Beginning of organized religion and foreign contacts in Ancient Japan
The continent of Asia, Shinto-Buddhism, and their contribution to the statecraft of Japan
author Armand Sadovschi, April 2017
In terms of trade, technology, arts, literature, military strategy, administrative organization and techniques of good governance, the process of assimilating and borrowing from China and Korea was of utmost importance for the maturing of the Japanese civilization. These mostly secular variables became interwoven with the religious life of the society to such an extent that the phenomenon of ethnogenesis cannot be understood by treating the factors separately. Incipient Shinto was related to other agricultural and animistic religious manifestations from Asia but later evolved as a completely different religion. Clan chieftains justified their sacred authority by taking the role of intermediaries between the people and the gods. Starting as a wide, unpremeditated range of colorful myths, Shinto was partially reshaped to grant the emperor his sacred nature. Buddhism arrived to enhance this absolute authority, offered a prestige that would eventually make the neighboring countries respect and fully recognize Japan as a sovereign entity, and smoothed the road for radical reforms. From a metaphysical perspective, Shinto influenced Buddhism by offering it a more collectivistic trait, while Buddhism came with a complex system of ethics that was completely lacking in the Shinto teleology. The religious syncretism encouraged a remarkable social cohesion which was behind the success of the imperial system, but it also heavily inspired and transformed all the philosophical and artistic forms of expression from the archipelago. Japan managed to adapt the foreign components to its own particular needs. At the end of this procedure, the unique and authentic character of the Country of the Rising Sun emerged.

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The influence of religion and foreign contacts on the statecraft and national identity of ancient Japan have been analyzed by numerous scholars. Probably the most important ones are Okazaki Takashi, Matsumae Takashi, Sonoda Koyu and Delmer M. Brown. Their contributions have stirred fascinating debates about the circular relationship between material and spiritual elements in history. Did archaic animistic beliefs develop into a national religion thanks to economic prosperity and advanced political strategies, or were economic prosperity and the centralization of an efficient state made possible by the very strong persuasion of pre-existing common spiritual values? Or was the result just a compromise between two complementary phenomena? Do contacts with more developed civilizations encourage the creation of a unique culture or inhibit it because of the imitation?

Since the very beginning, the prehistoric culture of the Japanese archipelago was heavily influenced by the continent of Asia. First of all, it’s undeniable that the Incipient Jomon hunter-gatherers arrived in Japan by boat and via land bridges that later disappeared. Second of all, agriculture and iron tools were introduced from China or Korea or both. As in many other ancient societies, the agricultural revolution radically changed the lifestyle of the people. The hunter-gatherers were slowly replaced by a fully sedentary agricultural culture, the Yayoi. In time, the villages grew into tribe federations and from there into small kingdoms.

Starting from the Kofun era, Korea was divided into three kingdoms: Koguryo, Silla and Paekche. Those ancient states worked as intermediaries for the cultural, technological and economic transmission from China to Japan. New weapons, military tactics, advanced carpeting techniques and Buddhism were introduced from there. Korea was also the prime source for imports of iron ingots. During the Asuka and Nara periods, Japan grew into a fully fledged civilization based on the model of the Chinese Tang dynasty. Inspired by the economic and cultural successes of the glorious Tang, the Japanese state was centralized under the absolute authority of the emperor, a reign also legitimized by Shinto and Buddhism.

The damnation or the salvation of the soul are abstract ideas completely unknown to Shinto. Heaven and Hell were also much later conceptions introduced by Buddhism. Shintoism is not a religion built around the individual. The individual has no moral responsibility in the face of a powerful god or a sacred ethical guideline. The archaic Jomon could bring misfortune to the community as a whole if he undertook impure actions. He had the duty to participate in magical rites in order to purge all that was filthy. The earliest forms of Shinto offer a plausible explanation for how the general mentality of the Japanese civilization advanced through the centuries and why the current Japanese society is based on a collectivist unifying philosophy.

Foreign contacts also influenced the ancient Japanese perspective. Although Shinto is now an original and unique religion, in its first phases of development countless myths were borrowed from the Asian continent. Actually, Shinto is a rich source of folk tales and legends, later inspiring works of literature of universal value, simply because the founding pillars were based on varied cultural perspectives, carved by contrasting life experiences. Moreover, the later introduction of Buddhism altered the way Shinto was expressed in arts, added new stories to the traditional narrative, offered ethical perspectives and even adapted some of the animistic rituals, transforming them into more formal and complex ceremonies.

Shinto as a state religion was not just a manipulated fraud work of fiction. In order to arrange a compelling force of political legitimization, the ancient scholars tried to choose and be inspired by the most popular and enduring myths from folklore. Even the most enlightened intellectuals of that era were very religious people and their work represented a middle ground between their own mystical beliefs and secular political necessity. By the virtue of this spiritual and material link, Shinto and the ancient Japanese state reached maturity at the same time and were both shaped by each other.

While early Shinto progressed spontaneously from the bottom to the top of the pyramid, Buddhism was, first and foremost, used as a political tool. Initially introduced from Korea, the foreign faith was not well received by the native clans whose authority relied on the worship of traditional deities. The numerous aristocrats originating from Korea and China organized themselves around the Soga clan, promoting Buddhism not as a spiritual teaching, but more as a political ideology. Only after the downfall of the Soga family did the Japanese emperors fully recognize Buddhism as a state religion, investing large sums of money in order to consolidate it. Yet, until the late Nara jidai, with a few enlightened exceptions, most of the Japanese understood the Buddhist dogma in a very shallow way, praying for a plentiful harvest or for good health.

The reasons behind the adoption of Buddhism were numerous. The Yamato kings wanted to be recognized as the equals of Korean and Chinese sovereigns, and a common religion could have facilitated a better diplomatic dialogue. Trade relations were also facilitated by shared spiritual values. Furthermore, the Japanese started to manifest geopolitical ambitions in the Korean Peninsula and they needed allies to accomplish their high goal. It is not by chance that Paekche, Japan’s most reliable ally, was the one who presented this faith to the Yamato rulers. As China was reunified under the Sui and Tang dynasties, the Japanese elite understood that great political and economic reforms could be faster implemented with the help of a new religious ideology.

Most scholars agree that the Yellow River and the Yangtze River in China represent the cradle of civilization in the Far East. The first agricultural society clearly appeared there, with recent research dating it as early as 5,000 BC. According to traditional historiography, Xia was the first Chinese dynasty that emerged in 2,000 BC. The following Shang dynasty was one of the most advanced kingdoms in the world at that time, using bronze weapons and already adopting early Chinese characters in 1,600 BC. The Zhou dynasty entered the Iron Age one thousands years before our era, and the Qin dynasty materialized into the first Chinese empire in 220 BC. It is inevitable that such enormous cultural expansion also had a profound impact on the ancient societies of Korea and Japan.

Until recently it was believed that Japan lost all contact with the continent of Asia when the glaciers finally melted in 14,000 BC. Archeological sites point to a scant connection between the Early Jomon of Japan from northern Kyushu and the Jeulmun hunter-gatherers from Korea. Pottery discovered in Busan had similar traits with the Jomon, suggesting that the famous Sobata pottery style of prehistoric Japan was inspired by primitive ceramics from Korea.

The prehistory of Japan was again marked by numerous migrations in the Late Jomon and Early Yayoi. Plant manipulation already existed but rice cultivation was introduced by those migrations. Although no one denies that agriculture spread from the Yangtze River to Korea and Japan, the exact route and date of arrival is very controverted. Scientists debate around three theories that try to explain the point of origin. All of them are supported by solid evidence and thorough analysis.

Developed Jomon-style ceramics have been unearthed in various parts of Korea but there is no evidence of pottery from Korea in the Middle and Late Jomon. This could mean that Middle and Late Jomon culture was isolated and developed without any influence, but that it also exported technologies to the Jeulmun culture. The transmission of technology was possible only because the southern part of the Korean Peninsula was very close to Northern Kyushu. Communication was limited only to the tribes from those areas.

One possible route of migration could have been from China to the Korean Peninsula and then centuries later to the Japanese archipelago. In this scenario, the migrations played a vital role in the rise of the Yayoi. Archaeological artifacts from northern Kyushu support this claim. Another hypothesis states the contemporary adoption of agriculture in Korea and Japan from the Yangtze River, meaning that the cultures of Korea and Japan reached a relatively equal stage of development. Recent rice DNA results and carbon dating reinforce the second theory. An additional possibility is represented by the transmission of rice cultivation from East China to Japan via the Ryukyu islands. Accentuated similarities between Early Yayoi skeletons and the ones from Jiangsu province of China make this idea plausible.

In Okazaki Takashi’s opinion, the most probable ancient route of technology transfer was from China to Korea, and then later to Japan. Recent studies point out that agricultural societies appeared in the Korean Peninsula in 1,000 BC, before the rise of the Yayoi. No Chinese stone and bronze tools have been found from the Early stage of Yayoi. Instead, many Korean tools were similar to the contemporary culture from Japan. Maybe the most important discovery was made at the Itazuke site from northern Kyushu, a village where the Late Jomon hunter-gatherers lived alongside Early Yayoi settlers. Their tools and weapons had similar traits with the ones found in Korea.

Yamataikoku was most probably the strongest kingdom of the Yayoi culture, called Yamatai by the Chinese. Contacts with China and Korea were very important for the development of small kingdoms in ancient Japan. Several reasons must be taken into consideration. Chinese texts that talk about their experience with the Yamatai have proven to be the most reliable source of knowledge about the incipient organized politics in Japan, named by the Chinese as the country of Wa. Friendly diplomatic relations with the far more advanced Han dynasty offered the shamanistic tribe federations of the Yamatai the chance to evolve into well-established kingdoms ruled by kings with divine rights. The technological revolution and the general rise of the economy were also supported by the war from the Korean Peninsula that displaced many Koreans, forcing them to settle in Japan. They were generally well received, bringing with them treasured knowledge in metalworking, woodworking, mining and advanced agricultural techniques.

The Early Yayoi culture adopted more advanced techniques in metallurgy coming from the continent. Okazaki Takashi points out all the sources. ‘Archaeological findings indicate that by the third century BC, the Koreans had created an advanced metal culture. Iron and bronze weapons, agricultural tools, and datable coins had been introduced from the northeastern Chinese state of Yen. Bronze items from the Scytho-Siberian culture of the Eurasian steppe have been found at Korean sites.’ Although still dependent on the imports of metal ore, thanks to the knowledge brought from abroad, at least the Middle and Late Yayoi kingdoms had the capability to craft their own iron tools and weapons. Using developed means of production and warfare, the economic and military power of the Yayoi tribes grew, allowing them to build a cohesive and complex political order.

