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The Xenophile Historian

Japan North Korea South Korea

A Concise History of Korea and Japan

Chapter 1: The Formation of Korean and Japanese Civilizations

Korea Before 668, Japan Before 710

This chapter covers the following topics:
Introduction to Korea
Later Gojoseon and Jin
Japan: How It All Began
Korea: The Samhan (Proto-Three Kingdoms) Period
Japan: The Yayoi Culture
Japan: The Kofun Period
Korea: The Three Kingdoms
Japan: The Asuka Period
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Map of Northeast Asia

Introduction to Korea

Korea is a politically divided country that occupies the strategically important Korean peninsula in northeast Asia. The peninsula is 600 miles long, 200 miles wide, and it shares land borders with China on the north and Russia on the northeast, while Japan lies just 120 miles to the east, on the other side of Tsushima Strait. Most of the land, like Japan, is full of rugged forest-covered mountains; only about 20% of the whole Korean peninsula is suitable for settlement and cultivation, meaning that most of the population of both republics is concentrated in small, isolated coastal plains and inland valleys that open onto the western coast. The name by which we call the land is derived from Goryeo (Koryo), the dynasty that ruled the peninsula from 935 to 1392 A.D.,, which in turn is an abbreviated form of Goguryeo or Koguryo, the name of an older kingdom.(1) Pyongyang is the capital of North Korea; Seoul is the capital of South Korea. Both republics seek eventual reunification of the peninsula through the political overthrow of the other. Following the devastation of the Korean War (1950-53), both nations had to rebuild their economies; South Korea looked outward, developing a successful export-oriented economy. North Korea, one of the world's most highly regimented and isolated societies, focused on economic self-sufficiency.

The estimated population of South Korea (2014) is 51,302,044, while that of North Korea (2013) is 24,895,000. For South Korea that works out to a population density of 1,288 per square mile, going up to more than 44,000 per square mile in Seoul, making it one of the most crowded places in the world. There are also an estimated 2.3 million ethnic Koreans living just across the Yalu River, in the Manchurian provinces of China. Finally there is a community of 1.7 million Korean-Americans living in the United States, immigrants who have come over since the late nineteenth century, and 515,000 called Zainichi live in Japan as descendants of domestic servants, brought there during the years when Korea was under Japanese rule.

Koreans are an ethnically homogenous Asiatic people who have shared a common history, language, and culture since at least the 7th century A.D., when the peninsula was united under the Silla kingdom. Despite racial and cultural similarities, the Koreans, Japanese and Chinese are not closely related. We will cover the ancestry of the Japanese later in this chapter. The Chinese came out of Central Asia before the dawn of history, and their closest relatives live to the south and west (Tibetans, Burmese and various hill tribes), but not to anybody else; together they are called "Sino-Tibetans." By contrast, the Koreans are descended from the hunting and herding peoples of eastern Siberia and Manchuria. The Korean language is believed to have developed from a Tungusic (Siberian) base thousands of years ago, though many words have been borrowed from the Chinese and Japanese languages. The current Korean alphabet, called hangul, was developed during the 15th century and is one of the oldest phonetic alphabets in East Asia. In the twentieth century it became the most popular script for writing Korean, replacing older scripts that imitated Chinese characters (see also footnote #1)

Traditionally, Koreans have followed Buddhism and Confucianism; the latter was Korea's official religion from the 14th to the early 20th century. Almost 30% of South Koreans are Christians, thanks to a highly successful missionary effort in recent years by evangelists like David Yonggi Cho. At the rate church membership is growing, it is likely that in the twenty-first century South Korea will become the Far East's second predominantly Christian nation (the Philippines were first). Also important are shamanism, a widely practiced belief in natural spirits, and a strongly nationalistic religion known as Cheondogyo (Donghak before 1905), which was founded in the 19th century and combines elements of animism, Confucianism, Daoism (Taoism), and Buddhism with the worship of Dangun, Korea's first legendary king. In North Korea religious activity is all but nonexistent, having been stamped out ruthlessly(2) and replaced by the ideologies of Marxism and Juche ("self-reliance").

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Of all the areas where Chinese civilization spread, Korea was the longest and most profoundly influenced. Because the Korean peninsula is an extension of the Asian mainland, and because Korean kingdoms were dwarfed by their giant neighbor to the west, Korea has often been treated as little more than an appendage of China. In fact, this was a view often adopted by the Koreans themselves, as they sought to memorize Chinese classics or faithfully imitate the current style in Chinese poetry or essay writing. But lumping Korea together with China overlooks the fact that the peninsula was ruled by native dynasties most of the time, although these dynasties often paid tribute to the reigning Chinese emperor. Equally important, the Korean people, like the Vietnamese and Japanese, developed a separate identity that was expressed in distinctive forms of dress, cuisine, material culture, and a class system that varied significantly from that of China.

Korea has a long history as a cultural bridge across which Chinese culture was transmitted to Japan and Japanese influences reached the mainland. Korean culture was greatly enriched by this contact, but it also meant that the energetic Korean people have been dominated either by China or Japan for most of their history. Nevertheless, the Koreans have maintained their identity as a separate and distinct people, and have sometimes been active civilizers in their own right. They were, for example, instrumental in the transmission of Buddhist teachings and art forms to Japan. Therefore, in tracing Korea's rise as one of the major satellite civilizations of China, we must be careful not to neglect the initiatives and remarkable creativity of the Korean people themselves.

Excavations at 13 stone age sites have shown a close relationship between Korea's prehistoric culture and that of neighboring peoples. For example, Korean combware pottery has been found as far away as the Shandong peninsula of China, and the discovery of it in Japan suggests that as early as 3000 B.C. there was interaction between the Koreans and the Japanese. Stone spears and arrowheads have also been found, suggesting that they lived by hunting; bone hooks and stone weights (used for fishing) have turned up as well, and the presence of stone plows and sickles hints that they were already familiar with farming. Before 3000 B.C. they grew millet and various kinds of beans including soybeans; all this was undoubtedly learned from China. Around 2700 B.C., rice was introduced to the southernmost part of the peninsula, either from south China or Southeast Asia, but it would take a long time for it to become popular, because in Korea's climate rice does not do as well as millet.

