The Land of the Rising Sun

Japan -  Foundations to Feudalism – 300 > 1600


            About 180 miles off the southern tip of Korea, the easternmost point of mainland Asia, lies a network of some 4000 islands, most of which are no more than mere chunks of volcanic rock poking out from the Pacific Ocean “Ring of Fire.”  Their surface would remind a visitor more of a lifeless moonscape than of a beachy paradise.  But on four of these islands – Hokkaido, Shikoku, Kyushu and Honshu – a civilization sprung up that rivaled any groupings of man in world history.  Uniquely located to develop independently from neighboring threats, but situated close enough to benefit from the cultural advancements of nearby China, this relatively insignificant archipelago would in the 20th century emerge as one of the most powerful military and economic forces the world has ever seen.  But how could a nation of disconnected islands and jagged mountains, where only 18% of their land is actually inhabitable, evolve into one of the (if not the number one) most advanced civilizations on the planet?

            Japan definitely didn’t start off looking too impressive.

            You didn’t always need a boat or a plane to get to Japan.  Once upon a time, Japan was actually connected to Asia.  Until about 15,000 years ago, Japan was linked to the mainland by an ice bridge, somewhat like the Bering Land Bridge that connected Alaska to the Asian continent, allowing fleeing and foraging nomads to wander down and populate the Americas.  The first to walk across this icy land link were the Ainu people, the Japanese people’s earliest ancestors.  If you were to look at them today, they wouldn’t resemble the Japanese stereotype.  They have lighter skin, a lot more body hair and look more Polynesian or white Russian than Japanese.  The men love to grow their beards down to their belly buttons, and sometimes their envious wives permanently tattoo their chins with faux facial hair to keep up with their hubbies.  Tragically, these first peoples met a fate much like other indigenous peoples from around the globe, seeing their numbers dwindle due to disease, murder, intermarriage or marginalization.  Today, only about 200,000 of these fair-skinned “former Aborigines” actually still survive, and although they have been officially acknowledged by the Japanese government, they still exist as the outcasts of mainstream Japanese society.

            But this wasn’t always the case.  Until about 10,000 BC, about the time planters out in Mesopotamia  decided to set up homes and give farming a try, the Ainu clans spread out across the northern island of Honshu.  They were the sole residents of these volcanic isles.  In the last couple decades, historians have found a series of intricately patterned clay pots from the Ainu, and if carbon dating machines are accurate, these pots stand out as the oldest pieces of pottery in human history.  Like in the river civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, China  and the Indus valley, these pots were also used for storing food.  Unlike their mainland counterparts, these pots had rope-like patterns adorning their outside surface (potters would take a stick rapped with rope and press it against the outside for a fine finish that surely impressed).  These pots defined the people of these early Japanese days so well that the time period between 10,000 BC and 300 BC was known as the Jomon (“cord patterned”) Period.  Egypt had its Age of Dynasties, India  had its Bronze Age, Babylon had its Iron Age…and Japan?  Japan had its age of pots.

            Although the topic of pottery demands more attention, please, oh please, let this be the last I speak of the glory of clay crockery.  For Japan in its early years was so much more than heated clay.  Over these ten...