The northern part of the Korean Peninsula was conquered by the Han dynasty in 108 BC. They formed there a colony named Lolang. Hearing about the presence of a great empire that appeared in the near vicinity, the first Yayoi kingdoms sent emissaries with tribute. In exchange, the Chinese offered the Yayoi leaders noble titles that would strengthen their legitimacy back home, and gave them luxury products like silk clothes, bronze mirrors and swords. The encounters were recorded by Chinese scholars. Appreciating the gesture of loyalty, the Han emperors even sent agents to train and advise Yayoi kings.

Many Chinese records talk about the contacts with the Yayoi and their many kingdoms. Pan Ku writes Han shu in 82 AD, the first book where the Yayoi are mentioned. Historians have worked together with archaeologists and come to the conclusion that the chronicles are very accurate, as they were written by or based on eye-witnesses. The amount of detail from those texts corresponds almost completely with the archaeological artifacts discovered up until now. In spite of this, maybe the most important mystery of the Yayoi era has not been yet solved. Scientists can't identify the exact location of the Yamataikoku, suggesting two possible locations: northern Kyushu or central Honshu, near the Kinai plains.

Another relevant Chinese chronicle is Wei Zi, written in 297 AD. The texts expose in detail the way of life of the Late Yayoi. Okazaki Takashi summarizes the most significant fragments from the ancient documents. ‘The Chinese visitors seem to have been impressed by the orderliness and peacefulness of the Wa: The women were neither quarrelsome nor jealous, even though the men had several wives; there were no thefts; litigation was rare; taxes and labour services were collected easily; and granaries and markets were established in each province. Dress, manners, and social customs are described in detail. The men wore loosely fastened clothing made of wide pieces of cloth and wrapped strips of bark around their heads, perhaps in the fashion of today’s headband. Women dressed their hair in loops and wore unlined robes slipped over their heads. People painted their bodies with cinnabar and red earth. Men and boys tattooed their faces and bodies, a practice originally intended to frighten away large fish and waterfowl that annoyed them when they were diving for food.’

New research from the Yoshinogari archaeological site, in northern Kyushu, might prove to be decisive. Scientists concluded that Yoshinogari is the biggest settlement from the Yayoi period discovered until now, and this is probably the location of the ancient Yamataikoku. Archaeologists unearthed Chinese mirrors that might match the ones described as gifts received from the Han emissaries. The Yoshinogari village had defensive walls and towers, and some skeletons show clear traces of violence and wounds made by spears and arrows, meaning that Yoshinogari had gone through important local battles.

A large burial mound built in the third century AD was unearthed, suggesting that this might be the tomb of the legendary shaman queen Himiko identified in the Han shu text. If it will be proven that Yamataikoku was located in northern Kyushu, so close to the Korean Peninsula, this fact might change the way the ancient history of Japan is perceived. It basically means that the first notable state from Japan achieved regional hegemony with the help of foreign products, technology and knowledge. Furthermore, the privileged location of the Yamataikoku might have given them vital strategic and economic advantages, allowing them to conquer their neighboring Yayoi tribes and eventually settle in the Kinai plains, thus forming the Yamato kingdom, the first dynasty of Japanese kings.

After the fall of the Han dynasty, China went through a prolonged period of civil war, with several kingdoms competing for dominance. Historians name this timeline the ‘Sixteen kingdoms’ period. Due to this period of conflict, the cultural, economic and politic connection between China and Japan was severed. In this situation, the Yamato kingdom turned to the Korean Peninsula, where Koguryo, Paekche and Silla dominated the region. The Korean realms were located on the Chinese border and had access to advanced technologies in administration and warfare. Again, the commercial and technological exchanges with Korea were vital for the future enlargement of the Japanese state.

Koguryo was the first notable Korean kingdom. It was initially formed of a federation of warrior tribes that mostly fought on horseback, inspired by the horse riders from northeast Asia. In 313 AD, they managed to defeat the Chinese colonists from Lolang, northern Korea, and settled there. Some Chinese colonists remained and were slowly assimilated. Their skills contributed to the early development of the realm. Despite their initial success, Koguryo lacked defensive capabilities and was decisively defeated two times: by the Chinese kingdom of Eastern Jin in 342 AD and by the Korean kingdom of Paekche in 371 AD. In both cases their capital was sacked.

In the face of total disaster, Koguryo made a series of military, political and economic reforms that allowed them to rise from the ashes. Again, the model was China. Under the leadership of their king, Gwanggaeto the Great, Koguryo expanded at a breathtaking pace, conquering the Liaodong Peninsula and significant parts of Manchuria. He also managed to keep the balance of power in Korea when Paekche and the Yamato kingdom tried to conquer Silla by entering the war in the favor of the latter. Gwanggaeto obtained a crushing victory against the Paekche-Yamato forces in 399 AD. It seems that the failure of the Japanese motivated them to adopt horse rider tactics, a decision that contributed to the Yamato expansion in Japan and to the warrior culture of the Kofun era. Later, at the beginning of the seventh century AD, the crossbow was adopted in Japan from Koguryo.

The warrior culture from Koguryo is best represented by the discovery of the Anak tomb, a burial mound dating from 357 AD and dedicated to Dong Shou, a local noble. The walls were painted with complex colors depicting daily life in ancient Korea. Those images have been well preserved until today. Okazaki Takashi describes them, focusing on the way Koguryo waged war and how significant this lifestyle was for the rest of society. In his opinion, the burial mound practice was introduced in Japan after the encounters between the two cultures. ‘Fifty-seven riders and 250 attendants on foot accompany the central figure, a man seated in an ox-drawn carriage. The procession is led by a band of men blowing flutes and striking drums and gongs. Foot soldiers, dressed in braid, carry shields, spears, and long swords with attached rings. Other attendants carry banners, flags, bows, and quivers full of arrows. On the edges of the procession are mounted warriors dressed in armor like that of the foot soldiers and bearing long spears. Horses are also armoured and decorated with bells. Additional riders, carrying parasols, follow the figure in the carriage. (...) Evidence from burial mound sites indicates the extent to which Koguryo’s tomb construction methods, burial practices, and equestrian culture - transmitted from both China and northeast Asia - was passed on in turn to Japan.’

If Koguryo changed the military doctrine in ancient Japan, the kingdom of Paekche, located in the southern part of Korea, was even more influential. To begin with, a Paekche delegation officially introduced Buddhism to the Yamato court in 538 AD. Furthermore, the Paekche immigrants were very skilled in animal husbandry, especially in taming horses. Their migration into Japan corresponds with the rise of a horse warrior cult, a statement supported by the haniwa figurines discovered in burial mounds. Horses were essential for warfare, rapidly forwarding information through early postal points, and they also supported the work in agriculture and infrastructure.

Paekche was the closest ally of ancient Japan. Several chronicles speak about the diplomatic missions between the two states. Paekche paid tribute in symbolic swords and mirrors. They also traded iron ore, a very scarce resource in Japan. Some historians speculated that the rise of the Yamato kingdom was determined by an early migration begun from the location of the incipient Paekche. Even though this theory is only a hypothesis, the aristocracy from Japan was certainly related to the one from Paekche. The mother of prince Shotoku, arguably the first Japanese historical leader to become a national hero, was a princess from Paekche.

Silla was the smallest kingdom from Korea, located in the southeastern part of the Peninsula. In contrast with Koguryo and Paekche, Silla initially refused to adapt to the Chinese model, but the defeats suffered in the face of the Paekche and Yamato kingdoms made them reconsider. In time, Silla became the most successful realm in the region, managing to defeat all opposition and control all of Korea. Although the relations between Japan and Silla were tense and violent, trade and diplomatic exchanges between the two countries were constant over the centuries. Skilled workers and some nobles from Silla continued to migrate and settle in Japan.

The Gaya confederacy was a province located in the southern part of Korea. While Japanese historians consider Gaya to have been a Yamato colony, Korean historians believe that Gaya was just a free trade area, a place where Japanese merchants were allowed to trade with the three Korean kingdoms. Regardless where the truth lies, Gaya was the central point of commerce between ancient Korea and Japan until 562 AD, when Silla annexed it to its own territory. After that, the the most important site of communication became the Okinoshima island, an island located north of Kyushu, just between Japan and Korea.

The Sui dynasty of China invaded Koguryo with huge armies between 612 and 614 AD - some sources talk about one million soldiers. However, after some heroic battles, the Chinese were repelled and soon afterward the dynasty collapsed. Sui was replaced by the Tang dynasty and the Chinese sought revenge, launching several military campaigns between 645 and 648 AD, but again, under the command of the genius general Yeon Gaesomun, Koguryo resisted. Silla seized the opportunity and allied with Tang. Together, they conquered Paekche in 660 AD. After that, Tang invaded Koguryo and their armies were annihilated by the brilliant general Yeon Gaesomun at the Battle of Sasu River in 662 AD. One year later, Japan entered the war on the side of its ally, and the Japanese-Paekche forces clashed with the Tang-Silla armies at Baekgang, but the former were utterly defeated and the Paekche resistance was crushed. Gaesomun died of old age in 666 AD and soon afterward civil war started. Taking advantage of the situation, the Tang-Silla alliance finally conquered and destroyed the exhausted Koguryo.

Silla controlled most of the Korean Peninsula, while Tang occupied the former Koguryo territories in the north. Despite their numeric superiority, the Japanese soldiers were humiliated at the Battle of Baekgang because they relied more on individual skill and weren’t trained to fight efficiently in disciplined formations. This fact and the reshaping of the political landscape in Korea weighed decisively in the decision of the Japanese elite to radically modernize the country according to the Tang model.

Under the belief that Silla and Tang would now prepare to invade the archipelago, fortresses were built all around the coastline. Conscription and military drills were organized nationwide. Clan leaders put aside their differences and pushed further with political and economic reforms. Paekche refugees contributed to this effort, bringing with them the experience of the war and techniques of building defensive structures. The Paekche aristocracy was well received at the Yamato court, and was assimilated into the Japanese nobility.

With the help of Paekche and Koguryo rebels, Silla turned against its former ally and after a decade of violent engagements, Silla drove away the Tang armies and unified all Korea under the rule of a single state. Even when Emperor Tenmu learned that an invasion of Japan was now very improbable, he continued the reformatory process, being convinced that his country needed to be prepared for future foreign or domestic crises. The diplomatic and trade relations between Silla and Japan improved year after year, as they continued to send emissaries and Buddhist monks to share knowledge and symbolic gifts.

