History Yayoi Period

By JREF · Oct 26, 2012 ·
  1. JREF
    The Yayoi period (弥生時代 Yayoi jidai) is a prehistoric period of Japan, usually dated from 300 BCE to ca 300 CE, during which wet-rice agriculture and the use of bronze and iron first appeared in Japan. The term Yayoi refers to certain characteristic pottery discovered in the Yayoi quarter of Bunkyō Ward in Tōkyō, in 1884. It was preceded by the Jōmon Period, which was distinguished by a hunting and gathering way of life, and was followed by the Kofun Period, distinguished by the construction of large tumuli or grave mounds (kofun) and the formation of an incipient state.

    The culture of the Yayoi Era is characterised by irrigated rice cultivation and the use of bronze and iron artefacts. There was considerable contact with China and Korea during this period, and it can be assumed that those technical innovations, which spread north from Kyūshū, are the results of continental influence. The Yayoi population, living in small communities, experienced social stratification, and by the Late Yayoi (ca 100-ca 300 CE) Japan was divided into some small political units (kuni) controlled by local chieftains.

    New technologies

    The Yayoi people continued to use some of the tools of the Jōmon Era, such as chipped stone tools, arrowheads, axes, and small knife-like blades; stone axes and adzes of the Yayoi Period, however, were mostly polished and substantial in size and not only used for chopping and cutting, but also to till the soil. A special polished blade (石包丁 or 石庖丁 ishibōchō) was developed to reap rice. Other polished-stone tools included columnar chisels and flat plane blades used for making wooden objects such as hoes and spades, weaving implements, containers, and utensils. Some wooden bowls from the Karako-Kagi site (唐古・鍵遺跡) in Tawaramoto, Nara Prefecture are known to have been turned at a lathe (轆轤 rokuro). Yayoi pottery consisted mainly of long-necked jars, wide-mouthed pots, deep basins, and pedestal bowls. Most of these vessels bore geometric patterns and designs. In contrast to the Jōmon people, the Yayoi people knew how to smelt iron and forge simple implements, like containers, weapons, and farming and craft tools.

    Some items, particularly, bronze mirrors, were obtained from the continent, but by the late Yayoi, the Japanese were able to produce bronze mirrors, bronze bells (銅鐸 dōtaku), and bronze weapons themselves. Sandstone moulds for casting these objects were found in abundance in northern Kyūshū and the Kinai Region (畿内, Kyōto-Nara-Ōsaka). Other techniques involved the production of jasper and jade magatama (勾玉, curved, comma-shaped beads).

    Yayoi life

    Cloth woven from flax and paper-mulberry fibres was the basic clothing material. Men wrapped a length of cloths and slipped them over their head, while both women and men wore magatama beads strung into necklaces and bracelets, as well as rings made of shells or bronze. As the Yayoi society changed from hunting and gathering to rice cultivating, the diet changed fundamentally. Rice paddies were enclosed by dykes and irrigation techniques refined. Rice was supplemented with other crops such as millet, beans, and gourds. Most Yayoi settlements were established along large rivers and coastal planes or on terraces. Pit houses, built close together, were still simple structures, with earthen floors and thatched roofs. The settlements had communal granaries and wells, and the paddies were usually located nearby.

    Yayoi beliefs

    It is very likely that the beliefs of the agricultural Yayoi society were entirely different from those of the Jōmon society. Artefacts recovered suggest a variety of religious festivals honouring different deities. Bronze bells, daggers, and spearheads seem to have been used exclusively for ceremonial purposes, while bronze mirrors were also used as ritual objects. Divination was carried out by searing deer bones. The Yayoi people developed the practice of secondary burial; the bones were exhumed, washed, probably painted with red ocher, and placed in jars. The jars were then buried in large pits, some of which were surrounded by moats. Mirrors, beads, and bronze weapons were buried with the dead in dolmen burials.

    Late Yayoi Society

    Japan was first mentioned in Chinese records, such as the Book of the Later Han (Hou Han Shu), compiled by Fan Ye and others in the fifth century. It stated that the land of Na (奴国 Nakoku or Na-no-kuni), an early local territory close to present-day Fukuoka, had been granted an imperial seal made of gold by Emperor Guangwu of Han in 57 CE. Geographical notations of the Shan Hai Jing (山海經, “Classic of the Mountains and Seas”) mention Japan as (倭) or Wa in Japanese. The Wei Zhi (chin. 魏書 or 魏志, “Records of Wei”), which covers the period from 200-265), provides information on the Late Yayoi period, describing a highly stratified society in which wealthy landholders ruled over common people. The Wei Zhi mentions a kingdom called Yamatai, also known as Yamataikoku (邪馬台国) or Yamaichikoku (邪馬壹國), that controlled some thirty other territories. Each of them was ruled by a “chieftain” or “king” as well as the mysterious “shaman Queen” Himiko (卑彌呼), who was chosen to rule the Kingdom of Wa after decades of civil war and who maintained relations with the Chinese court as well as the King of Silla (modern-day Korea). The Wei Zhi further relates that the markets of Wa flourished, taxes were collected, and a system of punishment was prescribed for malefactors. All this indicates that the Yayoi society was relatively complex and well organised. Social, political, economic, and military specialisation was powerfully developing and would herald the society of the succeeding Kofun Period.

    • Imamura, Keiji, Prehistoric Japan: New perspectives on insular East Asia, University of Hawaii Press 1996
    • Nussbaum, Louis-Frédéric, Japan Encyclopedia, Harvard University Press 2005

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