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By F.W. Seal


The Ancient Period

The origins of Japanese culture as we know it are to be found on the island of Kyûshu. The classic Japanese record of ancient events, the Kojiki, records that the Emperor Jimmu-Tenno oversaw the migration of the Japanese people from Kyûshu to the Yamato region. While the Kojiki says that this move occurred around 660 BC, modern scholars believe the transition occurred sometime in the 1st Century AD - perhaps around the same time iron working was introduced to Japan.

The Yamato peoples were essentially a clan (uji)-based society, loosely ruled by an Emperor or Empress, and in which religious ceremonies played an important part in governance. There would be no permanent seat of Imperial power for centuries, instead shifting with the ascension of each new ruler. This practice may have been based in the Shintô religion, which held that a home was defiled once a person had died within it's walls. It might be noted here that the Yamato rulers were elaborate tomb-builders, and one of these, the final resting place of the Emperor Nintoku, is truly remarkable.

In time, three families became particularly influential with the court-the Sogo, Motonobe and Nakatomi. The Motonobe appear to have been responsible or at least concerned with military affairs, for they were known as the 'Armorers'. The Nakatomi were the official practitioners of the Shintô faith and were the 'Court Ritualists'. There were many more clans, but judging by the following events, these seemed to have taken up camp behind one or the other of these three main families.

The Wei Chih, a chronicle of the events of the Wei Dynatsy in northern China (founded by the Emperor Cao Cao in 220 AD), provides us with an interesting and evidently faithful outside impression of the developing Yamato peoples as of around 297 AD…

"The people of Wa make their abode in the mountainous islands located in the middle of the ocean to the southeast of the Taifang prefecture. Formerly there were more then 100 communites. During the Han Dynasty their envoys appeared in court… They wear loincloth wrapped around their bodies and seldom uses stitches. Women gather their hair at the ends and tie in a knot and then pin it to the top of their heads. They make their clothes in one piece, and cut an opening in the center for their heads. They plant wet field rice, China grass (ramie), and mulberry trees. They raise cocoons and reel the silk off the cocoons. They produce clothing made of China grass, of coarse silk, and of cotton…They fight with halberds, shields, and wooden bows... There are class distinctions within the nobility and the base, and some of vassals of others. There are mansions and granaries erected for the purpose of collecting taxes. Each community has a marketplace where commodities are exchanged under the supervision of an official of Wa…'1

Little is known for certain about the centuries prior to and immediately following the Wei Chih, which is both intriguing and thought provoking. What, precisely, was meant by '100 communities'? Some recent scholars have taken the view that this could indicate multiple 'Japanese', of which the Yamato and Yamatai were two. In helping to at least fill the empty places in the story of Japan, our two primary Japanese sources on ancient affairs, the Kojiki and Nihon sho-ki, both call attention to the semi-mythical Yamato Takeru. A younger son of the Emperor keiko, Prince Yamato began his adventures by killing an elder brother who had not attended dinner with the family for a week. Perturbed at his son's violent disposition, keiko sent Yamato off to fight a rival tribe at Kumaso on Kyûshu. He arrived at Kumaso to find his quarry, two brothers, heavily guarded in their house, and hastily devised a scheme. He dressed himself in a robe his aunt had given him prior to departing and did his hair up in the way a woman might. Yamato was thus able to mingle with the women of the Kumaso borthers, and was allowed to sit with them during a feast that night. Mid-way through the proceedings, Yamato suddenly attacked and killed one of the brothers outright. The other brother attempted to flee but was tackled by Yamato…

"The prince said, 'I am a son of Emperor Otarashi-hiko-oshiro-wake (keiko), who, seated at the Hishiro Palace in Makimuku, rules the Great Eight Islands, and my name is Boy Prince Yamato. His majesty heard that you two Kumaso Braves haven't surrendered or paid your respects, so he sent me here to kill you.

'When he heard this, the Kumaso Brave said, "That's quite correct. In the west there's no other brave, no strong man other then the two of us. But in the Great Country of Yamato there is a man far braver then we are. May I give you a new name? From now on you should call yourself Prince Yamato Takeru."

As soon as this was said, the prince killed him by splitting him like ripe melon. From then on, people honored the prince by calling him Prince Yamato Takeru. On the way back he subdued and pacified all the mountain deities, river deities, and deities of the strights."2

On his way home, Yamato killed an independent leader of Izumo Province by first befriending him then tricking him into a swordfight (having sabatoged the man's sword). The prince was no sooner back in Yamato then his father had sent him to quell the eastern provinces (in this case the lands to the east of Yamato, to include Owari and Omi. After a series of further adventures (in which he sheds his earlier boorishness), Yamoto tragically dies.