Relations with Silla deteriorated again in 698 AD, when Dae Joyeong, an experienced general who served the Koguryo kingdom in his youth, categorically defeated the Tang empire and proclaimed himself king of Balhae. He possessed a territory that included northern Korea and Manchuria. Balhae was seen as the rightful successor of the glorious warrior-state of Koguryo, but Silla considered it a great threat to its own territorial integrity and never recognized its legitimacy. The friendly attitude of Japan toward Balhae infuriated the Silla officials, who were afraid of a war on two fronts against the two states.

With positive past relations with the former Koguryo, which had valiantly fought against Silla and Tang, Japan rushed to recognize Balhae and initiated intense economic and cultural relations. The balance of power shifted again, with Balhae becoming Japan’s closest ally and with the reconciliation between the Tang dynasty and the Country of the Rising Sun. The Chinese were more interested in expansion toward the west and had to defend themselves from northern horse steppe invaders, so they were happy that Silla was kept in check by Balhae and Japan. However, because Japan was becoming more evolved and claimed equal diplomatic treatment, relations with the Tang remained distant. During the next centuries, communication between the two civilizations was mostly provided by individual private initiatives.

From the point of view of the Chinese historians, the Tang dynasty was the ‘Golden Age’ of China. From the seventh till the ninth century AD, Tang was arguably the most advanced empire of the world. Their armies advanced to Manchuria and Korea in the north and east, pushed south into Indochina, and expanded west toward modern-day Afghanistan and Kashmir, northern India. Their victories were not only the result of better military technology, but had their foundation in the way the centralization of the state was conducted. Advanced administration techniques and a well-educated Confucian bureaucracy allowed them to better collect taxes, limit regional corruption and coordinate vast infrastructure building at a national level. Wise governance mechanics stimulated a sustained demographic and economic growth. Under such auspicious circumstances, the religious and secular culture flourished, bringing new technological breakthroughs. In return, the rising prosperity strengthened the empire and the rule of the emperor. All of these events were observed by the contemporary Japanese political elite that was determined to implement the same political philosophy.

Maybe the most important elements borrowed by early Japan from the Tang can be placed into the category of policy. The list must start with the Taika reforms from 645 AD, the first complex attempt to centralize the state and to strengthen the Japanese imperial rule. The system that followed in the late Asuka and Nara jidai was collectively called Ritsuryo and it was without a doubt inspired by the Tang political model and Confucian philosophy. Ritsuryo was a collection of administrative and penal code of laws, enforced also by imperial edicts which were in place between the seventh and the ninth century AD. They vastly improved the rate of tax collection, encouraged a bureaucracy based on merit, promoted local chieftains to key positions in the capital, forming a stable national aristocracy at the imperial court, and officialized absolute loyalty towards the emperor. The consequences of these reforms were largely positive, obtaining a progress comparable to the Tang.

Comparative history can help us understand the role of foreign influence in the rise of the Japanese civilization. In a oversimplified framework, the states from Europe formed in four steps: a prehistoric indo-european migration, celtic tribes and small kingdoms, the Roman Empire and the barbarian invasions. It can be concluded that foreigners and migrations were important factors in the ethnogenesis of the European nations and in the development of statecraft. The phenomenon of cultural admixture is not so different in the case of Japan. We have a prehistoric Jomon migration, Yayoi tribes and small kingdoms, the Yamato kingdom that dominated most of Japan and, finally, the great reforms from Asuka and Nara jidai, made possible only with the help of Chinese and Korean expertise.

Even though the cultural admixture in Japan happened mostly in a peaceful way, and not through repeated invasions and foreign conquerors as in Europe, the results have some similar characteristics. What the Roman Empire accomplished in terms of civilization in the Mediterranean by colonization, the Tang Empire performed by what modern scholars define as soft power, influencing Japan by the force of its own enlightened model. The ancient Japanese political elite also had the merit of being very receptive to change, being pragmatic and wise in the way that they selected values and methods of governing from abroad.

During the Late Antiquity and Incipient Middle Ages, the kingdoms in Europe developed under the guidance of a minority foreign military elite who introduced advanced methods of warfare, manufacturing and political organization. The kingdom of Francia from present day France and West Germany emerged from a combination of gauls, romans and a minority of germanic migrators collectively called Franks. These various populations were in time assimilated. According to traditional historiography, the Treaty of Verdun from 843 AD divided West Francia and East Francia, the two kingdoms considered the predecessors of modern France and Germany. Coincidence or not, the predecessor of the modern Japanese state can also be traced during this timeline.

If we set aside the Horse Riders Theory, a hypothesis that is not yet proven, ancient Japan was never conquered by any group of migrators. The political elite with foreign descent never reached a majority, but its presence and contribution was no less significant. If we take the accounts of noble families, 25% to 30% of the ancient Japanese aristocracy had Korean or Chinese origins. To this we must add the Japanese political, intellectual and religious leaders who traveled to the court of the Tang dynasty to study and returned after decades of work, obtaining great authority in order to modernize the country.

Ancient archives do not offer us clear numbers of how many immigrant artisans and traders existed in the archipelago, but all the scholars agree that, in the early stages of ancient Japan, Korean and Chinese craftsmen and artists represented a majority. Not only did they introduce precious knowledge and advanced means of production, but their descendants organized themselves in be groups, the Asian equivalent of guilds from Europe. These groups specialized in areas like metalworking, woodworking, pottery, sculpting and painting, bringing added value to the economy.

It is more than obvious that the Tang dynasty and the previous Chinese and Korean kingdoms contributed in a positive way to the rise of the Japanese state and its material culture. Nevertheless the influence of spiritual culture is harder to quantify. Likewise, the way spiritual and material elements interacted and influenced each other is a complicated matter. In order to fully grasp the meaning of this topic, we have to first look at the evolution of Shinto and Buddhism in Japan.

Before we start presenting the archaic Shinto beliefs, we need to consider wider theories about prehistoric spirituality. For example, there are numerous speculative theories related to the Great Goddess. The general idea is that all the major archaic cultures worshiped a goddess of nature and fertility. This concept started to gain recognition in the nineteenth century, both in archaeology and in literature. Scientists still debate this topic and some even wonder if the prehistoric Jomon of Japan had a similar cult that could be comparable with the rest of the world. All the relevant experts agree on the fact that cultural manifestations are different and unique, but at the same time they are intrigued by the possibility of identifying general patterns. Such a discovery could be relevant to anthropology and theories from social sciences focused around human nature.

The first archaeologist to have the idea of a common great goddess was Friedrich Wilhelm Eduard Gerhard in 1849. He worked for many years in Rome. Systematically learning about the classical hellenistic culture, he observed that the early ancient statues from Greece dedicated to a fertility goddess were similar to the ones discovered in prehistory in the same area. His theory was well received by many novelists and by anthropologists like James George Frazer, who wrote the road-opening book ‘The Golden Bough’. Back then anthropology as a science was at its very first stages. The authors relied less on evidence and more on speculation.

Following Eduard Gerhard’s theory, several archaeologists from the late nineteenth century went even further by claiming that all the important prehistoric cultures from Europe, the Middle East and some parts of Asia have a common ancestral deity, representing a great goddess or even a religious concept of mother earth. As a consequence of this idea, they believed that all the Paleolithic and Neolithic societies were originally matriarchal. When agriculture, tools and weapons made of bronze and iron were introduced, matriarchy was replaced by a more warlike patriarchal society. Even though this generalization has long been proven false, it has played a positive role in understanding the human condition.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the British archaeologist Arthur Evans theorized that the goddess of the ancient pre-hellenistic Minoan civilization originated from older cultures from Mesopotamia. While excavating important sites from Crete, he discovered significant similarities between female religious representations of the Bronze Age civilization and the ones from the Neolithic. Arthur Evans concluded that the most important religious figure of the early ancient Greek mythology was Rhea, mother of all the gods, including Zeus. According to him, Rhea was actually inspired from a prehistoric mother goddess.

One of the most recent archaeologists who treated the Great Goddess hypothesis was Marija Gimbutas. In her opinion, there are important similar traits regarding the religious beliefs of Neolithic and Bronze Age cultures, especially in Eastern and Central Europe. She is also the creator of the Kurgan hypothesis, claiming that the first stop of the huge Indo-European migration was located in the Pontic steppe, north of the Black Sea. However, unlike her predecessors, she didn’t assert that all the patriarchal societies evolved from matriarchy. There is no unique point of origin for the cult of a mother goddess. This concept evolved separately at different paces in different ways. Marija Gimbutas identified several types of mother goddesses, each one adapted to a particular local culture. In spite of the differences, regardless of the irregularities, the pattern of worshiping a mother goddess remains untouched.

The contemporary adepts of the Great Goddess hypothesis have abandoned the claims of a unique originating goddess and a linear evolution from matriarchy to patriarchy. Instead, they focus on the fact that most of the Neolithic and Bronze Age civilizations of the world had a mother goddess cult, even though there is no direct connection between them. The common traits were given by a mystical conception in which the goddess was assimilated to the planet Earth, being a representative of fertility, afterlife and sometimes the Sun. Archaeologists believe that this broad belief was so wide because the prehistoric peoples were very connected to the land. After all, the very existence of hunter-gatherers and early agricultural societies depended on the natural conditions and the ability to produce as many offspring as possible.

Archaeologists identified numerous Great Goddesses in the prehistoric cultures. For example, Cybele was an archaic mother goddess originating from Catal Hoyuk in 7,500 BC, one of the oldest cities in Anatolia and the world. The worship of Cybele later spread to ancient Greece. She was gradually assimilated with the hellenistic myths of Gaia and Rhea. In the time of the Second Punic War, in order to boost the morale of their troops, the Roman scholars modified the original legends and named her ‘Magna Mater’. Up until the fall of Rome, she became one of the most important deities of the Roman pantheon. Other relevant examples are: the Sumerian mother goddess Ninhursag, the Hindu mother goddess Parvati, The Egyptian mother goddess Hathor, and the Chinese Taoist goddess named Queen Mother of the West. Primitive figurines of fertility goddesses have been found in different regions, from modern Spain and Britain to Siberia and even Japan.

There are at least three important criticisms of the Great Goddess hypothesis. First of all, there are 40,000 years from the Late Paleolithic to Bronze Age cultures. Those societies were spread all over the world, with little or no communication with each other. The Great Goddess hypothesis is a forced modern perspective. In reality, the meaning of those religious symbols is, most probably, different from case by case. Second of all, almost 50% of the prehistoric figurines discovered until now are males or of unidentifiable sex. It’s true that in some societies the figures depicting females were bigger and more important, but not in all. Thirdly, most of the figures have been discovered without any other cultural, environmental or material evidence because they were lost in the passing of time. In most cases, archaeologists don’t know anything about the culture which the figure originated from. Without a strong context, scientists can’t reconstruct the real meaning or purpose of the goddesses.

