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The Xenophile Historian

Japan North Korea South Korea

A Concise History of Korea and Japan

Chapter 2: Medieval Korea and Japan

Korea from 668 to 1637, Japan from 710 to 1603

This chapter covers the following topics:
Japan: The Nara Period
Silla & Sinicization
Ultracivilization: The Heian Era
Goryeo: Civilization For the Few
Japan: The Kamakura Shogunate
Korea: The Joseon Dynasty
Japan: The Ashikaga Shogunate
European Contact
The Reunification of Japan
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668 to 926

Though the period after the Three Kingdoms is usually called the age of unified Silla, you may also hear it called the North-South States Period because there were really two kingdoms, Silla in the central and southern thirds of Korea, and Balhae in northern Korea and Manchuria. A Goguryeo general, Dae Joyeong, fled to Manchuria, founded a kingdom called Balhae (Parhae in older texts and Bohai in Chinese), and crowned himself as its first king (King Ko, 698-720). Other Goguryeo refugees joined him, and in the same year he secured recognition and friendship from China by sending a son as a hostage to the Tang court. Relations with Silla, however, were always tense.

We do not know much about Balhae today. This is mainly because neither modern China nor the North Korean government has much interest in archeological excavations of the places where Parhae once ruled; communists have an aversion to uncovering parts of the past they are trying to erase. Moreover, no historical records from Balhae have come down to us. After Balhae fell, the later Goryeo kingdom took in refugees from there, but as far as we know it did not write any history of Balhae, either. The border between Balhae and Silla ran across the peninsula's narrowest point, from the Taedong River in the west to Wonsan in the east; Silla marked the boundary by building a defensive wall along it in the ninth century. Most of Balhae's territory was actually in Manchuria, and the capital, Sanggyong ("High Capital"), was located near the modern Chinese city of Dongjingcheng, in Heilongjiang province; it was laid out in a grid pattern in imitation of the Chinese capital, Changan. At its peak in the early ninth century, Balhae was a prosperous state whose population exceeded 500,000 people. This is the last time a Korean state ruled any land outside of the peninsula, and because so little is known of Balhae, Silla gets all the credit during this period; many Asian history books do not even mention the northern kingdom.

The international position of Balhae remained precarious, for King Ko's successors declared independence from Chinese authority and enlarged the state. The frontiers were pushed north to the Amur River, and west to the Liao River; in 732 Balhae even launched a naval expedition against China. The result was an alliance between Silla and China against Balhae, which Balhae countered with ties to Japan and northeast Asian nomadic tribes like the Malgal. In the reign of Tae Hum-mu (King Won, 738-794), relations with China were normalized, and Balhae scholars and monks went to study in China. Soon the Balhae government was being run on Confucian principles, and all officials were expected to be educated, as was the case in China.

But Goguryeo traditions also influenced Balhae. The ondol system of heating through hot-air flues in the floor has been found at Balhae sites. Tombs, Buddhist statues, and temple roof tiles are all faithful copies of Goguryeo architecture. Furthermore, the royal family adopted the Goguryeo royal surname (Ko) as its own, adding weight to their claim that Balhae was run by the heirs of Goguryeo.

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Japan: The Nara Period

710 to 784

Japan's Fujiwara government was better organized than those before it, but it needed a permanent location to function as smoothly as the Chinese bureaucracy it imitated. Before this time Shintoism was so obsessed with cleanliness that whenever an emperor/empress died the imperial family abandoned the palace and built a new one elsewhere, in order to escape any evil spirit the corpse might place on the house (see also the next footnote). This was no major hardship in an age when even the best buildings were oversized huts, but now this ancient custom was becoming too expensive to maintain. The Japanese noticed that the Chinese maintained a capital in the same place for generations, and that the country had not collapsed from spiritual pollution, so in 710 Nara, Japan's first true city, was built as a permanent capital.

Located in the center of the Yamato plain, Nara was laid out as a smaller copy of China's capital, Changan; eventually it grew to house 200,000 people, and it was a lovely city filled with pagodas, parks, and cherry trees. Here art and literature flourished, and more elements of Chinese culture, especially Buddhism, entered the country. Buddhism was seen as a source of both modern civilization and enlightened philosophy, but since the emperors derived their authority from being descendants of Amaterasu, they could not under any circumstances forsake the native religion. The differences between Buddhism and Shintoism were finally resolved by an influential monk named Gyogi, who prayed at the door of Amaterasu's shrine for seven days and nights, asking her opinion. The sun goddess answered by saying that the two religions were really just two different ways of expressing the same faith, and it was okay to build Buddhist shrines anywhere in the country after that. Japan's upper class now embraced the new faith, with its accompanying values, even more fervently than contemporary Germanic tribes in Europe accepted Christianity.(1)

Nara gave Japan a brilliant capital, but not the best administration. The Ainu tribes to the north--as they always had been previously--were still a threat; more dangerous, however, was the growing power of the Buddhist clergy. A monk named Dokyo became the lover of the Empress Koken (749-770), and he dominated her in a way similar to the way that Rasputin dominated the last tsarina of Russia. Dokyo exiled and later murdered the crown prince; then he appointed himself both prime minister and high priest. Too ambitious to stop there, Dokyo then produced an oracular pronouncement from Hachiman, the Shinto god of war, that promised everlasting peace for Japan if Dokyo would become the next emperor. Even the empress was skeptical about this, and she sent an emissary to Hachiman's shrine to ask if this was true; the god responded that the monk could never be emperor because he lacked imperial lineage. Nara's wrathful nobility stripped Dokyo of his titles and banished him to a small island.

These unseemly events caused the Japanese to draw two conclusions: (1.) they must never again allow a female to reign, and (2.) they must put the government in a priest-proof city. In 784 the capital was moved from Nara to nearby Nagaoka, but eleven years later it was abandoned as an ill-omened place. The new capital that was than built, Heian-kyo, was only 28 miles from the temples of Nara, but that was far enough to separate church & state.(2) It was from there that Japan would be ruled for the next millennium.(3)

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Silla & Sinicization

668 to 935

Under the Silla monarchs and the Goryeo dynasty (918-1392) that followed them, Chinese influence peaked, and then Korean culture achieved its first full flowering. The Silla rulers consciously strove to turn their kingdom into a miniature of the Tang Empire. They regularly sent embassies and tribute to the Tang court, where Korean scholars collected Chinese texts and noted the latest fashions in court dress and etiquette. The Koreans' regular attendance on the Chinese emperors was a key manifestation of their prominent and enduring participation in the Chinese tribute system. At various times, the participants in the system included nomads from central and North Asia, Tibet, many kingdoms of Southeast Asia, and the emperors of Japan. None of these participants was more committed to the system than the Koreans.

Rather than attempt to conquer the Koreans and other surrounding peoples, most Chinese emperors were content to receive embassies from them. These emissaries both offered tribute in the form of splendid gifts and acknowledged the superiority of the Son of Heaven by their willingness to kowtow to him (kowtowing involved a series of ritual bows in which the supplicant prostrated himself before the throne).

To most of the peoples involved, this seemed a small price to pay for the benefits they received from the Middle Kingdom. Not only did submission and tribute guarantee peace with the Chinese, it brought far richer gifts in return for those offered to the Chinese ruler, and privileged access to Chinese learning, art, and manufactured goods. Tribute missions normally included merchants, whose ability to buy up Chinese manufactures and sell their own goods in the lucrative Chinese market depended on their country's participation in the tribute system. The missions also included contingents of scholars, who studied at Chinese academies(4) or Buddhist monasteries and busily purchased Chinese scrolls and works of art to fill the libraries and embellish the palaces back home. Thus, the tribute system became a major channel of trade and cultural exchange between China and its neighbors. Until forcibly dismantled by the European powers in the 19th century, the system was virtually the only means by which the Middle Kingdom maintained ongoing relations with the pro-Chinese (and thus civilized) states and the "barbarian" peoples who surrounded it on all sides.

Unified Silla saw the flowering of absolute monarchy, and the influence of the Hwabaek was reduced to almost nothing. A central administrative body called the Chipsabu was established in its place to carry out royal decrees. Aristocrats were given salaries and land, but the land was expected to revert to the state when they left their jobs, thereby limiting their power.(5) Like the monarchs of other countries, the Silla kings built extravagant palaces and tombs as a symbol of their strength.

