Ethnic policy in ancient Japan

Tuesday, July 9th, 2013

Japanese history is fascinating, Spandrell says, because of how short it is:

The Japanese imperial house is the oldest of the world, dating to around 500 AD. But the funny thing is that the imperial house was the first historical polity to arise in Japan ever. That’s right, Japanese history starts after the Roman Empire fell. Actually the first evidences of agriculture only date to around 300 BC, i.e. after Alexander the Great. For some reason farmers only came to Japan 7000 years after they began farming next door in China. 7000 years to finally round up the courage to cross the Tsushima strait.

Before farming, Japan had the Jomon culture, a fairly sophisticated hunter-gatherer culture known for their pottery and semi-sedentary lifestyle. Oldest pottery in the world actually. It seems Japan was so full of food that hunters could just stay in a place and hunt (mostly fish) their food from home. The Jomon had their fun for around 10,000 years until rice farmers came over from Korea and brought agriculture and metallurgy with them in 300 BC. The Yayoi culture they are called. These farmers moved eastward, and slowly built their own megalithic civilization, with massive tombs at all.

By 700 AD you had a modern kingdom, with writing, a Chinese style bureaucracy, international trade, overseas expeditionary armies and everything you can think of. They Yamato court based itself in the central plains on what’s today Osaka/Kyoto, and even had the balls of calling themselves Heavenly Emperor and tell the Chinese behemoth they expected equal treatment. The actual territorial reach of the Yamato court wasn’t that big though. They had reached the Kanto plains (where Tokyo is today), but had some trouble expanding further north. If you check Google Map’s Terrain layer you can see that the terrain north of Tokyo isn’t very inviting. And it’s cold too. But there was something else.

Someone else actually. Remember those Jomon guys? Well they didn’t just disappear. While the Yayoi farmers mostly took over and replaced the Jomon culture in the West of the country, the eastern Jomon had one thousand years to learn some tricks to defend themselves. They had adopted horses, and became experienced horse-archers. They also learned some horticulture, and even to work metal. By the time the Yamato court armies reached the Northeast, they had a fierce enemy to deal with.

The imperial documents call these people Emishi, or sometimes just “hairy people”, for their long beards and body hair. Time after time they sent armies to go out to get these people to stop raiding their farming villages. These battles more often than not ended up in failure, the Emishi having the home turf advantage, and being quite adept at ambushing and hit-and-run tactics. Once in a while though, some Emishi tribe would surrender to Yamato armies, and swear allegiance to the emperor in Kyoto.

What’d they do with these people? They couldn’t be left in their place to go on raiding farming villages, so the merciful imperial court had the great idea of rounding up these savage tribes and settling them West, in the Yamato heartland. They were settled in good land, put under the care of the local sheriff, and given free food and clothing, and exempted from taxes until they learned to fend for themselves. That is correct, enemy combatants were put on welfare.


These surrendered Emishi were called Fushuu (prisoners). As you can probably guess, they didn’t just became productive farmers and renounce welfare in a generation. They mostly hang around, keeping as much of their culture as they could, and causing trouble to everyone around them. You can imagine that local officials weren’t very amused with their new subjects. As it happens, civil order was declining too, the Yamato court’s hold on power started to loosen, taxes started to be collected through tax farmers, etc. You get the idea. Peasants were having trouble and complaining too much. The old centralized armies were disbanded after decades of peace, so local officials had to take care of civil order in their domains. They had to raise troops though. Then it struck them: what about these Emishi prisoners? They are fit, adept horse archers, go on practicing their craft all day. They’d make very fine soldiers. And so the Barbarian tribes became the official police force of Japan.


The Japanese government was using foreign barbarians to screw with their own people more than a thousand years ago. Why would they do that? Because the court didn’t give a shit. Emishi tribal leaders stayed in the imperial capital, hang out with the Yamato nobles, and used their government-given riches and patronage to meddle with their old kin in the Northeast, which had grown a taste for Yamato culture, eventually taking Yamato names. The Emishi nobles got Yamato peasants to farm for them, and their tax-exempt status as “allies” of the court made them very rich. They also traded in fur, horses and gold, with little official oversight.

So you have the Emishi having a blast inside and outside of the borders. What happened then? Peace and prosperity? Hah. The “prisoners” became internal bandits preying on trade caravans from the provinces to the capital, and soon afterwards started rioting against the court. The second half of the 9th century was plagued with Emishi riots, which threatened to destroy the polity. Finally in 897 the court had had enough, and ordered that the Emishi were rounded up and deported back to their homeland in the Northeast.

The rioting stopped, but the Emishi did leave a long lasting influence in Japanese military history. The Yamato learned horseback archery from them, and the Emishi sword eventually evolved in the world-famous Katana.


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    So, who are the samurai?

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