists and his person is still venerated in Shinto temples.

Soga no Umako convinced the other nobles that after Sushun, the half sister of the former emperor should be appointed to the throne. Suiko became more of a symbolic empress. Under her long reign that lasted thirty six years, a great set of revolutionary reforms were made, influenced by the Soga clan. Suiko had many sons but Prince Shotoku was elected for his incredible qualities and skills to serve as regent, a position that gave him the real political power. Considering the overlapping of Suiko with Shotoku, historians are still debating the actual role played by them.

Shortly after gaining official power, Shotoku started to get his own supporters and act independently. This created tensions with Umako, but the two great political leaders reached a tacit compromise, respecting each other. It seems that Shotoku didn’t have a problem with Umako but he wanted more political flexibility simply because he had a strong personality and many ideas to implement. The system probably worked with Suiko as a symbolic and neutral ruler, Shotoku having the last word in national problems, while Soga maintained the military power and influence at a local level.

Shotoku clearly didn’t trust the other Soga clan members, who weren’t as wise as Umako. He built a new palace at Ikaruga, with personal guards, and appointed his brother to an important military position. Once his position was consolidated, Shotoku used his skills to implement internal reforms and coordinate foreign affairs. Because of the special and traditional relations, a great influence and model for reformation was the Korean kingdom of Paekche. His greatest achievements were the creation of an administration based on meritocracy, the formulation of the first constitution of Japan, and open dialogue with Sui China.

Until Shotoku, all the vital administrative and political positions were held by clan leaders based on heredity. This could have some advantages, but also left room for corruption and incoherent politics at a national level. Inspired by Confucian philosophy, he implemented a rank system. In order to avoid the wrath of the nobles, some positions were still held by them. On the other hand the rank system was based on skills and knowledge, allowing common people to rise to important functions. This decision was a wise compromise, laying grounds for future reforms.

In foreign affairs, Shotoku wanted his country to be fully independent and equal to any empire of the world. For the first time in the history of the Yamato, tribute to a stable Chinese empire was stopped. He addressed his letter to the Sui dynasty in the following manner: ‘From the son of Heaven from the sovereign country where the sun rises, to the son of Heaven from the country where the sun sets.’ The country where the sun rises is spelled in Japanese as Nippon or Nihon, meaning Japan. It was the first written record of this kind, representing the early beginning of a Japanese national conscience, at least at an elite level.

Prince Shotoku was for Empress Suiko what German chancellor Otto von Bismarck was for Wilhelm I or what cardinal Richelieu was for Ludovic XIII. Shotoku’s personality became legendary and he is now treated as a national hero of Japan and protector of the emperor. Shotoku was posthumously given the title of ‘Sacred prince of virtue and protector of Buddhism’. He is considered a saint in Japanese Buddhist tradition. In modern times, his face has appeared on the banknotes of 10,000 and 15,000 yen. His contribution can be analyzed on different levels: political, economic, administrative, judicial, cultural, and religious.

Shotoku Taishi wasn’t supposed to rule. He was the bastard son of Emperor Yomei with Anahobe no Hashihito, a Korean princess from Paekche. Yomei ruled for only two years and died when Shotoku was just a child. Because he had a very distant claim to the imperial throne, Shotoku was trained to be scholar, not a politician. He was educated by Eji, a Korean Buddhist monk. During this time he read all the great Chinese classics. From Nihon shoki we learn that, like Napoleon, Shotoku was a brilliant leader who could listen to several different advisors at the same time.

Shotoku’s background made him aware of how big and complex the world is. Unlike any Japanese leader before him, he tolerated and encouraged all religions, visiting both Shinto and Buddhist temples. Understanding that Japan had to modernize, he organized numerous missions, sending young scholars to study in Korea and China. Some returned even after twenty years. Their generation represented the basic pool of leaders that helped the reformatory program. Again, a parallel with the Meiji era can be made. In that period, a lot of Japanese scholars traveled in order to learn from the United States and Europe.

Shotoku was also a great philosopher and writer. His biggest work was a religious and philosophical commentary in eight volumes about Buddhist teachings. The eight volumes called Sangyo Gisho were also an incipient form of literary criticism. If we take into account the general ideas presented in his opera, Shotoku was an exponent of Mahayana Buddhism, one of the three forms of this religion. The prince also made the first attempt to create a book about the history of Japan. We know about it from Nihon shoki because the original has not been preserved.

The system created by Shotoku was composed of twelve different ranks according to skill, experience and knowledge. Inoue Mitsusada and Delmer M. Brown explained the context. ‘The system adopted by Japan in 603 was closest to, and most directly influenced by, sixth-century Koguryo and Paekche. They all shared the Sui practice of wearing caps made of purple silk, decorated with gold and silver, and presented to persons whose rank was indicated by feathers of different kinds. The names of the ranks varied from state to state, but those adopted in Japan had a stronger Confucian character than those in Koguryo.’