The historical basis for Yamato Takeru is obscure at best, and he is likely an amalgamation of several different men, possibly including one emperor. Even the date of his father's reign is unclear. What can be said with some certainty is that the story of Prince Yamato (scarcely done justice here) loomed large in the development of what one could call the 'Japanese Philosophy'. Men of bravery, duty, and of tragic ends would crop up again and again throughout Japanese history, from Minamoto Yoshitsune to the old Takeda generals of Nagashino.

The Formation of the State

The Yamato court had become sufficiently developed by the 4th Century to send expeditions to Korea, although some if not most of these invasions rest on somewhat shaky historical ground (including the campaign led by the regent-empress Jingu Kogo in 200AD). There is some evidence that in the year 366 a mission was sent against the ancient Korean kingdom of Paekche and that in the aftermath a Japanese settlement/outpost called Mimana was established in southern Korea. Further military expeditions seem to have been carried out on behalf of Paekche against the other Korean kingdoms of Koguryo and Silla. These adventures came to an end with the fall of Mimana to Silla in 562, though not before Buddhism had been introduced to Japan, thanks in part to the King of Paekche, who in 538 (or 552, according to the Nihon sho-ki) dispatched gifts of Buddhist sutras and artifacts to the Japanese court (along with a thinly-veiled request for more military aid).

Ironically, Buddhism sparked fierce controversy within Yamato following its acceptance by the Imperial Court. Two of the notable families, the Nakatomi and Motonobe, strongly opposed the court's welcome of the foreign religion as well as the continuing involvement in Korea. The Sogo family, perhaps for political capital, embraced Buddhism, and their stance saw them gain favor with the imperial court. Sogo Iname's evident ploy to gain Imperial prestige backfired, however, when a plague broke out and was blamed on the Sogo's worship of the Buddhist image. The Sogo suffered the burning of their family temple and saw the Buddhist image tossed into a moat.

In around May 587 the Emperor Yomei died, and the feud between the Motonobe and Soga reached a boiling point. The leader of the Motonobe, Moriya, planned to arrange for a certain Prince Anahobe to ascend the throne. Sogo no Umako learned of the scheme, and, fearing the results should an enemy of the Sogo take the throne, had both Moriya and the Prince assassinated. Umako then decided to press the initiative and have it out with the Motonobe once and for all. It was a dangerous gamble, as the Motonobe were, after all, the 'official' military clan. Yet Moriya's death seems to have weakened his family and their pull with the other families. Following a string of clashes, the Motonobe were completely destroyed at the Battle (or Disturbance) of Mt. Shigi. In the aftermath of this great victory, Umako arranged for Prince Hatsusebe to succeed Yomei, and in September of 587 the Emperor Sujun took the throne. Umako ended up having the Emperor Sujun assassinated in 593 to protect his position and replaced with his own niece Suiko. At the same time Umako named the late Yomei's son as Regent (Sessho) to Suiko, a capacity in which he acted until 622. The regent became known as Shotoku Taishi, a remarkable figure in the shaping of Japanese culture and perhaps Japan's first statesman. Shotoku's de facto rule would see the Sinifcation of the Yamato people, including the adoption of the Chinese calendar, Chinese written characters, and, above all else, an embrace of Buddhism. Shotoku also reformed the government's ranking system in 603 and the following year (supposedly) composed his Jushichijo no Kempo (Seventeen Article Constitution), a document inspired by Chinese Confucian ethics that centered on a call for unity of spirit among the Yamato houses. Shotoku also sent three missions to China itself on behalf of the Empress of the 'Rising Sun', though he did not win great favor with the Sui court for the tone his dispatches took: that of an equal rather than an inferior.

