The emerging national conscience in ancient Japan
Institutions, society and culture
author Armand Sadovschi, July 2018
Japan fully surfaced as a sovereign nation that manifested an unclouded historical consciousness at the end of the eighth century. This dynamic process can be observed by examining several overlapping factors. The centralization of the state and the appearance of the sacred imperial institution which started with Tenmu’s reign, both organized under the guidance of the Ritsuryo system of laws and land redistribution, signified only the top of the pyramid. The foundation of the entire identity structure was composed from archaic religious and philosophical beliefs, adapted foreign concepts, and the mentalities which resulted from the repeated interactions between them. They are emblematically pictured by the invention of the first Japanese grammar, named Man’yogana. Other relevant traces of cultural uniqueness were: the compilation of national collections of Waka poetry, the state-sponsored publishing of national histories, the materialization of Gagaku, masked theater drama, and Gigaku, the Japanese classical music played with an orchestra.
Usually, the concept of national conscience is strictly related to nineteenth century Europe, when almost all citizens stood up for their rights and considered themselves part of a unitary national culture. This type of doctrine was completely unknown to ancient Japan but this does not imply the absence of any historical conscience. By analyzing important aspects of the Japanese social order and the way of life in the Asuka and Nara jidai, we can conclude that a clear national identity developed in the minds of the aristocracy at the end of the eighth century AD, together with an original idea of statehood and a genuine philosophical perspective. Although only the elite completely shared these values, they were derived from the archaic mentalities, habits and beliefs of the Japanese common people. Identifying some distinct features of the society at a national level also enforced the general thesis. After starting from a very diverse ethnic and cultural background, and sitting for centuries in the shadow of the remarkable Chinese accomplishments, the Japanese civilization was finally rising. The most relevant authors that helped us to understand this complex topic were: Torao Toshiya, William Wayne Farris, Edwin A. Cranston and Delmer M. Brown.

The tremendous spiritual influence of China was vital for the augmentation of the high culture of Japan. Edwin A. Cranston, a leading expert in Asian languages, analyzed the transition between borrowing foreign elements and producing original works of art in the Japanese culture. Speaking about the Asuka and Nara jidai, Cranston summarizes the main features of this conversion. ‘Japan became fully and for all time a participant in the high civilization of East Asia. Participation meant religious and philosophical orientations, an ideal of imperial rule, legal and administrative structures, techniques and styles of architecture, city planning, sculpture, painting, and music - all derived directly or indirectly from China and shared in one degree or another by the peoples of its periphery. Above all, it meant literacy: the mastery of the Chinese language and the eventual adaptation of its script to the writing in Japanese. From literacy came ventures in historiography - at once a definition and a redefinition of the Japanese state - and in poetry.’

The basic assumption in this chapter is that a deep analysis of the Asuka and Nara eras reveals the complicated process at the end of which the mature Japanese civilization was born. Although overused in many ways, the Hegelian concept of dialectics is essential in order to fully grasp the dynamic process of change. Put simply, dialectics means a dialogue between at least two opposite subjective positions. At first, a thesis is formed. In response, an antithesis denies all the former claims. Finally, from this debate a conclusion as objective as possible is made in the form of a synthesis. In reality, the Japanese ethnogenesis is much more complicated than that, but the general framework can be better understood in this way.

Even before Classical Antiquity, a very rich and vivid native culture existed in the archipelago, but it was unrefined and wild, dominated by a series of spontaneous popular expressions. The social hierarchy was clear but simple, and the political organization was quite complicated, but the central authority was weak, and not nearly as elegant, efficient and robust as the one that emerged during the seventh and eighth century AD. Without the benefits of natural resources and large areas of productive land to farm, the incipient Japanese statality was lagging behind neighboring societies that were well structured and more powerful from a technological, economic and military point of view. The great political change was driven by this sense of insecurity. It was coordinated by the elite that forced those social innovations on the common people. The only pragmatic way to implement political reforms was to corroborate and legitimize them with religious and cultural imports, since the neighboring art of governance developed alongside and with the help of a spiritual, artistic and intellectual framework. It was also a good way to integrate Japan into the geopolitical sphere of East Asia.

The fear of not being overwhelmed is a necessary explanation for the will to adapt to new conditions, but not a sufficient one. Up to a point, the political and social reforms were dictated from the top of the social ladder. On the other hand, this didn’t happen with the new cultural and religious worldviews. Insecurity alone cannot explain why the Confucian and Buddhist dogma and philosophy of life, reinforced by all the artistic forms derived from it, had such a profound and deep impact on Japanese society as a whole. The only reasonable answer to that question is that the Japanese people were sincerely fascinated by many foreign habitudes, and on a macro level, the phase of the thesis had begun. This modernization is often compared by historians with the Meiji era, when Japan adopted Western ways. The difference between the two is that the second was a revolution mostly manufactured from necessity, while the ancient set of reforms were set in motion principally out of admiration.

From the very beginning, numerous transformations were received with discontent and resistance. Some influential local nobles openly opposed the transfer of political power towards an aristocratic court seated in a capital city. The Buddhist doctrine was comprehensive only at a superficial level and several clan chieftains felt that they would lose their authority if they abandoned some of their religious prerogatives. It was also argued that building monasteries and sacred monuments might anger the native kami, bringing chaos and destruction. Thus, a social tension between the indigenous Japanese nobles and those of Chinese and Korean descent was created. As for Taoist, Confucian and Buddhist notions and practices, they were gradually embraced only by a small minority of elites. At least for the first decades, the rural areas kept their old traditions and were reluctant to receive any alien form of mysticism. Peasants were accustomed to larger local autonomy granted by their traditional lords, and the tax pressure increased significantly. The disparity between the people and the ruling elite was accentuated by the increasing control and interference of the state in the daily lives of farmers. Most of them obeyed the new imposed order but also responded with passive methods of disruption and bypassed the system in any way that they could. Asuka and Nara were marked by this constant struggle of opposing ideas and mentalities. In practice, the antithesis happened in parallel with the thesis. The result of their confrontation is presented during this article.

We’ve already mentioned terms like ethnogenesis, a limited common or national identity, and historical consciousness as a lively force of spiritual and material transition towards self awareness. Throughout this text, we will try to identify and sketch the main characteristics of this phenomenon. Still, we first need to define the implication of the mechanism. An explanation of what are we searching for exactly is paramount. Ethnogenesis implies the apparition of a unitary written language with an enduring system of grammar. No less significant is that historical consciousness should be represented with clarity in the oral and high culture, in art and official written sources. This basically means the recognition of repeated common themes that have a national value and connotation. The pattern can be found in religion, poetry, prose, music, dance, folk tales, painting, architecture and state archives. Political institutions have to be strong, being established as a synthetic reflection of the natural expressiveness of that culture. Here the official cult of nationwide heroes, values and virtues that can spread and communicate with the countryside is fundamental for our thesis. It is also important that the society perceives itself as a different nation, having a sovereign state, sometimes with an original political and social configuration, a distinctive worldview, a clear set of religious and spiritual beliefs, and specific daily habits and mentalities. This happens in three coexisting forms: the neighboring countries recognize your existence as an independent state, the people spontaneously define themselves as a separate community from the rest of the world, or the political and cultural elite introduces this shared identity to the masses by using various means of propaganda. The third one is much more pregnant and efficient starting from the nineteenth century. In our particular case, the geographical isolation of Japan increased the feeling of ‘otherness’ and cultural uniqueness. It is important to comprehend all of those revolutions in their liquid form, to express the historical process as a continuous movement, and not as a static and robotic linear evolution.

The dramatic prologue of Japan’s history began when the Chinese Han dynasty mentioned the existence of an island country named ‘Wa’. The Chinese scribes described the existence of hundreds of barbaric tribes and kingdoms that had some general common traits, but also many different local customs. Far from expressing the existence of a unitary nation, ‘Wa’ was just a collective term for the populations living in the archipelago. By the fifth century AD, from all of those chiefdoms, the Yamato kingdom managed to impose its will from its power center, the Kinai province. One hundred years later, even the Sui dynasty acknowledged that the Yamato was entitled to some influence in the Korean Peninsula. However, its military power was limited and the actual internal political authority was fragile. Practically, Yamato was a kingdom that depended on a federation of vassal chieftains. Outside the surrounding regions of the capital, the control of the rest of the country was conditioned by the goodwill of the local gentry. Another step forward was made by Prince Shotoku in 607 AD, who wrote a letter to the Sui dynasty, speaking, for the first time, in the name of the sovereign Japanese state and announcing the cessation of any kind of payment of tribute to China. Again, Shotoku was ahead of his contemporaries and the reformatory process of the state and the society was just beginning. Japanese statehood surfaced at its fullest during Tenmu’s reign (from 673 to 686 AD), who was the first sovereign to receive during his lifetime the title of Tenno, meaning emperor. He was also the one who commissioned the writing of Kojiki, the prime official book about the history of the Japanese nation. The Nihon Shoki volume continued the first attempt, and was edited by his son, Prince Toneri.

Literacy was closely connected with the introduction of Buddhism, after the official mission sent by the kingdom of Paekche in 538 AD. This act was just part of a larger plan to integrate Japan into the spiritual, cultural and political climate of East Asia. At first, three reasons prevailed. Chinese was the written language used in the Buddhist texts from the whole area. If they really wanted to understand this new religion, the Japanese aristocracy and clergy needed to learn Chinese. Moreover, educating a diplomatic class capable of honorably representing Japan at the Sui and Tang courts was another necessity. When they returned home, the emissaries brought with them new administrative techniques that required an official archive.

Historians don’t know exactly when literacy appeared in Japan. The traditional dating is closely connected with the legendary arrival of a scholar from the Korean kingdom of Paekche in 404 AD. The Nihon shoki chronicles tell us about Wani, a wise scholar who settled in Japan during the reign of Emperor Ojin. He was named the leader of scribes in Japan, with the job of working with official documents. None of his works survived. For the next century and a half, literacy was limited to a very small elite, mostly Korean and Chinese immigrants hired in the service of the early Yamato state.

More and more monks and diplomats returned from China with Confucian and Buddhist texts, contributing to the rising rate of literacy amongst the ruling class of Japan. The reign of Prince Shotoku was also significant from this point of view, because it was the first that tried to promote Buddhism in all the corners of the country, passing direct written orders to provincial governors and enforcing a common mentality in the ranks of the lesser nobility. For both practical and spiritual grounds, the local nobility appreciated the skill of reading and labeled it a priority. This was a characteristic specific for East Asia because in other parts of the world literacy wasn’t considered mandatory for the ruling class.

Another step forward was made during the Nara era, when the state was strongly centralized. Access even to low-ranking offices was facilitated only if the noble proved his ability to read, write and understand the Chinese classics. Education was the most important factor that promoted some commoners in the bureaucratic system, even though they were functionaries and merely carried out orders. It is important to note that despite several attempts to promote persons based on merit, the Japanese aristocracy imposed the principle of obtaining vital political positions via blood inheritance. In practice, the principles of governance were driven by a mixture of birth rights and the actual knowledge to rule.

