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In spite of the bold centralizing moves, however, the forces of decentralization were never entirely reduced. Gradually throughout the Heian period, and with gathering force after the eleventh century, powerful provincial military houses in control of lands, arms, and men built up their own structures of political alliance, land tenure, and local administration.

By the end of the twelfth century, under the leadership of Minamoto Yoritomo, they were able to displace the central court in effective power over the country. This new centralized power once again broke down under the pressure of dissident local forces, and Japan was to go through another century of civil war, sometimes quiescent, sometimes in violent eruption, before new centralizing forces appeared. From the latter part of the sixteenth century, three great centralizers appeared in succession—first Oda Nobunaga, then Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and finally Tokugawa leyasu.

Nevertheless, the shogun was, in effect, ruling per cent of the country with only 25 per cent of its tax revenues, land, and manpower. The restoration regime under the Meiji emperor in swiftly completed the centralization process, replacing the semiautonomous feudal domains with a modern system of prefectures governed by appointed officers. Many factors had to combine in just the right sequence to bring about political homogeneity. Like England, Japan stood in a marginal position in relation to the great Eurasiatic land mass.

But England lies only 20 miles off the nearest point of the European continent, while Japan lies miles away from the nearest point in Korea and several hundreds of miles of dangerous waters away from the main centers of Chinese civilization. It did not cut Japan off from all contact with the outside, but it assured that this contact would take place at a relatively slow rate which offered the chance for slow assimilation.

Japan was never overwhelmed by massive immigration, military conquest, or alien rule. Some were accorded high prestige and incorporated within the highest aristocracy approximately one-third of the aristocratic clans in the early eighth century were estimated to be of Chinese or Korean origin ; others were put to work at their crafts or professions, particularly if they were skilled workers, artists, or literate men; others were enslaved or placed in menial occupations. Still others managed to maintain their own communal lives in distant provinces, until the expansion of Japanese state power finally reached them.

Insularity alone did not guarantee this. Had they wished, the Chinese could have mounted a large enough invasion force to establish some direct political power in the islands. But fortunately for Japan, China has always been a continental power, oriented toward overland expansion.

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Except for a brief and uncharacteristic episode during the Ming period, from to , China has never had serious maritime inclinations. The nineteenth-century Western powers could also have invaded Japan. Japan was not entirely uninfluenced by the Mongol invasions, but apart from the direct impact on weapons technology and battle tactics most of the effects were indirect, such as pressure on the political structure, strains on feudal ties and obligations, growing awareness of a dangerous outside world, improvement of internal communications and transport facilities, and a temporary drain on food supplies followed rapidly by substantial agricultural improvement.

Japan, for its part, had maintained a military garrison on the southern tip of the Korean peninsula until the seventh century. Nine hundred years later, in and , Japan invaded Korea, leaving behind a legacy of destruction and hatred that is not entirely dissipated even today.

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This relative isolation meant that Japan was able to absorb outside influences at its own pace. The country had time to experiment; to reject, to adopt, or to modify foreign ideas and objects in accordance with its own understanding and needs. The confrontation of Japan with China from the sixth century through the ninth century was not imposed by China; it was self-imposed by a Japan seeking for models to strengthen and improve itself.

The process must be understood as a prolonged searching out and assimilation that went on for centuries, not as a single titanic event. Buddhism, for example, was first formally introduced from Korea into Japan in , when the king of the Korean state of Paekche, in the hopes of securing Japanese support against the enemy Korean states of Silla and Koguryo, sent a goodwill mission to the emperor of Japan.

In men learned in Chinese studies— such as divination, calendar making, Confucianism, medicine, and music—and several Buddhist monks came from Paekche. But it was not until the twelfth or thirteenth century that Buddhism can be said to have become fully assimilated as a popular religion in Japan. Buddhism started as the religion of one of the contending court factions; it was then used by the centralizing Taika reformers against their enemies.

During most of that period only specialists and highly learned men who could read and write Chinese could understand even the language of Buddhism. The package was taken in whole, and then only gradually was it picked over, translated into understandable language, and finally assimilated. In the course of this process it underwent many changes, so that Japanese Buddhism differs not only from the south Asian forms but also from the Chinese and Korean forms. Isolation and the absence of land contact with China made it necessary to develop modes of learning at a distance.

In addition to going on official missions to China, Japanese scholars and clerics continued to visit China unofficially, and both Chinese and Korean specialists came to Japan on their own or were invited by high authorities and Buddhist temples. Nevertheless, most of the learning took place not through face-to-face contacts but through books, pictures, and artifacts.