The Silla rulers rebuilt their capital at Gyeongju to look like its Chinese counterpart, Changan.(6) The streets were laid out in a rectangular grid; there were central markets, parks and lakes, and a separate district to house the imperial family. Like their Japanese counterparts during the same period, the Korean aristocrats fled backward rural areas and provincial capitals, and crowded their mansions into the areas around the imperial palace. With their large extended families and hundreds of slaves and hangers-on, they made up a sizeable portion of the capital's population, which peaked at more than 700,000 in the eighth century. A Confucian academy was established to study the Chinese classics, and a few of its aristocratic students even submitted to the rigors of the Confucian examination system introduced under the Silla rulers. Most of the nobility, though, opted for the artistic pursuits and entertainments available in the capital. They could do so because most positions in the government continued to be occupied by members of the aristocratic families, by virtue of their birth and family connections rather than education or ability. In this and other respects, the attempt to duplicate the Chinese bureaucratic apparatus was a failure under Silla. Though the Goryeo monarchs were somewhat more successful in this regard, the aristocratic clans continued to dominate Korean politics and society as a whole.

Partly out of self-interest, the Korean elite continued to favor Buddhism over Confucianism. They and the Korean royal family lavishly endowed monasteries and patronized works of art, which became major forms of Korean cultural creativity. The capital soon became crowded with Buddhist temples; Buddhist monks were constantly in attendance on the ruler as well as members of the royal family and the more powerful aristocratic households. To mass-produce Buddhist scriptures, block-printing was invented in the mid-eighth century; this predated by a century similar printing in China. But the schools of Buddhism that caught on were Chinese; Korean art and monastic design reproduced, sometimes splendidly, Chinese prototypes. Even the location of monasteries and pagodas in high places followed feng-shui, the Chinese philosophy about the need to placate local spirits and balance supernatural forces.(7)

Sometimes the Koreans borrowed from the Chinese and then outdid their teachers. Most notable in this regard was the pottery produced in both the Silla and Goryeo eras. The Koreans first learned the techniques of porcelain manufacture from the Chinese. But in the pale green-glazed celadon bowls and vases of this period, they created masterpieces that even the Chinese admired and collected. They also pioneered in making oxide glazes that were used in the manufacture of the black and rust-colored stoneware of this era, which is still recognized as some of the finest pottery ever crafted.

Frequent conflicts and rebellions unraveled the kingdom after 780. In that year the young king Hyegong was murdered, and afterwards different branches of the royal family competed for the throne, resulting in more assassinations and civil wars. In the final century and a half of Silla's existence there were no less than twenty rulers, plus rebel leaders like a certain Kim Hon-ch'ang, who established himself briefly in Ungjin, the old Baekje capital, in 822. Meanwhile aristocrats managed to gradually wear down the king's absolute power and restore the authority of the Hwabaek. And lower-ranking aristocrats demanded a removal of the restrictions imposed upon them by the strict class structure.

Outside the capital new families rose to prominence and by withholding taxes, they became stronger and central control grew weaker. Taxed by both the central government and the new castle lords, many farmers chose to become drifters or robbers, often staging more rebellions.

The most active provincial leader was Chang Po-go, who, with King Hungdok's approval, built the huge Ch'onghae fortress in 828 to defend the southwest coast from pirates. By putting down piracy he became a powerful warlord in his own right; he took over most of the trade with China and Japan, had a private army of 10,000, and could even afford to endow Korean-built temples in the Chinese province of Shandong. Often Silla's official diplomats to China had to travel on Chang's ships. When a bitter civil war broke out on the death of King Hungdok in 837, Chang Po-go stepped in and installed his own candidate on the throne, but then he alienated the aristocrats in the capital by attempting to force the new king to marry Chang's daughter. In 841 or 842 Chang was murdered by a hired bravo whom the Silla court rewarded with a promotion to the rank of general.

Eventually two provincial leaders, Kyonhwon and Kungye, declared independence from Silla and established the Later Baekje (892) and Later Goguryeo (901) kingdoms; together with Silla, these are sometimes called the Later Three Kingdoms. From this time onward, Silla monarchs continued to sit on the throne in Gyeongju, but their authority could no longer be enforced outside of the capital district. In 918 another rival, Wang Geon, founded a state named Goryeo at the central city of Kaesong.

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Ultracivilization: The Heian Era

795 to 1156

During the era when Nara was the capital, China experienced its best years under the glorious Tang dynasty. The Japanese had felt culturally inferior to the Chinese, and every embassy that went to China brought back books, works of art, the latest fashions, and anything else that interested them. This practice continued for a few years after Heian-kyo was built, until China, beset by rebellions, broke up. The lawlessness on the mainland caused the Japanese to stop sending embassies after 838. Occasionally a brave merchant or scholar would go to China after that, but the emperor's advisors no longer thought official visits and groveling before the Son of Heaven were worth all that trouble.

The Japanese did not regret the loss, though. By this time they had absorbed enough Chinese culture to consider themselves fully civilized, and as time went on, those who argued for a revival and strengthening of Japanese traditions at the expense of Chinese influence slowly gained the upper hand. By the end of this period, Japan's political and social systems had been virtually remade. Though important Chinese effects lingered, this new order bore little resemblance to the Chinese Confucian model that ran the Middle Kingdom.

On top of all that, the Japanese had created in their island kingdom a capital city they could be proud of, with a social life so delightful that just about every aristocrat had long since moved there. There they stayed by passionate choice, abandoning the provincial strongholds that they might have used for power bases and using their wealth to patronize peaceful cultural pursuits. Their concentration in the capital, where any form of violence was frowned on, gave Japan a kind of voluntary unity. Heian-kyo itself was remarkably defenseless; the original wall, only six feet high, was not replaced when it crumbled; the brightly colored guards performed a strictly ceremonial function with weapons and training that had a military value close to zero; at one point, a sixteen-year-old boy served as chief of police. None of that mattered, though, until after 1100, when a new class of warlike aristocrats arose in the provinces and brought the Heian age of peace to a violent end.

The buildings of the imperial household and leading aristocratic families were of unpainted wood, which Japanese taste found the most appealing, with sliding panels, matted floors, and wooden walkways running between the separate residences. Fish ponds, man-made lakes with waterfalls, and fine gardens were interspersed among the courtiers' living quarters. Life for the residents of those houses was incredibly sophisticated and complicated. Both sexes wore much makeup, and nearly every detail of clothing was regulated by etiquette. For example, the women might wear as many as twelve silk robes at a time, with sleeves of different lengths so that all would be visible; each robe had to be the right delicate color or the whole court would hear about it. Every move was made with utmost delicacy, and one's career might depend upon a single syllable in a poem. The exact shade of the paper on which a letter was written and the way the paper was folded carried a wealth of meaning. Even perfume-making became a fine art; a well-known gentleman could be recognized in a darkened room by a whiff of his favorite scent.

In this hothouse atmosphere, social status was everything, love affairs were a major preoccupation, and gossip was rampant. By our standards, life in this constricted and very artificial world was false and suffocating. Yet rarely in human history has so much energy been so focused on the pursuit of beauty, or has social interaction, on the surface at least, been so gracious and well mannered.

At the court women were expected to be as poised and cultured as men. They too wrote poems, played flutes or stringed instruments in informal concerts, and became embroiled in elaborate schemes to snub or disgrace rivals. Like their counterparts in China and the Islamic world, they also became involved in palace intrigues and power struggles. Though it was unseemly for women to openly pursue princely lovers, some of them did (if we are to believe the Tale of Genji and other court memoirs) take the initiative. Sometimes a highborn woman would even spurn a suitor and humiliate him in front of her maidservants.

The Heian period also produced great literature. The Chinese system of writing (kanji), with its thousands of characters, persisted as a symbol of higher education, but it was agonizingly clumsy to use. It was not even a necessary hindrance, because the Japanese language has only 47 sounds, making it easy to write phonetically. In this era two simplified alphabets, called hiragana and katakana, were developed and widely used, but the scholars refused to use them, considering these scripts fit only for rubes. Women, however, were not afraid to write in the popular scripts, so most of the works with any literary value had female authors.