Shotoku died in 622 and while much about his life is unknown, his contribution to the developing Japanese society was immense. At the same time, the fortunes of the family that had sponsored him began to decline. Emboldened by an extended time in the limelight, the Sogo became exceedingly high-handed in their dealings with the other houses, and prompted their old rivals, the Nakatomi, to action. Nakatomi Kamatari worked out an alliance with an Imperial prince named Naka no Ôe in 645 and later that year arranged for the Sogo chieftain, Iruka, to be cut down in the Court of the Empress Kokyoku. Kokyoku abdicated the throne and her brother Kotoku assumed her place, whilst the two conspirators ruled from behind the scenes. In appreciation for their efforts, the new regime awarded the Nakatomi with a special place at court and a new name, Fujiwara. Together, Naka no Ôe and Kamatari worked towards the realization of a sweeping set of new ideals that became known as the Taika (Great Change) reforms. The Taika reforms, borrowed freely from Chinese institutions, were designed to further strengthen the Imperial rule. The organization of provinces (kuni) was outlined, and the practice of reign names established (the first being, of course, Taika); the government was restructured along Chinese lines, and steps were taken towards economic reforms, which included a new system of taxation. Buddhism became even more entrenched, thanks in part to the ironic embrace of that religion by Fujiwara (Nakatomi) Kamatari. Conscription was introduced, although there is no way of knowing to what extent this practice was employed. Conscription was obviously unpopular, however, and was likened to the worst sort of forced labor.

This (virtual) political upheaval went quite peacefully, especially considering the manner in which Kotoku and the Fujiwara had come to power. When Kotoku died in 654, he was succeded by his sister, the former empress, Kokyoku. Kokyoku became known as Samei, and her six-year reign was to see a resurgence of interest in continental affairs. Exceedingly little is known about the events of her rule, but tradition has it that Samei was determined to liberate Paekche, recently conquered by Tang China. To this end, the empress led some 27,000 men from the Yamato in 662 (?) and had reached Kyûshu when she suddenly died of illness. Her followers decided to go forward with the expedition, a mistake that ended in complete defeat at the hands of the Tang navy. Whatever the specifics of this miscarried bid to return to Korea, no further expeditions of this sort would be attempted for nearly a thousand years. One side effect of the campaign was that it left the Court somewhat paranoid in regards to a possible counter-attack by the Tang, and efforts were taken to secure Kyûshu against invasion.

The Taihô-Yôrô Code and the Nara Period

Prince Naka no Ôe, already a seasoned politician, assumed the throne in Samei's place, and became known as the Emperor Tenchi. He ruled until 670 and during that time devoted himself to realization of the Taika reforms. His successor, the Emperor Kobun, was usurped in a civil war that saw the rise of the Emperor Temmu (Hakuho) in 673. Changes continued to sweep the Yamato region, and in 702 would culminate in the Taihô Code and the movement of the Imperial Court to Nara. The Taihô Code was expanded in the Second Year of Yoro, and is therefore sometimes referred to as the Taihô-Yoro code. The revised version of the Taihô code survives intact to this day. The Code called for the division of government into two overall offices-that of Administration and that of Religion, and the description of the latter clearly demonstrates the continued importance of Shintôism, despite a powerful Buddhist presence at Nara: 'The Ministers (Haku) [of the Department of Religion (Jingi Kan)] shall be responsible for the performance of [Shintô] religious ceremonies and keeping registers of all [Shintô] priests corporations of attendants of shrines.'

The administrative body of government was sub-divided into eight Ministries (Central Affairs, Ceremonial, Civil Administration, Popular Affairs (all under the control of the Controller of the Left; War, Justice, Treasury, and Imperial Household, under the Controller of the Right), and here we see clear Chinese influences. The question which has long interested scholars is just HOW greatly the Code was inspired by Chinese models-was it in fact borrowed word by word from some Chinese source document? The Code also divided Japan into provinces (kuni) and placed a governor (kami) in charge of each. These governors, and their deputies, were in practice tax-collecting bodies for the Court, although in theory they carried Imperial authority in all domestic and military matters pertaining to their provinces. The Household Law section of the Taihô-Yoro code allows us some glimpse into certain aspects of the lives of the common people, though in so far as law was concerned.

6. The following classification of members of a household must be used.

   Males and females up to the age of 3:  infants

   Males and females from 3 to 16:   children

   Males and females from 16 to 20:   youth and girls

   Males of 21 and upwards:      able-bodied

   Males of 61 and upwards:   elders

   Males of 66 and upwards:  aged men.

23. In the sharing of an inheritance (upon the decease of the head of a house) all property must be added together, namely servants, slaves, land, houses, and other property, and shared out as follows:

   The mother (being wife of the household) 2 shares

   The stepmother 2 shares

   Children of the wife 2 shares

   Children of concubines 1 share

24. Males may marry at the age of fifteen, females at the age of thirteen.

25. A woman before marriage must obtain the consent of her family, viz. paternal grandfather and grandmother, father and mother, uncles and aunts, cousins, ect.

