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  • Writer's pictureElliott Holley

Japan: from the cherry tree to the lotus

The art, culture, music, poetry, architecture and philosophy of Japan is strongly distinctive. For three thousand years, Japanese culture has been free to blossom into a garden of ideas, traditions, artistic expression and ways of living. From triumph to disaster and back again, Japan encapsulates a whole world of its own.

Now it is spring –

And across the moors the haze

Stretches heavily –

And within these rays at sunset,

A warbler fills the radiant mist with song.

Man'yoshu, XIX: 4290 by Otomo Yakamochi (718-785)

Image from Japan landscape illustration by macrovector

In Kyoto, the historic Katsura Imperial Villa has a beautiful garden. Five tea houses were originally set in a landscape of cherry trees, a pond, a mountain path, pavilions and a Shinto shrine. Quiet spaces for Japanese tea ceremonies reflect the influence of Zen Buddhism. Set in peaceful surroundings the Villa and its garden illustrates how Japanese culture from an early age has been influenced both Shinto beliefs and Buddhism.

Shinto teaches that the natural world is an embodiment of the divine. The kami are gods or spirits that inhabit all things, including rivers, mountains, lakes. Shinto emphasises purity through bathing and washing, as well as reverence for the kami. Japanese Shinto and Buddhism mixed over the centuries, with Buddhist temples attached to Shinto shrines, and vice versa.

Japan has also been heavily influenced by the ethical philosophy of Buddhism. The aim of existence is to break free from Samsara, the endless cycle of life and death, and to reach Nirvana, a perfect state of bliss, enlightenment and union with the divine. Buddhism seeks to find the 'middle way', the path of moderation between opposite extremes. It also teaches about detachment and how to achieve inner peace and harmony, as well as peace in the community.

Early Japan also took inspiration from China, especially Confucianism. Confucianism focuses on connecting the human and the divine through ethical teachings. The aim is harmony within the self, and within the community.

Confucianism teaches that the universe is always in a state of change. The forces of yin and yang represent light and darkness, life and death, positive and negative, creation and destruction. Confucianism aims to find a middle path between the two.

Kiyosu castle, Honshu, is associated with 16th century Japanese leader Oda Nobunaga

The unification of Japan

Civilisation arrived in Japan around 1,000 BC with the Yayoi people, who migrated to Japan from China and Korea. They brought with them technologies including farming and bronze and iron tools and weapons. They mixed with hunter-gatherers called the Jomon who already inhabited Japan at the time. Most modern Japanese are more similar to the Yayoi than the Jomon, although this becomes less true in the north (especially Hokkaido).

The Yamato were the first royal dynasty to unify Japan. The Yamato established a hereditary line of emperors that still rules Japan today, making it the most long-lasting dynasty in history. Kyoto became the capital in the 8th century.

One of the oldest codes of Japan is the Seventeen Article Constitution, written in 604 by Prince Shotoku, and introduced in the reign of Empress Suiko. The document focuses on the moral values and virtues expected of government officials and the Emperor's subjects. It draws heavily on all Buddhist, Confucian and Shinto influences.

The Taika Reforms in the 7th century brought land reform, including dividing up the lands equally among farmers. The state was centralised and the imperial court was modelled on China. Envoys and students were sent to China to learn about the Chinese writing system, literature, religion and architecture.

Early Japanese literature

Japanese literature emerged in the 8th century, with the first two books in Japan: Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki, which include legendary stories about early Japan and its mythology.

The Kojiki was written at the request of Empress Genmei. It consists of songs and poems about the creation of Japan and the world; the origins of the kami (gods); as well as the history and genealogy of the royal family and clans of Japan. The Kojiki creates a shared sense of history and national identity for the first time in Japan. It uses both Chinese and Japanese text.

The Nihon Shoki also covers the creation of the world, but gives more detailed history up to the 8th century. It focuses on the merits of virtuous rulers and the vices of bad ones. Unlike the Kojiki, it was written in Chinese, the standard language for official documents at the time.

The Man'yoshu, widely considered the finest collection of Japanese poetry, was compiled at this time. The text uses Chinese characters, sometimes in their original role to represent words, and sometimes to represent Japanese syllables phonetically. It was an important step towards the later Japanese script, which develops this idea further. The collection also had an influence on Japanese gardens. Botanical gardens which attempt to contain every one of the 150 species of plants mentioned in the collection proved popular across Japan.

