Of the early history of the Japanese we know but imperfectly. Traditions, myths, and fragments of poetry and religious ritual have told us something. Ethnology and archeology are telling us a little more. The most ancient written records now in existence did not take their present form until the eighth century A. D. The oldest of these, the Kojiki ("Records of Ancient Doings") was finished in 712 and was a written transcript of the ancient traditions and records from the memory of one man who had made a business of collecting them. The next, the Nihongi, ("Chronicles of Japan"), was completed in 714 and was the work of a number of officially appointed scholars who carefully examined existing records and traditions. It was more profoundly influenced by Chinese thought and language than was the Kojiki, but in both works the original stories were made to conform to the ideas and surroundings of their compilers.


The myths and traditions as they have come down to us give a most naïve account of the origin of the land, the people, and the state. Curious and numerous gods and goddesses are seen. After the birth of a series of divinities whom we need not notice, the islands themselves and various gods representing the forces of nature come into existence as offspring of a divine pair, Izanagi and his wife Izanami. Izanami dies and Izanagi goes to the underworld to seek her. He finds her, but angers her, and returns without her to the upper world. He finds himself contaminated by contact with the dead, and among other divinities there are born from the pollution which he washes off, the Goddess of the Sun (Amaterasu), the God of the Moon, and the God of Force. The God of Force proved troublesome and so offended his sister, the Sun Goddess, that she retired into a cave and left the world in darkness. The divinities in great distress attempted to induce her to return. At the suggestion of one of their number they performed before her refuge a sacred dance and liturgy, the traditional origin of some of the later religious ritual, and by sounds of merriment tempted her to peep out. She was informed that a greater than she had been found, and to convince her a mirror was shown her in which she saw her own face reflected. Surprised, she gradually came out, and the gods barred the cave behind her to prevent a recurrence of her flight. The God of Force eventually left heaven and from him sprang a race of men in Izumo, a province on the southwest coast of the main island. Ninigi, a grandson of the Sun Goddess, was commissioned by the gods to rule Japan and as a sign of sovereignity was given a chaplet of jewels, a sword, and the mirror that had helped entice his grandmother out of her cave. These three objects are still the insignia of the imperial house of Japan. Ninigi settled in Kiushiu and a descendant of his, known to posterity as Jimmu, or Jimmu Terino, made his way to Yamato, on the peninsula that juts southward from the main island to the east of Shikoku, and there established himself as emperor. Then followed long centuries and many rulers. Kiushiu, Shikoku, and the southern part of the main island were brought under the sway of the royal house in Yamato, and the conquests were extended among the non-Japanese peoples of the north. One notable warrior, Yamato-dake, whose name is still dear to the nation, made his way as far north as the bay of Tokyo, fighting with the aborigines of the intervening districts. The accession of Jimmu is placed by Japanese annalists at 660 B. C.

The complete story of these early centuries is a long one, but the many attempts that have been made to find in it traces of authentic history disclose only a minimum of fact. The story is, however, still taught in Japan and although no longer believed by men of education, it is seldom openly denied and it has had and still has a profound influence upon the nation. According to it the emperor is descended from the gods, and the imperial house has, to use the words of the constitution promulgated in 1890, "a lineal succession unbroken for ages eternal." It helps to invest the ruling line with the dignity and sanction of the divine and to make disloyalty a sacrilege. Copies of the jewels, sword, and mirror which are said to have been given to Ninigi are still transmitted from emperor to emperor, and are emblems of the monarch's divine ancestry. In spite of modern science, the influence of these beliefs remains strong. However much the educated may have lost faith in them, openly to deny them might even now be construed as treason.

The nation at large was, moreover, at the time of Perry's coming, believed by the more radical patriots to be descended from the gods and so to be superior to all others, and the land was held to be par excellence the country of the gods; of all the earth it was the nearest to heaven when the connection between the two was broken. While never so generally nor so strongly held as the belief in the divine origin of the emperor, these convictions produced an attitude of mind that may still reënforce the intense, almost chauvinistic patriotism that exists in some quarters.

From these stories, reënforced by ethnology and archeology, it is possible to reconstruct with some degree of accuracy the main outlines of the beginnings of Japan. The earliest inhabitants of the islands seem to have been a race called "cave men." Their very existence is questioned. If they were a real people the only remaining traces of them are pit dwellings and shell mounds, and they must have been in the most primitive stages of culture. Entirely historical, however, are a strong race of aborigines, probably the ancestors of those Ainu who are still to be found on the island of Yezo and the Kuriles, a hairy, flat-faced people, at present mild-tempered. Of their origin nothing certain is known; some have supposed that they came from northern Asia. When the first Japanese found their way to the islands these aborigines were in possession of most of the land. They were a fierce, rough lot, still in the stone age.

They were cannibals, and apparently were without family life. They offered a sturdy resistance to the more nearly civilized invaders and were driven back and subdued only after long centuries of warfare, warfare which continued to within the past few hundred years. They left permanent marks on their conquerors, chiefly in an admixture of blood which is strongest in the north.

