Japan’s Indigenization of Chinese Civilization
Establishing the Principle of Iitoko-dori (Taking the Good Things)
Sinification of Japan: Iitokodori (taking the good things)
Japanese characters for "taking the good things" (iitoko-dori)Colonel Sanders dressed as Santa Claus at a KFCIitoko-dori appeared as a phenomenon very early in Japanese history, and it has greatly affected the Japanese way of thinking. This process means taking in the most convenient parts of other systems, and it is now part of the cultural identity of the Japanese. It has been one of the most important factors in the rise of Japanese economic power, because new technologies and their underlying value systems are implemented easily. ... Hence, we can see that, at least in part, iitoko-dori is responsible for the flexibility of the Japanese people. (The Japanese Mind, 130)
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Map showing hypothetical migration routes of animals and humans into Japan c. 25,000 BCE
Japanese hotly debate their origins. When a large Jomon settlement was recently unearthed in Aomori Prefecture in the far north of Honshu, the discovery made the front page of newspapers throughout Japan. Bookstores have rows of books, most of them popular works, asking: Who are we and where did we come from? During the ice ages, Japan was connected by land bridges to Asia. Wooly mammoths entered the northern island of Hokkaido, and elephants, saber-toothed tigers, giant elks, and other continental fauna entered the lower islands. Did humans enter as well? Because Japan’s acidic volcanic soil eats up bones, there are no early skeletal remains. The earliest evidence of human habitation is finely shaped stone tools dating from about 30,000 B.C.E. Then, from about 10,000 B.C.E., there is pottery, the oldest in the world, and from 8000 B.C.E., Jomon or “cord-pattern” pottery.
Archaeologists are baffled by its appearance in an Old Stone Age hunting, gathering, and fishing society — when in all other early societies pottery developed along with agriculture as a part of New Stone Age culture. In addition to the elaborately decorated pots, archaeologists have also found marvelous figurines of animals and humans. Some of the latter, with slitted eyes like snow goggles, may depict female deities, but no one knows. During the Jomon period, the food supply could support only a sparse population. Scholars estimate the late Jomon population to have been about one quarter of a million, with the densest concentration on the Kanto plain in eastern Japan. Even today Jomon pottery shards are sometimes found in Tokyo gardens. (The Heritage of Japanese Civilization [HJC], 4)
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Reconstruction of Yoshinogari Village
After 8000 years of Jomon culture, a second phase of Japanese prehistory began about 300 B.C.E. It is called the Yayoi culture, after a place in Tokyo where its distinctive hard, pale-orange pottery was first unearthed. There is no greater break in the entire Japanese record than that between the Jomon and the Yayoi. For at the beginning of the third century B.CE., the bronze, iron, and agricultural revolutions — which in the Near East, India, and China had been separated by thousands of years and each of which singly had wrought profound transformations — burst into Japan simultaneously.
Map showing "Yayoi" period Japan
The new technologies were brought to Japan by peoples moving across the Tsushima Straits from the Korean peninsula. It is uncertain whether these immigrants came as a trickle and were absorbed — the predominant view in Japan — or whether they came in sufficient numbers to push back the indigenous Jomon people. Physical anthropologists say that skulls from early Yayoi sites in Kyushu and western Japan differ markedly from those of the Jomon and are closer to the Japanese of today. But in eastern and northern Japan the picture is mixed, suggesting a mixture of the two peoples. (HJC, 4-7)
Rice farming during the Yayoi period
The early Yayoi “frontier settlements” were located next to their fields. Their agriculture was primitive: they scattered rice seed in swampy areas and used “slash-and-burn” techniques to clear uplands. By the first century C.E., the Yayoi population had so expanded that wars were fought for the best land. Excavations have found extensive stone-axe industries and skulls pierced by bronze and iron arrowheads. An early Chinese chronicle describes Japan as being made up of “more than one hundred countries” with wars and conflicts raging on all sides. During these wars villages were relocated to defensible positions on low hills away from the fields. From these wars emerged a more peaceful order of regional tribal states and a ruling class of aristocratic warriors. Late Yayoi excavations reveal villages once again situated alongside fields and far fewer stone axes.
