Almost all books dedicated to Japan start by highlighting the uniqueness of Japanese culture and history. A fascinating point is that all of this apparent mysterious uniqueness and authenticity derives from a very diverse environment. The exact origin of the Japanese people remains an enigma to this day. In Antiquity, Japan borrowed massively from the cultures of China and Korea. Wars in Korea and China encouraged foreign elites to settle in Japan. This process of assimilation favored the creation of the first tribe federations and kingdoms in Japan. In the late phase of the Antiquity, Japanese leaders developed a strong national conscience around the Shinto and Buddhist religions, creating unique artworks and other spiritual expressions. Fearing the threat of China, Japan began a complex project of reform and modernization that amazed historians. Taking as a model the great Chinese dynasties but also innovating, Japan became a centralized empire and one of the most advanced nations of the ancient world.
Feudalism and the legendary class of warriors named samurai entered the scene in 1185. Influenced by Confucianism and Buddhism, they mostly acted according to an unwritten ethic known to the general public as the ‘Bushido Code’. The political system shifted towards decentralization, a natural order in Japan. The emperor became a symbolic political institution, while the real power lay in the hands of a military dictator called shogun.
In the thirteenth century, the Mongols, led by Kublai Khan, conqueror of the Chinese Song dynasty, launched two massive invasions of Japan. The military expedition was one of the largest forces in medieval times. After some fierce battles and with the help of a tsunami labelled in legend as kamikaze, the divine wind, the attackers were completely defeated. On the other hand, the expenditure necessary for the war eroded the government’s authority, and a state of constant civil war began. In 1543, the Portuguese initiated the first European contact with Japan, bringing Christianity and modern weapons. They were followed by the Dutch and British. At first, they were well received. At the end of the sixteenth century, Japan probably had the largest amount of early arquebus firearms in the world. Their military might pushed them to invade the Korean Peninsula, but after Chinese intervention and a devastating war that lasted eight years, the Japanese retreated and decided to isolate the country from the rest of the world, a policy that is known in history as ‘Sakoku’. Only the Dutch had limited trading rights so Japan could still learn about what was happening in distant regions. The country was finally pacified in three steps by the titanic unifiers Nobunaga Oda, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu. The latter formed a dynasty that lasted almost three hundred years.
The beginning of the Modern era in Japan was marked by the Tokugawa shogunate. Led by a warrior class, the country gradually transformed into a pacifistic realm that was almost utopic considering the violent international context. The samurai converted from deadly soldiers into skilled functionaries. The economic system was still feudal and the society had conservative values, but it also shared many early capitalistic and liberal behaviors. These tendencies produced remarkable economic and demographic development, along with rich forms of cultural dialectics. In the eighteenth century, Edo, later named Tokyo, was the biggest capital of the period, with over one million people.
In 1853, the American Commodore, Matthew C. Perry, forced Japan to open its gates. Confronted with the possibility of being conquered, Japan commenced another stunning process of modernization with both positive and negative effects. After the Meiji Restoration, feudalism and the samurai system were abandoned in favor of a modern constitution and a professional national army. Thanks to these rapid changes, Japan was the only independent Asian country in the nineteenth century. This culminated with the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, categorically won by Japan with the use of industrial scale tactics. In just three or four decades, the country plunged into the Contemporary era as a top ten power.
The begging of the twentieth century opened with the victory of Japan in the Russo-Japanese War from 1904-1905. In the First World War, the country attacked the German colonies in Asia but the treatment at the Treaty of Versailles and at the League of Nations disappointed the Japanese leaders. More reforms and vast investments in industrialization and infrastructure followed in the interwar period, but some of the effects were negative. On an internal level, the rapid urbanization created great inequalities and social tensions that eventually led to the rise of a militaristic political movement. On external politics, Japan’s fast growth was seen as a treat by all the other major powers. Having no natural resources and under the influence of right wing extremists, Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931. A full-fledged war started with China in 1937, continuing with a short military conflict with the Soviet Union in 1938-1939. Under economic embargo, Japan decided to enter the Second World War on the side of the Axis, attacking the United States at Pearl Harbor in 1941 and destroying the European colonies in Asia. The general performance of the Japanese soldiers was striking, with horrific war crimes and crimes against humanity, but also with heroics deeds. Fighting on many fronts, Japan was totally defeated in 1945, when the United States surrounded the country and launched the nuclear bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and when the Soviet Union invaded Manchuria.
