UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


Japan as Tributary to China

Chinese tradition ascribes the peopling of Japan to the following causes: The grandfather (Taiko) of the first emperor (Buwo) of the Shu dynasty (thirty-seven emperors, eight hundred and seventy-two years, B.C. 1120-249) in China, having three sons, wished to bequeath his titles and estates to his youngest son, notwithstanding that law and custom required him to endow the eldest. The younger son refused to receive the inheritance; but the elder, knowing that his father Taiko would persist in his determination, and unwilling to cause trouble, secretly left his father's house and dominions, and sailed away to the South of China. Thence he is supposed to have gone to Japan and founded a colony in Hiuga. His name was Taihaku Ki. This event took place about forty-six years before the usually accepted date of Jimmu's departure from Hiuga upon his career of conquest. i Whatever may be the actual facts, Jimmu Tenno is popularly believed to have been a real person, and the first emperor of Japan. He is deified in the Shinto religion.

The Peninsula of Corea had always served as a buffer state between Japan and China. The first recorded Korean expedition to Japan seems to have taken place about BC 97. At that time the Emperor Sujin was appealed to by the king of Mimato for aid against the King of Kudara. If the aid asked should be granted, the King of the Korean kingdom of Mimato promised to do homage to the Japanese Emperor and to send a yearly tribute. Thus the Yamato Emperor established a protectorate in Korea.

In 202 AD, according to Japanese tradition, the Japanese Empress Jingu Kogo invaded Korea with a large army and compelled the Koreans to submit to Japanese suzerainty by a compact that some later claimed was not abrogated until the date of the modern treaty with Japan in 1876. The Empress Jingu, who is worshiped in Japan to-day as the goddess of war, quickly vanquished the Shiraki Kingdom, and the other Korean kingdoms hastened to pay homage to her and offer tribute. The Japanese historians claim that Chinese written characters were introduced in Japan by Koreans shortly after the conquest of Korea by Empress Jingu; but the oldest Japanese writings extant date from the eighth century.

The early centuries of the Christian era, from the third to the eighth, mark that period in Japanese history during which the future development and character of the nation were mightily influenced by the introduction, from the continent of Asia, of the most potent factors in any civilization. They were letters, religion, philosophy, literature, laws, ethics, medicine, science, and art. Chinese philosophy and Confucian morals were to form the basis of the education and culture of the Japanese statesman, scholar, and noble, to modify Shinto, and with it to create new ideals of government, of codes, laws, personal honor, and household ordering.

With the emperor Richu, who came to the throne AD 400, the historical period may be said to commence; for though the chronology of the records is still questionable, the facts are generally accepted as credible. A most signal and far-reaching event was the importation of the Buddhist creed, which took place in 552 AD. The adoption of Buddhism meant to the Japanese much more than the acquisition of a practical religion with a code of clearly defined morality in place of the amorphous and jejune cult of Shinto. It meant the introduction of Chinese civilization. Priests and scholars crossed in numbers from China, and men passed over from Japan to study the Sutras at what was then regarded as the fountain-head of Buddhism.

During the early centuries of the Christian era, friendly intercourse was regularly kept up between Japan and China. Embassies were dispatched to and fro on various missions, but chiefly with the mutual object of bearing the congratulations to an emperor upon his accession to the throne. It is mentioned in the "Gazetteer of Echizen" (Echizen Koku Met Seiki Ko) that embassadors from China, with a retinue and crew of one hundred and seventy-eight persons, came to Japan AD 776, to bear congratulations to the mikado, Konin Tenno.

There was also a constant stream of immigrants from China and Korea. Not only the institutions of China were borrowed but also her official costumes. During Kotoku's reign [645-654] grades of headgear were instituted, and in the time of Tenchi (668-670 the number was increased to 26, with corresponding robes. Throughout this era intercourse was frequent with China, and the spread of Buddhism continued steadily.

There can be no doubt that commerce was carried on by Japan with China and Korea earlier that the 8th century of the Christian era. It would appear that from the very outset over-sea trade was regarded as a government monopoly. Foreigners were allowed to travel freely in the interior of the country provided that they submitted their baggage for official inspection and made no purchases of weapons of war, but all imported goods were bought in the first place by official appraisers who subsequently sold them to the people at arbitrarily fixed prices.