The titles of the ranking system, in increasing order, were: lesser knowledge, greater knowledge, lesser justice, greater justice, lesser sincerity, greater sincerity, lesser propriety, greater propriety, lesser benevolence, greater benevolence, lesser virtue, greater virtue. These titles represented ideal qualities for a man of state found in Confucian philosophy. Shotoku used these titles in order to award and promote merit. For example, a sculptor of humble origins was promoted to the third rank because of his opera, and a diplomat was promoted to the first rank for his successful mission to the Sui court.

The Seventeen Article Constitution was most probably written by prince Shotoku. It wasn’t a democratic constitution in the modern sense. Instead, the text can be understood as a moral guide that legitimized the rule of the emperor. It also limited the power of the elite, by reminding them that they served in the name of the emperor, the Japanese nation and in the name of peace and stability. The act represented one of the first proto-constitutions from universal history. It was later updated at the end of Asuka jidai by an actual set of strict and explicit code of laws, collectively called the Ritsuryo system.

The first article highlights the utmost importance of harmony in all social relations. The influence of Confucian principles is clear here. Loyalty to your superiors and to your father keeps that balance. The second article encourages everyone to pray and respect the Buddhist faith. It is a humanistic concept because it states that almost everyone can be brought to the path of salvation. The third article has a philosophical and religious meaning and states that the emperor is the supreme ruler of Japan, having both secular power and religious power, being the descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu.

Article number three was probably the most important one because it combined Shinto beliefs with Buddhist ethics. ‘Do not fail to obey the commands of your Sovereign. He is like Heaven, which is above the Earth, and the vassal is like the Earth, which bears up Heaven. When Heaven and Earth are properly in place, the four seasons follow their course and all is well in Nature. But if the Earth attempts to take the place of Heaven, Heaven would simply fall in ruin. That is why the vassal listens when the lord speaks, and the inferior obeys when the superior acts.’

The fourth article brings to the attention of the ruling elite that all the rules apply to them also. They have a big responsibility to be a model for the whole society because if leaders behave without virtue everything will collapse. Everyone should know their place and purpose according to the rank system. Furthermore, the next article encourage judges to be impartial and forbids them to take bribes because then the rich will rule and the poor will become desperate.

Article six is related to the last two. Authorities should punish anyone who disturbs the order but should also reward and promote merit. Articles seven and eight further highlight that each official position has a clear set of attributes and a particular role. Functions in state should not overlap because no one will take responsibility for good or evil. Leaders should appoint people of quality to key positions. Functionaries should be aware that they serve the office and the state, and not use that power for their own interests. Ministers should work without rest, from early in the morning, till late at night.

Good faith in all actions is promoted in article nine. If the lord and the servant do not trust each other, nothing can be done. Article ten was truly an enlightened one. Every official had to obey orders but it gave them the right to have an opinion, even contrary to their superior. Ministers were encouraged to swallow their pride and not take it personally, arguing in the name of general good. ‘We are not unquestionably sages, nor are they unquestionably fools. Both of us are simply ordinary men. How can anyone lay down a rule by which to distinguish right from wrong? For we are all wise sometimes and foolish at others.’

Article eleven repeats the idea of just punishment and reward, suggesting that Shotoku really wanted to fight corruption and slowly impose a more meritocratic society. Article twelve was a controverted one because it forbade the local warlords to tax farmers and take advantage of them. Taxes should be gathered by officials, at an exact rate, in the name of the state. The next two articles declare that every official must do his particular duty. Absence or laziness will not be tolerated. Everyone should be content with their position and not envy their superiors because this is the first step towards betrayal and ruin.

Article fifteen highlights again that officials should rule in the name of public good, leaving aside personal feelings or interests. Furthermore, the next article protects the farmers from the abuse of their lords and ensures a constant supply of food. Common folks should not be taken from their farms and obligated to work in infrastructure projects during the season of harvest. Finally, the last article is related to article ten. It is close to the modern principle of the separation of powers in state, saying that no one should make an important decision alone, without consulting as many people as possible.

Shotoku suddenly became ill and died at the age of 48. The regency was again taken over by the old Soga no Umako. He also died four years later, leaving his son Soga no Emishi to take over. Unfortunately for the Soga clan, Emishi was not as balanced and wise as his father. Soon afterwards, Empress Suiko also died of old age. The disappearance of these great leaders created a political crisis and a legitimacy crisis that would gradually lead to the downfall of the Soga clan. A conflict related to inherency started between Emishi and prince Oe, Shotoku’s son. Their tragic fight brought ruin to the Soga but also created the opportunity for new reforms that strengthened the imperial state.

Emishi was an intelligent leader, but had authoritarian tendencies that angered the other nobles. For example, he used the ranking system imposed by Shotoku in his favour. Emishi appointed secretaries of state and assigned them to attend all the official meetings of the ministers, that were usually composed from persons with noble birth. Practically, Soga no Emishi promoted opportunists that had the role of spying on his own cabinet and reporting directly to him in the name of the empress. It was a clever strategy to centralize the state, but the measure was rushed and created discontent among the political elite.

After Suiko died without leaving a testament, everyone expected that prince Yamashiro no Oe, Shotoku’s son, would inherit the throne. Emishi no Soga opposed the idea, proposing prince Tamura, the son of former emperor Bidatsu, as the new ruler. Emishi wanted to have the real power, with Tamura being just his puppet. Prince Yamashiro was supported by another important Soga clan leader, Sakaibe no Marise, the brother of the former head of the family, Soga no Umako. Sakaibe claimed that on her deathbed, Suiko named prince Oe as her successor.