Chinese is one of the oldest written languages in history and is the only major language in our current world that is based solely on pictograms, not on a phonetic alphabet. In general, each pictogram represents a monosyllabic word, and the speaker uses his tone to clarify the meaning of his words. Actually, Chinese is so complex because it was formed from a multitude of dialects and languages from East Asia, belonging to a wide Sino-Tibetan linguistic family. Even today the Chinese tongue is not unitary. The main variations of Chinese are Mandarin, Min, Wu and Yue. The differences are so great that people who speak only one type of Chinese can’t understand the others. After a profound study of Chinese classics, the ancient Japanese scholars realized that they could borrow and adapt the Chinese characters in order to express the Japanese language in writing by creating a phonetic alphabet and completely changing the meaning of the pictograms.

Buddhism originated in India. When the Chinese erudites from the Han Dynasty first tried to transcribe the sacred texts from Sanskrit to Chinese, they discovered a easy way to do it. Buddhism expressed spiritual and philosophical concepts that were unknown to the Chinese culture, so many foreign words were adopted as a neologism. If a Chinese pictogram represented a word that was also a monosyllabic sound, then they could express the Sanskrit pronunciation by writing the Chinese characters in a order that replicated with approximation the original sound of Sanskrit. The later Japanese scholars from Nara jidai observed this feature of adaptability of the Chinese characters and tried to do the same when they created the first Japanese grammar.

The Chinese, Korean and Japanese spoken languages are not related. The Chinese empire emerged much earlier and invented a writing system. Being neighbors, ancient Korea and Japan just borrowed the Chinese pictograms, but gave them a completely different meaning and usage, according to their own native language. This process happened all over the word, as very few languages have an original alphabet.

Like Sanskrit, Japanese is mostly a polysyllabic language. The adaptation to the Chinese pictograms was made in the same way. They took the Chinese pictograms for their phonetic value, but arranged them in an order that replicated Japanese words, ignoring the original meaning of the symbols. However, this method had a significant problem: some phrases became too long because the Japanese words needed too many Chinese symbols to be represented. For example, historians of language calculated that ninety Japanese words from Nara poems were written with 970 pictograms. The compromise complicated the grammar even more, as most of the texts combined Japanese with Chinese, so sometimes a sum of symbols represented a word, and sometimes, purely by convention, one symbol signified only one Japanese term. The first method was later called Kana, while the latter was named Kanji, translated as Chinese words.

Old Japanese was a middle course dominated by Kana that incorporated some Kanji elements. It was called Man’yogana, after the famous collection of poetry Man’yoshu. Man’yogana never became standardized, as the authors experimented and changed the usage of words as they pleased, seeking to express abstract ideas. It is unreadable to an untrained present-day speaker. In order to be able to read in early Japanese, a scholar needed first to be fluent in classical Chinese. Then he could easily distinguish if the text was written in Chinese or Japanese only by paying attention if the phrase made sense when reading the pictograms as words or as separate syllables. The Chinese and Japanese phrasing was also different. As in English, the first forms sentences in the order of subject-verb-object, while the latter follows the procedure of subject-object-verb.

The evolution of the Korean and Japanese alphabets took a very different course. The ancient adaptation of Korean to the Chinese pictograms was called Hanja. Their scholars preferred clear and precise equivalents, instead of complex and ambiguous ones. As the forms of expression evolved, Hanja was unable to keep the pace. The Korean elite from the fifteenth century decided to create a new alphabet from scratch that replaced the old one. It was called Hangul. The letters were arranged in a syllabic block, horizontally and vertically. In contrast, the ancient Japanese scribes opted for a complicated and multifaceted lexicon. Depending on context, a word sometimes meant fifteen different things. It favored poetry and musicality, maybe a characteristic that supported the sensibility of Japanese literature. Because of that, during the passing of the centuries, the Japanese kept the Chinese pictograms and only introduced and adapted new words when needed.

The current Japanese language evolved from Man’yogama and it is considered one of the most complicated in the world. It uses three alphabets at the same time: Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji. Hiragana and Katakana are syllabic writing systems with 71 basic characters. The first depicts Japanese native words and the second expresses foreign names and scientific terms. Hiragana is also employed for prepositions and conjunctions. Kanji is a ideographic alphabet and most of the lexicon is composed of Kanji symbols. In present times, there are 50,000 Kanji, but a common Japanese uses no more than 5,000 on a daily basis.

After assimilating the main values of Buddhism, many Japanese court aristocrats became interested in other forms of education. Several Japanese emperors sent agents especially to acquire books from Korea and China, and not only about religion and philosophy, but also about medicine, history and literature. As they consumed more and more classic works of Chinese culture, the Japanese nobility began to write their own operas. Their first scrolls were just imitations, copying the structure and themes of the Chinese world. The next step was to combine Chinese elements with specific Japanese expressions and subjects. Lastly, some of the later works were very original, keeping only some Chinese aspects. They were more like a show of skill and a tribute for the great civilization that initially inspired the authors. The three versions of composing literature continued in parallel during the Classical Antiquity of Japan.

Prince Shotoku is credited for writing the first book about the history of Japan. The scrolls were destroyed during his son’s assassination, but historians believe that Shotoku had the same intentions as the compilers of Kojiki and Nihon Shoki. He wanted to copy the structure of Chinese official chronicles and to note Japan’s past as a cohesive nation, with a linear progress that equaled the Chinese glory. This conclusion suggests that the enlightened ruler understood that a centralized state cannot be governed properly without a historical identity, and that despite his cosmopolitan education he already perceived a strong spiritual connection with his forefathers.

Kakinomoto no Hitomaro was, by far, the greatest poet from the Asuka era. His opera was inspired by the rise of the Emperor Tenmu, the civil war of Jinshin, and by the growing attempts made by the state to impose Shinto as a national religious ideology. On the other hand, the central theme is not religion, politics or nature, but human existence. Rural or wild landscapes are used only as metaphors for the tragic destiny of mortals. The tension between life and death is lamented, as well as the impermanence of any love story or passion. Although most of his characters are glorious emperors, ministers or legendary warriors that eventually give up in the face of inevitable decay, his intention was to create a universal pattern. Hitomaro alternated lines of five and seven syllables. His masterpieces inspired Choka and Tanka, long and short poems, the dominant traditions in Japanese poetry until the fourteenth century.

In his volume, Seeds in the Heart. Japanese Literature from Earliest Times to the Late Sixteenth Century, Donald Keene offers us examples of poems composed by Kakinomoto no Hitomaro, including his last work. ‘Who will tell her/ That I lie here,/ My head pillowed/ On the stones brought to shore/ By the rough waves?’ Other great authors from the Nara and Heian periods considered Hitomaro as a ‘saint of poetry’. In the recent book One Hundred Poets. One poet each, the famous Irish translator Peter McMillan included Himaro in the top five most remarkable Japanese poets of all time.

Kojiki, Nihon Shoki, Man’yoshu, Kaifuso, Kakyo Hyoshiki and Shoku Nihongi are the best known writings from the Nara period. In the previous chapter we covered the content of the ancient chronicles and scrolls, now we will only focus on the style and the philosophical message. Historians observed a gradual shift from the Chinese expressions, themes and techniques of writing, to an authentic Japanese way of viewing and conceptualizing the world. These two formed a constant dialogue and influenced each other. The Chinese way and mentality were adapted to the local specificity, but not before the native beliefs were also altered by foreign ideas. The Japanese high culture was born from this long process, a phenomenon that can also be observed at all levels of society.

The ancient Japanese writers shifted from ambiguity to clarity. An analysis on Man’yoshu concluded that poems were written in a enigmatic way, but the expressivity in prose was much more precise. The reason for that difference was given by the fact that poems illustrated the Japanese universe, in contrast with prose, which borrowed many more foreign words. The intellectual culture from Classical Japan reflected the oral one. The only overseas terms identified in early Japanese poetry were Buddhist concepts. Some writers highlighted this vagueness on purpose, writing sentences that could be understood in both Chinese and Japanese. This equivocal aspect continued to prevail throughout the cultural history of the Country of the Rising Sun.

Man’yoshu was composed in Japanese and Chinese. The native oral tradition facilitated poems without a strict structure, while the borrowed Confucian ideas influenced a conservatory style of verses written in Chinese. Most of the vitalistic and heroic love poems were written in Japanese. The qualities of the characters from the story reflected the native ideals of the ancient Japanese society. The poetry that focused on praising moral virtues, such as friendship or temperance, were recorded in Chinese and mirrored the foreign qualities that the Japanese admired. Edwin A. Cranston, the professor of Japanese literature, concluded that Man’yoshu is the greatest example of how the hybrid Japanese culture was growing into a full fledged civilization.

Waka was the general term defining all the styles of classical poetry written in Japanese, and Kanshi was the name for poetry immortalized in Chinese. Although it was compiled by a few dedicated scholars, Man’yoshu is a rare example when an ancient text represents the voice of a society as a whole, having 530 different poets and many more anonymous authors. All groups from all over the country participated: male and female, emperors, nobles, monks and farmers. The human experience of both urban and rural life was revealed.

Otomo no Yakamochi was the most relevant poet from the Nara times, being one of the main authors of Man’yoshu. He was a member of the warrior Otomo clan, and also an important politician. His works are filled with regrets about the past glorious and heroic eras, in comparison with the boring and static life of this time. In a letter sent to a friend, Yakamochi acknowledged that he belonged to an old tradition of better scholars like Kakinomoto no Hitomaro and Yamanoue no Okura. By leaning toward authors that wrote one century before him, Yakamochi also highlighted a shared cultural heritage of values. At the end of the Nara jidai, the intellectual class finally assimilated a consolidated historical consciousness.

Kakyo Hyoshiki was the first book solely dedicated to literary criticism in the history of Japan. It was compiled by Fujiwara no Hamanari, a poet and court official. Educated in the Chinese culture, he was very critical of Japanese poems that didn't respect the Chinese classical structure and phonetic rules. Fujiwara no Hamanari proposed the term ‘kahei’ in order to define a form of ‘poetic sickness’. He quotes dozens of poems and works in prose as bad examples but none of them can be found in Man’yoshu, suggesting that other collections of poetry existed but are now completely lost.

Edwin A. Cranston compared Kojiki with Nihon Shoki. Both tried to tell the story of Japanese civilization, from the mythical beginnings of the world to the recent historical times of the Yamato leaders. The first relies more on folklore and legends, and the language is much closer to early written Japanese. The historian thinks that Kojiki represents the first spiritual attempt of the elite to immortalize the Japanese identity as a distinct and unitary nation. In contrast, written only ten years later, Nihon shoki is significantly longer, respects the historical truth to a larger degree, and it is almost entirely written in classical Chinese. Although it was a work of history, some dialogues took the form of poems and anecdotes, clearly Japanese in their character. The later chronicle had the intention not only of legitimizing the emperor's leadership in internal affairs by composing an incipient form of state ideology, but also wanted to present Japan to the rest of the world.