The Japanese of to-day are a mixed race, and are the result of the coalescence of several migrations. We cannot trace with certainty all the streams, but there must have been several of them from various sources, reaching the islands at different times. Not only do traditions and myths indicate a composite origin, but archeological remains, consisting principally of graves and their contents, unmistakably show it. The amalgamation, moreover, has never been entirely completed; from the earliest times there have been two pronounced types, the aristocratic, slender of limb and of light complexion, and the plebeian, stocky and dark. The migrations came from the continent for the most part, chiefly by the way of the Korean peninsula, but also from the south. There are strong strains of Malay blood which are apparently due to settlements partly from the continent and partly from the southern islands. Tradition, in fact, tells of a people in Kiushiu which some have thought to be to-day represented by a race in Borneo and to have come northward along the chain of islands from the south. They were conquered by the Japanese from Yamato and very possibly amalgamated with them. Too little is as yet known of the ethnology of the Far East to enable us to determine accurately all the racial affiliations of the Japanese. Some of the groups that have entered into the formation of the Chinese are evidently represented, but there are differences which must be accounted for on the basis of origin as well as of environment. The Manchu- Korean and the Malay stocks predominate, with the balance in favor of the latter, but there are as well traces of infusion of other blood, part of it Mongol, part of it still undetermined. Some enthusiasts have even seriously claimed to have found an Indo-European admixture. In language the Japanese more nearly resemble some of the groups of northern and central Asia, and especially Korea, but there are also likenesses to the Malay tongues.

When they arrived in the islands the ancestors of the Japanese were some of them in the bronze and some in the iron age and were evidently much superior to, although probably less numerous than the aborigines whom they found in possession. There were two main centers from which they spread, one in what is now Izumo, and one on the south coast of the island of Kiushiu. The latter was nearer to the southern islands and possibly also to Korea. There was also apparently a center of culture in Yamato. The peoples in all three of these places may have been closely related in blood. The settlers on Kiushiu first conquered Yamato and then Izumo. The first conquest of Yamato was traditionally made under Jimmu Tenno. At any event it was at Yamato that the Japanese state first had its seat and it was from there that it gradually expanded. The time of the foundation of the state was probably several hundred years later than the legendary 660 B. C. Extension was not an easy matter; it was achieved only by dint of constant warfare with other Japanese, against the ancestors of the Ainu, who stubbornly contested every foot of ground, and with other peoples, dimly discerned on the pages of the Kojiki and Nihongi.


In the course of some centuries the Japanese hewed out for themselves a state which held in rather loose allegiance the southern part of the main island and Shikoku and Kiushiu. It reached northward toward the center of the main island and was strong enough to undertake a raid on the mainland. A persistent story has come down of an invasion of Korea under the leadership of a redoubtable woman, the empress jingo. Her son, Ojin, is even more famous and is still revered as Hachiman, the God of War. From monuments and the Korean records we learn that there were several raids on the peninsula by the Japanese. The peninsula was nearer China, the great civilized state of the East Asia of those days, and hence probably had a higher culture than the Japanese, but it was divided into a number of principalities whose quarrels offered great temptations to the island warrior chiefs. For years the Japanese were in possession of a part of southern Korea, and there were frequent movements of Korean emigrants to Japan. The petty Korean states nearest Japan were considered as tributary to the court in Yamato.

The culture of the little kingdom that centered at Yamato was primitive enough. There were no cities and no carefully constructed houses. For several centuries writing was either unknown or used only by a very few. Family life was a patriarchy with lingering traces of matriarchy. The land was owned principally by the emperors and the noble families. There was some navigation in small craft, and fish formed a part of the national diet, although probably not so largely as now. Rice and other grains were cultivated. Many kinds of vegetables were known and used. The dense forests that originally covered the land were gradually cleared away, and tilled fields took their places. Irrigation was practiced. Game was hunted in the forests and formed a part of the bill of fare. Cooking was in unglazed earthen vessels. For clothing, silk was used a little, but the principal fabrics were made from hemp and bark. Cotton was not introduced from China until later and wool was unknown. There was no money and such trade as existed was carried on by barter. Art was of the crudest, although, contrary to the custom of later ages, the Japanese elaborately decked themselves with personal ornaments. Some of the accouterments of war showed the beginnings of the æsthetic sense. There were a few simple trades, for implements were needed on the farm, in the home, and for battle. Artisans were organized by guilds. Life was largely agricultural and military. The population was divided into a number of different classes; serfs were to be found, and slavery existed, as might be expected from the nearly incessant warfare. There were apparently no codes of law, and justice was administered in a crude kind of way. The accused frequently swore to his innocence before the gods and as proof of guiltlessness thrust his arm in boiling water or carried a hot iron in his hand. Customs that seem to us cruel were in use. For example, the servitors, wives, and concubines of a chief were buried alive by the grave of their lord. Not until later, and then probably due to influence from the continent, were clay images substituted for the living sacrifices.

From the beginning the state was based on war, and the prolonged struggle with the Ainu and principalities in the south and west but tended to accentuate this characteristic. Unlike their continental neighbors, the Chinese, the Japanese as they expanded were compelled to fight for every inch of soil; as a result their culture had largely a military as well as an agricultural cast. In China the soldier has usually been considered of secondary importance, an evil to be endured only because he is necessary for the defense of the scholars, farmers, and merchants. In Japan, with the exception of a few important centuries, he has dominated the state.

