Japan – When is a Nation?

Posted by dianamuir on October 03, 2012
Medieval nationhood, When is a nation?

A good case can be made for considering Japan to have become a nation in Heian period (794-1192.)     During the previous century, when the court was based in Nara, the two earliest chronicles of Japan were written, the Kojiki  (712) and the Nihonshoki (720).  Like other ancient national chronicles, both draw on much older sources, but, like the Kojiki   and Nihonshoki themselves, those sources were written in a hybridized version of Chinese, the language in which East Asia learned to write.  It was only after the court moved to Kyoto in 794 that a system for writing in the Japanese language was developed, followed by the burst of literary creativity  that is typical of national revivals, both those “revivals” that form new nations and those that revive old ones living under occupation.   A poem written in the Heian, Kimi Ga Yo is the modern Japanese national anthem.   It is said to be the shortest national anthem in the world, (the longest, weighing in at 158 strophes, belongs to the Greeks.)  The Heian also produced  the early and enduring classics of Japanese literature, Tales of the Genji, Pillow Book, and iroha, a poem that signals its Japaneseness to foreign eyes by its  brevity, and its perfection to Japanese eyes by its use of every character of the Japanese writing system exactly once.

There is  an English word for this literary trick: pangram.  Pangrams are nearly impossible to achieve in English, such attempts as “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” hardly reach the level of art. Useful mostly for testing keyboards, pangrams are not taken seriously as literature in English.  In Japanese, pangrams are a form of high art, beautifully allusive examples of the fundamental untranslatability of culture.

The major cornerstones of Japanese identity: the Emperor, Shinto, Confucian thought, Buddhism, samurai, and the distinctive Japanese class system, were all well developed by the end of the Heian, which ended with the establishment of the first Shogun.   Much of what is still familiar as Japanese architectural, artistic and cultural style also comes out of the Heian.   The final element that defines a nation – the belief that it has the right to sovereignty – was not tested until a foreign power attempted conquest.   When that test came, the Japanese responded with a unified effort demonstrating the Japan was a strong and highly identified nation.

The Mongols, after conquering the continent from the Mediterranean to the Pacific, set their sights on Japan.   In 1274 Kubblai Kahn, already Emperor of  Northern China and of Korea, ordered a seaborne invasion by 15,000 troops carried by a Korean fleet manned by 7,000 sailors to conquer Japan.  Landing on Kyushu, the war-hardened Mongol army led by experienced generals faced a much smaller Japanese force with no experience of war: Japan had not fought even a small war between feudal lords for two full generations.

The Battle of Hakata Bay was a clear victory for the Mongols over the far smaller Japanese army, which retreated at the end of the first day’s fighting to a fortified  position it had little chance of defending against the war-hardened Mongols.  The Mongols withdrew to their ships for the night.  The next day never came.

Overnight, a “Divine Wind” (Kamikaze) destroyed the Mongol fleet.  Only a remnant survived to tell the Mongol Emperor that they had defeated the Japanese, or, at any rate, that they would surely have vanquished them utterly in the morning if not for the storm.  The Japanese, meanwhile, claimed that they had defeated the Mongols; or, perhaps, that they would have been victorious if the fighting had continued long enough to allow them to bring up reinforcements from other islands and outlast the invaders; or that the gods sent a storm to fight for Japan.   What, precisely, was said at each court is not clear at this distance.  What is not in doubt is that Kubbai Kahn emerged certain of his army’s ability to conquer Japan and followed the failed invasion by sending envoys to demand Japanese capitulation.  The Bakufu, however, appears to have been persuaded that Japan could be defended.  Kublai Kahn’s envoys arrived in 1275 and were executed.  No one, then or now, could mistake this signal of the Japanese determination to resist conquest.

Shinto became ascendant as Japan prepared for a second invasion, much as it did when Japan prepared for war in the twentieth century.  Worship at the great Shinto shrines was the central symbolic act of the Japanese will to resist the Mongols.  Prayers were held throughout the country with Emperor Kameyama leading the state prayers at the Iwashimizu Shrine in Kyoto.  The Hakozaki shrine on Kyushu, destroyed in the first Mongol attack, was rapidly rebuilt.  To this day a plaque hangs above the Tower Gate bearing the words of Emperor Kameyama, “May the enemy nations prostrate themselves [in defeat].”  [i]

Meanwhile, the Bakufu moved energetically to improve Japan’s defenses.  A vast, defensive wall was built along the coast of Kyushu, but the defense was far broader than the mere building of fortifications.  The court and nobility undertook belt-tightening in order to direct all resources toward defense, the administration of the army was reformed to put men who had displayed qualities of leadership at the first invasion in positions of authority.  The entire productive might of the nation was mobilized to provide an effective defense, an effort that would continue in the expectation of a third invasion attempt  – an all-out, twenty-year-long defensive effort that kept Japan independent of the Mongols, but left the islands with a central government that was insolvent and vulnerable to collapse.

The second Mongol invasion came in 1281 in two waves.  The first assault, launched from Korea, was about the same size as the attacking force of 1274.  The second, sailing directly from China, was manned by as many as 100,000 soldiers transported by a navy of 60,000 men.   This  was one of the largest armies ever to embark on a seaborne conquest.  By way of comparison, in 1944,  Eisenhower sent an army of 140,000 men across the English Channel.

The first assault landed at Kyushu, where well-armed Japanese soldiers fighting from behind their new wall turned the Mongols back.    The Mongols had apparently expected the first fleet to establish a secure beachhead.  Instead, every breach of the wall was closed as the Japanese not only held back the attackers, but spread confusion in the Mongol fleet with small ships built to come out at night to harass the ships of the great armada.  The first Mongol fleet was forced to pull back to Takashima Island, where it was joined by the enormous second fleet.   At that point the gods again intervened to protect Japan, or, a storm blew up and destroyed the Mongol armada.  Upwards of 100,000 men drowned.

If the Mongol invasions were defeated by random storms at sea, it is nonetheless true that the gods help those who help themselves.   It was the extraordinarily unified effort by a Japanese nation determined to resist conquest that held back the Mongol army, forcing the retreat to Taksshima.

[i] George Sansom, A History of Japan to 1334, Stanford Univ. Press, 195, pp.442-450.


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