The Japanese are an often misunderstood people. Arising from a land of paddy fields and feudal landlords about one hundred and fifty years ago, the Asia-Pacific has since come to experience Japan as an imperial aggressor in the Second World War and later an ‘economic miracle’ rising from the rubble of defeat. The cultural component of this miracle has been associated with Japan’s Confucian values of a strong work ethic and obedience to the government (Little & Reed, 1989), but other factors in Japan’s cultural history are – as we will see – also of interest. Japan became the world’s second largest economy until overtaken by China in 2010, and remains strong as the world’s third largest.
In the West, the idea of Japan has often been simplified and eroticised, with patronising and exotic nineteenth-century images of doll-like geishas, farmers with rice hats, and fearless samurai soldiers (Henshall, 2004). After the war, the images still remain strange, fantastical, and even repulsive– from sex robots and whale-culling to the widespread experience of loneliness resulting in rent-a-friend business across Japan.
Among Asian societies, in addition to the wartime atrocities of rape and mass murder, there is an acceptance that Japan has created a reputation for quality mass-produced goods in the global market. In many ways though, Japan is still a ‘fragile power’ as the country remains vulnerable to fluctuations in foreign policies and unpredictable natural disasters. Japan also imports 80 per cent of its energy and is dependent on value added exports for its wealth. This reality has moved the country into imperialism, war, and global trade at various times over the last century. It also calls into question who exactly are the Japanese: Are they peace-loving or war-like? Isolationist or expansionist? Open to other cultures or fearful to engage with others? To understand such a complex picture of Japanese society, it is important to examine the history, myths, and culture of Japan beyond the feudal nineteenth century where most history textbooks begin. This article will briefly examine the pre-Confucian, pre-Buddhist history and mythology to highlight how Japan’s fundamental characteristics have changed and developed over time.
Japanese Anthropology: A Mixture of Influences
According to archaeological accounts, there is evidence that humans existed around modern-day Japan at least 30,000 years ago, but it is unclear who these people were and how they survived (DeFelice, 2010). For Sergey Lapteff (2006), a specialist in the history of cultural exchange, there can be no doubt that the Japanese Palaeolithic period (kyūsekki jidai, 旧石器時代) derived from the larger Asian continent. It is known that around 10,000 years ago, there were gradual changes from the Palaeolithic to the “Jomon” cultural period (Jōmon, 縄文,translated as “rope pattern”), where the last clearly Palaeolithic phases are distinguished by the use of knife-shaped stone tools and stone points, while the first Jomon cultural phases started using punctuate-marked and nail-impressed pottery (Keally, 2009). Although migration from the larger continent never stopped during this period according to Hanihara Kazurō’s 1927 anthropological studies, the Japanese archipelago was already separated from the continent by the sea during the Jomon cultural period. This geographic factor would have had a significant influence on Jomon culture and as Lapteff (2006) notes, many of the pottery found in the sites that are believed to have belonged to the Jomon show features and distinct markings that have not been found anywhere else in north and south-east Asia.
However, in terms of Japanese ethnicity, there is no biological validity to the idea that the Japanese consist of one Jomon-type ethnicity since by the fourth century BCE, a new cultural period emerged (弥生時代, Yayoi jidai) when the Yayoi people, who are named after the neighbourhood in Tokyo where their homes were first found, began to grow rice and use metals like copper, which the earlier inhabitants did not use (Roberts, 2010). According to researchers like Curtis Andressen (2010) and Jim DeFelice (2010), the introduction of new technologies made of iron and bronze as well as artefacts such as mirrors, weapons, and coins suggest that the Yayoi would have come from China and Korea, or at least traded and interacted with people who did. While the exact nature of this migration pattern is still being investigated, Lapteff (2006) points out that during this period the highly developed and organised cultures of the Hemudu河姆渡and Liangzhu 良渚, located in the Yangtze River Delta of China, already had an established rice farming society and the same storage pits that they used were spreading into what is now the Korea peninsula, the Japanese archipelago, and southwards into Indochina.
