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Japan (600-1400 CE): Beliefs, Reforms & Rulers

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  • 0:11 Japan in the Middle Ages
  • 0:39 Pre-Feudal Japan
  • 4:03 Feudal Era
  • 5:40 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the Middle Ages in Japan, from the classical era of imperial Japan to the feudal era of intermittent and regional warfare that followed it.

Japan in the Middle Ages

Japan is one of the few places in the world that still remains somewhat mysterious to western eyes and ears. In previous centuries, Japan was notoriously secretive. For example, it took a foreboding fleet of American warships in the 19th century before the country agreed to end its centuries-long ban on foreign trade. As such, Japan has a unique history that is all its own. In this lesson, we'll examine the Middle Ages in Japan, from the changes of the pre-feudal empires to the feudal period.

Pre-Feudal Japan

Though later Japan banned foreign imports for centuries, in the late 6th century C.E., imported foreign ideas still had a profound impact on Japanese culture. This was achieved by Prince Shotoku, the son of a previous Japanese emperor who was crown prince and regent for his aunt, Empress Suiko. Shotoku engineered several important political developments in Japan, including creating Japan's first legal constitution. The seventeen articles in the 604 document instructed the Japanese ruling classes to adopt Chinese Confucian ideals of governance and living and to endorse Buddhism in all its forms. Indeed, Shotoku was an ardent Buddhist and he worked to spread the religion throughout Japan his entire life.

Though Shotoku did not live to see it, the Taika Reforms enacted in the middle of the 7th century shortly after Shotoku's death enforced Confucian ideals upon the Japanese government. These reforms were carried out by Emperor Kotoku, whose coup d'état signaled a permanent change in the way Japan was governed. In addition to implementing Confucianism and Buddhist ideals into Japanese government, the Taika Reforms also centralized the government and enhanced the power of the emperor over the various clans and ruling lords of Japan.

Kotoku and his followers regularized taxes and laws throughout Japan, improving central authority and standardizing the legal and penal codes, especially those regarding land ownership. The children of Japanese aristocrats and nobles were often sent to China in this period in order to better study Confucian principles so that they could be better implemented in Japan.

The influx of Confucianism in this period threatened the traditional Japanese religion of Shintoism. Shinto is a complex religion with numerous deities and spirits. The primary functions of practicing Shinto followers are rituals and other rites often performed at shrines to various gods or ancestors. In the 8th century, Shinto priests routinely criticized the adoption of Confucian principles by the emperor and ruling elites, though there was little they could do about it. Despite the implementation of Confucian ideals into the Japanese state apparatus, Shinto remained the primary religion of most Japanese, as it still is today.

At the end of the 8th century, the imperial throne passed to the Fujiwara clan, who maintained control over the emperorship until the end of the classical Japanese period in 1185. In the intervening centuries the Fujiwaras were prolific sponsors of the arts and Japanese culture. For example, one of the earliest literary classics of Japan, The Tale of Genji, was produced during this period. Innovations in Japanese script also made the language easier to write and poetry was produced at an unprecedented rate.

After a couple centuries Fujiwara power waned. Rivals at court vied for control over the imperial throne while at the same time the emperorship lost much of its power. This was because of the development of military power in the provinces and a general weakening of the central Japanese government and the Confucian civil service that had been put in place centuries before. In the second half of the 12th century, civil war routinely broke out between the central government and regional lords with their own military forces, and there was conflict surrounding the throne itself. The 1185 establishment of the Kamakura government, a rival government to the imperial throne that was ruled by military officials, marked the end of classical Japan and the beginning of the feudal era.

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