World History

The Rise of Clans of Classical Japan

Author: Elisha Kayne

Around 300 BC, the Yayoi people began migrating from continental Asia to the Japanese islands, co-mingling with the native Jomon inhabitants. Before the arrival of the Yayoi, the indigenous villagers lived a semi-sedentary lifestyle subsisting mainly through hunting, gathering and fishing. While there is evidence of some plant husbandry from these early times, full scale farming had not yet developed until the arrival of the Yayoi. After many generations, the majority of Japan became farmers, relying on agriculture for their livelihoods, making acquiring and defending land an absolute necessity. As families settled the land, their descendants began to form powerful clans as Japan entered the Kofun period sometime around 250 AD.

These family groups became known as Uji, forming some of the earliest Japanese clans including the Nakatomi and Fujiwara. Each Uji had their own ruler or chief which were in charge of caring for their clan’s wellbeing and also practiced the ceremonies and rituals to appease the clan spirit, or Ujigami. As all clan family’s claimed descent from a diety, pleasing their ancestral Kami was vital to their military and agricultural success. The people living in Japan who did not belong to one of these powerful lineages, or who had immigrated from Korea or China at a later date, became members of the working class called Be.

One of the first of these clans, the Yamato, claimed descent from the first Japanese Emperor Jimmu, and the Sun Goddess Ameterasu herself. They soon rose to power, competing against other rival clans of the area. They were able to expand their territory during this time. Local clan leaders pledged their loyalty and in turn were given positions of power within the Emperor’s government. And those who refused to become integrated in the empire were often met with military defeat, and the loss of their land and titles. Astoundingly, this clan still reigns supreme as the Imperial House of modern day Japan. Their rule has lasted from at least the 3rd century, or even as far back as 660 BC. This means an Emperor or Empress from this powerful family has been a figurehead of the Japanese people for at least 1,500 years, far longer than any other monarch in the world.

However, despite members of the Yamato family being crowned as the central authority, other clans and individuals have often wielded greater influence over the government. One of the first examples of this includes the Soga clan, who took over the government in the late 6th century by claiming hereditary succession through their ancestor Emperor Kogen. Their rise to power marks the end of the Kofun period and the entry point of the Asuka period, which began in 538 AD. The Soga clan were the leading traders of the time, and had formed relations with mainland China and Korea, and had been thoroughly exposed to the influence of Buddhism. Their loyalty to Confucian ideals and Buddhist doctrine made them instant rivals to other leading clans of the day. The clans held authority based upon their lineage from well respected Kami, and the introduction of a foreign religion was a direct threat to their claims of hereditary rule. Therefore, clans like the Mononobe, Nakatomi and Fujiwara clans attempted to stop Prince Shotoku and other Soga clan members from spreading their new ideologies. Battles were waged, but in the end, it was Prince Shotoku who was victorious. Afterwards, Shotoku changed many of the old customs, creating a Seventeen Article constitution based on Confucian principals, and the Cap and Rank system which rendered the original hereditary based kabane system obsolete. Now, outside of the royal family, members of the government would rise through the ranks based on performance and adherence to the twelve virtues, rather than by heritage. The changes disrupted conventional society, and placed the majority of the power with the Emperor.

After Shotoku’s death, members of the Fujiwara clan and Prince Naka no Oe held a coup, tossing the Soga clan out of the seat of power in 645. After claiming the throne, Emperor Kotoku began immediately changing the laws. However, rather than reverting back to the traditional division of power, he further concentrated authority into the hands of the Imperial family by instating the Taika Reforms. These new laws forced the clans to turn over private ownership of lands to the central government.  He ordered the nationalized land to be equally distributed among the people and began a new system of taxation that included a household registry. Interestingly, rather than using his position to return Japan back to the days of the kabane, he continued to bring further Chinese influence into the islands. He sent multiple teams of envoys into China so they could learn more about Buddhism, architecture and the Chinese writing system.

Japan underwent permanent transformation following these reforms. While some clans continued vying for high positions by marrying into the family of the Imperial House, the power remained largely with the centralized ruling authority of the time. Those clans which survived the changes of their society remained subjects of the Emperor, wrestling one another at Court over favoritism from the Monarch through the Heian and early Medieval periods. Thank you for watching! I hope you liked this video. If you have any feedback or suggestions for future topics, I would love to hear about it in the comments below. Also, don’t forget to like, share, subscribe and click the notification bell so you don’t miss future videos.

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