If Nihon Shoki presents the history of Japan from mythical times till 697 AD, Shoku Nihongi continues the storyline to 791 AD. Unlike the other chronicles, it represented a historiographical work, as viewed from the perspective of official archives. Shoku Nihongi was the first scroll read in public by state functionaries as a form of moralistic discourse for a larger audience. The Cambridge History of Japan Volume 1 offers us a good example. The cult for heroic deeds and loyalty towards the clan leader is well-marked. ‘If we go on the sea,/ Our dead are sodden in water/ If we go on the mountains/ Our dead are grown over with grass./ We shall die/ By the side of our lord,/ We shall not die in peace.’

Japanese music from the Asuka and Nara periods contained many foreign components and was very cosmopolitan, both in lyrical composition and in the instruments and costumes used. The Chinese Tang dynasty and the Korean Kingdoms were the direct source of inspiration. Nonetheless, the Tang Empire expanded its borders to the West, borrowing a lot of new artistic concepts from Central, Northern and Western Asia, all the way up to Persia. The Japanese composers admired the vitality and fierceness of nomadic people’s music, incorporating this into their own works. Three types of audiences existed: common people, the Buddhist clergy and the aristocratic court. The themes varied: innocent love, sexuality, friendship, party and drinking, heroic deeds, homesickness, spirituality and religion. Some of the songs were slow ballads, others were fast paced, a part of them were only instrumental, others were accompanied by clapping hands, a low pitched or a high pitched voice, sometimes alternating between the two, as both male and female singers were allowed, and theatrical dancing. Starting from the tenth century, many of these styles disappeared because the Tang dynasty collapsed and Japan retired in isolation.

The existence of famous troubadours is noted in the ancient chronicles. They were attracted by the capital, as the court nobles offered financial support even for non-educated amateur musicians, if they showed talent. The bands were composed of former soldiers, farmers, fishermen, hunters and so on. Maybe the most famous one was Kuzu, a group that travelled all over the country in order to collect songs about the wild landscapes and less explored places of Japan. Such troubadours helped professional musicians to widen their themes and instruments. By the Heian era, most of the folk music was forsaken by the aristocracy in the favor of an elitistic type of harmony. On the other hand, it should be noted that the pretentious music directly evolved from the popular culture and that the oral compositions never stopped thriving outside the capital.

In the rural environment, numerous Shinto festivals were an occasion of joy, especially in a year with good harvest. Music enforced the sacred atmosphere of rituals for the protection of the village and good fortune. Sacrality intertwined with secular aspects. Young farmers gathered in order to compete in musical battles. This brand of music was called Utagaki. Two forms of musical races existed. The pretendents tried to win the hearts of young women either by impressing them with their skills in singing about love, or by mocking the other adversaries in rhymes. It was some sort of improvisation, not much unlike what we see in 21st century rap battles. For instance, the Kojiki chronicle abunds in such songs. ‘To the hand of a kami/ Seated on a camp-chair/ Playing the zither /She dances, this woman-oh that/ This were the eternal land!’ Another one is even more explicit. ‘Urging each other/ With shouts, the youths and the maidens/ Thronging together,/ Go to match songs in the song match./ Because with others’ wives/ I shall be keeping company, /So with my own wife/ Let others banter as they will./ The kami that keep/ This mountain from of old/ Have never interposed/ Their ban against these usages./ This one day alone,/ Sweetling, do not look at me,/ Do not question what I do.’ Kurayami matsuri is the heir of this festival, and it is celebrated nowadays between 30 April and 6 May.

The early apparition of cultivated music is noted in Nihon Shoki, when a group of eight musicians from the Korean kingdom of Silla arrived to sing at the funeral of the Yamato king Ingyo, in 453 AD. Another important mission was sent by Paekche in 554 AD, when a group of professional Korean musicians remained at the Japanese court to teach the art of music and dancing from the continent. Finally, in the year 612 AD the gigaku style of music was introduced by Mimashi, a composer from Paekche of Chinese descent. Gigaku was a masked drama performance, which was dedicated only to the intellectual class.

Gigaku was also practiced in Buddhist monasteries. Shinto and Buddhist temples in general preserved much of the oral tradition of dance and music. Countless folk songs were influenced by shomyo, a style of Buddhist prayer chant that used progressive ascending and descending notes. Gigaku artists used large masks made of wood or dry lacquer, imitating animals such as lions or horses, but also illustrating human patterns. The lyrics could be spiritual and serious, but they also incorporated irony. One such spectacle was ‘the drunken barbarian king and his servants’, that basically mocked the states and tribes that were outside the Chinese cultural sphere of influence. Critics of art consider gigaku as the predecessor of noh drama, the famous Japanese form of theater invented in the fourteenth century. Noh is labeled by many specialists as the oldest major type of drama still played in today’s theaters.

Gagaku, meaning elegant music, was Japanese classical music interpreted by a highly intricate orchestra. It was originally inspired by the Chinese classical music yayue, but it was different by a significant margin. While yayue was a form of static music played in China only during political and religious ceremonies, the gagaku was much more informal and secular; it was banquet music, adapting themes like native Shinto legends, folktales and poems from the countryside, but also borrowing ideas from China and Korea. The gagaku performance at the imperial court was first mentioned in official records in 702 AD. Music specialists designated gagaku as the oldest form of classical music played by an orchestra. Although it evolved during the following ages, gagaku is treated as a national treasure and it is still performed at concerts. It also influenced several twentieth century Western composers.

Gagaku compositions had the same symmetric structure as shomyo prayers, employing mostly string, wind and percussion instruments. The musical instruments of gagaku music were very diverse: small bronze bells, bronze gongs, larger and smaller standing or hanging drums played with sticks, and various flutes. Animal and bamboo horns were defined as kuda. Tsuzumi was an hourglass shaped drum of Mongolian origin played with the hands. The musical assembly was completed by the four stringed biwa lute, the Japanese zither called koto, the Chinese ch’in zither, and the harmonica sho originating from Indochina and India. The spectacle was performed only by professional musicians organized in hereditary guilds. Gagaku signifies the cultural heights of a island nation that learned from all of its neighbors.

Musical instruments were used even to enhance the religious rituals from the imperial court, working as a form of divination. During such ceremonies, female shamans spoke in the name of the gods, and music helped by inducing the necessary mental state. Some legends suggested that particular instruments had magical powers, being able to speak or even to calm earthquakes. The most common instrument utilized was the koto, a zither with six or eight strings. Many forms of koto existed in Asia, but only Japan adopted it to such a wide degree. The existence of koto is certified by abundant written sources, some even having notes that described how it was played. A well-preserved koto was discovered a few decades ago, and it was dated from the Yayoi period, being almost two thousand years old. Suffering some modifications, the koto was played throughout the ages and has remained one of the most iconic traditional Japanese musical instruments to date.

The emperor, descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu, was placed at the top of the social and political hierarchy. A secluded and exclusivist class of high-ranking aristocrats followed. Approximately 250 individuals held all the key ministerial positions in the Council of State, and were also included in the leadership of their clan. About 20,000 to 25,000 persons were part of the low-ranking officials and the local gentry. They composed the state bureaucracy, being either functionaries, imperial agents or provincial governors. Many of them served directly under the command of high-ranking aristocrats, and a part of them were related by blood with the high-ranking officials, sharing some clan interests. A limited number of common people could enter low-ranking offices based on merit, but in time they also became part of the small nobility. The clergy was separated from the process of policy making, as they were ruled by the emperor from his position in the Council of Kami affairs, which dealt only with religious problems. Numerous nobles and intellectuals retired to monasteries and all the political elite was educated in the Buddhist and Confucian spirit. Almost 90% of society was composed of common farmers and artisans. Finally, slaves represented only 5% of the population.

The high-ranking aristocrats were exempt from taxes and, if they broke the law, they could be judged only by other high-ranking officials and they usually received lighter sentences. They were also entitled to large areas of land, according to their political position in the state and their rank. Most of the aristocrats with a high rank also occupied a public office, but not always. The system of ranking was composed from thirty different positions. The first fourteen ranks had access to the high offices, while the other sixteen were given to the small nobility.

The revenues of high-ranking aristocrats were generous. For example, a minister of the left, representing the third position in the state, owned 2,200 households that produced an income equal to a remote small province. The low-ranking officials weren’t so lucky. Having many travel expenses and a much smaller salary, they were forced to invest their money in other businesses. Most of them worked as merchants, providing goods for the imperial court but also engaged in speculative actions, selling products to commoners.

In a historical sense, administrative provinces were built on the framework created by the past chiefdoms from the Kofun and Yayoi jidai. Even though high-ranking officials were much more powerful than the rest of the functionaries, they often had to collaborate with low-ranking officials because the former were members of the local gentry, and only the lower ranked officials had the practical authority to implement changes, as they were respected by the locals. In reality, the social hierarchy worked as a compromise between centralization and local autonomy. This never happened in China, a place where the nobles were treated as simple servants of the state.

Buddhist monks and nuns didn’t pay any taxes and their monasteries received funds and materials from the central government. The Buddhist clergy expanded, reaching approximately 18,000 persons. Still, the monks lived a very disciplined life, as their activity was regulated by the emperor who imposed strict laws and severe punishments. They were also not allowed to marry and have children. Most of their ranks were formed from retired noblemen and from the adoption of children sent by poor peasants in the hope they would have a chance for a better life. Despite the restrictions, the clergy was powerful and influential in the countryside.

The farmers were organized in households. A household was usually composed of a traditional family, but sometimes a household was constituted from two or three families, represented by a leader who was responsible for reporting the situation to the provincial governor and to the tax collector. Theoretically, the freedom of movement and the freedom to work were guaranteed. In practice, peasants were dependent on the state because the officials and the provincial governor administered the irrigation system and in its absence growing an elevated wet rice culture was imposibile.

In comparison with common people, slaves had their rights restricted, but they were still treated as human beings, having some basic protection. Slaves weren’t allowed to marry free persons. The slaves owned by the state or by private individuals were most favored by law, being allowed to have a revenue and a family. The income was smaller than the same salary received by a free farmer, and his freedom of movement was controlled, but it was still something in comparison with the slave systems of other countries. There were also slaves owned by shrines and monasteries who had the job of taking care of monuments and tombs. They were isolated from the rest of society because their work was perceived as impure. Cattle slaves, foreigners captured in battles, on the other hand, didn't have any rights, and could be sold and be bought like animals. Official records show that a slave had the same value as a horse on the market. Most of the cattle slaves were the property of temples and the central government.

The economic organization was governed by an interlaced system of laws based on the Tang model, collectively named Ritsuryo. The system was an illustrious example of political administration. All citizens above the age of six received a piece of cultivable land from the government, based on a household register. Since wet rice agriculture needs the support of a big irrigation system, all the cultivable land was considered public property administered by the state. The only private property was represented by the house and the surrounding garden. The land owned by the emperor, nobility and monasteries was also labelled private property, all of it being exempt from taxes. As for the virgin lands and forests, everyone could use them and the government encouraged the opening of new cultivable land by offering temporary tax exemptions.