In the first Korean villages, people lived in round or rectangular dugouts with fireplaces in the center, and covered with thatched roofs. The dominant ethnic group in these communities was probably a Tungusic tribe, which spoke a Ural-Altaic language, followed shamanism, worshiped bears, and had a paleolithic culture. They migrated from Manchuria or Siberia in several waves between 3000 and 500 B.C.; once in the peninsula they met another ethnic group who called themselves the Hans.(3) Over time these groups intermingled until were no differences between them, forming the language and racial stock of modern Korea in the process.

Korea, like the countries around it, has a history that stretches into the distant past with legendary beginnings. According to these legends the first Korean state was located in the valley of the Taedong River. Nowadays it is called Gojoseon, meaning Old or Ancient Joseon, to avoid confusion with the Joseon dynasty that came later on. Near the beginning of time Hwanung, the son of the world-creator god Hwanin, wished to descend to earth and live among humans. After examining three great mountains, Hwanin chose the Myohyang mountains in north Korea as the most suitable place to bring happiness to the human race. He sent his son off with three gifts (a drum, a mirror, and a bell, all of which are considered magical tools by Korean shamans) and three thousand loyal subjects.

Hwanung made his landing on earth at Baekdu, an active volcano on the present-day China-North Korea border. There his followers founded a city named Shinshi, and Hwanung began to teach them 360 "useful arts," like agriculture, medicine, moral principles and law. Then he met a she-bear and a tigress who lived in a cave. They prayed that Hwanung would bless them by transforming them into human beings. He responded by giving each of them a bunch of mugwort(4) and twenty cloves of garlic, and told them, "If you eat this holy food and do not see the sunlight for twenty-one days, you will become human beings." Both ate the food and retired into the cave. Three weeks later the she-bear, who had followed the instructions faithfully, became a woman named Ungnyeo. However the tigress, who could not bear to shun daylight for so long, left the cave after twenty days, and so remained in her original form. Not long after that Hwanung found Ungnyeo, who could not find a husband, praying for a son, so he married her. They had a son named Dangun Wanggeom (also spelled Tangun), who is credited with the founding of Gojoseon, in the fitieth year of the legendary Chinese king Yao, or 2333 B.C.(5) Dangun ruled as Korea's first king for the next 1,200 years; when the Chinese noble Gija arrived, Tangun did not oppose his takeover, but withdrew from human society and became a mountain god. North Koreans claim that a burial mound near Pyongyang is the mausoleum of Dangun; this is not accepted by South Koreans, of course.

Dangun's role is causing a certain amount of controversy in South Korea today, because his kingdom is identified with North Korea. In addition, it is not known if Dangun is an aboriginal myth or a later creation; the oldest existing Korean history which mentions Dangun dates to 1281 A.D. In 1909 a historian named Na Cheol, in an effort to oppose the Japanese takeover of Korea, founded a Dangun-worshiping religion, Daejonggyo. This cult promotes Korean nationalism, declaring that Koreans do not have to worship any foreign gods when they have gods of their own. It also has a political party, the "Unification Korea Party," which sponsors candidates in presidential elections. However, because Korea is independent now, the movement has declined in recent years; a 1995 census reported that less than 10,000 South Koreans claimed to follow Daejongism.(6)

Recently (2002) it has been suggested that Gojoseon was founded when a sky-worshiping tribe and a bear-worshiping tribe got together and combined their myths. If Dangun and Gojoseon ever existed, it is unlikely they ruled that far in the past, for Korean legends list almost nothing happening during the 1,200 years credited to it.(7) One must also remember that it is a part of human nature to make one's country appear very old, to give it an air of superiority over other countries. The mention of important Chinese people at both the beginning and end of Tangun's reign makes this author suspicious, as if the purpose of the legends was to make Korea look at least as old as China. Japan and Vietnam also have legends that put their origins very far back, as mentioned elsewhere on this website.

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Later Gojoseon and Jin

The next important figure after Tan Gun was Gija, a Chinese noble who came to Korea with 5,000 followers in 1122 B.C., fleeing the tyrannical last ruler of China's Shang dynasty. Bronze, improved agriculture, Chinese writing, the religion of ancestor worship, and a law code are said to have been introduced to Korea this way. Indeed, bronzework started appearing at sites in the nearest part of Manchuria (China's Liaoning province), around 1500 B.C.; when bronze daggers and arrowheads appear at Korean sites, we have evidence of wars between the local tribes. Communities grew larger and had walls built around them, evidence of a more complex social/political organization. Dolmens (tombs walled and roofed with huge flat stones) are found in Manchuria as far north as the Sungari River, as well as in Korea, indicating that the first Koreans lived well beyond the modern boundary of the Korean peninsula, the Yalu River. Because only important people were buried in dolmens, their number and locations suggest that the Korean people were divided into many small tribal states during the Bronze Age.

Like Dangun, Gija's existence is controversial today. While a man by that name is mentioned in ancient Chinese works like the Bamboo Annals and the Analects of Confucius, the oldest which claims he went to Korea is the Chronicle of the Three Kingdoms, written in the third century A.D. (again, that is a long time after the story supposedly took place). Nowadays most scholars dismiss the Gija story as a myth, made up by the Chinese to back up their argument that Korea should be a vassal state of China, because it was civilized by the Chinese. It also goes against modern nationalist sentiment, which asserts that the Koreans could have done most of the civilizing work by themselves.

Better evidence of Chinese-Korean interaction begins to surface in the early 7th century B.C., when records from the northeastern Chinese state of Qi mention Gojoseon as a trading partner. According to these, the capital of Gojoseon was first located across the Yalu River, in the part of Manchuria it ruled, but after 400 B.C. it was moved to Pyongyang. Also in the fourth century B.C., iron came into use. Iron plows and sickles made farming easier, while wooden houses, built on a floor-heating system called an ondol, replace the huts of earlier years. The appearance of horse equipment and coaches indicates that they used chariots in warfare, just like the Chinese.

During China's "Age of Warring States," Qi was not the nearest state to Korea; the nearest state was Yan, which was based in the neighborhood of modern Beijing and led the way in settling southern Manchuria. The Chinese found it natural to assume an aggressive attitude toward all non-Chinese "barbarians," which included the Koreans; thus, Gojoseon lost some ground to Yan. Gojoseon also gained a rival when a second Korean kingdom named Jin arose; it ruled the central and southern thirds of the peninsula, between 300 and 100 B.C. Although archaeologists have found a distinct culture in southern Korea from this date, we do not know if Jin was a centralized state, or a confederation of smaller tribes and states.