Emishi no Soga became angry because Sakaibe defied him so he ordered his assassination along with the rest of the family on his uncle’s side. The crime angered the rest of the clan because of its barbarism directed towards an honorable leader. They then gradually plotted to overthrow Emishi, who ruled as a dictator in the name of prince Tamura, who became Emperor Jomei. After thirteen years, Jomei died, and the political chaos reappeared. Who should rule? Nobles were again divided between prince Yamashiro no Oe and prince Naka no Oe, Jomei’s heir.

Emishi again opposed Yamashiro, fearing that the prince would be a strong ruler like his father. This time a compromise was reached. The wife of Jomei was crowned as Empress Kogyoku, and Iruka, Emishi’s son, was named regent. Iruka was even more brutal than his father. Even though he had almost absolute power, he became paranoid and ordered the assassination of prince Yamashiro together with all of Shotoku’s descendants. The tragedy represented the last drop. An underground alliance formed between Soga leaders, minister Nakatomi no Kamatari, and prince Naka no Oe.

Iruka was assassinated by prince Naka no Oe at a public ceremony. Emishi was forced to commit suicide, and so the Soga dominance ended. Historians called this episode the Isshi Incident. Empress Kogyoku abdicated in the favor of her younger brother, Emperor Kotoku. The regent and the one who held the true power was prince Naka no Oe but he was not a dictator because he relied on the advice of enlightened ministers, especially on Nakatomi no Kamatari. Under their influence, Japan was further reformed into a more centralized and efficient state.

Taika literally means ‘great change’. Shotoku’s ideas were followed at a completely new level. The political, administrative, judicial, economic and military reforms implemented now were revolutionary and incredibly efficient and modern. They transformed Japan, from an undeveloped island country constantly trapped in internal strife between nobles, into one of the most advanced nations in the world of that era. On the other hand, the centralization of the state was too radical, going against the Japanese decentralized political tradition. This is why the system would eventually break down at the end of Nara jidai, becoming more natural and balanced.

Prince Naka no Oe and his minister Nakatomi no Kamatari were firmly convinced that Japan must catch up with China. In order to implement more reforms, they promoted a new generation of scholars that returned from China. This generation was actually composed of the wave sent by Shotoku more than twenty years ago, proving that great politics must be planned on a long term basis. The best contributors, that had the required expertise, were the Buddhist monks and scholars Min and Eon.

The new group of leaders wanted to strengthen the rule of the emperor as a sacred institution. Naka no Oe called a general meeting with all the important ministers and nobles, forcing them to take an oath of absolute loyalty to Emperor Kotoku. The oath was inspired from the Seventeen Article Constitution. Moreover, the emperor ordered Buddhist monks to take full control of their monasteries and gave them funding, disregarding the regional area of influence of the aristocracy. This was done in order to fully control the official ideology and teachings promoted by the state.

Promoting Buddhist monasteries also had the general purpose of encouraging new elements from the Chinese culture, an act necessary in order to impose further political and social changes. Another important measure was to confiscate all weapons and store them in strategically placed warehouses controlled by the government. This prevented any possible rebellion or a coalition of noble families. Only those located at the border with the Emishi tribes, later named Ainu, were allowed to have weapons. What’s more intriguing is that now common people could directly petition the emperor on important matters.

After taking care of the possible resistance of the aristocracy, the emperor and his government focused on making sure that popular discontent would be kept at minimum levels. Kotoku promulgated edicts inspired by Confucian principles, strictly instructing his governors to avoid any conflict with farmers. Then he sent imperial functionaries in order to supervise the general activity and report back. They should not parade their wealth or be escorted by too many soldiers. Their main role was to collect data and make a huge census in order to create a national tax system.

The main feature on the Taika reforms was the general collectivization and centralization of the state. The whole process amazed historians because it was implemented really fast and without bloodshed. Modern dictators like Stalin or Mao would have been jealous of the efficiency of Taika edicts. Past political, social, and religious practices were highly criticized. All the land was taken under a close survey and measured in order to be taxed on the basis of objective principles. This helped the Japanese state to gather far more funds for economic and military investments and managed to keep at bay contesting nobles who had created chaos at a local level in the past.

One of the imperial edicts from the Taika reforms recognized that common people were exploited by their local lords, and offered them protection. The act also criticized the political instability created by the clan system. ‘Conflict among the clans over these possessions has been incessant. Some chieftains have taken over tens of thousands of shiro of rice land, and others lack enough land for a place to insert a needle. When the time comes for paying taxes, these omi, muraji, and occupational group managers first take their own cut and then divide up or hand over what is left.’

The imperial edicts used moral arguments to justify an early measure that suspended private property in the name of the state. ‘Increase the losses for those above and the advantages for those below. In this way property will be undamaged and the people unharmed. But now the people are more destitute than ever because powerful clan chieftains divide up the land, sell it to farmers, and collect yearly tribute. Henceforth the selling of land is forbidden. No one is permitted to become an unauthorized landlord or to increase, by one iota, the miseries of the weak.’

