Here in the twenty-first century, many of us around the world think of Japan as essentially unchanging. We do so not without cause, given how much of what goes on there, including the operation of certain businesses, has been going on for centuries and centuries. But the political, cultural, religious, economic, and ethnic composition of the civilization we’ve long known as Japan has, in fact, transformed a great deal over the course of its existence. Some of the most dramatic changes occurred between the third and thirteenth centuries, the span of time covered by the video above.
“How Japan Began” comes from Voices of the Past, a Youtube channel previously featured here on Open Culture for its videos on a first-hand account of the destruction of Pompeii, an ancient Chinese historian’s description of the Roman Empire, and how the first Japanese visitor to the United States and Europe saw life there.
In telling the story of how ancient Japan (though mostly in a time span that falls within Europe’s Middle Ages) assumed something like its current form, the video adheres to its usual method of directly incorporating as many primary or close-to-primary sources as possible: the Chinese Records or History of the Three Kingdoms, eighth-century court edicts and national histories, the thirteenth-century émigré Chinese Buddhist monk Mugaku Sogen.
As for the rest of the narration, Voices of the Past credits Thomas Lockley, co-author of the book African Samurai: The True Story of Yasuke, a Legendary Black Warrior in Feudal Japan. Yasuke, whom we’ve also featured before, arrived in Japan in 1579, three centuries after the events chronicled in “How Japan Begin” — and thus quite deep indeed into the history of a volatile land of religious shifts, political ambitions, and (voluntary or involuntary) cultural exchanges, all amid an internal state oscillating between fragmentation and consolidation as well as an ever-changing relationship to the world at large. We can’t say what mixture of stability and instability will characterize Japan’s next millennium, but we can hope its future chroniclers are up to the task.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.