Japan: Peeps at History - John Finnemore

Early Japan

More than six hundred years ago, a great traveller returned to Europe and told the world of the wonders he had seen when journeying in the Far East. This was the famous Marco Polo, the Venetian, who had travelled through China in the year 1295. He tells us that when he was in China he heard of "Chipangue, an island towards the east, in the high seas, 1500 miles from the Continent; and a very great island it is. The people are white, civilised, and well favoured. They are idolaters, and are dependent on nobody. And I can tell you the quantity of gold they have is endless; for they find it in their own islands." Here we have the first news which Europe heard of Japan, for Chipangue was the Chinese name for the island empire, and Japan is a shortened form of the word.

But the history of Japan was many centuries old when Marco Polo heard of the country, and the early story of the land is hidden in a mist of legend and myth. It was about the end of the seventh century when their earliest records were made by order of the Emperor Temmu, and in this, the oldest Japanese history, the traditions of a thousand years are set down.

These early legends trace the origin of the line of emperors to a divinity called the Sun Goddess, and from her race sprang the famous Jimmu, the first Emperor of Japan. It is said that he began to reign about 660 B.C. The legends are full of stories of Jimmu's great exploits, of the manner in which he overran the land, and conquered the barbarians whom he found there. There can be no doubt that these stories of Jimmu refer to a time when a great movement of new tribes into Japan took place.

It is believed by scholars that there were two great migrations from the mainland of Asia into Japan, and that the new-comers crossed into the islands from the peninsula of Korea. These invaders found the land in the possession of fierce savage tribes, whom they attacked and drove from the fertile plains of the main island to the wilder parts in the north, where many of them are found to this day. These people are the famous hairy race of the Ainos, a people still very savage in their ways, though in temper they are now mild and inoffensive. They are remarkable for the great quantity of hair which grows upon their faces and bodies, giving them a wild, unkempt look.

They still remain quite distinct from their Japanese neighbours, and are savages pure and simple. They live by hunting and fishing. They hunt with bow and arrows, and they fish with the same rude tackle which their ancestors used long ages ago. They have no written language, and seem incapable of drawing the signs which are often used among the rudest savages to convey ideas to others. The simplest articles which require manufacture they obtain from the Japanese by offering skins or fish in exchange for the goods. They worship such objects as rivers, rocks, and fountains. They bury their dead in secret places, and will not show such spots to any one. It is not certain whence the name Aino comes. The Japanese believe that it springs from the word inu, meaning a dog, and is a term of scorn.

Ainos of present day


Among these hairy people the bear is an animal held in great regard. It is impossible to discover whether this arises from the bear having been an object of worship in other days, but the bear festival is the chief event in their year. In every Aino village the hunters go up to the mountains in spring and bring back a live young bear cub. They hand this over to a woman who nurses and feeds it. When it gets too old to be left loose, it is shut up in a strong cage, and there kept until the autumn of the year after its capture.

Now comes the time of the great bear festival, and all is excitement in the Aino village. The hunters gather about the cage armed with knives and spears, with clubs, bows and arrows. The bear has been kept without food for some time and is raging with hunger. This angry mood they heighten by a score of teasing tricks which reduce the bear to a state of fury, then, upon a given signal, the door of the cage is flung open. The bear rushes out and charges upon his tormentors. The latter dash to meet him with equal fury, and assail him with their weapons. A wild struggle follows, and the bear falls under a shower of blows and stabs. The body is cut up, and each family receives a piece, upon which they feast with great delight. If you ask an Aino what this bear feast means he cannot tell you. It is a custom which goes back beyond memory or tradition, and it is the great day of their year.

When the Japanese first settled in the islands they had not only to fight with the Ainos, but with a race which was even older still. These were the people who were called pit-dwellers. Mention of them is found in the earliest Japanese records, and they gained their name because they built no houses but lived in holes in the ground. They dug out pits and covered them with branches, and in these pits they lived. The Ainos called them "Hole-Men"; the Japanese spoke of them as "the Dwarfs," for they were a tiny people.

