quick look on Japanese history (2) Tumulus, Nara period

4.The tumulus period

Birth of an ancient state

After the turmoil was settled down, an early stage united state was formed in the area of Yamato, middle part of Honshuu island (Japanese main island), presumably around mid third century.

By the way, a large scale rice production begun presumably around B.C.5th century, just 700-800years before the birth of the above state. All other ancient states in Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, China were born around 5000years after the beginning of agriculture. Above clear difference may suggest Jomon era which did not have large scale agriculture but had rich food was advanced enough to form an ancient state.

Tumulus state

illustration (wikipedia) current photo (from wikipedia)

This state had a character to have huge tumulus for their kings and queens. The biggest one is presumed to be the tumulus for Nintoku emperor which is as big as 486m×367m×36 , much bigger than famous Egyptian pyramid.

Tumulus period continued to 7th century and this custom to have huge tumulus prevailed to wide area of Japan archipelago. However the sizes of tumulus from other area never exceeded that of Yamato throughout the period which shows the strength of Yamato central authority.

Kana letters were born

At the beginning of tumulus period, Japan did not have written language but had a fertile and sophisticated language. People kept various myth and songs from primitive era by oral instruction.

They started to use Chinese characters as written letters, only when they had developed specially modified letters, called Kana. They used Kana to make up for Chinese characters to keep Japanese traditional pronunciation and sequence . Thanks to such efforts, they could keep traditional myth and songs unchanged. We find lots of vivid myths and songs in old history books which describe Japanese early stage national history. Those myths told the opening of Japanese history and the process of unification of ancient nation and also various activities of ancestors of Japanese royal family.


According to the preface of the book, Kojiki ,the oldest Japanese history book, was completed in 712. First half of Kojiki told about the beginning of Japanese archipelago and also the beginning of Yamato ancient state by lots of old myths and folklores. According to Kojiki, the state was created in almost 2700years ago by Jinmu, first Emperor. Present Emperor is 125th and is considered to be the descendant of the first Emperor. (Recent study shows Emperor’s family line has been continuing 1500 years or more.)

While Nipponnshoki, the first official national history book, was published in 720.

From those days, Japan entered into the time of written history..

Shoutoku taishi

Shoutoku taishi is one of the most popular hero in Japanese history. According to Nipponnshoki, he was born in 574, as a son of the Emperor Yomei and assisted the Emperor Suiko, his aunt, as the Prince Regent. He died in 622.

He tried hard to develop an ancient state into a modern, centralized, systematic state.

He introduced The Twelve Level Cap and Rank system to reform an ancient clan government into a bureaucratic organization. He also instituted Seventeen Article Constitution which emphasized the importance of harmony and composition, mainly for educating officials. He was so ardent Buddhist that he translated a few Buddhist scriptures into Japanese and also built a few temples. Horyuji , which keeps the world oldest wooden building, is one of those temples.

He was also keen to establish international diplomatic relations with neighboring countries, especially with the Sui dynasty which was the strongest in the region at that time. He sent a letter to the Emperor of the dynasty to propose an equal partnership. It is presumed the name of the state, Nippon, originated from those days.

(5) Nara period

Fujiwarakyo, built at the end of 7th century in current Nara city, was the first permanent capital in Japanese history. Until then, each capital and shrine was built just for the single generation and they moved capitals and shrines whenever a new Emperor advanced to the position.


In 710, the new capital, Heijokyo was built also in Nara city. The population of the capital was projected 200 thousands and 10 thousands officials served in the capital, while total population of the state was projected about 4.5millions. They gradually developed and formed a centralized state.

The government tried hard to spread Buddhism among the people and built Todaiji temple with the greatest statue of Buddha and also over 70 Kokubunnji temples throughout the state for that purpose.



Manyoshu, the oldest Japanese anthology, contained 4516 poems which were written in Tumulus age and Nara period. Those poems were made in beautiful alternated line of five and seven syllables. Thanks to the continuity of Japanese language, modern Japanese are able to understand those old poems.

Poets of the anthology were not only high society members such as royal families or priests but also public people such as soldiers, farmers, or even prostitutes. The wide variety of poets is the distinctive feature of this old anthology.