This week: the start of our multi-part series on the history of Osaka! Supposedly the site where Japan’s first emperor began his conquests, the city has a long history stretching back well before it even got its current name. This week is all about the first 1000-ish years of Osaka’s history, and how it became one of the country’s most important port cities.
McClain, James L and Wakita Osamu. Osaka: The Merchant’s Capital of Early Modern Japan.
Farris, William Wayne. Sacred Texts and Buried Treasures: Issues on the Historical Archaeology of Ancient Japan.
Looking back at it, it’s rather strange that when I was first learning Japanese and studying Japanese history in undergrad, one of the biggest cities in the country was always explained to me solely in relation to another.
I’m talking, of course, about Osaka–an absolutely beautiful city, and one I recommend to anyone going to visit the country. The thing is, though–while Osaka has so much going for it, from its long and unique history to its excellent (and I do mean excellent) food, I’ll never forget that the first thing I learned about Osaka was that it wasn’t Tokyo.
Specifically, when I was taking Japanese history and language courses in undergrad, Osaka was explained to me as essentially Japan’s Boston, existing in rivalry to the more New York-esque, white collar city that is Tokyo. To be fair, in the American northeast that’s the sort of comparison that makes sense. Similarly, in my language classes Osaka came up primarily in terms of Osaka-ben (or Kansai-ben more generally), the regional dialect that is often played for comedic effect in Japanese movies and TV–again, arguably somewhat similar to a Boston townie accent.
What I’m getting at here is that Osaka is often introduced to non-Japanese people primarily in relation to its bigger, newer neighbor, which is kind of a shame.
And so this week, I’m going to start the process of tackling a long-requested topic. For years now I’ve had people ask for a history of Osaka in the same vein of the history of Tokyo we once did–now, at long last, it is time. And to be entirely up front with you I have no idea how long this will take–because Osaka, or at least some version of it, is substantially older than Tokyo is. Indeed, in some tellings, it’s literally the oldest place in Japan you can really call Japanese.
See, if you believe the ancient histories then Osaka’s story goes all the way back to 663 BCE. The Nihon Shoki, one of the oldest of Japan’s traditional mythohistories, describes the emperor Jimmu–great grandson of the sun goddess Amaterasu–arriving in what’s now Osaka bay after leaving his home in Kyushu to begin the subjugation of the islands. He landed–the story goes–at the mouth of the estuary of the Yodo River in what’s now the heart of downtown Osaka, at a place he named Nami-haya, or ‘fast waves’, after subjugating the locals with a little good ol’ divine intervention.
Over the years, that name would eventually be shortened to Naniwa, written using the characters for ‘dangerous waves’–and a name indicating how sailing was not quite a risk free endeavor even in the calmer waters of the inland sea.
Supposedly, Naniwa would remain a center of imperial authority for centuries. Three years later, in 660 BCE, Jimmu would officially be crowned the first emperor a few miles to the southeast, in what’s now Gose city in Nara prefecture on the outskirts of the greater Osaka metro area. And (once again according to the Nihon Shoki) it was at Naniwa that the emperor Nintoku constructed one of Japan’s first imperial palaces–Takatsu Palace– in the 300s CE.
There’s a lot to raise one’s eyebrow at here, of course. For starters, Emperor Jimmu’s story is not backed up by any archaeological accounts or indeed by anything other than the imperial mythohistories themselves–which were, at this point, describing events that took place a millennium or more before they were written, and which were far more propaganda exercises for the imperial family than attempts to get at actual historical truth.
Likely the idea of Jimmu coming from Kyushu to extend his authority to Osaka is based loosely on the actual origins of the imperial family–they quite possibly did start off in Kyushu, because it’s theorized they came there from Korea originally before migrating further into the islands.
But Jimmu himself and the specific deeds attributed to him are likely pure myth.
Nintoku’s palace at Naniwa, meanwhile, is generally accepted as being based on real history–but most historians suggest it was built not in the 300s CE but the 500s–it’s very unlikely, based on what we know of the history of the early imperial family, that they could command the resources to build a palace of that size in those early days.
Still, even if the mythohistories cannot be trusted, archaeological evidence does back up the idea that Osaka was an early site of settlement in Japanese history.