The presence of wet rice agriculture in uncultivated areas of Japan had a significant impact on Japanese society. For one, rice provided the locals with a high level of food production, which led to an increase in population and expansion of the Yayoi to eastern parts of Japan. Although the Yayoi had no written records, the presence of agriculture would have resulted in high levels of cooperation to build large rice paddies and irrigation systems. This would have influenced Japan’s communal culture and possibly led to specialisation in labour and social stratification with the introduction of social classes and land ownership (Kanaseki & Sahara, 1976). Some of the earliest descriptions of Japan appear in Chinese historical records called “The History of the Kingdom of Wei”, produced around 300 CE, with an extended account of Japanese society (called “Wa” peoples) in a section that chronicles the various “barbarian” peoples on China’s borders. What is known from these accounts is that Japanese society experienced years of warfare under a shaman queen named Pimiko (or Himiko, 卑弥呼, 170–248 CE) over the Yamato people in today’s Nara prefecture. The presence of large burial mounds (called kofun, 古墳) from the extended battles during this period were a key sign that the Yamato clan was gaining power and influence over western and central Japan (Henshall, 2004).
Between the Yayoi peoples and the emergence of the Yamato clan, Japanese society had established a dependency on rice and fish, which forms the basic diet of Japan even today. While there are clear links between Chinese continental cultures and Japan, not all elements of the continental culture were adopted. For instance, Kanaseki and Sahara (1976) state that while there was an extension of the Jomon pottery techniques by the Yayoi, continental developments such as animal domestication, walled cities, and writing was not introduced right away or at all. A key factor to explain this phenomenon could be the different geographic realities of the Yayoi peoples compared to continental cultures. For example, the Yayoi people settled in areas along the coast, where villages were built on hilltops and mountainsides more than 100 metres above sea level. This would make building walled city structures and domestic farms difficult to maintain. Survival priorities during this time would have also limited the creation of a writing system since food production techniques were still being developed.
Early Mythology and Moral Attitudes
The origins of the Japanese writing system can be traced back to Chinese continental culture which codified largely pictographic glyphs into a unified writing style. These were further transformed over many centuries, and by the time the writing system was introduced to Japan by Buddhist monks from Korea, Japanese scholars started experimenting and adapting the kanji(漢字) into their own language (Heisig, 1977). It was during the period of the Yamato rulers that a dominant Japanese culture was being established and with the emergence of the writing system came various written mythologies and creation stories. Mythology plays an important role in constructing civilisations and cultural movements and from a historical-ethnographic perspective, allows groups to face problems and adapt to changing situations marked by temporality and human fragility against the natural elements (Morales, 2013). In other words, myths allow humans, both individually and as a collective, to transition“from chaos to cosmos” (Duch, 2002, p. 37). As the Yamato rulers gradually extended their rule over the archipelago through warfare and diplomacy, they justified their control by associating their clan with a story about the beginning of the world, linking the ruling family to creator gods. Eventually, such stories became central to the Shinto (Shintō, 神道, translated as ‘the way of the gods’), a belief system that involves worshipping kami, which can be understood as sacred spirits that take the form of things important to life, such as wind, rain, mountains, trees, and fertility (Hammer, 2018). Once writing was introduced to Japan, the Yamato oral traditions were recorded in the Kojiki (古事記, “Records of Ancient Matters”) and the Nihon Shoki(日本書紀, “Chronicles of Japan”), compiled in the eighth century.