Manuscript of the Kojiki from 1371-2

The rise of the Shogun

Originally, the Emperors of Japan had absolute authority. But over time, their control weakened. The noble clans across Japan became increasingly powerful. Two rival families, the Taira and Minamoto clans, became the real power behind the throne, and the imperial court increasingly relied on them to carry out its will.

The original constitution of Japan had decayed by the 11th century. This led to the rise of independent armies of samurai warriors, in service to powerful families. By the 12th century, the rivalry between the Taira and the Minamoto could no longer be contained. The Genpei War brought an end to 400 years of relative peace in Japan.

A series of still images from Creative Assembly's Shogun 2: Total War, a PC game that depicts the rise of the samurai in the Genpei war. The tiger, the Japanese crane bird and the wolf represent the Minamoto, the Taira and the Fujiwara respectively.

When Yorimoto of the Minamoto clan emerged victorious, the imperial court was increasingly eclipsed by the office of Shogun - the most powerful leader of the clans. Yorimoto and the Minamoto became the real rulers of Japan, while the Emperor increasingly became a figurehead with little direct authority.

Japanese literature and poetry

The poetry collection Kokinshu and the Tosa Diary emerged at this time (the Heian period), as well as The Pillow Book and Mursaki Shikibu's Tale of Genji - both classic Japanese works.

The Tosa Diary tells the story of a journey across Japan, in the form of poems, written entirely in the Japanese language using Japanese kana phonetic characters. Unlike earlier works, it does not use Chinese characters or poems, although these were still in use at the time.

The Pillow Book was written by Sei Shonagon, a female author, poet and court lady who served at the court of the Empress Consort Teishi around the year 1000. Shonagon was known for her rivalry with Murasaki Shikibu, another female author who wrote the Tale of Genji.

The book consists of observations, poems and anecdotes on daily life at the court. It is similar to a diary, and was never meant to be published - but after it was accidentally discovered by a visiting guest in her lifetime, it became hugely popular. It contains Shonagon's likes and dislikes, the things that interested her, and the beauty of the world.

At this time, works by women were more popular among the people, because they wrote in Japanese, whereas the upper class men tended to write more in Chinese, which most people couldn't understand. The language in The Pillow Book is accessible, even for a modern Japanese reader.

The Tale of Genji is a romance novel and masterpiece written by Murasaki Shikibu, which is considered the first novel. It defies easy classification, but the story tells of Genji, a son of the emperor who is removed from the line of succession, and a low-ranking concubine called Kiritsubo. Genji seeks a career as an imperial officer; the book is full of political intrigue and romantic adventures. The story contains a huge

cast of 400 different characters, and is noted for its human passions and psychological characterisation of the characters. Unlike The Pillow Book, it was written in an archaic court language that became difficult to read even a century after it was written. Despite this, it is still widely read in Japanese schools down to the present day in modern translation.

Japan's lucky escape

Japan was also incredibly fortunate in being able to successfully resist two Mongol invasions, in 1274 and 1281, led by Kublai Khan. The Japanese were outnumbered and outmatched, but they fought bravely, successfully holding the Mongols at bay in Kyushu until the Mongol fleet was destroyed by storms on both occasions. The Japanese called these storms kamikaze, meaning 'divine wind'.

There was no doubt that Japan had been saved from a potentially terrible fate; the Mongol conquests in China, Persia and the Middle East had been incredibly brutal, to such a degree that some scholars argue the Mongols brought the golden age of Arabic civilisation to a close, while China also arguably never fully recovered.

Battle of Kawakanajima, 1561, from the Sengoku Jidai period

Japan broke apart again during the 15th century, following the Onin War. The country splintered into hundreds of different local factions. This period became known as the Sengoku Jidai, the age of the country at war. The Shogun lost all authority and the local daimyos ruled for themselves and raised private armies. In the late 16th century, the country was gradually reunified by Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

The Europeans arrive in Japan

The Portuguese arrived in 1543, when three Portuguese traders aboard a merchant ship were blown off course and landed on the island of Tanegashima, south of Kyushu. They were the first Europeans ever to set foot in Japan.

