Japan: History and Culture from Classical to Cool

Japan: History and Culture from Classical to Cool

by Nancy K. Stalker

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Japan: History and Culture from Classical to Cool provides a historical account of Japan’s elite and popular cultures from premodern to modern periods. Drawing on the most up-to-date scholarship across numerous disciplines, Nancy K. Stalker presents the key historical themes, cultural trends, and religious developments throughout Japanese history. Focusing on everyday life and ordinary consumption, this is the first textbook of its kind to explore both imperial and colonial culture and offer expanded content on issues pertaining to gender and sexuality. Organized into fourteen chronological and thematic chapters, this text explores some of the most notable and engaging aspects of Japanese life and is well suited for undergraduate classroom use.


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520287778
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 08/14/2018
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 446
Sales rank: 625,623
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Nancy K. Stalker is the Soshitsu Sen XV Distinguished Professor of Traditional Japanese Culture and History in the Department of History at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. She is the author of Prophet Motive: Deguchi Onisaburo, Oomoto, and the Rise of a New Religion in Imperial Japan and the editor of Devouring Japan: Global Perspectives on Japanese Culinary Identity.

Read an Excerpt


Early Japan


Japan is an archipelago that consists of four large islands and over six thousand smaller islands, mostly uninhabited. Together, the islands are roughly the size of California or Italy. The four main islands, from north to south, are Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu. Among the smaller islands, Okinawa, in the Ryukyu chain to the south, and Sado, off the coast of northern Honshu, are two of the most populous. For this island nation, proximity to the seas has strongly influenced culture and society, as an important source of food, a factor in influencing climate, and a barrier to easy contact with nearby countries. The distance to China is five hundred miles, while the closest nation, Korea, is 125 miles away. If Japan were located farther from these Asian nations, it might not have absorbed Chinese civilizational influences, such as the writing system, Buddhism, and Confucianism, which were transmitted to Japan through migrants from the Korean Peninsula. If it were closer to the powerful Chinese empire, it might not have developed its own distinctive language and material culture.

Mountains cover about 80 percent of Japan's land surface and are surprisingly heavily forested. These mountains include many volcanoes, both dormant and active, so thermal hot springs are abundant and earthquakes occur frequently, up to one thousand tremors per year. Mount Fuji — Japan's tallest mountain, at 12,388 feet — is a volcano that last erupted in the eighteenth century. It was particularly active from the eighth to twelfth centuries, when it was perceived as an angry deity, but today represents an important and scenic symbol of national identity. Only about one-quarter of Japan's land is considered habitable, and settlement is concentrated densely along the coastlines of the Pacific Ocean, Japan Sea, and Inland Sea, in river valleys, and on the occasional plains, most notably the Kanto plain in northeastern Honshu, where Tokyo is located, and the Kinai plain in central Japan, where the cities of Kyoto, Nara, and Osaka are located. Today, over three-quarters of the population live in crowded urban areas in these places, while rural regions are much less densely populated. Before modern transportation, travel was difficult in the mountainous land, giving rise to distinctive regional differences in dialects, lifestyles, produce, and animal life.

Climate varies along the extensive archipelago, ranging from the harsh, snowy winters in the north and along the northwest coast of Honshu to the mild winters and subtropical summers of Okinawa. The capital city, Tokyo, is at roughly the same latitude as Los Angeles. Summers there are hot and humid, with a rainy season in June and July. Typhoons bring violent, destructive rainstorms to the islands beginning in September. The most pleasant seasons are the spring and fall, when many venture out to view blossoming cherry trees or colorful maple foliage. Such distinctive seasonal changes have been celebrated in Japanese arts and poetry for centuries.


