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History, Development of the Early State

haniwa, Chinese writing system, kofun, Japanese archipelago, burial chambers

The earliest settlers of the islands did not have a very complex political organization. They lived in small, relatively self-sufficient village communities. Eventually, clusters of villages united in small territorial or tribal units under local chieftains. Archaeological evidence suggests that by the 2nd and 3rd centuries ad fighting broke out among these local chieftains as they sought to expand their territories. Fortified hilltop and highland village sites surrounded by moats or earthen embankments became increasingly common.

Chinese historical chronicles provide additional evidence of the state of Japanese political organization during this period. The first recorded contact between Japan and China occurred in ad 57, when emissaries of a “king” (likely a tribal chief) of a territory in “Wo” (the Chinese name for Japan) arrived at China’s imperial court and received a gold seal from the emperor. According to Chinese reports from that time, by the 3rd century the Wo people were divided into a number of small “countries,” probably consisting of tribal confederations.

By the 4th century local rulers in Japan’s Yamato region, a rich and fertile plain south of the modern city of Kyoto, had begun to build large burial mounds (kofun). The moated earthen mounds cover stone burial chambers. The mounds often combined a round top with a square bottom in a shape that resembles a keyhole. The size and complexity of the mounds indicate that the Yamato rulers controlled considerable labor forces and other resources. The largest keyhole-shaped mound, covering 60 hectares (150 acres), dwarfed in area, if not in height, the great pyramids of Egypt. Scholars estimate that constructing this mound required the labor of 1,000 or more people working full time for four years. Historical records suggest that by the 6th century the Yamato ruling family, mobilizing superior manpower, technical skills, and material resources, had brought many of the small “countries” on the Japanese archipelago under loose control.

Clay figurines (haniwa) placed around the periphery of the mounds and burial goods found within them indicate that those buried were horse-mounted warriors equipped with body armor and archery weapons. Some historians have used this archaeological evidence to hypothesize that an invasion of horse riders from the Asian continent in the 5th century brought with it the elements of Kofun culture. Most do not accept this theory. Given the state of shipbuilding technology at that time, it does not seem likely that a large invading force and their mounts could have crossed over from the Korea Peninsula.

Discoveries at the burial mounds, however, indicate that a continuous flow of new technologies, new materials, and immigrants was arriving in Japan from the Korea Peninsula. The Japanese learned how to cast bronze spearheads and bells, and historical records indicate that, by the late 5th century, Korean artisans had brought in more advanced methods of working iron, making swords and armor, firing finer and more durable ceramics, and manufacturing stirrups, bridles, and saddles. The Chinese writing system was introduced to Japan at about the same time. Writing made it possible for a new specialized class of scribes to compile and keep records, and it opened Japan to the influence of continental literary, religious, and philosophical culture.

Korea also transmitted Chinese social and religious philosophies to Japan during this period. In the late 4th century or early 5th century, the Korean kingdom of Paekche sent the Yamato court a Chinese scholar who brought with him a set of the basic writings of Confucianism. In the middle of the 6th century the ruler of Paekche sent a group of Buddhist priests to Japan. The priests brought with them Buddhist religious images, scriptures, and calendars. As Japan was drawn further into the Chinese sphere of cultural influence, the Yamato rulers became increasingly aware of political developments on the Asian continent.

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