The Venus hypothesis proposes a new approach, combining archaeological discoveries and myths with astrophysics. Like the Great Goddess hypothesis, the authors observe that all the prehistoric figurines suggest a common mother goddess. Yet, they think that these similarities are not the result of wide communication between archaic cultures, nor do they speculate on the idea of human nature. Borrowing a theory from astrophysics, the self-claimed scientists explain the worldwide worship of a mother goddess as a representation of the planet Venus. In their opinion, the sky looked different in the Late Paleolithic Era. Planet Venus could be seen with the naked eye and it became the main object of divinization before the Sun or the Moon. The differences between these religious practices resulted from the different interpretations of the same primordial symbol.

The first to promote such a methodology was Immanuel Velikovsky with his best-selling book from 1950 ‘Worlds in Collision’. He proposed many fascinating ideas. The Planet Earth experienced many natural disasters in the Paleolithic age and, in his opinion, the geological and archaeological evidence in order to prove this statement is plentiful. Those great disasters have been described in various archaic myths all over the world, representing a source of inspiration for the creation of a religious perspective. In time, people forgot that these events really happened and they treated them as simple myths.

In Immanuel Velikovsky’s opinion, the catastrophes were caused by the fact that in those times Planet Earth was much closer to the Planets of Saturn, Venus, Mars and Jupiter. He explained this phenomenon by theorizing the existence of a much stronger magnetic field. David Talbott wrote ‘The Saturn Myth’ in 1980 as a continuation of Velikovsky’s highly speculative tradition. Both authors became very popular among a larger audience, but their theses were not accepted by the scientific community of astrophysics, archaeology, history or anthropology.

Immanuel Velikovsky was criticized by many respected scientists. He was accused of ignoring the laws of physics in order to transform old myths into historically accurate accounts. Apart from criticism from the scientific world of astronomy and physics, his interpretation of myths was also denounced. Velikovsky was accused of selecting only myths and literary sources that proved his thesis, ignoring many others. He also wrongly believed that myths from different cultures did not at least partially influence each other. His comparative method in general is not compatible with scientific systemic work.

Shinto as a state religion developed in several stages. This long process can be traced throughout the following ages: Jomon, Yayoi, Kofun, Asuka and Nara. The religious perspective of the prehistoric Jomon didn’t have any form of ethics or a logical story that explained the genesis. It was only based on unrelated myths, local spirits and deities. Then the sedentary society of the Yayoi highlighted the importance of shamanistic habits, strengthening the authority of the first tribe leaders and early kings. During the Kofun era, only the political elite had the privilege and the duty to conduct important shamanistic liturgy, and all the major clans claimed to originate from a great deity. Last but not least, the leaders from Asuka and Nara embraced Shinto as a religion of state.

One of the most important concepts from Shinto is called ‘Kami’, meaning deity, spirit or god. Like many other pagan Polytheistic archaic religions, the kami can be a creator of things, but he is not an absolute maker of the universe. The great classic Japanese scholar Motoori Norinaga defines kami as follows: ‘Kami are, first of all, deities of heaven and earth and spirits venerated at shrines, as well as humans, birds, plants and trees, oceans, and mountains that have exceptional powers and ought to be revered. Kami include not only mysterious beings that are noble and good but also malignant spirits that are extraordinary and deserve veneration.’

According to the ‘Cambridge History of Japan Volume 1’, Mishina Shoei divided the evolution of Shinto into three big stages. The ‘primitive-myth’ step happened during the Yayoi era, when all the religious manifestations had only a mystical meaning. The second phase of ‘ceremonial-myth’ was characterized by the mixture of religion with politics in the Kofun jidai. This started when shamans and clan leaders strongly assumed both a political and religious role. Finally, the ‘political myth’ step was described as a rational controlled state ideology, an element specific for Asuka jidai and Nara jidai.

Traditionalist historians consider that two types of Shinto existed in parallel. The common people kept most of the archaic animistic beliefs, while the political and intellectual elite practiced a Shinto state religion which focused more on ceremonial roles and complex myths expressed in ancient poems and chronicles. Matsumae Takashi thinks that this system of classification is outdated because it does not take into account the interactions between the two. On one hand, the formalized religion constantly took its inspiration from folk tales, while on the other hand the authorities built shrines in all the corners of the country, educating the masses and stimulating a unified religious conscience.

In the first stages of Shinto, there was no logically connected religion, but simply a set of various myths and religious ceremonies that were practiced only at a local level. Almost every village had a varied mystical perspective and a kami had powers which were limited only to the immediate area. The only common feature in a strong sense of the word was the belief that almost everything in nature is magic and that the deities are present everywhere. Matsumae Takashi explains the slow evolution of Shinto: ‘The charisma that a kami possesses resembles mana, the extraordinary power that the people of Melanesia associate with supernatural phenomena or fearsome objects. (...) Kami were chosen from that crown of spirits, elevated in rank, further sanctified, and later anthropomorphized. The kami of the mountains, for instance, were thought to control the spirits, animals, and plants in a specific mountain region, and the kami of the ocean to control ocean life. In a later stage of development, such kami were often given names and selected as tutelary deities by important clans.’

Analyzing the meaning of Shinto myths and their artistic expressions, together with the social, economic and political context, Matsumae Takashi proposes a different pattern of evolution for Shinto, separated into four main parts. The archaic Shinto from the Jomon and Yayoi periods could be described as an animistic nature worship limited to the immediate region of a small community. In time, clan chieftains from the Kofun era took those simplified myths, personifying the main deities, and created a cult based on ancestor worship. Thirdly, the Late Kofun and Early Asuka periods can be described as the first attempts of the Japanese kings to claim a divine origin by the virtue of Shinto myths. Finally, the Late Asuka and Nara political reforms transformed Shinto into an institutionalized religion for the rising Japanese empire.

The first stage of evolution is linked to the prehistoric animistic practices. Nature itself is represented by countless local deities and magic spirits. The connection of man with nature is very close, as everything is influenced by a cyclical mystical balance. The cosmological perspective was heavily marked by a manicheistic philosophy of good and evil. Unlike other manicheistic approaches, the concept of good and evil was not based on a moral perspective, but defined by the idea of pure and impure. Only magic rituals could cleanse the world and restore the equilibrium.

Researchers and historians have a very complicated job when they try to recreate religious perspectives from prehistory. They basically don’t have any means to objectively understand the system of values held by archaic people. Their only choice is to make the assumption that spiritual life was somehow reflected in the daily activities of the Jomon hunter-gathers. Archaeologists gather scarce evidence like tools, weapons or dwellings, and by the means of logical connections made by folklorists, they try to comprehend a world full of mysteries. Still, from a epistemological point of view, their conclusions represent an inevitable modern vision, and so the original meaning might be almost entirely lost.

An important proof of Jomon fertility worship is represented by the dogu figurines, primitive sculptures depicting pregnant women. Another relevant piece of evidence were the stone rods illustrating a phallus. This is why the Venus hypothesis and the Great Goddess hypothesis are still intriguing for some scholars. The imagery from pottery vessels was dominated by snakes, and later by birds and deer. Tattoos representing goddesses of fertility have also been discovered. Most Japanese archaeologists and folklorists now believe that those prehistoric myths, representing cyclical life on Earth, slowly evolved into kami worship.

The Jomon and Yayoi people originated from different regions of the world before they migrated into the Japanese archipelago. This fact is strengthened by the early Shinto beliefs, strongly shaped by foreign religious concepts. Matsumae Takashi enumerates the most significant contributions. ‘The division of the cosmos into three parallel levels also appears in the shamanistic beliefs of northern Asia, for example in Siberia, Mongolia, and the Altaic regions. Tales of a dragon king’s palace at the bottom of the ocean can be found in the folklore of south Korea, the south central regions of China, and southeast Asia and India, and myths in China, south Korea, the Ryukyu Islands, southeast Asia, Indonesia, and Polynesia speak of a utopian land in the middle of the sea. Thus elements of continental and island Asian culture were projected onto aboriginal beliefs to form the nascent Shinto religious system.’

The equivalent concept of sin from Christianity is defined in Shinto as ‘tsumi’. The people from prehistoric Japan believed that every phenomenon is connected and that the only way to prevent calamities was to keep a balance between spiritual things. Understood in this way, tsumi was not a moral notion in a Western sense. From their perspective, you should avoid doing certain things in order to keep the balance, not because those actions are immoral. For example, at the beginning, Shinto considered murder to be a tsumi only if the murderer had committed the impurity of shedding the victim’s blood.

In contrast with other major religions, human life was not sacred for the animistic Shinto. The idea of an afterlife was vague, and varied from tribe to tribe. The Christian notion of spiritual salvation after death was not present. The dead were seen as impure, and the only thing you could do for the community was to hold magical ceremonies in order to cleanse the area. In their opinion, this had a positive effect on both the universe and also the social order of the tribe. Various rituals of purification dedicated to the celebration of the cyclical arrival of a new season were also common, but they became much more widespread and complex in the Yayoi era.

The transition to the Yayoi agricultural society can be observed in the changing rituals. ‘In prehistoric times, according to Orikuchi Shinobu, each village probably conducted early rites on a set day to welcome the guest kami from Tokyo no Kuni, the utopian land of boundless fertility across the sea. (...) Oka Masao points out the resemblance of these rites to those practiced in Melanesia, New Guinea, and elsewhere in the south Pacific. The masks unearthed from Middle Jomon sites might have been used by people who assumed the guest’s role at festival times.’

The second step appeared together with the introduction of agriculture. Systemic rice cultivation clearly transformed many beliefs, focusing more on big festivals of fertility. Deities went through a process of metamorphosis, representing magical animals that could shift their physical form. Deer, snakes and birds became the main symbols for worship. The discovery of thousands of dotaku bronze bells, a type of object found only from the Yayoi era, made archaeologists conclude that the ceremonies were led by shamans using the sound of bells to accentuate the sacredness of the moment and to pray for rain and good harvest. Jar burials and bone divination were also important religious proceedings.

Historians and archaeologists managed to reconstruct the religious manifestations of the Yayoi to a greater extent, comparing the artifacts unearthed with Chinese chronicles that described the ancient Japanese and their country named Wa. Many of those Chinese accounts were written directly by, or at the advice of Chinese emissaries who actually traveled to the Japanese archipelago. Their testimonies proved to be extremely precise even when they were related to religion, as much archaeological evidence has been found in their support.