Other imperial edicts forbade nobles to force farmers to built their castles or any other personal projects in the season of harvesting or without paying them. An interesting fragment refers to the waste of wealth related to vast religious ceremonies. No graveyards should be built on fertile lands that can be farmed. The mounds for common people should be structures built in such a way that, after one century, any sign of their existence would disappear. Larger moments for nobles can be erected, but only according to rank. Burying the dead with jewels and any other treasures was strictly forbidden for everyone.

After all the preliminary preparations, Emperor Kotoku promulgated the most revolutionary measures. They were called the ‘Fourth-Article Edict’. Theoretically, the first article stated that all public property was confiscated in the name of the emperor and from now on the land would be managed by imperial functionaries. All aristocratic privileges were suspended. In practice, clan chieftains still held some influence, being allowed to keep most of their properties. On the other hand, now they really answered to imperial agents, who had the power to dispose of them at anytime.

The second article referred to an administrative problem and divided the capital into four different sectors. The main idea was to promote order and safety in governance, forcing the ministers to keep an archive with the taxes and all the relevant data that could be inspected by imperial agents. The third article divided the country into local administrative centers, each region being measured with accuracy. Fifty families of farmers formed a village that had one leader loyal to the emperor, who also had judicial, infrastructure and tax-gathering responsibilities.

The last article was more technical and focused on the tax system. Every village had to pay an equivalent of 3% of their rice production. Each house had to pay a fixed tax, and the payment could be made in textiles or with other local products. Warriors paid taxes for their weapons and armor. Villages also paid taxes according to the number of horses they had, or if they had skilled workers or artisans. An interesting habit was the honor for some villages to send a beautiful woman to the imperial court to serve as a courtesan for the high ranking politicians. They also had to pay a tax for her upkeep.

According to the Japanese historian Inoue Mitsusada, prince Naka no Oe was sincere in his intentions and even donated his estates and servants to the state. The future emperor Tenji declared: ‘Heaven does not have two suns, a country does not have two rulers.’

Koguryo’s victory over Sui China led to the collapse of the Chinese dynasty that was replaced by Emperor Kao-tsu of the Tang dynasty. In reaction to the rise of the new Chinese empire, all the Korean kingdoms sent a symbolic tribute. In time, relations between Koguryo and Tang worsened because the Chinese wanted revenge for all that had happened in the past. Even though Japan was aware of Tang’s might, they refused to be drawn into the protectorate system. Eventually, this led to total war between two coalitions: Tang and Silla against Koguryo, Paekche and Japan. In the end, the first coalition won and Korea was divided between Tang and Silla.

For a period of time, Silla became more friendly towards Japan and even sent tribute. The death of prince Shotoku changed things. Five years after the fall of Sui, Japan invaded Silla but the troops once again retreated. This time, it seems that the influence of Korean immigrants and the Japanese who went to study in Korea and China convinced the ministers to back down. In order to strengthen this soft power strategy, Silla sent even more Buddhist monks and scholars to the archipelago.

Two years after the death of Empress Suiko, Japan tried to establish strong relations with Tang China and sent a mission carrying the traditional tribute. Soon after that, Tang sent a mission to Japan. The ambassadors from China came alongside the ones from Silla and they wore equal ranking caps. For Japan, this meant that Silla had become dangerously close to the Tang because their officials behaved as if Silla was annexed to the Chinese empire. From the perspective of protocol, it was an insult for the Japanese officials to be considered equals to Silla envoys. Because of that, Sino-Japanese relations worsened even more.

Tensions between Koguryo and Tang reappeared when Koguryo erected a big monument to honor and commemorate their fallen soldiers in the war against Sui. The successor to Kao-tsu, Emperor Taizong, ordered a raid against Koguryo, destroying the monument and desecrating the graves. Koguryo understood then that Taizong had the ambition of conquering all of Korea, so the country started to build castles and other defensive structures. Both Koguryo and Paekche started to pay a symbolic tribute to Japan and sent monks there hoping that they would attract it into their forming alliance.

Emperor Taizong wanted to get revenge on Koguryo but he didn’t underestimate the Koreans. Tang dynasty prepared the army for over a decade before the invasion. In the meantime, Koguryo managed to set up an impressive defensive system. War started in the year of the Taika reforms, when Emperor Taizong accused Koguryo of invading Silla. It was just a motive in order to justify the invasion as a saving mission for their protectorate kingdoms. Paekche and Silla were asked to help and attack from the south, but both declined. Paekche was the unofficial ally of Koguryo and Silla was too busy fighting Paekche.

Taizong chose to personally lead his troops into battle. He planned to attack from both land and sea. The whole invading force numbered 300,000 soldiers, against 50,000 defenders. With him at the command of the forces, Tang obtained a series of great victories, conquering citadel after citadel in the Liaodong Peninsula. Ansi was the last stronghold on the northwest front. There, the legendary Korean general Yang Manchun managed to heroically resist for more than two months. Winter soon came, and not having enough supplies, Taizong was forced to retreat.

