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Japanese Civilization

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

Japanese Civilization

Historians have drawn some useful parallels between Japan and Britain. Both are groups of large islands off the coast of a continent. Both are so near to the continent that their histories were unavoidably intertwined (although Japan is quite a bit farther from Korea than Britain is from France). At the same time, each island nation’s geographical detachment from the mainland enabled it to maintain a certain degree of isolation from continental affairs. Britain was rarely invaded, and the last time was with the Norman Conquest of 1066; Japan was never successfully invaded at all, although it was heavily bombed and then occupied by foreign troops in 1945. All these factors significantly affected the development of Japan (and Britain).

Archeological evidence suggests that people migrated from China and the Korean peninsula to Japan in neolithic times. By the early centuries AD, Japan was showing all the signs of being an established civilization, complete with a religious system, a privileged warrior class, and an emperor (or empress) whom the people believed was descended from the sun goddess. The massive royal tombs, most notably that of the emperor Nintoku, who reigned at the turn of the fifth century, provide evidence of the Japanese reverence for the ruler.

From the beginning, the Japanese emperor played a more symbolic than political role; thus, the Japanese tradition is distinct from that of almost all other nations, where the monarch is the most powerful figure in the government. This imperial detachment from actual governing developed early in Japan’s history and has remained a constant. This purely symbolic role probably accounts for the unique stability of the imperial dynasty; the Yamato family had established its power by the sixth century, and the current Japanese emperor is a direct descendant. No other ruling family in the history of the world has remained on a throne for so many centuries. There is no bar in Japanese law or custom to a female ruler; the first Japanese empress was Suiko, who acceded to the throne in AD 592.

Although China influenced Japan in many fundamental ways (see “The Yamato Period” and “The Nara Period” in this chapter), the position of the emperor was an exception. The Japanese believed that the emperor’s divinity was hereditary and could not be questioned; therefore, the Chinese pattern of one dynasty replacing another would never occur in Japan. This belief in the importance of a person’s birth extended to the Japanese aristocracy; the Japanese did not accept the Chinese idea of merit-based examination as a condition of government employment. In Japan, political conflict would consist of influential families jockeying for influence over the emperor and the court. In general, Confucianism took much less hold on Japanese ways of thinking than it did on Korean.

Positions in the Japanese civil service were reserved exclusively for the hereditary nobility, who received landed estates and tax exemption in return for their services to the government. These great landlords, in their turn, extended various protections and privileges to their tenants, who paid them in rent and in unswerving loyalty, ready to provide any type of service the landlord might command. These landlords soon acquired all political power in Japan; the most important social and political unit was the clan, or extended family network. Absolute loyalty to the clan was an article of faith with the Japanese. Clans used all available means to rival one another for power—everything from arranged marriages to assassination. Because Japan was so much smaller than a vast state like India or China, control over all of it was much more feasible. Therefore, the aim of all the powerful clans was to acquire so much influence at court that they themselves would rule the country (although, of course, the emperor would remain the titular head of the government).

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