I met up with Brian, one of the party with whom I was about to travel to Nagano and Hokkaido and together we visited Ueno. This is a historic parkland area in Tokyo that was also the site of the last battle to control Edo (Tokyo) during the Meiji Restoration in 1868.
I have to admit that I found the area less impressive than I was expecting after Kyoto and Nara but this was certainly not the attitude of Brian, who had just flown in from Canada. What I found most impressive was the Tokyo National Museum which contained many artifacts and works of art, going back many thousands of years, including Jomon pottery that I had only seen illustrations of.
Early History of Japan
It is not clear when the first people living in Japan but it is likely to be more than 30,000 years ago. At that time the islands were part of the mainland; it was not until 10,000 to 15,000 years ago that the land bridges submerged.
Of course, what is known about early periods is only what can be deduced from digs. The world’s earliest known pottery comes from Japan, China and Eastern Siberia 13,000 to 14,000 years ago. In Japan, this is the Jomon era, which lasts up to about 2,500 years ago. This pottery is hand made without the use of a wheel and decorated with rope imprints. The Jomon people were hunter-gatherers and to a lesser extent farmers and used stone tools.
Next was the Yayoi culture, imported from Korea, with irrigated paddy fields for rice, many other crops and iron & bronze tools. It replaced the Jomon culture quite quickly but not the people; the Jomon people became the Yayoi people. The Yayoi lived in much larger villages and farmed much more intensively. Their pottery was also greatly improved since they used the potter’s wheel and they wove clothes using looms.
The Tumulus period from about 300AD to 550AD featured vast tomb-mounds. One near Osaka is 500 metres long and 32 hectares (50 acres) in area. The burials were definitely martial in character, as shown by the burial artifacts, and obviously involved huge amounts of organised labour. This period saw the introduction from the mainland of mounted, armoured warriors wielding swords and bows. Chinese writing also arrived in Japan at this time.
It was also during this time that the Yamato realm started to establish ascendancy over the many small local states. (The Yamato were later to become Japan’s royal dynasty). They had a close association with the south-west Korean state of Paekche (or Baekje) which resulted in Buddhism coming to Japan. In 663, when the south-eastern Korean state of Silla conquered Paekche, the Yamato sent a large military force to their aid which was defeated.
The Asuka period then takes us from 550 to the founding of Nara in 710. While the Yamato dynasty continued to expand in influence, the clans that supplied the leading Yamato retainers could also be important, as with many other periods of Japanese history. The Soga clan were pre-eminent from 587 to 645 and a major force in Buddhism becoming an influential religion. They were overthrown by the Nakatomi (then renamed as Fujiwara, remaining influential until the Kamakura period) and Prince Nakano Ōe, who came to be the emperor Tenji. This led to the Taiko Reforms, where significant lands of regional clans were forfeited to the Emperor to provide the basis for a centralised form of government, a kind of elite feudal bureaucracy. This was to be the beginning of the classical period in Japan.