In the Cold War period, Japan was protected by the United States, who imposed a pacifist constitution. Taking advantage of the international context, Japan initiated again a formidable mechanism of reconstruction. The economy grew at unprecedented level, the whole phenomenon being called by the historians as 'The Japanese Miracle'.
Nowadays, Japan is a highly developed country and the third largest economy in the world. Furthermore, the nation struggles with great internal problems like economic stagnation, deflation and the general aging of the population. Being worried about the tense international climate, Japanese leaders are considering the possibility that the county should now have not only an important diplomatic and economic role, but also must became a major military power in order to protect the security of the Pacific area, the region with fastest economic growth of developing countries in the twenty-first century.
Shintoism is both an uncommon polytheistic religion and a mythology that belongs exclusively to the Country of the Rising Sun, Japan. How important is Shinto for the contemporary Japanese and what rituals they still preserve and respect? What are their main religious festivals? What are the main mythological, archaic and shamanistic origins of the Shinto traditions? How the particular cosmogony influenced the view about good and evil? In what manner Buddhism intermixed with later Shintoism? What about the Shinto pantheon of gods, heroes and mythical creatures? The following material will help you find out the answers.
In the late Pleistocene Era the Japanese archipelago was connected to the Asian continent in the north and south by land masses. The prehistoric population of Japan was formed from ethnically diverse groups which migrated from various places like north, east and south China, the Korean Peninsula, the Ryukyu Islands, Siberia, Indochina and even the Indonesian area. Because of this, the exact origin of the Japanese people remains to this day an enigma which stimulates researchers to produce captivating theories. After the glaciers gradually melted, Japan’s islands became isolated and the contrasting cultures slowly combined into what scientists generally call the Jomon people. Not only were they ethnically and culturally diverse, but they also settled in different regions of Japan, shaping very diverse local cultures. Bearing in mind that the existence of Jomon culture has been found to cover a tremendous period of time archaeologists have divided the Jomon period into at least four parts: incipient, early, middle and late. The main features of the Jomon cultures have been identified through comparative studies of discovered vessels, pottery figurines, bone and stone jewels, tools, skeletons, primitive dwellings, and traces of varied food consumption.
The Early Antiquity of the Country of the Rising Sun is positioned at the border between archaeology and history. There are no contemporary Japanese written records describing this era; the only contemporary written records are found in the Chinese chronicles. The official Japanese manuscripts Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, written at the beginning of the eight century, merge historical facts with mythology in portraying ancient events. Due to this, most scholars refer to this timeline as the heroic and romantic period in the history of Japan. Yamato Takeru was the most important legendary hero, a character comparable to Achilles, Hercules or Arthur from Western folklore. From a scientific point of view, this period is divided into two parts: Yayoi and Kofun. According to classical theories, the Yayoi people migrated from Korea and China into Japan starting from 300 BC; however, newer studies suggest that the first migrations happened in 900 BC. They introduced agriculture and tools and weapons made of bronze and iron, creating the perfect conditions for a sedentary society. The population grew exponentially, and soon the traditional villages organized themselves into competing tribe federations and small kingdoms. In order to legitimize their position, the first Japanese leaders claimed to have a divine right to rule. The symbols of their rule were bronze bells, mirrors and swords received from the Chinese dynasties, that had the title Okimi inscribed on them, meaning great kings. The transition to Kofun happened in 250 AD, when various strong sovereigns ordered the construction of huge burial mounds as a symbol of their might. From all the incipient kingdoms of Japan, the Yamato clan gained hegemony, using a complex strategy by combining war with trade, diplomacy, political marriages among noblemen, vassal relations and religious ideology.