Another by-product of the new alphabets was that fine literature could be written in the countryside. The Manyoshu, a collection of some 4,000 poems, reflects a fresh outpouring of the native Japanese spirit concerning the old religion, the brevity of life, love of nature, and appreciation of friends. These short poems have never been surpassed in equating natural phenomena and human emotion, clinching each point in typical Japanese fashion with a twist of thought at the end of a set syllabic sentence.

The most famous Heian work is The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu, the oldest existing novel and still considered the greatest piece of literature Japan ever produced. The Tale of Genji describes the numerous romantic adventures of a Heian prince, not all of them with happy endings (Lady Murasaki wrote about life as it is, with its virtues and vices, instead of creating an unreal fairyland). Genji's life is almost wholly devoted to the pursuit of aesthetic enjoyment, from affairs with beautiful women to musical entertainments in a garden scented with blooming flowers. Uncouth commoners and distasteful things, such as dirt, cheap pottery, and rough popular entertainments, are to be avoided at all costs. When her rivals at the court wish to insult Genji's mother, they leave spoiled fruit in the passages where she or her maid servants must pass. An encounter with a shriveled piece of fruit contributes to the illness that leads to her premature death. Everyone who matters in Genji's world is obsessed with social conventions that govern everything, from which gown is proper for a given ceremony to the composition of a suitable poem to woo a potential lover or win the emperor's favor. The poems, for example, were often written on painted fans or scented paper and sometimes sent in little boats down the streams that ran through the palace grounds, brief verses full of allusions to Chinese and Japanese classical writings. Lady Murasaki's picture of the sophisticated and amoral Heian court life is not only invaluable to historians, but it contrasts sharply with the stern, military virtues that Japan praised in later eras. The one common characteristic Heian Japan has with the modern Land of the Rising Sun is the constant sensitivity to beauty in all its natural forms.

The Heian era came to an end because of polarization between those who lived in the capital and those in the rest of the country, who hardly ever saw anything that was going on in Heian-kyo. The first trouble came from taxation because the central government was never strong enough to collect all the revenue it claimed was owed. Many lords who stayed in the provinces refused to pay taxes, acquired large estates, and later received a tax-exempt status. Emperors also exempted personal friends and the clergy from paying taxes; every time this happened it reduced the income, size, and influence of the imperial court.

Many peasants escaped the oppressive tax collectors, and the imperial agents who drafted them for labor or military service, by entrusting their land to a tax-exempt noble or temple; usually the new overlord kept the peasants on the land by demanding fewer payments/terms of service than the government did. Other peasants, and also nobles, got away from it all by moving north and carving out from the Ainu wilderness a homestead so far away that the government did not bother them. This newly civilized land later came under the rule of locally raised provincial barons, tough ruthless men who had fought Ainu, outlaws, and unruly settlers, and were not at all like the perfumed dandies of the imperial capital.

However they acquired their land, these families turned them into little kingdoms, which they ruled from small fortresses surrounded by wooden or earthen walls and ditches. The local lord and his retainers were housed within the fortress, constantly on the alert for an attack from the outside world. Granaries for storing the rice provided by local peasants, blacksmith forges and stables, wells for water, and armories made the fortresses self-contained worlds.

Within the little kingdoms ruled from the forts, the warrior leaders, or bushi, administered law, supervised public works, and collected revenue--for themselves, not the court. These barons raised private armies to defend themselves or to take land from their neighbors; governors of long-settled provinces and even Buddhist temples & monasteries did the same. This was a good formula for lawlessness; soon the highways were infested with bandits, the seas swarmed with pirates, and private armies battled each other in clear defiance of the central government. Even the "Capital of Peace and Tranquility" was threatened, as armed monks roamed the streets to protect their buildings and attack the monasteries of rival sects, while robbers broke into the houses of noblemen or set buildings on fire.

The central government, which meant in effect the Fujiwara family, watched the loss of taxable land and increase of provincial independence with concern. An alliance was formed with a powerful provincial family, the Minamoto, to deal with their enemies; another family, the Taira, helped the Fujiwara by suppressing the pirates of the Inland Sea. The three clans pooled their resources to put down revolts, and the Minamoto were especially good at chasing clerical hoodlums back to their monasteries. But disorder increased; eventually much of the capital was burned to the ground and never rebuilt.

Worst of all, the Fujiwara seemed to lose their political magic. They had maintained their power the same way the Soga clan had, by marrying into the imperial family. This was done again and again over the generations, until there was little difference in the ancestry of the Yamato and Fujiwara clans.(8) To further check any imperial ambitions, emperors were pressured to retire to Buddhist monasteries when their heirs, usually little boys, were old enough to perform the sacred ceremonies; this kept their Fujiwara uncles or grandfathers in charge of nonreligious matters. But after a while different branches of the Fujiwara clan began to plot against each other, and at a critical time the leading branch of the family failed to produce enough daughters to keep all male members of the imperial family safely supplied with Fujiwara wives. The result was that in 1068 an emperor named Go Sanjo was crowned; his mother was not a Fujiwara, and he saw no reason why he could not rule the country without the Fujiwara clan looking over his shoulder. Realizing that nearly all his time was taken up by ceremonies, he abdicated four years later and placed his son on the throne, but stayed nearby to tell him what to do. This started a curious institution that lasted for nearly three centuries, where an official emperor did the elaborate religious rituals that were expected of the head of state, while a retired emperor made decrees from his private residence, acting much like the chief Soga and Fujiwara ministers of previous eras. Caught between the powerful rural clans and ex-emperors with clout, the once-omnipotent Fujiwara clan's influence dwindled to nothing in the twelfth century.

In 1156 the Fujiwara-Minamoto-Taira alliance came undone, and civil war broke out as the Minamoto and Taira clans fought to control Kyoto and the central government. It was the end of a golden age, as feats of arms replaced poetry contests and "cuckoo-viewing" excursions into the countryside. A new kind of man--the mounted knight in armor--came onto the scene to win dominance over the elegant courtiers of earlier days.

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Goryeo: Civilization For the Few

935 to 1392

Balhae was destroyed in 926 by the Khitans, the newest barbarian tribe in Manchuria. In 935 the last king of Silla abdicated in favor of Wang Geon; one year later the Later Baekje kingdom surrendered to him, too. To bring peace, Wang Geon went to great lengths to absorb the people of nearby overthrown states; he gave the Silla nobles jobs in the new aristocracy, and welcomed refugees from Balhae. Now Korea (or Goryeo, as it was now called) was ruled by the Wang dynasty, which lasted until 1392. Under the Wang monarchs Buddhism was the dominant religion, though Confucian ideas about government, including civil service exams, continued to be popular.

Goryeo's relations with China continued to be very good, but Japanese pirates caused some trouble along the south and east coasts. The real threat, however, came from the Khitans. The first Goryeo monarchs proudly proclaimed themselves heirs to Goguryeo, and launched many campaigns to recover northern territory, eventually establishing the kingdom's frontier on the Yalu River. But this was a trivial loss to the Khitans, who by now were also humbling the Chinese, and they swept out of Manchuria and burned Kaesong in 1011. The Koreans built better defenses afterwards, but not until the Khitan empire crumbled in the twelfth century could they breathe easily again.

With the exception of Buddhist sects like the "Pure Land" that had strong appeal to the ordinary people, imports from China continued to be monopolized by the tiny elite. The aristocratic families were divided into several ranks that neither intermarried nor socialized with each other, much less the rest of the population. They not only filled most of the posts in the Korean bureaucracy, but also dominated the social and economic life of the entire kingdom. Much of Korea's trade with the Chinese and Japanese was oriented to providing the aristocrats with the fancy clothing, special teas, scrolls, and art that occupied such an important place in their idle lives. In return, Korea exported mainly raw materials, such as forest products and metals like copper, which was mined by virtual slaves who lived in horrendous conditions. Some manufactured goods, like pottery, ink, paper, and painted fans, also found their way into Korea's trade with China and Japan. Often members of the royal family and the aristocratic households financed artisan production for export or the supply of the court; some backed mercantile expeditions and even engaged extensively in moneylending. All of this, of course, constricted the activities of artisans and traders. Artisans were usually considered low in status and were poorly paid for their talents and labor; the traders were so weak that they did not really form a distinct class.

The aristocrats were the only people who really counted for anything in Korean society. The classes beneath them were oriented to their service. These included government functionaries, who were recognized as a separate social category; commoners, who were mainly peasants; and virtual slaves, who were known as the "low born" and ranged from miners and artisans to servants and entertainers. Persons from these social groups benefitted little from contacts with China, and most lived lives of drudgery and poverty that were scarcely, if at all, enlivened by extensive cultural borrowing from China.