The Chinese chronicles tells us that Taizong was injured in one eye by an arrow in the battle for Ansi. After two years, he sent two more military expeditions, but again they were defeated. Taizong died of illness and was succeeded by his son Gaozong. Taizong was one of the greatest emperors in Chinese history. Under him, the empire greatly expanded its borders, the army became far more efficient and the general economy and culture flourished. His only defeat in battle was against Yeon Gaesomun, the military dictator of Koguryo and maybe the greatest ancient national hero of Korea.

Tang, the Korean kingdoms and Japan had close diplomatic, trade, spiritual and cultural relations. Despite these strong ties, from a realistic perspective, conflict was inevitable. Koguryo became too strong and managed to administrate humiliating defeats to the previous Chinese empires. Japan was afraid that the rise of the Tang empire would eventually lead to an invasion of the archipelago so the emperor decided to reform the state in a broader defensive strategy. The new strength of the Japanese forced the Tang to take another defensive strategy, launching a preventive attack, before Japan became even more powerful.

Paekche was worried about the Chinese attacks against Koguryo, thinking that they would be next. At the same time, Silla was still hostile to them. Furthermore, the leadership of Paekche was encouraged by the fact that Koguryo was again able to hold back the Chinese imperial army and the fact that Japan was acting independently, without Tang’s approval, in being hostile to Silla. Paekche calculated that this was their best chance to survive as a state, so they invaded Silla from the north, hoping that the Japanese would send military aid from the south.

Some Silla and Tang troops remained in Paekche to keep the peace while most of the army went north to attack Koguryo. This gave hope to the Paekche rebels. They were led by General Gwisil Boksin and by the Buddhist monk Doachim. The heir to the throne of Paekche, Prince Buyeo Pung, returned from Japan to support the movement of resistance and claim the throne. Before the war began, he was sent to Japan as a guarantee for the alliance between the two countries. Now he returned together with the Yamato general Abe no Hirafu, supported by thousand of Japanese soldiers.

Paekche hoped that after the joint attack, Silla would be eliminated from the game. In this way, Paekche and Japanese forces could turn to Koguryo and muster strong defences on a single front. Using the advantage of mountain passes, they could stop the future Tang invading armies there, compensating for their numerical inferiority. Seeing that Paekche was already winning the war, Japan hesitated to invade Silla for fear that this act would attract the Tang dynasty into the conflict.

The alliance between the Paekche resistance movement and Japan managed to obtain some important victories and lay siege to Paekche’s former capital. Emperor Gaozong was forced to send part of his army that was invading Koguryo in order to destroy the rebellion. The battle for Paekche resulted in a pyrrhic draw, with both sides recording heavy casualties. The campaign however was not led by Emperor Gaozong, who stayed at home and named General Su Dingfang at the head of the military operations. This had a demoralizing effect on the Chinese soldiers, who considered their emperor to be a weak man.

Silla forces were pushed back by the invading Paekche so they called for the help of Tang. Emperor Gaozong made a surprising decision. After years of constant defeat in the face of Koguryo, he ordered all of his troops to abandon all the previous initiatives and turn south towards Paekche. Koguryo soldiers were too exhausted to chase the Chinese. It was good plan, suggested by king Muyeol of Silla. The Chinese attack was fast and the Japanese did not have the time to react. Paekche was defenceless, trapped between Silla and Tang. Soon afterwards, the capital was destroyed, their king captured and Paekche was destroyed.

Yeon Gaesomun took advantage of the fact that Tang forces were divided between two fronts and managed to obtain a crushing victory at the Battle of Salsu River, against the main invading Chinese army, killing General Pang Xiaotai in company with all his officers. In this situation, Su Dingfang abandoned the siege of the Koguryo capital, Pyongyang, and retreated. From then on, Chinese forces focused on defeating the Paekche-Japanese coalition. The decisive encounter happened at the Battle of Baekgang, where Tang-Silla forces managed to annihilate all the resistance. This made Japan abandon Korea.

Japan sent more than 40,000 soldiers and 800 ships to the Battle of Baekgang. The Tang army was composed of 15,000 infantry and 200 ships, supported by Silla cavalry. Even though the Japanese had the clear numerical advantage, they were utterly defeated by far more disciplined, experienced and well-armed Tang soldiers. The Chinese also had better technology, their ships being larger, faster and more maneuverable. Many Japanese drowned. Nihon shoki chronicles estimates that Japan, in only two days of fighting, lost 10,000 soldiers and 400 ships.

After the defeat at the Battle of Baekgang, Japan prepared its defences in the case of a Tang-Silla invasion of the archipelago. This motivated further internal reforms, making the state even stronger. The attack never came because Tang was trapped in battles on its western and northern borders and Silla was trying to stabilize its conquest. Instead, Tang and Silla forces assailed Koguryo and finally managed to conquer it, taking advantage of a series of betrayals and internal strife. Tang rule over Korea didn’t last for long because Silla wanted to be a unified country.