Who were the ancestors of the Japanese? What were their origins, and when did they begin to inhabit the islands that we call Japan? The earliest inhabitants were likely from the Pacific islands or Southeast Asia, but there are no written records of these distant ancestors. The earliest Japanese chronicles, the Kojiki (Record of ancient matters) and Nihon shoki (Chronicles of Japan, also known as Nihongi), tell of the mythological origins of the islands but were written much later, in the early eighth century, and are unreliable sources for much early history. In order to investigate the sources of prehistoric Japanese culture, we must therefore rely on the findings of archaeologists. Archaeology is an extremely popular field of study in Japan, because of the thousands of readily accessible archaeological sites throughout the nation. Excavations indicate that the archipelago has been inhabited for about fifty thousand years and that a rich Paleolithic culture existed in the islands.

Japan's prehistoric era, before the existence of local written records, is generally divided into four phases: Paleolithic, from approximately 35,000 to 15,000 B.P.; Jomon, from approximately 15,000 B.P. to 900 B.C.E.; Yayoi, from 900 B.C.E. to 250 C.E.; and Kofun, from 250 C.E. to 600 C.E. Each phase has distinguishing characteristics, yet there are also strong continuities running through these eras. Over many thousands of years, there were gradual transitions from Paleolithic (or "Old Stone Age") culture to the pottery-making, hunting, and gathering culture of the Jomon era; to the metal use and agriculture of the Yayoi; and finally to an era characterized by enormous burial mounds, called kofun, which indicate that local rulers possessed the power to draft tens of thousands of laborers to build such monuments. It is important to remember that these eras are not clearly distinct. There was significant overlap between the periods — techniques for making ceramics and salt and for building structures, initiated in the Jomon period, persisted long after the introduction of metal and advanced agricultural technologies in the Yayoi period.

Until the 1990s, archaeologists generally believed that Japan's modern inhabitants were largely descended from Jomon stock. Now, however, DNA evidence from skulls and teeth has convinced most that the Japanese population has a dual structure, including both the ancestors of the Jomon, who came from the south, and a later wave of immigrants with different characteristics who intermingled with the Jomon during the Yayoi era. Most modern Japanese are genetically closer to the later immigrants, but characteristics of Jomon people can still be seen among Okinawans and Ainu, the indigenous residents of Hokkaido.


Some time around 15,000 B.C.E., the inhabitants of the northern and eastern sections of the archipelago mastered the techniques of coiling clay to form vessels and figurines, then baking their work in open fires in order to harden it. The resulting pottery allowed the people of the Jomon era to cook food more easily, to store food they had gathered, and to live farther from immediate sources of water. They could make salt by boiling seawater in the pots, allowing preservation of foods. The Jomon period is very long — over ten thousand years — so there is a great deal of variety in the shapes and decorative markings among the pots; they differed over time and by region. From the prehistoric era to contemporary society, ceramics have remained an important aspect of Japanese art and culture.

The period takes its name from the distinctive earthenware pottery produced throughout the period. The word jomon means "cord-mark"; many pieces of pottery were decorated with patterns made by pressing cords or branches into the soft clay before firing. Jomon pottery is generally classified by age: Incipient, Early, Middle, and Late. Incipient pots are the earliest clearly dated pottery found so far in the world, dating from around 11,000 to 5000 B.C.E. They typically have rounded or pointy bottoms, and archaeologists believe they were mainly used for cooking outdoors, with stones or sand to keep the vessel upright. By the Early Jomon period (5500–3500B.C.E.), flat-bottomed pots had become customary, which suggests that they were now being used more indoors, set on floors. Different styles of ornamentation are found in different regions. In northeast Honshu and Hokkaido, cord markings are common, whereas in Kyushu a herringbone style of decoration was dominant. Middle Jomon pottery is especially striking. Many vessels have wild, abstract, decorative shapes, suggesting things like leaping flames or snakes heads. These pots were not standardized — each was a unique work of creative art. Archaeologists believe that the imaginative design of the pots indicates they were used for ritual as well as functional purposes. In the Late Jomon period (2500–1500 B.C.E.), pots with thinner walls were made in a greater variety of shapes and sizes.