The minimum age limit on farmland distribution was motivated by the high infant mortality rate. When the user of that lot died, the land was returned to the state and redistributed every six years. In that sense, a farmer wasn’t the owner of the land, but only the temporary user. The user didn’t have the right to inherit, sell or use the land as a guarantee for a loan. If the peasant was unfit to work, he could loan the land to other farmers with the condition of notifying the provincial governor. The remaining land left unallocated was also administered by the provincial governor who loaned it to the farmers. Torao Toshiya calculated that the rent constituted 20% of the value of the annual crop, usually paid in rice. All the earnings of the governor from rent were transported to the capital as taxes. To keep up with demographic changes, a nationwide census was made every four years. Up to this day, historians are amazed at how this ambitious economic planning was put into practice, even though the Ritsuryo eventually became a bureaucratic burden.

Everyone was entitled to a piece of cultivable land. The emperor tried to provide equal distribution of land for the people. According to the Japanese historian Torao Toshiya, a common man received 2,300 square meters of arable land, a woman two thirds of what a man was entitled to, a male slave one third of a free male, and a female slave one third of a free female peasant. Despite his good intentions, some provinces didn’t have the necessary land to comply with the central planning, and so inevitable adjustments were made. We must not forget that Japan had a dominant relief of heavily forested mountains. This meant that some people received smaller plots, and were unable to support themselves. The consequence was uneven economic growth and constant migration between regions. In those conditions, the state officials had a really hard time to keep the national archives up to date. Tax evasion, food shortages and famine were almost inevitable.

The Ritsuryo system was inspired by the Tang laws but it also had some unique features that made it more decentralized and modern. For starters, unlike the Chinese counterpart, the Japanese authorities allocated land for women. The state allocated smaller lots for females simply because their physical ability to farm was more limited than males. Secondly, the distribution of land was not linked to an obligatory tax. Under the patriarchal Confucian influence, the Chinese laws made the user of the land responsible for all the taxes, whereas the Taiho code obligated all the members of the household to share the tax burden. Trying to make life sustainable for all the population, the taxes were adjusted proportionally to the amount of arable land that a household had in care. More precisely, each household had to make a small fixed contribution, regardless of how many people were registered in that family, but the most important tax was calculated according to the size of the land in usage, and the size of the land depended on the central system of distribution described above. The average tax on farmland represented only 3% to a maximum of 5% of the annual harvest.

Karoshi, or death by overwork, is a term from contemporary Japan. Death provoked by risky and hard physical labor was very common in ancient times, but dying from intellectual work was bizarre. Maybe the first moment when Karoshi appeared, in its modern meaning, was during the Nara times. The constant reallocation of land exhausted the bureaucrats, who had to regularly travel the country, make the exact measurements of land, speak with the locals and the local gentry, gather the taxes, engage in commercial activities, and do all the paperwork. Because of the insurmountable practical problems, historians believe that Ritsuryo was fully enforced only in the Kinai area. A short poem from the famous Man’yoshu anthology typifies such a tragic situation. ‘But, while obedient to the Emperor’s word,/ Night and morning he remained in wave-bright Naniwa/ Until the year had passed,/ Without leisure even to dry his sleeves/ How thought he of his life? He left this dear and precious world/ As vanishes a drop of dew. Long enough before his time.’

The system of inheritance was also different, being a mixture between the privilege of the first born and an equal share. Since all the cultivable land was public property, inheritance was limited to the residential house and the gardens, slaves and the objects that they owned. The first born received half of all of those, while the rest of the siblings divided the rest equally among themselves. A woman was entitled to half of a man’s inheritance. As for commoners, historians have insufficient evidence to make a definitive conclusion, but they seem to think that the inheritance was divided equally, regardless of age and sex.

The disappearance of Paekche, Japan’s closest ally, discouraged high-scale foreign trade relations. Considering that the whole period was peaceful, Japan was less dependent on the import of metal ore. Furthermore, as the Tang empire refused to recognize Japan as an equal partner of dialogue, the diplomatic missions sent to China became less and less important. Although the Japanese aristocracy still respected and admired the Chinese culture, they started to develop their own worldview and concept of sovereignty. On the other hand, the amount and quality of domestic exchanges increased exponentially. The complexity of the market demanded reforms, and so, in 708 AD, the imperial court minted the first Japanese national coins to be put into public circulation, Wado kaichin. According to imperial edicts, the coins were made of copper, but a few silver and gold coins have also been discovered.

As a consequence of the fact that the kingdom of Silla controlled the Korean Peninsula, foreign trade was much more restricted than in previous eras. Diplomatic relations with Silla were mostly frozen, and so the exchange of goods worked mostly at the level of private individuals. The doctrine of the Chinese Tang empire didn’t allow them to officially trade with any other nation because they considered themselves as the center of the world. The commerce between Tang and Japan worked through a system of ‘mutual gifts’, the Japanese offering horses, slaves, and local spices, and receiving in return books, silk materials and Buddhist advisors. The apparition of the Kingdom of Balhae as a successor of Koguryo from northern Korea added some new products to the Japanese market, but the volume of trade was restrained by the geographical distance between the two states. Balhae could only be reached by crossing the waters controlled by Silla and Tang.

Most trade was concentrated towards delivering products to the aristocracy and to the imperial court from the Kinai province. Actually, the majority of the merchants were low-ranking officials and local nobles simply because they had the necessary wealth to buy various items from different regions and they enjoyed the trust of the high-ranking aristocracy. Because numerous traders had to spend some nights in the Kinai province before reaching the Nara capital city, the whole region, including the immediate neighboring provinces, became a huge marketplace that encouraged faster demographic and economic expansion, in contrast with the rest of the Japan.

Trade also had a beneficial effect on slightly increasing the rate of urbanization. Leaving aside the three big cities of Nara, Dazaifu and Naniwa, numerous very small towns appeared spontaneously. As in Medieval Europe, the difference between a town and a village wasn’t necessary made in size or population. The only condition needed for a village to become a town was having its own market square, a place where people from neighboring regions could come to sell and buy products. This kind of tiny scattered towns had an even more profound impact on the economic and demographic growth than the large cities, mainly because both local nobles and artisans could acquire much needed resources and materials, thus creating an emulation of a relatively self-sufficient local economy, instead of focusing almost all the activity in a few centers of power.

Internal commerce also stimulated the growth of a road infrastructure, connecting the capital with the rest of the country. William Wayne Farris estimates that thanks to massive road building, the trip from Nara to northern Kyushu lasted fifteen days, while the journey to northern Honshu took twenty four days. Three important consequences derive from that. Firstly, the emperor could afford to commence even more ambitious infrastructure projects because the transport of resources and raw materials from distant places was faster and less expensive. Secondly, the Japanese state became stronger, being able to tax, send imperial edicts and mobilize the army more efficiently. Thirdly, the constant back and forth movement of local nobles, corroborated with the accumulation of wealth and people around the capital, set the perfect stage for the emergence of an early national conscience in the ranks of the elites.

Was there a class of merchants? Who were they? There is little evidence to support the existence of private individuals that traded as their only occupation. A blacksmith or a fisherman occasionally went to the market to sell his commodities, but this kind of activity cannot be labelled as professional commerce. The latest research in the field has brought the conclusion that most of the traders were low-ranking aristocrats and officials. Numerous reasons support this claim. Firstly, the elite political class was banned by law from trading in order to make profits, as their only occupation should be policy making. They could only send servants to buy necessary daily products. The titles and the lands that they owned already provided them generous revenues. Secondly, private merchants alone could not provide enough goods for the consumption of such a massive city like Nara, mostly because large amounts of raw materials were needed in order to further expand the urban area. Coordinating huge orders of goods was vital. Thirdly, the prices from distant regions were not fixed, but negociable. It is logical to believe that the high-ranking aristocrats trusted their own distant relatives and the officials directly under their control for the job. In this way they countered possible big levels of corruption, but also secured the loyalty of the local gentry by giving them a purpose and enough political and economical power to keep them happy. Finally, only the state functionaries had that kind of freedom of movement and the necessary capital to invest large sums of money in buying and transporting products, risking and hoping that they could make profits from reselling them at a higher price.

Domestic trade can be understood as three intertwined phenomena. Exchanges happening inside the capital and around the Kinai province involved the largest volumes and values of merchandise. Of secondary importance are the relations between different regions, mostly motivated by the need for goods that were not produced locally. Last but not least, there is the transport of food, raw materials and exotic objects from very distant provinces to the capital. This last part was represented either by taxes, or by the directive of imperial edicts that ordered new expensive designs. There were also more than sixty administrative centers called kokufu meant to collect the taxes from the nearby regions. The road system connected the kokufu with the local markets.

Commerce in the capital was regulated by the means of official markets, but uncontrolled temporary fairs dominated the countryside. Usually, local official markets also existed in the near vicinity of kofuku centers. The article Trade, Money, and Merchants in Nara Japan describes the hierarchy involved. ‘As described in the Yoro Code, both Eastern and Western Markets were administered by the usual four-tiered hierarchy of government officials, five price supervisors, and twenty police. These officials were responsible for opening and closing the markets, fixing prices, preventing unfair trade practices, and checking weights and measures, currency, and the quality of goods on sale.’ The official markets were actually places where the government sold products that they acquired from taxes but no longer needed. The prices were higher than on the free unofficial markets, so most of the merchants and even the government preferred to acquire large quantities of goods from the countryside.

Historians estimate that between 8,000 and 20,000 state functionaries supported the political and economic activities in the Kinai region. Wealthy and educated, they were the backbone of putting into practice all the great reforms of the Asuka and Nara eras. Under their coordination, a vast trade infrastructure network developed around the capital. This also increased the rate of tax collection and decreased the time and costs for transporting products. In all, a better infrastructure helped with the political centralization of the imperial state, made the government wealthier, and favored the gradual emergence of a common historical consciousness amongst the high- and low-ranking officials. The main pieces of this network are summarized by William Wayne Farris. ‘From Nara, a shipper could send his goods down the Saho river to the Yamato and follow that river to the port of Naniwa, where he might transship and sail the Inland Sea as far as northern Kyushu and the port of Dazaifu. Or a shipper might haul his goods north by land to Izumi on the Kizu and then float them via Lake Biwa and the north, which was reached from Nara by following the Kizu to its confluence with the Uji river. Engineers supplemented these natural arteries. Numerous roads were built to link the political and economic centers of the Kinai. Three major roads tied Nara to the political and economic centers of the Kinai. Three road tied Nara to the former capital at Fujiwara and two went west from the Yamato region to Naniwa. Other roads led to imperial retreats at Yoshino, Hora, and Shigaraki, and to the capitals of Izumi, Kawachi, Kii, and Omi provinces, each of which was also served by waterways.’

