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Texts reach Yamato

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Buddhism and manuscript culture spread through China during the Northern and Southern (#) and Sui (#) dynasties. It was also around this time that the inhabitants of Yamato first began to use writing. Immigrants from the Korean peninsula and monks returning from official embassies to China brought back with them written scrolls which, by this point, had already reached a considerable degree of sophistication. One of the very first written works to be authored in Japan is a commentary on the Lotus Sutra attributed to Prince Shōtoku (*). With its synthesis of Indian and Chinese intellectual traditions, this work is clearly the product of a “pan-East Asian” textual culture.
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Thus, from its origins up to the end of the Nara period (#), Japan’s book culture moved its first steps largely by absorbing and responding to the texts of Mahayana Buddhism. Here we have a Buddhist text in scroll format. It was made in Japan during the Nara period, precisely in 740 (Tempyō 12), as part of a complete copy of the Buddhist canon made at the behest of Fujiwara Kōmyōshi (), a consort of Emperor Shōmu (). The book is the Vinaya in Four Parts (Dharmagupta vinaya), which gives the rules for life in a Buddhist monastery. It is not a Mahayana text, but a text of one of the schools of the so-called Theravāda (monastic) Buddhism.
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The format is that of Chinese books of the Tang period(#), which was standard in all of East Asia in the 8th century. From India and through China, the ideas contained in this scroll reached Yamato Japan and captivated the minds of its inhabitants. After the Tang, Chinese textual culture entered a new phase with the introduction of printing and the spread of printed books. Since printing made it possible to disseminate texts on a mass scale, it was quickly embraced by Mahayana Buddhism, which, as mentioned earlier, placed great importance on the dissemination of its sacred books. Nara and post-Nara Japan were also affected by the new trend.
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In the first week, we will explore the early history of Japanese textual culture, centuries before the publishing boom of the Edo period (#), paying special attention to the role played by the movement of people between the various regions of East Asia.
How did book culture first come to Yamato (ancient name of Japan) from China? Who brought the first books and how were they received by Japanese society? Watch Prof. Sumiyoshi tell the story.

Books introduced in the video

A scroll Vinaya in Four Parts (Dharmagupta vinaya) (740)
Take a closer look

Share your knowledge

When and how did the text culture in your country or region begin? If you have any knowledge to share, please do so in the comment area.

Period names that appeared in the video

(#) in the English subtitle indicates the name of the period. Please refer to the following Chinese period names appeared in the video as well as Step1.3 “East Asian History at a Glance”.

Historical figures introduced in the video

(*) in the English subtitle indicates the name of the person. In this video, the following persons are introduced.

Keywords introduced in the video

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Sino-Japanese Interactions Through Rare Books

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