A real Chinese civil service never developed in Korea to provide the services to the masses that the Confucians had envisioned as essential responsibilities of the privileged elite. For example, the sons of a family above the fifth of nine official ranks received official jobs without taking the civil service exams prescribed by the Confucians, and the land granted to aristocrats in the top four ranks belonged to them permanently. Buddhist festivals periodically relieved the monotony of the lives of the common people, and Buddhist teachings on salvation gave them hope for bliss in the afterlife. But much of what the peasants, artisans, and miners produced went to support the outsized court and aristocracy in the capital, where the wealth and cultural creativity of an otherwise impoverished and backward land was concentrated.

Eventually, the common people and the "low born" found their lot too much to bear and rose up against a ruling class that was obviously much more devoted to pursuing its own pleasures than to their well-being. Most of these uprisings were local affairs that were ruthlessly repressed by armies of the ruling class. Each time one happened, the aristocratic families managed to survive the crisis and elevate one of their number above the others, until the military switched sides.

The reason for this was that the soldiers, like the peasants, had been discriminated against, to the extent that the supreme commander of the armed forces was always a civilian. Military officials were excluded from the top two grades of the official hierarchy and the king's supreme council. Even those officers who were allowed into the civil service received less land than their civilian counterparts. When they had enough of this, they staged a coup d'etat in 1170. They gained complete control of the government, reduced the king to a powerless figurehead, set up their own private army, massacred a large number of civilian officials, and suppressed Buddhism. Then the generals fought among themselves, and only in 1196, after much strife, was order restored, under a general named Ch'oe Ch'ung-hon. By allying themselves with civilian bureaucrats, the Ch'oe family was able to rule as military dictators, like the shoguns of Japan, for the next sixty-five years.

In response to the dictatorship, Buddhists, especially members of the Son (Zen) sect, retreated to remote mountain areas, stirred up opposition among underprivileged farmers, and caused a series of upheavals for a period of 30 years. These rebellions were brought under control through a combination of appeasement and naked force, but some went on right until the Mongols began their invasions.

Genghis Khan was mainly interested in conquering northern China, but once his sons finished the job, Korea was next, and they overran the peninsula in 1236. The Ch'oe carried out a long resistance, even moving the court offshore to Ganghwa Island, at the mouth of the Han River, but the Mongols were ultimately successful, and the fourth Ch'oe ruler was assassinated in 1261.

The Mongols allowed the Goryeo king to keep his throne, but enormous annual tribute payments and heavy manpower levies went to serve the heirs of Genghis Khan. Furthermore, a Mongol overlord stayed in residence at the Goryeo capital, and Korea was forced to provide ships and men for the two unsuccessful Mongol invasions of Japan. Later kings were required to marry Mongol princesses, and the Goryeo crown prince was kept as a hostage in the Mongol capital (Beijing after 1260); this caused Korean court life to imitate the Mongol pattern.

Meanwhile Korean culture continued to grow; Buddhist-inspired art and poetry reached a high level during this time. Goryeo craftsmen were inspired to promote Buddhist missionary work; they accomplished the herculean task of carving thousands of wooden blocks, one for printing each page of the enormous Buddhist canon.(9) Then in 1234 the printing of Buddhist texts was made easier by the invention of a movable metal type printing press, a full two hundred years before Johann Gutenberg did the same thing in Europe.

Outside the capital a feudal-style system developed where some aristocrats expanded their landholdings into huge farms, but stayed in the capital and sent agents periodically to collect taxes from the tenants who actually worked the land. Tenants also had to do labor and military service if the state called for it. Many farmers chose to become personal servants of the aristocrats, who in turn treated them like the serfs of medieval Europe, protecting them from war and the state duties. Some aristocrats also caught drifters and illegally made them into servants. The result was a shortage in revenue and manpower by the mid-fourteenth century. Because of the financial strains of the government, it could no longer give much land to new bureaucrats; they called for both land reform and a government that followed Confucianism properly. A revolt against Mongol rule in 1356 began another period of disorder. Finally in 1364, a young Korean general, Yi Songgye, was able to defeat the Mongols after they had been weakened by their long war against the rising Ming dynasty in China.

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Japan: The Kamakura Shogunate

1156 to 1333

As lawlessness and violence increased during the closing years of the Heian era, landholders armed their sons & retainers and hired experienced warriors to lead them. But the violent trend of the time was against small groups; those that did not make alliances with other groups were almost sure to be defeated and plundered. To increase their strength all the warrior bands in one area might get together and offer their services to an important lord, who would in return protect the minor chiefs and their followers from enemies and share the booty that any member of the alliance might win. To improve his own position, a lord might then place himself and everyone under him at the service of one of the two most powerful clans, either the Minamoto or the Taira. This system of lords and vassals was very similar to the feudalism practiced in Europe at the same time, a crude but effective way to restore order when central authority disappears.

Along with feudalism came the Japanese counterpart to the European knight, the samurai. To cement the bonds between samurai and lord, an elaborate military code called Bushido ("the way of the warrior") was developed that demanded absolute loyalty to one's superiors. Nothing was supposed to interfere with this devotion, neither love of wife & children nor duty to one's parents; an honorable death was the most important goal.(10) Similar values were extended to women, who were expected to bear hardships with Spartan endurance; they now had to fight, and if necessary, die beside their husbands. Their lives were much harder, but they could hold the rights of a vassal and inherit property under the code. Later on, as Bushido became formalized, the warrior would become a special caste in society, and no one below samurai rank was allowed (in theory anyway) to wear the daisho, two superbly crafted swords--one long and one short--that were revered almost like sacred objects.

The lords and the samurai warriors who served them fought battles that were decided not by tactics or the movement of formations, but by man-to-man duels between great champions. These combats represented heroic warfare in the extreme. The time and location of battles were elaborately negotiated beforehand, and each side strove to demonstrate the justice of its cause and the treachery of the other side. Before engaging the enemy, Japanese warriors would proudly proclaim their family lineage and its notable military exploits to their adversaries, who often missed the details because they were shouting back their own. The battles themselves were chaotic affairs, with lots of shouting and clashing but relatively few fatalities; sometimes the loss of too many champions would prompt one side to withdraw from the battlefield, rather than continue the fight with reduced morale.

The decline of the Fujiwara clan left a vacuum at the top that both the Taira and the Minamoto scrambled to fill. The Taira won the first war between them (1156-60); Kiyomori, the Taira leader, moved to Kyoto, married his daughter to an imperial prince, and allowed the emperor, Fujiwara regent, and retired emperor to keep their jobs. Kiyomori's opponents were ruthlessly exterminated, and their lands were confiscated, but the Minamoto survived on the Kanto plain (a large fertile area just west of modern Tokyo), which was too far away for the Kyoto government to control firmly. But the Taira made a fatal mistake in moving to Kyoto; once there they gave themselves up to the pleasures of a capital city that had become little more than a symbol. The real source of power was armed force, and since it came from the provinces, the Minamoto were now in a better position to exploit it.

Minamoto Yoritomo, a son of one of the eliminated opponents, was spared because of his youth and entrusted to a supposedly loyal retainer of the Taira family, Hojo Tokimasa. But this ambitious lord married his daughter to Yoritomo and helped him gain leadership of the clan so he could make a comeback. Yoritomo's rebellion, known as the Gempei War, began in 1180, and the Minamoto armies, which were not softened by the social life in Kyoto, marched southwest to one victory after another. After several battles in the heartland of Honshu, the Taira abandoned Kyoto, taking the child emperor with them, but the retired emperor defected to the other side, giving the Minamoto the legitimacy they needed. A naval battle on the Inland Sea crushed the Taira in 1185.(11)

Once his last rivals were eliminated, Yoritomo set up the system of military dictatorship that characterized Japan for most of the next 700 years. Rather than make the same mistake as the Taira did, he established his government at the small town of Kamakura, 300 miles east of Kyoto. This government, called the Bakufu ("Tent Government"), was a simple but effective system, modeled after the way he ran his household. Most policies were made by an administrative board; the Samurai-Dokoro (Board of Retainers) assigned, rewarded, and punished lords and samurai; a Board of Inquiry became a court of appeals for anyone who had sworn loyalty to the Minamoto clan. In 1192 the emperor recognized that the country was being run more effectively from Kamakura by giving Yoritomo the title of Shogun (Generalissimo).

