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Origins and tradition
4th - 7th century AD
     The Yamato clan
     Soga family and Buddhism
     Shotoku and Confucianism

8th century
9th - 12th century
13th - 17th century
17th - 18th century
After the war
To be completed

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The Yamato clan: from the 4th century AD

The first clear political structure to emerge in Japan is based on large independent clans (or uji) with powerful leaders. By the 4th century the clan occupying the Yamato plain (the region now known as Nara, south of Osaka) establishes sufficient ascendancy for its chieftain to be seen as emperor. The status of a 4th-century emperor, Nintoku, can be judged by the scale of the earth mound at Sakai which is his tomb; more than 500 yards long and 35 yards high, it is surrounded by a great triple moat.

The leader of any clan, and above all of the imperial dynasty, has much more than a secular role. He has an important function in Japan's indigenous religion, Shinto.


Shinto: from the 4th century AD

The first inhabitants of Japan, migrating from the mainland, bring with them their own version of the shamanism which prevails in prehistoric Asia. To the pantheon of the spirits and forces of nature, the Japanese add famous people, significant places or any other phenomena seeming worthy of reverence. The result is a profusion of local deities or kami, the worship of whom is given the name Shinto, meaning roughly the 'way of the gods'.

With the emergence of a strong clan system, each clan gives special honour to one particular god considered to be the ancestor of all members of the group - and particularly, in the most direct line, ancestor of the clan leader.


By the 4th century AD, when the Yamato clan has achieved an imperial pre-eminence, their forebear has a similarly prominent place among the gods. The Yamato claim as ancestor the Sun empress, who shines above all others in the heavens. A creation story is commissioned to chronicle the descent of the emperors from the sun.

Thus begins the imperial family's political use of Shinto, an issue of importance in the 20th century. At a deeper level this very ancient religion remains a thriving popular cult. Lacking an official ritual or sacred text, Shinto is able to absorb elements of Buddhism, a later arrival in Japan, without losing its own sense of conviction.


The Soga family and Buddhism: 6th - 7th century

The Soga, a minor branch of the imperial family, do much to further the cause of Buddhism. Soga Iname becomes minister to the crown in536. In 538 a present arrives for the emperor from the Korean state of Paekche. It is a Buddhist image, together with some Buddhist texts in Chinese.

Accompanying this missionary gift is a letter emphasizing that Buddhism is the proper religion for any civilized state. Soga Iname takes this message to heart. He builds a Buddhist temple, the first in Japan, in his own home.


During the rest of the 6th century the members of the Soga family steadily increase their power. They also pioneer a pattern of reducing the emperor to a figurehead, in a system of divided rule which becomes characteristic of Japan - particularly in later centuries under the shoguns.

In 592 Soga Umako has the emperor assassinated and replaced with his more biddable younger sister. Umako then appoints as regent a junior member of the imperial family, Prince Shotoku Taishi - who in this case proves to be a ruler with ideas of his own.


Shotoku and Confucianism: 593-622

Shotoku, himself a scholar, sees the Chinese pattern of government as the right way forward for Japan. He attempts to introduce Confucian bureaucracy, based on merit, in place of the more warlike rivalries of Japanese clan society. He also sponsors Buddhism, even more actively than the Soga family. His superb Horyuji temple and pagoda in Nara, dating from 607, still survive.

Shotoku is associated with a famous constitution of seventeen articles, attempting to establish a centralized imperial administration on the Chinese pattern. It is debatable how many of his reforms are effective, but the direction is continued later in the 7th century after the fall of the Soga family.


In 645 the two leading members of the Soga family are assassinated by a group of nobles, including a member of a future dynasty of regents - the Fujiwara.

A new regime announces a new imperial programme, known as the Taika reforms. These continue the trend towards absolute rule by the centralized bureaucracy of the imperial court. Promotion, however, does tend to be more by hereditary rank than merit - a Japanese preference against which the Chinese tradition of examinations can make little headway.


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