Soon, more Europeans arrived. Among the things they brought to Japan, were gunpowder weapons and Christianity. Both immediately became popular with the Japanese, who were in a state of civil war at the time. As many as 350,000 people converted to Christianity, while by 1556 the various warlords of Japan had acquired 300,000 muskets. The Japanese soon worked out how to produce muskets themselves, and began producing them across the country.

In 1561 an army under the Japanese daimyo Otomo Sorin, a convert to Christianity, attacked the castle of Moji, supported by three Portuguese ships. This is believed to be the first naval bombardment by foreign ships in the history of Japan.

The first battle between the Japanese and the Europeans occurred at the Battle of Fukuda Bay in 1565. A Japanese force of Samurai in small boats attacked two Portuguese ships. However, the superiority of cannon fire from the Portuguese ships caused such damage to the attackers that they withdrew. The Portuguese lost 8 men killed, while the Japanese lost 70 killed and 200 wounded, and three Japanese vessels sunk.

The incident greatly increased the prestige of the Portuguese among the Japanese. Previously, the Portuguese had been referred to as "southern barbarians", and they were considered "no better than the Chinese". They soon resumed trading peacefully and made Nagasaki their base, via the invitation of Japanese local lord Omurada Sumitada.

In 1610 in the Nossa Senhora da Graca incident, the Japanese samurai were able to overpower a Portuguese ship, although at the cost of nearly 10 to 1 casualties in favour of the Portuguese.

Japan enters the era of sakoku (isolation)

The Japanese became increasingly distrustful of the Portuguese and the Spanish. The Japanese had by this time heard reports of what was going on in the Americas and elsewhere around the world, where European powers had carved a bloody swathe through the Aztec and Inca empires, as well as colonising the Caribbean.

The Spanish had also attacked the Philippines in 1565, and the Japanese were aware of this, as well as battles between Chinese pirates and the Spanish. Japanese ships visited the Philippines at this time to trade silver. Some Japanese began to suspect that Japan would meet the same dreadful fate as other civilisations if they did not put a stop to foreign influence.

Powerful Japanese daimyo Oda Nobunaga used gunpowder weapons learned from the Europeans to defeat and conquer his Japanese rivals in the late 16th century. His successor Toyotomi Hideyoshi united Japan in 1590 and invaded Korea twice, unsuccessfully.

When Tokugawa Ieyasu took over after the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, he began the policy of sakoku, in which Japan became a closed country, severely restricted to foreigners. This period is called the Edo period, and it lasted until 1868. The Portuguese were expelled, and Christianity was banned.

This image shows Portuguese traders coming ashore in Japan in the 17th century. Despite their early success, they were eventually banned and replaced by the Dutch.

In the meantime, the Dutch had also arrived in Japan. The Japanese preferred the Dutch, because they were perceived as more willing to separate religion and trade business. The Dutch were the only Europeans allowed access, with one factory at Dejima island, opposite Nagasaki. They were not allowed onto the mainland, and they were not allowed to convert the Japanese. The Dutch eagerly agreed to these terms, because they were keen to replace their rivals, the Portuguese.

With Japan united under a single Shogun, and with the Japanese able to produce modern muskets to defend themselves, the agreement with the Dutch was built on solid foundations, and it lasted for the next 200 years.

Despite being a 'closed country', Japan was not totally isolated in this period. The Japanese did still trade extensively with China. Japan kept up with developments in the outside world even in this period through contact with the Dutch at Dejima island, as well as through contact with Korea and China. Rangaku (Dutch studies) flourished in the late 18th century, including the study of medical and other texts from Western Europe.

However, there were signs of danger. At this time, the European powers were busy colonising the Americas, India and Australia, parts of Africa and the Pacific islands. Meanwhile in Japan, the technology of gunpowder weapons was heavily restricted by the Shogun (for reasons of maintaining central control), eventually falling out of use. In 1844, King William II of the Netherlands sent a letter in which he urged Japan to end its isolation and modernise by itself, before change would be forced on Japan by foreign powers.

Isolation ends: US gunboat diplomacy

Isolation came to an end on 8 July 1853 when Commodore Matthew Perry of the US navy arrived with four steam-powered warships at the entrance to Tokyo Bay (then known as Edo Bay). Perry's mission was to open Japan up to American trade, by force if necessary.

The USS Susquehanna, Commodore Perry's flagship during his first visit to Japan. Built in 1850, the ship was a paddle steamer equipped with modern guns. Perry's arrival in Japan triggered a major shift in Japanese society.