Ironically, Yoritomo made sure that the Minamoto would not keep control of the government he had set up, due to an obsessive fear of being overthrown by members of his own family. Close relatives, including his brother Yoshitsune, whose courage and military genius had much to do with the Minamoto triumph over the Taira, were murdered or driven into exile. Fear of spies and uncertainty about how to stay above suspicion made paranoia a regular part of life at the Bakufu. Though Yoritomo's rule went unchallenged, the measures he adopted to protect his throne left him without an able heir, and nobody in his family lived long after his death in 1199. Peace was maintained by Yoritomo's widow, Masa-ko, who claimed the title of shogun for her family, the Hojo. The Hojo kept the power of decision-making with their leading family members, though, making the office of shogun just one more figurehead position. Now political power was removed six steps from the official head of state:

  1. Emperor
  2. Fujiwara Regent
  3. Retired Emperor
  4. Shogun
  5. Hojo Regent
  6. Hojo Family Committee
Theoretically each member of the above list was superior to those below him, but in practice each member took orders from his immediate subordinate. Only in a country like Japan, where tradition and hereditary status are revered so highly, could such a hierarchy (or is it lowerarchy?) function effectively.

The age of the Kamakura Shogunate was an age of prosperity and progress. Trade with China resumed after a 350-year interruption, and the constant traffic between Kamakura & Kyoto encouraged commerce at home. Since the artists and writers of the day had patrons with different tastes, the stories and paintings produced vividly described military feats of valor. Unlike the arts of the Heian era, which were produced by aristocrats for aristocrats, the new culture was popular all over the country, inspiring martial values in the Japanese people all the way until 1945. Artisans also went to work producing the finest swords and armor in the world, which were works of art in their own right.(12)

Another aspect of culture affected by the new order was religion. Buddhism had split into many sects with differing doctrines when it was transmitted from India to China; now the same process occurred in Japan. The first Buddhist sects that the Japanese accepted were ones that originated in China; the most famous of these is Zen (Chan in Chinese). Now the Japanese invented their own sects. The most popular of these was Jodo, or Pure Land Buddhism, which taught that there was an Indian ruler named Amida, who lived a perfect life and ruled a paradise on the western edge of the earth. Pure Land followers believed that a righteous life would allow them to be reincarnated in that paradise, but some dissenting members claimed that repetition of the phrase "Namu Amida Butsu" (Homage to Amida Buddha) was all that was necessary to gain salvation.(13)

A native Buddhist sect with a more militant air was started by an evangelist named Nichiren (1222-82), who claimed that a text called the Lotus Sutra was the only true way to find salvation. Nichiren replaced the traditional Buddhist doctrine of reincarnation with a picture of Heaven and Hell as vivid as Dante's; in an un-Buddhist fashion he denounced all other sects for sending their followers to perdition, and criticized the government for not suppressing these "heresies." Of course this teaching got Nichiren in trouble with the authorities, but when he converted his would-be executioner and correctly predicted that Japan would be invaded a few years later, he won the respect--and conversion--of many samurai. Both Nichiren and Pure Land Buddhism resemble Protestant evangelism in their zeal, married clergy, loose organization, and an emphasis on faith rather than works.

The foreign invasion that Nichiren predicted came from the Mongols, who now ruled most of Eurasia. In 1268 Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, sent a letter addressed to the "King of Japan," stating that he favored continuing trade (meaning tribute) between Japan and China. The Kamakura government refused to answer, though they knew that war would be the likely result. Since Kyushu was the closest part of the country to the Asian mainland, the island's coastal defenses were strengthened and the local warriors were kept on alert; spies in Korea watched the build-up of the Mongol forces. The expected invasion came in 1274, with 15,000 Mongol troops riding 450 ships built and sailed by Koreans. Not willing to wait for the arrival of the Bakufu's main armies, the local samurai charged the Mongols recklessly. The Japanese had the advantage of being familiar with the land they were fighting on, but everything else favored the Mongols. Whereas the samurai used no military formations and challenged their opponents to formalized single combat, the Mongols were experienced tacticians that maneuvered skillfully in tight formations even when on horseback; they also had crossbows and catapults. The battle was inconclusive, but the Korean sailors, not liking the look of the weather, persuaded the Mongols to reboard the ships. That night a storm sank many of the ships and blew the rest back to Korea.

After that abortive invasion, Kublai Khan sent another embassy, ordering the "King of Japan" to come to him and do homage. The Bakufu rejected this ultimatum in the strongest way it could think of, by lopping off the heads of the Mongol ambassadors. Then the Japanese people prepared for the second invasion with a show of unity that the country had never seen before. A fleet was constructed; more defenses were built on Kyushu; more arms were stockpiled; all men able to bear arms were trained to be ready for battle at a moment's notice. The court at Kyoto gave up luxuries to save money for defense. Even the pirates of the Inland Sea enthusiastically joined forces with the navy. Fortunately for the Japanese, the invasion did not come for seven years, because the Mongols were busy subjugating south China in the meantime. When Kublai Khan's force finally arrived, it contained 1,000 ships and 150,000 troops, the largest amphibious invasion force in history before modern times. The struggle lasted for 50 days on Kyushu, with no side gaining the upper hand. Then a great typhoon roared over the island, wrecking the fleets and breaking the back of the Mongol army. It was the worst defeat in Mongol history, and the kami-kazi ("divine wind"), as the typhoon was called, convinced the Japanese that their land was protected by the gods, a belief that lasted until the end of World War II.

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Korea: The Joseon Dynasty

28 years after the return of independence, General Yi deposed the last weak ruler of the decadent Wang dynasty, proclaimed himself the founder of a new dynasty, the Joseon, changed his name to Taejo, and swore allegiance to China's Ming rulers, who had given him aid. General Yi's family remained in power from 1392 until the Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910. Though there would be some modifications, the Joseon dynasty quickly restored the aristocratic dominance and links to China that had predominated under their predecessors. Of all of the peoples who received civilization from China, none would be as content to live in the shadow of the Middle Kingdom as the Koreans.

Taejo also made Hanyang (later renamed Seoul) the capital, built Gyeongbokgung palace, rejected Buddhism, and in 1394, established Ju Xi Confucianism as the state religion. His son and grandson, Taejong (1400-1418) and Sejong the Great (1418-50), brought about many positive economic and social reforms, like a new land register and the abolition of feudal relations in the armed forces. In foreign affairs, the Joseon rulers conducted successful military oerations, both in Manchuria and against Japanese coastal pirates. Improved agricultural techniques, better communications, and innovations in the crafts increased economic productivity. The manufacture of cotton cloth, learned from China, also stimulated trade. Such economic growth increased the number of craftsmen and merchants, although most were employed in government monopolies.

A well-functioning Confucian bureaucracy, an orderly social structure, rapid development of the educational system accompanied by the publication of many books, and the growth of science and technology seemed to promise a bright future. The next two hundred years were among the best in Korean history. To start with, there was considerable progress in medicine, astronomy, history and agriculture. In 1420 a royal academy called Chiphyonjon was established, and many promising young scholars went there for study and research. In 1443 Hangul, a phonetic alphabet, was made the official Korean script by King Sejong, as a simple alternative to using Chinese characters. Soon government printing presses were publishing many works of literature. Some of these were prose compositions on serious subjects, such as moral responsibility. Poetry, stressing love of nature, personal grief, and romantic love, also became quite popular; many of the lyric poets were women. The other arts, however, were less promising. Painting, sculpture, and architecture generally followed Chinese models, producing many creditable works but generally lacking originality.

In the reign of the seventh monarch, Sejo (1455-68), the government was overhauled to make it more centralized and civilian-oriented. Laws were codified, and the Supreme State Council was set up as the highest governmental body under the king. Three censorial offices were set up to watch the king (a Neo-Confucian practice borrowed from China), which kept the kings from becoming corrupt and served as the government's system of checks & balances. The country was divided into eight provinces, and all governors were appointed by the central government.

Korea's eight provinces.

The provinces of the Joseon era. From Wikimedia Commons.