In 195 B.C. the first emperor of China's spectacular Han dynasty, Gaozu, suppressed a rebellion in the state of Yan. The commander of Yan's army, Wiman (Wei Man in Chinese), fled to Gojoseon with a thousand followers, and the current Gojoseon king, Jun, put Wiman in charge of defenses on the northwestern frontier. One year later, though, Wiman usurped the throne for himself, ruling from 194 to 180 B.C., and Jun fled to Jin. While that is how the official story goes, it is more likely that Wiman was a native Korean, and a Chinese ancestry was added later to make the dynasty look more impressive, just as some African kings claimed to be descendants of Arab monarchs.

During Gojoseon's final years, relations with China were not good. When the Gojoseon-Han War (109-108 B.C.) broke out, it was because Wiman's grandson, King Ugeo, would not let diplomats from Jin pass through his territory on their way to China. China sent two armies and one navy in retaliation. Although the Chinese succeeded in conquering Gojoseon, thereby adding the northwestern quarter of Korea to the Chinese empire, it was a messy, costly victory, decided only by superior Chinese numbers. The territory was organized into four commanderies (military districts). During the following years Korean raids wore down and destroyed three commanderies while the fourth, Lelang in the Taedong valley, outlasted its parent dynasty. To the south, we stop hearing from Jin when Gojoseon disappeared, but we have no idea what happened; the end of Jin is as mysterious to us as its beginning.

GOjoseon & Samhan
Gojoseon at its peak, with the area of the Samhan states (see below).

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Japan: How It all Began

The four main islands that make up Japan rise abruptly and dramatically from the Pacific Ocean along the northeast coast of Asia. Formed by volcanic eruptions that still occur periodically, the islands are dominated by mountains and rugged hills. Only about 15% of the surface area is level and extensive enough for the cultivation of wet rice, which has been the staple of the Japanese diet since the beginning of their history. Therefore the Japanese have mainly occupied the coastal plains, especially in the south-central portions of the largest island, Honshu; these remain the most heavily populated areas of the country today.

Though poor in natural resources, the islands are difficult to match in their combination of pleasant climate and subtle natural beauty. Their forest-covered and mist-shrouded hills, abundant streams and lakes, and glittering inland seas have given the Japanese people a refined sensitivity to the natural world that has been reflected in their religion, art, and architecture from prehistoric times to the present. The vulnerability of the islands to natural disasters like earthquakes, typhoons and tsunamis (tidal waves) has given the inhabitants respect for the spirits of nature, which the Japanese believe are in every living thing around them; this forms the foundation for Shinto, Japan's oldest religion. At the same time, the islands are so poor in resources that one could argue that Japan's most important resource is the Japanese people themselves. This has nurtured a disciplined, hardworking population that was regulated by strict legal codes and ruled through much of the islands' history by warrior elites. All foreign visitors have commented on these characteristics of Japan, from the Chinese in the early centuries A.D. to Europeans and Americans in the modern era.

Like the Koreans, the Japanese have a series of myths to explain how they got started. According to these stories, the Lord of Heaven sent two younger gods, Izanagi and his wife Izanami, to subdue chaos and create beauty after the earth had been created. Descending on a carriage of clouds, Izanagi took the divine spear given to him by the Lord of Heaven, stirred the fog, and created a beautiful island in the midst of the sea; drops of water from that spear became smaller islands around the main one. But that island, later known as Honshu, was too small for gods to live on, so Izanagi and Izanami became man and woman and built a shrine on it.

Izanagi & Izanami
Izanagi and Izanami at the creation of Japan.

When Izanagi and Izanami came out of the shrine, they stood transfixed. Before them stretched the long, curving shore of the island, and on the far horizon were the shapes of others. In great joy the two went out to view their new domains. From island to island they went, marveling at each new land; after they had traveled them all, they gave them names in the order of their birth: first the island of Shikoku, followed by Kyushu; Oki and Sado which [each] were born as twins; Tsushima, and finally Iki. Together they were called the country of the eight great islands; later the natives gave them the name of Nippon--Japan to foreigners.

More and more islands appeared, and every day Izanagi traveled over land and sea to watch them. Sometimes Izanami went with him, but serving in the shrine took up much of her time and she found the long journeys exhausting. One day she said, "My dear husband, there is nothing I wish to do more than to live here with you in peace and contentment. But now that so many islands have been born I pray that we too may bear children for our help and delight."

Her prayers were answered and in the years that followed many children were born to them. The first was the Sea Spirit, the next a Mountain Spirit, and then in succession, the spirits of fields, trees, rivers, and all natural things. Under their care and guidance the islands grew green and beautiful. Soon the seasons were born, and the breaths of the winds and rains brought their changing cycles to the mountains and fields. Everywhere the forests grew thick and dense, and in the groves flocks of birds gathered and sang. Crops and harvests multiplied and flowers and bushes bloomed in profusion.

Izanagi and his wife lived in utmost contentment among their family, and when a daughter was born to them, who was the goddess of the Sun, their joy was unbounded. She was the most beautiful and radiant being; everywhere she went, she filled the darkest air with light and brilliance. They named her Amaterasu.

The shy Amaterasu and her mischievous brother, the earth god Susanowo, became the founders of the Japanese race. Their descendants wandered all over the islands of Honshu and Kyushu, looking for a suitable place to live. Finally Jimmu Tenno, the great-great-grandson of Amaterasu, settled down on the Nara plain, where the cities of Osaka, Nara and Kyoto now stand. The date when he did this is confidently stated as February 11, 660 B.C., and Jimmu became the first of 127 emperors in Japanese history. Unfortunately for us, Japan had no calendar or system of writing until more than a thousand years later, so most historians believe the Yamato family started ruling much later, like the third century A.D. At any rate, the emperors of modern Japan still come from the Yamato family, making it the longest-lived dynasty in world history.(8)

What anthropologists tell us is that before the beginning of history the islands of Hokkaido and Honshu (and Sakhalin and the Kurile islands of Siberia) were settled by the Ainu, a mysterious bear-worshiping tribe whose relationship cannot be traced to any other people. They certainly stand out in a crowd of other Asians; the Ainu are wide-eyed and have large amounts of body hair, while the Japanese are one of the most hairless ethnic groups found anywhere. It has been suggested that the Ainu are the last remnant of a Caucasian tribe that once lived in eastern Siberia. As more of Japan came under the pale of civilization, the Japanese pushed the Ainu northward; after 1000 A.D. only Hokkaido was left to them. Now only about 20,000 Ainu are left, as most of them have been assimilated into the Japanese population.