Besides dotaku bells, bronze spears and swords were also objects of worship. The cult of various rice gods became widespread together with the building of granary stockpiles. Their architecture resembled the early Shinto temples and so scientists concluded that the first Shinto shrines were originally elevated rice granaries. By the means of religious ceremonies, the granaries became sacred places of praying for a plentiful harvest and in time they evolved into full fledged shrines, dedicated to many other kami’s from the Jomon and Yayoi era.

As the Yayoi villages developed into small commercial towns, tribe federations and diversified kingdoms, the Chinese empire became more and more interested in this mysterious place. Maybe the most famous ancient Japanese leader was the shaman Himiko, queen of the Yamatai. Chinese diplomats met with her, and their accounts tell stories about her divine authority and the fact that they believed in her magical powers. A similar contemporary tradition emerged in the Ryukyu islands, where the queens were religious leaders, while the kings dealt with secular problems.

The Chinese chronicles tell us that the main occupations of the Yayoi were rice cultivation and fishing. Many fishermen risked their lives by diving into deep waters with nets, and so special rituals were required to protect them. Those ceremonies involved prayers for healing, animal sacrifices in order to please the deities, and body paintings representing sacred spirits. Shamans claimed also that they had the ability to foretell your future. The Chinese travelers were fascinated by this practice. A deer skull was painted in red, put into fire, and the cracks resulted were interpreted as divine signs.

Chieftains from Japan boosted their religious and secular authority by highlighting the importance of worshiping your ancestors. Deities began to have accentuated human traits, and many dominant former leaders became Shinto gods after their death. Huge burial mounds were erected in their honor. This had a legitimizing role for the political elite, but also created conditions for a more cohesive society, united around the cult of their forefathers. Another relevant issue was the introduction of numerous stories about mythical heroes, honoring noble deeds and praising the qualities of a warrior. There we can observe the first signs of moral dilemmas in Shintoism.

If previous eras were marked by vague animistic beliefs as a precursor to Shinto, from the beginning of Kofun jidai we can talk about the clear emergence of Shinto. In contrast with the Yayoi and the Jomon, most of the religious artefacts and shrines were discovered in the near vicinity of burial mounds. This means that more than ever before, the diverse nature spirit cults coagulated around specific religious centers. Even though we cannot yet talk about a coordinated hierarchy of deities, people begun to rank those archaic spirits, offering them distinct traits and magical powers.

Some scholars argue in favor of a profound discontinuity between Yayoi and Kofun religious practices. They believe that a massive invasion of horse riders, probably coming from China, Manchuria or the Korean Peninsula, drastically changed the ancient society in Japan. The new settlers assimilated the native myths, but also imposed new spiritual perspectives from the Asian continent. Such a claim is supported by the sudden disparition of dotaku bells and bronze weapons as objects of worship when we enter the Kofun era. From this point of view, burial mounds were erected in order to impose an foreign ideological supremacy.

The religious continuity between Yayoi and Kofun is supported by most scientists. We can identify many significant differences related to rituals and mystical positions, but they are the consequence of a progressive development of the economy, social stratification and political configuration, that eventually changed the mentalities of the people. The significant contribution of the influence coming from abroad cannot be denied but instead of greatly changing the society, the new ideas brought by migrants combined with the existing religious paradigms, further enriching the spiritual expressions.

In the Jomon and Yayoi eras, everything found in nature was magical. This attribute continued to extend even up to today’s Shinto, but as for the Kofun jidai, sacred places were precisely limited to a certain area. With the advancements in agriculture and craftsmanship, ancient Japan went through a notable increase in demographics and living standards. As the villages grew, the communities strengthened their sense of unity by building shrines dedicated to specific gods in order to protect them. After all, the activities of farmers, fishermen and artisans required constant teamwork to a greater extent than hunter-gatherers or very early agricultural societies.

Political necessity also supported the rise of Shinto. Clan leaders observed the spontaneous phenomenon that was happening in the countryside, where small communities were more and more unified under one common identity symbolized by the cult for a representative kami. For example, a farming village had a fertility kami as their protector, a village based on fishing had a water kami, another village located near a great forested mountain worshiped the spirit of the mountain or a deer kami for successful hunting, and so on. Understanding the opportunity, clan chieftains supported the building of the first Shinto shrines. Control of all the religious activities strengthened the authority of the political leaders.

Burial mounds were constructed in order to sanctify the reign of great kings and aristocratic families. However, instead of directly claiming divine authority as in the shamanistic society of the Yayoi, clan leaders promoted the cult of legendary heroes who founded their families. Then they selected already existing popular deities from the immediate region that they ruled, claiming that their founding fathers were descendants of that kami. From a dogmatic point of view, the ruling elite deserved the respect of such a grandiose burial because the act also honored the gods. With the passing of time, some kings and clan chieftains entered the collective memory as gods themselves.

The founding myth of the Miwa clan can be understood as a general pattern that explains how the interaction between the ruling class and the common people stimulated the apparition of Shinto. Mount Miwa was already worshiped as a great kami when the Miwa aristocratic family composed a legend, clearly inspired from continental myths, about the love between the rain kami from Mount Miwa and the daughter of a leader of pottery artisans. The son resulting from their love affair was designated by Miwa kami to rule in his name. Archaeologists conclude from this story that the Miwa clan was at its origin formed from Korean artisans who migrated into Japan and in time became strong and wealthy enough to build their own personal army and rule over an independent kingdom located in central Honshu. Matsumae Takashi defines this process. ‘Such myths explained the origins of particular lineages and occupational groups, affirmed the power of the clan chieftains, and justified the clan’s monopoly of a sacred authority derived from the priestly role of clan chieftains. (...) The connection between sacred and secular authority was further strengthened, and the stage was set for sanctioning the positions and actions of the Yamato nobility through religious means.’

Shinto became an official religion in the Late Antiquity, when politicians fabricated a logical narrative by writing the ancient chronicles of Kojiki and Nihon shoki, associating the Japanese imperial court with the Shinto pantheon. Before Kojiki and Nihon shoki, the Shinto myths lacked a unifying chronological story. The Japanese authorities selected the most suitable myths, modified them as they pleased and created a legendary emperor Jimmu, as the founder of the Japanese imperial house and the descendant of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu.

Tsuda Sokichi was the first important Japanese historian who claimed that the Shinto imperial myths were written by the imperial officials and that they did not reflect the ancient beliefs of the common people. In his erudite opinion, the greatests deities of Shinto like Amaterasu, Izanagi and Izanami were not worshiped on a large scale before the publishing of Kojiki and Nihon Shoki. Furthermore, he observed many breaks in the imperial line during the Early and Classical Antiquity of Japan, a fact hidden by the authorities. Maybe his most famous book was ‘An inquiry into the Japanese mind as mirrored by literature’.

Tsuda Sokichi wrote his opera mostly during the Interwar Period and shortly after the Second World War. Because of the militaristic government, his thesis was censored and he was highly criticized by most of the intellectuals from his generation. Only many decades after his death did the imperial family recognize that the emperor did not have divine origin and that not all the emperors were directly related to each other. Nowadays, most researchers praise Tsuda Sokichi for his courage, but think that he overestimated the capability of the ancient political elite to invent such a complex religious narrative from nothing.

Was Shinto created by the Japanese ancient political elite or did Shinto stimulate the apparition of a highly complex and developed state by providing a unifying set of values? Responding to Tsuda Sokichi, Matsumae Takashi believes that the answer lies somewhere between these two extremes. ‘Such an explanation seems to suggest too much conscious rationalism by early Japanese aristocrats. Although it is undoubtedly true that the myths were revised and structured during the sixth and seventh centuries for political purposes and that the kami pantheon was arranged with the imperial ancestor kami at its apex, most scholars now maintain that these myths and kami originated among the people, that the kami began as nature spirits, and that the myths were originally animistic tales told by peasants and fishermen.’

Other evidence discovered by historians in order to support the claim that Shinto reflected the beliefs of the people is given by the common traits identified in other neighboring ancient myths. The results of their analysis of the old Chinese and Korean legends pointed to a strong connection with early Shinto tales. Some even consider that the story of Amaterasu was inspired by an animistic Korean sun goddess. This link could be explained by the repeated communication of those populations via trade and mass migration. Finally, the personification of Shinto deities reached maturity only in the Nara period.

Shinto became a systemic nationwide religion when the Yamato kingdom managed to defeat or subdue all the competing kingdoms. The Yamato sovereigns could not rule solely by force and needed a complex religious ideology to support their supremacy. At the same time they had to respect the old traditions of the other powerful clans who could contest their reign. In these conditions, the Kojiki and Nihon shoki chronicles were published. The Yamato emperors claimed that Izanagi and Izanami created Japan. The daughter of the gods of creation was the sun goddess Amaterasu. Their intention was to put a great kami above all the others, claiming the supreme divine authority to govern the country.

Before the imperial edicts, Izanagi, Izanami and Amaterasu were not important gods on a national scale. For example, Izanagi and the myth of creation was initially a story about a kami worshiped only by fishermen from the Awaji island. Historians speculate that the imperial family chose to embrace the cult of Izanagi simply because the Awaji island directly provided food to the capital. The repeated contacts between traders from that island and the court officials must have inspired the latter to borrow this myth. In the same way, Amaterasu was a very old sun goddess belonging only to a remote village from Ise, located east of the the Yamato court.

The ancestral kami of the Yamato kings was Takami-musubi, the spirit of creation. Another sanctified deity was Hononinigi, the god of rice. Why then did the later Yamato emperors embrace a relatively unknown kami like Amaterasu, creating a story where Hononinigi was just one of her descendants? Some historians speculate that the preference for Amaterasu represented an ancestral trait which was still very influential among the people, from when the Jomon and early Yayoi society was a matriarchy. Others return to the horse riders invasion theory, believing that the cult for Amaterasu was introduced by a peaceful migration of Chinese Taoist believers or by a violent migration that founded the Yamato in central Japan.

Clan leaders lost some of their religious authority when Buddhism was introduced and the burial mound practice was abandoned. On the other hand, many clan chieftains were rewarded for their loyalty, receiving important positions in the central and local administration, forming a more cohesive aristocracy constantly present at the imperial court. Even though the emperor monopolized the divine authority, the other noble families still enjoyed broad autonomy at a local level, as they continued to claim to be descendants of the supreme kami of the region that they governed.