In 1192 Minamoto Yoritomo [b. 1147— d.1199] began the double system which lasted in Japan down to the middle of the nineteenth century. He erected a puppet emperor or “Mikado” of the sacred royal race, and gave him for his residence the ancient and beautiful capital of Kyoto. Then Yoritomo had himself created “Shogun" or general-in-chief, with complete control of military affairs.

Yoritomo, died before his sons were old enough to wield his power successfully. All his direct descendants were slain, and a child of the Fujiwara family was made shogun. Thus this second rank in the empire fell into the same contemptible decadence as that of the mikado. The shoguns were mere puppets ruled by the members of their court, among whom the Hojo family became the leaders. It was during their ascendancy that the great Tartar Emperor of China, Kublai Khan, endeavored to conquer Japan from 1274 to 1281. He thought at first that a mere command to the Japanese to surrender would be sufficient; but his envoys were received with scorn and defiance. He then sent a great fleet, which landed an army in Kyushu (I281). The army was defeated in a mighty battle, and a tempest [a divine wind kami kaze] destroyed the fleet in 1281. This is the only battle against foreigners which the Japanese have ever fought upon their own soil.

The Japanese exult in the boast that their gods and their heaven prevailed over the gods and the heaven of the Chinese. This was the last time that China ever attempted to conquer Japan, whose people boast that their land has never been defiled by an invading army. They have ever ascribed the glory of the destruction of the Tartar fleet to the interposition of the gods at Ise, who thereafter received special and grateful adoration as the guardian of the seas and winds.

Greater importance attached to the trade with China under the Ashikaga shoguns (14th, 15th and 16th centuries), who were in constant need of funds to defray the cost of interminable military operations caused by civil disturbances. In this distress they turned to the neighbouring empire as a source from which money might be obtained. This idea seems to have been suggested to the shogun Takauji by a Buddhist priest, when he undertook the construction of the temple Tenryu-ji. Two ships laden with goods were fitted out, and it was decided that the enterprise should be repeated annually.

Within a few years after this development of commercial relations between the two empires, an interruption occurred owing partly to the overthrow of the Yuen Mongols by the Chinese Ming, and partly to the activity of Japanese pirates and adventurers who raided the coasts of China.

The internal history of Japan during the period of time covered by the actual or nominal rule of the thirteen shoguns of the Ashikaga family, from 1336 until 1573 is not very attractive to a foreign reader. It is a confused picture of intestine war. The act by which, more than any other, the Ashikagas earned the curses of posterity was the sending of an embassy to China in 1401, bearing presents acknowledging, in a measure, the authority of China, and accepting in return the title of Nippon 0, or King of Japan. This, which was done by Ashikaga Yoshimitsa, the third of the line, was an insult to the national dignity for which he was never forgiven. It was a needless humiliation of Japan to her arrogant neighbor, and done only to exalt the vanity and glory of the usurper Ashikaga, who, not content with adopting the style and equipage of the mikado, wished to be made or called a king, and yet dared not usurp the imperial throne. The punishment of Ashikaga was the curse of posterity.

On the shores of Korea and China enterprising Japanese corsairs made their appearance. The Shogun Yoshimitsu [r. 1368-1394] checked piracy, and there ensued between Japan and China a renewal of cordial intercourse which, upon the part of the shogun, developed phases plainly suggesting an admission of Chinese suzerainty. The shogun Yoshimitsu succeeded in restoring commercial intercourse, though in order to effect his object he consented that goods sent from Japan should bear the character of tribute and that he himself should receive investiture at the hands of the Chinese emperor's ambassador. The Nanking government granted a certain number of commercial passports, and these were given by the shogun to Ouchi, feudal chief of Cho-shu, which had long been the principal port for trade with the neighbouring empire.

By the beginning of the 15th century, Yoshimitsu suppressed the southwestern feudal lords, whose pirate ships were marauding the China coast, and thereby ending a 600-year lapse in formal trade with China. Tribute goods formed only a small fraction of a vessel's cargo: the bulk consisted of articles which were delivered into the government's stores in China, payment being received in copper cash. It was from this transaction that the shogun derived a considerable part of his profits, for the articles did not cost him anything originally, being either presents from the great temples and provincial governors or compulsory contributions from the house of Ouchi.

