The extravagant burial ceremonies and characteristic mud mounds that were prevalent throughout the Kofun period (from A.D. 250 to about A.D. 600) are likely the source of the period’s name, which means “ancient tomb” (kofun). Large stone burial chambers could be found inside the mounds; several of these rooms were in the form of keyholes, and some of them even had moats around them. By the late Kofun era, the unique burial chambers, which were at first reserved for members of the governing class, were eventually constructed for members of the ordinary population as well.
The Kofun era saw the development of a civilization that was very military and aristocratic in its rulers. Its horse-riding soldiers donned armour, carried swords and other weapons, and used sophisticated warfare strategies similar to those employed in Northeast Asia. The evidence of these advancements may be seen in funeral figurines, which are known as haniwa and literally translate to “clay rings.” These sculptures can be seen in thousands of kofun all around Japan. The most significant haniwa were discovered in the southern part of Honshu, particularly in the Kinai Region surrounding Nara, as well as in the northern part of Kyushu. Offerings to Haniwa graves were created in a wide variety of shapes, including horses, chickens, birds, fans, fish, dwellings, swords, shields, sunshades, cushions, and even male and female persons. Another piece of funeral art, known as the magatama, ended up becoming one of the emblems that represented the imperial house’s authority.
The Kofun era was a pivotal time in Japan’s development toward becoming a more unified and internationally recognised state. This culture reached its highest level of development in the Kinai Region and the easternmost region of the Inland Sea (Seto Naikai), and its troops acquired a footing on the southernmost point of Korea. Even at that time, Japan’s rulers went so far as to ask the Chinese court for confirmation of their royal titles. In response, the Chinese acknowledged Japanese military dominance over some regions of the Korean Peninsula.
The Yamato polity, which began to take shape in the latter half of the fifth century, was characterised by influential great clans or extended families, which included the members’ dependents. Each clan was led by a patriarch who was responsible for offering religious sacrifices to the kami of the clan in order to guarantee the clan’s continued prosperity in the future. Members of the clan comprised the aristocracy, with the kingly dynasty that ruled the Yamato court being the absolute peak of that nobility.
Towards the end of the Kofun period, there was a greater degree of interaction between Japan and the continent of Asia. A new body of religious teaching was brought to Japan from Korea, most likely in the year 538 A.D. Buddhism was the religion that was brought. Buddhism, as well as administrative and cultural models based on Chinese Confucianism, was promoted by the Soga, a Japanese royal dynasty that came to prominence with the arrival of the Emperor Kimmei about the year 531 A.D. The Soga were also in favour of the adoption of Confucianism. However, some members of the Yamato court, such as the Nakatomi family and the Mononobe clan, were adamant about keeping their privileges and resisted the foreign religious influence of Buddhism. The Nakatomi family was in charge of the Shinto rituals that were performed at court, and the Mononobe clan was a military clan. Instead of seeing the Korean Peninsula as a potential target for territorial expansion, the Soga saw it as a trading route and adopted economic policies that were fashioned after those of China. They also created the first national treasury. During the course of more than a century’s worth of bitter feuding between the Soga clan, the Nakatomi clan, and the Mononobe clan, the Soga clan momentarily emerged victorious.
It is generally agreed that the Kofun period came to an end somewhere around the year 600 A.D. This is the time when the Yamato and other members of the elite class stopped making elaborate kofun as a result of the widespread adoption of new Buddhist beliefs. These beliefs placed a greater emphasis on the transience of human life. However, commoners and elites in outlying locations continued to utilise kofun until the late seventh century, and simplified but still distinguishable tombs were used during the subsequent era.
Throughout the Asuka era, which is called after the Asuka area, which is located south of contemporary Nara and was the location of multiple temporary imperial capitals erected during the time, the Yamato empire grew even more. The Asuka region was given the name Asuka. The late Kofun era was the time period that laid the groundwork for important artistic, social, and political shifts that occurred during the Asuka period. These shifts are what made the Asuka period famous.
Clan chieftains in Kyushu and Honshu were honoured with titles, some of which were hereditary, by the Yamato court, which was centred in the Asuka area. The Yamato court ruled over clans across Kyushu and Honshu. As a result of the Yamato monarchs’ successful suppression of the clans and acquisition of agricultural territories, the word Yamato came to be associated with the whole of Japan. They built a central government and an imperial court attended by subordinate clan chieftains based on Chinese patterns (including the adoption of the Chinese written language). However, there was no fixed capital throughout this time. By the middle of the seventh century, the agricultural fields had developed into a sizable public domain, which was subject to the directives of the central government. The county served as the primary administrative division, while occupational categories were used to divide up the population. The majority of the population engaged in agriculture, but some worked as fishermen, weavers, potters, craftsmen, ritual experts, and armourers.
The Soga had intermarried with members of the royal line, and by the year 587 A.D., the Soga chieftain known as Soga Umako had amassed enough influence to install his nephew as emperor, then later to kill him and replace him with the Empress Suiko (r. A.D. 593-628). Umako and Prince Regent Shotoku Taishi used Suiko, the first of eight sovereign empresses, as nothing more than a figurehead. Suiko’s rule lasted just a few years (A.D. 574-622). Shotoku was a Buddhist monk who was also well-versed in Chinese literature. He was widely regarded as one of the most significant intellectuals to emerge during this age of reform. He was inspired by Confucian beliefs, such as the Mandate of Heaven, which claimed that the sovereign reigned according to the will of an all-powerful force. He was also a student of ancient Chinese history. Confucian norms of rank and etiquette were implemented under Shotoku’s supervision, and his Seventeen Article Constitution (Kenpo jushichiju) outlined means to create harmony to a society that was considered chaotic in Confucian standards. In addition to this, Shotoku adopted the Chinese calendar, established formal diplomatic relations with China, constructed a network of highways, built a large number of Buddhist temples, commissioned the compilation of court chronicles, sent students to China to study Buddhism and Confucianism, and compiled court chronicles.
