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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.