It now appears that more than 5,000 years ago, the ancestors of today's Japanese began to migrate to the islands. Most of them came from various ethnic groups in Siberia and Korea; whatever their origin, the migrants came in small bands and, periodically, larger waves over many centuries. It also looks like at least one group came from Southeast Asia, because some Japanese words and artifacts show a Malayo-Polynesian influence. The most likely source for this group is Taiwan, because we know that Taiwan's original inhabitants knew how to build boats and were exploring nearby islands as early as 2000 B.C. This included going up the Ryukyu chain of islands, settling them and introducing rice as a crop, until the presence of the Japanese halted their progress. Presumably the Japanese then intermarried with the Ryukyu islanders and learned to grow rice from them, but because rice plants like hot weather, they could not be grown north of Kyushu until more cold-resistant strains were developed.

The fusion of all these waves of migrants produced the Jomon culture. The Jomon built pit-homes dug into the ground; they grew rice and millet, but most of the time they lived by hunting, gathering and fishing. Unlike other stone-age cultures, the Jomon produced their own pottery, the oldest found so far (conventional archaeology dates the oldest Jomon pots between 9,000 and 16,500 years old). Nor was this pottery plain; its cordlike decoration gives the Jomon people their name.

Most of the newcomers settled in the southwestern part of the islands (Kyushu, Shikoku, and the western tip of Honshu), which were nearest to the mainland and had the most pleasant climate. Because they were isolated from the political upheavals and social transformations occurring on the mainland, this diverse assortment of tribes was able to blend into a homogeneous population with a distinctive Japanese language, culture, and physical appearance by the first centuries A.D. Meanwhile they also began to drive the Ainu into northern Honshu.(9)

The largest known Jomon settlement was discovered only recently (1992); surveyors stumbled upon it while preparing to construct a new baseball stadium at Aomori, on the northern tip of Honshu. Dubbed Sannai-maruyama, it covered 35 hectares, making it twice as big as any previously known stone age site in Japan. This was a well-planned community, with three cemeteries on the outskirts; estimates place the total number of buildings at a thousand. People lived there continually, possibly as long as 1,500 years; this shows a remarkable harmony with nature, since the local climate is too cold to permit much agriculture. By the end of the 1990s, only fifteen percent of the site had been excavated, so don't be surprised if future discoveries radically transform our view of prehistoric Japan.

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Korea: The Samhan (Proto-Three Kingdoms) Period

108 B.C. to 313 A.D.

The Chinese governors speeded up the development of Korean civilization, by introducing Chinese-style writing, technology, a more centralized government, and burial customs. From the start, however, they had to defend their territory from attacks by hostile Korean tribes, who now joined together in large confederations to offset the superior arms and organization of the Chinese. The oldest of these confederations were Buyeo, based in the Sungari valley of Manchuria, and Okjeo(10) (also called Dongokjeo) and Dongye (also called just Ye), both on the east coast of present-day North Korea. No dates are available on when any of these confederations was founded, so they may have been in existence before the fall of Gojoseon and Jin. In fact, except for Buyeo (called Fuyu by the Chinese), we have very little information on them, period.

The Buyeo lived by both herding and farming, and traded some of their non-agricultural products---horses, sable fur and precious stones--to the Chinese for silk and embroidered cloth. As in later Korean states, Buyeo was run by a relatively small elite which kept the rest of the population in a semi-servile status. When members of the elite died, a considerable number of servants might be buried with them, as had been the practice in China before 400 B.C. At its height, Buyeo's influence extended to the tribes on the Pacific coast, the neighborhood of modern Vladivostok. In 86 B.C., Buyeo split into two smaller states; Dongbuyeo (Eastern Buyeo) was the new state, while the original was sometimes called Bukbuyeo (Northern Buyeo) after that.

According to a Korean history written in the twelfth century A.D., a Bukbuyeo prince named Jumong moved to the headwaters of the Yalu River in 37 B.C., gained control over the five tribes located there, and founded another confederation named Goguryeo (also spelled Koguryo). This group lived by hunting and fishing, and they became clients of Xuantu, the nearest Chinese commandery.

Korea & Manchuria, 1 A.D.

Korea and Manchuria in 1 A.D., showing the Korean states and confederations at that time. From Wikimedia Commons.

During the second century A.D., Goguryeo began to expand vigorously, which led to conflict with Buyeo and China. In 121 Wigut'ae, a Buyeo king, led a force of 20,000 men to rescue the Chinese garrison at Xuantu, which was under attack from Goguryeo. By 159 there was a formal alliance between Buyeo and China. Buyeo kings sent a series of "tribute missions" (actually these were merchants behaving like ambassadors) to the Chinese court; this continued after the Han dynasty was succeeded in 220 by Wei, the northern kingdom of China's "Three Kingdoms" era. At the same time the Wei kingdom decided it would no longer tolerate Goguryeo raids into the Liaodong peninsula of Manchuria (the Chinese-ruled area). Hwando, the Goguryeo capital, was captured and sacked by the Chinese in 245. The Chinese thought they had destroyed Goguryeo, and no mention of it appears in their records for the next seventy years. But the Goguryeo king, Wigung, though hunted in the far north, was never captured, and a descendant of his named Ulbul (300-331) was able to rebuild the kingdom.

Incidentally, because Goguryeo started out in land that is Chinese territory today, modern Chinese historians have annoyed Korean nationalists by declaring that the Goguryeo dynasty was really Chinese, not Korean. Koreans see this as a "retroactive land grab," which China could use to establish a claim over North Korean territory, should the present-day Pyongyang regime collapse.

