Japan: Peeps at History - John Finnemore

Early Japan (continued)

The Emperor Suinin was followed on the throne by his son Keiko, and Keiko is remembered chiefly as the father of a famous son, Prince Yamato-dake, whose name is great in Japanese legend. The career of this prince is pictured as most daring and romantic, and even as a youth he is shown as doing wild and wonderful deeds. The first story told of him shows him as a cool, ferocious character. His father said to him one day, "Your elder brother does not come to the banquets in the palace. Why is this? It will be your task to speak to him and teach him his duty." A few days passed, and again the Emperor said, "Still your brother does not attend to his duty. Have you given him a warning as I bade you?" "I have given him a warning," answered the young prince calmly. "In what manner did you give him a warning?" "I slew him and flung his body away," was the cool answer.

The Emperor was horrified at this dreadful reply, and began to feel uneasy before this terrible son, so he set him a task which would fully employ his powers. In a distant province lived two brothers, savage bandits, who laughed at the Emperor's authority, and robbed and murdered his subjects. He ordered his son to go and subdue them. "I will go," said the prince. First of all he went to his aunt and borrowed from her a female dress, and in the bosom of this dress he hid a sharp sword. Next he journeyed to the province where these wild outlaws lived. He reached their hiding-place and found that they were about to take up their dwelling in a new cave which they had dug out of the rock. To celebrate the day they had invited many of their neighbours to a feast, both men and women. The prince was young and very fresh-looking, and he put on his woman's dress and let down his long hair, which had been bound about his head. He went into the cave, and the robbers were delighted to see this beautiful stranger, and gave the supposed maiden the chief place at the feast, seating the new-comer between themselves and offering fruit and wine.

[Illustration] from Peeps at History - Japan by John Finnemore


At a moment when the merriment was at its height and the robbers were off their guard, the prince whipped out his sword and cut down the elder brother with a single blow. The younger leapt from his seat and darted for the door of the cave: the prince pursued him and caught him at the door. He seized the robber with one hand and with the other drove his sword through the outlaw's body. "Stay for a moment," cried the robber as he fell, "and draw not thy sword from the wound." And the prince stayed his hand. "Who art thou?" asked the wounded man, "and whence dost thou come?" The prince told him.

Then the outlaw said, "There were none in the west so brave as we two brothers. From this time it shall be thy praise to be called Yamato-dake (the bravest in Yamato)." These were his last words, for upon the next instant the prince "ripped him up like a ripe melon."

Many other stories deal with the prince's encounters with the Ainos, and to these stories there is, without doubt, a basis of truth. For many centuries after their settlement on the islands the Japanese waged fierce war with the former inhabitants, and the Ainos fought hard in defence of their freedom.

The last expedition of Yamato-dake's short life was against some wild tribes which he wished to bring under the rule of his father. Before he set out he went to the temple of the Sun goddess, who was considered to be his great ancestress, and worshipped there. He sought once more the counsel of his aunt, who was the priestess of the temple, and she gave him a magic sword and a bag which he was not to open unless he found himself in a position of great danger.

On his journey he met with a chief who laid a plan to destroy Yamato-dake. The chief told the prince that in the midst of a wide moor there was a lagoon where lived a wonderful deity. The prince at once went over the moor to find the lagoon. But the moor was covered with long dry grass, and when Yamato-dake was in the midst of the grass the chief set fire to it, hoping to see the hero consumed. The prince saw that he was in great danger, and opened the bag. In it he found the means of making fire, and at once he cleared a space with his magic sword, heaped up the grass and set fire to it. Thus fire fought fire, and he was safe in the open space which his own fire made. As soon as he escaped from the moor, he sought out the cunning chief and slew him and conquered all that region.

He journeyed on and entered a boat to cross a wide arm of the sea. And a storm arose and the waves became rough, and it seemed as if the boat would be swallowed up in the angry sea and all must be drowned. Now his wife was with him in the boat, and she rose up and cast mats into the sea, saying, "I will enter the sea instead of the prince: you must finish the task on which you are sent." Then she sprang from the boat and sat down on the mats. The sacrifice was accepted. As she sank, the waves sank also, and soon the boat was sailing over a quiet sea. The princess was never seen again, but her comb was washed ashore, and over it the people built a sacred temple in her honour.

After meeting with many adventures and over-coming many tribes, the prince turned his steps homewards. But on the way he was stricken with a mortal illness, and died in the thirty-second year of his age. His followers buried him in the place where he died and built a splendid tomb over his body. And all the nation mourned for the noble leader whom they had lost.

The next great event of Japanese history is the invasion of Korea, an incident of which many tales are told and many scenes have been painted. It stands out in the history of Japan something like the Norman invasion in the history of England, for the results were very similar. Just as the Normans brought new ideas and new modes of life into England, so the Japanese gained many fruits from the conquest of Korea. The attack upon Korea was carried out by a famous empress whose husband had just died. She concealed the fact of his death, and, aided by a faithful Prime Minister, she gathered troops and fitted out a fleet to sail to the mainland. In A.D. 202 she crossed the straits and attacked the peninsula. So powerful was her army, and so complete the surprise to the Koreans, that she overran the land with ease.

Now the importance of this conquest did not lie in the fact that tribute was paid to Japan: it lay in the fact that Korea became an open door through which the influence of the mainland flowed into the island empire. Korea was at that time a home of Chinese learning and civilisation, and when Korean ambassadors came with tribute they brought new ideas and new culture in their train. Thus, in the year A.D. 284 the ambassador from one of the tribute kingdoms was a famous Chinese scholar. He became tutor to the young prince who was afterwards the noted Emperor Nintoku, and gave him lessons in the Chinese language and literature. The arts of writing and printing were now introduced into Japan, for we must remember that the Chinese were familiar with printed books for many ages before printing was known in Europe.

The young scholar Nintoku became Emperor in A.D. 313, and he is known in history as the Sage Emperor. He was not only wise but very good to his people. He looked into the state of his kingdom for himself, and found that many of his people were very poor and were borne down by the weight of taxes collected from them by the Government. He gave orders that for a term of years no taxes whatever should be gathered. This order was strictly obeyed, for through all ages the Japanese have given a blind obedience to the commands of their emperors, holding them to be the decrees of Heaven.

Emperor Nintoku


The farmers, relieved of their burdens, grew prosperous, and were happy and contented. But now that taxes were no longer paid, there was nothing to support either the Emperor or his Court. The palace grew shabby, and the rain ran through holes in the roof. The Emperor himself was forced to go about in mean and rough clothing. His subjects did not like this, and they came to him and begged to be allowed to pay such taxes as would furnish all he needed. But Nintoku would not allow them to do this. He had fixed a term of years during which they might recover from their poverty, and that time must pass. And when the time had gone he went up to a high place and looked over the land. He saw the snug houses with the hearth-fire sending up its curling wreaths of smoke, he saw the fertile fields around the homesteads, and he rejoiced at the pleasant sight. Now he issued commands that the taxes should be paid once more, and people paid them gladly and hailed him as Nintoku, the Sage Emperor.

In Japanese history Nintoku occupies much the same place as our own Alfred the Great takes in English history. Like Alfred, Nintoku was not only good, but wise, and loved learning. Now that the art of writing was known, he sent scribes into the distant provinces with orders to set down on record all import-ant events and forward their accounts to the Court. Thus we now reach a time when fables and legends begin to disappear from Japanese history. The writers of later times had these records upon which to draw, and from the time of the Sage Emperor dates and statements begin to wear the sober guise of truth, instead of being decked in the fantastic colours of myth and legend.