Yayoi jidai is the age that follows the Late Jomon period. Jidai is the Japanese terminology for era. Yayoi is mainly characterised by the apparition of rice padding agriculture, tools and weapons of bronze and iron. Villages were bigger and we observe the rise of the first cities, markets and commercial centers. It was a hierarchical society, developing the first forms of mature, organized religion. Chinese sources first mention the existence of numerous kingdoms in the Japanese archipelago in 57 AD. The origins of the Yayoi and their contribution to the history of Japan are still debated today by Japanese, Korean and Chinese scientists.
There is a controversy among scientists concerning the moment prehistory ends and history begins. For classical theory, history starts when the first written language appears in the region. More modern approaches are not necessarily related to written records. Instead, the most important things are the practice of agriculture and trade on a large scale, the foundation of cities and towns and a hierarchical society. Because this is a problem related to the philosophy of history, Japanese and western scientists do not really agree on a clear demarcation and on clarifying the most relevant traits.
In the Neolithic and Early Antiquity eras, the Chinese civilization was far more advanced than the cultures in the Japanese archipelago. The Shang dynasty of China had a written system from 1500 BC, almost two thousand years before writing was introduced in Japan. Jin state and the Mahan, Jinhan and Byeonhan confederacies of Korea also had more evolved cultures than the Jomon and Yayoi, due to their direct contact with China. People with Korean and Chinese descent moved into the Japanese archipelago, bringing with them knowledge about agriculture, bronze and iron tools and weapons. Their exact number and their contribution to the Japanese gene is still debated.
The date for the beginning of the Yayoi period is much debated. There are historians who think that the major difference between the Jomon and Yayoi is the style of pottery. Because Late Jomon pottery had many similarities with that from Early Yayoi, the emergence of the Iron Age is pushed back. On the other side of the argument are archaeologists from a newer generation who think that agriculture is the characteristic that made the difference. They discovered clear evidence of rice agriculture in northern Kyushu, dating back one thousand years before our era. If they are correct, the whole concept about the stages of evolution in the Yayoi era have to be changed.
All scientists agree that the Yayoi people came from Korea and China. Beyond that fact, countless problems have appeared. Firstly, there is no certain way to detect the number of migrants or the exact period when the waves of migration happened. Secondly, there are two major theories regarding the Yayoi origins. On one side are those who think that most of the Yayoi came from Korea, while those on the other side say that a far earlier migration from China happened. Both camps bring arguments such as logical connections of causality, archaeological evidence and DNA results.
Recent radiocarbon analysis of grains has shown that Japanese agriculture, at least in its early stages, didn’t come from Korea. That type of rice was not native in Korea at that time. By all probabilities, wet rice cultures were abundant near the Yangtze River, the cradle of the Chinese civilization. This would mean that the Yayoi culture appeared in 1000 BC, maybe earlier. Harunari Hideki was the chief archaeologist who presented these results. His theory was prized by some and criticized by others.
At the start of the Yayoi era, stone tools were used in parallel with iron ones. Food was now stockpiled in granaries with elevated floors, built on wooden pillars. In time, new forms of production imposed the need for metal plows, rakes and shovels. Daggers, spearheads and arrowheads made from stone were updated to ones made from iron. Now weapons were not used mostly for hunting, but for killing other humans on a larger scale than simple quarrels between small groups. Bronze and iron swords were produced, along with primitive armor and shields.
Yayoi culture expanded further north to Kinki, Tokai coast, Kanto plain and Tohoku in northern Honshu. These regions contained Yayoi that were originally immigrants, Jomon locals and a genetic admixture resulting from intermarriage. The exact proportions of each ethnic group is still contested. Jar burial reached its highest usage in this timeline, giving testimony to the combination of various traditions. Starting with the Late Yayoi, mound burials replaced the jar ceremony.
Trade stimulated the development of specialized cities. The biggest trade center discovered so far from the Late Yayoi period is Asashi, located in the center of Honshu, on the east coast. The region was far from the trade routes to Korea and China. This meant that, after the Yayoi borrowed technology from their continental neighbors, their prosperity was mostly obtained from the commerce taking place in the Japanese archipelago. External trade supported the evolution of Middle Yayoi culture until the Late Phase, when it became mostly self-sufficient.
Intensive trade relations between at least forty kingdoms from Japan, Korea and China left behind a wealth of material evidence and scrolls. Korea was mostly an intermediary for brute ore and new technologies, while China sold the most bronze and iron ingots. In return, the Yayoi chiefdoms sold slaves captured from enemy tribes. Historians believe that the Han dynasty of China was so strong that they requested only a symbolic tribute as recognition of their superior civilization. If the foreigners accepted, they received everything they wanted, for free, in large quantities. This theory is supported by the general behavior of China from ancient times till the 19th century.
Although peasants lived a relatively egalitarian life, the rest of society was hierarchical. Farmers had to pay their share of the harvest to the village leader. Taxes were collected from each village for the tribe. Also, tribes had to pay a symbolic tribute to the local kings. It was a highly centralized political system. Furthermore, in the Late Yayoi era, many kingdoms payed a small tribute to the Qin and Han dynasties of China, an empire that had a population of almost fifty million people.
Archaeological evidence points out that the Yayoi were organized into a form of egalitarian collectivization of production. A single family didn't have the resources and manpower necessary for harvesting rice. The whole village was needed in order to be efficient. Each village had a shaman or elder leader. Several villages formed a tribe, and small kingdoms were formed from confederations of tribes. In a sense, this was a cvasi relation of bondage similar to the one found in feudality. However, there were also differences, since local traditions and religious beliefs varied greatly, without a unifying doctrine, and the tribes were very autonomous.