Provincial governors from the local gentry regulated commercial activities between one region and another. Sometimes, a governor was required to pay taxes in goods that were not produced in the province that he administered, so he was forced to trade with other provinces in order to obey the imperial demand. Other governors took advantage of this situation, selling at a much higher price. The law banned this habit but the state could do little to prevent it. Official records note the repeated existence of illegal speculative transactions when, besides loading ships with the products collected as taxes, merchants were so greedy that they added their newly acquired private goods, to such an extent than even large ships with a crew of two hundred people sank under the weight. In defiance of the government’s efforts to encourage a balanced development of the provinces, they grew at an uneven pace. In the Heian era, some of them became so powerful than they were able to challenge the authority of the capital. This wide local autonomy and discrepancy of wealth and power between administrative regions became a systemic cause for civil war in the feudal times of Japan.

Another major discrepancy in development appeared between Western and Eastern Japan. The theoretical borders of Western Japan started from the Kinai region, going through the provinces of the Inland Sea and all the way to Northern Kyushu. The Western part was traditionally more populated and more advanced thanks to the warmer climate and because it was located closer to the continent of Asia. The concentration of infrastructure mainly in this area only deepened the inequality. Towards the East, trade in the Kanto plains and beyond was limited to subsistence transactions. Although all of Japan recorded economic growth in the next centuries, the differences remained mostly the same until the beginning of the seventeenth century, when the capital was moved to Edo, today’s Tokyo.

Distant trade was expensive and the volume of goods was modest, but there are some notable exceptions. For example, historical archives from that era mention the repeated exchange of jade objects from the Ryukyu islands. This is remarkable because the distance involved should have been a deterrent. Back then the Ryukyu islands were a cvasi-independent federation of small kingdoms that paid a symbolic tribute to Tang China and to Japan. According to the ancient chronicles, the people of those islands were called Tane, Yaku and Amami. Because the Yayoi migration never reached them, most historians believe that they were, from a genetic and cultural point of view, descendants of the prehistoric Jomon. In comparison with the rest of Japan’s population, recent DNA tests show a stronger correlation between the people of Ryukyu islands, Ainu people and the data collected from the Jomon skeletons. The commercial route to the Ryukyu islands was also used by the emissaries of Japan who wanted to reach the Tang court via the Formosa island, today known as Taiwan. For unknown reasons, starting from the second half of the ninth century, all the diplomatic missions sent to China went via Korea, and Japan lost any political interest in the Southern islands.

In comparison with other contemporary kingdoms and empires, ancient Japan was a relatively rich country with a poor government. The underlying state philosophy was to tax just enough to cover government expenses, leaving as much local autonomy as possible. In a simplified scheme, only four types of official revenues existed: taxes on production of rice or other products, taxes on the size of the land, an annual duty of free labor for the central government or the provincial governor named corvee tax, and interest on state loans. All the taxes were collected by the provincial governor in cooperation with imperial agents, and they were responsible for sending them to the capital. However, the provincial governor had some economic independence, being allowed to impose, for the gains of the province, additional corvee taxes on infrastructure building and on military duty.

Taxes on production varied according to the working force of every peasant. Age, sex and regional specificity were taken into account. The commoner also had to support the expenses of transporting the products to the capital. Provinces which specialized in producing particular goods were required to pay a proportion of their workmanship. The most common objects were silk clothes and other textiles, leather, salt, iron, bronze and pottery vessels. The farmers located in the Kinai province and in the immediate neighboring regions enjoyed a reduction on land and production taxes. The bad part for them was that they were forced to do much more corvee labor, as most of the infrastructure projects were implemented around the capital.

Historians estimate that taxes from Nara jidai represented 20% to 25% of the income of a household. Compared to present times, the rate was very low. However, compared with the previous eras, the tax burden on the farmers increased exponentially. Historians estimate that taxes in the Kofun period represented only 2-3 % of the income. The uncertainty of successful crops had a much more dramatic impact on the lives of the ancient Japanese in relation to taxation. In response to that, the emperors introduced state public loans and private loans made by rich aristocrats as a primitive form of a wealthfare state. Basically, a peasant could borrow money for tools and seeds during winter and pay back his debts during reaping time, with money or even directly in rice, silk or beans.

State loans typically had a 50% interest rate, but the private ones had a double rate. Towards the end of Nara jidai, the state interest was lowered to 30%. The system of loans might seem cruel, but it was actually established in order to alleviate the sufferings of the common folks. If the farmer who borrowed the seeds died before the harvest, his loan was cancelled and his relatives didn’t have to pay anything back. Moreover, the government obtained a supplementary income for future projects.

The corvee tax was limited to no more than sixty days per year, but the archives show many cases where farmers were forced to work for free on the private projects of the provincial governors and officials. In spite of several imperial edicts explicitly banning this unfair exploitation and limiting the corvee duty to only thirty days per year, the state could do little to control what was happening in the territory. This further eroded the power of the central government, affecting the harvest rate and the tax collection, and encouraging many farmers to flee from their villedge.

Torao Toshiya explains the conditions of military service. ‘The Taiho code states that each household had to provide one soldier for every four of its able-bodied males between the ages of twenty-one and sixty. (...) Conscripts were placed in units that had either a military or a police function. A unit was divided into ten companies that provided, in turn, ten days of service each. Although draftees were freed from other forms of labor service, they had to provide their own food and weapons, making such service quite onerous. (...) The third kind of labor service was a member of the palace guards, who were assembled for duty at the court. The limitation of such service to one year was not necessarily respected. Consequently, we read of such complaints as “I went to the capital as a guard in the prime of life but returned home with white hair”.’ In the absence of mass mobilization in the case of an imminent war, farmers could legally avoid military conscription if they paid a special tax meant to arm the soldiers. Many of them preferred this approach instead of risking their lives, even in a somewhat peaceful time. If they didn’t have coins, rice or other materials, they could also compensate with a corvee tax, agreeing to work for free in public infrastructure building for a limited period of time. With a small population of slaves and a modest rate of tax collection, the ancient Japanese state heavily relied on corvee labour. Actually, the authorities encouraged this kind of payment because it was much more productive, avoiding the costs of transporting goods to Nara.

The corvee tax had some significant disadvantages. In practice, it weakened the capacity of the central authority to control the population. It was almost impossible for the officials to keep up-to-date evidence on every man who should come and work for the state. Despite imperial edicts and severe punishments, local nobles continued to take advantage of commoners, forcing them to stop farming their own land, even during the harvest season, in order to do underpaid work. In that context, natural hazards, famine and poverty forced peasants to avoid all the taxes by migrating from village to village, as the number of wanderers increased beyond the government's capability to react. The importance of corvee tax was only temporarily reduced when the use of copper coins became more widespread.

To cut the expenses and improve the profits of tax collection, the imperial court limited the payment of taxes in coinage only to the Kinai region and its neighboring provinces. Depending on the province, the rest of the country had to pay in products such as rice, fish, beans, salt, silk or iron. Most of the local markets located outside the Kinai area didn’t accept coins. In those conditions, wealthier farmers and merchants hoarded the coins for ‘darker times’, obstructing the flow of money. For the sake of making profit, the officials constantly minted large amounts of copper coins with a higher rate than the actual value of the copper used in the process. The flooding of the monetary market had a inflationist effect, as the actual quantity of products a certain sum of coins could buy decreased.

Historians’ estimates regarding the population of Japan in the eighth century AD range between 5.5 million and 6.4 million inhabitants. The structure of the population was very young, as the mortality rate reached almost 50%, a percentage raised by the tremendous mortality rate of infants, who were very vulnerable to diseases and famine. However, if the individual managed to pass the age of five, his life expectancy was pretty high for that era, at forty years. Most of the population was concentrated in northern Kyushu, central Honshu and Kinai plains, around the Nara capital. The population density was comparable only to the one found in contemporary regions of India or China. At the end of the Nara jidai, Japan was one the most populated countries of the world, surpassed only by large multi-ethnic empires. The demographic growth strengthened the state because more people meant more taxes and a larger labor force available for infrastructure projects, but it also put pressure on the economic system, especially because available farming land was becoming a rarity. This had both a positive and negative impact on living standards.

Population growth from Late Kofun jidai to Asuka and Nara was slow, with an average of 0.2% or 0.3% per year during a timeline of three centuries. This average hides a great instability caused by the uncertainty of crops and natural disasters. This moderate growth finally stopped and stagnated until at least 1000 AD. According to William Wayne Farris, this phenomenon has many causes. Food production reached a limit simply because the available virgin land to explore and farm became scarce and no new technological breakthroughs had been made. Political stability in China and Korea meant that there were no new significant migrations. Only 5% of farmers owned iron tools because the import of iron from Korea was drastically lowered by the rise of the hostile Silla kingdom. To this we must add the centralization of the state and the ambitious building of Buddhist monasteries, because they also increased the tax pressure on the farmers, some losing their lands in the favor of the aristocratic class. The mortality rate due to famine, during years with bad crops, is estimated at 10% to 15%.

Food shortages forced farmers either to rely on hunting, fishing and gathering as another source of income, or to practice slash and burn agriculture. This meant that the peasant would cut down the trees from a forest, burn them and use the ash as fertilizer. They used the land until it dried out, and then searched for another place. In this way they also avoided tax collectors by putting their lives at risk. In the short term, slash and burn agriculture ensured the survival of some desperate families. In the long term, the environmental consequences were grave, creating numerous deserted and desolated areas. The region around the Nara capital was so overly exploited, that the shortage of wood forced the authorities to use recycled timber even for the construction of governmental buildings, or to transport wood from isolated provinces at a high cost.

Only 200,000 to 250,000 people lived in urban areas, meaning 3% or 4% of the total population. Nara was the biggest city, followed by the commercial port towns of Naniwa and Dazaifu in northern Kyushu. Dazaifu was also a local government with a permanent military base that had the role of protecting Japan from any incursions from the continent of Asia. The concentration of population around the capital was most probably the main cause for the spread of diseases, including the famous smallpox epidemic from 735-737 AD. William Wayne Farris thinks that this was another major cause for the demographic paralysis. ‘Statistics from various provinces scattered from northern Kyushu to eastern Honshu suggest that mortality was about twenty-five percent, meaning that a million or more persons may have succumbed. (...) Another irony was that the death rate among the exalted aristocracy - living crowded together in the capital at Nara - was even higher, a full thirty-nine percent. (...) Between 698 and 800, there were at least thirty-six years of plagues in Japan, or about one every three years.’

Outside the corvee system of tax, the state also hired farmers to help with the infrastructure building. An unskilled worker was paid with an average of 10 copper coins per day, and a skilled carpenter earned 30 to 40 coins per day. A farmer could pay his taxes for that year only after 30 days of labor. They also benefited from free food and water. The wages were so bountiful due to the fact that epidemics and famine caused a serious shortage of workforce in a time when the government wanted to erect dozens of monasteries and other massive religious monuments.

