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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.