Japan I: From the land of the rising sun

(Published in GralsWelt 15/2000)

Ancient Chinese sagas tell of a "land of immortals" far to the east, and even in the distant past various groups set out in search of this fairy-tale land. Some of these refugees or adventurers may have found the Japanese islands, which were neither the land of the immortals nor uninhabited. We are continuing our series on “Wisdom of Asia” with a two-part article on the “Land of the Rising Sun”. Today the country and its people are the focus of this report.

The Japanese archipelago is part of a mountain range that arches along the eastern edge of the Asian continent through the Pacific Ocean. This archipelago consists of four large and more than a thousand small islands that cover an area of 370,000 km2 together are about the same size as Italy. Three quarters of the country consist of mountain ranges (the highest point is Mount Fuji at 3776 m). Hot springs and volcanoes shape the country, which is shaken by around a thousand tremors every year. The settlements crowd between the mountain ranges and in the alluvial land of the short rivers that rush in the upper reaches. Dreaded in this region are the underwater quakes, tremors at the bottom of the Pacific, which trigger high tidal waves (tsunami) that can also flood islands and devastate entire areas after they have swept hundreds of kilometers through the ocean.

Like the mountains, the sea has shaped Japan, where there is no place far from the coast. Warm ocean currents from the south and cold currents from the north meet on the Japanese islands. They bring great climatic differences between north and south and ensure an abundance of fish in the sea, which is unfortunately destroyed by marine pollution and overfishing in the 20th century.

The first immigrants came to Japan from the Asian continent over a land bridge around 50,000 years ago. More waves of immigration followed until the land bridge sank into the sea about 12,000 years ago.

Japanese history usually begins with the legendary Emperor Jimmu (around 660 BC). He moved from the southwest island of Kyushu through the inland sea to the central area of the main island Honshu, which later became so important, in which the cities of Osaka, Nara, Kyoto and Tokyo are to be found.

A feeling of nationality developed early on among the inhabitants of the closely spaced islands, so that the Japanese distinguished themselves from the Koreans and the Chinese in their self-image even before the turn of the century.

In the first centuries of our era there were numerous clans, which later became three larger kingdoms that had to pay tributes to China. Armed conflicts between the rival groups were frequent.

Nature and culture

The relationship with nature has developed differently in Japan than in Europe due to the local conditions. The beauty of the Japanese landscape is particularly evident on the coasts in the sharp contrast between rock and sea. In the country itself, the steep mountain slopes are covered with low bush forest, which is matted with bamboo grass and thorns and which is anything but inviting.

Plains and flatter slopes are covered with artistically landscaped rice fields. For this purpose, the originally irregular surface had to be leveled for the labor-intensive cultivation of wet rice. Small dams, which usually protrude only a hand's breadth above the water and are often only 15 centimeters wide at the crown, enclose the fields in which rice plants are neatly lined up.

There are no parks, meadows, pastures or light high forests that are inviting for a walk: the landscape is either impenetrable wild nature (in the matted mountain forest) or agriculture defied by the industriousness of the people. Wherever possible, people have taken possession of the land and used it "sensibly" down to the last square meter.

Only the sea offers large, wide areas. The landscape is mostly small-scale, and the traditional village culture has helped to get by with little space requirements, to train the eye for the small and near and to be modest in every respect.

Since the 5th century at the latest, the Japanese cultivated closer contacts with China; for example through tribute delegations. At this time, the Chinese script was also adopted, from which today's Japanese script developed.

In the middle of the 6th century, Buddhism, which had already gained a foothold in China and Korea, came to Japan through immigrants from these countries, and the first Buddhist temples were built. In the Middle Ages, Buddhism then became the dominant religion.

Buddhist thought initiated a series of reforms that transformed Japan between the 7th and 9th centuries.

