It was the year 57AD when Japan was first mentioned in Chinese history, during the Japanese Yayoi period (300BC-300AD). This earliest known written record of Japan from a Chinese source stated that the Nakoku state of Wa – “Wa” being the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese name for Japan – received a golden seal from an Emperor of the Han dynasty (Emperor Guangwu). This source was recorded by Hou Han Shu, or “history of the later Han”; 143 years before the invention of sushi - Japan’s national dish - and 182 years before the first recorded Japanese envoy visited China.
As you might expect, China had little chance of not influencing Japan, being an Asian country located near China which was behind in civilisation and technological development. Although, unlike other Asian countries – namely those located to the South of China, like Vietnam, the Japanese never lost sight of their own culture - Japan retained cultural and political independence from China. While aspects of China were adopted by Japan, the use of selecting, borrowing, adapting and importing allowed the Japanese people to control the flow of Chinese ideas into the country. In the words of Professor Peter Stearns, Japan “initiated and controlled the process of cultural borrowing from China.” For a country as advanced as China to do this with what Japan was at the time, this was of huge benefit to Japan; the Japanese were able to become fully civilised and through the process of controlled selection, they were never sucked into becoming dominated by the Chinese. But how can we know it was all voluntary and controlled? We can infer this because Japan has, and has always, remained politically independent from China.
It is clear that China was able to influence Japan – so what ways does this include?
Naturally, the influence does not stop there. Another major aspect of Chinese culture affecting and influencing Japan was the introduction of Buddhism, which altered the culture through more than just religion. It was during the year 593 when the Soga clan ruling over Japan at the time promoted Buddhism – though it had been introduced earlier than that. In the year 605, Prince Shotoku – the one who originally promoted Buddhism in Japan – declared Buddhism, along with Confucianism, the state religions of Japan. Even in Japan today Buddhism, along with Shintoism, major in the Japanese religious department. Through the introduction of Buddhism came new ideas in architecture; Buddhist temples and their architectural ideas featuring their curved roof style were a result of Chinese influence. This, once again, is still a relevant feature of Japanese culture today.
Other features such as paintings and decorative scrolls were also affected by China through Buddhist influence; Chinese ink and fine paper, calligraphy as an art form, music, and masked dramas (Gingaku) are all aspects of Japan influenced by China.
Though, being two completely different places with different levels of resource accessibility, and ultimately different cultures, not everything Chinese-inspired worked out for Japan. For example, bureaucracies (a word thankfully more complicated to spell than it is to comprehend) which were stimulated from Chinese government resulted in inconveniencing Japanese peasants. Of course, there are also characteristically Japanese aspects of culture which do not link to Chinese culture – China had imperial soldiers, but Samurai and ninja are distinctively Japanese; in earlier history Japan never practically had an army, though they did possess Samurai warriors. While contact was forbidden with China by the Japanese emperor in 838, during years both prior and afterwards the histories and cultures of Japan and China often cross paths. Despite this early cut between the two countries’ ties, a (much) later example of how close China and Japan were in ancient times could be found in the year 1641 where Tokugawa Iemitsu (third Shogun of the Tokugawa dynasty) banned all foreigners except those who were Chinese or Dutch. Through both action and culture, we can clearly see that China has had a long-term historical effect on Japanese historical development.
I find that overall, Japan has made the most of its Chinese influences through its historical developments while at the same time remaining an individual, distinguishable country; their early interactions helped shape Japan into what we recognise now. Part of Japan remaining so individual comes down to the actions Japan took to develop and adapt Chinese influences instead of adopting them; Chinese influences are what an historian could describe as important stepping stones of Japanese history which enabled the historical development to occur in a way which resulted in the formation of modern Japan and the Japanese culture we recognise and admire.