There’s pretty clear indication that as far back as the earlyJomon period–the Japanese stone ages, almost 10,000 years ago–there were people living in the area, and their numbers only grew in the subsequent Yayoi Era (the two centuries around the turn of the common era) when agricultural and metalworking innovations from the Asian mainland caused a population boom.
And that makes sense. Osaka is, after all, a well situated city. Today, a good chunk of the western part of the city is based on fill and artificial land (about which we will have plenty more to say), but even in its original form the geography made Osaka a pretty good natural harbor–and one with access, in the form of the Yodo river, to both freshwater and transit further inland. Plus, it’s located on the eastern side of the Inland Sea, which thanks to the sheltering effect of Shikoku and other smaller islands is comparatively calm sailing relative to the open Pacific. It is, simply put, a good place to make a city.
But of course, those same factors apply to plenty of other cities along the inland sea, from Okayama to Hiroshima to Shimonoseki. What really got Osaka on the road to being, well, Osaka was its early relationship to the imperial family.
You see, regardless of how much credulity one gives to stories about Emperor Jimmu landing at Naniwa and beginning his campaign of subjugation, it is pretty clear that what eventually became Japan’s imperial family really got itself going in the Kansai area–the central part of the main island of Honshu, of which Osaka is the major port city.
Where exactly the imperial family came from is, of course, a subject of much debate. What’s clear is that over the course of the first few centuries of the common era, they managed to subjugate many of their neighbors by a combination of war and diplomacy, until by the 500s they ruled the southern 2/3rds of Honshu, all of Shikoku, and the northern half of the southern island of Kyushu.
Of course, ‘ruled’ might actually be a somewhat misleading phrase in this context. It’s true that the imperial family claimed sovereignty over all that land, but that control was very indirect–often predicated on alliances with powerful local families who accepted nominal subordination to the imperial clan in exchange for special privileges. It’s more accurate to refer to the early imperial family as ‘first among equals’ than genuine national monarchs.
Naniwa was an important link in this chain; it’s status as the primary port in the imperial homeland meant that tribute and trade sent to court all flowed through it–and indeed, the proximity of Osaka to what became the political and cultural (and therefore also economic) heart of Japan is a big part of what made it the city it is. It’s also worth noting that Naniwa was likely pretty central to the campaigns of conquest waged by the early imperial family–the ability to move troops around the Inland Sea was likely pretty important to the extension of imperial authority, and it’s not a coincidence that a good majority of these early imperial lands were centered around the inland sea area.
Of course, in those early days Naniwa was not the massive urban center it became–instead, the port was mostly marked by massive storage buildings to handle the goods brought before the imperial family.
The Osaka area was also home to a large number of the structures whose name literally defines the Kofun Era of history–a kofun is a type of burial mound constructed by early Japanese elites. Hyogo prefecture, right next to Osaka, is home to more of these than any other part of the country-16,577 of the 161,560 known kofun are in Hyogo, and Osaka itself is home to to the Daisenryo, the kofun that served as the burial mount for Emperor Nintoku (the one who supposedly built his palace at Naniwa) and the largest one known to date.
However, Naniwa emphatically was not the capital of this early imperial government–because there was no capital at all. The imperial family did not maintain a permanent court anywhere from the 400s (when the archaeological record begins to pick up) until the mid 600s, at Naniwa or anywhere else.
Instead, the capital rotated on a fairly consistent basis around Yamato province (more or less modern Nara prefecture, right to the east of what’s now Osaka). We don’t know for sure why this was–theories range from strategic imperatives requiring the government to be closer to certain areas, to religious taboos associated with regular renewal and avoidance of decay, to the heading off of squabbles within the imperial family and its immediate vassals.
We simply do not know–what records we have treat the moves as having obvious motivations that do not require explanations.
But even if it wasn’t the capital, Naniwa was still of central importance to the regime. Indeed, in addition to everything else it was the home of the imperial government’s ‘embassies’, for lack of a better word–special residences constructed in 608 for the use of Chinese ambassadors, and in 620 for Korean ones who had come to visit Japan. Given the location of Osaka bay at the eastern end of the inland sea–the main route to central Japan from mainland Asia–it’s quite likely that even before those residences were built, this was the place where foreign dignitaries were received.
And eventually, of course, Naniwa would become the actual capital–at least for a time, after one of the major turning points of early Japanese history.
