Portal:Ancient Japan

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THE ANCIENT JAPAN PORTAL

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Depiction of bearded Emperor Jimmu with his emblematic long bow and an accompanying wild bird.

The history of Ancient Japan can be broken down into three distinct periods. The first period called Jōmon period is the time in from about 14,000 BC to 300 BC. The term "Jōmon" means "cord-patterned" in Japanese. It refers to the markings made on clay vessels and figures using sticks with cords wrapped around them which are characteristic of the Jōmon people.

The second period called Yayoi period is an era in the history of Japan traditionally dated 300 BC to 300 AD. It is named after the neighbourhood of Tokyo where archaeologists first uncovered artifacts and features from that era. Distinguishing characteristics of the Yayoi period include the appearance of new pottery styles and the start of an intensive rice agriculture in paddy fields. Yayoi culture flourished in a geographic area from southern Kyūshū to northern Honshū.

The last period called Kofun period of ancient Japanese history, beginning around AD 250, is named after the large tumulus burial mounds (kofun) that appeared at the time. The Kofun period saw the establishment of strong military states centered around powerful clans, and the establishment of the dominant Yamato polity centred in the Yamato and Kawachi provinces, from the 3rd century to the 7th century, origin of the Japanese imperial lineage. Japan started to send tributes to Imperial China in the 5th century. In the Chinese history records, the polity was called Wa and its five kings were recorded. Based upon the Chinese model, they developed a central administration and an imperial court system and its society was organized into occupation groups. Close relationships between the Three Kingdoms of Korea and Japan began during the middle of this period, around the end of the 4th century.


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Statue of a kitsune.

Kitsune is the Japanese word for fox. Foxes are a common subject of Japanese folklore and are akin to European faeries; in English, kitsune refers to them in this context. Stories depict them as intelligent beings and as possessing magical abilities that increase with their age and wisdom. Foremost among these is the ability to assume human form. Foxes and human beings lived close together in ancient Japan; this companionship gave rise to legends about the creatures. The more tails a kitsune has—they may have as many as nine—the older, wiser, and more powerful it is.

There is debate whether the kitsune myths originated entirely from foreign sources or are in part an indigenous Japanese concept dating as far back as the fifth century BC. Japanese folklorist Kiyoshi Nozaki argues that the Japanese regarded kitsune positively as early as the 4th century A.D.; the only things imported from China or Korea were the kitsune's negative attributes. He states that, according to a 16th-century book of records called the Nihon Ryakki, foxes and human beings lived close together in ancient Japan, and he contends that indigenous legends about the creatures arose as a result. Inari scholar Karen Smyers notes that the idea of the fox as seductress and the connection of the fox myths to Buddhism were introduced into Japanese folklore through similar Chinese stories, but she maintains that some fox stories contain elements unique to Japan.

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BonsaiTridentMaple.jpg
Credit: Peggy Greb

Travelers from ancient Japan had been returning from mainland China with souvenirs, including container planting, since the 6th century. This may be when the bonsai was first introduced to Japan.


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Shell midden strata - Chiba, Japan.


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This inscription on a granite monument bears a calligraphic inscription which is influenced by the Northern Wei robust style.

The term "National Treasure" has been used in Japan to denote cultural properties since 1897. The definition and the criteria have changed since the inception of the term. The writings in this list of documents designated as National Treasures of Japan contains items of various type such as letters, diaries, records or catalogues, certificates, imperial decrees, testaments and maps. Writing was physically introduced to Japan from China in the form of inscribed artefacts around the year 1 BC. Examples, some of which have been designated as archaeological national treasures, include coins of the reign of Wang Mang (AD 8–25), a 1st century gold seal from Shikanoshima, a late 2nd century iron sword from the Tōdaijiyama burial mound, the Seven-Branched Sword with inscription from 369 and a large number of bronze mirrors—the oldest dating to the 3rd century. All of these artifacts originated on the continent, most likely in China. The concept of writing came to Japan from the Korean kingdom of Baekje in the form of classical Chinese books likely written on paper and in the form of manuscript rolls. The oldest texts of Japanese origin, which show a clear understanding of the concept of writing, date to the 5th century and are inscriptions on stone or metal.

Examples include three archaeological National Treasures: Suda Hachiman Shrine Mirror from about the 5th century, which is a poor copy of a Chinese original, the Inariyama Sword from 471 or 531 and the Eta Funayama burial mound sword from about the 5th century. The abrupt transition from an unfamiliarity with writing to reading and writing complicated works in a foreign language required the earliest Japanese texts be composed and read by people from the continent such as Wani. The Inariyama Sword is also the oldest example of man'yōgana use, a writing system that employs Chinese characters to represent the Japanese language. Soon after the introduction of writing, scribes were appointed to the provinces to "record events and report conditions".

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In the news

November 2010: A 35,000 year old stone tool with a ground edge is found in Australia, predating the earliest ancient Japanese example by at least 5,000 years. (1)


August 2010: Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan promised to return a “small portion” of the estimated 61,000 artifacts that were taken from Korea during colonial rule. (2)


March 2009: For the first time since World War II, a complete set of ancient Japanese dolls was displayed at the week-long "Session Road in Bloom" to celebrate the 14th Panagbenga Festival. (3)


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