Queen Himiko (a.k.a. Pimiko)
During the third century C.E., a temporary hegemony was achieved over a number of such regional states by a queen named Pimiko. In the Chinese chronicle, Pimiko is described as a shaman who “occupied herself with magic and sorcery, bewitching the people.” She was mature but unmarried.
After she became the ruler, there were few who saw her. She had one thousand women as attendants but only one man. He served her food and drink and acted as a medium of communication. She resided in a palace surrounded by towers and stockades with armed guards in a state of constant vigilance.
After Pimiko, references to Japan disappear from Chinese dynastic histories for a century and a half. (HJC, 7)
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Map of Yamato Japan
Emerging directly from the Yayoi culture was an era, 300-600 C.E., characterized by giant tomb mounds, which even today dot the landscape of the Yamato plain in the Nara-Osaka region. Early tombs — patterned on those in Korea — were circular mounds of earth built atop megalithic burial chambers. Later tombs were sometimes keyhole-shaped. The tombs were surrounded by moats and adorned with clay cylinders and figures of warriors, horses, scribes, musicians, houses, boats, and the like. Early tombs, like the Yayoi graves that preceded them, contained mirrors, jewels, and other ceremonial objects. From the fifth century C.E., these objects were replaced by armor, swords, spears, and military trappings, reflecting a new wave of continental influences. The flow of people, culture, and technology from the Korean peninsula into Japan that began with Yayoi was continuous into historical times.
Large Kofun, believed to be the tomb of Emperor Nintoku
Japan reappeared in the fifth century C.E. This period was also covered in the earliest surviving Japanese accounts of their own history, Records of Ancient Matters (Kojiki and Records of Japan (Nihongi) compiled in 712 and 720. The picture that emerges is of regional aristocracies under the loose hegemony of the Yamato “great kings.” Historians use the geographic label “Yamato” because the courts of the great kings were located on the Yamato plain, the richest agricultural region of ancient Japan. The Yamato rulers also held lands and granaries throughout Japan. The tomb of the great king Nintoku, if it is his, is 486 meters long and 36 meters high, with twice the volume of the Great Pyramid of Egypt. By the fifth century C.E., the great kings possessed sufficient authority to commandeer laborers for such a project.
Kofun with Haniwa (terra cotta figures)
The great kings awarded Korean-type titles to court and regional aristocrats, titles that implied a national hierarchy centering on the Yamato court. That regional rulers had the same kind of political authority over their populations can be seen in the spread of tomb mounds throughout Japan. (HJC, 8-9)
Map showing locations of Yamato and Izumo during the Yamato period
Susanoo (Izumo deity)
The Japanese imperial regalia
Amaterasu emerges from the cave

Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako in Heian-Style Kimono
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Map of Yamato Japan c. 500 CE
During the era of the Yamato court, a three-cornered military balance developed on the Korean peninsula among the states of Paekche in the southwest, Silla in the east, and Koguryo in the north. Japan was an ally of Paekche and maintained extensive trade and military relations with a weak southern federation known as the Kaya States.
