The Rise of the Early Japanese State

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  • 0:02 Early Japan
  • 1:18 Geography
  • 3:41 Power Struggles
  • 6:01 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

With a relatively wide barrier of sea to separate them from any undesired outside influences, the Japanese are unique in that they were largely able to develop on their own. That said, there were surprising parallels between Japan and other parts of the world.

Early Japan

Unlike the relatively ancient history of China or India, Japanese history gets a relatively late start. The first people to live in Japan, the Jomon people, did arrive in the islands more than 40,000 years ago. However, they and the Yayoi people who followed them are only indirectly the ancestors of the Japanese people, and both cultures have largely been only remembered through their artifacts.

Instead, the first Japanese people in Japan did not show up in the archipelago until approximately 2,000 years ago. Linguistically and culturally, these people were most similar to the Koreans. That said, by the time they arrived in Japan, these new invaders, who we may safely call the ancestors of today's Japanese people, were already a culture of their own, having arrived not from Korea, but from what is today Eastern Siberia. The similarity to Koreans is explained by the fact that many anthropologists believe that this was also the site from which the ancestors of modern Koreans emigrated to reach their homeland.


Upon reaching Japan, the early Japanese people found a landform that was completely different from what they had left. Most obviously, Japan is an archipelago of four large islands, as well as hundreds of smaller islands. However, the archipelago itself is very mountainous, with only less than 20% of the land being suitable for farming.

In fact, Japan only really managed to secure its agricultural hold on the northernmost of the Home Islands, Hokkaido, during the early 20th century. As such, much of the drama of Japanese history from 100 BC onward would play out in a stretch of relatively flat land from Osaka to Tokyo, a distance of only 300 miles or so. Understandably, having such a limited amount of land meant that the sea became important from the earliest days of Japanese history. Most obviously, the 120 miles between Japan and the Korean Peninsula served to insulate the islands from any undesirable foreign influences.

To put this into perspective, Britain has long since used the English Channel as a barrier against actions on the European mainland, but the Channel is only 21 miles wide at its most narrow point. In fact, you can see the white cliffs of Dover, England, from Calais in France. On the other hand, 120 miles is not only a much longer distance but is also out of visual sight. Finally, the straits between Japan and Korea often have storms, such as the famous kamikaze storms that wiped out the invasion fleet of Genghis Khan.

Yet, the sea is also important for transportation, trade, and food. With such a mountainous country, the short jumps across the straits and inlets presented the fastest way to move people, materials, and even ideas from one part of Japan to the other. Further, and notable in Japan even today, is that the waters of Japan are extremely rich in seafood and fish. This has meant that an easy food source has always been available, despite the unpredictability of the crops. Today, this is evidenced in the importance of sushi and sashimi as culinary exports.

Power Struggles

With so little land to control, it is perhaps not surprising to note that the landowners soon became very powerful. The Japanese developed the shoen system of land management that was made up of numerous private estates, called shoen, which were owned by aristocratic landowners who were not necessarily a part of the nobility, but instead were often present in the courts of the great nobles. This sounds strange to those of us accustomed to the European feudal system, where a local duke or count was the major landowner. Instead, imagine the duke having military power, but his courtiers having the economic power. Shockingly, this system continued all the way to the emperor himself.

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