From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

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Thursday, July 12, 2012

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

A year ago on Round and Square (12 July 2011)—Baseball Middles: The All Star Game
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
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.
[b] Flourishing RF
Social and Economic Life 
By the tenth century, a distinct way of life had emerged on the islands of Japan. It represented a blending of institutions and cultural patterns from abroad, combined with a distinctly indigenous way of speaking and living. This can be seen even today in the Japanese language. There are "Chinese" (on) pronunciations and "Japanese" (kun) ones. It is not unusual for a single character to have three, four, five, or more "readings" that merge all sorts of earlier patterns, many of which have connections to Japan’s early history, with roots in the uji and Shinto religious practices of the early Common Era. 

The political changes that took place over the next millennium were formidable, but the key point for our purposes is that virtually all of the drama was played out between families and clans with Yamato ancestry. The major periods that followed the dramatic state building of the first millennium CE showed a continuing give-and-take between powers of the capital region and the strengths of the provinces further afield. Class distinctions were changing in profound ways, even as ethnicity hardly created a blip of difference beyond fervent borrowing from China.

The Heian (794-1185) saw both the flourishing of Japanese literary culture (the period was made famous by the Tale of Genji and other masterworks) and the centrality of the capital city in political matters. Behind the scenes, however, an overwhelming transition was taking place. The economic fuel that powered this ostensibly capital-centered political system was provided by the growing “estates” (shoen) that began dotting the countryside on the main island of Honshu since almost the time of Prince Shotoku. On the surface, then, the state seemed to be centralizing. The longer-term process would not be apparent for many years, but by the twelfth century it was clear that power had shifted decidedly to the periphery, along with a social structure that would dominate Japanese life until the nineteenth century.

[c] Dominance RF
Territorial strongmen and a kind of warrior that came to be known as bushi or samurai gained dominance, and the artificial but significant rankings of samurai, farmer, artisan, and merchant (in descending order) became cemented in the Japanese consciousness. This social order so profoundly dominated Japanese life in the second millennium CE that all future political and military strategies until the 1860s would require a balancing of regional warlords and central authority. While Chinese society during the same period would see a constant negotiation and renegotiation of ethnicity— as “foreign” powers vied for ascendancy and Han Chinese occupied regions to the south and west—the Japanese historical dynamic played out almost exclusively within a singular ethnic group. In short, occupation dominated social thought far more than ethnicity in Japanese history; it was as though everyone was on the same large “team,” and the prizes were garnered by making distinctions within the in-group rather than in competition with outsiders. Like a Republican primary in Utah (or a Democratic one in Chicago), the real competition was within the dominant team.

Through it all, one further force of ethnic and national identity flowed as a cultural constant—the imperial family that was linked to the Sun Goddess from the earliest decades of the Yamato state. To this day, the Japanese imperial line is spoken of as an unbroken succession of 125 emperors, all of whom—in a secret ritual last carried out in 1989—“merged” with the Sun Goddess to achieve a kind of imperial immortality that has been used for purposes both peaceful and profoundly warlike over the centuries. Although the Showa Emperor renounced the divinity of the emperorship in 1945, it is significant that the ceremony was still carried out for the succession of his son in 1989. It is another small glimpse into early Yamato images of legitimacy and centrality in the political life of a formidable modern democracy.
[d] Identity 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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