The adoption of Buddhism affected public expenditures and encouraged a constant rise in taxes. Huge national religious monuments in the capital area and the building of Buddhist monasteries in every province were supported by a new set of contributions to the central budget. For example, historians estimated that the construction of the Todaiji temple lasted eight years and that the total expenditure was 350 million copper coins. Jean-Pascal Bassino and Masanori Takashima aproximated that the sum represented 54% of the Yamato’s province GDP, but only 2% of Japan’s. These numbers demonstrate that the major projects from Nara jidai could only be completed with a nationwide centralized taxation system.

Before the sequence of capitals built in the Kinai region, the province represented only 5% of the total population of Japan. At the end of the Nara era, its share increased, signifying more than 10%. Although Kinai was one of the few plains with suitable farming land, the growth cannot be explained only by this factor. Being closer to the capital, the food production increased thanks to a state-built irrigation system. The rural areas around the city developed into small towns and commercial centers, as the roads were better and merchants from all corners of the country wanted to have the privilege of providing goods for the aristocracy at the imperial court.

The ethnic homogeneity in Nara times was not nearly as strong as in today’s Japan, but was much more pronounced than in the previous centuries. The Hayato and Kumaso ethnic minorities lived in southern Kyushu, as the last survivors of the Jomon culture. The Ainu were finally defeated and expelled from northern Honshu at the beginning of the eighth century AD. They settled in Hokkaido, a place where ancient Japan had no interest due to the very cold climate. The people with Korean or Chinese descent represented 25% to 30% of the total population, but the vast majority of them were already completely assimilated into the Japanese culture.

The ancient Japanese family had no adequate equivalent in China or Europe. Taking the official records of taxation, historians concluded that the average household numbered a minimum of nine people and a maximum of twenty-five. A common family was composed of three or four generations that lived under the same roof: the elderly aged fifty, the mature working adults and the young adults with children of their own. Analyzed in depth, the society was neither a patriarchy, nor a matriarchy. Rather than being completely equal, men and women enjoyed different rights and responsibilities. Despite the present-day Japanese constitution’s guarantees of equal gender rights, this perception of distinct roles is still strong in the general mentality of the population. In the absence of the Christian concept of family, attitudes towards sexuality were much more libertine than in other communities.

Unlike in the Chinese tradition influenced by Confucianism, where the father had the pivotal role of educating his children and making decisions regarding the future of his offspring, Japanese mothers fulfilled that job. Nevertheless, the females of the Japanese aristocracy had an even wider political influence through moral and emotional means, because they participated in the education of the future emperors and ministers. For Japanese women to have the last word regarding the education of their children is another tradition that has survived almost untouched till this day.

As we’ve already mentioned in earlier chapters, the Japanese aristocratic women had the right to divorce, to have a proper education and to own property. Surprisingly, freed from political duties, the common women enjoyed even more liberties. In most cases, a man was the leader of a household and he had to meet with the tax collector. However, official records tells us about many cases where, in the absence of a capable mature man, a woman became the head of a family. Even more notable is the fact that the household could elect a woman to represent the household, regardless of how many males were in the house, and every female had the right to inherit one third of her family wealth, engaging also in local business. This peculiar situation is described in the book Japan to 1600: A Social and Economic History, highlighting the freedoms of female commoners. ‘They raised silkworms and produced silk textiles, managed agricultural lands, and owned houses, cattle, and slaves, all of which they took with them when there was a divorce. They managed loans, especially in rice or money. (...) Women served as soldiers and district magistrates, and were leading devotees of Buddhism.’ To this we must add a clarification. Only a small number of very skilled and talented aristocratic women served in the military as an elite force, generally named Onna-bugeisha, female martial artist. They were usually organized in separate battalions from men and sent into battle in decisive moments, the practice being most popular in the Heian era. Nevertheless, all the noble women received basic training of how to defend themselves and the house in the absence of their men, and in case of certain and total defeat, were instructed to commit suicide in order to avoid capture or rape.

The notion of fidelity in marriage was less important. The norm was for an aristocrat to take many wives, but married women could also take lovers and divorce without being punished by law. In this context, common folks were less restricted than the nobility, who were forced on many occasions to organize political marriages, according to the interests of their clans. Sexuality was also expressed more freely. The religious perception of the purity of a woman was irrelevant, as both young men and women were allowed to visit each other during nights even before marriage. Usually men competed for a wife by offering her gifts called ‘bridewealth’. Historians discovered numerous documents where farmers complained to the local authorities that a woman accepted all the gifts, from various suitors, but never chose a husband. Another interesting thing is that after the union was officialized, the couple could live in his or her family house, or even continue to live in separate places. A woman was not forced to take her husband's name after marriage.

Looking from a 21st century perspective, some could say that the ancient people had a primitive lifestyle and that cultural activities were only enjoyed by the aristocracy. Nothing is farther from the truth. Despite the very brutal, uncertain and harsh conditions of their existence, the Japanese farmers experienced a rich cultural and spiritual life. First and foremost, although illiterate, they were very religious and superstitious people, who used their imagination at its full potential by composing legends and poems and passing them on orally, generation after generation. Many Western folklorists from the end of the nineteenth century travelled in rural areas and collected legends that had prehistoric or ancient ancestry. We’ve already talked about how young common men battled by reciting poems in order to impress women. The Japanese village was composed of scattered houses. Because everyone knew each other, the social connections and the sense of being a part of a community was remarkably strong. After a hard day of work, the people would most probably gather at the biggest house, around a fire, and start to sing, tell jokes, folktales and horror stories. The Shinto mythology and Japanese literature originated from that immemorial practice. The heavy consumption of alcohol was also the norm. William Wayne Farris explains the striking modern character of the ancient Japanese society. ‘Members of the same family could even marry as long as they had different mothers. A man could also inherit his brother’s widow as a wife. In fact, sex was so free that villages engaged in orgies, condemned by the government in 797 because such behaviour did not maintain the proper distinction between men and women.’ His claim is also supported by ancient ukiyo-e style paintings depicting such scenes.

Why did the Japanese peasant women have so many rights and privileges in comparison with women from other places? Researchers offer many theories that are complementary, than rather being in contradiction with each other. We already know that the Jomon and Yayoi societies were matriarchal, or at least had a special place for women, focusing on fertility rituals and magic female shamans. Those vitalistic beliefs never ceased to exist in the countryside. Other explanations are related to the demographic trend. The mortality rate among peasant women was slightly higher because they did the almost same daily work as men but with less physical strength. Without any major war taking the lives of men during Nara jidai, and with many women dying at childbirth, the proportion of men was greater, meaning that they had to compete with each other in order to marry. Finally, because a noblemen could claim his inheritance and origin from the father’s and the mother’s side, with both valued equally, women had a higher status than in other societies. The idea of a bastard heir didn’t exist and women were actually advantaged by this mentality because no paternity test existed, so in many cases the only reliable lineage could be traced from the mother's side.

Torao Toshiya observes that the average family registered in a household was composed of thirteen persons: five males and six females, plus at least two infants. Calculating the size of land that was allocated for such a household, and the average quantity of rice that could be produced from the land in those times, Toshiya concluded that a household annually obtained 3,000 liters of wet rice and paid 400 liters in taxes. Although it might seem much to an untrained eye, the quantity was insufficient to support a family of commoners.

The Ritsuryo worked until the first half of the eight century, but continuous resistance towards centralization and the practical problems of implementing the reforms proved to be a serious challenge. In an initial phase, the government tried to make compromises, rolling back some decisions and trying to find a balance between collectivization and private property. The process was complicated and it evolved for several decades but in the end, the local nobility and the common folks passively defied the authority of the Ritsuryo and by the tenth century AD, the system was completely abandoned. The provincial governors who were also influential members of the local gentry organized themselves in an almost completely autonomous manner, hiring skilled professional soldiers to defend their lands. Loyalty towards the clan became more even more important. It was the dawn of the samurai and the feudal system called Shoen.

Both the state and the people were desperate to increase the size of the available arable land. In order to encourage peasant and provincial governors to find and convert virgin land into farmland, the emperor tried to offer some benefits. At first, a commoner who opened new land had to return it to the state, but he received tax exemption for several years. Observing that this measure was not motivating enough, the rule was changed. A farmer who cultivated a new piece of land could own that lot for six years before returning it to the state. Local nobles were also keen to expand their incomes and pressured the government for changes. If they managed to open new land but used the public irrigation system, they could own it for life. In addition, if a nobleman also created a new irrigation system, using his own resources, his family could own it for the next three generations.

Changing the laws regarding land distribution didn’t save the Ritsuryo system. The final blow was given in 743 AD, when an imperial edict proclaimed that the aristocracy automatically became owners of new lands that they opened ‘in perpetuity’. This decision gradually moved the arable land from public property to private property. The process was slowed down during rule of Empress Shotoku, who favored the Buddhist clergy, but the principle of centralized redistribution was weakened even more. At the beginning of the ninth century, the reallocation frequency of arable land was decreased from six to twelve years. When the amount of private land owned by aristocrats and monasteries surpassed the amount owned publicly, the allotment arrangement was deserted because it was expensive and inefficient. As the state revenues decreased, almost half the state functionaries lost their jobs and national conscription was disbanded. Many intellectuals and soldiers reorientated their services and loyalties towards the local gentry.

Another problem that couldn't be solved was the massive migration of commoners from province to province. Famine, epidemics, tax evasion, and finding better paid jobs were the main causes. Again, the emperor tried different approaches, either by promoting severe punishments for those who abandoned their households, or by proclaiming a general amnesty if they returned, and even offered them a limited tax relief. The imperial agents forced the other members of a household to search for the missing person, but with little effect. Another law stated that a vagrant outside the official registers, called furonin, had to pay taxes both for his old residence but also for his present one. They even tried to permit the free movement of people if they registered in their new household. None of this worked. Many farmers formally registered but soon after ran away to another place and so on.

The welfare loan scheme turned against the poor. Wealthy farmers and the local gentry took advantage of the situation, making large profits by loaning at a very high interest rate. Many desperate peasants accepted the conditions and lost everything, being forced to become vagrants. Soon afterwards, the emperor banned all private loans. As the incomes of the government decreased, the state loans transformed into taxes. The farmers were pursued by imperial agents to borrow more than they needed. The decision was a bad idea, helping the national treasury only in the short term. Being placed outside the law, the interest rate of private loans increased even more. In the long run, the ruined commoners who were left behind deepened the economic and social difficulties. The loan system finally collapsed when the great epidemic of 737-739 AD struck, cancelling almost half of the loans.

The incipient Shoen system appeared as a consequence of the context described above. As the small nobility accumulated wealth, they invested more money into developing virgin land. The success of the process needed the collaboration of high-ranking aristocrats, because opening new lands for cultivation was allowed only if the authorities were announced in advance. The ministers became even more corrupted, being tempted to accept a share of the income gained by the local gentry. Their complicity undermined the political, economic and social system of the Ritsuryo. Most of the arable land from the countryside became tax-free private property organized around a manor ruled by a local noble with the tacit consent of an influential court aristocrat. The Japanese word for manor was Shoen.

