- Japan’s classical period (ca. 550-1185), like that of other civilizations,
is the period in which the foundation for later historical development
- This is the first of several periods in Japanese history where the
Japanese genius for deliberate cultural borrowing and adaptation
is evident. (The Japanese refer to this period as the first of three
great reform periods; the other two periods of intense, deliberate
borrowing are those of the Meiji Restoration, 1868-1912, and the
Occupation following WW II).
- In the 6th to the 8th centuries the Japanese study and borrow from
the continental culture of China, first introduced to them by Koreans.
The Japanese then send study missions to China.
- The East Asian cultural sphere evolves when Japan, Korea, and what
is today Vietnam all share adapted elements of Chinese civilization
of this period (that of the Tang dynasty), in particular Buddhism,
Confucian social and political values, and literary Chinese and its
- The classical period of Japanese history dates from ca. 550 CE when
the Koreans introduce Buddhism, and with it Chinese culture, to Japan
and the Japanese proceed to study and consciously borrow and adapt
elements of Chinese civilization to Japan. The Japanese borrow the
notion of a centralized state, Confucian values of moral cultivation
of individuals in service of the state, Buddhism, and Chinese language.
They use Chinese written and spoken language as an official language
of government; the Japanese also take the Chinese writing system
and adapt it to develop a writing system for their own spoken language,
i.e. Japanese, which up until this time was only spoken. (Japanese
and Chinese belong to totally different language families; the Japanese
language is syllabic and the Japanese develop a system of syllabaries
by adapting the Chinese characters.)
- Following the adaptation of the Chinese written script to the Japanese
spoken language, Japanese literature flourishes; Japanese aesthetic
tastes are evident in the evolution of waka poetry.
- The literary contributions of women are notable during the height
of classical Japanese court culture: women, who do not have to write
in Chinese for official reasons are freer to work with the Japanese
spoken and written language, and many of the diaries (The Pillow
Book), poems (the short form, waka), and the world’s first novel
(The Tale of Genji) are written by ladies of the court in Japan at
this time. (The Tale of Genji is written by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady
of the court, in the 11th century.)
- This period in Japanese history precedes the more well known medieval
period of the samurai warriors and stands in contrast to that period
in terms of values and political structure. Poetry and the refinements
of the court are important in the classical period, not the codes
of warriors in battle. These classical values remain a very important
part of Japanese culture throughout Japanese history, down to the
present, so it is worthwhile to introduce this period to students.