The imperial institution apparently dates from the earliest days of the nation. That does not mean that it was originally what we know it to be to-day. It was a gradual growth. At first the ruler was simply the leader who united the various tribes or families in war and formed a nucleus for a loose kind of coherence in the intervals of peace. Theoretically, possibly as a result of the unity made necessary by the long warfare with the aborigines and other enemies, he was absolute; practically he shared his power with local chieftains, and the state resembled a federation of tribes under his hereditary leadership. Not all the chieftains were loyal. Those in the far west and south were often virtually independent and yielded, allegiance to the Yamato court only when a vigorous monarch sat on the throne. The emperor was high priest, declared war and peace, and the imperial institution became so firmly fixed in the consciousness of the nation that although much modified, it persisted through all the vicissitudes of later centuries. It was never abandoned, and when the great transformation of the nineteenth century came it formed the rallying point for the reorganized nation.

Religion was of the simplest. There was no formal theology and no elaborate system of ethics. Cosmogony was childlike. The people had not yet thought deeply on conduct, and on the mysteries of life and the origin of things. The great forces and objects of nature were deified and the spirits of ancestors were worshipped, especially those of the imperial house: religion came to be, in fact, very largely the cult and bulwark of the royal power. Man was believed to be surrounded by a host of spirits who lived in trees, or rocks, or the air. Animals as well as men might be regarded as divinities. Shrines were few in number and crude in architecture. Ritual was not ornate or complicated, and consisted largely in the adoration and propitiation of spirits, gods, and ancestors, and in purification from ceremonial uncleanness. This purification was partly associated with a personal cleanliness which seems then as now to have been a national characteristic. In common with other primitive peoples various objects were held to be taboo, a corpse, for example, and a woman at childbirth. This primitive religion has persisted with amazingly few modifications. Originally it had no distinctive name, but after foreign cults entered, it became self-conscious and was dubbed Shinto, "the Way of the Gods." Present day Shinto is this primitive religion with the changes that it has undergone through the centuries.

The simple culture here described was the product of centuries through which progress was taking place and changes were always occurring. Only dimly can we picture these times, and even more inadequately can we treat them in a book of this length.


While the Japanese state was growing up around Yamato, a mighty civilization was being formed on the neighboring continent. Beginning at least as early as the second millennium before the Christian era, in what is now the northwestern section of China proper, the Chinese people had been increasing in numbers and territory, and in the latter half of the first millennium before Christ they had produced a philosophy, a literature, an art, and an industrial and commercial organization that compare favorably with the best cultures of the ancient Occident. Confucius had meditated on the philosophy, ethics, and statecraft of his race, and, leaving on them the indelible stamp of a great personality, had transmitted them to posterity in a group of writings and sayings, the major part of the so-called Chinese classics. These have had an influence on a larger proportion of mankind than any other literary collection outside of the Christian and the Buddhist scriptures. Mencius and other philosophers had followed him. The Taoist faith had been developed. Writing had been brought to a high state of perfection in the form of characters, partly pictographs, partly ideographs, partly phonograms, and a literary form had been produced which with remarkably few alterations is the standard for the Chinese written language to-day. Agriculture, industry, and commerce flourished. Population had multiplied.

In the third century before Christ the separate Chinese principalities had been welded together into one empire. Under the Han dynasty (B. C. 206-A. D. 214), in the flush of newly found national unity, the boundaries had been extended to the north, east, and south, and for a time included much of the territory occupied by the Chinese empire of to-day. Trade had been opened across the caravan routes of Central Asia and communication established with the outposts of Indian and Greek civilization.

This expanding culture on the neighboring continent could not but affect Japan. Princes of the Han had set them elves over part of Korea and the civilization they brought with them made itself felt in the Yamato state. In the centuries that followed the Han Japanese embassies were sent to the court of China; much that was Chinese was adopted by the semi-barbarous islanders; writing was introduced, although the knowledge of it made headway but slowly, and Confucian philosophy became known in court circles. Korean and Chinese artisans and merchants immigrated at times in large numbers, bent upon developing for their own profit the market afforded by the eager, virile, backward Japanese. With them, as with the Occidental merchants of later centuries, came a civilization which the Japanese appropriated and stamped with their own genius.

This intercourse had been in progress for several centuries and under its stimulus Japanese culture had been slowly developing, when a series of events took place which within a few years was to work a transformation in the island kingdom. The Chinese race was expanding. For centuries it was divided into petty states, but a renewed unity came and was followed by further expansion and a flowering of art and literature which profoundly affected all eastern Asia including Japan. The vehicle for this enlarged contribution of culture from China to Japan was Buddhism.

For further reading see: Griffis, The Mikado's Empire; Chamberlain's translation of the Kojiki; Aston's translation of the Nihongi; Aston, Shinto; Brinkley, Japan, Its History, Arts, and Literajure; Brinkley, A History of the Japanese People; Asakawa, The Early Institusional Life of Japan; Longford, The Story of Old Japan; Longford, The Story of Korea.