II. Ancient and Classical Periods, 3500 B.C.E.–500 C.E. > C. Early Civilizations and Classical Empires of South and East Asia > 7. Japan, to 527 C.E. > e. Japanese Historical Mythology
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
e. Japanese Historical Mythology
The first verifiable historical accounts of Japan occur in the Chinese dynastic histories of the 3rd century C.E. and picture western Japan, if not all Japan, as divided among a large number of small political units, among which feminine rule may not have been uncommon. Some of these statelets had direct relations with the Chinese colonies in Korea, and embassies from Japanese states to the Chinese capital are recorded from 57 to 266. However, Japanese mythology commences with a creation myth in which the brother-sister pair of deities, Izanagi and Izanami, descend to Earth, create the islands of Japan, and give birth to subsequent gods with various powers. These include Amatera-su and Susano- (the storm god). The latter two in turn copulate to produce more gods. Ninigi (grandson of the Sun Goddess) comes to Earth and settles in Kysh, whence he also brings the three sacred imperial regalia: a bronze mirror (symbol of the sun), an iron sword, and a jeweled necklace. His grandson subsequently conquers as far north as the Kinki plain; there he creates the Yamato state in 660 B.C.E., taking the throne as Emperor Jimmu. The mythology hints at a successful battle for supremacy of the imperial clan with another clan in Izumo on the Sea of Japan. The Izumo clan apparently had a distinctive culture and rather close ties with Korea.  1
c. 3rd Cent. B.C.E.–250 C.E
Yayoi era. Yayoi replaced Jmon, beginning in Kysh and moving toward the Kant plain where it arrived by the end of the 1st century B.C.E. Yayoi had more refined pottery, settled agriculture (with rice cultivation using sophisticated irrigation techniques), and use of bronze and iron implements. Bronze was employed mainly for symbolic items, such as mirrors, bells, and elegantly thin (ornamental) weapons. The technology to make these items probably came from China and Korea. The discovery of Former Han coins in Yayoi dig sites indicates contact with the mainland. Yayoi pottery was similar in certain ways to Korean pottery, but it also continued Jmon styles. By the late Yayoi period, a new society altogether had come into existence. Rice paddy cultivation spread from Kysh east, and there it needed more sophisticated irrigation methods because of the higher terrain. This emphasis on rice production probably affected social organization, bringing about more intensive farming, increasing wealth, population growth, and geographic expansion.  2
c. 239 C.E
With the accession of the tenth ruler of Yamato, Sujin, Japanese records began to contain material of probable historical accuracy.  3
c. 250–552
Kofun (tumulus) era. This was an extension of Yayoi culture, as Yayoi people began building huge tombs, traditionally considered to be for “emperors.” The largest and most elaborate tomb (120 ft. high) was for Nintoku (trad. r. 395–427) near present-day saka. The tombs were often in a keyhole shape, some with moats. Buddhism later gradually eroded the tomb culture, which was eventually abandoned. Close ties between the state of Kaya (in Japanese, Mimana) in southeastern Korea and Kofun peoples of southwestern Japan continued until Silla conquered Kaya in 562.  4
Clay tomb figurines, known as haniwa, of human beings, houses, and animals were placed outside the tombs. Some figures of warriors on horseback with bronze or iron weapons indicate that this kind of warfare was engaged in. These are similar to Korean figurines of the time. The figurines depict daily life, including some female shamans. According to Chinese sources, the first queen, Pimiko (or Himiko, mid-3rd century), ruled the state of Yamatai with magic and was buried in a large tomb. There is still no conclusive evidence, however, for the location of Yamatai.  5
c. 360
Queen Jing, ruling in the name of her deceased husband and later in the name of her son, is traditionally believed to have led and won military victories over Korea. There probably were Japanese campaigns on the peninsula at this time, which is corroborated by Korean records. A Korean inscription of 391 indicates the presence of Japanese armies. From this time considerable Japanese influence in the Korean state of Kaya can be dated, but recent archaeological research indicates that Japan was probably not receiving tribute from Kaya. Japanese influence in the state of Paekche also was growing. With the emerging strength of Silla, Japanese clout on the Korean Peninsula was on the wane. Via these Korean contacts, Japan opened her doors to continental culture and Chinese civilization. This also enabled direct contacts with China, initiated in 413.  6
Society in the Kofun era was organized around a social elite in uji lineages (tribal in structure), each of whom claimed common ancestry and worshipped a deity (kami) which fostered uji solidarity. Uji were led by a hereditary chief (uji no kami) who claimed direct descent from the kami and ruled as both priest and secular head. The chief and his immediate family often bore one of seven hereditary titles (kabone), which in time came to be grouped hierarchically. Beneath the uji were commoners or be, agricultural tillers who lived in villages and were organized by occupations (e.g., weavers, fishers, cloth weavers). The uji used the be, the economic fundament of the uji system. At the bottom of the social order were domestic servants and slaves. These uji communities may correspond to the large number of political groupings mentioned in the early Chinese sources about 3rd-century Japan. The Yamato state emerged from this structure through conquest and the like (c. 5th cent., although perhaps later), either in Kysh or in the Kinki area.  7
Over the course of time, a ranking order developed among uji, with the most powerful one claiming its kami to be descendant directly from the Sun Goddess. This is thought to be the origin of the imperial clan, at first little more than hegemon among the various uji. Its chief was the “emperor,” and its rule over the country very loose. The clans with the two most important hereditary titles, omi and muraji, were controlled through the omi (great omi) and muraji (great muraji).  8
The importation of continental culture came hand in hand with a large influx of Korean refugees to Japan and seriously shook the uji system. About the end of the 4th century, scribes able to read and write Chinese came to Japan from the Korean state of Paekche. This development indicates the official adoption of Chinese writing, though not the first knowledge of it in Japan. Although writing spread slowly, it was used early on for historical records. In imitation of China, there developed a greater centralization of power in the hands of the imperial uji and its ministers. Imperial lands were gradually extended, and imperial authority grew apace, eventually leading to a thorough political and economic reorganization of Japan on the China model.  9
A serious revolt in Kysh prevented the crossing of an army to Korea to aid Kaya. Dissension among the Japanese and treachery among some officers on the peninsula reduced Japanese prestige there and opened the way for Silla's subsequent conquest of Kaya. (See Japan, 552–1185)  10
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.