Buyeo suffered a crippling blow when the Xianbei, a barbarian tribe from Mongolia, moved into western Manchuria. In 285 they sacked Buyeo and the king, Uiryeo, committed suicide in despair. Several of Uiryeo's relatives took refuge in Dongbuyeo, and the Chinese put a son of Uiryeo, Uira, on his father's throne, but in 345 the Xianbei wasted the kingdom again, this time for good. As for Dongbuyeo, it lasted until the fifth century by becoming a vassal of Goguryeo. In 494 Dongbuyeo came under attack from the Mohe, another Tungusic tribe in Manchuria, and the Dongbuyeo court surrendered to Goguryeo. This allowed Goguryeo to claim it was the heir to all that once belonged to Buyeo, but before the end, a branch of the Buyeo ruling house had fled to a state in the south, Baekje, so Baekje had a claim to Buyeo as well. Baekje went so far as to officially change its name to Nambuyeo ("South Buyeo") in 538.

Meanwhile in the south, three tribal confederations with names ending in "Han" ("Samhan" means "Three Hans") arose where the Jin state once stood. These were Mahan in the southwest, which had fifty-four mini-states as members, Jinhan in the southeast, with twelve member states, and Byeonhan on the south-central coast, which also had twelve member states. The most important member of the Mahan confederation, Baekje (also spelled Paekche), was founded in 18 B.C.; because it was located on the same spot as present-day Seoul, we take this to mean the city of Seoul was founded at the same time.

All three confederations elected their rulers at first, but as time went on the member states were absorbed into more centralized governments, and hereditary monarchs replaced elected ones; details aren't clear, though. Likewise, we do not know how a refugee from Dongbuyeo became the king of Baekje. The same process allowed the Jinhan Confederation to coalesce into the kingdom of Silla(11), and for Byeonhan to tranform itself into the six-member Gaya Confederacy. The key organization of each confederacy into a state appears to have been done for Goguryeo by King T'aejo (reigned 53-146? A.D.), for Baekje by King Koi (234-286), and for Silla by King Naemul (356-402). After the centralization was complete, accurate historical information from the Koreans begins to appear, and because Goguryeo had grabbed the Chinese commandery of Lelang in 313, there were now three unified states in the peninsula (Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla), so the next phase in Korean history is called the era of the Three Kingdoms.

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Japan: The Yayoi Culture

400 B.C. to 250 A.D.

Between 400 and 200 B.C. a new race of invaders, known as the Yayoi, crossed the Tsushima strait from Korea in considerable numbers. The Yayoi introduced large-scale agriculture, bronze, iron, and the weaving of coarse cloth. They mixed with the Jomons and adopted their customs and language.(12)

The Yayoi economy was an early form of feudalism; the nobles controlled the land, while peasants and slaves worked on it. Clans engaged in constant struggle for land and against the Ainu. Warfare was the order of the day, and the dominant role in society was played by noble families, since only they could afford the best arms and armor. Unlike China, where scholar-bureaucrats eventually rose to positions of dominance, the warrior class maintained its social prestige and political power through most of Japanese history. But despite this military emphasis, early Japanese society was largely matriarchal, as was evidenced by the importance of female deities like Amaterasu. Women enjoyed a social status comparable to that of men; children were raised within the wife's family household; and female rulers were common until the eighth century.

In 238 A.D., Chinese merchants began trading with the Yayoi; their travel accounts are the oldest written records describing Japan. The Chinese called the land Wa, meaning "dwarf," and reported that it was divided into 30 states; the strongest state was ruled by a sorceress named Himiko. Judging from Chinese and Korean records, Himiko was a real person, but so far she has not been identified with anyone in Japanese records, because we cannot be sure about Japanese dates this early; she could have been a shamaness as well as an empress. Himiko reportedly died in 248, and a burial mound in the town of Sakurai, near Nara, has been identified as her tomb.

The Chinese saw Japan as a backward country with bamboo huts and crude, illiterate people, but even at this early date the Japanese had a culture they could proudly call their own. Many customs associated with the Japanese in later times, such as the drinking of sake and a deep respect for authority, existed among the Yayoi. The teachings of Shinto, or "the Way of the Gods," were already fully developed, but it would be centuries before it was even given a name (to distinguish it from Buddhism). The most unusual Yayoi custom was to keep good fortune by hiring an ascetic, who did penance so the people wouldn't have to. This person, called a "mourning keeper," led a life of self-denial; he was not allowed to comb his hair, wash, eat meat, or approach women. When good things happened to the people, they gave the mourning keeper gifts; however, if illness or some other misfortune struck, it could be seen as evidence that the mourning keeper had not kept his vows, and then the mob put him to death.

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Japan: The Kofun Period

250 to 538 (all dates are A.D. from now on)

About 250 A.D., yet another group of invading newcomers (probably Koreans, see footnote #8) came across the Tsushima strait, bringing horses, iron armor, and superior iron weapons. Little is known about them, except that they founded the hereditary aristocracy that governed Japan for most of the time since. Following a precedent started by Himiko, the new rulers were buried in huge keyhole-shaped mounds, guarded by pottery statues known as haniwa; so strong is the Japanese respect for their ancestors that most of them still stand undisturbed today.

The Sakai kofun

The largest of the keyhole tombs (kofun) is located in Sakai City, and belongs to the sixteenth emperor, Nintoku (395-428). There are 896 known gravesites of imperial family members, including seventy mounds like this. The imperial family does not allow public access to the sites, except for an occasional outside inspection by archaeologists.

The royal family, the Yamato clan, was considered sacred because it claimed direct descent from Amaterasu. Although it was unthinkable for anybody from another family to become emperor, the fact that any Yamato, male or female, was an eligible candidate caused many of the first emperors to be dethroned or even murdered by nobles looking to place a personal friend on the throne. This happened so often that on one occasion when the throne became vacant a minister sent an armed guard to escort his favorite Yamato prince to the palace; the prince mistook the guards for an enemy's hit men, took to his heels, and was never seen again!

From the beginning the emperor never had much political power; though he was technically the head of state, he only performed religious functions most of the time. This may explain the contradiction we have in Japan's earliest historical accounts; while the Chinese reported an assortment of tribal chieftains, the Japanese only talk about the Yamato rulers. Perhaps archaic Japan had a political situation like that of medieval Europe, where kings and dukes ruled over dozens of realms, but because most of them respected the highest-ranked clergyman, namely the pope, he was regarded as the most important European.

With the emperor as a figurehead, somebody else had to handle the day-to-day affairs of government. This post, similar to that of prime minister in Western societies, was very desirable, and the various uji (clans) would do anything, including raising up armies, to get that job for themselves. One of the first clans to gain the prize position was the Soga clan. They used marriage as their main tactic; by giving their daughters to imperial princes, they made sure that future emperors would be related to the Sogas.