The samurai
The military elite that shaped Japanese society from the 12th to the 19th century were usually called "bushi" or "samurai". Bushi means "fighting men" and is the general name for the warriors of the medieval era. Most lived in villages and administered their lands while they practiced the martial arts and stood ready for use on the battlefield. Some of these provincial warriors were vassals of the shogun.
Initially, the term "samurai" referred to the armed service of a vassal. After the 16th century it was generally used for the warriors who moved from the countryside to the castle towns and lived here as permanently paid vassals. Since the Middle Ages, this warrior class developed its own soldierly and Spartan way of life, the guidelines of which were laid down in the “way of the knight” or “bushido” with virtues such as loyal service or family honor. In extreme cases, loyalty is expressed in the willingness to sacrifice oneself for one's master in the gruesome ritual of “seppuko” (“harakiri” = slicing open the stomach). In the Tokugawa society of the Edo period (1603-1867) the samurai, who made up less than 10 % of the population, enjoyed a privileged position. As a symbol of their power, only they were allowed to carry swords and "stab a common citizen". They were feared, and even a poor samurai looked down with contempt on a rich merchant. In the peacetime of the Edo era, the samurai shifted their Confucian virtues to their roles as rulers, officials, or scholars. Today you can meet their descendants as polite officials or managers in the correct outfit, and the once feared military spirit may still be evident in athletic training or in the serenity displayed during natural disasters.
According to Collcutt et al: "Japan", Christian Verlag, Munich, 1989.

In the course of these reforms, Chinese role models set the trend in almost all areas - whether literature, philosophy, art, architecture, agriculture or legal theory. This Sinesis, in particular an imperial bureaucratic government based on the Chinese model, will from now on become an important means of creating a unified state. From around the 4th century onwards, a ruling dynasty established itself in the Jamato province, which aspired to rule over all of Japan. This family referred to its ancestor, the legendary Jimmu Tenno, a descendant of the sun goddess.

In the 8th century, based on the Chinese model, the first Japanese capital was founded: the enchanting Nara, which is still one of the first tourist attractions today. Up until then, almost every Tenno had chosen a new residence when they came to power, and a larger city had not been formed. Now the Tenno and his court moved to a newly built city that took in around 30,000 residents and by the end of the 8th century already had 200,000 residents.
Nara with its great temples - like Todaiji - was also the center of Buddhism. When Buddhist monks (one made it up to the Grand Chancellor) became too powerful for the Tenno Dokyos (reign 781-806), he moved his residence first to Nagoya (784) and then finally to Kyoto (794), which is still one of the first sights for today Japan tourists. So that the powerful temple priests could not follow the Tenno to Kyoto, they were forbidden to move. Kyoto remained the seat of the emperor and thus the capital until the Meiji Restoration in the 19th century.

A typical Japanese religion

Shintoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and to a lesser extent Taoism and Christianity have shaped the culture of Japan today.

The Shinto, or “Way of the Kami”, as the oldest religion, had a particular influence. It is an ancient natural religion with the central concept of the “path of the kami”.
The kami are innumerable mystical forces, spirits or beings inherent in nature that are associated with growth and renewal. However, the kami are neither personified natural forces nor heavenly figures that judge people. Men and women can call on them for help or calm them down through ritual cleansing or entertainment if they are upset. The number of Kami is limitless, because every person, whether dead or alive, every place or object with numinous qualities can be revered as a Kami.
Originally, the kami were worshiped in the open air. Shrines were later built, the typical entrance gate (torii) of which shows their purpose. In the main hall there is usually a symbol, for example a gold-plated carving, which is neither human nor animal. The shrines were or are not only places of ritual and devotion; They also danced, had fun, held sumo fights, horse races, and archery to entertain the kami.
Before the advent of Buddhism in the 6th century, Shinto consisted of disjointed ancestral or local cults with no literary or pictorial representations of its myths. His worldview was optimistic and preoccupied with the present rather than the afterlife. The focus was on the relationship between people, nature and kami. God was identified with purity, and evil with impurity. "Mahate", sincerity or purity of heart and actions, was the cardinal virtue of Shinto, which also adopted Buddhist teachings in the Middle Ages.
Politically colored myths later emerged which established, for example, the descent of the Yamato rulers from the sun goddess. This tradition of the divinity of the emperor (Tenno) lasted into the 20th century. Only after American pressure did Tenno Hirohito have to renounce his claim to divinity after World War II.

