Japan: Peeps at History - John Finnemore

Life Among the Early Japanese

What manner of life did the people live who dwelt in the island empire in those far-off days? There are, of course, no written records of their daily life, but there are many unwritten records, and scholars have been able to glean from these, numbers of facts which throw much light upon the ways of Old Japan. These unwritten records are of two kinds. First, there are the actual remains left by the old inhabitants; and, secondly, there are the incidents of daily life mentioned in the legends.

Among the most important remains are the shell-heaps where the people threw the refuse of their daily food and the rubbish from their houses. Fish and shell-fish have always been most important articles of food in Japan, and here and there are still to be found mounds where the shells had been flung after their contents had been eaten. On to this rubbish-heap also went all kinds of broken and useless odds and ends, pottery, weapons, implements, things that had served their turn in the household and were no longer of service. Covered up in the refuse, they were thus preserved for many ages, and the rubbish of two or three thousand years ago is now a priceless treasure in the eyes of the scholar who wishes to know what those old tribes used and how they lived.

Among the Japanese proper the early government was of the tribal order. The first emperor was the chief of the tribe which seized the land, and the nobles were his more important followers. Among all early peoples we may notice a tendency to regard their chiefs and heroes as being of divine origin, and among the Japanese this feeling was very strong and its influence extends to the present day. They looked upon the race of emperors as springing from their chief deity, the Sun Goddess, and so their ruler was known as the "Son of Heaven," and his edicts were considered to possess divine authority, and to them they were bound to pay blind obedience.

The early religion consisted in the worship of a number of mythical gods and goddesses who were supposed to have been the founders of the Japanese race; and the worship also of objects of nature. This is the Shinto religion, whose temples and priests are still to be found in Japan, and among these temples those dedicated to the Sun Goddess are by far the most highly regarded. The word Shinto means "the way of the gods." The form of Shinto worship is very ancient, and goes back to times far beyond written history. Its ritual was handed down orally from generation to generation of priests, and thus mention is preserved of many things pertaining to the life of Old Japan. The Five Grains are often mentioned, and these were rice, millet, barley, and two kinds of beans. With regard to dress, mention is made of "bright cloth, soft cloth, and coarse cloth." As the silkworm and the mulberry are spoken of, it is probable that the finer cloths were of silk, and the coarser of the bark of the paper mulberry-tree or of hemp. In early days the bark of the mulberry-tree, now used for making paper, was twisted into a thread from which stout cloth was woven. To-day cotton is the universal wear in Japan, but not a word of it is found in old accounts, and it is said that it was not introduced until about A.D. 800, when it came from India.

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


Clothes in ancient days were of considerable variety, for one of the legends speaks of a deity who, about to bathe in a stream, threw down his girdle, skirt, upper garment, trousers, and hat. He wore bracelets and a necklace, and the old stories make much mention of jewellery. Jewels have been found in the ancient burial-places, and show that stones were threaded on strings to form bracelets and necklets, and rings of copper and bronze, plated with gold or silver, were much used. The burial images of clay show how these ornaments were worn, and the rings were placed in the ears and not on the fingers.

The people of Old Japan were hunters and farmers and fishermen. They hunted the deer, the hare, the bear, and the boar: they shot their game with bows and arrows, or transfixed them with spears. In farming they cultivated the Five Grains, but no mention is made of tea, now so widely grown. There is no word of potatoes, and, according to tradition, oranges were introduced in the first century after Christ.

Among domestic animals it is strange that the cow is never spoken of in the old legends. The horse is mentioned again and again, though always for riding and never for driving, but there is no word of the cow or of milk, cheese, or butter. We hear of dogs but not of cats, and the barnyard fowl was well known from earliest times.

At the day of which we speak the Japanese ate much more flesh-food than they did at a later period: the change in their habits was brought about by a religious influence which will be dealt with later. But on the score of drink they have been faithful through all the ages to the national beverage of saké, a kind of beer made from rice. In the most ancient stories the gods are pictured as drinking saké, and jars of saké  are spoken of as among the favourite offerings to be made to deities. Every one in Old Japan drank saké, from the emperor to the husbandman, and it is still the favourite drink in modern days.

When the warriors marched against a foe they carried spears, bows and arrows, and swords. The earliest forms of spear and arrow-heads are of flint, and these possibly are remains of Ainos and cave-dwellers. The Japanese knew something of the use of metals, for they had swords and daggers and fish-hooks made of metal, though it is believed that they cut down the trees for building with axes of stone. When they went to war or started on an expedition the Old Japanese tried to find out the will of the gods by divination. The oldest way of doing this was by using the shoulder-blade of a deer. Every morsel of flesh was carefully scraped away from the bone, and then it was held over a fire which had to be built of cherry-wood. The heat of the fire caused the bone to crack, and the will of the gods was read from the form and direction of the cracks. In later days the shell of a tortoise was used in place of the shoulder-blade.

When battle was formed the Japanese always manoeuvred to get the sun at their backs, its rays striking over their shoulders into the faces of their enemies. In this manner they believed that they received the support of the Sun Goddess, their greatest deity. A striking instance of this belief is shown in the story of a battle fought by the brother of the famous Jimmu. He was leading a body of invaders against a native tribe, when he was struck by an arrow from the bow of the opposing chief. The Japanese prince was facing the sun, and he cried out,

"It is not right for me, an august child of the Sun Goddess, to fight facing the sun. It is for this reason that I am struck by the wretched villain's hateful hand." But the wound was mortal, and in a few days he died.

The workers of those ancient days were formed into guilds, and over each guild was set a captain. There were the guilds of potters, who made earthen cups and bowls; the guild of clay image workers, who formed the images for use at burials; the guild of butlers; guild of watchmen; and so on. As far as is known, there were no money payments made for any service. Coin seems to have been unused. The husbandman paid his taxes with part of the produce of his farm, the craftsman with his wares; all trade seems to have been conducted in the form of barter.