image comparing the Soga and Mononobe families opposite responses to Buddhism
The Paekche connection enabled the Yamato court to expand its power within Japan. Imports of iron weapons and tools gave it military strength. The migrations to Japan of Korean potters, weavers, scribes, metal workers, and other artisans increased its wealth and influence. The great cultural significance of these immigrants can be gauged by the fact that many became established as noble families. Paekche also served as a conduit for the first elements of Chinese culture to reach Japan. Chinese writing was adopted for the transcription of Japanese names during the fifth or sixth century. Confucianism entered in 513, when Paekche sent a “scholar of the Five Classics.” Buddhism arrived in 538, when a Paekche king sent a Buddha image, sutras, and possibly a priest. (HJC, 9-11)
Map of Japan showing locations of Nara, Kyoto and Tokyo
Painting of life in Heian-kyo
Nara and Heian Japan
The Creation of Japanese Civilization
The second major turning point in Japanese history was its adoption of the higher civilization of China. This is a prime example of the worldwide process by which early “heartland civilizations” spread into their outlying areas. In Japan the process occurred between the 7th and 12th centuries and can best be understood in terms of three stages. The first stage was learning about China during the seventh century. The second stage, mostly during the eighth and early ninth centuries, saw the implantation in Japan of Chinese T’ang-type institutions. The third involved the transformation of these institutions to better fit them to conditions in Japan. By the 11th century the creative reworking of Chinese elements had led to a distinctive and often brilliant Japanese culture, unlike that of China or that of the earlier Yamato court. (HJC, 12-4)
Map of Chang'an (Tang Dynasty Capital)Map of Nara (Nara Period Capital)
Until the eighth century the capital was usually moved each time an emperor died. In 710 a new capital, intended to be permanent, was established at Nara. It was laid out on a checkerboard grid like the Chinese capital at Ch’ang-an. But then it was moved again — some say to escape the meddling in politics of powerful Buddhist temples. A final move occurred in 794 to Heian (later Kyoto) on the plain north of Nara. This site remained the capital until the move to Tokyo in 1869. Even today, Kyoto’s regular geometry reflects Chinese city planning. (HJC, 16)
City plan of Heian-kyo (Kyoto)
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Pagoda at Toji in Kyoto
Nara and Heian Buddhism
The Six Sects of the Nara period each represented a separate philosophical doctrine within Mahayana Buddhism, the type of Buddhism that had spread from India to China, Vietnam, and Korea. Their monks trained as religious specialists in monastic communities set apart from the larger society. They studied, read sutras, copied texts, meditated, and joined in rituals. The typical monastery was a self-contained community with a Golden Hall for worship, a pagoda that housed a relic or sutra, a belfry that rang the hours of the monastic regimen, a lecture hall, a refectory, and dormitories with monks’ cells.
As in China, monasteries and temples were directly tied in with the state. Tax revenues were assigned for their support. In 741 the government established temples in every province. Monks reading sutras, it was felt, would protect the country. Monks prayed for the health of the emperor and for rain in time of drought. The Temple of the Healing Buddha (Yakushiji) was built by an emperor when his consort fell ill. In China, to protect tax revenues and the family, laws had been enacted to limit the number of monks and nuns. In Nara Japan, where Buddhism spread only slowly outside the capital area, the same laws took on a prescriptive force. The figure that had been a limit in China became a goal in Japan. Thus, the involvement of the state was patterned on that of China, but its role was far more supportive.
Sculpture of Kukai with the "Two World" (Diamond/Womb) Mandala
Japan in the seventh and eighth centuries was also much less culturally developed than China. The Japanese had come to Buddhism not from the philosophical perspective of Confucianism or Taoism but from the magic and mystery of Shinto. The appeal of Buddhism to the early Japanese was, consequently, in its colorful and elaborate rituals; in the gods, demons, and angels of the Mahayana pantheon; and, above all, in the beauty of Buddhist art. The philosophy took longer to establish itself. The speed with which the Japanese mastered the construction of temples with elaborate wooden brackets and gracefully arching tile roofs, as well as the serene beauty of Nara Buddhist sculpture, wall paintings, and lacquer temple altars, was no less an achievement than their establishment of a political system based on the T’ang codes.
Photo of Sanjusan-gendo in Kyoto
Thousand-Armed Kannon (Bodhisattva of Compassion)
National Treasure: Fujin (wind god)
Kanji (Chinese characters) for "Sanjusan Gendo"
National Treasure: Raijin (thunder god)

Japan’s cultural identity was also different. In China Buddhism was always viewed as Indian and alien. Its earliest Buddha statues, like those of northwestern India, looked Greek. That Buddhism was part of a non-Chinese culture was one factor leading to the Chinese persecution of Buddhists in the ninth century. In contrast, Japan’s cultural identity or cultural self-consciousness took shape only during the Nara and early Heian periods. One element in that identity was the imperial cult derived from Shinto. But as a religion, Shinto was no match for Buddhism. The Japanese were aware that Buddhism was foreign, but it was no more so than Confucianism and all the rest of the T’ang culture that had helped reshape the Japanese identity, so there was no particular bias against it. As a result, Buddhism entered deeply into Japanese culture and retained its vitality longer. Not until the 17th or 18th centuries did a few Japanese scholars become so Confucian as to be anti-Buddhist. ...