There is a story that when Prince Jimmu was conquering the country he came to a land which was inhabited by earth-spiders; these earth-spiders were the pit-dwellers. He made a feast for eighty warriors of the tribe in one of their pits, and to each warrior he assigned one of his soldiers as attendant, and every soldier had his sword girded at his side. Jimmu posted himself outside the cave and sang a song, and the soldiers waited for a certain line. This line was a signal, and when Jimmu sang it every man drew his sword and slew the earth-spider upon whom he was attending.

From the time of the great conqueror Jimmu there is a regular list of emperors whose names have been preserved in tradition, but no great reliance can be placed upon the dates at which they are said to have ascended the throne. It is noteworthy that for each emperor a new palace was built. This was done because it was the custom to abandon a house in which a man had died, and, above all, the place in which an emperor had passed away. The ancient Japanese looked upon such a house as unclean and not fit for further use.

One funeral custom of the ancient Japanese was of dreadful cruelty. When a great man died, the retainers who had served him and the horses which had carried him were buried at the same time as their master. This custom was unbroken until the time of the eleventh emperor, Suinin, a humane and kind-hearted man. It happened that his younger brother died (2 B.C.), and in a great ring round the royal corpse were buried the bodies of his living retainers. These unhappy men were placed upright, with their heads above the ground, and there left to die of hunger. The cries of these poor starving wretches went to the heart of the Emperor, and he made up his mind that this dreadful custom should cease. One of his advisers now brought forward a plan which pleased the Emperor greatly. The counsellor proposed that figures should be made of clay and be set up in a circle about the burial-place, instead of human beings. This was done, but it is certain that the old cruel practice did not die out at once, for as late as A.D. 646 we find an emperor issuing a command that living retainers should not be buried with their masters.

It is of this humane Emperor Suinin that the story of a great conspiracy is told. His wife had a brother who wished to rule in the place of Suinin. This brother came to the Empress and said, "Which is dearer to you, your brother or your husband?" She said, "My brother is the dearer." Then he replied, "If I am the dearer to you, we two will rule the empire. See, here is a sharp dagger; take this and slay the Emperor in his sleep." She took the dagger, and one day, when the Emperor was sleeping with his head in her lap, she raised it to strike him. But at the last moment her courage failed her, and she burst into tears, and the tears fell on the face of her sleeping husband. Up started the Emperor and cried out to her, "I have had a most strange dream. I dreamt that a storm-cloud drew over the sky and that heavy rain fell and wetted my face. And a tiny crimson snake curled itself around my neck. What can so strange a dream mean?" The Empress could contain herself no longer, and told him all that had been planned against him.

The Emperor gathered a strong body of troops and went to seize his brother-in-law. The latter had posted himself and his men behind a strong stockade and prepared to resist Suinin's attack. With him was his sister, for the Empress had fled from her husband to her brother. When the Emperor's troops drew near, the Empress came to the stockade holding out her newborn son and begging the Emperor to take it under his care, though for herself she meant to stay with her brother. The Emperor now resolved to rescue both the child and his mother. He picked out a band of his best and most cunning warriors and sent them to fetch the child, saying to them, "See to it that you seize the mother also."

But the Empress feared that the soldiers would try to carry her off, so she made preparations to deceive them. She shaved off her hair, yet fastened on the loose hair so that it seemed to grow on her head. She wore strings on her neck and arms to which her jewels were attached, and these strings she made rotten; her garments she made tender by soaking them in wine.

The warriors came. She handed them the child and fled. They sprang forward and seized her by the hair: it came loose in their hands. They snatched at her jewel-strings: they broke. They clutched at her garments, and the tender garments gave way and the Empress was free, and fled. Then the warriors went back to the Emperor, taking with them the child but not the mother. Suinin was very angry, and gave orders at once that the jewellers who had made the rotten jewel-strings should be punished.

By this time the stockade around the rebel's palace was on fire. The Emperor went up to the burning rampart and called to his wife through the flames, "A child's name must be given by its mother. What shall be the name of this child?" And the Empress answered and gave him a name. "How shall he be reared?" was the next question. "Find for him a foster-mother and a bathing-woman," replied the Empress; "they shall rear him." "You have tied upon him a small jewel: how shall it be loosened?"

The Empress said how this was to be done. Then the Emperor stayed no longer, but urged his soldiers to the assault. The rebel was slain in his burning palace, and the Empress perished with her brother.