The History of Ancient Japan: The Story of How Japan Began, Told by Those Who Witnessed It (297‑1274)

Here in the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry, many of us around the world think of Japan as essen­tial­ly unchang­ing. We do so not with­out cause, giv­en how much of what goes on there, includ­ing the oper­a­tion of cer­tain busi­ness­es, has been going on for cen­turies and cen­turies. But the polit­i­cal, cul­tur­al, reli­gious, eco­nom­ic, and eth­nic com­po­si­tion of the civ­i­liza­tion we’ve long known as Japan has, in fact, trans­formed a great deal over the course of its exis­tence. Some of the most dra­mat­ic changes occurred between the third and thir­teenth cen­turies, the span of time cov­ered by the video above.

“How Japan Began” comes from Voic­es of the Past, a Youtube chan­nel pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture for its videos on a first-hand account of the destruc­tion of Pom­peii, an ancient Chi­nese his­to­ri­an’s descrip­tion of the Roman Empire, and how the first Japan­ese vis­i­tor to the Unit­ed States and Europe saw life there.

In telling the sto­ry of how ancient Japan (though most­ly in a time span that falls with­in Europe’s Mid­dle Ages) assumed some­thing like its cur­rent form, the video adheres to its usu­al method of direct­ly incor­po­rat­ing as many pri­ma­ry or close-to-pri­ma­ry sources as pos­si­ble: the Chi­nese Records or His­to­ry of the Three King­doms, eighth-cen­tu­ry court edicts and nation­al his­to­ries, the thir­teenth-cen­tu­ry émi­gré Chi­nese Bud­dhist monk Mugaku Sogen.

As for the rest of the nar­ra­tion, Voic­es of the Past cred­its Thomas Lock­ley, co-author of the book African Samu­rai: The True Sto­ry of Yasuke, a Leg­endary Black War­rior in Feu­dal Japan. Yasuke, whom we’ve also fea­tured before, arrived in Japan in 1579, three cen­turies after the events chron­i­cled in “How Japan Begin” — and thus quite deep indeed into the his­to­ry of a volatile land of reli­gious shifts, polit­i­cal ambi­tions, and (vol­un­tary or invol­un­tary) cul­tur­al exchanges, all amid an inter­nal state oscil­lat­ing between frag­men­ta­tion and con­sol­i­da­tion as well as an ever-chang­ing rela­tion­ship to the world at large. We can’t say what mix­ture of sta­bil­i­ty and insta­bil­i­ty will char­ac­ter­ize Japan’s next mil­len­ni­um, but we can hope its future chron­i­clers are up to the task.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Entire His­to­ry of Japan in 9 Quirky Min­utes

When a UFO Came to Japan in 1803: Dis­cov­er the Leg­end of Utsuro-bune

The 17th Cen­tu­ry Japan­ese Samu­rai Who Sailed to Europe, Met the Pope & Became a Roman Cit­i­zen

Hear the First Japan­ese Vis­i­tor to the Unit­ed States & Europe Describe Life in the West (1860–1862)

1850s Japan Comes to Life in 3D, Col­or Pho­tos: See the Stereo­scop­ic Pho­tog­ra­phy of T. Ena­mi

A Japan­ese Illus­trat­ed His­to­ry of Amer­i­ca (1861): Fea­tures George Wash­ing­ton Punch­ing Tigers, John Adams Slay­ing Snakes & Oth­er Fan­tas­tic Scenes

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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