Sculpture of Dainichi Nyorai, the Cosmic Sun Buddha 
Sanno Mandara showing relationship between Shinto kami and Buddhist deities
Image of Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess
During the late Heian period, Buddhism began to be assimilated. At the village level, the folk religion of Shinto took in Buddhist elements. In the high culture of the capital, Shinto was almost absorbed by Buddhism. Shinto deities came to be seen as the local manifestations of universal Buddhas. The cosmic or “Great Sun Buddha” of the Shingon sect, for example, was easily identified with the sun goddess. Often great Buddhist temples had smaller Shinto shrines on their grounds. The Buddha watched over Japan; the shrine deity guarded the temple itself. Not until the mid-19th century was Shinto disentangled from Buddhism, and then for political ends. (HJC, 27-9)
Kumana Gongen: Nachi Shrine with Buddhist Pagoda
The Synthesis of Shinto & Buddhism
Shinbutsu Shugo
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Model showing the city of Heian-kyo
The superimposition of a Chinese-type capital on a still-backward Japan produced as start a contrast as any in history. In the villages, peasants — who worshiped the forces in mountains and trees — lived in pit dwellings and either planted in crude paddy fields or used slash-and-burn techniques of dry-land farming.
Peasants farming rice
In the capital stood pillared palaces in which dwelt the emperor and nobles, descended from the gods on high. They drank wine, word silk, composed poetry, and enjoyed the paintings, perfumes, and pottery of the T’ang. Clustered about the capital were Buddhist temples, more numerous than in Nara, with soaring pagodas and sweeping tile roofs. With what awe must a peasant have viewed the city and its inhabitants! (HJC, 16)
Gokusui no en (poetry/drinking competition)
Heian Icon (Murasaki Shikibu writing the Tale of Genji)
Education at the Nara and Heian courts was largely a matter of reading Chinese books and acquiring the skills needed to compose poetry and prose in Chinese. These were daunting tasks, not only because there was no prior tradition of scholarship in Japan but also because the two languages were so dissimilar. To master written Chinese and use it for everyday written communications was as great a challenge for the Nara Japanese as it would have been for any European of the same century. But the challenge was met. From the Nara period until the 19th century, most philosophical and legal writings and the majority of the histories, essays, and religious texts in Japan were written in Chinese. From a Chinese perspective the writings may leave something to be desired. It would be astonishing if this were not the case, for the soul of language is the music of the spoken tongue. But the Japanese writers were competent, and the feelings they expressed were authentic — when not copybook exercises in the style of a Chinese master. ...
Manyoshu Covers (English and Japanese)
Stimulated by Chinese examples, and drawing on a tradition of songs, the Japanese began to compose poetry in their native tongue. The first great anthology was the Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves (Man’yoshu), compiled in about 760. It contains 4516 poems. The poems are fresh, sometimes simple and straightforward, but often sophisticated. They reveal a deep sensitivity to nature, and strong human relationships between husband and wife, parents and children. They also display a love for the land of Japan and links to a Shinto past.
Earliest Extant Copy of the Kokinshu (Collection of Ancient and Modern Times)
An early obstacle to the development of a Japanese poetic tradition was the difficulty of transcribing Japanese sounds. In the Ten Thousand Leaves, Chinese characters were used as phonetic symbols. But there was no standardization, and the work soon became unintelligible. In 951, when an empress wished to read it, a committee of poets deciphered the work and put it into kana, the new syllabic script that had been devised a century earlier. A second important anthology was the Collection of Ancient and Modern Times, compiled in 905. It was written entirely in kana.
Chart showing the development of Japanese writing system
The invention of kana opened the gate to the most brilliant achievements of the Heian period. Most of the new works and certainly the greatest were by women, as most men were busy writing Chinese. ...
