Central Themes and Key Points
Classical Japan (ca. 500-1185)
  • Japan’s classical period (ca. 550-1185), like that of other civilizations, is the period in which the foundation for later historical development is laid.
  • 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 writing system.
  • 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.
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