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Cultural Diffusion and Its Effects on Japan

By Mike Maikeru Baker

Though Japan is considered the second richest Country and leader of technology in the world, and known for having a unique culture. Japan could not have attained this height of cultural advancement without outside influence. Using examples in Japan’s history, it is shown that as an isolated country, Japan’s cultural evolution was slower, compared to other countries where cultural diffusion played a big role in their history.

The first major account of cultural diffusion into Japanese culture, which can be found in recorded Japanese history, was between 206-to 700 A.D. during Japan’s Yayoi and Yamato period, by 200 A.D. Japan was slowly beginning trade negotiations with nearby China. There was a large contrast between Japan and its more modern trading partner. The Yayoi people of Japan were a tribal society, with the separate tribes spread across Japan.  Their main method of food procurement was through simple agriculture, using wooden farm implements combined with simple methods of bronze or iron smelting. One main feature of the Yayoi people was their unique pottery styles; pottery was created using a pottery wheel, which was an advanced technique at the time, portions of the pottery were also made up of rope like strands of clay called yayoi, hence the name of the culture (Japan 101). This was a contrast to China. Around the time of 200 A.D. during trades with Japan, China was having civil wars between three of their Kingdoms, in an attempt to unite the separate territories; along with many public works to procure a better water supply, there was also a relocation of China’s capitol (Lance 2003). 

At first there was only minor trade between China and Japan, the two countries traded pottery and bronze minted coins (Hall 30) The greatest amount of trade and diffusion of Chinese and Korean influence on Japan happened during the Yamato period (300-645 C.E.). This period was considered Japan’s introduction to the modern world, with the aid of China. In the sixth centaury the early stages of a centralized Japanese government began in the Yamato region of Japan, when the chiefs of the Japanese tribes, were united under the leadership of chieftains from the Sun Line (Hall 36).

It was also during this period that the Chinese form of Buddhism was introduced to Japan from Korea. Though it took many years for it to be an accepted form of religion by the country and it’s native Shinto religion, it allowed the Yamato people to have a different way of thinking. It was believed that “the transmission of Buddhist doctrine in Japan, allowed for the absorption of Chinese civilization from Korea.” (Hall 38) It was during the mid Yamato period where Japan began to emulate Mainland China. Japan started to borrow new ideas and technology that were brought from China, such as newer systems of farming and irrigation, Confucian ideas and teachings, a more accurate sexadeceimal calendar and the Chinese written language called Kanji (Hall 42). A majority of these new innovations such as Kanji and farming techniques are still found today. Also with the introduction of a new writing system and an accurate calendar, Japanese history could be recorded more accurately (Earnshaw 1972). With these new innovations and some influence by China, Japan’s government started to become unified.

It was during a conflict between the Soga family (an early off shoot of the Yamato family) and the Nakatomi (the imperial Shintoist), over the acceptance of Buddhism in Japan that brought along a great social change. After a decade long quarrel over the acceptance of the Buddhist religion, the Soga were the victor in 587. This allowed for two things, the absolute acceptance of Buddhism in Japan and it allowed the Soga to gain control, of most of the political affairs of the Yamato state (Hall 42). This new government under Soga rule was considered a militaristic aristocracy, the production of weapons and armor had become commonplace. By 607 the new government tried to recapture lost power throughout Japan, by amassing new territory, there was also great success in opening direct communication with China, forming their first embassy, gaining more influence from the country. The new government started forming new ranks and stations within the political system, this is also when the main chief took the role of “Emperor” and the dignity of the “Son of Heaven”, as modeled by the Chinese (Hall 43). Though it was not until 646 when separate factions, who were pushing for social reforms, opposed the weakening government. Through assassination this group managed to topple the Soga and their influence on the government. This new faction called for new social reforms and a reformation of the government, modeling it after Chinese designs (Hall 44).  Such changes were the abolishing of rice land holdings, and the redistributing of it to the farmers, this created a new and more functional tax system. The new government also called for a permanent capitol and an administration to rule. Such duties of this administration was to create a census, survey and grade farmland and impose taxes, which would in turn be used to pay the stipends of high class aristocracy (Hall 44). These new reforms, under the tutelage of China, would be the beginning of a feudal system, which would last until the late 1800’s.