33.The governor shall once a year make a tour of his province, when he shall take note of local customs; enquire after the health of persons over 100 years of age; examine the cases of persons detained in prison, and put right any injustices…'3

The court was not to avoid strife in its new home, due in part to an exceedingly pervasive influence held by the Buddhist clergy. In the year 758 the empress Koken abdicated in favor of Junnin, one of Temmu's grandsons. Junnin was supported by Fujiwara Nakamoro, the influential and ambitious leader of the Fujiwara who worked towards phasing out conscription in favor of a more professional military establishment. It happened that Koken, who held considerable power behind the scenes, took a certain Buddhist priest named Dokyû as an advisor and, so the story goes, as a lover. Dokyû's resulting power prompted the jealousy of Nakamoro, made only worse when Koken arranged to have Junnin taken from the throne and shipped off to Awaji Island (where he was soon to be killed on Koken's orders). Perhaps feeling threatened now that he no longer had the favor of the court, Nakamoro revolted in 765, only to suffer defeat and death. The Empress Shotoku (as Koken called herself during her second reign) died in 770, and the Fujiwara was quick to avenge themselves on Dokyû, who by now had been elevated to the rank of Hô-ô, a religious title that essentially had made him the second in charge at court. The Fujiwara sent this colorful character off into exile, and determined that from that point on, a woman was never again to assume the throne-a rule that held without exception until the ascension of the Empress Meisho in 1629.

Political vicissitudes aside, the Nara Period was an important and decisive time of transition for the Japanese state. Culturally and religiously as well as politically, the Japanese were in a state of steady refinement. Nara was to prove a stepping-stone, and the next leap forward was to be engineered by Kammu-one of the greatest of Japan's emperors.

The Emishi

By this point, the Yamato peoples had begun to expand deeper into the interior of Honshu. In the way of their colonization stood the emishi (or barbarians). These mysterious tribes are traditionally taken to have been the Ainu, the aboriginal people who now live in northern Hokkaido and enjoy a exceptionally peaceful culture. There is the possibility that many of these 'emishi' were in fact simply less culturally developed relatives of the Yamato peoples. This theory (a relatively recent one) is supported to an extent by the almost complete lack of evidence that the Ainu have ever lived on Honshu, much less Kyûshu. Additionally, later records, especially those detailing the campaigns of Minamoto Yoshiie, describe the 'emishi' in such a manner as to imply particularly rustic Japanese clans. No sufficiently conclusive answer has ever been provided for this question.

Whether the emishi were the Ainu, rustic Japanese tribes, or a combination of both, when they resisted the newcomers (which they did not always do), they did so tenaciously. By 720, the Imperial Court at Nara could claim influence as far as the remote Kanto region, but was faced with frequent emishi disturbances. In that a former ambassador to China and Inspector of the provinces of Sagami, Shimotsuke, and Kozuke, Tajihi Agatamori, was assigned the rank of Jeisetsu Sei-I-shôgun and given authority to war on the emishi. This may have been the first conferment of the rank of 'shôgun' on an individual in Japanese history.

The title of Sei-I-shôgun meant 'barbarian-quelling general', while sei-to-shôgun (essentially comparable) meant 'General who quells the eastern barbarians'. These titles were given on a temporary basis and were probably inspired by similarly dramatic Chinese military ranks. The actual extent of authority a Sei-I-shôgun carried is unclear, but he was clearly considered a commander-in-chief on his given assignment.

In 784 the noted poet-governor Ôtomo Yakamochi was given the title of Sei-I-shogun and sent to quell rebellious emishi in Mutsu province, an assignment which he proved unable to complete. Three years later the Emperor Kammu gave Ki no Kosami the title of shogun and 52,000 men (needless to say, a rather unbelievable figure) and sent him against the recalcitrant emishi of Mutsu. Once there, Ki was soundly defeated and his army recalled in shame. Clearly, these emishi may have been considered 'barbarians' but they were dangerous opponents. Kammu was furious at Ki's defeat, and nearly had him put to death. The emperor ordered a retaliatory expedition organized but this did not actually depart until 794 owing to logistical difficulties and the movement of the capital to Kyoto. The new commanders, Ôtomo Otomaro and Sakanoue Tamuramaro, fared much better then Ki, and returned in triumph.