But the Joseon dynasty promised more than it delivered. In less than a century, Confucianism and the new centralized administration had spawned another class of privileged bureaucrats who were as corrupt, inefficient, and overbearing as those in Ming China. With their growing power came higher taxes and service requirements for common people, most of whom were peasant tenants or slaves. As in China, the Confucian revival brought more difficulties for women. Until the tenth century, women had enjoyed near legal equality with men in property, inheritance, and marriage rights. Many Silla rulers were women, either as queens, exercising royal authority directly, or as powers "behind the screen," acting through royal consorts or sons. This all changed drastically with the Goryeo dynasty. New laws restricted women's legal rights, and women were prohibited from participating in games, attending feasts, appearing in public unveiled, or even walking alone outside the home.

From the early 16th century, growing factionalism among scholars, mismanagement of state affairs by officials, court intrigues and power struggles, usurpation of power and privileges by the landed gentry, decline of foreign trade, and increasing tax burdens combined to bring about political instability, economic decline and social upheavals. A number of idealistic scholars and officials arose, who criticized the bureaucracy and called for drastic measures to achieve Confucian ideals. But relentless counterattacks and pressure forced most of the reformist scholars to quit their posts, and they set up private academies to teach their view of Confucianism. In the seventeenth century this would be the beginning of what was known as the Silhak, or "Practical Learning" schools. Silhak scholars split into four groups, each emphasizing a different subject: government reform; the development of commerce, industry and technology; critical analysis of the Confucian classics; or the study of Korean history, geography, and language.

In 1592 Korea suffered a major Japanese invasion, led by the new shogun of Japan, Hideyoshi Toyotomi. Seven years of occupation and plundering of the land took place before the Koreans, with Chinese help, "persuaded" the Japanese to withdraw. During this conflict the Koreans never lost control of the sea, and an admiral named Yi Sun Sin won a noteworthy victory over the Japanese in a battle at Chinhae bay, using the oldest known ironclad ships.(14) Fighting between the Japanese and Ming armies left Korea in ruins, and caused widespread famine because crops could not be grown during that time. Many Korean scholars and artisans were taken to Japan, where they were required to teach Korea's latest technology. It took a full half century for the country to recover, and the invasions left an indelible scar on the minds of the Koreans.(15)

The determined efforts of King Kwang-Haegun (1608-23) to rebuild the country came too late. Because Korea aided China in its war against the Manchus, another invasion came from the north in 1627. Ten years later Seoul was captured, and the government submitted, switching its annual tribute from the Ming to the Manchus. Thousands of Koreans, held hostage by the Manchus, suffered great cruelty and privation before they could be ransomed. Many Korean women were never accepted again by their families, because they had been sexually violated and therefore dishonored.

Meanwhile the Manchus went on to overthrow the Ming and found China's last imperial dynasty, the Qing. From this time on the Korean kings regarded themselves as "younger brothers" and the Manchu emperors of China as "elder brothers," in the Confucian tradition. The Manchus handled Korea's defense and foreign affairs, but left domestic manners to be handled as the Joseon monarchs saw fit. Vassalage to the Manchus may have been all right for the kings, but it fostered antiforeign sentiments among the Korean people, leading to rebellions and peasant uprisings when the dynasty came under more outside pressure than it could stand.

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Japan: The Ashikaga Shogunate

1333 to 1573

After defeating the Mongols, the Kamakura Shogunate descended rapidly into oblivion. Those two wars, followed by 20 years of alert waiting for a third invasion that never came, drained the economy; furthermore, since they were strictly defensive wars, there was no booty from conquered enemies to be had, and everyone, from the peasants to the shogun, came out poorer. Government resources dropped as great landholders stopped paying taxes, but the Bakufu could not make its other vassals act against them. Then in 1318 a very vigorous emperor, Go Daigo, mounted the throne; he was determined to rule by himself without the pressure of any other family on him. The Hojo regent tried to make Go Daigo abdicate without the use of force, but the emperor outwitted him every time. Finally in 1333, the regent sent an army to Kyoto, but before it got there its general, Ashikaga Takauji, changed sides, declared himself for the emperor, and marched back to Kamakura. Several discontented lords and samurai joined him, and together they destroyed the Bakufu and the military capital. Then Takauji forced Go Daigo off the throne, replaced him with a puppet emperor he could trust, and declared himself the new shogun.

The Ashikaga shogunate was much weaker than the governments before and after it. Not only did it fail to put Go Daigo in his place (he set up a rival court in the mountain town of Yoshino that lasted until 1392), but it made the same mistake as the Taira: the shogun and his retainers moved into Kyoto, discovered "the good life" in the capital, and lost control over the vassals who stayed at home. For nearly 270 years after Takauji's coup the emperors and shoguns were mere shadows, unable to keep order beyond the city limits of Kyoto, while powerful lords called daimyo (dukes) ruled their fiefs like independent nations, making their own laws and launching wars of conquest against their neighbors whenever they felt like it. None of the daimyo paid taxes, forcing the shoguns to live off the incomes their personal estates produced.(16) While theoretically every daimyo was the shogun's vassal, in practice they were more like allies of doubtful allegiance, especially in the fourteenth century when the existence of two rival emperors provided a ready excuse to switch sides when it was in a lord's interest to do so. The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were marked by bloody civil wars to determine the shogun's successor, with none of the participants even claiming to be devoted to the current emperor or shogun. In this era of ruthless competition, spies, skill, luck--and treachery!--became more important than loyalty; so many daimyo came to premature ends that their number was reduced from roughly 260 in 1467 to 45 in 1580. When there was peace at home many unemployed soldiers became pirates, plundering the coast of China and Southeast Asia. For these reasons the period of the Ashikaga Shogunate is also called "the Age of War."

The collapse of any semblance of centralized authority was sharply accelerated by the Onin War, which involved 250,000 warriors and raged for a decade (1467-77). Rival heirs to the Ashikaga Shogunate called on the warlord chiefs to support their claims. Samurai flocked to the rival headquarters in different sections of Kyoto, where feuding soon broke into all-out warfare. By the time they were finished, the old imperial capital had been reduced to rubble and weed-choked fields. While the shogunate self-destructed in the capital, the provincial lords continued to amass power and plot new coalitions to destroy their enemies. In place of mud-walled forts, the daimyo erected massive wood and stone castles to dominate the Japanese landscape. To discourage betrayal by their vassals, the daimyo required them to live in the towns that developed around the castles, or at least to leave members of their families there as hostages to ensure their good behavior.

The pattern of warfare was also transformed when the daimyo responded to a shortage of warriors by drafting peasants, arming them with pikes, and sending them into battle under the leadership of the mounted samurai who had fought by themselves in the previous era. Now victory depended on the size and organization of a warlord's forces and on how effectively his commanders employed them in the field. The scarcely trained and poorly fed peasant forces became a major source of misery to the common people. As they marched about the countryside to fight the incessant wars of their overlords, they looted and pillaged with impunity. Often in response to the depredations of warlord armies, the peasantry in different areas sporadically rose up in hopeless but ferocious revolts that fed the trend toward brutality and destruction. It is no wonder that contemporary accounts of the era are dominated by a sense of pessimism and foreboding--a conviction that Japan was going back to barbarism.

Those peasants with enough military talent to survive their first battle rose rapidly in rank, becoming officers and gaining grants of land or even samurai status. With this check on social mobility removed, the common man gained an importance that the daimyo could not ignore; a wise lord often responded by ruling his realm more efficiently. Unfortunately, women found their lives more restricted at the same time; they lost their right of inheritance, because in that chaotic age many felt a woman could not keep a firm hand on any land bequeathed to her.(17)

As civil strife intensified, the pace of social and economic change accelerated accordingly. Fine arts such as painting and theater, once found only in the capital, found patrons among the warrior barons and rich merchants. The tea ceremony first appeared during this time and was soon transformed from a way of taking a break into a social ritual of great importance. Trade, both local and with China, continued to increase. Prosperous Zen monasteries sponsored trading expeditions to China and set up a fine system of schools all over the country.