The newly reformed culture flourished well into the Nara period (710-784 C.E.). There were great efforts by the Imperial administration to record Japanese history and literature, with the use of the now widespread kanji system. The capitol of Nara, which emulated the Chinese layout, was finally finished in 710 C.E. (Japan-Guide 2004). Though not everything is meant to last. The reformed government that flourished through the Yamato and Nara periods, slowly began to degrade, its Chinese political roots also began to dissolve. By 1000 C.E. trade to China had slowed down. Though the imperial family remained, and still had Buddhist influences, it slowly reorganized under its on design (Shikibu 1000). Though the ties to China had finally been severed, the countries influence had a lasting effect on Japan. Though its political influence disappeared, language, arts, religion and culture still remain to this day. It would not be until 550 years later, when through another trade agreement with foreigners, would Japanese culture again be affected.

It was in 1545, during the appropriately named Sengoku Jidai (“Country at War”), a newer and more foreign trading partner entered Japan. The Spaniards and Portuguese who had sailed through Indian and Asian oceans had crash-landed on the small island of Tanegashima, in 1543 (Bryant 2002).

During the Sengoku Jidai, that Japan was constantly in civil war. The Imperial government was overshadowed by the military Shogunate. Each land owning Daimyo (land owning lord) was constantly in battle, trying to obtain more land or the title of Shogun (the supreme military ruler). In order to get the upper hand, trade with an outside source was needed; so many Daimyo vied to gain the attention of the Portuguese. The Portuguese had begun to openly trade with cities in Japan; Nagasaki had become a major trade port for the Japanese and Portuguese. Portuguese traders had brought along with them various novelties, such as wool, velvet, tobacco, clocks and even eyeglasses.  Japanese traders held great interest too these Western items, and often traded for them using silver or gold. But there were two items that would help in shaping Japanese history, European firearms and Christianity. Trade with Europe allowed the Japanese economy to become stronger and more stable, trade also introduced to them Western ideas and new military technology (Hall 135).

The Portuguese found certain ideals such as Christianity to be difficult to convey to the Japanese, but there was a large number of Japanese who adopted the new religion, it however could not last as long as Buddhism. A Jesuit priest named Xavier brought one of the most successful Christian missions to Japan. Traveling from different cities in Japan (and often ejected from), Xavier finally found a permanent mission in the city of Yamaguchi. Using the lure of Western material goods, Xavier was successful in converting many Japanese citizens to Christianity. Though Xavier died a year later, his success in brining Christianity was a success; his cause was also furthered by the arrival of Father Gaspar Vilela in 1559 (Hall 140).

“By the end of the year, the capitol of Kyoto was considered a major point of Christian activity” (Hall 140). Many Daimyo supported the foreign Jesuits; they converted to Christians, and forced their subjects to follow. Trade negotiations between Japan and Europe had become stronger, even a group of converted Japanese Christians made a trip to Rome. (Bryant 2002). By 1600 there was reportedly 150,000 Japanese converts in Japan, all this work took only 40 years, and 75 missionaries (Hall 140).

The most popular yet less peaceful item brought to Japan by Europe, was the matchlock rifle. Many of the Daimyo were impressed after seeing the European matchlock; that by 1549 many Daimyo had ordered mass productions of the advanced weapon. One Daimyo in particular was Oda Nobunaga who had placed an order for 500 rifles, the largest order to date (Turnbull 135). The Japanese also demonstrated their ability to quickly assimilate objects from other cultures, but also their ability to improve upon it. Many metal smiths went to work on an improved Japanese musket called the teppo. This weapon was found to be more powerful then the bow and replaced many archer units. (Bryant 2002). Because of his backing of the Christian missions, Oda Nobunaga gained support from the European traders. Being a very clever Daimyo, Nobunaga put the teppo to good use, on his path to creating hegemony (Hall 140). Nobunaga defeated many of his opponents with the matchlock, until his unexpected assassination. With the introduction of European trade and the Christian religion, it allowed the Japanese to have a better economy, and brought to them Western culture, it also allowed for their borders to be open to the different cultures.

