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Yayoi Period in Japan: History, People, Culture & Religion

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

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

In this lesson we discover the Yayoi period in ancient Japan. From wet paddy rice cultivation to the development of metal tools and weapons, the Yayoi period marks a significant advance from past periods.

Down on the Farm

Unless you've lived your entire life in a big city, you've probably seen a farm before. They're pretty commonplace across our country, and most of you probably see them every day. Whether it's driving by them on the way to school, or perhaps even knowing someone who owns or works on one, farms play an important role in feeding not just our country, but our entire world.

But farms weren't always the norm. Thousands of years ago, nobody farmed. Instead, humans followed herds of animals or foraged for whatever nuts, berries, or wild crops they could find. When farming came to an area, it revolutionized virtually every aspect of human society.

In this lesson, we will explore the period in Japan where advanced farming became the norm: the Yayoi period.

People & Practices

The Yayoi period refers to a time in Japanese history characterized by three important practices: wet rice paddy cultivation, mastery of metalworking, and a style of pottery distinctive from the previous (Jomon) period. We know little about the people of this period, even how they referred to themselves; the term 'Yayoi' comes from the area in Tokyo where Yayoi artifacts were first uncovered in the late 19th-century CE. Most of what we know about them comes from what historians can glean from archaeological sites, and artifacts that date to the period, and from Chinese writings from the late Yayoi period.

Pottery from the Yayoi period
Pot

Yayoi culture began roughly around 300 B.C.E. when paddy cultivation and metalworking began on the southern Japanese island of Honshu and gradually spread eastward and northward. It's believed that these practices likely first came to Japan after contact with Chinese culture, where they were already widely used, though the exact origins are unknown.

Wet paddy rice cultivation, in particular, caused a marked change in the makeup of Japanese society. Though some agriculture had been practiced during the late Jomon period, wet paddy cultivation (as opposed to dry cultivation) dramatically increased crop yield, supporting a larger population and encouraging permanent settlements of Yayoi people in towns and villages.

As metalworking became popular, Yayoi people replaced stone tools with those made of iron and bronze. These tools also improved agricultural productivity; metal tools were more effective and more durable than those made of stone. Additionally, metal weaponry was far superior, allowing Yayoi people to subdue areas that still fought by more primitive means.

History

Little is known of the political history of the early Yayoi period. Accounts from Chinese chroniclers later in the period suggest that, as the Yayoi settled into more permanent settlements, roughly 100 small states eventually governed the islands. Many were likely made up of a small settlement, and the agricultural area in its immediate vicinity. It is likely the creation of these were based heavily on lineage and family, similar to the clans of pre-modern Ireland.

In the second half of the period, larger states arose, presumably by larger states conquering smaller, less powerful states. Chinese chroniclers in the first-century C.E. note that various Japanese leaders began traveling to the court of the Chinese emperor to pay tribute, and gain recognition of their holdings in Japan.

Perhaps the most important figure we know of in this period was Queen Himiko, who in the second half of the 2nd-century C.E. ruled over a large confederation of states, in part through civil war and in part through her purported magical powers.

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