One of the most fascinating aspects of studying Japanese traditional music is uncovering the vast amount of background information on its development, and place in the country’s socio-religious history. Most aesthetic terminology has roots in Buddhist fine art culture, and Zen has been a huge factor in all aspects of Japan’s arts. But many beginning students of Japanese music/aesthetics are unfamiliar with pre-Zen culture, and how other forms of Buddhism transformed society in the preceding centuries . So, to help students, I have provided a (very) brief overview of the six Eras up to and including the Nara Period, from about 10,000 BCE to 700 CE – when Buddhist art started having a significant national impact.
1. Jomon Period: 縄文時代 (10,000 – 300 BCE)
2. Yayoi Period: 弥生時代 (350 BCE – 250 CE)
3. Kofun Period: 古墳時代 (250 CE – 500 CE)
The earliest inhabitants of the northern Japanese archipelago (Hokkaido), the Ainu, are the ancestors of Canada’s Inuit, and impressed braid rope into wet clay as part of their decoration of household vessels (the earliest examples can be dated to as early as approx. 16,000 BCE). Around the late Jomon, the Yayoi people settled in the Kanto alluvial plain (Tokyo) around 350 – 320 BCE, and developed Japan’s first copper and bronze manufacturing, as well as kiln technology for their pottery. Their culture led to the development of tumulus culture, as later peoples began building giant mounds (Japan: kofun) over graves.
5. Asuka Period: 飛鳥時代 (538 CE – 710 CE)
6. Nara Period: 奈良時代 (710 CE – 794 CE)
The foundation of what we would call “medieval” Japanese culture was built centuries earlier with the ascent of the powerful Yamato clan, and the subsequent arrival of Buddhism from China and Korea, a religion that would have a huge impact on Japanese society, so much so that Buddhism is essentially ubiquitous to this day. In the Nara Period (named after the capital city of Nara in Western Japan) several types of Buddhist philosophy eventually became formalized into distinct schools, which became known as the Nanto Rokushu, the “Six Academic Sects of Nara,” before they became doctrinally distinct sects.
Due to the influence of Hellenism in India and nearby Afghanistan and Pakistan – brought about by the conquests of Alexander The Great and Indo-Greek rule – a cultural syncretism occurred throughout the centuries from 400 BCE to 400 CE, thus much of the art and statuary of (Mahayana) Buddhism is Greco-Buddhist. Many of these forms influenced Nara Period art as they arrived from Central Asia via Korea and China.
The depiction of the Buddha as a god in an idealized physical form could be seen as part of the Hellenistic influence, as earlier Buddhist images were mostly visual synecdoche of the Buddha’s teachings: the Dharma wheel, a flower, etc. Japanese Buddhist iconography developed quickly in Nara, as well as what would become a common architectural style for both religious and secular buildings: the ceramic tiled roof with hip-and-gable edges, known in Japan as irimoya.
It was also at this time that the name for Japan, Wa (倭: also pronounced Yamato), was changed to Nihon (日本). Japan was known (in Middle Chinese) as chi-pan-gu, “origin-of-the-sun country,” pronounced Ja-pang in Malay. It is believed that Portuguese traders in Malaysia may have brought that name back with them to Europe – as it eventually became pronounced Giapan in 16th century English.