Japanese culture possesses many similarities to the culture of China, some of which trace back to introductions before the Christian era. And during the early centuries of the Christian era, when the southern peoples were making their first real advances in civilization, many Chinese traits were taken up in an unconscious pattern of acceptance. This hit-and-miss learning process went on until the late sixth century. By then Japanese leaders appreciated the value of Chinese culture, appeared to realize that their knowledge was incomplete, and set out to broaden their contacts and patterns of learning. Early in the seventh century Japanese leaders despatched commissions to the Chinese court that compare with the modern system of organized despatch of students abroad to centers of learning. The best educated young Japanese were selected to study all possible aspects of Chinese culture. Some remained in China for many years and upon their return to Japan became leaders in a program of "modernization," as it were, that spread elements of Chinese culture throughout southern Japan. All manner of subjects were studied, from Buddhist theology to city planning, from painting to manufacturing. This constituted an enormous program of cultural borrowing, but the learning can hardly be called mere copying, for it had to be integrated into a whole and blended with the elements of native existing culture. And the very organized manner of approaching the problem was far in advance of any process of cultural development in vogue elsewhere.
The whole program perhaps evolved because China had just begun to blossom again into one of its high periods of development. The Sui had begun to organize North China into one state, and the T'ang were just completing the task of making China the greatest empire in the world at that time, politically and culturally. The Japanese thus were able to study China during one of its best periods, when Chinese culture perhaps stood foremost among the world's cultures. But another significant element in the picture was the fact that administrative power in Japan was already sufficiently centralized in the hands of a small group of leaders for a major program of action to be decided upon and carried into effect without a long period of debate or struggle. It is important to note this early illustration of the far-reaching results of the decisions of a small number of people, Japanese leaders at a particular point of time, because it is a phenomenon that has occurred repeatedly throughout Japanese culture history.
The first cultural missions to China were so successful that they were repeated rather continuously for over two centuries. By the middle of the ninth century official sponsorship for study of China came to an end, though privately the process continued for almost two centuries longer in lesser degree. By the latter part of the ninth century the T'ang were declining in China, and perhaps there was less to learn that could be of use to the leaders of Japan. This long period of study made the leaders of Japan familiar with the workings of Chinese civilization and spread Chinese culture traits throughout those parts of Japan inhabited by the peoples spreading out of the southern hearth region.
The impact of Chinese culture showed up in many ways. In the early eighth century the Japanese set out to build an imperial capital city of Nara, off the Inland Sea, which they modeled upon the great T'ang capital of Ch'ang-an. Grid-plan streets were laid out, buildings were built in the Chinese style, functional zoning was applied, and the city had come to stay. The matriarchal society of early Japan finally disappeared in favor of the patriarchal system of China, and the social status of women became permanently altered. The tribal and clan leaders saw utility in the nationalized political system of China, topped by an emperor, and so they installed it and in so doing rewrote Japanese history to give the system an ancient status. But the leaders of Japan could not bring themselves to install the full pattern of Chinese education, the examination, and the civil service, which would have meant throwing open to all Japanese the opportunities for political power. Thus they kept alive the clan system which facilitated the preservation of real power in the hands of hereditary leaders. Similarly they reorganized the land system and systems of taxation, but in the end let the land system of China degenerate, while keeping the tax system, so as more effectively to consolidate power in the hands of the few.
Japanese religion grew into a mixture of Buddhism and native animism, but the study of Chinese Buddhism was serious and it became an important element drawn from China. Chinese art, handicraft manufacturing, and agriculture were studied and adapted so far as practical and possible. Here there was less danger to real power in the hands of leaders if a full application of Chinese practices took place. A farreaching item that was taken from China was the written language, but the results have been less than satisfactory. At the time of earliest contact with Chinese culture no system of writing was known in Japan, but the spoken languages were polysyllabic. Chinese is a monosyllabic language easily written by single ideographs or characters. The first writing employed in Japan was Chinese, written by people brought from Korea. These immigrant scholars became the first recorders of Japanese historiography, the first scribes, and bookkeepers. Slowly the Japanese learned this complex system of writing, and it gradually became the written language of Japan. The grafting of a monosyllabic writing onto a polysyllabic speech resulted in a cumbersome system that never has been outgrown.
Though the adapting of only a few features of Chinese culture have been discussed, it must be obvious that the process involved selective adaptation rather than indiscriminate imitation. A close study of Japanese culture in this period suggests that a clear imprint of Chinese culture was spread throughout much of Japan with the result that Japanese culture is modeled upon that of China. But it is equally discernible that slavish copying was never permitted in many lines and that the leaders of Japan were extremely skillful in checking those trends which would have truly converted Japan into a little China in all respects. Chiefly the checks were applied at those points which preserved in the hands of the old line of Japanese leaders the power, wealth, and control of Japan.