These were the so-called Taika Reforms of 645 CE, when one faction of the imperial family–led by an imperial prince Naka no Oe and an aristocrat from another powerful family, Nakatomi no Kamatari–launched a coup d’etat against the reigning ruler, the Empress Kyogoku (also known as Saimei, because she reigned twice and had a separate regnal name each time).
The coup plotters wanted to reform the existing structure of imperial rule, which was very loose and largely dependant on good relations with powerful local families, into something more akin to what they saw as the greatest power on earth–imperial China, which under the Sui and Tang dynasties had a far more centralized state granting the emperor far more authority. Empress Kyogoku, meanwhile, was firmly in the political orbit of the Soga family, a powerful aristocratic clan that had dominated the comparatively weak imperial family for several decades at this point.
When Kyogoku and her Soga supporters gathered in the summer of 645 CE at the temporary capital at Asuka to the south of modern Nara–for the occasion of receiving a letter from a Korean ambassador–Prince Naka no Oe and his compatriots were ready to strike. They ambushed the Soga inside the throne room, killed them, and politely suggested to Empress Kyogoku that she step down.
In the aftermath, Kyogoku’s brother would take the throne (after him would come Naka no Oe, better known as Emperor Tenji), and the imperial clan would undertake a series of ambitious reforms intended to bring Japan’s government closer to the model of China. Among these was the construction of a more permanent capital complex to mirror the massive palace complexes of China’s emperors in their glorious capital city of Chang’an (today, Xi’an).
Naniwa-kyo, in the heart of modern Osaka, was thus home to the first attempt to construct an imperial state in Japan on a Chinese model–complete with a massive palace. That palace was modeled on the design of the palaces of China’s Tang dynasty, and was essentially a massive walled compound entered by a series of gates that led into some 200-odd blocks housing the major aristocratic families. Inside of that was the Daigokuden, the government complex from which the emperor and his advisors ruled, and beyond that the Dairi–the inner palace, the actual home of the emperors themselves.
If you ever find yourself in Osaka, the historical museum there has a good replica of the throne room you can check out to get a sense of what the interior of the Daigokuden looked like, as well as scale reconstructions of the two different incarnations of the Naniwa palace (the original burned down in 686, but a second Naniwa palace was constructed on its ruins in the mid-700s). During the post WWII reconstruction of Osaka, construction crews even found the original palace site right to the south of Osaka Castle–clearly those early emperors had a good sense of where the primo real estate would be.
Still, Naniwa-kyo (that extra suffix indicating ‘capital’) would not end up lasting–once again, for reasons that are not clear, the capital would continue to rotate for another 150 years instead, most famously to Nara just an hour or so to the east.
Ultimately, it was the city of Heian–now Kyoto–that was chosen as the permanent capital in 794 CE. Once again, the reasons why are somewhat unclear–historical chronicles treat the choice as simply being a natural one. Likely, the choice was a combination of geography–Kyoto’s broad plains with a river running to the east of the likely palace grounds broadly resembled the geography of Chang’an back in China–as well as feng shui divination determining the site to be auspicious.
As a result, Naniwa would never again be Japan’s capital–by the 800s, the buildings of that second Naniwa palace fell into disrepair, and some time after that (it’s not entirely clear when), they either collapsed or were demolished.
By the way, just a quick language note–from this point on I am going to refer to this region as Osaka even though that name did not come into use much later. For clarity, I think it makes sense to use the modern term–just be aware that this is not a name that would have been used until the 1400s at the earliest.
But of course, the future site of Osaka didn’t fade into obscurity, for all the reasons that it had always and already been important. Indeed, there was now one more–unlike other temporary capital sites like Nara, Kyoto was very directly linked to Osaka itself.
Time for a quick geography lesson. Going from the center of modern Osaka, Nara is just about 20 miles (or 32 kilometers) directly to the east. Today you can cover that in about an hour by train; back in the day, it’s probably at least a day’s journey by foot, if not more–particularly because you have to cross some mountains to get there.
By comparison, Kyoto is slightly further–about 55 kilometers, or 34 miles, northeast of downtown Osaka. However, the travel time back in the day was about the same, because unlike Nara, Kyoto is directly connected to Osaka by water.