Returning, they went on to become well-known reformers. Shotoku attempted to achieve equality with the Chinese emperor by sending official mail with the inscription “From the Son of Heaven in the Land of the Rising Sun to the Son of Heaven in the Land of the Setting Sun.” This effort was met with strong opposition from the Chinese people. The courageous action taken by Shotoku established a precedent for Japan, which established that Japan would never again accept a submissive posture in its ties with China. Despite the tight contacts that had existed between the two countries during the early Kofun era, the impact of Korea on Japan decreased during this time period. This occurred despite the fact that the missions continued the transformation of Japan via Chinese influences.
Court intrigues over succession and the threat of a Chinese invasion led to a palace coup against the Soga oppression in A.D. 645. This occurred roughly twenty years after the deaths of Shotoku (in A.D. 622), Soga Umako (in A.D. 626), and Empress Suiko (in A.D. 628). Shotoku died in A.D. 622, Soga Umako (in A.D. 626), and Em Prince Naka and Nakatomi Kamatari were the ones who took authority of the court away from the Soga dynasty and instituted the Taika Reform. They were the ones who were the leaders of the revolution.
The Taika Reform, also known as the Great Change Reform, did not in itself constitute a legal code; however, it did mandate a series of reforms that led to the establishment of the ritsuryo system, which was comprised of social, fiscal, and administrative mechanisms during the seventh to tenth centuries. The Ritsu code included punitive laws, while the Ry code outlined administrative procedures. The two titles, when combined, came to be used to designate a system of patrimonial authority that was founded on an intricate legal framework and developed as a result of the Taika Reform.
The Taika Reform, which was heavily inspired by Chinese customs, began with the redistribution of land. The reform’s primary objective was to put an end to the current system of landholding that was held by the major clans, as well as their control over domains and occupational groups. What were once referred to as “private lands and private people” became “public lands and public people” as the court now sought to assert its control over all of Japan and to make the people direct subjects of the throne. This resulted in the change of the term “private lands and private people” to “public lands and public people.” When a landowner passed away, their property no longer passed down via their family but instead went back to the state. Harvests, as well as silk, cotton, fabric, thread, and a variety of other goods, were subject to taxation. A levy on labour, known as the corvée, was instituted in order to fund compulsory military service and the construction of public works. It was decided to do away with the hereditary titles of clan chieftains and instead create three ministries that would act as advisors to the king (the minister of the left, the minister of the right, and the minister of the center, or the chancellor). The nation was subdivided into provinces, each of which was led by a governor who had been nominated by the court. Within each province, districts and villages were established as sub-divisions.
As a token of appreciation for the significant contributions he made to the life of the imperial family, Kamatari was bestowed with the Fujiwara family name, and Naka was promoted to the post of Minister of the Center. Fujiwara Kamatari is considered to be the first member of a distinguished family of court aristocracy. In diplomatic papers and histories, the word Japan was eventually shortened to Nihon, and in some cases it was even referred to as Dai Nippon, which literally translates to “Great Japan.” In the year 662, after the reigns of Naka’s uncle and mother, Naka ascended to the throne as Emperor Tenji and added the title of tenno to his name (heavenly sovereign). This new title was intended to improve the image of the Yamato clan and to emphasise the divine origins of the imperial family in the hope of keeping it above political frays such as those that were precipitated by the Soga clan. Both of these goals were accomplished in the hope of keeping the imperial family above political frays. However, power battles remained within the imperial family as the emperor’s brother and son fought one another for the opportunity to succeed their father. Tenji’s brother, who would go on to rule as Emperor Temmu, worked at the imperial court to solidify the reforms and state authority that Tenji had instituted.
The ritsuryo system went through a number of phases before it was finally formalised. The Mi Code, which was finished around the year 668 A.D. and was called for the province location where Emperor Tenji’s court was located, A further codification took place with the issuance of the Asuka-Kiyomihara Code by Empress Jito in the year 689. This code was named after the site of the court of the late Emperor Temmu. The ritsuryo system was further unified and codified in 701 under the Taiho Ritsuryo (also known as the Great Treasure Code or Taiho Code), which, with the exception of a few alterations and the fact that it was restricted to purely ceremonial responsibilities, remained in existence until 1868. Through the Department of Rites, which was devoted to Shinto and court rituals, and the Department of State, which had eight ministries (for central administration, ceremonies, civil affairs, the imperial household, justice, military affairs, people’s affairs, and the treasury), the Taiho Code provided for Confucian-model penal provisions (light rather than harsh punishments) and Chinese-style central administration. A civil service examination system in the form of traditional Chinese education and based on Confucian classics was also established. Tradition, on the other hand, worked around the system, and being born into aristocratic families remained to be the primary criterion for higher positions. The nomination of the sovereign was not something that was addressed in the Taiho Code. From the fifth through the ninth century, a number of different empresses ruled, but from the year 770, the line of succession was only open to males. It normally went from the emperor to his son, but it might also go from the monarch to his brother or uncle.