Japan: Peeps at History - John Finnemore

The Teachings of China

After the time of the Sage Emperor we come to a period of Japanese history of great importance. Japan, as we have seen, had become open to the influence of Chinese civilisation, and the latter produced a great effect upon the country; it is not too much to say that under this Chinese influence the Japanese nation was moulded into the form in which it has become known to the world. For one thing, the Japanese have always been a race very open to outside influence; they have been, and are, eager to accept new ideas, new learning, new culture. Many centuries ago they gladly received learning and religion from China: in recent times they have just as eagerly seized upon all that the Western nations have to teach them, and are hastening to place themselves at the forefront of modern movements.

The religion received from China was Buddhism. Towards the end of the sixth century the Buddhist faith began to gain a footing in the land, and in time it spread so widely as almost to crowd out the Shinto worship: its temples, its priests, its nuns were found everywhere. Buddha was a great Indian teacher who was born several centuries before Christ, and whose teaching spread throughout India and the surrounding nations. China became a Buddhist country, and this faith was carried into Japan.

The Sage Emperor was followed by his son, a peaceable, quiet man of delicate health. A Chinese doctor came from Korea to attend upon him, and this was the introduction of the medical art in Japan. When he died two of his sons quarrelled over the succession and the country favoured the younger. This prince came to the throne, and afterwards met his death in a strange fashion. He had put to death unjustly one of his chief subjects—a man of royal blood—and had afterwards married the widow of the murdered prince and raised her to the position of empress. She already had a young son, and when she came to the palace the boy came with her. Now the Emperor became uneasy about this boy. One day he said to the Empress, "I fear this boy. When he becomes older he will learn that I was the cause of the death of his father, and then he may seek to revenge that injury which I have done to him."

Unknown to both of them, the boy was near at hand and overheard the words of the Emperor. The thing which the Emperor had feared he now actually brought upon himself. Stirred by the speech he had overheard, the boy sought the room of the Emperor, found him asleep, and stabbed him to the heart. Then the young prince fled and took refuge in the house of a faithful noble, a retainer of his family.

This event was followed by a great uproar. The brother of the Emperor raised an army and marched upon the house of the noble with whom the prince had taken refuge. The house was attacked and there was a long and hard fight. At length the noble called a truce for a moment while he spoke with the enemy, and the end of the fight may be given in the words of the old chronicle. Speaking to the enemy, the noble said: "From of old down to the present time nobles have been known to hide in the palaces of kings. But kings have not yet been known to hide in the houses of nobles. Therefore I think that, though a noble exerting his utmost strength in the fight can scarcely conquer, yet must he die rather than desert a prince who, trusting in him, has entered into his house." Having thus spoken, he again took his weapons and went in again to fight. Then their strength being exhausted and their arrows finished, he said to the prince, "My hands are wounded and our arrows are likewise finished. We cannot now fight. What shall be done?" The prince replied, saying, "If that be so there is nothing more to do. Now slay me." So he thrust the prince to death with his sword, and forthwith killed himself by cutting off his own head. Here was the true Japanese spirit, faithful unto death.