Early Korea and Japan
Cosmopolitanism and Community

Prehistoric Korea & Japan
By the seventh century, as Buddhism was taking firm root in Japan, the great Age of Division had finally ended in China. This Chinese Age of Division coincides with the dawn of recorded history for both Korea and Japan, and the first stirrings of a culturally coherent East Asian region. Long before this time, however, for many thousands of years human beings had already inhabited both the Korean peninsula and the Japanese islands. Both Korea and Japan enjoyed lengthy and culturally rich prehistoric eras. (HEA, 81)

Jeulmun (Comb Pattern) Pottery
ca. Fourth Millennium BCE
Jomon (Rope Pattern) Pottery
ca. Fifth Millennium BCE

By the last millennium BCE, rice farming and bronze metalworking had been added to the prehistoric cultural complex in Korea. Rice cultivation probably originated in what is now southern China, but rice was little grown in the Chinese cultural heartland in the north, where the staple grain was millet (and later wheat). Bronze, meanwhile, may have been an influence from north China, but there is a notable lack of the characteristic Chinese-style bronze ritual vessels in Korea, where bronze was commonly used, instead, for daggers and mirrors. In a number of ways, therefore, late prehistoric culture in Korea was distinct from that of the Central Plain in China. (HEA, 81)

The Yayoi Period
300 BCE-250 CE
Japan’s prehistoric culture then underwent some fairly dramatic changes beginning around 300 BCE, when the predominant direction of influence also shifted to the north — coming especially now from the Korean peninsula. These influences included significant new genetic contributions to the population of the islands, sufficient to indicate either very large numbers of new immigrants (some estimates reach as high as a million) or a relatively small group that succeeded in reproducing itself disproportionately after arrival. Other new introductions included wet-field rice cultivation and metallurgy, and possibly even the Japanese language itself, which is thought to be distantly related to Korean. (HEA, 88)


It was at the end of the Yayoi period that the oldest written description of Japan finally appears. As with the case of Korea, this is found in a Chinese source. The Chinese Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms (Sanguo zhi) which was compiled in the late third century, contains a fascinating brief account of Japan based on diplomatic contact. It describes a land called Yamatai, formed from a coalition of some thirty smaller entities and ruled by a princess named Himiko who excelled at magic and lived in a fortified palace with a thousand female attendants, but who was rarely seen in public. A younger brother assisted in her rule.
       In modern Japan, there has been intense historical controversy over whether Himiko’s realm was located in northern Kyushu, the southwesternmost of Japan’s four largest islands and the point of nearest approach to the Korean peninsula, or on the large plain at the eastern end of the Inland Sea on the main island. This plain has traditionally been known as the Yamato Plain, and it was home to the imperial capital for most of recorded Japanese history. The obvious similarity between the names Yamatai and Yamato is tantalizingly suggestive. So, too, is mention of a great earthen tomb raised for Princess Himiko after her death, since just such tumuli began to appear roughly at this time, concentrated in the area of the Yamato Plain. The exact location of Himiko’s kingdom of Yamatai remains uncertain, however. It is clear, moreover, that as of the third century, Japan was still divided among multiple small communities, although the Himiko story also indicates that some consolidation of authority was already being attempted. It may also be observed that the Yamatai described in the third-century Chinese account is in some ways already recognizably Japanese in culture. (
HEA, 89)

The Yamato Period
250-710 CE

Archeologists speak of an old tomb (kofun) period in Japan, covering roughly the years 250-552 CE. The largest of these massive, earthen, old tombs is a hundred feet high and covers eighty acres. It is interesting that the exact same term, old tomb, is also used for the tumuli of roughly contemporary Three Kingdoms Korea. Though the word is pronounced kofun in Japanese and kobun in Korean, both are written with the same two Chinese characters. To some extent, of course, the creation of tumuli for deceased great leaders may have merely been a general phenomenon. The First Emperor of China (Qin Shi Huangdi) and other Chinese emperors also had large earthen mounds heaped over their graves. Many of the Japanese tombs, furthermore, have a unique keyhole shape — round at one end and square at the other — which distinguishes them from the Korean old tombs. Still, fourteen of these distinctively Japanese-style keyhole-shaped tombs have also been found in extreme southwestern Korea and fairly frequent contact between the islands and the peninsula is beyond doubt.

Fierce modern nationalistic debates over whether Japan conquered Korea or Korea conquered Japan in this period are largely misguided and anachronistic, if only because neither Japan nor Korea really existed yet as a coherent identity. However, people from the Japanese islands apparently did have some presence on the Korean peninsula in these early centuries, and the Japanese islands clearly did absorb a number of highly critical influences from the peninsula, including such technologies as stirrups and armor. By the fifth century, Northern Wei (Xianbei or Chinese) and Koguryo-style heavily armored cavalry had appeared in Japan. There were also a significant number of actual immigrant persons from the continent. In early historical Japan, this was still openly acknowledged. In a record of 1,059 prominent families living in the capital region that was compiled in 815, for example, some 30 percent were explicitly said to be of foreign descent. In there critical centuries, at the dawn of Japanese history, immigrants played a vital role in shaping the emerging Japanese state. (HEA, 89-90)
In the tenth month of 552 C.E., the king of Paekche sent to Japan an envoy with presents of an image of Buddha and sacred writings, apparently hoping thereby to ingratiate himself with the Japanese court so as to win their military support. ... We are told that Emperor Kinmei was so delighted with these tidings that he leaped for joy. The head of the Soga clan, no less affected, urged that Japan follow the lead of all other civilized nations in adopting the new religion. More conservative elements at the court objected, however, saying that the worship of foreign deities could not help but incense the national gods. Soga was presented with the image and allowed to worship it, but shortly afterward, when a pestilence broke out, Shinto adherents persuaded the emperor that it was a manifestation of the gods’ wrath. The image of Buddha was thrown into a moat, and the temple built by the Soga family was razed.
Nothing much more was heard of Buddhism until 584, when another member of the Soga clan was given two Buddhist images that had come from Korea. He erected a temple to enshrine them and had three girls ordained as nuns by a Korean monk living in Japan. This, we are informed by the Chronicles of Japan, marked the real beginning of Buddhism in the country. It was not long, however, before another plague caused the Shinto factions to throw the holy images into the moat and to defrock the nuns. When these rigorous measures failed to halt the spread of the disease, the emperor finally agreed to allow the Soga family to worship Buddhism as it chose, and the nuns were given back their robes.
       Within a few years of the second start of Buddhism, a number of learned Korean monks began to arrive. Among their most eager disciples was Prince Shotoku. Most of the emperors and empresses in the next century became Buddhists; and the subsequent Nara period (709-784) in some ways marks a high point of early Buddhism in Japan. (SJT, 100-1)


Established by Prince Shotoku