 In 1601 the Tokugowa Shogunate instilled itself as the ruler of Japan, after defeating the Toytomi heir at the battle of Sekigahara, the final battle of the Sengoku period. Tokugowa passed many restrictions on the Japanese people s a form of social control, forcing commoners to give up weapons, and forcing no growth within the political system. The shogunate also passed an edict, which barred foreigners from entering the country or Japanese citizens from leaving (Dunn 1972). There was also a call for the complete extermination of the Christian religion. With his victory and various laws in place Tokugowa paved the way for a 400-year period of peace, which ironically was a period in which the cultural growth of Japan slowed down.

Japanese culture remained unchanged throughout the Edo period (1603-1867), the country still was a feudal system, which was still ruled over by the Tokugowa shogunate. Through strict social control the shogunate managed to keep a large measure of peace throughout the country, but there were also strict laws in place that returned Japan to isolationism.  It was not until the closing of the 1800’s, that with the social impact of Europe and America, would Japan be on its way towards modernization. The beginnings of Japan’s modernization began in 1865, when the closed borders of Japan were forced open.

On July 1853, a group of American naval ships, commanded by Matthew Perry, sailed the Japanese waters near the city of Urgata (Arkenberg 2004). President Millard Fillmore, to open diplomatic relations and create trade with isolationist Japan, commissioned Commodore Mathew Perry to negotiate with the Japanese government. “In May of 1852 Perry assumed command of the flagship Mississippi, the approximate strength of the expedition was 700 men 1/2 of its actual potential” (Morison 2002). Though the Perry fleet was undermanned one major idea was to demonstrate the power of the Navy under the American Flag, one tactic Perry used a lot and President Fillmore approved, Perry's negotiations were not to be derailed by dealing with low ranking diplomats and officials, Perry would only talk to the highest ranking official (Morison 2002). After difficult negotiations Perry finally created communication between the United States and Japan. In 1852 Perry, in a military ceremony, landed near the village of Kurihama. Perry presented letters from President Fillmore, to the prince of Izu and Ido, two representatives of the Tokugowa shogun (Baxley 2004). Commodore Perry must have went through a small amount of culture shock during their first meeting with Japanese officials. Japanese culture and military technology was unchanged since the 1600’s. Perry’s journals note, “Japanese soldiers were armed with swords, spears, lances and old fashioned muskets” (Perry 1855).

Great success finally came when in 1854, “Commodore Perry and the Japanese commissioners who represented the Tokugawa Shogunate of Japan signed the Convention Between the United States of America and Japan”(Baxley 2004). These negotiations opened up coal trading companies, American shipping ports and naval academies in Japan, also this lessened Japans hostility towards foreigners (Baxley 2004). This was Japan’s first reintroduction into Western influence.

Roughly a decade after Perry’s initial treaty with Japan, a series of events, along with the desire for change, caused the Tokugowa shogunate to weaken. Eventually the Emperor seized power from the shogunate, stripping the military ruler of their titles, returning control of the country to the Imperial family. With foreign aid Japan began to incorporate Western ideas and technology into their culture. A new and more modern military was created using training and technology from the Prussians and French. Social reforms were created to create new public education, different tax laws and abolishing the Daimyo’s land and stipend, bringing Japan out of feudalism and creating group solidarity.

Japan today can be seen as a Westernized country, although their classical roots can still be seen. Through various incidents, where Japan came into contact with a foreign power, it allowed the country to gain momentum in their cultural development. As an isolated territory without much cultural diffusion Japan could not gain many advantages.

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Shikibu, Murasaki, Genji Motonari (Tale of the Genji), Knopf, 1978

Dunn, Charles. Everyday life in traditional Japan, Tokyo, 1969

Earnshaw, Christopher, Sho: Japanese calligraphy, Osaki, 1988  

Arkenberg, Jerome, Modern History Sourcebook: Commodore Matthew Perry,

       Washington, 2004

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www.Japan-101.com/history/history_period_yayoi.html,2004   

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      www.samurai-archives.com