Sample Essay on Japan

Japan is a latecomer in Asian history, appearing at around 57 AD. Japan’s location, off the East Coast of China is important in the development of Japan’s culture. The Japanese adopted many things from its surrounding boarders, especially China. The Japanese adopted many forms of the Chinese culture and tried to make each adoption ultimately Japanese. During the Yamato Period (500 AD), Japan’s history and culture was just starting to flourish. The influence of the Chinese culture on that of Japan’s is extensive, yet Japan is a unique civilization. With adopting its infrastructure of government, religion and philosophy, writing, and the fine arts, Japan has become a civilization with its own fine culture.

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In between the years of 618-906 AD the Japanese realized the brilliance of the Tang Dynasty. One concept that the Japanese adopted was the imperial concept (where the leader would be addressed as emperor or empress). The Japanese modeled their entire central government around Chinese imperialism. Prior to the empirical concept, the ruler of Japan was a queen. A queen was ruling because precedents set earlier in Japanese history stated that should a male rule their violent personalities would eventually bring civil war. Japan’s concept of empirical rule produced the longest unbroken line of rulers in human history, even longer than the monarchy in England. Japan’s current ruler (Emperor Akihito) is 125th in a line which originated with the Goddess of the sun and extends to her heir Jimmu (known as the first emperor, in 660 BC ). Only one family of one bloodline has ever occupied the Chrysanthemum throne. When Empress Suiko (Yamato Period) sent a selected few to study the government, philosophy and culture of Japan, their findings and results would alter Japan’s culture permanently. The Japanese government completely reorganized their court along the Chinese model, adopted the Chinese calendar, and sponsored Buddhism (which conflicted with the beliefs taught in Japan’s primary religion, Shintoism).

Right along with the governments reformation, Buddhism was being introduced and accepted in many Japanese towns and villages (552 AD ). Buddhism was introduced to Japanese culture during the Nara Period and therefore the emperors and empresses revered the Buddhist teachings called the “Sutra of the Golden Light”. Nara Buddhism was identical to Chinese Buddhism. There were three main schools that dominated Japan. One was the “Three Treaties School”, another was the “Dharma Character School”, and finally there was the “Flower Wreath School”. All three schools taught Mahayana Buddhism and they also taught that the universe was in “constant flux and constant change ”. Buddhism enlightened the ultimate ideal, which was to have a priest of Buddha rule. By 766 AD, Japan came close to grasping this concept when the empress tried to relinquish her throne in favour of the master of the Hosso, Dokyo. Ultimately, that never came to be. Buddhism was mixed with Confucian principles along with original ideas; to produce a strange combination with suited the political terms for an agricultural and warrior society. Japan was not known as a Buddhist country, like European countries were known to be Christian. Buddhism was tolerant and selective and therefore it did not have any difficulty coexisting with Shintoism. Buddhism also influenced Japanese literature and art until the 1800’s. Buddhism eliminated the Kofun period in Japan. This means that cremation was used instead of the traditional burial process.

Confucianism is a teaching that incorporates many elements of philosophy, religion, and social custom. A 12-volume set of books, called the Analects, contains the teachings of the great, ancient Chinese teacher. “Confucius’ sayings, which vary in length from one sentence to one paragraph, describe the ethical and moral standards that each individual should follow, including respect for elders and tradition ”. Most of the primary beliefs of Japanese ethical behaviour can be traced back to the teachings of Confucius. Once the Japanese mastered the Confucian teachings they fused their own ethical teachings with those of Confucius. The Japanese people never really accepted Confucianism and they never endorsed the views of heaven. The Japanese always considered themselves descendents of the sun goddess, Amaterasu. The Japanese made sure that their own morals and principles were taught so that their sovereignty would not be confused with that of China’s. Confucianism never became a religion in Japan although there are shrines dedicated to its creator. Festivals are sometimes celebrated and ceremonies are still held in his name.

The Japanese system of writing was formerly a direct import from China. The knowledge was limited therefore the Japanese did not have much information on the writing structures. There was one problem with the Japanese adopting the Chinese writing style- the language barrier. The Chinese and Japanese languages are not even in the same language family, so the Japanese style of writing was vastly different from that of China’s. “The Chinese writing is in part an ideogrammatic system and partly a syllabic writing system ”. When the Japanese imported Chinese writing, they started writing phonetically. When the Japanese started writing they originally used the syllabic characters used in the Manyoshu texts. These texts were poems of the eighth century. The Manyoshu texts are the cornerstone of Japanese writing. During this time period (the seventh and eighth centuries) the Japanese also invented another form of writing called kana. The word kana means “borrowed words”. There are two branches of kana. There is hiragana (“women’s writing”) and katakana. Hiragana, the first source syllabic writing in the Heian Period, is now the primary writing source in the country of Japan. Drawing Chinese characters in quick, cursive, fluid strokes produced this alphabet. Katakana, which was invented by a Buddhist, is a syllabic alphabet derived from Chinese characters. There were also several problems that the Japanese had to overcome to start writing. The Japanese had to adjust to a non-phonetic method of writing. Thus, they had to acquire new methods of writing to speed up the writing process.

The fine arts are literature, music and visual arts etc. Literature (poetry) was limited by the adoption of Chinese writing. Poetry became a copy of the Tang poetry, and most of the poets were women. We know this because hiragana is associated with women’s writing. Women compiled many of the great Japanese works. The classic work of Japan and world literature to the Western World was the Genji monogatari. This piece of work was written during the first couple of decades of the eleventh century.

Japan’s musical theory is solely derived from Chinese musical theory. In Chinese theory, five tones of the scale (the pentatonic scale) were related to each other based on five important agents. The five agents were wood, fire, earth, metal and water. In addition to these five elements there was a larger scale invented. This scale involved yin (the male creation) and yang (the female completion). The Chinese and Japanese scale is determined by the “cornerstone” note, where as in the West we define the tonic scale by the first note. Finally the Chinese and Japanese musical theory was based on eight instrumental sounds. The instruments included metal (bells), stone (stone chimes), leather (drums), earth (ocarina), silk (stringed instruments), wood (double reed instruments), gourd (mouth organ) and bamboo (flute) . The Japanese added percussion to their ensemble of musical instruments. The percussion instruments added flavour to the ceremonies, giving the ceremonies a richness that the Japanese had never heard before. The most permanent musical culture was developed was the gagaku (court instrumental music), developed during the Heian Period. It was experienced a great deal during the Heian period as music of a high culture. This type of music was heard during special ceremonies like weddings, funerals, and affairs of the state.

Art, in the forms of vases, pottery and metal were imported from China. Much of Japan’s art and technology was imported from China and Korea alike. The visual art that stands out the most was the art of the Kofun period. During the Kofun period, art was seen in the massive tombs built for powerful emperors and others. Many forms of jewelry, iron tools, pottery, mirrors and clay figures called haniwa were found in the tombs of these great people. These figures represent the person inside the kofun. The Japanese arts weren’t as separable from the art of China or Korea. While the Japanese adopted a lot from the Chinese models, the overall architectural model that they followed was that of the early Yayoi period.

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