Most scholars think that the explanation for the adoption of Amaterasu lies in the foreign and domestic context. Japan had extensive diplomatic, cultural and economic relations with the Korean kingdoms that all worshiped a sun god or goddess. Powerful Japanese clans like Mononobe, Izumo, Tsushima, Owari and Otomo, all had a different sun kami worship. This fact must have influenced the emperors to further strengthen their religious authority and secular prestige. Yet, to fabricate a Shinto pantheon of gods by placing an already very well known kami at the of the top of the pyramid would risk starting a dogmatic conflict with other noble families who already claimed that deity. This is the most plausible explanation for why Amaterasu was chosen as the highest ranking kami.

Shinto finally became a state religion when the Yamato sovereigns sponsored the construction of permanent shrines in all the corners of the country. The imperial family confiscated abstract myths and modified them, but they also borrowed various archaic objects of worship as symbols of their rule, imposing the religious concept of shintai, meaning sacred gifts made by the deities to the mortals. Those objects were worshiped and some even believed that the spirit of a kami was living inside them. Using imperial agents, they donated the sanctified mirrors and swords to the shrines and popularized the modified myths from the official chronicles. In time, the original truth about the archaic legends was lost. Nevertheless, some signs of those ancient unrelated traditions still remained in the countryside even to this day.

The relevance of Shinto in ancient Japanese statecraft can be observed in the founding of the Council of Kami Affairs, a religious institution that directly advised the emperor and had equal powers with the Council of State. The imperial agents not only had the mission of supervising how a particular province was administered, but also they had to make sure that the official religious storyline and ceremonies were respected by the nobles.

According to traditional wisdom, Buddhism was introduced in Japan via Paekche in the sixth century AD. Nevertheless, the road taken by this religion is far more complicated. Buddhism appeared in northeast India, Ganges Valley, in the sixth or fifth century BC. No sacred texts existed in this early period. Because of this, the Buddhist dogma was not unitary, but evolved in numerous sects that held opposing mystical positions. From India it spread in many directions, including to China, and was adopted by the Han dynasty in the first century AD. The first Chinese translation of the Buddhist scriptures appeared in 148 AD. The Chinese emperors understood that Buddhism could enhance their authority, as Buddhist practices were assimilated with the already existing Confucian and Taoist traditions. Chinese Buddhism reached the Korean Peninsula, where again it was altered by regional beliefs, and finally entered Japan via Paekche. The complete adoption of Buddhism on a national scale ended only after 150 years. During this timeline, various competing sects were active and preaching in Japan. They originated either from the Tang dynasty, or from one of the three Korean kingdoms. Finally, this complex admixture of faiths was further combined with the local Shinto, supporting the Japanese imperial rule. The dialectic of so many competing ideas stimulated the cultural and artistic explosion of the Classical Antiquity of Japan.

The well-established Korean kingdoms emerged during the fourth century AD and were slowly consolidated with the help of Chinese cultural influence. Meanwhile, China was torn by a long and bloody civil war. Seeking to restore the empire, the Chinese kings embraced different forms of Buddhism from Indian missionaries. As a consequence, the initial Korean Buddhism varied from one kingdom to another. Historians and archaeologists reached this conclusion by analyzing ancient chronicles and the artistic characteristics of early Buddhist monasteries and tombs discovered in ancient China and Korea.

The indigenous religion in Koguryo was a mixture of north-Asian migrators’ beliefs with rituals specific to an agricultural society. Besides the direct border with China, the variety of its folklore can explain why the society was so receptive to a new religion. Since Koguryo conquered the Chinese colony of Lolang, it also had a significant Chinese minority that was already Buddhist.

Understanding why Buddhism was not well received in Paekche and why it became so influential a century later can help us explain a comparable process in Japan, where Buddhism was assimilated only when the reform of the state was seen as the only chance for political survival. Things changed when Paekche was defeated and humiliated by Koguryo. Their kings, especially Muryong and Songmyong, pushed reforms based on the Chinese model in order to save the realm. The population practiced rituals and ceremonies so they could gain the blessing and protection of their gods, but the political disaster could have been interpreted as a consequence of the inefficiency of their traditional ways. In that desperate context, the Paekche kings obtained the necessary authority to implement drastic changes.

Koguryo paid tribute to the Chinese kingdom of northern Wei, so they adopted a northern style of Chinese Buddhism in 375 AD. Paekche was under the protectorate of the Chinese kingdom of Liang, being influenced by southern Chinese Buddhism starting from 384 AD, but it was widely embraced only more than a century after the first contacts were made. Since Silla was located further away from China, Buddhism came later. The initial form of Buddhism in Silla was transmitted via Koguryo in 537 AD, but under the magnetism of Paekche, a new layer was added in the late sixth century AD.

Several elements slowed the assimilation of Buddhism in Paekche. The kingdom was ruled by the Puyo clan, an immigrant minority. The majority from the Han clan inhabited the region long before the formation of Paekche. Like the shamans and clan chieftains from Yayoi Japan, the Han village leaders retained significant autonomy in the face of their king. Due to this, the population refused to accept a foreign religion imposed by the ruling elite from the capital. The Han system of beliefs had an accentuated agrarian character, somehow similar to the incipient Shinto of the Yayoi period. Actually, even though incipient Shinto from the Jomon and Yayoi periods was influenced by the Continent of Asia, scientists concluded that early Shinto is closely related to the agrarian religion from Paekche. Sonoda Koyu explains: ‘The unresponsiveness of the Han was not due simply to a dislike of what the immigrant masters did and wanted but, rather, to broad and deep assumptions concerning the nature of divine power and how that power could be directed to the enrichment of agricultural life.’

The geographical position was only one of the reasons why Silla adopted Buddhism later. Two other important factors should be taken into account. Up until the the fifth century AD, Silla was a federation of tribes ruled by a king whose authority depended on the consent of clan chieftains. The centralization of the state based on the religious legitimacy of Buddhism couldn't take place before the basic consolidation of its power in the region. This happened in 551 AD, when a Paekche-Silla coalition defeated Koguryo and annexed a significant territory near the Han River. A few years later, Silla betrayed Paekche and conquered the whole region, controlling the Han river and the direct trade route to China. This is why later Silla Buddhism was influenced more by Paekche, and not by Koguryo. The population from the occupied province was already Buddhist, and trade relations with southern China stimulated the conversion.

We can observe that Buddhism was gradually introduced in Japan during the golden age of this religion in Paekche and Silla. Their emissaries highlighted how efficient and beneficial their reforms were for the state. In spite of this, the Japanese king and the majority of clan leaders were reluctant to change the status-quo because their religious authority was anchored in the Shinto tradition. They considered that the introduction of new ceremonies and rituals could anger the local kami and bring misfortune and natural disasters.

Nihon shoki, the official Japanese chronicles from Nara jidai, describe the Yamato King Kimmei as very receptive to the Paekche delegation that presented the Buddhist dogma. He named the Soga clan responsible for the worship of this new religion. In reality, new research proved that this fragment was fabricated for political reasons. Even though the Japanese king and most of the aristocracy understood the benefits of Buddhism, they could not accept a foreign faith that undermined their religious authority. The only political party in favor of Buddhism was the Soga clan, leader of all the immigrant noble families. In this situation, after long debates, Kimmei made a compromise by allowing only the Soga to practice Buddhism as a social experiment.

The Soga preference for Buddhism was not motivated by altruistic or spiritual reasons. The immigrant clan leaders understood Buddhism in a very superficial way and used it as an ideology to increase their influence at the Yamato court and their autonomy in the territory. The impermanence of things and the other essential elements of the doctrine were ignored, as Soga only promoted Buddhist prayers as a kind of shamanistic magical rituals that could compete with or even replace the Shinto ones. Ironically, Buddhist ceremonies were held for a good harvest and as a form of protection against calamities.

Initially, Buddhism did not strengthen the rule of the Japanese king or state, being used only to boost the political legitimacy of the Soga, which became the strongest aristocratic family at the Yamato court. This probably infuriated the other clans even more. After the death of Soga no Iname, they even burned down the Buddhist monasteries built by Soga. However, after a short civil war, Soga no Umako defeated the opposition and restored Buddhism under the rule of Emperor Sushun. Because Sushun was plotting against the Soga clan, Umako assasinated Sushun and placed Empress Suiko on the throne. Prince Shotoku was named her regent.

Since Umako obtained political supremacy, historians asked themselves why he didn’t take all the power. Sonoda Koyu thinks that Umako understood that as a foreigner he would never be accepted by the other nobles and by the population. Even in the violent ancient times, brute force alone wasn’t enough to rule a country. He had no real chance of ascending to the imperial throne, a position based on Shinto divine ancestry. After all, the Soga clan was descended from Paekche and they already knew what happened there. The old Umako was wise enough to keep the administrative powers, named Suiko as a symbolic sovereign to please the other families and trusted Prince Shotoku, who was a renowned scholar, to rule objectively and impartially.

A literary analysis of the Hokke Gisho from 615 AD, a commentary of the Buddhist dogma, considered by many as the first text written in Japanese, has proved that Shotoku was most likely the real author. According to Hanayama Shinsho, the style of writing and the use of certain expressions point to Shotoku, as the Chinese sources used for creating the commentary were written only before or during his lifetime. His analysis on the Buddhist sutras made researchers conclude that Shotoku was most probably the only Japanese contemporary who really understood the metaphysical depth of this religion. It’s no wonder that Japanese Buddhism from the late Nara jidai worshiped Shotoku as a saint.

For a long period of time, historians believed that Prince Shotoku was a semi-legendary character, and questioned his accomplishments. The references about him from Nihon Shoki were most probably biased. New archaeological discoveries at Shotoku’s palace made them change their mind. They concluded that he was the most likely author of the Seventeen Article Injunctions, the first proto-constitution of Japan. Besides Shinto and Confucian arguments, the text encouraged the spread of Buddhism in all the corners of the country. He is also the creator of a ranking system of bureaucracy based mostly on merit. Shotoku intended to use Buddhism not for his own gain, but to strengthen the imperial institution, as he was most probably the first leader who had the vision of a Shinto-Buddhist syncretism. Sonoda Koyu’s conclusions speak for themselves: ‘Although the prince is seen as a solitary thinker who was not well understood by his contemporaries and whose ideas about the truth of Buddha were not greatly appreciated until centuries later, he was an important figure in the history of Japanese Buddhism. He not only founded the Ikaruga temple, which was central to the Buddhism of Asuka times, but in 608 he sent to China four student priests who, according to the Chinese dynastic history of Sui, were intent on studying Buddhist law. When these young priests returned to Japan, usually after a stay of ten or more years, they not only gave seventh-century Japanese Buddhism its special character but zealously introduced many non-Buddhist skills. Under their leadership, Japan gradually turned its attention from the Buddhism introduced from Koguryo and Paekche to the Buddhism of the reunified Chinese empire of Sui and Tang. Finally, one cannot help but see Prince Shotoku as a forerunner, if not a forefather, of such thirteenth-century Buddhist reform thinkers as Shinran who affirmed a truth that transcended everything in this polluted physical world.’