Tang and Silla forces invaded Koguryo, but under the command of the military genius of Yeon Gaesomun, the kingdom of Koguryo resisted. Three years after the Battle of Baekgang, Yeon Gaesomun died of old age. His first son, Yeon Namsaeng, took the command and intended to kill his younger brothers, Namgeon and Namsan. They responded by raising an army in Pyongyang. Namsaeng was afraid and fled with his supporters into China, asking for Tang military assistance. Furthermore, Yeon Jeongto, the brother of the former great leader Yeon Gaesomun, pledged allegiance to Silla.

Some historians think that Namgeon and Namsan were to blame for the downfall of Koguryo. When Yeon Namsaeng was preparing the borders to defend against Tang’s invasion, they plotted in the capital and tried to kill him. Without a choice, Namsaeng retreated into China and allied with Tang in the hope that his rule would be restored. Emperor Gaozong used the opportunity and conquered Koguryo. The whole region was directly under Chinese rule, and was named ‘The General Protectorate to Pacify the East’. Because of the unrest, the Chinese governor tried to deport tens of thousands of Koreans.

Two years after the death of their greatest general and with their military forces divided and demoralized, Koguryo was completely defeated and occupied by Tang-Silla forces. Soon afterwards, rebellions all over the country against Chinese dominance started. Silla turned against its former ally and completely expelled Tang soldiers from Korea in a war that lasted almost a decade. The southern part of Koguryo was annexed by Silla, while the northern part, together with Manchuria, gained independence as the kingdom of Balhae, considered by historians as a successor of Koguryo. These problems made Tang renounce any plan to invade Japan.

Even from prehistory, China and the Korean Peninsula had an enormous cultural impact on the Japanese archipelago. Even more important is the influence exercised during the Classical Antiquity of Japan. The defeat at Baekgang and the general wars with Korea had two major consequences. Firstly, it convinced all the Japanese leaders that further reforms in strengthening the state and the army were needed. Secondly, many of these reforms and cultural changes were implemented with the help of the Paekche and Koguryo elite who fled for their lives when their countries were conquered.

Inoue Mitsusada and Delmer M. Brown made a list of the monuments from Asuka jidai. The most important ones are the Shaka triad, meaning three Buddhist statues built in the style of Northern Wei dynasties, and a wooden statue named Kudara Kannon. ‘All of these national treasures are kept at Horyu-ji, a truly remarkable institutional representation of the enlightenment. Other national treasures have come down to us from those times, of which some are thought to be on a par with the finest objects of art produced in contemporary China.’

With a slow emergence of national identity, Japan started to assimilate the foreigners who were called ‘Torai-jin’. Most of them were literate workers, carpenters, artisans, priests and artists. Their skills brought a big plus to the general economy. The administrative system and high culture in general was also supported by aristocratic nobles with foreign descent. For example, Shinsen Shojiroku was the first official genealogical record of the noble families in Japan, compiled at the end of Nara jidai. From a total of 1,182 aristocratic families, 326 had Chinese and Korean descent.

In the passing of hundreds of years, many waves of immigrants influenced Japan. For example, there were clans that claimed to be descendants of the ancient Chinese dynasty of Han. Others claimed that their ancestors brought into the country new techniques for agriculture, producing silk clothes, or even the Chinese writing system. Many of them were imperial agents who supported the Taika reforms. After the destruction of their state, the Japanese emperor gave a special status to the Paekche aristocrats, who received the honorable title of ‘Kings of Paekche’. They played a major role in Nara jidai.

When Emperor Kotoku died, his son Prince Arima claimed the throne but the regent Naka no Oe favored the former Empress Kogyoku, now ruling under the name Saimei. While the Japanese army was mobilizing in order to help Paekche, Arima used the popular unhappiness with public spending on war and infrastructure to overthrow the regent. He was captured and executed. Later, after the defeat at the Battle of Baekgang, the state started to build massive defensive structures on the northern shores of Kyushu, Tsushima and the Iki islands, and on the western shores of Honshu. The exhaustion of financial resources eventually led to civil war.

Saimei died just before the Battle of Baekgang, and Prince Naka no Oe was finally crowned as Emperor Tenji, since he no longer wanted to be a regent. He sent a diplomatic mission to Tang in order to make peace, but relations remained very tense. Without knowing that a brutal war between Silla and Tang had started, while Koguryo rebels were resisting the Chinese occupation, the Japanese emperor prepared his country for the eventuality of a huge Tang-Silla invasion. Tenji ordered the construction of forts in strategic points, tried to implement mass conscription and organized constant military drills.

The possibility of fast mass mobilization was introduced. Water towers could be used as checkpoints, as military weapons, releasing water on the invaders, or as a supply of water for the ditches of the nearby fortresses. The context of the military preparations is explained in The Cambridge History of Japan Volume 1. ‘On the island of Tsushima, for example, a stone wall 6 meters high and 2,370 meters long was erected. In addition, new forts were constructed at strategic positions along the Inland Sea, for Japanese leaders now feared that enemy forces might make a successful landing in Kyushu and advance up the Island Sea towards the capital.’

Nihon shoki records two important waves of immigration. The first happened after the defeat of Paekche, the second after the collapse of Koguryo. Thousands of people were distributed by the Japanese state into different provinces according to their skills. Many foreign builders used their expertise to erect new fortifications. For their contributions, some of them were introduced amongst the court ranks system established by prince Shotoku in the past.

