Thursday, October 8, 2009

Japan: The Early Centuries

There are 4,223 islands in the archipelago called Japan. Six hundred of them are inhabited, but only five are of any considerable size. The largest, Hondo or Honshu, is 1,130 miles long, averages about 73 miles wide, and contains 81,000 square miles, more than half the land area of the nation.

Population: 127,463,611
Total area: 145,882 sq. mi. (slightly smaller than California)
Capital: Tokyo
Prime Minister: Yukio Hatoyama (since September 2009)
Constitution: May 3, 1947
Language: Japanese
Religion: most Japanese observe both Shinto and Buddhist rites; about 16% belong to other religions, including 0.7% Christianity
GDP: $4.018 trillion, $31,500 per capita

No other nation is so afflicted by earthquakes. In the year 599, an earthquake swallowed entire villages. Comets streaked across the sky, asteroids crashed into the earth, and Japan was mysteriously blanketed in snow in mid-July. Drought and famine followed, and millions of Japanese died. In 1703 an earthquake killed 32,000 in Tokyo alone. In 1923 earthquake, tsunami, and fire caused 100,000 deaths in Tokyo. Kamakura, so kind to Buddha, was nearly totally destroyed. All modern Japanese buildings are now constructed to withstand seismic activity as a result.

Research has shown that the Ainu, a tribal people whose origins are unknown, were the first inhabitants of the Japanese Archipelago. They may have populated the islands from the 2nd and 1st millenia BC. Invading peoples from nearby areas in Asia began expeditions of conquest to the islands, forcing the Ainu to the northern portions of Honshu.

About AD 360 Empress Jingu, who would eventually be considered a goddess, took over the government after the death of her husband, Emperor Chuai. She led Japan to invade and conquer a portion of nearby Korea. During the next several centuries, cultural influence passed between Korea and Japan. Chinese writing, literature, and philosophy became popular.

The most important event of the period was the importation of Buddhism. This is usually dated in 552, when a king from southwestern Korea sent Buddhist priests to Japan, together with religious images, scriptures, and calendars. The imported culture soon became deeply rooted in the islands, and while contact between the two countries weakened after the Japanese were driven out of Korea in 562, by the early 7th century Buddhism had become the official religion of Japan.

In 604, the first Japanese constitution was drafted. A great council, the Dajokan, ruled alongside the emperor through local governors sent from the capital. Nara in Yamato became the first fixed capital in 710. In 794 Kyoto was made the imperial residence and, with few interruptions, remained the capital until 1868. By the 9th century, the emperor and Dajokan ruled all of the main islands except Hokkaido.

During the 9th century the emperors began to withdraw from public life, delegating the affairs of state to subordinates until they came to be regarded as abstractions in the national life rather than its directors. This political void was filled by the rising power of the Fujiwara, the leading family of court nobles. In 858 the Fujiwara became virtual masters of Japan, maintaining their power for the next three centuries.

The period of Fujiwara supremacy hosted a great flowering of Japanese culture; influenced, but no longer dominated by China and Korea. Wealth accumulated, and was centered on a life of luxury and refinement. Kyoto became as elegant as Paris in poetry and dress, setting the nation's standards for learning and taste.

I've stopped trying to summarize the Nations of the World in a single post. My short history of Japan will be continued...

For my previous posts on the Nations of the World, click here.


Patrick said...

wow, i didn't know japan had consisted of so many islands! I am glad that you are still doing the countries of the world info :-)

Fred said...

Glad to see you back. Always interesting and of course the guys are great

Show Me said...

We've missed your posts! Thanks for returning to your blog fans.