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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.