Saturday 5 November 2016

Yayoi Period of Japan

The Yayoi period is an Iron Age era in the history of Japan traditionally dated 300 BC to AD 300. It is named after the neighborhood of Tokyo where archaeologists first uncovered artifacts and features from that era. Distinguishing characteristics of the Yayoi period include the appearance of new Yayoi pottery styles and the start of an intensive rice agriculture in paddy fields. The Yayoi followed the Jōmon period (13,000–400 BC).

Recreation of Yayoi period settlement

Techniques in metallurgy based on the use of bronze and iron were also introduced to Japan in this period. Yayoi pottery was simply decorated and produced on a potter's wheel,as opposed to Jōmon pottery, which was produced by hand. Yayoi craft specialists made bronze ceremonial bells (dōtaku), mirrors, and weapons. By the 1st century AD, Yayoi farmers began using iron agricultural tools and weapons.

Unfortunately, metal ore supply was quite limited in Japan at the time, and so having metal items was indicative of higher status. Other materials that signified higher status were silk and glass which was produced in Kyushu, the southernmost island in Japan. Men of high status usually had more wives than those of lower rank.

With the introduction of farming, the diet and lifestyle of the Yayoi people drastically changed since they were now permanently settled and most of their food - rice, millet, beans, and gourds - was grown locally, with any hunting and gathering that occurred acting more as a supplement.

A Yayoi period jar

As the Yayoi population increased, the society became more stratified and complex. They wove textiles, lived in permanent farming villages, and constructed buildings with wood and stone. They also accumulated wealth through land ownership and the storage of grain. Such factors promoted the development of distinct social classes.

It was in the Yayoi that a class system based society appeared with around 100 clans forming by 100 CE, which would fight each other for dominance throughout the rest of the period. Though the clans were fighting one another, there would occasionally be alliances which would form small kingdoms for the purpose of military power or mutual economic success. 

Yoshinogari reconstruction

The earliest written records about people in Japan are from Chinese sources from this period. Wa, the Japanese pronunciation of an early Chinese name for Japan, was mentioned in 57 AD; the Na state of Wa received a golden seal from the Emperor Guangwu of the Later Han dynasty. This event was recorded in the Hou Han Shu compiled by Fan Ye in the 5th century. The seal itself was discovered in northern Kyūshū in the 18th century.

Golden seal from Han emperor

Third-century Chinese sources reported that the Wa(Japanese) people lived on raw fish, vegetables, and rice served on bamboo and wooden trays, clapped their hands in worship (something still done in Shinto shrines today), and built earthen-grave mounds. They also maintained vassal-master relations, collected taxes, had provincial granaries and markets, and observed mourning. Society was characterized by violent struggles.

A Yayoi period dōtaku bell, 3rd century AD

The Wei Zhi, which is part of the San Guo Zhi, Queen Himiko in the 3rd century. According to the record, Himiko assumed the throne of Wa, as a spiritual leader, after a major civil war. Her younger brother was in charge of the affairs of state, including diplomatic relations with the Chinese court Kingdom of Wei. When asked about their origins by the Wei embassy, the people of Wa claimed to be descendants of the Grand Count Tàibó of Wu, a historic figure of the Wu Kingdom around the Yangtze Delta of China.

Queen Himiko

The Yayoi would mark the transition of Japanese society from bands of hunter-gatherers with little contact with others to an agrarian, metalworking, political, and militarized society. The Yayoi set the foundations for what would now be known as medieval Japan with the introduction of rice-growing and metalworking, which allowed for a population expansion and weapons and armor production for military purposes.

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