Much of what we know about Jomon society, including the pottery, comes from the excavation of garbage mounds, or middens. Huge mounds of shells near settlement areas preserved remains of the diet, daily life, and burial practices. The high calcium and alkaline content of shell middens slowed decay, allowing archaeologists to examine food remnants, tools, and other evidence of Jomon society. The mounds indicate that the people survived through a hunting-and-gathering lifestyle — living on nuts, fruit, roots, fish, shellfish, and animal flesh. Shell mounds contain deer, boar, and bear bones; the bones and shells of dozens of different kinds of fish and shellfish; stone and wooden tools; bows and arrowheads; fishhooks and harpoon heads; oars and net fragments; and personal ornaments like lacquered hair combs and shell earrings. American zoologist Edward Sylvester Morse first discovered the shell mounds in 1877. Morse had been hired by the new Meiji government to help modernize the education system and spied a large mound while looking out a window on a train between Yokohama and Tokyo. In September 2016 the world's oldest fishhooks, around twenty-three thousand years old and made from the shells of sea snails, were found in a cave in the Okinawan islands.

Archaeological excavations have uncovered semipermanent settlements, consisting of a small cluster of pit dwellings, with floors dug well below ground level and hearths in the center, each housing five or six people. Sometimes these clusters also contained a large ring of tall stones, which may have been used for village rituals related to hunting or fishing. Jomon communities probably tried to be self-sufficient, but there is evidence of trade: salt from coastal regions has been found in mountain settlements, and obsidian and stone from the mountains, used for tools, have been found at coastal locations. They also engaged in simple, small-scale farming, probably using slash-and-burn techniques to raise beans, melons, and grains like barley and millet.

Graves were small and simple holes into which bodies were inserted. Dwellings and gravesites in the settlements appear to be undifferentiated, leading scholars to suggest that Jomon society did not make social distinctions according to class or wealth. They theorize that there was simply not enough surplus food to support elites who did not perform labor.

Among the most striking artifacts from the Jomon period are stone and clay figurines, known as dogu. These become increasingly elaborate in the northeastern part of the country during Middle and Late Jomon. The clearly anthropomorphic dogu are characterized by bulging eyes, sometimes called "coffee-bean eyes" or "goggle eyes" because they resemble the snow goggles used by northern peoples. Some appear to be pregnant females with prominent breasts, and others seem to be intentionally broken. Archaeologists have suggested that healers used the figurines in rituals to facilitate childbirth or to cure injuries or diseases.


The introduction and diffusion of organized agriculture and other technologies enhanced the daily life of the inhabitants of the islands. Wet rice cultivation, metal technologies, weaving, and new pottery techniques greatly improved the material quality of life. The Yayoi period is named for the area in present-day Tokyo where a new style of pottery, less earthy and organic than Jomon pots and characterized by smooth lines and surfaces, was first found. Yayoi people had apparently begun using a potter's wheel and advanced firing techniques to produce vessels of greater delicacy, more elegant and more carefully finished than those of the Jomon era. While Jomon pots emphasized flamboyant decoration, Yayoi pottery focused on form and function. Many had no decoration at all; others had simple geometric designs. They demonstrate that pots were being specialized for different uses, including cooking, storage, and ritual offerings. Pottery was also used in burial rituals. Large jars, which could only have been made by specialist potters, were set mouth to mouth, for use in human burial. Other methods of burial also existed, including stone coffins and rectangular mounds, the precursors of the great tombs of the fourth and fifth centuries. In contrast with Jomon gravesites, which demonstrate little social distinction in burial, Yayoi grave goods — including bronze mirrors, semiprecious beads, personal ornaments, and weapons — seem to indicate evidence of social rank.

