Japan Table of Contents

The Kofun period (ca. A.D. 250-ca. 600) takes its name, which means old tomb (kofun) from the culture's rich funerary rituals and distinctive earthen mounds. The mounds contained large stone burial chambers, many of which were shaped like keyholes and some of which were surrounded by moats. By the late Kofun period, the distinctive burial chambers, originally used by the ruling elite, also were built for commoners.

During the Kofun period, a highly aristocratic society with militaristic rulers developed. Its horse-riding warriors wore armor, carried swords and other weapons, and used advanced military methods like those of Northeast Asia. Evidence of these advances is seen in funerary figures (called haniwa; literally, clay rings), found in thousands of kofun scattered throughout Japan. The most important of the haniwa were found in southern Honshu--especially the Kinai Region around Nara--and northern Kyushu. Haniwa grave offerings were made in numerous forms, such as horses, chickens, birds, fans, fish, houses, weapons, shields, sunshades, pillows, and male and female humans. Another funerary piece, the magatama, became one of the symbols of the power of the imperial house.

The Kofun period was a critical stage in Japan's evolution toward a more cohesive and recognized state. This society was most developed in the Kinai Region and the easternmost part of the Inland Sea (Seto Naikai), and its armies established a foothold on the southern tip of Korea. Japan's rulers of the time even petitioned the Chinese court for confirmation of royal titles; the Chinese, in turn, recognized Japanese military control over parts of the Korean Peninsula.

The Yamato polity, which emerged by the late fifth century, was distinguished by powerful great clans or extended families, including their dependents. Each clan was headed by a patriarch who performed sacred rites to the clan's kami to ensure the long-term welfare of the clan. Clan members were the aristocracy, and the kingly line that controlled the Yamato court was at its pinnacle.

More exchange occurred between Japan and the continent of Asia late in the Kofun period. Buddhism was introduced from Korea, probably in A.D. 538, exposing Japan to a new body of religious doctrine. The Soga, a Japanese court family that rose to prominence with the accession of the Emperor Kimmei about A.D. 531, favored the adoption of Buddhism and of governmental and cultural models based on Chinese Confucianism. But some at the Yamato court--such as the Nakatomi family, which was responsible for performing Shinto rituals at court, and the Mononobe, a military clan--were set on maintaining their prerogatives and resisted the alien religious influence of Buddhism. The Soga introduced Chinese-modeled fiscal policies, established the first national treasury, and considered the Korean Peninsula a trade route rather than an object of territorial expansion. Acrimony continued between the Soga and the Nakatomi and Mononobe clans for more than a century, during which the Soga temporarily emerged ascendant.

The Kofun period is seen as ending by around A.D. 600, when the use of elaborate kofun by the Yamato and other elite fell out of use because of prevailing new Buddhist beliefs, which put greater emphasis on the transience of human life. Commoners and the elite in outlying regions, however, continued to use kofun until the late seventh century, and simpler but distinctive tombs continued in use throughout the following period.

The Yamato state evolved still further during the Asuka period, which is named after the Asuka region, south of modern Nara, the site of numerous temporary imperial capitals established during the period. The Asuka period is known for its significant artistic, social, and political transformations, which had their origins in the late Kofun period.

The Yamato court, concentrated in the Asuka region, exercised power over clans in Kyushu and Honshu, bestowing titles, some hereditary, on clan chieftains. The Yamato name became synonymous with all of Japan as the Yamato rulers suppressed the clans and acquired agricultural lands. Based on Chinese models (including the adoption of the Chinese written language), they developed a central administration and an imperial court attended by subordinate clan chieftains but with no permanent capital. By the mid-seventh century, the agricultural lands had grown to a substantial public domain, subject to central policy. The basic administrative unit was the county, and society was organized into occupation groups. Most people were farmers; other were fishers, weavers, potters, artisans, armorers, and ritual specialists.

The Soga had intermarried with the imperial family, and by A.D. 587 Soga Umako, the Soga chieftain, was powerful enough to install his nephew as emperor and later to assassinate him and replace him with the Empress Suiko (r. A.D. 593-628). Suiko, the first of eight sovereign empresses, was merely a figurehead for Umako and Prince Regent Shotoku Taishi (A.D. 574-622). Shotoku, recognized as a great intellectual of this period of reform, was a devout Buddhist, well read in Chinese literature. He was influenced by Confucian principles, including the Mandate of Heaven, which suggested that the sovereign ruled at the will of a supreme force. Under Shotoku's direction, Confucian models of rank and etiquette were adopted, and his Seventeen Article Constitution (Kenpo jushichiju) prescribed ways to bring harmony to a society chaotic in Confucian terms. In addition, Shotoku adopted the Chinese calendar, developed a system of highways, built numerous Buddhist temples, had court chronicles compiled, sent students to China to study Buddhism and Confucianism, and established formal diplomatic relations with China.