The contemporary historical documents speak about Shotoku’s intentions to recapture the Mimana province and set a new foothold in Korea, demanding that Japan be treated as an equal of the Chinese Sui dynasty, but at the same time they present his deep belief that everything is fleeting. From this perspective, Shotoku was both an early pragmatic nationalist and a pious idealist Buddhist practitioner. After Shotoku’s premature and unexpected death at the age of 48, his son Prince Yamashiro intended to continue his legacy by confiscating Soga’s monopoly on Buddhism and by creating a centralized Japanese state based on the sacred Shinto-Buddhist legitimacy of the emperor. As a response, in 643 AD, Soga no Iruka assassinated Yamashiro together with all of Shotoku’s descendants.

Shotoku’s reforms, projects and the tragic sacrifice of his family are the real reasons why Nihon Shoki treats him like a national hero and as the symbolic protector of the imperial throne. Two years after Yamashiro’s death, all the major clans successfully plotted against Soga no Iruka, killing him and wiping out the Soga clan. Kotoku was placed on the throne and he was the first Japanese emperor who fully recognized Buddhism. At the same time, the Fujiwara clan worked together with Prince Naka no Oe, later known as Emperor Tenji, by launching the famous Taika reforms that had the role of putting Shotoku’s vision into practice.

From a dogmatic point of view, the Buddhism promoted after the launch of the Taika reforms was still superficial, being perceived as a magical alternative to Shinto. Buddha was seen more as a god with incredible healing powers, and less as a holy man who promoted a profound doctrine of abandoning all earthly illusions. On the other hand, the Japanese emperors commissioned the construction of glorious Buddhist temples in the capital and partially sponsored the creation of Buddhist monasteries in other regions. By offering the Buddhist monks real local autonomy, the authority of clan leaders based on Shinto was diminished in the favor of the emperor, who was the protector and supreme leader of both religions.

At this point in the history of Japan, religious and political reforms could not be separated because they relied on each other. As we can see in the following message of the emperor Kotoku, delegated to all the Buddhist monasteries, imperial agents were sent into the country to make sure that the official dogma was respected, but also to supervise the administration of the provinces. ‘It is our desire to have true Buddhist teachings brilliantly honored. So we appoint the following Buddhist masters. (...) The ten Buddhist masters are to give special attention to teaching and guiding all other Buddhist priests and to making certain that Buddhist teachings are practiced in accordance with the law. If anyone below the emperor down through the provincial governors has problems handling the administration of the temple, he is to receive assistance from us. Temple commissioners and chief temple priests will be appointed. They are to visit temples, ascertain the conditions of priests and nuns and slaves, assess the productivity of temple fields, and make full reports to the throne.’

Other than building Shinto and Buddhist temples, Tenmu issued an imperial edict that ordered the nobles from all over the country to build a special room in their houses dedicated to the worship of Buddhism, and banned the consumption of meat for several months per year. Empress Jito continued this tradition by using the imperial treasury to print and then donate sacred sutras texts to the Buddhist monasteries. These attempts set the stage for the national assimilation of Buddhism, not only in the ranks of the elite, but also reaching the hearts of the population starting from Nara jidai.

Emperor Tenji continued the reforms, writing a new code of administrative laws, and further promoted Buddhism. However, the one who finally established the imperial system on the pillars of Shinto-Buddhism was his successor, Emperor Tenmu. As a matter of fact, Tenmu was the first Japanese ruler defined by his contemporaries as emperor, and not just as Okimi, a great king. After winning a civil war and being afraid of the possible invasion of a Tang-Silla coalition, Tenmu needed to encourage national cohesion amongst all the nobles, regardless of their past differences. Without it, the ambitious military and economic reforms could not have been implemented so quickly and efficiently. As we explained before, this loyalty to the crown was promoted with the help of Shinto as a state religion. State Buddhism was used as a secondary and complementary force of persuasion.

The Taiho code from 703 AD left no room for interpretation. A clear difference between civil persons and Buddhist priests was made. Claiming to be a Buddhist monk without registering into the state service was against the law. If a person wanted to become a religious figure, he had to abandon his private way of life and enter the Buddhist clergy, defined by a strict set of special rules. Even though all the Buddhist sects were tolerated, regardless of their origin, imperial agents had to verify the Buddhist monks from the territory and order them to preach only in the interest of the state, a situation that was also happening in Tang China. The Buddhist monks were instructed to respect the code, and severe punishments were enforced if they dared to derail from the official norm.

If until this point Shinto had been more important than Buddhism in the statecraft of Japan, the situation was reversed in the Nara period. The Tang cultural influence became even more pronounced, as Emperor Shomu and Empress Shotoku favored the worship of Buddha, while kami rituals held a secondary role. The Fujiwara clan, the most influential aristocratic family from the eighth to the tenth century in Japan, also admired the Tang way of governing and focused on practicing and promoting the Chinese elitistic elements of culture. Under these circumstances, the Buddhist monks bypassed both the local clans and the imperial rule, becoming more and more autonomous.

Inspired by the ideas of his predecessors, Emperor Shomu directly coordinated the construction of Buddhist monasteries in every province of the country. However, historians concluded from the contemporary chronicles that he didn’t necessary go on with this ambitious project simply to strengthen his authority. Educated by monks, Shomu deeply believed that the spread of temples and Buddhist prayers could protect the country from the epidemics and natural calamities which devastated his realm. Between 737 and 739 AD, an epidemic took the lives of almost one third of the Japanese population. A later imperial edict, written two years later, spoke about this grave crisis. The following fragment can help us better understand the characteristics of early Shinto-Buddhism. ‘Of late, crops have been poor and epidemic sickness has been rife. Fear and mortification follow one upon another. We alone are responsible, as we have made mistakes. We have searched widely for ways to achieve good fortune for the people. As a result of that search, some years ago we dispatched messengers bearing instructions that the land’s national shrines be enlarged and repaired. We also ordered the erection of a sixteen-foot-high statue of Sakyamuni and the copying of the Daihannya Sutra, in every province of the realm. Since then and from spring through autumn, the winds and rains have been orderly and grain harvests good. These are signs that our sincere prayers have been answered. We are now in constant awe and dread, unable even to sleep. In the Ultimately Victorious King Sutra, it is written that when a king shall cause this sutra to be read, expounded, and propagated devoutly throughout his realm, the Four Heavenly Kings will surely protect that country against all calamity, prevent sorrow and pestilence, and cause the hearts of believers to be filled with joy.’ As many clan leaders started to share Shomu’s belief, they supported the spread of Buddhism with enthusiasm, holding regular ceremonies dedicated to the common folk from their own provinces.

In the later phase of Shomu’s reign, the focus was shifted from a superficial Buddhism, and most of the efforts were directed toward converting the Japanese population and presenting them with the profound Buddhist dogma regarding spiritual enlightenment. This could be explained in many ways. Since all the significant political opposition died in that horrible smallpox epidemic, and seeing that, after decades of reforms the imperial system was already stable, Shomu no longer needed to use Buddhism as a form of political ideology. Furthermore, witnessing the misery of so many people, including nobles, must have impressed the emperor and made him search for a deeper meaning of life and death. As a sign of his support for the new religion, and as a symbol for his era, Shomu built the statue called Nara Daibutsu, meaning Great Buddha, at the national temple of Todaiji. It still exists today under the UNESCO patrimony. It was made of bronze and it is 15 meters tall.

Shomu would ultimately abdicate the throne in favor of his daughter, Empress Koken, and entered the monastic life as a simple monk. In doing so, he created a long-standing tradition of emperors and great noble warriors who, reaching old age, prefered to retire to a monastic way of life, practicing meditation and thinking about their existence, writing literature, journals and memoirs of their experience. We know a great deal about Japan’s past from the texts that they left behind. Historians define this change as Kegon Buddhism, after the dominant sect of that period.

With a new objective in mind, the Japanese emperors were far more lenient with Buddhist activities outside the monasteries, recognizing the existence of many Buddhist communities outside the official state system. Apart from the religious activities, these communities started to locally govern themselves. In order to keep the nobles in check, the amount of land that a single aristocrat could own was limited. No such restrictions existed on monasteries. Buddhist monks took care of the ill and the poor. They went from village to village, preaching and even offering writing and reading lessons for peasants.

Empress Koken also retired to a monastery, but after a six-year break she returned to the throne taking the symbolic name Shotoku. The empress was convinced more than ever that Buddhism should be strengthened further, and surrounded herself with Buddhist advisors. One of these was the monk Dokyo, who even knew how to read and translate the ancient religious texts directly from Sanskrit. He became so influential that Empress Shotoku named Dokyo as her successor to the imperial throne. Some even speculated that he was her lover. After the empress died in 770 AD, the Fujiwara clan members exiled Dokyo and placed Prince Shirakabe on the throne. He ruled under the name Konin.

Empress Shotoku left a profound legacy on Japanese Buddhism. Her greatest achievement was the commission of Hyakumanto Dharani, distributing over one million small sacred pagodas containing scrolls of prayers, using a woodblock printing technique. The project took 6 years to complete and exhausted the national treasury. Some exemplaries survive to this day. Even though her initiative was very expensive, it had positive effects on how Buddhist teachings were transmitted to the population, enhancing the overall cultural unity of the society. Historians consider Hyakumanto Dharani to be the first example of printing in the history of the country. Even though the majority of books and scrolls were still multiplied by hand, the use of woodblock printing also opened the road for the widening, on a much larger scale, of works of literature, paintings and historical chronicles in the Heian jidai.

At the end of Nara jidai, religious congregations became very popular as they had enough funds to build houses, roads and bridges. Some Buddhist sects even practiced martial arts and formed their own small elite forces of warriors in order to protect their monasteries and the surrounding area. Instead of serving the emperor or the noble family from one region or another, they slowly became an autonomous political force, temporarily supporting the clan leader that offered them most advantages. In the next eras of Heian and Kamakura jidai, some of the Buddhist monks would fight in civil wars as skillful mercenaries, with some monasteries even siding against the emperor. Yet, this phenomenon would reach its peak only in the feudal Japan of the fifteenth century.

