Early Medieval Japan - Yamato Period - History of Japan
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Early Medieval Japan

clay figure of a seated woman
Haniwa seated woman from a kofun tomb,
possibly a Shinto religious leader (ca. 500 AD)

February 2017 - By the end of the Yayoi period (Japan's Iron Age) in 250 AD, there was probably an emperor in Japan, but the real power still lay with the rulers of many different city-states, and the emperor couldn't really tell them what to do. That stayed the same through the first part of the Yamato period, with many small wars among the city-states.

blue glass bowl
Roman glass bowl, 200s AD,
buried in Japan in the 400s AD

Most people in Japan followed Shinto religion, with many local gods reflecting the many small states. The rulers kept on building earth burial mounds for themselves, which they called "kofun". Often they put clay figures, or "haniwa", in the mounds to help them in the afterlife. But there was already trade with China and the Silk Road, and beautiful glass bowls from the Roman Empire sometimes reached Japan. Possibly Japanese women began pearl-diving about this time, to sell pearls to these traders.

standing man in long robes made of bronze
Bosatsu bronze statue
(600s AD, Houryuuji Temple)

Things changed about 550 AD, when the Yamato family succeeded in unifying Japan's small city-states into one real empire for the first time. One thing that helped them succeed was encouraging many people in Japan to convert to Buddhism about the same time, though people kept on visiting Shinto shrines too. The Yamato emperors encouraged many Chinese and Korean administrators to come help them out in Japan. These immigrants brought with them the Chinese written characters, using them to write even in Japanese. They also taught people in Japan to grow silk for finer clothing, to carve statues and build pagodas, and they brought Chinese horses to Japan to form cavalry units for the Japanese army.

About the same time, Japanese blacksmiths began to make steel in one-use clay furnaces. They probably learned how to forge steel either from Central Asians via the Silk Road (maybe through Korea), or from Indian techniques traveling through South-East Asia to Japan by sea. Japanese steel was not as high quality as Central Asian steel though. By about 610 AD, people in Japan were making paper, too.

The first Japanese emperor who's probably more than just a story was Bidatsu, who ruled in the mid-500s AD. He had four wives (not all at the same time), one of whom was his half-sister, Suiko, and another of whom was his sister, Nukate-hime. Bidatsu may have died of smallpox, which was just spreading across East Asia from India at that time. Two of his brothers ruled after him - they were probably killed by families that opposed Buddhism - and then in 593 AD Suiko took power. Like many later Japanese emperors and empresses, Suiko had advisers who were sometimes more powerful than she was. But Suiko also held power of her own, like many Eurasian woman about this time, from Ingundis in Spain and Brunhilde in France, to Pulcheria in Constantinople and the Empress Wu in China. Empress Suiko's advisers, Prince Shotoku and Soga no Umako, were both from the powerful Soga family, which had a lot of power. Together, these rulers issued Japan's first constitution in 604 AD. This constitution mainly insists that Japanese rulers and their helpers should be good, truthful, and helpful: "Administrators should make good behavior their leading principle," and that they should work together: "Decisions on important matters should not be made by one person alone." It's pretty general, but it was the first Japanese statement that even the rulers were not above the law. Three years later, these rulers sent a message to the Chinese Sui Dynasty emperor Yangdi making it clear that Japan would no longer pay tribute to China, but considered the two empires to be equals (This shift in policy may be related to China's invasion of Korea in 612). Now Japan would be independent of China.

Learn by doing: check out some silk cloth
Go on to the Taika period
More about Japan

Bibliography and further reading about Yamato period Japan:

The Taika period
More about Japan
Ancient China
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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