Sei Shonagon's Pillow Book (English)

Sei Shonagon's Pillow Book (Japanese)
The greatest works of the period were by Sei Shonagon and Murasaki Shikibu. Both were daughters of provincial officials serving at the Heian court. The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon contains sharp, satirical, amusing essays and literary jottings that reveal the demanding aristocratic taste of the early 11th-century Heian court, where, as Sir George Sansom said, “religion became an art and art a religion.” (HJC, 24-6)
Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book
Hateful Things
A lover who is leaving at dawn announces that he has to find his fan and his paper. “I know I put them somewhere last night,” he says. Since it is pitch dark, he gropes about the room, bumping into furniture and muttering, “Strange! Where on earth can they be?” Finally he discovers the objects. He thrusts the paper into the breast of his robe with a great rustling sound; then he snaps open his fan and busily fans away with it. Only now is he ready to take his leave. What charmless behavior! “Hateful” is an understatement.
Image of Sei Shonagon with calligraphy
A good lover will behave as elegantly at dawn as at any other time. He drag himself out of bed with a look of dismay on his face. The lady urges him on: “Come, my friend, it’s getting light. You don’t want anyone to find you here.” He gives a deep sigh, as if to say that the night has not been nearly long enough and that it is agony to leave. Once up, he does not instantly pull on his trousers. Instead he comes close to the lady and whispers whatever was left unsaid during the night. Even when he is dressed, he still lingers, vaguely pretending to be fastening his sash.
       Presently he raises the lattice, and the two lovers stand together by the side door while he tells her how he dreads the coming day, which will keep them apart; then he slips away. The lady watches him go, and this moment of parting will remain among her most charming memories. (HJC, 22-3)
Heian Icon (Murasaki Shikibu writing the Tale of Genji)
Tale of Genji (English)

Tale of Genji (Japanese)
The Tale of Genji, written by Murasaki Shikibu in about 1010, was the world’s first novel. Emerging out of a short tradition of lesser works in which prose was a setting for poetry, Genji is a work of sensitivity, originality, and acute psychological delineation of character. It tells of the life, loves, and sorrows of Prince Genji, the son of an imperial concubine, and, after his death, of his son Kaoru. The novel spans three quarters of a century and is historical in nature, although the court society it describes is more emperor-centered than was the Fujiwara age in which Murasaki lived. The book may be seen as having had a “definite and serious purpose.” In one passage Genji twits a court lady whom he finds absorbed in reading an extravagant romance, “hardly able to lift her eyes from the book in front of her.” But then Genji relents and says
I think far better of this art than I have led you to suppose. Even its practical value is immense. Without it what should we know of how people lived in the past, from the Age of the gods down to the present day? For history books such as the Chronicles of Japan show us only one small corner of life; whereas these diaries and romances, which I see piled around you contain, I am sure, the most minute information about all sorts of people’s private affairs. (HJC, 24-7)
Painting of Genji with a lady
Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji
The autumn flowers were fading; along the reeds by the river the shrill voices of many insects blended with the mournful fluting of the wind in the pines. Scarcely distinguishable from these somewhere in the distance rose and fell a faint, enticing sound of human music. ... They came at last to a group of very temporary-looking wooden huts surrounded by a flimsy brushwood fence. The archways, built of unstripped wood, stood out black and solemn against the sky. Within the enclosure a number of priests were walking up and down with a preoccupied air. There was something portentous in their manner of addressing one another and in their way of loudly clearing their throats before they spoke. In the Hall of Offerings there was a dim flicker of firelight, but elsewhere no single sign of life. So this was the place where he had left one who was from the start in great distress of mind, to shift for herself week after week, month after month! Suddenly he realized with a terrible force all that she must have suffered. ...
Genji with Lady Rokujo
At last the night ended in such a dawn as seemed to have been fashioned for their especial delight. ‘Sad is any parting at the red of dawn; but never since the world began, gleamed day so tragically in the autumn sky.’ And as he recited these verses, aghast to leave her, he stood hesitating and laid her hand tenderly in his. (Seeds of the Heart, 498-9)
Meiji Emperor Opening the Japanese Diet
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