Although there were no samurai warriors yet, the Japanese were already exceptionally brave fighters, and this gave them an opportunity to get involved on the Asian mainland. In 391 the king of Baekje in western Korea sent gifts to Japan and asked for help against his neighbors. The Japanese mercenaries were extremely valuable, and Baekje called them back many times after that. The Korean king not only paid for Japan's services with gold and gems, but also with something far more useful: a dictionary of the Chinese language, with a Korean scholar to teach the Japanese how to write. Unfortunately, the Chinese system of picture writing is extremely difficult for non-Chinese speakers to use; the Japanese managed to muddle through anyway, using it for notes and government records, each scribe making up his own method to interpret the characters. It would be another 400 years before a simple Japanese script was developed. But even today, the Japanese consider someone a real scholar when he writes the old-fashioned way; Chinese characters combined with the Japanese language are called the Kanji script.

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Korea: The Three Kingdoms

The breakup of northern China into minor barbarian-ruled states after 300 allowed the Korean kingdoms to live without much Chinese interference for nearly three hundred years, but unofficial contacts continued. Because Baekje had conquered one of the Chinese commanderies, Daifang, it absorbed so much Chinese culture that by 350 the Baekje court was keeping all its records in Chinese, and by 400 Baekje scholars were introducing the Chinese classics into Japan. Goguryeo also allowed Chinese culture into the kingdom, but its kings continued to worship a primitive star god called the Spirit of the Underground Passage, and claimed it as their direct ancestor. Chinese visitors were scandalized by Goguryeo's practice of tracing family inheritances/lineage through the mother, rather than the father (a custom of Interior Asia), as well as the way men and women freely mingled together: "The people love song and dance, and in the towns and villages of their kingdom, men and women gather together every evening and into the night to sing and amuse themselves together."

In the end Buddhism supplied the most effective link between Korean and Chinese culture. Buddhism was introduced from China to Goguryeo in 372, but we find little evidence of it from existing tomb art of the fourth century. The new religion had a stronger impact on Baekje and Silla, where the rulers patronized Buddhist artists and financed the building of monasteries and pagodas. Korean scholars traveled to China and a select few went to the source of the Buddhist faith, India.(13)

In addition to Chinese variants of Buddhism, Chinese writing was introduced, though the spoken Korean language was as ill-suited for adaptation to the Chinese characters as the Japanese language later turned out to be.(14) The Goguryeo monarch imposed a unified law code patterned after that of Han China. He established universities, where Korean youths struggled to master the Confucian classics and their teachers wrote histories of China rather than their own land. With the intent of expanding his power and improving revenue collection, the Goguryeo ruler also attempted to put together a Chinese-style bureaucracy. But the noble families who supported him cared little for a project that posed such an obvious threat to their own power. Without their support the monarch did not have the resources for such an ambitious undertaking. Thus, the full implementation had to wait for a more powerful dynasty to emerge, centuries later.

After Goguryeo annexed the Chinese colony of Lelang, it expanded into the Liaodong peninsula of Manchuria, despite harassment from nomad groups, one of which sacked Hwando for the second time in 343. Then in 371 King Soe of Goguryeo fell defending Pyongyang from a Baekje attack. But Goguryeo remained the stronger state, and was able to recover the lost ground rapidly. By the end of the reign of King Kwanggaet'o (413), Goguryeo ruled everything between the Sungari and Han Rivers; this gave it control over two thirds of the Korean peninsula and a lot of Manchuria. In addition, the chieftains of Silla submitted to the northern kingdom's authority in 399 to receive protection from Japanese raids. Only Baekje continued to resist Goguryeo domination, thereby preventing the unification of the peninsula.

The long reign of the next king after Kwanggaet'o, Changsu (413-491), was the golden age of Goguryeo. A large number of upper-class Chinese fled the chaos of northern China by settling in Goguryeo, and Changsu employed them as administrators in his court, perhaps to check the power of the old tribal nobility. In 427 he moved the capital south to Pyongyang, and efforts were concentrated on bringing Baekje to heel. In 474 he crossed the Han River and captured the Baekje capital of Hansong, but the Baekje monarch simply moved farther south to Ungjin, and continued to resist.

In 538 Baekje was forced to move its capital again, from Ungjin to Sabi. Because it was the weakest state militarily, Baekje survived by calling in help from outside sources. First it persuaded Silla to throw off Goguryeo's yoke and form an anti-Goguryeo alliance. This worked until 552, when Silla seized the Hansong area which the two allies had just taken back from Goguryeo. When King Song of Baekje (523-554) attempted to recover the stolen territory, he was killed in battle; after this Baekje had to face enemies on two fronts. More successful in the long run were Japanese soldiers, who started helping Baekje in 391. In turn Silla improved its relations with China; this allowed them to take much of the east coast from Goguryeo, and conquer the Gaya confederation (562).(15)

The long period of conflict caused the three kingdoms to share several characteristics. Centralized military systems were organized, and the monarchs of all three states concentrated their power by encouraging aristocrats to move to the capital. The aristocrats were divided into several social classes according to their ancestry, which determined which positions and privileges they could have. For example, Silla had a council of advisors to the king, called the Hwabaek; all of its members came from "true bone" families (meaning royal or formerly royal origin), and they made important state decisions. Each state also compiled a lengthy history, apparently to show its authority was greater than that of its rivals (see footnote #11).

3 kingdoms of Korea.

Korea during the Three Kingdoms era. From Wikimedia Commons.

Centuries of warfare weakened the three kingdoms without giving paramount power in the peninsula to one of them. Then the political situation changed dramatically with the reunification of China under the Sui dynasty (589). The new Chinese emperor, Yang Di, viewed the conquest of Manchuria and Korea as a vital part of his campaign to reconstruct the Chinese Empire as it had been under the Han. But Yang Di's campaigns against Goguryeo in 612-614 were not only unsuccessful, they were so mishandled and costly that they led to his overthrow and the replacement of the short-lived Sui by the Tang dynasty (618). The Tang also claimed Korea, but they had to wait decades before they could finally mount a successful invasion.