The brilliant American historian and Japanologist Delmer M. Brown concluded in his studies that the ancient Japanese civilization had three main characteristics: linealism, vitalism and optimism. Linealism, a term coined by Brown, similar to linearism, is the political ideal of a sacred and unbroken line of emperors that are descendants of the gods that created the archipelago. It implies the predisposition towards a very well-structured and hierarchical society. The strong belief that the role of the gods is to enrich human life and nature was defined by Brown as vitalism. This translated into the fact that any form of religion, spirituality or morals is more inclined towards this life and less towards the afterlife. Although the space between the sacred shrines and the profane villages was evidently delimited, the deities and magic creatures lived in mountains, rivers and forests; and so the spiritual world was interwoven with the material one. Finally, the idea of optimism is different from the Western culture because it's less idealistic and more purpose driven. In the author’s opinion, this kind of optimism merely claims that the immediate future will be slightly better than the past. These traits can be also identified in other cultures separately, but their combination gives Japan its unique identity. The basis of these characteristics can be traced all the way back to prehistoric times, though they fully matured during the Nara era.

Linealism, vitalism and optimism, when they are connected as a unitary phenomenon, form the Japanese dimension of existence. By this we understand a specific way of looking at the surrounding reality, and then acting according to this subjective perspective. Of course it is clear that numerous individuals didn’t follow this paradigm or they did it only partially. On the other hand, a scientific theory represents an inevitable simplification of a highly complex reality. Generally speaking, Delmer M. Brown thinks that the Japanese people were affected by these concepts of linealism, vitalism and optimism.

A dimension of existence is basically a more profound historical consciousness. The mentality and the daily habits of the people from all the classes - slaves, illiterate farmers, artisans, intellectual nobles and charismatic clerics alike - are marked by some very basic but essential assumptions regarding the universe. For example, things like the traditional structure of a family, gender roles, how private and public property is divided, manners and how social interactions work, are all built upon the foundation of linealism, vitalism and optimism. Their core ideas and beliefs are expressed in popular culture, but also in literature, painting and architecture. It also affected how the Japanese society responded and adapted to foreign viewpoints like abstract Buddhism or political administration based on Confucian ethics. This type of theory highlights that a nation is built based on long-term repeated experiences, rather than on a purely rational social contract. Still, to completely comprehend this process, we will first need to explain its evolution.

Linealism, or linearism, is not limited to the worship of the emperor, and it actually preceded it. Even before the imperial institution was consolidated, the Japanese elite focused on legitimizing their rule based not on merit or actual military and economic power, but on sacred descent. The closer a clan was to an important ancestral kami, the more authority it gained because they enjoyed the favors of a harvest-ensuring deity. The Yamato kingdom was built with the help of vassal relations based on this principle and even the later centralized Japanese state inherited the convention.

Since the prehistoric Jomon had little social division, linealism appeared only when the society became a sedentary agricultural one. However, there is a strong link between the archaic traditions of the Jomon and the Yayoi, especially when we refer to the role of priestly shamans and to many legends that were passed on through countless generations. The first mention of this notion was noted during the reign of the shaman-queen Himiko, a hereditary leader of the Yamatai kingdom. The Chinese scrolls tell us that Himiko reigned with the help of her magical powers. When she died, a huge burial mound was erected and hundreds of her servants followed her into the grave. A man tried to take over by the use of military force, but he was assassinated immediately. The throne was passed on to Iyo, another young woman with mystical abilities. It is very possible that shaman leaders obtained their authority by existing as vessels for the gods, working as intermediaries between humans and spirits.

The Kokun period, when the building of large burial mounds spread, strengthened this belief. At first, most archaeologists thought that the burial mounds had the role of worshiping the ancestors that became gods. New discoveries made them change their mind. In reality, the Japanese emperors started to be sanctified only from the tenth century onward. The religious rituals were limited only to shrines and to the royal court. The Yamato kings invested many resources into constructing burial mounds around their capital city in order to consolidate their own reign by honoring the previous ruler, who in his turn was a descendant of a long line of glorious sovereigns with mythical powers. The monument signified an argument of why you should follow and obey a Yamato ruler, namely as a result of his heavenly ancestry that could provide prosperity for the people. By doing so, the Yamato kings managed to peacefully persuade many other chieftains to offer their allegiance in exchange for wide local autonomy. In time, former smaller kingdoms became provinces of the Yamato state - either by their own will, or they were conquered by a federation coordinated from the Yamato court - but the condition of autonomy was never completely erased. In fact, this practice was so successful that numerous clan leaders started to produce burial mounds in their own territory as a manifestation of regional authority, claiming to have a kami as a founding father of their clan.

Burial mounds became obsolete when Buddhism and modern Chinese methods of governance were introduced. Likewise, the Buddhist monasteries and sculptures were at first sponsored by clan leaders because it was a good way to enlarge their influence. Only after that initial stage did the imperial court centralize the religious system by acknowledging Buddhism as a state religion, and so diminishing the authority of local chieftains. The Buddhist prayers were adapted to the Shinto vitalistic mentality. In consequence, the sacred ceremonies were conducted not for the well-being of the soul, but for bringing rain, good harvest, and health to the people. Swords and bronze mirrors have been unearthed from the places where monasteries once stood, confirming the intuition that monasteries were patronized by provincial nobles who honored their deceased leaders like they did during the Kofun era.

The Yamato king took the title of emperor, the most prominent clan leaders became court nobles and ministers, while the lesser gentry converted into educated bureaucrats. Although entry exams based on Confucian classics were introduced in an attempt to promote merit, the political, administrative and economic hierarchy was constituted around the principle of divine ancestry. An official record written at the order of Emperor Tenmu states one of the main reasons for ordering the compilation of Kojiki. Many clan leaders falsely claimed to have an illustrious lineage and asked for more important political positions and wealth based on that legacy. In return, the Japanese emperor wanted to establish an official document that reported the history of the Japanese nation as it really was. No researcher denies that Kojiki is full of myths, some of them altered in order to show the state in a better light and some modified to link the emperor to Amaterasu. At the same time, all recent scholars conclude that Kojiki also represented a real attempt to portray the past in a scientific way, at least to the standards of the day, by using mainly official documents from the imperial archives and quoting from already existing and well researched Chinese records.

The scholars who wrote Kojiki and Nihon shoki were well aware of the Chinese concepts of sovereignty but they chose to ignore them and favored linealism. In traditional Sinic history scrolls, dynasties rise and fall when the emperor abandons the principles of good governance and virtue. This never happened in ancient Japan. When an emperor retired or was exiled, the institution was left untouched, and the myth of a continuous line of sacred rulers was not challenged. Lastly, we have to understand that even sovereigns like Empress Shotoku, who was also a Buddhist nun and a very active promoter of the new religion, considered that her legitimacy and power were inherited from Amaterasu or Hirume, the Shinto Sun Goddess.

In sum, linealism was the earliest form of a purely Japanese concept of sovereignty. The legendary Asuka poet Kakinomoto no Hitomaro managed to cleverly put into words this faithfulness. ‘At the beginning of heaven and earth/ The eight hundred, the thousand myriads of gods,/ Assembled in high council/ On the shining beach of the Heavenly River,/ Consigned the government of the Heavens/ Unto the Goddess Hirume, the Heaven-illuminating One,/ And the government for all time,/ As long as heaven and earth endured,/ Of the Rice-abounding Land of Reed Plains/ Unto her divine offspring,/ Who, parting the eightfold clouds of the sky,/ Made his godly descent upon the earth./ Our noble Prince, child of the Bright One above,/ Regarding this - the land over which/ The gracious Sovereign reigns as a god.’

Delmer M. Brown remarks that vitalism is the opposite concept to the Chinese principle of virtue. By virtue we mean a Confucian set of values that prescribe how you should behave. If you respected this set of ethics, not only would you improve yourself as a human being, but also the society as a whole would benefit from it. Although Confucianism was well received and was admired by the intellectual class, very few leaders believed that governance and administration could be improved simply by following a line of conduct. They rather valued practicality and innovation, and were less interested in the implementation of abstract moral standards. The ancient Japanese society viewed self confidence, courage, physical strength, agility, adaptability, imagination and the capacity to efficiently solve various problems as ideal qualities. This pattern is constantly proclaimed in folk tales about legendary heroes and magical creatures, but also in official state records which document the activity of the emperor and his ministers.

Vitalism was linked from the beginning with the widespread worship of fertility in the Jomon and Yayoi times. Archaeologists reached this conclusion after they discovered thousands of statues depicting pregnant women and phallic stone rods. Their role was to act as a symbol for the adulation of powerful kami that could protect them from epidemics and drastic climate changes that endangered their very existence. The agricultural society of the Yayoi was formed from scattered communities, and every village had their own kami that protected them. This idea was reinforced by the fact that almost all of the early Shinto shrines were built at the base of mountains, near the place from which water flowed. The most illustrative example is the Omiwa shrine for the kami of Mount Miwa, the protector of the Yamato clan. All those tribes depended on irrigation to grow their cultures and so they believed that deities had the ability to create, sustain and prolong life itself.

The idea that death is impure and potentially malefic is one of the oldest traditions of Shinto, dating from prehistory, and it was applied on all levels of society. Even Jomon tribes built primitive cemeteries well outside their living area and some marked the borders of the place, conducting rituals to confine the spreading of evil. Yayoi farmers did the same. Moreover, every new crowned Yamato ruler spent enormous amounts of resources moving the capital whenever the former sovereign died because the death of the supreme leader polluted the place and could bring misfortune to the whole country. Some even invested and planned the building of a new capital for their heirs. This could be interpreted, from a philosophical and psychological perspective, as a vitalistic attempt to deny and isolate the presence of death altogether.

Vitalism is highlighted by the repeated myth that even when some Shinto gods die, other deities, mountains, forests and rivers are born from their remains. Furthermore, the Japanese pantheon is full of immoral and vicious kami, but all of their wrong doings are forgotten when they give life or enhance the growing of rice and the spread of animals. Contempt towards death is also present in one of the main Shinto stories. According to it, Izanami betrayed the promise made toward his wife, Izanagi. In the name of revenge, she promised to kill one thousand humans every day till the end of the world. Izanami is being purified from his sin by creating ten times more people each day, for eternity.

Because of vitalistic ideas, the dead were separated from the rest of the world and so burial mounds were not a place for prayers. On the contrary, those monuments were protected from outside intrusions by moats filled with water and by haniwa statues depicting soldiers. The Japanese believed that the spirit of a dead person could still maifest its presence, sometimes even in a dangerous way for the living, especially if that person was a former king with enchanted magical abilities. The tomb was filled with the objects of the deceased so he could use them, but not with religious offerings, because death could corrupt the sacred purity of Shinto symbols. A religious ceremony was held only during the actual burial, accompanied by a sacred eulogy where the new emperor inherited mystical capabilities, creating an extraordinary link between him and his predecessor. After that the tomb was sealed for eternity.