Numerous official missions of envoys, priests, and students were sent to China in the seventh century. Some remained twenty years or more; many of those who returned became prominent reformers. In a move greatly resented by the Chinese, Shotoku sought equality with the Chinese emperor by sending official correspondence addressed "From the Son of Heaven in the Land of the Rising Sun to the Son of Heaven of the Land of the Setting Sun." Shotoku's bold step set a precedent: Japan never again accepted a subordinate status in its relations with China. Although the missions continued the transformation of Japan through Chinese influences, the Korean influence on Japan declined despite the close connections that had existed during the early Kofun period.

About twenty years after the deaths of Shotoku (in A.D. 622), Soga Umako (in A.D. 626), and Empress Suiko (in A.D. 628), court intrigues over succession and the threat of a Chinese invasion led to a palace coup against the Soga oppression in A.D. 645. The revolt was led by Prince Naka and Nakatomi Kamatari, who seized control of the court from the Soga family and introduced the Taika Reform.

Although it did not constitute a legal code, the Taika Reform (Taika means great change) mandated a series of reforms that established the ritsuryo system of social, fiscal, and administrative mechanisms of the seventh to tenth centuries. Ritsu was a code of penal laws, while ry was an administrative code. Combined, the two terms came to describe a system of patrimonial rule based on an elaborate legal code that emerged from the Taika Reform.

The Taika Reform, influenced by Chinese practices, started with land redistribution, aimed at ending the existing landholding system of the great clans and their control over domains and occupational groups. What were once called "private lands and private people" became "public lands and public people," as the court now sought to assert its control over all of Japan and to make the people direct subjects of the throne. Land was no longer hereditary but reverted to the state at the death of the owner. Taxes were levied on harvests and on silk, cotton, cloth, thread, and other products. A corvée (labor) tax was established for military conscription and building public works. The hereditary titles of clan chieftains were abolished, and three ministries were established to advise the throne (the minister of the left, the minister of the right, and the minister of the center, or the chancellor). The country was divided into provinces headed by governors appointed by the court, and the provinces were further divided into districts and villages.

Naka assumed the position of minister of the center, and Kamatari was granted a new family name--Fujiwara--in recognition of his great service to the imperial family. Fujiwara Kamatari became the first in a long line of court aristocrats. Another, long- lasting change was the use of the name Nihon, or sometimes Dai Nippon (Great Japan) in diplomatic documents and chronicles. Following the reigns of Naka's uncle and mother, Naka assumed the throne as Emperor Tenji in 662, taking the additional title tenno (heavenly sovereign). This new title was intended to improve the Yamato clan's image and to emphasize the divine origins of the imperial family in the hope of keeping it above political frays, such as those precipitated by the Soga clan. Within the imperial family, however, power struggles continued as the emperor's brother and son vied for the throne. The brother, who later reigned as Emperor Temmu, consolidated Tenji's reforms and state power in the imperial court.

The ritsuryo system was codified in several stages. The mi Code, named after the provincial site of Emperor Tenji's court, was completed in about A.D. 668. Further codification took place with the promulgation by Empress Jito in 689 of the Asuka- Kiyomihara Code, named for the location of the late Emperor Temmu's court. The ritsuryo system was further consolidated and codified in 701 under the Taiho Ritsuryo (Great Treasure Code or Taiho Code), which, except for a few modifications and being relegated to primarily ceremonial functions, remained in force until 1868. The Taiho Code provided for Confucian-model penal provisions (light rather than harsh punishments) and Chinese-style central administration through the Department of Rites, which was devoted to Shinto and court rituals, and the Department of State, with its eight ministries (for central administration, ceremonies, civil affairs, the imperial household, justice, military affairs, people's affairs, and the treasury). A Chinese-style civil service examination system based on the Confucian classics was also adopted. Tradition circumvented the system, however, as aristocratic birth continued to be the main qualification for higher position. The Taiho Code did not address the selection of the sovereign. Several empresses reigned from the fifth to the eighth centuries, but after 770 succession was restricted to males, usually from father to son, although sometimes from ruler to brother or uncle.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress