By J.S.A. Elisonas (email@example.com)
Jurgis Elisonas is Boskey Visiting Professor of History at Williams College and Professor Emerits of East Asian Languages, Culture and History at Indiana University. He is also co-editor of Proliferating Talent: Essays on Politics, Thought, and Education in the Meiji Era (Univerity of Hawaii Press, 1997) and author (as George Elison) of Deus Destroyed: The Image of Christianity in Early Modern Japan (Harvard University Press, 1973). Professor Elisonas spoke on “Pre-Modern Japan” at FPRI’s History Institute on Teaching About Japan, October 19-22, 2003.
In the general picture of Japan’s historical development as it is projected in textbooks, the international dimension is not very prominent— until, that is, the 1850s, when Commodore Perry and his US Navy squadron busted the walls of isolation erected by the Tokugawa shogunate around its feudal realm. Perry’s intrusion forced Japan to face the modern world. Soon enough, Japan became a major player in that world of international competition, joining the ranks of the imperialist powers.
The sheer spectacle of the nineteenth century’s transformation scene is so overwhelming that it puts the international aspects of previous centuries in the shadows. Yet it would be a grave mistake to assume that the Japanese were always isolated on their islands off the northeastern coast of Asia— that their society and their culture were autogenous; that somehow they developed free of foreign influence. On the contrary, from the misty days of protohistory, the lives of the people who inhabited the Japanese archipelago were conditioned by processes of development radiating throughout the sphere of civilization called East Asia.
Indeed, if you’ll permit me to assume the pose of a nominalist for a moment, I will state that Japan was the product of international relations. The country we call Japan did not adopt that name— written with a set of characters pronounced Jih-pen in Chinese, whence we derive our English term; Ilbon in Korean; and Nippon in Japanese itself— until the year 701, when it was first used in letters of accreditation that its ambassadors to the sovereign of China, Empress Wu, bore with them. As we all know, the characters represent and the name means “The Origins of the Sun,” that is to say, “The Country where the Sun Rises.” This was a clear instance of self-assertion on the part of a people who had for the previous six or seven centuries been unflatteringly described in the Chinese records as Wo— a word written with an unfortunate logograph meaning “submissive” or “bent.” In Japanese this character is pronounced as Wa in one reading. There is an alternative reading, Yamato, which lacks the opprobrious connotation. In the narrower sense, Yamato designates the political and cultural heartland of the early Japanese realm. In the broader sense, it refers to that realm itself. In a minute, I will be referring to the “ruler” of that inchoate Yamato realm.
This self-assertion followed upon a century of state building which in effect transformed the country from a tribal society to one that was centrally administered through an elaborate bureaucratic apparatus, an apparatus anchored in a minutely worked out body of law. It shall be noted that 702, the year the ambassadors of “Japan” presented their credentials in China, was also the year of the promulgation of the monumental law codes called the Taihô Ritsuryô (Penal and Administrative Laws of the Taihô Era) in their country. These codes were closely modeled on those of the T’ang Empire of China, though it would be a mistake to say they replicated them. The central premise of the codes, a principle established in China and institutionalized by the ritsuryô in Japan, was that the imperial sovereign held sway over all the people and owned all the territory of the centralized state. Thus the hierarch who had stood at the head of a confederacy of regional chieftains in the land of Wa as a kind of primus inter pares (the Yamato ruler, if you will) became the monarch supreme in all Japan. In other words, by assimilating the continental model—as “continental” is a buzzword, I should really say the metropolitan model— by assimilating the metropolitan model of East Asia, Japan became by the standards of the day a modern nation. To stretch a point, the seventh century, a century of reforms, witnessed the first great modernization of Japan.
All that having been said, however, let us begin at the beginning. I draw your attention to the television screen.