Another relevant scientific breakthrough was made when scholars understood that most of the myths from the official chronicles were not fabricated by the compilers, but instead have an ancient origin and were collected from popular folklore. The researchers came up with this interpretation after comparing hundreds of myths from South and East Asia, and detected numerous similarities that were most likely transmitted, in a very long process, through the Jomon and Yayoi migrations. As a matter of fact, the only legends that were clearly made up are the ones regarding Amaterasu, Susanoo and the origin of the imperial line. They were motivated by an ancient battle for power during the fourth and fifth century AD, when the Yamato clan struggled for the dominance of Japan with the Izumo clan. The main kami of Izumo was Susanoo, the god of sea, storm and chaos. Because in the end the Izumo lost the war, Susanoo is often portrayed as an evil kami and the Izumo province remained known as the place where the entrance to Yomi, the Japanese World of the Dead and Darkness, is located. Again, in order to avoid pollution, the entrance was symbolically blocked by Izanami with a massive boulder.

Attitudes towards the gods reflected a wider moral perspective. While the Chinese often criticized their emperors for their lack of virtue and believed that the realm was suffering because the emperor was unworthy of his position, the Japanese didn’t care much about the conduit of their rulers. If the rice was growing well and the economy prospered, then the emperor was great. If not, then he should have conducted prayers to the main shrines. For example, Maruyama Masao discovered that the Chinese word for virtue was read as ikioi, translated as life strength. Nihon shoki mentions Emperor Yuryaku, a cruel and horrible person who killed a innocent young woman and her lover because she didn’t want to marry him. However, Yuryaku is praised for his vitality because when he went hunting, the gods descended from heaven to hunt with him and the kingdom prospered from it. The appreciative term expressing the general admiration towards him was ikioi.

Vitalism explains why the nihilistic ideas of inevitable decay or the supreme objective of obtaining spiritual enlightenment borrowed from Buddhism and Confucianism were not appreciated and only partially understood. This paradigmatic position is perfectly articulated by another early Nara intellectual and influential military leader, Otomo no Tabito. From his death poem, we can conclude he had no regrets: ‘If I could but be happy in this life,/ What should I care if in the next/ I became a bird or a worm./ All living things die in the end/ So long as I live here/ I want the cup of pleasure.’ Another illustration from the Heian era is even more explicit. Minamoto no Tametomo, a capable general and skillful samurai archer who was looked upon as a national model, was far from a moral person. From his will, dictated before he committed seppuku (ritual suicide), we can extract his vitalistic mentality. ‘Although of humble origin, I have become the grandfather of an emperor and been appointed prime minister, achieving glory and fame for my descendants. Not one thing more do I desire in this life. My only regret is that I have not yet seen the head of Minamoto no Yoritomo, the former major of the left guards who has been exiled to the province of Izu. After I am dead, I want no temples or pagodas built and no Buddhist rites performed. Instead, I want to have Yoritomo attacked immediately and his head placed before my grave. That is the only rite I request.’

Optimism resulted from the combination of linealism and vitalism. The values described above could only give rise to an optimistic attitude. The concept can be better explained with the help of the modern Japanese expression gambatte, translated approximately as ‘keep trying to do your best’ or ‘never give up’. Additionally, Maruyama Masao pinpointed a repeating phrase in ancient Japanese literature: nariyuku, the process of becoming. This kind of optimism was not irrational. The ancient Japanese expected bad things to happen but being influenced by linealism and vitalism, they conceived that every hardship could be surpassed with hard work. Based on this, they postulated that the next generation would be better than the present one. At the same time, they weren’t interested in praising a glorious past that was much better than the present, nor did they think that the world would end and a time of spiritual salvation would come. In their opinion, the future wasn’t defined by an inevitable decay. History will always know temporary ups and downs, but after some struggle, they will always be overcome.

If optimism was a emblematic trademark of the Japanese civilization, then why are so many works of literature filled with stories about death, melancholy and sadness? There are two answers to this question. Firstly, as we’ve already described, Buddhist teachings had a profound impact on policy making, economy and culture. Still, their real meaning was assimilated only by some intellectuals, and their numbers weren’t representative for the rest of the society. Secondly, their optimistic doctrine was compatible with pessimism. The Japanese authors were well aware of the inevitability of death and degeneration. Nevertheless, thanks to that strong vitalistic and optimistic concept of fighting to the end no matter what, they composed artworks full of sensitivity. In a metaphorical sense, their overly pessimistic works always end with a pinch of optimism, offering a last uprising of the human condition that refuses to accept its tragic faith.

Historians cannot directly know for sure how the common people thought, and the theory of linealism, vitalism and optimism is based on the writings of the aristocracy. Most likely the idea of an eternal dynastic line was not interesting for farmers. However, we have provided strong evidence that the other two traits were, without a doubt, present in the countryside and that the mentality of the ruling elite was determined by the mentalities of the rural area. Delmer M. Brown makes a summary of this point. ‘Official chronicles were motivated and molded by linear concerns; belief in kami origins, kami creativity, and kami worship provided a vitalistic tone to writings about the past; and preoccupation with the growth dimension of life even made Jien - a thirteenth-century Buddhist writing a history at a time of crisis - quite sure that the immediate future would be better than the present. The persistence and power of these characteristics in a period when Japanese intellectuals were deeply immersed in Chinese learning indicate that they had come from the very taproots of Japanese culture.’

Together with the previous chapter: ‘Ancient Japan. The beginning of an organized religion and foreign contacts’, this article is focused on explaining how the ancient Japanese state and civilization were created. To achieve this goal, we had to undertake a more detailed analysis, going back and forth from the prehistoric Jomon to the Nara period and presenting history from various angles: politics, diplomacy, administration, economy, religion, architecture, literature, music, family structure, mentality and philosophy. Such a topic could only be tackled by observing the communication between all of those variables over the passing of time. After all of this discussion, our main conclusion is that rising from a considerable ethnic and cultural diversity, the Japanese civilization found its own unique and unitary identity in a very early stage of its past. Its coming into being was affirmed spontaneously at all levels of society, but also in the well-planned construction of their sovereign statality.

Contact with foreign cultures, mainly from China and the Korean Peninsula, had a tremendous impact on the maturing of the Japanese civilization. The constant battle of opposing ideas lies at the base of many Japanese things that are now, looking from the outside, considered to be peculiar contrasts. Maybe the best example is illustrated by how the Japanese language and literature evolved, being the result of an ancient indigenous tongue that borrowed Chinese pictograms with an artistic expression that synthesized and combined folk tales with Confucian and Buddhist themes. In their turn, many popular legends originated from all over Asia. Nothing remained untouched by this mixture and all of them enforced and enriched each other. This is also true about music, dance, architecture and political administration.

Speaking about the expansion of Japanese high culture, Edwin A. Cranston concludes: ‘Emulation of China led the newly literate Japanese to compose verses in Chinese modeled on the ones they found in Chinese anthologies, and it also led them to write down their own songs and to turn the native prosody into high poetic art. The myths, legends, folk and hero tales of the oral tradition were also written down in the first histories and local gazetteers, to form the beginnings of a prose literature.’ This fascination and blending of local legends with Chinese themes of literature was accentuated in the Heian era. Now, Japan has had three laureates of the Nobel prize in literature, and during their speeches, each of them praised the merits of the legacy that began in Asuka and Nara times.

In the first stages of foreign cultural imports, the intellectual class accentuated the gap of perception between common people and the nobility. This happened because the elite was much more interested in Buddhism, Confucianism and other overseas convictions, in contradiction with the rest of the population, that remained rooted in the Shinto tradition. After several political decisions that supported the spread of Buddhism in every province, this difference became less pronounced. On one hand, Buddhist ceremonies became more Shinto-like, while on the other hand the Shinto myths were depicted with the help of Buddhist art. Also, the Japanese aristocracy was more influential than the Chinese one. Being the descendants of former kingdoms, the local gentry were revered by the people to a greater extent, and the constant land redistribution and trade activities forced them to continually travel from the capital to their provinces and back, encouraging them to make contact with the social realities of the rural universe. At least for the elite and the population around the Kinai province, a solid bond was shaped.

Not all Japanese cultural traits were born from a process of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. Some native values were so strong that they resisted any foreign influence. Although in prehistoric times matriarchy played an important role in both China and Korea, its legacy in the Country of the Rising Sun was more pronounced. Empresses could be crowned even when male pretenders existed, and could continue to rule the country after they were married. The noble females had an indirect but tremendous influence over the political arena, and common women shared daily responsibilities with men. The wider vitalistic mentality favored tolerance towards sexual matters, and incest was not punished by law. Even in feudal times, when the patriarchy gained the upper hand, the law and the mentality of the population protected women in essential points, especially if we compare their attitudes with the ones from other parts of the world.

Another practice that suffered little outside interference was the institution of the emperor as a divine sovereign. It is true that the idea of an empire was copied from China and that many administrative measures were borrowed from there. On the other hand, all of those enlightened reforms made the state more efficient, but its core values were already formed. More exactly, even without foreign inspiration, the Japanese state would have been consolidated around the ideal of a sacred hierarchical order. The difference is that without the crucial contributions from the continent of Asia, the process of transition would have been prolonged, and the resulting statality would have been less centralized, refined and dynamic. It is very likely that in the absence of a pronounced cultural alterity, the historical consciousness described in this paper would have manifested much later.

Above all, the Asuka and Nara periods were centuries of astounding changes. Some had beneficial effects, but some had dire consequences for the people. Thanks to the implementation of wise reforms and investments, the production of food and the volume and quality of trade increased exponentially. The system of gathering taxes was improved. A bigger national treasury facilitated the construction of roads, canals, shrines, monasteries and other majestic works of art. Buddhist monasteries provided education and humanitarian assistance to the people. From the perspective of infrastructure, the capital was connected with all the provinces of the country. In spite of these remarkable accomplishments, the new opened lands couldn’t keep pace with demographic growth, and natural disasters were impossible to counter. Together with a notable increase in contributions towards the state, the living standards for 90% of the population stagnated, since they often suffered from poverty and famine. Even though the law protected them, many farmers were abused by their lords. Likewise, after gaining so many advantages, some Buddhist monasteries abandoned their prime purpose and started to be involved in the political arena, even directly participating in conflicts. The discrepancy between regions expanded, and the ambiguity regarding the political authority of high-ranking nobles in relation with the lesser local aristocracy set the stage for future civil wars.

In the late eighth century AD, public expenditure increased proportionally with the incapacity to gather enough taxes, obligating the emperors to completely abandon universal national conscription. A century later, the Ritsuryo system was working only on paper. From now on, security was provided by the local nobles and their semi-professional armies. From an economic point of view, towns and local fortifications produced a slow but natural evolution towards the samurai warrior class, signifying a profound trademark of the Japanese people, inclined towards political decentralization and regional autonomy. The Japanese elite competed, on many occasions by any means, in order to obtain the privilege to rule in the name of the emperor or to simply gain a higher position in the administrative frame. Even though numerous violent encounters and ruthless plots occurred, they never contested the political system in itself because they all shared some core values. In consequence, this structure was completed by the inviolability of the imperial institutions, making Japan both a centralized and decentralized country, a complex formula that is mostly seen in contemporary times.