Most of the daimyo recognized that they had to build up their petty states if they were to be strong enough to survive in the long run. Within their domains, attempts were made to stabilize village life by introducing regular tax collection, supporting the construction of irrigation systems and other public works, and building strong rural communities. Incentives were offered to encourage the settlement of unoccupied areas, and new tools, the greater use of draft animals, and new crops like soybeans improved the lives of the peasantry in the better-run domains. Peasants were also encouraged to produce items such as silk, hemp, paper, dyes, and vegetable oils, which were highly marketable and thus potential sources of household income. The net result of all this was that daimyos often doubled or even tripled the income of their estates. They also made a determined effort to attract merchants to their growing castle towns, and a new and quite wealthy commercial class emerged as the purveyors of goods for the military elite. As in Medieval Europe, guild organizations for both craftsmen (carpenters, thatchers, smiths, potters, etc.) and merchants were strong in this era. They helped provide social solidarity and group protection in a time of political breakdown and insecurity.

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European Contact

While Japan was occupied with internal matters, the seafaring countries of Europe went exploring for the lands of fabulous riches that Marco Polo had seen and written about 200 years before. When Christopher Columbus discovered Cuba, he thought it was Japan; he wondered where the gilded castles and silk-robed scholars were, when all he found were Indians! In 1542 three Portuguese merchants, riding on a Chinese junk, arrived at Tanegashima, one of the northern Ryukyu Islands. Their cargo included arquebuses (matchlock muskets), and when they gave the local daimyo a demonstration of what guns can do, the lord bought all the arquebuses and ordered his armorers to make 600 copies of them. Thus, in more ways than one, Japanese-Western relations began with a bang.

Every year after that saw European traders visit the islands in increasing numbers. The traders brought goods produced in India, China, and Southeast Asia and exchanged them for silver, copper, pottery, and lacquerware. More important, the Europeans also brought Western-made goods such as firearms, printing presses, and clocks. Commercial contacts with the Europeans also encouraged the Japanese to venture overseas to trade with nearby Formosa and Korea, and places as distant as the Philippines and Siam.

Even when Portuguese merchants had no European goods to sell, they could turn a profit, by acting as middlemen. China had stopped trading with Japan because of Japanese pirate activity, but the Chinese did not object when the Portuguese bought Chinese silks and then immediately resold them to the Japanese.

To Europeans, Japan was the most pleasant country in the Orient. From their point of view, India and Southeast Asia were too hot, and the customs of their peoples aroused little but contempt. China had a more temperate climate, but the Chinese treated Europeans like a dangerous disease and kept them quarantined to one southern port (Canton). By contrast, Japan had a culture and government the Europeans could understand (feudalism), and the people were friendly. In 1549 the first missionaries arrived, led by the Spanish Jesuit Francis Xavier. Like the merchants, the missionaries were greeted by a welcoming committee, and made many converts from the start.(18) Thus, when Francis Xavier left in 1551, he reasonably expected great success for those who came after him.

Both the merchants and the missionaries had a problem with the constant fighting between the daimyo, though all factions respected the Europeans enough to leave them alone if they happened to stray near a battlefield. Missionaries often had to pack up and move when an unfriendly daimyo captured the territory they were in (but they always left Japanese Christians behind to continue their work), and the merchants attracted the attention of pirates if they dropped anchor in the same harbor more than once. In 1569, however, the daimyo of northwestern Kyushu became a Christian; he promptly converted all 1,500 of his retainers, burned the local Buddhist temple, and built a church on the temple's site. That daimyo's city, Nagasaki, grew afterwards to become a prominent base for traders and the safest part of the country for Christians.

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The Reunification of Japan

Japan under the Ashikaga Shogunate may have looked like several feuding nations to European eyes, but the fact that the people on all the islands (except the Ainu) were of one race, one language and one culture meant that it would only be a matter of time before somebody tried reunification. In the late sixteenth century three remarkable leaders arose to pull the country back together: Oda Nobunaga (1534-82), Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-98), and Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616).(19)

Nobunaga got started by inheriting the lands of his father, a minor daimyo, at the age of 17. Some of his relatives were not willing to serve under a teenager, so he had to raise an army of 1,000 and fight the dissidents to make his claim stick. A few years later, in 1560, he was attacked by Imagawa, the most powerful daimyo in central Honshu. Nobunaga's army was outnumbered 8 to 1, but in a daring move he trapped Imagawa and his followers in a ravine and all but annihilated them. Nothing succeeds like success, and Imagawa's surviving vassals, including Tokugawa Ieyasu, beat a path to Nobunaga's door. Then Nobunaga made a revolutionary change in tactics by arming 3,000 of his warriors with muskets. Many samurai wanted to keep on using their cherished swords, and they denounced the muskets, calling them weapons for cowards, but they brought Nobunaga more victories and a flood of followers.

16th-century battle scene.
A typical battle in the sixteenth century. Normally soldiers on horseback, like the samurai here, would have an advantage over infantry, but now the footsoldiers (mostly peasants) are armed with muskets, while the samurai stick to traditional weapons like swords and bows.

In 1568 Nobunaga occupied Kyoto and named a puppet shogun; five years later he quietly put an end to the Ashikaga Shogunate when the shogun acted on his own once too often. Now the strongest daimyo in Japan, Nobunaga spent the rest of his life ruthlessly warring against his persistent rivals.

Since Nobunaga never claimed any religious belief, his most ardent opponents came from the Buddhist clergy, who had dominated politics in Kyoto for more than a generation. Therefore he tried to break their power in a merciless campaign of destruction. An interesting by-product of this anti-Buddhist hostility was a friendly attitude toward Christians. Soon the Jesuits got the idea that they were on the verge of winning over Nobunaga, who delighted in wearing Western clothes, encouraged his artists to copy Western paintings of the Virgin Mary and scenes from the life of Christ, and permitted the missionaries to build churches in towns wherever he ruled. The missionaries hoped that Nobunaga's conversion would bring the rest of the Japanese people into the Christian fold. Nobunaga did not convert, but he gave the missionaries everything else they wanted; by the time of his death there were 150,000 Christians in Japan, out of a population of 20 million.

By 1580 Nobunaga had unified a third of Japan (mainly central Honshu) under his command. As his armies drove against the powerful western daimyo in 1582, he was caught off guard by one of his vassal generals and killed when the Kyoto temple where he had taken refuge was burned to the ground. The assassin, however, could not take his lord's job; he was defeated by Nobunaga's leading general, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who negotiated a truce with a rival and hurried back to Kyoto as soon as he heard the news. He spent the next two years gaining the submission of Nobunaga's vassals; unlike his predecessor, who believed in using force as a first resort, Hideyoshi preferred negotiations. His favorite strategy was to gain the loyalty of other daimyo by enlarging their tracts of land, even if he had fought them previously. Once that was done, he resumed Nobunaga's war against those daimyo who still did not recognize his authority, conquering Shikoku in 1585 and Kyushu in 1587. The last battle was fought at Odawara (near mt. Fuji) in 1590, when the castle of the once-powerful Hojo family was taken; now for the first time in centuries, Japan was both peaceful and united. Many conservative Japanese must have been shocked by his success, because Hideyoshi came from a peasant family, making his career the most remarkable "rags-to-riches" story in Japanese history.

Unlike Nobunaga, Hideyoshi was suspicious of the power Christianity was gaining, perhaps because Buddhism was no longer a threat. In 1587 his emissary woke up the Jesuit leader in the middle of the night and gave him a list of questions about Christian practices. Why did God allow only one woman per man (Hideyoshi once claimed he would convert if that prohibition was lifted)? How could one justify the gaining of converts by force? Why were Buddhists persecuted and their temples desecrated/destroyed? Why do Christians eat useful animals, such as cattle? Why are merchants permitted to enslave Japanese and carry them off for sale? Before the priest could reply, Hideyoshi ordered all missionaries to leave Japan, but he left them alone after they stopped preaching openly.

Now that Japan possessed far more warriors than it needed, Hideyoshi decided to use them to conquer China and even India, though he knew little about either place; he also considered an invasion of the Spanish Philippines. Since Korea was on the way, 160,000 samurai were sent across Tsushima Strait in 1592. Korea was conquered in only six weeks, but the Korean navy, using a radical new ship design called the "tortoise boat" (a rowboat covered with spikes and bulletproof iron armor), controlled the sea, making it difficult to reinforce the Japanese forces. To make matters worse, China sent armies into Korea, and even after the Chinese were defeated twice they refused to negotiate. The situation in Korea became a stalemate; in 1597 Hideyoshi tried to break it by sending another 150,000 troops, and that campaign was still in progress when he died a year later. After his death the samurai were called home, leaving Japan, China, and Korea all in worse shape than before.