In the meantime family-tree-conscious Silla underwent a dynastic crisis. Silla's King Chinp'yong (579-632) died without leaving any sons; the throne passed first to his daughter Sondok (632-647), then to his sister Chindok (647-654), and finally to a member of a second-ranked family. The same period also saw a complete reorganization of the Silla armed forces, marked by the introduction of an order of knights called hwarang ("flower boys"). The hwarang were boys from noble families, each given special training to lead a band of men that could number as many as several hundred. Members of the hwarang were bound together by strict discipline and a code of chivalry, and played an important part both in the wars of this time and in Silla society afterwards.

The stubborn warriors of the Goguryeo kingdom bore the brunt of the Tang assaults, just as they had those launched by the Sui rulers. The pretext for the Tang invasions was the assassination of the king of Goguryeo in 642 by a noble named Yon'gae Somun, who appointed a puppet king but ran the country as a military dictator until his death in 666. At first the Chinese made little progress; then their strategists hit on the idea of taking advantage of Korea's division to bring the whole peninsula into line. By striking an alliance with the rulers of Silla, they were able to destroy Baekje in 661. A son of the last king of Baekje immediately raised a rebellion against the Chinese, and persuaded Japan to send him a fleet, but in 663 the Chinese defeated the Japanese in a naval battle off the mouth of the Kum river, and the revolt fell apart; this incident is noteworthy because it marks the first known conflict between China and Japan.

In 668 China and Silla teamed up again, and defeated Goguryeo, which now collapsed because of bickering between the dead dictator's heirs. Thus ended the long-lived kingdom that had played such a key role in Korea's early development.

Silla-era crown.

The crown of a Silla queen. This picture was taken when it appeared at the New York Metro Museum of Art, in 2013-14.

The Chinese conquerors now began to quarrel with their Silla allies over how to divide the spoils. Silla proved able to defeat the larger Chinese forces in 674, and revolts broke out in the former Baekje and Goguryeo territories already conquered, so the Tang decided to strike a deal. In return for Silla's submission as a vassal of the Tang emperor and regular tribute payments, the Chinese withdrew their armies in 676. Two thirds of the peninsula was in effect united under the Silla dynasty, and it ruled central and southern Korea as a highly centralized state for the next 250 years.

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Japan: The Asuka Period

538 to 710

History texts used to call Japanese history from 250 to 710 the "Yamato period," as this was the time of the Yamato polity's transformation from a ruling clan to a national government. However, nowadays it is more common to divide this era into the "Kofun period" (250-538) and the "Asuka period" (538-710). The Kofun period got its name because most of the previously mentioned burial mounds were constructed at this time, while during the Asuka period, the capital was usually at Asuka, a village in modern-day Nara Prefecture. The Asuka period also saw the most important steps in the development of Japanese civilization.

In 552 the Korean king of Baekje requested military aid from Japan again, and he paid for it with Buddhist scriptures, a bronze Buddha, and a letter stating that Buddhism is very difficult to understand, but those who understand it have called it the world's best doctrine. The imported religion was perfectly suited for the plans of Soga no Iname, the prime minister at that time. Iname saw that Japan was still backward, and that the solution was to modernize the country with a massive dose of Chinese culture. He also saw Buddhism as a way to challenge rival clans, whose leaders held their positions by being priests of the most important Shinto spirits (kami). Caught in a conflict of interests, the emperor sent the bronze Buddha to Iname's house and told him it could only be worshipped there. Not long after that Japan was swept by disease; the emperor agreed with most of the clans that the Shinto gods were angry, and had the Buddha thrown into a canal.

Iname's son, Soga no Umako, was more successful; he persuaded the next emperor to build and staff a Buddhist temple. But he also met opposition from the rival clans; after a long series of palace intrigues and a revolution that eliminated one rival, the Mononobe clan, Umako found a prince, Shotoku, who favored Buddhism and the reforms that would come by accepting it. Prince Shotoku died before the empress he was supposed to succeed, but he went down in Japanese history as a great scholar and one of its most loved characters. During his 29-year regency (593-622) Prince Shotoku built Japan's first roads and wrote a 17-article "constitution" that listed the accepted forms of behavior for members of the government. He also welcomed into his country everything Chinese, but the cultural borrowing had a difficult start; the first Japanese ambassador to China bore a letter addressed from "the Son of Heaven of the Land of the Rising Sun to the Son of Heaven of the Land of the Setting Sun." The Chinese emperor thought this was an insult (it offended him for a "barbarian prince" to consider himself an equal), but fortunately he soon realized that it was just a misunderstanding, and Sino-Japanese relations were fine after that.

After Prince Shotoku and Soga no Umako passed from the scene, effective power went to Umako's son, Soga no Yemishi. Yemishi was the most ambitious Soga of all; he wanted to make himself emperor, not just place someone related by marriage on the throne. This was going too far; the crown prince conspired with his best friend, Nakatomi no Kamatari, and in 645 they had the leaders of the Soga clan assassinated; the Soga palaces were burned to the ground. Nakatomi no Kamatari became the new prime minister, and his family, the Fujiwara clan, would be the power behind the throne for the next five centuries.

One of the first acts of the new leaders was to pass the Taika ("Great Change") Reform, a decree that made the entire country the emperor's personal property; everyone living on the land (including the nobles) thus became the emperor's vassals. The reformers also established a centralized bureaucracy, a legal code, a tightly controlled provincial system, a standing army, and a land tax similar to that of China. Japanese court scholars now struggled to master thousands of Chinese characters that bore little relationship to the language they spoke. They wrote dynastic histories patterned after those commissioned by the emperors of China, and followed an elaborate court etiquette that uneasily combined Chinese protocol with ancient Japanese ideas about politeness and decorum. The Japanese aristocracy struggled to master Confucian ways, while they worshipped in Chinese-style temples and admired Chinese-style Buddhist art. But from the beginning, differences between Japanese and Chinese societies required drastic adjustments. Most positions in the Japanese bureaucracy, held by members of the old clan nobility, quickly became hereditary. Recruitment of government workers through an examination system--the Confucian model--never developed in Japan. The newly asserted power of direct taxation could not be effective at any distance from the court, so the emperors were forced to grant tax-exempt estates to some nobles in return for their services or support. Such estates also tended to become hereditary.(16)

This is the End of Chapter 1.


1. The North Koreans call their country Choson Minjujuui Inmin Konghwaguk. South Korea's national name (in Korean) is Daehan Minguk.