The Buddhist faith grew exponentially in the Nara jidai, but Shinto still remained the main religion of Japan. With the exception of a small, highly educated elite, Buddhism was practiced as a complementary spiritual form to the native Shinto. Regardless of how autonomous the Buddhist monasteries became, the clan leaders continued to have the last say in their provinces, as imperial agents sent to control them gradually became more and more corrupt. In their capacity as earthly representatives of the kami, aristocrats sponsored the Buddhist temples from the region that they controlled, conducting Buddhist ceremonies in a Shinto manner. The common folk became more and more enthusiastic about Buddhism, but the vast majority of them ignored the perspective of spiritual enlightenment and salvation, directing their prayers and beliefs towards their everyday problems.

Buddhism strengthened social control by imposing a new set of ethics. The architecture of Shinto shrines and religious representations of kamis were also marked by Buddhist art. Before the spread of Buddhism, human-like kami representations did not exist. Some Shinto deities were even worshiped at Buddhist monasteries as protectors of the region, meaning that the archaic tradition of a guardian kami that had powers limited to the space of a local community still continued. Sonoda Koyu underlines the metaphysics behind this peculiar situation. ‘With the rise of increasingly close ties between the native and foreign faiths, doctrines were devised to explain relationships between a protective kami and a protected Buddha. These involved such ideas as a particular kami and Buddha existing as one body and a kami manifesting the essence of Buddha. Therefore the rapid spread of Buddhism during the Nara period was enmeshed - socially, institutionally, and theologically - with native kami worship, making it impossible to understand the development of either without seeing interaction between the two, an interaction commonly referred to as kami-Buddha fusion.’

In just a century and a half, Shinto and Buddhism seriously influenced Japanese society, but at the same time, the two religions laid the foundations for the first Japanese state. Matsumae Takashi perfectly describes the situation. ‘The kami were seen as sentient creatures, one step higher than human beings but still possessed by carnal passions and in need of the Buddha’s salvation. On the other hand, kami were regarded as guardians of the Buddhist law. (...) Shinto explained the origins of the Japanese state and sanctified the position and functions of emperors, even though aristocrats below the emperor claimed descent from other kami. Shinto, moreover, linked the court to its own past and to the animistic nature worship that still underlay the whole structure of Japanese society. (...) Shinto was retained in the Japanese belief structure, even though it never developed the metaphysical worldview or system of ethics that characterize world religions. Perhaps this was because of its close connection with Japanese Buddhism, which had enough metaphysics and ethics to serve both.’

Traditionally, historians can be separated into materialistic or idealistic thinkers. A materialistic specialist considers that the main causes that influenced major events in history are things like natural resources, technological breakthroughs, total number of population and soldiers, and so on. On the other extreme, the idealistic thinker highlights variables like political organization, religion, the overall mentalities, and the wider social dynamic. These are only orientative patterns from which well-researched simplifications and generalizations can be formulated, so a valid theory can be proposed, but contemporary scientists never place themselves in an extreme position. Likewise, our analysis has shown that material and spiritual variables, the spontaneous evolutions and self-conscious interventions, have continuously modeled each other, supporting together the emergence of Japanese statality. Still, if we could be so daring as to state a precise conclusion, the evidence from this case inclines the balance in the favor of idealistic causes.

The main physical features of Japan’s development are less difficult to quantify. From a demographic point of view, the hunter-gatherer society of the incipient Jomon was composed of migrators from Asia, but the Jomon culture flourished in almost complete isolation. The quality of life was significantly improved when they invented and began to trade pottery vessels and when they started to practice plant manipulation, a very early form of agriculture. Looking at the increasing size, complexity and number of the settlements, archaeologists estimated that the population grew from 100,000 to 300,000 inhabitants. Still, the hunter-gatherers were vulnerable to climate changes and their daily existence was very uncertain.

Another revolution appeared with the Yayoi migration, when rice agriculture and bronze and iron tools were introduced. Agriculture forced people to settle in villages and work together to a greater extent. Their resources needed to be stockpiled and defended against other villages. The greatest warriors from each locality formed tribes, and by conquering their neighbors, several federations of tribes appeared. Being located closer to Korea and to the iron source, one of the tribes from Northern Kyushu achieved local military supremacy and in the third century AD became the kingdom of the Yamatai mentioned by the Chinese chronicles. Using superior weapons, obtaining more food thanks to better tools and having more resources from the trade with Korea and China, in the course of the next two centuries, the Yamatai advanced toward central Honshu, founding a new capital there. They were named the Yamato kingdom, and after using horse riders tactics inspired from Koguryo, they reached political hegemony in Japan. The rest of the smaller kingdoms either pledged allegiance or were gradually destroyed. In order to honor their victories, the Yamato kings erected huge burial mounds that gave the name of their era: Kofun.

With the help of constant trade and advanced agricultural techniques, the Yamato kingdom cultivated vast areas of fertile land. In these auspicious conditions, the population grew and the Yamato kings could collect significant amounts of money from taxes. With larger resources at their disposal, they trained larger and better equipped armies, consolidating their authority by building larger burial mounds. Despite their success, the Korean kingdoms and Chinese empires were becoming even more powerful, posing a potential threat to the Yamato. It became clear that a change was needed, but the political elite was reluctant to radically alter their archaic way of life. Reforms were only moderate. The hesitation was utterly surpassed when Japanese forces were decisively defeated in Korea, and a Silla-Tang coalition could have mounted an invasion at any time. Placed under tremendous external pressure, the king and clan leaders put aside their differences and revolutionized the political, administrative, economic, military and cultural system of the country. At the same time, Shinto-Buddhism emerged as an ideological support.

As we have noticed, the previous explanations identified religion, mentalities and ideas in general, as an effect of a material causality. Now we should look at the other side of the argument by saying that none of the great complements mentioned above could have been achieved without the qualitative variables. The Jomon and Yayoi pre-Shinto beliefs had many features from other parts of Asia. The archaeological sites point out, to an overwhelming extent, that the prehistoric population of Japan was religious to its roots. It’s undeniable that the fight for survival motivated the hunter-gatherers to innovate, but another factor was decisive: their inner force. The conviction that everything around them was magical pushed them to express this cosmological feeling in fertility rituals and art. The invention of pottery and other technological advancements were the result of a purpose driven conscience that life was cyclical, and not the other way around. Of course, these things would not have been possible without a friendly natural environment. Although this a necessary cause of the emergence of culture, it is not a sufficient one.

The vast majority of scholars conclude that the kingdom of the Yamatai subdued its neighbors more by the force of religious persuasion, and less by military strength. The greatest example was the shaman queen Himiko. Even with the advantage of better weapons from Korea, no tribe was strong enough to subdue all of its neighbors. The ability of the Yamato kingdom to conquer most of Japan solely by military strength is considered even less probable. Technological advancements traveled fast, and after a while, the other kingdoms also adopted new strategies in warfare, and so the conflict reached a stalemate. For example, in her recent article ‘A Hypothesis for Early Kofun Rulership’, Gina Lee Barnes interpreted the apparition of burial mounds as Mother Goddess Worship. To be more precise, the burial mounds helped the Yamato kingdom to become the dominant political force in Japan. According to her, the Yamato kings obtained hegemony following a compromise anchored in religious authority. A coalition of clan chieftains gradually formed around the Yamato sovereigns whose authority and trust were consolidated by a shared early Shinto kami worship and the sacrality of political marriages between the Yamato aristocracy and nobles from other clans. In time, the kingdoms that refused to participate in this system of alliances were defeated by the Yamato coalition. To sum up, the Japanese elite from the Kofun era didn’t manufacture an artificial religion as a form of strengthening an already privileged position, but rather naturally climbed the ladder of power with the help of a spiritual structure that already existed. The making of large-scale projects came as a consequence of the fact that the whole society participated, especially because the population was grounded in archaic traditions that expressed their worldview.

The logic of change was not dictated by improving material conditions. William Wayne Farris published a detailed study where he shows that the living standards and demographic and economic growth from the Asuka and Nara periods stagnated and weren’t much better than the ones from the previous era. How then can we explain the success of the reformatory process that we described in this article? A more plausible answer is that thanks to the considerable social ethos created by early Shinto, common traditions and the willingness to accept foreign ideas, the ancient Japanese elite developed an early national conscience. Seeking higher levels of education, they became aware of what was happening on the continent and were inspired by it. A tiny minority represented by leaders like Prince Shotoku had the idea that the shared spiritual framework needed to be supported by stronger pillars. This framework was the real engine of the revolutionary changes from the Classical Antiquity of Japan. Recapitulating, clans that remained loyal expanded together with the Yamato kingdom and their chieftains also erected burial mounds. This was seen by the Yamato sovereigns as a challenge to their reign. The Japanese kings also wished to be treated on equal ground when they talked with their counterparts from Korea and China. The solution for that legitimacy crisis was solved by claiming to be descendants of the most important kami of the Shinto pantheon, and not just any kami. Shinto was a collection of unrelated myths with no ranking system for deities. During the Asuka and Nara jidai, the central government reorganized the traditional faith, transforming the Japanese king into a sacred emperor. The act was officialized in the famous chronicles Kojiki and Nihon shoki. In parallel, the ruling elite observed that Buddhism had the potential to further sanctify the institution of the emperor, making it stronger in domestic and foreign affairs. Understanding the general background, we can conclude that Buddhism in Japan had at least four stages of development. A initial phase began with the Paekche mission to the Yamato court. Back then Buddhism was embraced only by a small minority, mostly by clans of Korean or Chinese origin. After the crushing defeat at Baekgang, the doctrine was influenced by Silla and so the new religion in Japan was marked by northern and southern Chinese Buddhism. At this point Buddhism spread in all the corners of the country. The third step is represented by the rule of Emperor Tenmu, who integrated Buddhism as an official state religion. Finally, only in the late Nara jidai was the mystical and philosophical system of Buddhism fully comprehended by a broader elite educated according to the Tang model.

If we analyze what happened in Nara jidai, it might look like Japan lost its own uniqueness and identity. In reality, the Japanese civilization matured during this process of assimilation. Just as many religious ideas came in different stages from Korea and China, the Japanese art and architecture was inspired from both South Chinese and North Chinese Buddhism, stimulating even more elaborate forms of expression. For instance, the Japanese borrowed the Buddhist iconography and philosophy, but they also adapted the paintings and literary works to the native perspective, highlighting themes like the sorrow of human existence and the fragility of life. As readers might notice in future chapters, the capacity to select and assimilate foreign ideas is one of the most enduring characteristics of the Japanese civilization.