Material culture was the easiest to absorb; artists, artisans, and architects worked directly from models and designs, reproducing forms and acquiring techniques.

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This process allowed Japan to accommodate foreign culture to its own style. Foreign models could be accepted, but they did not have to be slavishly followed. The fate of the Chinese political principles and codes adopted in the Taika reforms of remains an instructive case study of culture contact and acculturation. Sansom writes:. The development of political forms throughout the ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries may be regarded, from one point of view, as a gradual departure from Chinese models, and the political history of that long period may be summarized by saying that practically all the leading features of the system of government borrowed from China gradually became obsolete, to be displaced by new methods designed to meet new conditions, and at length survived only as empty forms in a feudal society which differed in all its fundamental characteristics from the unworkable scheme of centralized monarchy.

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A similar process can be detected for every cultural import from China: first, there is uncritical acceptance; then differentiation and reinterpretation; later, rejection or modification; and finally, the development of genuine novelty. New art styles brought over by students, artists, or priests from China—or perhaps by Chinese traders in Japanese markets—were immediately copied in Japan, only to be transformed in a short period of time into something that would no longer be recognized by the Chinese originators.


Living for more than a millennium in awareness of the great power of China, and later of the West, the Japanese appear to have an inordinate preoccupation with their relative standing on some implicit scale of values. A full explanation, therefore, would have to take into consideration not only the effects of historical experience but also the inner dynamics of these frustration—aggression and superiority—inferiority cycles in individual and social life.

The isolation, the feeling of separateness, the process of diffusion filtered through books rather than coming through direct contact, may have contributed to making the Japanese, from one point of view, different from any other people in the world. Is it the case that one cannot accept the one without eventually accepting the rest?

From the seventh century through the ninth century a preliterate, tribal Japan borrowed wholesale from the brilliant civilization of continental China; through this experience it emerged as a completely new nation, not as a mere provincial version of China. The borrowing was selective and critical. The new Japan of the Heian period accommodated Chinese features to traditional institutions and dispositions.

There have, quite obviously, been enormous changes. The seeker for survivals in this sense will find Japan a happy hunting ground. What we are concerned with is whether there are enduring dispositions in forms of organization and cultural values that persist in spite of the pro-found changes brought about by culture contact and modernization. Scholars profess to find these broad continuities in the remarkable durability of the emperor system, in the techniques of behind-the-scenes rule, and in the long tradition of religious tolerance; art historians find them in the plastic arts and in aesthetic conceptions.

Here, however, we shall confine our attention primarily to continuities in a few selected aspects of Japanese social structure.

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We know from history that the Japanese familial form was present before Japan became a feudal state and continued after it ceased to be. The ideal Japanese family has always been hierarchical, and internal family relations have provided a model for authority relations in non-kinship groupings. The terms oya parent and ko child , for example, have been extended in meaning to indicate superiors and inferiors: lord and vassal, boss and henchman, employer and employee, leader and follower.

The traditional Japanese family was ideally organized with the father at the top in the past he might also have been the head of the ancestral cult , then the heir-presumptive usually the eldest son , next the remaining males in order of age, and finally the females in order of descending age. This ideal was realized in actuality more frequently by the elite classes than the common people; statistically, it is likely that more Japanese families have been nonhierarchical and even relatively egalitarian than the contrary.

Nevertheless, the elite style represented the ideal that was approached when circumstances made it possible or desirable. The Japanese extended family differs somewhat from the extended family systems of neighboring Korea and China; there are no true clans, and membership is not totally defined on a genealogical basis. But the main and branch houses are not equals that come together for their mutual benefit: the branch houses are dependent and subordinate.

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The older branches outrank the newer; branches formed by second sons outrank those of third sons. A distinctive feature of the Japanese family system was its extraordinary capacity to absorb nonkin. The institution of adoption of nonkin into the individual household was one means of accomplishing this. In the absence of a suitable heir a son might be adopted to assure the continuity and prosperity of the family line. But the adopted son, it is important to note, did not have to be a relative. However, the technique of adoption could be used in many other ways as well.

Adoption was, and remains to a surprising extent today, an important mode of social mobility; this was even more true during the Tokugawa period, when theoretically no movement across class boundaries was permitted. Historically—to take another example—domestic slavery disappeared in Japan not through formal acts of emancipation but through absorption into the family system by way of adoption. Less admirably, adoption was sometimes used for acquiring servants or other dependent menials.