<b>The Japanese (500 to 1340)<b>
Located 100 miles off the mainland of Asia, at its closest point, Japan
was a land of mystery at the edge of civilization. Isolated at first by
geography and later by choice, the Japanese developed a distinctive
culture that drew very little from the outside world. At the beginning of
what were the Middle Ages in Europe, the advanced culture of Japan was
centered at the north end of the Inland Sea on the main island of Honshu.
Across the Hakone Mountains to the east lay the Kanto, an alluvial plain
that was the single largest rice-growing area on the islands. To the
north and east of the Kanto was the frontier, beyond which lived
aboriginal Japanese who had occupied the islands since Neolithic times.
Some believe that by the fifth century AD the Yamato court had become
largely ceremonial. Independent clans, known as <i>uji,<i> held the real
power behind the throne. Clan leaders formed a sort of aristocracy and
vied with each other for effective control of land and the throne.
In 536 the Soga clan became predominant and produced the first great
historical statesman, Prince Shotoku, who instituted reforms that laid
the foundation of Japanese culture for generations to come. In 645, power
shifted from the Soga clan to the Fujiwara clan. The Fujiwara presided
over most of the Heian period (794 to 1185). The new leadership imposed
the Taika Reform of 645, which attempted to redistribute the rice-growing
land, establish a tax on agricultural production, and divide the country
into provinces. Too much of the country remained outside imperial
influence and control, however. Real power shifted to great families that
rose to prominence in the rice-growing lands. Conflict among these
families led to civil war and the rise of the warrior class.
Similar to the experience of medieval western Europe, the breakdown of
central authority in Japan, the rise of powerful local nobles, and
conflict with barbarians at the frontier combined to create a culture
dominated by a warrior elite. These warriors became known as Samurai,
("those who serve"), who were roughly equivalent to the European knight.
A military government replaced the nobility as the power behind the
throne at the end of the twelfth century. The head of the military
government was the Shogun.
Samurai lived by a code of the warrior, something like the European code
of chivalry. The foundation of the warrior code was loyalty to the lord.
The warrior expected leadership and protection. In return he obeyed his
lord's commands without question and stood ready to die on his lord's
behalf. A Samurai placed great emphasis on his ancestry and strove to
carry on family traditions. He behaved so as to earn praise. He was to be
firm and show no cowardice. Warriors went into battle expecting and
looking to die. It was felt that a warrior hoping to live would fight
The Kamakura period (1185 to 1333) was named after a region of Japan
dominated by a new ruling clan that took power after civil war. The
Mongols attempted to invade Japan twice, in 1274 and 1281, but were
repulsed both times. A fortuitous storm caused great loss to the second
Mongol invasion fleet.