Earlier attempts had already been made to convince Japan to open up in 1837 and 1846, but these had failed. The Japanese were aware of what the British had done to China in the Opium Wars, and they were not keen to allow foreigners in.

However, the American government was determined to push forward with its plan. The Americans feared that the expansion of British and French control in Asia would soon leave nothing for the United States. They also believed in 'manifest destiny', an imperialistic ideology that asserted America's right to expand its civilisation.

Perry's first stop was at the Ryukyu islands, where he threatened the local authorities that he would attack with 200 troops unless allowed trading rights and land for a coaling station. Perry made a landing with marines and had them march up and down the beach, doing military exercises. The islanders agreed to his request. In June, he departed with the fleet to the Ogasawara islands, where he was able to buy a plot of land.

On arrival at Edo Bay, Perry was met by Japanese guard boats, ordering him to leave immediately. However, he refused, and threatened to land troops and take the city by force if necessary, to deliver his letter (from the President of the USA). He also ordered his ships to fire their guns (using blank rounds), as a demonstration of force (he claimed this was to celebrate American independence day, but really the purpose was obviously to intimidate the Japanese). Perry was allowed to land and deliver his message. He then departed, promising to return for a reply.

This Japanese woodblock print shows Perry and other high ranking American officers

With the Japanese Shogun gravely ill at the time, the Japanese Council of Elders debated how to respond. The leader of the council, Abe Masahiro, felt that Japan could not resist the Americans by force. He consulted the Daimyos (noble lords) of Japan for their opinion, but they were equally divided between those who favoured accepting the American demands and those who urged resistance. All agreed however that Japan's coastal defences should urgently be strengthened, and the Japanese started building fortifications.

Perry returned in 1854, this time with ten vessels and 1,600 men. The Tokugawa shogunate decided to accept nearly all the American demands. But the negotiators wasted weeks arguing over the site for the negotiations. Impatient, Perry threatened to declare war on Japan and bring 100 ships against Edo within 20 days.

At the Convention of Kanagawa in 1854, Perry forced the young Shogun Tokugawa Iesada to sign a treaty establishing relations between Japan and the USA. Gifts were exchanged, and Perry returned home, where he was rewarded with $20,000 and promoted. However, in Japan the treaty was highly controversial, and many recognised it as a sign of weakness, given that the shogunate had been forced into signing it. This undermined the authority of the shogun and led to increasing divisions in Japan.

Japan's unequal treaties with the West

Soon afterwards, the UK signed a similar treaty with Japan the same year. Russia achieved its own treaty with Japan in 1855 after displaying a steam engine, a novelty in Japan. The treaties were unequal and gave the Westerners control of tariffs on imports and exemption from Japanese law for Westerners in Japan.

Japan's relative weakness was now clear for all to see. In 1861 the Russians tried to establish a naval base at Tsushima, and were only forced to retreat when the Japanese called on British support. The Japanese also had received the steam ship Kanko Maru from the Netherlands as a gift. When the Japanese and British ships arrived, and the Japanese central government made clear its opposition, the Russians decided to withdraw.

However, it was clear that Japan was under threat of colonisation by the Western powers, and could not resist outside powers alone. The Perry expedition and the unequal treaties prompted Japan to send missions to the West, in the 1860s, to learn about Western civilisation. This included two visits to Europe and a delegation at the 1867 World Fair in Paris, as well as a group of students known as the Choshu Five who studied at University College London in England.

The Meiji Restoration: Modern Japan emerges

In 1868, the Shogunate was overthrown due to public anger over the unequal treaties. The Boshin War saw the young Emperor Meiji restored to power. This event is known as the Meiji Restoration. It marks the beginning of modern Japan. It also marks a decisive end to the policy of isolation, and a rapid policy of industrial modernisation in Japan.

The Japanese realised that they must become a modern industrial power, if they were to stand any chance of resisting the western powers. The Meiji Restoration government quickly abolished the Edo era class structure in Japan, promoted westernisation, reformed the state, hired western advisers, introduced railways, the telegraph system and universal education. The western, Gregorian calendar was introduced, along with western clothes and hairstyles. The government focused on importing western science, especially medical science.

Emperor Meiji (left) adopted western-style military dress, heavily influenced by the major powers of the age such as the French, British and other Western colonial powers.

