Let us first briefly consider the nature of the ancient Japanese society.
Its original unit was not the household (Domestic), but the patriarchal family, that is to say, the clans.
These clans consisted of a body of hundreds or thousands of persons claiming descendant from a common ancestor, and so religiously united by a common ancestor worship; the cult of the Ujigami.
They were two classes of these patriarchy or families; the O-Uji or the Great Clans and the Ko-Uji or Little Clans.
The lesser were branches of the greater, and subordinate to them.
Large bodies of serfs or slaves appear to have been attached to the various Great Uji; and the number of these even at a very early period, seem to have exceeded that of the members of the clan proper.
The different names given to these subject classes indicated different grades and kinds of servitude.
One name was tomobe, signifying bound to a place, or district.
Another was yakabe, signifying bound to a family.
The third was kakiba, which signifying a bound to an estate, yet another and more general term was tami, which anciently signified “dependents,” but is now used in the meaning of the English word “folk.”
There is little doubt that the bulk of the people were in a condition of servitude, and that there were many forms of servitude.
All Japanese clan-families were classed under three heads:
Kobetsu, Shinbetsu, and Bambetsu.
The Kobetsu (Imperial Branch) represented the so-called Imperial Families, claiming descent from the Sun-goddess.
The Shinbetsu (Divine Branch) were clans claiming descent from other deities, terrestrial or celestial.
The Bambetsu (Foreign Branch) represented the mass of the people.
Thus it would seem that, by the ruling classes, the common people were originally considered strangers,—Japanese only by adoption.
It is only certain that all society was divided into these three classes, according to ancestry.
Two of these classes constituted a ruling oligarchy; and that the third, or “foreign” class represented the bulk of the nation,—the plebs.
There was a division also into castes—kabane or sei.
Every family in the three great divisions of Japanese society belonged to some caste; and each caste represented at first some occupation or calling.
Caste would not seem to have developed any very rigid structure in Japan; and there were early tendencies to confuse the difference between kabane and sei.
Due to this confusion, Emperor Temmu reorganize the sei; and by him all the clan-families were regrouped into eight new castes.
Such was the primal constitution of Japanese society; and that society was, therefore, in no true sense of the term, a fully formed nation.
Nor can the title of Emperor be correctly applied to its early rulers.
It was shown that the “heavenly sovereign” of the early ages was the hereditary chief of one Uji only.
This Uji being the most powerful of all, exercised influence over many of the others.
The authority of the “heavenly sovereign” did not extend over the country.
But though not even a king outside of his own large group of patriarchal families, he enjoyed three immense prerogatives.
The first was the right of representing the different Uji before the common ancestral deity, which implies the privileges and powers of a high priest.
The second was the right of representing the different Uji in foreign relations. He could make peace or declare war in the name of all the clans, and therefore exercised the supreme military authority.
His third prerogative included the right to settle disputes between clans, the right to nominate a clan-patriarch, in case that the line of direct succession to the chieftainship of any Uji came to an end, the right to establish new Uji, and the right to abolish an Uji guilty of so acting as to endanger the welfare of the rest.
He was, therefore, Supreme Pontiff, Supreme Military Commander, Supreme Arbitrator, and Supreme Magistrate. But he was not yet supreme king: his powers were exercised only by consent of the clans.
The earliest Japanese society was not, therefore, even a feudalism in the meaning which we commonly attach to that word.
It was a union of clans at first combined for defence and offence, each clan having a religion of its own.
Gradually one clan-group, by power of wealth and numbers, obtained such domination that it was able to impose its cult upon all the rest, and to make its hereditary chief Supreme High Pontiff.
The worship of the Sun-goddess so became a race-cult; but this worship did not diminish the relative importance of the other clan-cults, it only furnished them with a common tradition.
Eventually a nation formed, but the clan remained the real unit of society.
We may call that period during which the clans became really united under one head, and the national cult was established, the First Period of Japanese Social Evolution.
As early as the reign of the Emperor Temmu, whose accession is generally dated 673 A.D, is where the outline of the society began to take shape
As an example of the extraordinary power Emperor Temmu exercised over the widely dispersed clans was during his reign where Buddhism appears to have become a powerful influence in the high court of Emperor Temmu.
Indeed the Emperor imposed a vegetarian diet upon the people, and this was proof positive of supreme power in not only fact but in theory as well.
We may say that from the close of the First Period of its social evolution, the nation remained practically separated into two classes.
The governing class, including all orders of the nobility and military; and the producing class, comprising all the rest.
The chief event of the Second Period of the social evolution was the rise of the military power, leaving the imperial religious authority intact, but usurped all the administrative functions.
The society eventually crystallized by this military power was a very complex structure, outwardly resembling a huge kind of feudalism, but which was intrinsically different from any European feudalism that had ever existed.
The difference lay especially in the religious organization of the Japanese communities, each of which, retaining its particular cult and patriarchal administration, remained essentially separate from every other.
The national cult was a bond of tradition, not of cohesion: there was no religious unity.
Buddhism, though widely accepted, brought no real change into this order of things; for, whatever Buddhist creed a commune might profess, the real social bond remained the bond of the Ujigami.
So it is today, as the Japanese society continues to evolve while conforming to the unwritten rules of the dead, and the spirit of the abundant Ujigami who binds the Domestic, Communal, and the State into the modern nation of Japan.
Patrick Lafcadio Hearn