While Europe experienced a violent Dark Age after the fall of the Roman Empire and the Barbarian Invasions, and while the Middle East and Northern Africa were also marked by the Early Muslim conquest, the history of East and South Asia was completely different. In comparison with other regions of the world, the Far East enjoyed a relatively long period of peace and stability, with an economic and demographic explosion. The Tang dynasty of China (681 - 907 AD) was arguably the most advanced empire of its time. Under the guidance of Tang, culture and technological innovations flourished. As a neighboring country, Japan initiated an incredible process of modernization based on the Chinese model. Exactly as they did when Japan was modernized according to the Western model, the ancient Japanese scholars traveled to the court of the Tang dynasty to study their methods of political and economic organization. On their return they became influential leaders who managed to push political, economic, military, religious and cultural reforms at a breathtaking pace. Looking back at the ancient past we can observe that Japan’s notable performance in the last two centuries is not a coincidence. After the society assimilated the most important values and practices from their neighbors, the Japanese civilization truly emerged by developing a strong national conscience in the ranks of the elites and by providing an authentic and original spiritual expression, materialized in works of art of universal value. With those considerations in mind, some historians rightfully named this stage as the Classical Antiquity of Japan. This timeline is traditionally divided into three parts: Asuka, Nara and Heian. Asuka is notable for the apparition of a Japanese written system using Chinese characters, and for the adoption of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. Shortly afterwards, Buddhism and the archaic Shinto became in practice a syncretic religion meant to legitimize the rule of the divine emperor. The first prominent leaders of Japan, whose existence is certified by historical sources, appeared at this time. Through the power of their own personalities, they initiated the Taika reforms, shaping an efficient and centralized Japanese state. Massive infrastructure building projects were commenced. All the land was collectivized and the tax system was much improved. The Seventeen Article Constitution was presented as a philosophical moral guide for the political elite, followed by the first administrative, penal and civil codes of law. Those reforms were deepened during the Nara age and strengthened by the rise of a Japanese national army and by the decisive defeat of the Ainu tribes in northern Honshu. Nara is also remarkable for the systematization of an official religion, represented by the building of magnificent Shinto temples and Buddhist monasteries. Woodblock printing supported the spread of Buddhist ideals as the printing of one million prayers named Hyakumato Darani was ordered. Man’yoshu, meaning the Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves, the first great work of Japanese literature, was published. Finally, Heian can be described as the moment when the ancient Japanese high culture reached its peak, with the Fujiwara family dominating the political scene. Maybe the most illustrious example is the masterpiece novel ‘The Tale of Genji’, written by the Heian lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu. Although it was conceived in the classical period, it is considered by many specialists as the world’s first modern novel because it has numerous elements of psychological analysis in the prose. It's worth mentioning that the Japanese aristocratic women enjoyed preferential treatment in comparison with other major cultures from ancient times, having the right to be educated, to own property and even to fight in wars. Heian ended when the sophisticated aristocratic families were gradually replaced by an emerging warrior class, later known as the samurai.
A common identity, based on some core shared values, can be identified at the foundation of any civilization. In ancient times, religion played a key role in shaping a general conscience. Starting from a wide range of archaic animistic beliefs, Shinto slowly transformed into a state religion, legitimizing the hegemony of the clan leaders and the rule of the first Japanese kings called Okimi. Shinto as we know it today is the result of a complex combination of folklore myths from immemorial times, a constant evolution of collective moral consciousness, economic prosperity closely connected with the division of labor and political intervention, in which the Shinto beliefs were reorganized for personal gains. The second step was the adoption of Mahayana Buddhism in the fifth century AD. Buddhism immediately became a work ethic and a guide for daily interactions between individuals. It also provided the moral support for amazing political, economic and military reforms. In time, Shinto and Buddhism became more and more a syncretic religion, building a strong base for the absolute authority of the Japanese emperor. Furthermore, the debates on the topic of religion provided a vigorous source of inspiration for the first great Japanese works in the fields of statecraft, philosophy, history, literature, architecture, sculpture, painting, music and dancing. Finally, an elementary form of political organization will grow into a state when the neighboring countries acknowledge its existence as a sovereign entity. This is even more true for Japan because the ancient Chinese and Korean states invented a writing system much earlier. At least for the first phases of the Antiquity, all the written sources mentioning the Land of the Rising Sun are foreign. In short, this article wants to answer two important questions: How did the particular spiritual and material elements interact with each other in order to change mentalities, politics and the ancient Japanese society as a whole? and, In what manner did religion and the awareness of otherness contribute to the rise and the consolidation of incipient Japanese statality?