At the same time, the government pursued a nationalist agenda. Shinto was made the state religion, the Emperor was declared divine, and schools taught patriotic virtues. Conscription was introduced. Nationalists in the government and military believed that Japan must secure colonies of its own so that it could stand up to the European powers.

By the 1890s, Japan had captured the Ryukyu islands and Hokkaido, and in 1895 Taiwan was ceded to Japan after an eight-month war against China, in which highly-motivated Japanese troops overcame a superior enemy force. Japan used the prestige from this victory to renegotiate the unequal treaties from 40 years earlier. In 1902, Japan signed an alliance with Britain. The alliance was aimed against Russia, which both signatories saw as a threat.

In 1905, at the battle of Tsushima, a Japanese fleet under Togo Heihachiro defeated the Russian imperial fleet in the Tsushima straight, between Japan and Korea. The victory of Japan was a major upset to the order of the day, and an unprecedented triumph for a nation in Asia against a European power. The Japanese followed up by annexing Korea in 1910.

The Russian warship Oslyabya was the first to be sunk by the Japanese fleet at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905. The victory of the Japanese overturned notions of European superiority. It instantly became one of the most significant naval battles of all time.

Last stand of the samurai

The Meiji Restoration achieved astonishing success. However, it was not without opposition. In January 1877, disaffected samurai rebelled against the government. They opposed the government's reforms of society, which relegated them from their former position of power and privilege to poverty and irrelevance. In September 1877, the final battle of the Satsuma Rebellion took place at Shiroyama. This battle went down as one of the great last stands in history.

Heavily outnumbered, a force of samurai under Saigo Takamori were surrounded on a hill. Running out of ammunition, they decided to make one last, desperate charge against the imperial Japanese army. Armed with katana swords and dressed in traditional samurai armour, they stood no chance and were mowed down by the imperial army, which was equipped with modern artillery and rifles. Mortally wounded, Takamori committed seppuku rather than be captured.

This painting of the battle of Shiroyama is from 1880. The Japanese imperial army soldiers are wearing dark uniforms. The samurai are charging in the centre and the upper right.

The battle marked the end of the rebellion, and also the end of the samurai class and an end to a whole way of life. It also marked the end to any organised opposition to Japan's modernisation efforts. The heroic last stand of the samurai had been in vain, but their bravery and honour was remembered by the people, as the ultimate expression of bushido (way of the warrior).

Epilogue: triumph, disaster and rebirth

Japan entered the 20th century in a strong position. Allied with the British, Japan sided with the Allies in the First World War and gained some former German colonies. It seemed everything was going so well for Japan.

But unfortunately, the growth of imperialism in Japan led to disaster. The government increasingly fell into the hands of extremists. Moderates and liberals were purged. Militarism and ultra-nationalism became rampant. Society became poisoned by toxic ideas. It was not long before a combination of fear, hatred, pride, arrogance and overconfidence caused Japan's leaders to lead the country to ruin. Like many other countries in history, Japan fell victim to amoral leaders who indulged the worst side of the human psyche.

Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, lost the Second World War, and suffered two atomic bombs dropped by the US military on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Sadly, for most western readers, this is the only part of the story many will be familiar with. I have no desire to repeat the horror of those years here, but readers can research it for themselves.

After the war Japan rebuilt once again as a modern, peaceful and democratic country. Today it is one of the most developed countries in the world, a leader in technology and science. As if to illustrate the point, as I was writing this blog post on 31 August 2020, it was reported in the news that Japanese company SkyDrive demonstrated a flying car, which it hopes to bring into production by 2023.

The lotus in Japanese culture represents purity and spiritual enlightenment. The way it rises from murky waters to bring beauty and harmony to the world is symbolic.

Japan has experienced 75 years of peace, in which the country has achieved far more than it ever did in the Meiji Era. In February 2020, a series of Gallup Polls found that 83% of respondents said they had a "very favourable" or "mostly favourable" view of Japan.

I would like to close with a poem, called Iroha, written in the heyday of Heian era Japan (794-1197).

Although its scent still lingers on

the form of a flower has scattered away

For whom will the glory

of this world remain unchanged?

Arriving today at the yonder side

of the deep mountains of evanescent existence

We shall never allow ourselves to drift away

intoxicated, in the world of shallow dreams.

The Buddhist temple of Daigo-Ji, Kyoto, Japan, founded in the Heian era in 874.

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