Terrified of death, having inflicted it on many, the Chinese ruler Qin Shi Huang (259-210 B.C.) sent his court sage, Xu Fu, across the eastern seas in quest of the elixir of eternal life. Xu Fu’s 60 ships, carrying (says one version) 3,000 virgin boys and girls, left port in 210 B.C., never to return.
Could they have ended up in Japan? Probably not, but it makes a good story, and the story has persisted. It has the newcomers introducing into Japan the elements of its early civilization — rice farming, metal, wealth for the few, poverty for the many, and social control under an institution we know today as “government.” Jomon withered. Its long day was done.
However fanciful, the tale encapsulates at least this historical fact: The culture that the 20th century named Yayoi (after a site now on the University of Tokyo campus where Yayoi pottery was first found) was not native, but arose from a mainland migration.
The Yayoi Period (roughly 300 B.C.-A.D. 300) tips Japan at last from prehistory into history. Human beings are no longer nature’s passive supplicants but its active manipulators. In terms of art, “Yayoi man,” says H. Paul Varley in “Japanese Culture: A Short History,” “used a potter’s wheel and, by means of an advanced firing technique, produced vessels of a much greater delicacy than those of Jomon. . . . The untamed spirit reflected in the shape and ornamentation of some Jomon pottery and in the dogu figurines was either lost or suppressed by the craftsmen of Yayoi.”
The more refined spirit of Yayoi infuses an adornment better suited to a metal culture: bronze mirrors decorated with Chinese-style mythological beasts, inscribed with Chinese poetry, and symbolizing what mattered most to those high enough up the new social scale to possess them — linkage to the vastly superior Chinese civilization across the sea. Yayoi graves are full of them.
The discovery in 1947 of the Yayoi site at Toro in Shizuoka Prefecture sparked a Japanese archaeology boom that has yet to die out. Toro flourished in the 3rd century, and shows how far behind the Yayoi left their predecessors, the Jomon. The site comprises “over 50 paddies occupying 70,000 sq. meters,” writes J. Edward Kidder in “The Cambridge History of Japan,” “with sluice-gated irrigation ditches and wells. . . . The rice yield was too large for customary storage methods.”
The new type of raised storehouse the Yayoi developed to accommodate their surpluses became the model for the earliest Shinto shrines.
Dimly we see in Yayoi, as we do not in Jomon, the outlines of a Japan we know. Facially, the Mongoloid cast, distinct from the more or less Caucasian features of the Jomon, becomes progressively more pronounced.
Worship, says Naoaki Ishikawa, chief curator of the Otaru Museum in Hokkaido, turns from amorphous fertility spirits to the elements uppermost in the minds of cultivators — water, soil, the sun.
The sun in particular appealed to the religious instincts of the early Japanese. Soon it would be personified as the sun goddess Amaterasu, mythical begetter of Japan’s royal line.
The Yayoi were, at least intermittently, warriors. “Disturbance and warfare,” “assassination and murder” were prevalent enough to strike Japan’s first known foreign observer, the 3rd century Chinese court historian Chen Shou. His “History of the Three Kingdoms” (A.D. 280) includes a 61-line description of the Yayoi “barbarians” he called “Wa,” meaning “dwarf.” The Wa were “divided into 100 countries,” wrote Chen. “Each year envoys from the Wa bring tribute.”
The one Yayoi ruler whose name survives is the shaman-queen Himiko, who in 238 sent an embassy to the Chinese emperor to plead for help against a hostile neighbor.
Japan had lost its innocence. “War,” observes Ishikawa, “has two prerequisites — leaders and surpluses.” Jomon had neither. Yayoi had both.