In the first stages of the Yayoi period, pottery vessels were almost impossible to differentiate from those from the Jomon era. With the introduction of wheel technology for pottery from China and Korea, their design shifted. It had a less clumsy form, depicting an ideal of symmetrical lines. On the other hand, it was lacking the fantasy of the hunter-gatherer people. Vessels became used more as practical tools and less as religious symbols. This is why decorations and paintings were less frequent.
Mirrors, bronze swords and bells were used in religious ceremonies held by religious and political authorities. Common folk were buried in separate graveyards from the nobles. No matter their status, after the flesh was completely rotten from the bones, the skeleton was exhumed, painted red and reburied in vessels. The reasons for this are not known. Besides political leaders, each village had shamans that conducted various local rituals that were at the foundation of Shinto beliefs. Some of them were traditions that originated from the Jomon, others were new and unrelated, while others were borrowed from Korea and China in a modified version.
A practice that has intrigued both archaeologists and anthropologists is the second burial ceremony. There are some variations from one site to another, but the mains steps of the ceremony have been reconstructed. After a person died, the body was buried in a simple pit dug in the earth. Mourning lasted ten days, followed by prayers. Relatives waited for the body to decompose and then they exhumed the bones. A necklace made of the teeth of the dead was worn by the relatives. Bones were introduced into ceramic jars and reburied. The bones that were too big to fit in the jar were cremated alongside animal bones as an offering to the local deities. Then the necklace was also buried.
According to the ancient chronicles Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, Jimmu was the first emperor of Japan and the descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu. Most historians think that Jimmu’s story is just a myth. As with any myth, there may be a grain of truth in it. Specialists have tried to guess who Jimmu really was. They speculated that he might actually have been a warrior tribal leader who settled in Japan. The exact location of departure and arrival are under debate, as are the location and the borders of his kingdom. Jimmu’s supposed ascension to the throne is the 11th of February, Japan’s national holiday.
Although the Yayoi culture had no written language and there are no empirical evidences of Emperor Sujin, he is considered the first emperor of Japan who might be a real person. From a traditional point of view, Sujin is the 9th emperor in the unbroken line of the Yamato dynasty. What makes his existence plausible are the archaeological discoveries. This period of time is marked by the apparition of the first small kingdoms in Japan and extensive trade with Korea and China. The encounters are noted in Chinese chronicles.
Many of the written records about ancient Japan were made by Chinese scholars. Because they were produced at approximately the same time that events took place, the scrolls are remarkably accurate. Besides their inevitable subjectivity, most of the authors described things that happened in the course of their lives. The first mention of the Yayoi was made in the book ‘History of Han dynasty’. It says that the country of Wa, meaning the land of the dwarfs, contacted the Chinese empire in order to pay homage in 57 AD. Historians believe that ‘Wa’ was a humiliating name given by Chinese scholars to the Yayoi people.
‘Records of the Three Kingdoms’ is a book written by the scholar Chen Shou that focuses on a century of Chinese history that was marked by civil war. The scroll also has many detailed descriptions of the various kingdoms and tribes in Japanese Yayoi period. Contemporary with the historical events, the facts described by Chen Shou are incredibly accurate. There is no evidence that he traveled to Japan but he almost certainly encountered Yayoi emissaries and Chinese traders who went to Japan, due to his position in the Jin government. Most of his statements have been proven by archaeological discoveries.
Unlike other Japanese emperors, Himiko is not noted in the ancient Japanese chronicles and is not recognized by the official imperial line. On the other hand, her reign is depicted by Chinese chronicles, including the book ‘Records of the Three Kingdoms’. Due to this, historians believe it’s very probable that Himiko existed. The scrolls say that Himiko ended a civil war that lasted eighty years and founded the kingdom of Yamataikoku. She ascended to the throne when she was only fourteen years old and people believed in her magical powers.
Archaeologists have identified two important places in Japan that could be the location of Yamataikoku. Both settlements are large, with many irrigated farms and well structured defenses. Hundreds of swords and spears were unearthed. The first location is in northern Kyushu; the other in central Honshu, Kansai region. What we know for certain is that both were major kingdoms from the Late Yayoi and one of them is almost certainly the Yamato kingdom.
Empress Jingu was probably another fictional character or at least partially romanticized. Putting aside historical accuracy, her story describes a larger real phenomenon: the importance of women in the Early Antiquity of Japan. Starting with the goddess Amaterasu, there were many empresses who ruled this country up until the clear establishment of patriarchy after the assimilation of Buddhism in the seventh century AD. Furthermore, historical records show that many women fought in the first line up until feudalism, and many legends describe their heroism. Even after the formation of the Samurai system, noble women had the right to have property and a proper education.
From an archaeological viewpoint, the most probable Yayoi kingdom was located in central Honshu, Kansai province, close to where Nara prefecture is today. As we head towards the end of the Late Yayoi, the other settlements become smaller and the one from Kansai grows larger. Central Honshu is the home of the first large burial mounds and the cradle of Japanese civilization represented by the Yamato kingdom. The transition from the Yayoi era to the Kofun one was marked by several events. Firstly, the kingdom of Yamato became the hegemonic power in ancient Japan. This hegemony was exercised not only by military means, but also by adding other domains under a system of protectorates that paid tribute. Yamato’s influence reached most of Kyushu, southern and central Honshu. In Shikoku and northern Honshu, strong independent kingdoms still opposed the expansion of Yamato lords.