As for the gifts by the Chinese government and the goods shipped in China, they were arbitrarily distributed among the noble families in Japan at prices fixed by the shogun's assessor. Thus, so far as the shogun was concerned, these enterprises could not fail to be lucrative. They also brought large profits to the Ouchi family, for, in the absence of competition, the products and manufactures of each country found ready sale in the markets of the other. The articles found most suitable in China were swords, fans, screens, lacquer wares, copper and agate, and the goods brought back to Japan were brocade and other silk fabrics, ceramic productions, jade and fragrant woods.

The Chinese seem to have had a just appreciation of the wonderful swords of Japan. At first they were willing to pay the equivalent of 12 guineas for a pair of blades, but by degrees, as the Japanese began to increase the supply, the price fell, and at the beginning of the 16th century all the diplomacy of the Japanese envoys was needed to obtain good figures for the large and constantly growing quantity of goods that they took over by way of supplement to the tribute. Buddhist priests generally enjoyed the distinction of being selected as envoys, for experience showed that their subtle reasoning invariably overcame the economical scruples of the Chinese authorities and secured a fine profit for their master, the Shogun.

The Toyotomi Hideyoshi [r. 1582-1598] was one of the few leaders of feudal Japan to have much of a foreign policy. Effectively the Shogun, he was given the title Kampaku (Imperial Regent) by the Emperors Courts, as he couldn’t be Shogun because he was born to a peasant. The immoderate ambition of the Toyotomi Hideyoshi was to conquer Corea, and even China. It had been his dream when a boy, and his plan when a man. When under Nobunaga, he had begged of him the revenue of Kiushiu for one year and weapons, while he himself would provide the ships and provisions, offering to subdue Corea, and with an army of Coreans to conquer China. Hideyoshi planned a great expedition against Corea, which had long neglected to send its ancient tribute to Japan, and had, in fact, become tributary to China. The Coreans, a quiet and peaceful race, sent Hideyoshi presents when demanded, and made every submission possible rather than fight the warlike Japanese. But the crafty general had wider plans in view, and he insisted on invasion.

Chinese forces came to assist the Coreans, and were able to meet the Japanese upon more equal terms. Finally, such arrangements for peace were proposed by Hideyoshi as seem to reveal his secret purpose. His envoy suggested to the Chinese that Japan would promise never again to invade Corea, and that in return the deeply revered Chinese Emperor should declare Hideyoshi Emperor of Japan, and invest him with all the heavenly dignity of that rank. The ambitious general seems thus to have hoped to do away entirely with the imperial figure-heads, who for two thousand years had sat upon Japan's throne, and to take their place himself.

Hideyoshi's conquest of the Land of Morning Calm in the last decade of the sixteenth century was intended to be only preliminary to the subjugation of the Middle Kingdom itself, a daring scheme which was abandoned only through the death of the Taiko. The last eight years of Hideyoshi's life — he died in 1598 — were chiefly remarkable for his attempt to invade China through Korea. These invasions of Korea created a legacy of mutual bitterness between Korea and Japan.

The Chinese and Japanese forces were still raging over the ruined land when Hideyoshi died. His chief general promptly recalled the troops to Japan, to make secure his own position and authority (1598). This general, Tokugawa Iyeyasu, became the founder of a new governing family, From 1603 the succeeding dynasty of Tokugawa took a diametrically opposite course, and Japan passed from the policy of expansion which had been inaugurated by Hideyoshi, Date Masamune, Lord of Send ai, and others, to that of complete isolation, the Tokugawa Shoguns devoting all their energy to the perfection of that feudal system which only fell in 1868.

In the middle of the 16th century the Japanese tribute-bearing missions came to an end with the ruin of the Ouchi family and the overthrow of the Ashikaga shoguns, and they were never renewed. Though the Tokugawa family closed the country to foreign intercourse, they maintained friendly relations with the kingdom of Corea, which was consolidated by the founder of the present Li dynasty in the last decade of the fourteenth century. There were frequent interchanges of courtesies, and whenever a Shogun succeeded to his high office, an embassy was sent from Corea to congratulate him on his accession. The Corean Kings apparently thought that the Shogun was the true and only sovereign, and were unaware that in Kyoto there was the rightful Emperor whom the Shogun himself acknowledged as his liege lord.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list

Page last modified: 16-01-2014 19:30:00 ZULU