In the 1870s, Shinto and Buddhism were separated from each other by the Meiji government, because Shinto became the state religion to which every Japanese belongs by birth. Belonging to the Shinto should automatically go hand in hand with loyalty to the “divine” emperor.

After the defeat in World War II, this concept could no longer be maintained, and the former state cult is now one cult among others. The advancing Americanization of Japanese life, the emergence of a high-tech, modern industrial society, makes it difficult for Shinto, like other religions, to build on its former importance.

The secret of the "geishas"
They didn't know about face packs, scrubs, deep creams or vitamin pills. But they were the epitome of the well-groomed, cultured woman, created and raised for upscale entertainment.
Dance, singing, samis playing - the geisha has a clearly defined occupation to this day within a tea house culture that was created especially for them, based on the Tokugawa period (= Edo period, 1603-1868). You could rent the ladies, but not buy them. Even today, the lexicons note in brackets ("... but to be distinguished from prostitutes").
Beauty, charm, grace and physical perfection were praised. The inapproachability of the geishas (gei = entertainment art, sha = person), almost guaranteed by social norms, inevitably drew admiration to the outside world.
Hairstyle, clothing, make-up and appearance were stylized, even ritualized. The shoguns, samurais and bourgeois notables were particularly fond of skin.
Countless dedications and verses, so-called tanka, waka or haiku's mood pictures - since there are no rhymes in Japanese - bear witness to this.
The admiration for physical perfection was limitless: "All the foam of the stars lies gently on your skin, the fruits of the jewel tree do not break the moonlight more gently".
The skin, hidden under white rice powder, gently marked by extremely delicate but deep black eyebrow arches, broken only by the coral red of the lips - this skin was always flawless, firm, fine-pored and delicate like a Persian peach.
From: "Academic Voices", Volume 1, Issue 2, Ulm, August 1998

At the end of the world"

Storms and strong ocean currents made sailing to and from the mainland an adventure in earlier centuries. Its isolation gave Japan the opportunity to develop its own culture relatively undisturbed without external attacks. Not even the Mongols, who overran all of China, could subdue Japan. Their invasions failed in 1274 and 1275 in typhoons - later glorified as kamikaze (= divine wind) - and because of the bitter resistance of the Japanese warriors.

Unfortunately, this favorable geographical position did not lead to a peaceful development. The medieval history of Japan is marked by numerous wars between rival states and groups, by peasant revolts and civil wars, which repeatedly damaged the country severely. There were also wars with Korea. In the 6th, 7th and 16th centuries, the Japanese tried in vain to conquer this neighboring country. It was then four centuries before Japan invaded Korea again.

The high esteem of the warrior caste also dates from the warlike Middle Ages. According to Confucian teachings, each family belonged to one of four estates. While the scholarly class was most valued in China, the military aristocracy belonged to the first category of society in Japan. This appreciation of the warrior (everyone knows the legendary samurai) can be seen subliminally to this day: The generals sentenced to death after World War II, for example, were considered patriots who gave their lives for the Tenno. Even if military adventure is no longer an option in Japan today, competition in the economy is perhaps seen as a kind of war by other means.

The Japanese are proud of their country with its special culture, and he sees the inhabitants of the Japanese islands as the only “pure” race that clearly distinguishes itself from ethnically related groups such as the Koreans. The difficult Japanese language with its strange writing makes it difficult for foreigners to become familiar with Japanese customs and life and promotes an elite-conscious pride in the Japanese nation, which makes integration very difficult for immigrants.

Colcutt, Martin et al. "Japan", Christian Verlag; Munich; 1989.
Erlinghagen, Helmut. "Japan", DTV; Munich; 1979.
Ladstätter / Linhart. "China and Japan", Carl Ueberreuther; Vienna 1983.
Kiyoshi, Inoue: “History of Japan”, Campus, Ffm., 1995.
Zierer, Otto: "The Manchu Emperors", Seb. Lux, Murnau, 1960.