As with Chinese, there have been more than one attempt to write the Korean language with the western European (Roman) alphabet. The most recent method, Revised Romanization, was developed in South Korea in 1995, and was declared the official spelling system by the South Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism in 2000. Unlike previous systems, this does not use apostrophes or diacritical marks like accents, and emphasizes the use of softer letters (g instead of k, b instead of p, d instead of t). Hence, Pusan became Busan, Taegu became Daegu, and Koguryo became Goguryeo. Wherever possible, the author will use it in this work, since like Pinyin for Mandarin Chinese, it seems to be the most phonetic system. However, North Korea still uses an older system that has been around since 1937, so keep the differences in mind; North and South Korea have also been divided long enough that they are now developing separate dialects.

2. To give just one example, the North Korean government stopped the ancestor worship that is a key part of Confucianism by ordering the burning of all lineage records, cutting off the North Korean people from their past.

3. No relation to China's Han dynasty, as far as I can tell.

4. The identity of this plant is uncertain; one translation of the legend calls it sagebrush, another calls it wormwood.

5. My calculations put the date at 2307 B.C. Close enough!

6. Connor, Mary E. (2009). "Society". The Koreas. Asia in focus. ABC-CLIO. p. 173. ISBN 1-59884-160-2.

7. Another set of Korean myths, the Hwandan Gogi, asserts that before Dangun became king, the first city, Shinshi, had eighteen kings, ruling from 3898 to 2333 B.C.

8. Before World War II, it was a crime to state that Jimmu was a myth, or that the Yamato family began to rule at a later date than 660 B.C. Recently it has been suggested that Jimmu was actually a soldier of fortune from Baekje, the most pro-Japanese of the early Korean states.

9. Did I say the Japanese are homogeneous? Overall they are, but they have four minority groups that are discriminated against by the rest:

  • One group is their oldest rivals--the Ainu. Over the ages the Ainu have been treated much like the American Indians and the Australian Aborigines, but the Japanese don't seem to feel sorry about taking away their land and threatening to erase both their population and their culture.
  • The Ryukuans, the people who live on the small islands between Kyushu and Taiwan, are looked down upon because they are only part-Japanese; many of them speak their own language, for one thing. I will mention the Ryukyuans and their islands again in Chapter 3, footnote #5.
  • Next are the outcast communities, politely called the Burakumin ("hamlet dwellers") or not-so-politely called the Eta ("defiled ones"). They are ethnically identical to the Japanese majority, but like the untouchables of India, they are relegated to the bottom of the social ladder because they work at jobs considered unclean. Many of those jobs have to do with death: undertakers, executioners, slaughterhouse workers, butchers, tanners, Yakuza gang members--and ninja. Other Eta-class professions include beggars, prostitutes, garbage collectors, and entertainers in general. Most Eta get that way by being born into low-caste families, but one can also become an Eta by taking one of those disreputable jobs. They are expected to live in specific neighborhoods, and are not supposed to marry members of non-Burakumin families. The government declared the Burakumin/Eta equal to other commoners in 1872, as part of its effort to do away with Japan's traditional caste system, but even today, Burakumin families face discrimination when it comes to jobs or marriage partners.
  • Finally, there are the Hibakusha ("explosion-affected people"), the survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (see Chapter 4). Their problems only started when they got nuked; afterwards they were shunned as if they were plague carriers, because others thought radiation sickness was contagious. Survivors had trouble getting jobs, buying homes, finding healthcare, and marrying. You would think this problem would disappear as the World War II generation dies off, but now those who lived near the Fukushima reactor in 2011 (see Chapter 5) are getting treated like new Hibakusha. People don't know when to quit.
10. Okjeo's name is now thought to come from Olgi, which means "Mineral Spring" in Evenki, a Tungusic language spoken in central Siberia.

11. The traditional date given for the founding of Silla is 57 B.C. Whereas modern scholars take the founding dates of Goguryeo and Baekje (37 and 18 B.C. respectively) with a grain of skepticism, the Silla date is patently artificial, a "magic year" placed exactly twelve sixty-year cycles before the date when it crushed Baekje. It is also worth noting that Silla did not call itself by that name before the sixth century; in the Jinhan confederation, it had several names; the oldest was Saro-guk. Since Silla was the farthest of the Three Kingdoms from China, it makes more sense to assume that it was the last part of the peninsula to become civilized. Recently it was suggested that Silla was organized by Goguryeo to create a puppet state in an area it could not rule directly, so that Baekje would not take over the whole south.

12. Personally I think the Yayoi were Chinese. Chinese history records an expedition that took 3,000 colonists to Japan around the year 210 B.C. All contact between them and China was lost within a generation.

13. 388 marks the official date when Buddhist missionaries arrived in Baekje. It took much longer to convert Silla, which remained something of a cultural backwater until the early sixth century. In 594 a monk from Goguryeo, Hyeja, went to Japan to teach Buddhism to Crown Prince Shotoku.

14. Chinese and Korean are both languages with one-syllable words, but there the similarity ends. Linguistically they are quite unrelated, with most of the vocabulary and all of the grammar completely different.

15. The Japanese name for Gaya was Mimana, and according to the Nihon Shoki, an eighth-century Japanese text, it was conquered by an Empress Jingu in the fourth century. The same text asserts that Japan and Silla became bitter enemies over the Mimana issue, and were still arguing over it two hundred years after Silla took the disputed land. Since World War II, however, the idea that Gaya/Mimana was ever a Japanese foothold on the peninsula has been questioned by both Japanese and Korean historians. They feel the story was a fabrication, invented to justify Japanese invasions of Korea in later periods; they also suggest that a Korean invasion of Japan would have been more likely than the reverse, since Korea was definitely more advanced than Japan during the Three Kingdoms era.

16. Evidence of the influence from China was found at the excavation of a remarkable 7th-century tomb at Takamatsuzuka, near Nara, in 1972. Instead of the geometrical patterns preferred by early Japanese artists, the walls were covered with murals of richly dressed men, women and children, as well as dragons, all done in a realistic Chinese style. The tomb's occupant was an unusually large man, who had a Chinese-made mirror (the symbol of Amaterasu) buried at his side. We do not know who he was, or why he chose such a unique style of burial.
More evidence of foreign contact turned up in 2012, when three glass beads from a fifth-century tomb were identified as the work of Roman craftsmen. We know that ancient Rome traded with China before the fifth century, but nobody has yet figured out how Roman products got all the way to Japan at this early date.

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