One of the myths describes the beginning of the universe as a ‘chaotic mass like an egg’, where there was no division between heaven and earth. Once the purer part separated into heaven and the heavier, impure part of the mass became earth, a number of deities came into existence and they stood on the floating bridge of heaven, thrusting a jewelled spear (a phallic symbol) down into the ocean. As they raised the spear, some water dripped from it and two of the deities, Izanagi (‘He Who Invites’) and Izanami (‘She Who Invites’), turned this liquid into land. The two deities descended and began to populate earth. Numerous divine offspring were produced, not only by vaginal birth but from other bodily parts and even from bodily waste. The God of Fire is one deity born vaginally, and Izanami was burned to death during his birth. Distraught, Izanagi travelled to Yomi (the Land of the Dead), to try to bring Izanami back to the Land of the Living. However, Izanami became ashamed and angered when he saw her maggot-riddled body, and she chased him out of Yomi. As Izanagi bathed himself in a river to wash away the stench of death, deities emerged from his body parts, including the Sun Goddess Amaterasu (‘Light of Heaven’) and the Sea God Susano-o (‘Wild Male’). Izanagi sends Amaterasu to Takamagahara to rule over the heavens, while Susano-o is given the sea to rule. Susano-o, however, disobeys Izanagi, and ends up being banished. Before heading into exile, Susano-o visits Amaterasu in Takamagahara and at his suggestion they produce a number of children. Susano-o then torments Amaterasu by destroying her rice-paddies and smearing excrement on the walls of her palace. Amaterasu retreats into a cave, plunging the universe into darkness. The other deities try to lure her back out with a mirror and jewels. One goddess begins performing a lewd dance, exposing herself and making all the other deities laugh. Intrigued by the laughter, Amaterasu comes out from the cave and the other deities seize her and block the entrance to the cave with a boulder. In another tale, Susano-o finds a sword, which he later presents to his sister Amaterasu as a token of remorse. The sword, mirror, and jewels still form the imperial regalia of Japan in modern times. Susano-o’s son, Okuninushi, is credited with calming the wild land. A hero, he becomes the victim of numerous treacherous acts by his jealous father. Susano-o murders Okuninushi several times, but he is restored to life each time. Okuninushi’s sons eventually agree to let Amaterasu’s descendants rule the land. Her great-great grandson, Jimmu, becomes the first ruler of Japan.” (see Henshall, 2004, chapter 1).
The specific nature of this mythology provides an interesting commentary on life in ancient Japan, a world which was characterised by violence and death, where it was not uncommon for parents to kill or abandon their children.While cruelty and violence are seen in myths and early histories throughout various culture, what is distinctive about Japanese myths is the lack of moral judgement or education. For example, Susano-o, who plays the role of the deceiving, power-hungry trickster, is simply exiled by his father rather than condemned as evil. In that case, behaviour is accepted or rejected depending on the situation, not according to a set of universal principles that should guide all human interaction. For commentators like Yamamoto (1990), such an approach to morality is still present in contemporary Japan where there is extreme context dependency of judging moral actions. This context dependency is believed to be “governed by a morality based on mutual trust…[existing] in its most secure form, among intimates, among those who share a familiarity with one another’s concerns” (p. 451).
The use of these myths for political purposes shows up periodically in Japanese history, especially during the Meiji period in the nineteenth century. In the last century before the Pacific War, it was used to bind the Japanese together by appealing to ultranationalism. The current emperor, Akihito, is said to be the 125th direct descendant of Amaterasu (Jordan, 1996), and the worship of the sun by ultranationalists comes from associating the name ‘Japan’ with the corrupted forms of the Chinese word Jih-pen, which means ‘the place where the sun comes from’ or ‘the Land of the Rising Sun’. Such associations are linked with myths that explain the divine origins of the islands, and the geographic separation of the archipelago from the continent has led to the self-perception that the Japanese are very different from other nationalities, an attitude that still partly endures today, although younger people are increasingly much more internationalised.
The revival of Confucianism, spread of education, emergence of nationalism, and promotion of conformism and obedience, are all important factors in the formation of modern Japan. However, it is clear that from early times, Japan has always had unique cultural developments, often because of its diverse population origins and the racial mixture of its indigenous populations. The process of adapting outsider cultural elements is also what led to the development and success of today’s Japan, with the adoption of technologies such as agricultural techniques to writing systems. From its early stages, Japan was strongly influenced by China as were other countries in the regions further south, and while the idea of ‘Asia’ and ‘Asian cultures’ was later developed by outside influences like Jesuit missionaries during the sixteenth century, Japan interacted with the continent for most of its trade, communication, and cultural contact, meaning that many Asian cultures and societies developed similar basic characteristics. It was this cultural similarity that led a number of intellectuals and politicians to argue for “Asian” solidarity– a theme that is still prominent, particularly in China’s “common destiny” slogans.
Japan’s isolated and rugged geographic reality had a direct influence on the current social values of mutual respect and cooperation, especially since survival is relatively difficult in places with few natural resources and frequent natural disasters. The avoidance of social conflict is matched with the historical struggle of power between clans, and while Japan is a democracy today, the centralised hierarchical ruling is still a factor in Japanese political culture and decision-making. As American anthropologist Ruth Benedict noted, the dichotomy between the chrysanthemum and the sword and the ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ aspects of Japanese culture are part of the nation’s historical development, and without these mutually complementary sides of its culture, Japanese society would have not been able to survive to this day.
By Cindy Minarova-Banjac