Tenji was a leader who clearly understood the priority of national interests. Because it was too expensive and the country needed money for building a new army, he decided to postpone the ceremony of his coronation. Furthermore, he ordered his ministers to further enlarge the ranking system to the whole country and to reward and promote more people based on merit. It was a very ambitious plan that took at least seven years to implement. He also appointed Nakatomi no Kamatari to write a cohesive code of law, traditionally named ‘The Ritsuryo system’.

Emperor Tenji was not only a great politician, but also a great scholar and poet. After his death, the problem of inheritance reappeared. He had twelve sons with different women. His choice as heir was Prince Oama, his younger brother. Influenced by one of his courtesans, Tenji changed his mind and named his son, Prince Otomo, as heir to the throne. Tenji died in the general context of discontent regarding defence spending. Prince Oama and Prince Otomo prepared for civil war, as they gathered supporters and soldiers from the traditional clans. This revealed that the aristocracy still had the biggest power and legitimacy to raise armies.

Prince Oama protested when Tenji named his son as heir and was almost arrested, but the intervention of Nakatomi no Kamatari saved his life. One year later, Kamatari died of old age and was succeeded by his son, Nakatami no Fuhito. The partnership between Prince Oama and the Nakatomi family was just the beginning of a long friendship and collaboration that marked the history of Japanese Classical Antiquity.

With the death of both the enlightened makers of the Taika reforms, civil war was inevitable. Prince Oama retreated to a monastery in order to hide his real ambitions, promising to become a monk, and Prince Otomo held the power in the capital. Learning that some nobles were planning to assassinate him, prince Oama secretly started to gather supporters from the north and east of the country. His troops were fewer and he had almost no hope of winning but his strategic skills proved to be decisive.

Prince Oama ordered small groups of soldiers to occupy the main northern and eastern roads that led to the capital. In this situation, Prince Otomo could not send emissaries to ask for the help of clan chieftains. Furthermore, most of the commanders from southern and western Japan refused to send reinforcements to either side because they were convinced that abandoning their forts would provide the perfect opportunity for a Tang-Silla invasion. This is why Oama easily won the Jinshin War and was crowned as Emperor Tenmu. Prince Otomo and his mother were forced to commit suicide.

Emperor Tenmu rose to power with the support of clans that were unhappy with the previous regime, considering that the old Shinto ways were being lost. Tenmu had to reach a compromise with them so he strengthened the authority of the emperor and continued to enlarge the army, but he also reinstated the Shinto and Buddhist duality, first established by Shotoku. Furthermore, being in debt, Tenmu appointed Nakatani no Fuhito, the son of the man who saved his life, as one his main advisers. The Nakatani family was traditionally a part of the Shinto coalition led by the Mononobe clan.

Tenmu was important because he was the first Japanese ruler who held the title of emperor, and not just great king or son of heaven. Historians refer to previous sovereigns as emperors because they are mentioned in this way in the traditional chronicles Kojiki and Nihon shoki, written at the beginning of Nara jidai. This practice was done to honor them. In reality, up until Tenmu, no Japanese leader had the title of emperor. The concept slowly developed when the elite started to have a national conscience and wanted Japan to be considered the equal of the Tang empire.

When he was just a prince, Tenmu was noted especially for his contribution in the military matters related to Taika reforms. His experience in war provided the required motivation to continue the recruitment of a national army. Even though emissaries finally brought the news about what was happening in Korea, Tenmu convinced his ministers that a strong defensive system was a priority. He ordered his governors to hire generals to study the art of war and assist at military drills. A census tested how many men were available for conscription and what was the total stock of weapons.

Tenmu continued to build fortresses on the shores of Japan and around the capital but also understood that a sovereign can’t rely solely on brute force or on his personal charisma. Like Tenji, he had many sons and used this advantage by appointing them to vital ministerial positions. He also reinstated the old system of aristocracy, but now the noble titles were less important, and had attributes only in the local administration. In doing so, Tenmu was keeping away the chieftains of clans, by giving them some power, and was balancing the ambitions of his sons.

In foreign affairs, Tenmu was pleased when he learned that the Tang dynasty was betrayed by Silla. The Chinese had to deal with numerous enemies at their western and northern borders. He renounced any attempts to reconcile with Tang and instead took important steps to build good relations with Silla, which now controlled almost all of the Korean Peninsula and was winning the war with Tang.

The Late Asuka jidai was marked by administrative and legislative innovations collectively called the ‘Ritsuryo system’. Ritsuryo was composed of four different set of laws. Omi-ryo was an administrative code in 22 volumes created by Emperor Tenji. Asuka Kiyomi-hara-ryo updated the former code, being made in the time of Emperor Tenmu and finalized under Empress Jito. The Taiho Code was created by Fuhito no Fujiwara, at the command of Emperor Monmu. Lastly, Yoro Code was an updated version of the Taiho Code, published in the Nara era.

Omi-ryo and Kiyomi-hara-ryo reorganized the central government and the local administration. The lowest local administrative entity was a village composed of 20 houses. Two or three villages formed a Township. Districts varied from five to twenty Townships. A Province varied even more in size because it was composed based on traditional motifs, replicating the old small kingdoms from the Yayoi and Kofun era.