What you just saw is an excerpt from a three-hour program called Shôtoku Taishi and aired by NHK, Japan’s public television network, in the autumn of 2001. This was a “historical drama,” that is, not an “educational” program designed for students of Japanese history but rather one meant for the entertainment of a general audience. The boy appearing with his hair plaited in rings around his ears is Shôtoku Taishi (Prince Shôtoku), certainly one of the best-known figures in all of Japanese history. The girl is his future wife Tojiko. The scene is set at the court of the Yamato ruler in the year 585. The dialogue goes more or less as follows:
Shôtoku - “Tell your father I’m here.”
The girl answers in Korean - “I’ve told him already.”
Shôtoku - “Is it all right for me to go inside?”
The girl again responds in Korean - “Apparently so.”
Shôtoku - “Tojiko, can’t you tell me this in Japanese?”
Tojiko - “It’s you who should be responding in Korean. My father says that from now on, one is to speak Korean in the palace.”
Shôtoku - “You really are your father’s daughter. A real tomboy, worse luck!”
Tojiko, again in Korean - “I’m not a tomboy.”
When I first saw this program, I was amazed. Note in particular Tojiko’s intimation that Korean is or in any event should be the court language. (I am reminded here of Tolstoy’s St. Petersburg courtiers, who conversed in French and had difficulty expressing themselves in Russian.) Not so many years ago, this kind of mise en scne of early Japanese history would have been scarcely conceivable on popular television. That sixth-century Yamato was practically a Korean cultural colony was not exactly kept a secret in Japanese history books, but it was at least partially camouflaged by obfuscation. That is, the source of that period’s cultural imports was all too often obscured by the circumlocution “continental.” For people of a certain mindset, it was all too easy, on being referred to the “continent,” to direct their attention straightway to the Chinese mainland, bypassing the Korean peninsula and making it unnecessary to entertain the idea that a place which had been a downtrodden colony of the Japanese Empire for much of the twentieth century was the matrix of early Japanese civilization. The debt to China, the undeniable mother lode of East Asian culture, was far more easily acknowledged.
Let me refer again to the television program, taking a glance at Tojiko’s father Soga no Umako, one of the most powerful personages at the Yamato court under four rulers, from the 570s to the 620s. The head of the Soga family was in charge of the ruler’s storehouses, acting as a sort of court treasurer; perhaps major-domo is the word. Whether or not the family was in fact of Korean descent is unclear. It is certain, however, that it had close Korean connections. Indeed, the prominence of the Soga rested on their ability to attract to their patronage a considerable number of immigrant groups equipped with specialized skills of the sort that made them invaluable to the emergent Yamato monarchy. These immigrants came from Korea, although China may have been the ultimate provenance of some. Their occupational skills included a whole array of things from accounting to Yin-Yang elementology. There were immigrant families who bore such descriptive names as Fumi (Scribe), Fuhito (Recorder), and Kura no Obito (Storekeeper).
Why did such groups flock from Korea to the Japanese archipelago, as they apparently did in numbers from the fourth century onward? In the case of some, it was surely because they knew that their skills assured them of prosperity in an environment less developed than Korea’s— that is, they came to a land of opportunity, seeking their fortunes. Others were motivated to leave by the wars that periodically swept their peninsula as three states contended for ascendancy over it-in other words, they were refugees. Those three states, which emerged in the early fourth century, were called Koguryp, Paekche, and Silla. By the time that is of concern to this lecture, all three were fully constituted kingdoms. That is, their state building process had been completed.
Of the three, Paekche was the one with which Yamato had the closest affinity. If I may skip ahead for a moment, in the year 663, when Paekche was being ripped apart by the allied armies of Silla and T’ang China, Yamato sent an expeditionary force consisting of as many as 27,000 men to Paekche’s assistance. This military intervention on the peninsula was a failure, as Silla and its T’ang allies won a crushing victory. The Paekche kingdom fell, resulting in another wave of emigration from Korea to Japan. Unless one considers the more or less sporadic activities of mediaeval pirates a major thrust, the intervention of 663 would be the last military intrusion of the “Japanese” into the mainland of Asia for nine and a quarter centuries, until the megalomanic hegemon Toyotomi Hideyoshi launched his totally unprovoked, massive, bloody, destructive, and ultimately unsuccessful invasion of Korea in 1592. The Japanese withdrew six years later, in 1598. To be sure, they were to come back in 1910 with a vengeance to stay for quite a while longer, until 1945.
Back to sixth-century Paekche, however. It was largely from Paekche that the major cadres of the shared East Asian cultural complex were transmitted to Yamato before the end of that century. Texts and experts on Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism, not to mention such arts as astrology, calendrical science, divination, geomancy, medicine, pharmacy, and even necromancy came to Japan from that kingdom. At that time, the dominant system of thought in East Asia was Buddhism. Two dates, 538 and 552, are usually given for its “official” introduction from Paekche. As the Soga were among other things in charge of diplomatic relations with that kingdom, it is not surprising that they became strong supporters of the new religion, in the face of violent opposition on the part of other powerful families. Having overcome that opposition— violently— Soga no Umako in 588 began the construction of a grand Buddhist temple, to be known as Asukadera. Master artisans were brought over from Korea to supervise the project— carpenters, tile makers, painters, even a specialist in the construction of the pinnacle of a pagoda. The king of Koguryp sent gold for the purpose of coating the temple’s great Buddha statue. The influence of Koguryp is, moreover, apparent in the layout of the cloister and halls of prayer of the Asukadera. Only two analogues of that ground plan, both of them in northern Korea, that is, in territory once occupied by Koguryp, are known to archaeologists. This and other Buddhist temple projects brought about the dawn of a new age in the history of Japanese art and architecture centered on the Buddhist cathedral. Indeed, the temple compound also offered the stage for the performance of new types of music and even of dramatic entertainment. A Buddhist ecclesiastification of culture resulted.
Zealous as he was, Soga no Umako was excelled as a patron of Buddhism by Prince Shôtoku, his son-in-law. Shôtoku is known not just as a fervent believer in the “continental” religion but also as a dedicated student of its underlying philosophy. His devotion to Buddhism made the prince into a legend. By the end of the eighth century, he was being described as a Bodhisattva; by the tenth, he had been identified as an avatar of Kannon, the Buddha of Mercy and Compassion. Ever since then, Shôtoku has been a figure of worship. It is not just as a religious icon, however, that he earned fame. On the accession of his aunt, who is known in history as Empress Suiko, to the throne of the Yamato ruler, Shôtoku was in 593 appointed to assist her by “managing governmental matters.” This was an epochal juncture in Japanese history. Shôtoku’s became the guiding hand in the grand design both of internal and of external affairs. The Korean priests and scholars in his entourage, his so-called brain trust, ensured that the prince developed a keen international awareness. The embassies he sent to China, recently reunified under the Sui Empire, are famous, particularly the one which presented a letter stating, “The Child of Heaven of the country where the sun rises greets the Child of Heaven of the country where the sun sets”— a form of address considered by the choleric Emperor Yang to be “lacking manners.” The pursuit of diplomatic relations was not the sole object of those embassies. The envoys were accompanied by young scholars meant to acquire expertise through overseas studies. These students were to return, in one striking case 32 years after his departure, with good knowledge of the constitution and the ideologies of the Chinese imperial state. The experience gained abroad enabled them to take on important roles in the political and intellectual life of their own country at a time of great change.
Under Shôtoku’s guidance the rudiments of a central administrative system were laid down. There can be no doubt that he sought to articulate a central rationale for the operations of a Japanese imperial state, even if the famous “Seventeen-Article Constitution,” supposedly composed by him in the year 604, is most likely the construct of a later day, perhaps as late as the end of the seventh century. The underpinnings of this document may be Confucian, but it bears reiterating that Shôtoku stood for the state sponsorship of Buddhism. So Article Two of the seventeen states: “Sincerely reverence the Three Treasures: the Buddha, the Law, and the religious orders. These three are the final refuge of all beings and the supreme objects of reverence in all countries.” If not his actual words, what we have here is an accurate enough reproduction of the prince’s sentiments. When the provincial elite came to emulate the central aristocracy’s patronage of Buddhism, the groundwork was laid for the political doctrine that Buddhism was the Protector of the Nation, an idea used by the imperial government of the Nara period to buttress its claims to universal power over the state and its people.
Visualize a grid that divides the state into some sixty-six administrative divisions called provinces. Nara, the capital city, is at the center. Strings extend from that center to all the provinces. Each is run by a provincial governor appointed by the court of Nara. Alongside each provincial headquarters, the secular arm of the state, there is an officially sponsored Buddhist temple, the spiritual arm. At the apex of this nationwide ecclesiastical structure is the imperial sovereign’s basilica in the capital city, the great temple Tôdaiji. This temple is the seat of a colossal statue of the cosmic Buddha Dainichi, the “Great Sun,” whose powers radiate throughout the universe and are reflected, no doubt, by the imperial sovereign in Japan. In view of this awe-inspiring symbol, I call the integration of the imperial state and the universal religion in eighth-century Japan by the name of megalobuddhism, although that may be an overdrawn statement. In any event, the Nara period witnessed what textbooks call the high point of the classical “continental” pattern in Japan.
Now, before I get carried away, it would perhaps be a good idea for me to recall Professor Edwin Reischauer’s dictum from my graduate school days, to the effect that Japan’s ritsuryô state was more theory than practice. As early as 723, legislation was issued attenuating the state’s claim to absolute disposal over the country’s land base. Another law, issued in 743, permitted permanent private ownership of newly reclaimed land. By 792, the universal draft stipulated by the ritsuryô had been abandoned in most parts of the country, and bands of fighting professionals drawn from the regional elite (the future samurai) were replacing the unwieldy provincial militia units. In other words, the imperial state was privatizing some of its most important functions. Step by step, the rigid structures erected by the ritsuryô codes were being dismantled. The Nara period came to a close in the year 784, and in the era named after the new capital city of Heian (now Kyoto; 794-1185) the classical “continental” pattern faded away. It would be totally false to assume that “continental” influences were eliminated from Japanese culture; let us just say that a new, pronounced “Yamato” style came to the fore.
The lively pursuit of international relations characteristic of the seventh and eighth centuries came to an end in the Heian era. Between 600 and 834, Japan sent twenty embassies to Sui China and its successor state, the T’ang Empire, but only two of those date from the ninth century. (The last such last mission was organized in 894 but was abandoned, as had been three others in the Nara period. The T’ang dynasty fell in 907.) Reference works show that Silla was the destination of twenty-nine Japanese missions between 676 and 882, only six of them in the ninth century; in turn, there were forty embassies from that Korean kingdom to Japan after 676, but only two— the ones of 803 and 840-in the Heian period. (Silla fell in 935.) Between 728 and 810, thirteen Japanese missions were sent to Parhae, a state occupying an extensive territory that straddled the border between Korea and Manchuria, and Parhae for its part continued diplomatic and commercial relations with Japan until 919.
So in this regard, too, the international dimension of Japanese history faded away in the Heian period. Contacts with Korea and China continued, even if it was altogether often in the form of Japanese pirate raids. Official relations between a central Japanese regime and China were not re-established, however, until the first years of the fifteenth century, and then in a form not particularly flattering to Japan: In order to gain commercial advantages— in particular access to Chinese luxury goods— and to satisfy his desire for monarchal distinction, the retired shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu accepted investiture from the Ming emperor as his vassal King of Japan.
On November 15th at the FPRI annual dinner Fouad Ajami was presented with the Seventh Annual Benjamin Franklin Public Service Award. The event was attended by over 360 people.
Dr. John M. Templeton, Jr. was dinner chairman.
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