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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Asian Ethnicities (2a)—Japan ("Yamato")

A year ago on Round and Square (11 July 2011)—Baseball MIddles: Catcher in the Fire
Click here for other posts dealing with East Asian ethnic majorities:  
China 1       China 2       China 3       Japan 1       Japan 2       Japan 3       Korea 1       Korea 2       Korea 3 
[a] Heartland RF
The first three entries (each in several segments) for the Round and Square series "Asian Ethnicities" deal with the majority ethnic groups in China, Japan, and Korea. We are starting with these groups precisely because they permeate all of the nooks and crannies of their respective histories. Indeed, the history of China is often taught (and this is especially true in Chinese schools) as the history of the Han ethnicity. As we shall see, this is particularly problematic in China, since the history of China can better—this is my opinion—be taught as a constant set of interactions with ethnic groups to the west, south, and especially north. It is no less important in Japan and Korea, however. The relative homgeneity of those populations exacerbate the problems, and engagement with various ethnic groups tends to be even further marginalized. I hope to give, in these introductory posts, a way of thinking about majority ethnicity in China, Japan, and Korea. These are by no means my last word on the subject(s). As you can see from the introduction to this series, these are works in process and are meant to be essays in every sense of the term.
Yamato 大和 
The people of Yamato dominate Japanese history, as well as almost all Japanese discussions of ethnicity. Using this term in the history of the dominant ethnic group in Japan is not without peril, especially since the concept of a kind of racial purity developed in the late-nineteenth century, distinguishing “Japanese” or “Yamato” from other ethnic groups on surrounding islands (the Ainu to the north, the Ryukuans to the south) and several others who made up the Japanese overseas empire during the Meiji (1865-1912) and later periods, up to the end of World War II. The term has been used both as a kind of self-identification for in-group as well as a sometimes fierce expression of disdain for those who were not its members. This negative strain has been shown in Japanese perceptions of Koreans and Taiwanese during Japan’s imperial period (1895-1945) and can be seen today with regard to treatment of Burakumin and other minority groups in Japan.
[b] Background RF
Although many ethnic groups have strong senses of identity that often contrast the in-group quite markedly with outer groups, there are historical and cultural reasons that this kind of sentiment has remained powerful throughout Japan’s history. Japan’s distinctive island setting and consistent interpretations of its cultural history have provided some of the background for these perceptions. 

The chief reason for the distinctive role of Japan in early East Asian history is its location—an island complex distant from Korea by over one hundred miles, and with even exploration of adjoining islands and ethnic groups occurring late recently in Japanese history. Unlike its East Asian neighbors, Korea and Vietnam, Japan was never invaded by Chinese armies. Chinese influences penetrated Japan more conspicuously than they did in Korea. They did not seep across a shared border but came rather came by ship. Political thinkers, writers, and religious figures consciously drew on Chinese tradition in a way that would have been impossible were the influence less obvious. As a major scholar, Edwin Reischauer, has noted:

       Early in their history the Japanese developed the habit of cataloguing foreign 
       influences and contrasting them with native characteristics. One result has 
       been a frequent emphasis in Japanese history on supposedly "native" 
       Japanese traits.

It is important to consider these matters from several perspectives that have ebbed and flowed throughout Japanese history. They are intertwined to the point of contradiction, but they go far toward understanding Japanese ethnic identity throughout history and even today. 
            [1] A tendency in Japan to see its history only in terms of native traits,
            and casting aside most everything borrowed as mere "icing." 

            [2] The opposite tendency, mostly by outsiders, to characterize Japan
            merely as a nation of borrowers who take from other countries and
            have few ideas of their own. 

[c] Groupings RF
Geography and History 
The Japan that emerged slowly into the Common Era was essentially a tribal society, very much like that of early Korea. It was divided into a great number of family groups called uji, each under a hereditary chief and worshipping an uji god, commonly thought of as its ancestor. Subordinate to these aristocratic uji were occupational groupings known as be, organized as agricultural communities or performing other services such as fishing, weaving, pottery making, and divining.

The Yamato state was probably in origin an uji with connections to the Sun Goddess, which would become a pivotal figure in Japanese history and identity over the next fifteen centuries. By the fifth century the Yamato had won a vague supremacy over the other uji groupings—classifying them as either "country vassals" or "attendant vassals," but preserving the idea that all were meant to serve the "main" line linked to the Sun Goddess.