At a central level, religion was separated from politics in two completely different entities. The supreme commander of both of them was the emperor. Any matters related to religion were under the responsibility of the Department of Worship called Jingi-kan. Politics was coordinated by a government termed as Daijo-kan, divided in eight ministerial departments, that each had four secretaries of state based on the ranking system.

The Taido Code was the most important because it was most practical and also had a criminal set of laws, the first such attempt in the history of Japan. According to the crime, the person that was found guilty could face whipping in private or in public, one to five years in prison, exile to a near province or a far province, or death by beheading or hanging. With the exception of grave crimes, high-ranking politicians had the right to pardon the convict.

Taiho code gave the emperor of Japan even greater authority than his Chinese counterpart. The Chinese emperor ruled according to the principle of the ‘Mandate of Heaven’. It was a doctrine that stated that if the emperor is profoundly unjust and despotic, he loses the favors of the gods, and people can rebel against his tyranny. The gods will then select another worthy emperor and give him the Mandate of Heaven. On the other side, the Japanese emperor was the direct descendant of the Sun goddess Amaterasu, and his power was sacred and absolute.

Because everything was inspired by Confucian and Buddhist principles, the punishments were remarkably humane and lenient, considering the general context of the era. For example, unlike the law in the Tang dynasty, some basic women's rights were respected by not giving the husband the right to kill his wife and by excluding adultery as a punishable crime. It was just the beginning of a long tradition. In Heian jidai, at the height of Classical Antiquity, the rights and general mentality regarding Japanese women were probably the most advanced in the world.

The nationalization and collectivization of land was firmly passed under a code of law. Private property was abolished, all the land being public property owned by the emperor. Farmers now had only the right to use the fields, according to the guidance of imperial agents. The right of inheritance was also abrogated. After a peasant to whom land was assigned died, a public functionary had to assign the piece of land to other people. Young adults were prioritized because they had the potential to farm the land.

The economic measures supposed that the state had the incredible bureaucratic power to keep evidence of the whole land in real time. Discipline and the quality of political leaders compensated for the lack of modern technology. However, in the long term, these revolutionary and ambitious methods of governance didn’t work because they went against Japanese diverse cultural traditions and undermined the immemorial clan practice. Even though the whole system collapsed at the end of Nara jidai, historians are amazed that such a thing was even possible and that it lasted for over a century.

For all of his great services to Japan, Nakatani no Kamatari was awarded by Emperor Tenji with the title ‘Fujiwara’. His son Fuhito took this name, and the whole clan would be known in history as Fujiwara. Starting with Fuhito no Fujiwara, this noble family dominated Japanese politics for the next three hundred years. Even when they eventually lost their preeminence, Fujiwara members were assigned to symbolic positions, as the main protectors of the imperial family.

After Emperor Tenmu died, his wife, Empress Jito, ruled until prince Karu, Tenmu’s son with another consort, became an adult. At the age of fourteen, Emperor Monmu was enthroned but he became ill and died at the age of twenty five. He was succeeded by his mother, princess Abe, who was one of the daughters of Emperor Tenji who later married Emperor Tenmu. Princess Abe reigned under the title of Empress Genmei. She was the last ruler of Asuka jidai. These successions of weak emperors represented a perfect opportunity for Fujiwara no Fuhito to take control of all the important political matters.

At the initiative of the Fujiwara clan, the capital was moved by Empress Genmei from Asuka to Heijo palace in Nara, returning to the old seats of Yamato rulers. The new capital was built from scratch around the imperial headquarters, marking the beginning of a new age. This time the Japanese leaders wanted to create a permanent capital as a symbol of the emperor's might. Another important feature of the transition from Asuka jidai to Nara jidai consists in the ascension of the Fujiwara family as the most influential aristocrats in Japan. Many of them held the real power, being named as regents of the emperor, who gradually started to have symbolic attributes.

Two years before she moved the capital to Nara, Empress Genmei ordered the creation of Wadokaichin, the first coins in Japanese history. The coins were round, with a hole in their center and were made from copper and silver. The power of the state grew even more after this decision. Having a stable national currency meant that the ministers could apply monetary policies in order to better control the economy.

In order to gather taxes more efficiently, Japan was divided into several provinces, according to the Gokishichido system. More exactly, the regions around the capital and the imperial base were divided into five provinces: Yamato, Yamashiro, Kawachi, Settsu, Izumi. They had a special status because this was where the main military forces had bases and from here all the administrative matters were coordinated. The rest of the country was divided into seven parts called ‘circuits’ that were connected to the capital by the way of official roads. The cicuits were: Tokaido, Tosando, Hokurikudo, San’indo, San’yodo, Nakaido, Saikaido.

Political and administrative positions were assigned according to a compromise. On one hand, unlike in China, heredity remained the most important criteria and even the politicians who rose from meagre means wanted their sons to inherit their status. On the other hand, even though there was no entrance exam, a school for elite politicians called ‘Daigaku-ryo’ produced many future leaders and was sponsored by the state.