The introduction of wet rice cultivation had far-reaching social implications, requiring a coordination of labor that set a pattern that continues to influence Japanese rural life and culture today. Farmers in China had grown rice since at least 5000 B.C.E., and farmers on the Korean Peninsula since around 1500 B.C.E. Migrants or traders from the Asian continent likely carried the crop to western Japan. The earliest rice-growing sites were swampy natural wetlands. Seed was broadcast over these sites, and the farmers relied on rainfall for a successful crop. Over time, rice farming became more systematic. Farmers began constructing paddy fields, which they flooded using artificial irrigation channels. They raised seedlings separately and transplanted them into these fields in careful rows to better manage weed control. They created specialized tools such as wooden rakes, iron hoes and shovels, mortars and pestles for pounding rice, and stone axes and reaping knives. As control over irrigation improved, rice sites and settlements were constructed at higher elevations. Paddy cultivation was labor intensive, requiring cooperative efforts to prepare fields, organize irrigation, and harvest the crop. But rice was a worthwhile crop, rich in calories and capable of sustaining larger populations than gathered foodstuffs. Because of the demands of intensive agriculture, the Japanese formed permanent farming communities in the lowlands. From that time forward, rice became a main staple of the economy, although other grains, such as millet and buckwheat, played a larger role in rural daily diets until the twentieth century.

One can visit several restored Yayoi village sites in Japan. Among the best-known is an excavation site called Toro in Shizuoka prefecture, discovered in 1943. The village is on low ground near the mouth of a river and contains twelve dwellings and two storehouses to the north, rice fields to the south, and evidence of elaborate irrigation and drainage systems. Like Jomon dwellings, the houses had thatched roofs supported by four heavy posts, sunken floors, and hearths in the center of the dwelling. They are oval in shape, with around 160 square feet of floor space. Some food was stored in jars, but by mid-Yayoi, special wooden storehouses with floors raised a few feet off the ground were constructed to protect crops from insects, rodents, and rot. Many well-preserved artifacts of village life are on display at the Toro museum. The raised storehouse, an important building for the community, was represented in clay figures and in designs of early bronze bells. It later became a motif in shrine and palace architecture.

Metallurgy also enriched social and aesthetic aspects of life. Japan began using iron and bronze around 300 B.C.E. Both metals had been employed for a long time in China and Korea, and migrants brought the technologies together to Japan. All iron, copper, and tin used in the era were imported from the Asian continent. Iron, forged on anvils, was more utilitarian, used for tools and practical weapons. Bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, was cast in molds for swords, mirrors, and bells known as dotaku, usually as ritual symbols of power. The bells were initially copied from continental models, but as the Japanese improved casting techniques, the bells grew larger and had more intricate designs. Later models featured extensive decoration and such thin walls that they probably didn't actually function as bells, but as symbols of allegiance to some political authority. This theory is supported by the fact that bells made from the same mold have been found at widely scattered sites.

The increase in the quality and number of weapons made possible by metallurgy brought a sharp increase in warfare, as armies under local chieftains battled to extend or consolidate control over larger territorial units. By the end of the Yayoi period, we can discern stratified communities, with the gravesites of chieftains and their families demarcated from ordinary cemeteries and containing caches of mirrors, jewels, swords, spears, and bells from different parts of Japan. Some of the bodies buried at the elite gravesites wore armbands that restricted the size of their biceps, symbolizing their status as rulers rather than ordinary manual laborers.


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Table of Contents


1. Early Japan
2. Forging a Centralized State (550–794)
3. The Rule of Taste: Lives of Heian Aristocrats (794–1185)
4. The Rise and Rule of the Warrior Class (12th–15th centuries)
5. Disintegration and Reunification (1460s–early 1600s)
6. Maintaining Control: Tokugawa Official Culture (1603–1850s)
7. Edo Popular Culture: The Floating World and Beyond (late 17th to mid-19th centuries)
8. Facing and Embracing the West (1850s–1900s)
9. Modernity and its Discontents (1900s–1930s)
10. Cultures of Empire and War (1900s–1940s)
11. Defeat and Reconstruction (1945–1970s)
12. “Cool” Japan as Cultural Superpower (1980s–2010s)



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