While all these events were happening, Spanish traders began to visit Japan, joining the Portuguese already there. Japan tolerated these aggressive newcomers until 1596, when Spain's Manila Galleon was driven onto the island of Shikoku by a typhoon. Her cargo--a whole year's worth of revenue from the Philippines, intended for the Spanish crown--was claimed by both the local samurai and Hideyoshi's representatives. The Spanish captain reacted by showing a map of the vast Spanish empire and warned that the king of Spain would invade Japan if the cargo was not returned. To add to this monumental error, the captain mentioned that Spanish missionaries are used to pave the way for future conquests. When Hideyoshi heard about this, he crucified six Spanish Franciscans and 20 Japanese Christians. The church was driven underground for the rest of Hideyoshi's life.

Hideyoshi's passing in 1598 left Tokugawa Ieyasu the most powerful man in Japan, possessing an estate even larger than that of Hideyoshi's family. The other daimyo tried to form an alliance against him, but Ieyasu crushed them in the battle of Sekigahara (1600). Three years later the emperor made him shogun, beginning the Tokugawa Shogunate that would rule Japan until 1867.

This is the End of Chapter 2.


1. One of the first Japanese monasteries was Horyuji, built near Nara around 680. All of its buildings are wooden and it is because of the care the Japanese have given to them that they are still standing; they are in fact the oldest wooden buildings in the world. The five-story pagoda in the courtyard of the complex has its massive central post loosely attached to the foundation, allowing it to sway during the country's frequent earthquakes. A replica of this pagoda can be seen in the Japan pavilion at Walt Disney World's EPCOT Center.
On the other hand, the old custom of disposable buildings has survived at the Ise Grand Shrine. This is the most important Shinto holy place, a complex of 125 shrines in and near the city of Ise. Reportedly founded in 4 B.C., the Ise shrines are torn down and replaced every twenty years, so that the structures will always be new and old at the same time. The next "urban renewal" is scheduled for 2033. If you make a pilgrimage there, don't expect to get too close. Only Shinto priests/priestesses and members of the imperial family are allowed inside the two main shrines; most visitors stop at the gates.

2. The Buddhists were forbidden to build monasteries in the new capital. To get around this restriction, the monks established monasteries in the surrounding hills, and in the next era they regained some of their previous power by becoming royal advisors.

3. Heian-kyo literally means "peace & tranquility," a very appropriate name when one considers that Japan was at peace in the 9th-11th centuries. Today it is called Kyoto.

4. A few Korean scholars, like Ch'oe Ch'i-won, did so well in their studies of the classics that they were even admitted into the Chinese bureaucracy.

5. In practice, however, the property could often be kept within an aristocrat's family, simply by making sure a son received the same position as his father.

6. Today there are so many archaeological and historical sites in Gyeongju that it is often called "the museum without walls," and is one of South Korea's most popular tourist attractions as a result.

7. There was a nasty spell of anti-Buddhist persecution in China during the ninth century, which saw the burning down of many pagodas. Because of this the best surviving examples of ninth-century Chinese art & architecture are in Korea and Japan.

8. One Fujiwara patriarch, Fujiwara Michinaga (966-1027), was the brother of two empresses and the father of four, the uncle of two emperors, the grandfather of two more, and the great-grandfather of another!

9. These blocks are now filed on shelves like library books at Haein Temple in South Korea.

10. Beaten or disgraced warriors committed ritual suicide, which they called seppuku (disembowelment), but which is commonly known in the West by the more vulgar hari-kiri (belly-slitting), to prove their courage and restore the family honor.

11. The Taira carried red flags, while the Minamoto identified themselves with white flags. Once the Minamoto pulled off a successful ambush by marching up to a Taira army with red flags, and when the Taira had their guard down, thinking this was a friendly unit, the Minamoto switched to white flags and attacked. After the civil war, in a show of unity, red and white were made the national colors, and all Japanese flags have been red and white ever since.

12. A complete suit of armor weighed 25 pounds, only half as much as the steel plate armor that European knights wore in the late Middle Ages, but it was just as effective. This was proved in 1180, when a Taira samurai survived a battle unhurt with 63 arrows sticking out of his armor. He must have looked like a pincushion!

Japan Samurai Armor of the Gusoku type
A samurai suit in the Gusoku style, from the eighteenth century. Lose the antlers, have the wearer do a James Earl Jones impersonation, and he could pass for Darth Vader. By Wikipedia Loves Art participant "Team_A" [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons.

13. They never agreed on how many times that phrase had to be repeated. Some said that once in a lifetime was enough to do it; on the other extreme were those who claimed it had to be repeated almost every waking moment of every day!

14. Yi Sun Sin's ironclad was known as the Geobukseon or "Tortoise Boat" because it had an oval shape, so it looked like a turtle when seen from above. With oars and spikes sticking out all over, plus cannon to top it off, it looked like it was part cactus, too. Note that this was more than two and a half centuries before the United States built the Monitor & the Merrimac/Virginia. The first picture came from; the second picture is a foot-long model made of gold, seen in the office of a Korean-owned company in my home city.

Korean tortoise boat.

Gold tortoise boat model.

However, Yi Sun Sin's greatest victory, the battle of Myeongnyang (1597), used conventional wooden ships. A badly planned attack on the Japanese naval base at Busan resulted in the battle of Chilchonryang, where most of the Korean navy was wiped out; its commander was killed and only twelve ships and a hundred sailors escaped. Admiral Yi persuaded King Seonjo to put him in charge of those ships. Then he managed to scrounge up one more ship and a hundred sailors, and decided to make his stand against the Japanese armada at Myeongnyang, a narrow strait with cliffs on each side and a strong tidal current. It must have looked hopeless; the Koreans had only thirteen warships, with 200 men between them, while the Japanese had 333 warships and 200 support vessels. Still, the Japanese had to pass that point to sail from Busan to Seoul. When the Japanese entered the strait, the current slowed them down so badly that they could make almost no headway at all, giving the Koreans plenty of time to fire their guns at barely moving targets. What's more, the Korean ships were flat-bottomed, making them more stable in the choppy water than the keeled Japanese ships, so the Korean cannon fire was more accurate. Finally, when the Japnese tried to send the whole fleet into the strait, it only resulted in confusion and collisions between ships, like what happened to the Persian navy at Salamis. In the middle of the battle the body of the Japanese admiral was found floating in the water; Admiral Yi had the head cut off and posted on his flagship, a real de-motivator for the Japanese. By the time the Japanese withdrew, 31 of their ships had been sunk, 91 more were damaged beyond repair, and at least 8,000 sailors were killed. On the Korean side, only two men were killed and three were wounded.

15. Another emotional scar was left by the Japanese occupation of Korea in the early twentieth century; for example, the Koreans complain that Japan has never properly apologized for the exploitation of Korean women by Japanese soldiers during World War II. Not until 1996 could a samurai movie be shown in South Korean theaters, and even that generated protests, though it was a US-made picture. It was hailed as a diplomatic triumph when Japan and South Korea co-hosted the 2002 World Cup soccer games.

16. The emperors were even worse off; cut off from all official income, one was forced to write and sell poems to make ends meet. Another could not bury his predecessor for six weeks until he gathered enough money for the funeral, and delayed his own coronation 20 years because of the lack of funds.

17. The restrictions and loss of status felt by women at this time led to the custom of not using actresses in theatrical performances; traditionally their roles have been played by men specially trained to impersonate women.

18. Francis Xavier called the Japanese the "best people [the Europeans had] yet discovered," but he and other missionaries had an awful time with the Japanese language. The problem was that the grammar is very complicated, using different forms which depend on whether the user is speaking to a social equal, inferior, or superior; they decided that the devil invented the language just to make their job more difficult! The priests ended up using native interpreters, so we do not know for sure if their Japanese converts understood what they were joining. They may have thought Christianity was a new and interesting Buddhist sect.

19. A fable summarizes the personalities of these figures. Supposedly all three of them sat down one day to listen to a cuckoo bird's song. Nobunaga said, "If it doesn't sing, I'll kill it." Hideyoshi said, "If it doesn't sing, I'll make it sing." Ieyasu said, "If it doesn't sing, I'll wait 'till it does."

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© Copyright 2016 Charles Kimball

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