By the sixth century the "Sun line" as many have called it, was expanding its own wealth and power at the expense of the local uji and subordinate be units. The growth of this ethnic group and the consolidation of a Japanese state were interwoven in large and small ways.
[d] Pattern RF
The growing strength and institutional complexity of the Yamato state were in part the result of continuing contacts with the continent, particularly Korea. There was a steady flow of people from Korea to Japan that lasted up until the early ninth century that tends to get downplayed when talk turns (as it inevitably must) to cultural influence from China. To underline the Korean influence, more than a third of aristocratic families listed in the early ninth century claimed Korean ancestry.

Among the many elements of continental civilization that came to Japan by way of Korea was Buddhism. Although its was assimilated gradually, its official introduction is dated to 552, when the Korean state of Paekche presented an image and scriptures to the Yamato court. The new religion was opposed by conservative groups, but was embraced by the Soga uji, which was to emerge victorious over its rivals in a great succession war in 587. Following this, the Soga firmly established Buddhism at court.

Yamato influence was cemented in the late-sixth and early-seventh centuries with several state-building measures meant to solidify their control. The victory of the Soga clan in 587 made them supreme at the Yamato court. Their chief put his niece on the throne and appointed her nephew, Prince Shotoku (574–622), regent. Shotoku and the Soga elders proceeded to carry out a series of innovations that were to shape Japanese society and government quite consciously on the pattern of China.

In 604 Shotoku issued a set of precepts known as the "Seventeen Article Constitution,” which advocated—in heavily Confucian rhetoric mixed with Buddhist strains—such ideas as the complete supremacy of the ruler, the centralization of government, and a bureaucracy staffed by a merit-selected group of officials. That same year Shotoku adopted the Chinese calendar. A few decades later the fascination with the Chinese calendar sparked an interest in a process of counting in cycles of sixty years, which Yamato thinkers used to solidify their argument for rule. They traced the cycle back twenty-one times for a total of 1,260 years, and selected the date of 660 BCE for the founding of the Japanese state and the first emperor, Jimmu.

[e] Transition RF
Perhaps most significantly, in 603 Shotoku adopted a major aspect of Chinese centralized bureaucratic rule—the system of personal court ranks for officials, assigned in accordance with the posts they held. These gradually replaced the uji ranks as the major designations of status. Although not nearly as large in scale as the Chinese system from which it was drawn, these markers gradually replaced the hereditary uji ranks as the major designations of status. This transition did as much to solidify Yamato influence in the Japanese state—with an influence that lasted many centuries—as any other.

After Shotoku's death, the Soga alienated the other court families by their despotic rule and were eventually crushed in 645 in a coup engineered by a prince, the future Emperor Tenchi (r. 668-671) and a supporter, who was rewarded with a new family name that was to resound in later ages—Fujiwara. As Fujiwara no Kamatari (614–669), he became the leader of a family that was to dominate the Japanese court for nearly five hundred years. Tenchi and Kamatari embarked on a second great wave of reforms based on the Chinese model of centralized government. Taika, meaning "Great Change," was borrowed from the Chinese predilection for reign titles, and the reforms that commenced in 645 and were carried out over the next several years.

A capital with Chinese–style buildings was erected at Naniwa (near present–day Osaka) at the eastern end of the Inland Sea; central government ministries were set up and efforts were made to establish uniform rule over the provinces and to institute the centralized Chinese system of taxation. A census was carried out toward this end in 670, and law codes of a Chinese type were drawn up. The reforms that took shape represented a set of pragmatic compromises between the new court, existing institutions, and the various uji that retained some power. Slowly the Japanese state—and the descendants of Yamato—began to be reshaped in the image of Tang China.

This adaptation is the key point in Yamato dominance in the Chinese state. They mastered the transition from small uji and be groups until—with one clan or another in the ascendant until modern times, and an unbroken line of “Sun-Goddess” emperors—the transition was made to a Chinese-style centralized state.
[f] Sun Godliness RF
Click here for other posts dealing with East Asian ethnic majorities:  
China 1       China 2       China 3       Japan 1       Japan 2       Japan 3       Korea 1       Korea 2       Korea 3

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