Can we see in these early expeditions, and the countless skirmishes and raids that must have taken place over the countries, the seeds of a martial tradition? The Taihô Code of 702 had attempted to limit the ownership of weapons and strengthen the power of the Imperial military (an ambition furthered to an extent by the workings of Fujiwara Nakamoro in the 760's) and yet there is no indication that these laws extended beyond the Yamato Region. The clans who battled the emishi did so in part (we can assume) in the hopes of securing sizable rewards of land in the newly colonized areas, and to maintain these in the face of emishi resistance, arms would need to be kept. As late the 16th Century the Kanto was considered remote from the Home Provinces, a rustic land that sprawled beyond the Hakone Mountains, themselves traditionally considered the gates to the barbarous east. In the 8th and 9th Centuries, the eastern provinces must have seemed like another world. It would have taken hardy, resourceful folk to brave the dangers and settle these wild lands, even as their countrymen back home would come to regard them as little more then emishi themselves. With easy communications impossible and a potential enemy close at hand, these Japanese frontiersmen could not rely on the Imperial military for their defense. The clans that began to populate the Kanto region and its environs were to prove tough, proud, and independent-minded. These may well have provided the basis for the samurai tradition.

The Early warriors

The warriors of early Japan bore only a passing resemblance to the later samurai. Weaponry and armor were of a distinctly Chinese flavor, and the earliest warriors carried shields, a device evidently out of vogue even before the Heian period. Some of our knowledge of the weapons and protection the early Japanese warrior carried comes from artifacts excavated from the tombs constructed in the 4th and 5th Centuries to house departed royalty. Another, just as valuable resource are the haniwa, which were clay statues evidently used as grave markers (as opposed to guardians or servants, as in China). A good number of these haniwa depict warriors, and these provide us some insight into the nature of 'home-grown' Japanese armor of the time. The influence of China and Korea on early Japanese armor is evident, but may in part be explained by the large numbers of Koreans who settled in Japan prior to 562. The primary armor of the Yamato period seems to have been the tanko ('short armor'). Apparently designed for use by warriors on foot, the tanko was constructed from iron plates and vaguely resembled a corset, with an open top and an effort at body contouring. These do (cuirasses) were heavy and supported by both the hips and, thanks to cloth straps, the shoulders. Distinctive helmets were worn with tanko, and typified by a prominent front whose extended construction has earned it the nickname shokkau tsuki kabuto, or 'battering-ram helmet'. Additional protection was gleaned from kata yoroi, or shoulder armor and akabe yoroi - neck armor. The entire ensemble was coated with lacquer to provide the metal some protection from the elements.

The horse was imported to Japan sometime in the 4th or 5th Century, and quickly became a valuable commodity. Also brought over from the continent were keiko, or suits of lamellar scaled armor. This type, which is traditionally associated with horsemen, provided the foundation from which the classic patterns of samurai armor construction would build. Earlier examples resembled a sleeveless robe made of iron scales that extended to the upper or middle thighs and was fastened by bows at the front. Leg armor came into use, and the plate armor that had once protected the shoulders was replaced with flexible splint armor. Variations on the basic theme of the keiko would be produced into the Heian Period, and the tanko remained in use, though probably modified to enjoy some of the advantages of the keiko's lamed design. One such development were the kusazuri, or 'grass rubbing', which hung from the cuirass and protected the upper thighs. The kusazuri would become a staple of Japanese armor design.

The Yamato warriors carried sword, spear, and bow, the first resembling Chinese examples much more then the katana so familiar to us today. Again, clearly indigenous examples are rare, but a few basic sword types can be categorized. Among these was the kabutschi tachi, perhaps in use from 300 to 500 ad. Typified by a large pommel and almost claymore like appearance, the kabutschi was straight-edged and long, whereas the Warabite tachi (ca.650-680) was much shorter (somewhat less then half the length) and may have been a purpose built short sword.

The bow the Yamato warriors used may well have borne at least a conceptual resemblance to that employed by the later samurai. The Wei Chi reports, "The lower inflection of their bows is shorter, and the upper inflection longer." At least one source, the Nihongi (Chronicles of Japan) mentions the use of mounted archers in a succession dispute in 672, a possible early model for the future samurai. Beyond the manner of weaponry and armor that these early warriors wore, we are left only with conjecture. How they fought their battles - to what extent they were ceremonial, for instance - is entirely unclear. For the Japanese warrior to stride out of the mists of time, one must turn to the war tales of the Heian Period.


1. Lu Sources of Japanese History pg.8 - 9.

2. Lu Sources of Japanese History pg. 30 - 31

3. Sato Legends of the samurai pg. 5