Specifically, the Yodo river in Osaka represents the confluence of the Katsura, Uji, and Kizu rivers, which in turn flow all around Kyoto and the surrounding environs (the Katsura is what connects to the Kamo right in the heart of Kyoto, if you’re wondering). This of course makes for some scenic areas to compose poetry while wistfully contemplating the impermanence of all things, as the courtiers of Kyoto were wont to do–but in more practical terms, it also made logistics for the new capital very easy to manage. Goods or people heading to Kyoto could easily get there by taking a boat to Osaka, and then switching to the smaller riverboats navigating the Yodo river and its estuaries.
Indeed, ‘could’ probably isn’t the right verb–it’s more that goods had to be moved this way. I am not really a boat person, but it’s my understanding that there’s a lot of variety in your different types of boat–and the sorts of ships designed to ply even the relatively tranquil waters of the Inland Sea are not suited to river transit, where waters are shallower and calmer. So there had to be a ‘transfer point’, so to speak, for unloading cargo from larger deep water ships and on to riverboats.
Osaka would serve this role–as gateway, in essence, to the imperial capital–for the next 1000 years. And it’s that role which basically made Osaka the city that it is.
We’re not going to get too deep into the geography here because a) it’s hard to do without visuals and b) the layout of Osaka’s land area has changed a lot over the years thanks to both artificial island building and silting from the Yodo and other rivers. However, just to give you an idea–modern Osaka’s warehouse system began along the O river, which runs parallel to the east-west flow of the Yodo and just a bit to the south. More or less where the Korai Bridge is today (about 3 km or 1.8 miles west of Osaka Castle), the authorities of the imperial government set up warehouses for ships coming in from the Inland Sea. They would sail up the O river, dock at this port, and unload goods into warehouses that would then be loaded onto ships headed northeast, where the O connects to the Yodo and thus on to Kyoto.
Given this central and important role, it’s not that surprising that control over this port and Osaka itself was carefully guarded by the imperial government–it was never farmed out to be managed as a shoen, or localized estate, and was instead managed directly by a part of the imperial bureaucracy.
There’s one other side of Osaka I need to mention because it’s actually very important to understanding the city’s trajectory–the relationship between the city and religion.
This operates on a couple of levels that are pretty important to understand. First, it’s important to remember that under the rule of Japan’s emperors (and even later, under the rule of the shoguns), religion and the state not only were not separate, they were deeply entwined. Building shrines and temples to provide spiritual support for the regime was just as much of a priority as things like tax policy or foreign affairs.
Those massive temples and shrines, however, required funding to sustain them. For example, Todaiji in Nara–home of the great Buddha statue there, if you’ve ever seen it–was set up in the mid-700s specifically to house monks whose spiritual activities would (it was hoped) provide a sort of spiritual defense for the nation itself.
And of course, that’s not the sort of thing you want to scrimp on, and so Todaiji was given a massive endowment from the imperial government to fund its initial construction–the temple’s own records indicate that between 745 and 752 CE, it employed 50,000 carpenters, 370,000 metalworkers, and over 2 million laborers in clearing the temple grounds (which included leveling a hill), constructing the buildings, and forging the massive statue of the Buddha Vairocana.
Thing is, buildings like that have substantial upkeep costs, and so the reigning Emperor Shomu also granted Todaiji shoen–tax free estates granted by the imperial government to powerful families or institutions. Todaiji, for example, got estates in Shikoku as well as the western part of the inland sea.
However, those estates–as was the case with Todaiji–were almost never geographically contiguous with the families or groups that ‘owned’ them. Instead, Todaiji’s monks relied on local managers to handle the estates, with the residents of said estates paying the owners a fixed income in ‘rent’ every year, so to speak. Those goods in turn often had to be brought physically to Todaiji, or to whoever owned the estate. After all, the economy of early Japan was not heavily monetized, so to speak–there wasn’t much coinage floating around, and so goods in kind rather than just their cash value were usually how you’d get your estate income.
And if you’re wondering why all this matters, it’s because most of the major families and institutions that owned those estates were located in or near Kyoto–again, Todaiji’s in Nara, just a few miles away. Which meant you’d need ports to bring those goods in to their owners for sale, which meant shipping everything through the Osaka area.
Indeed, this was so important to the financial warewithal of these institutions that they would invest large sums of money in improving Osaka’s port facilities–Todaiji, for example, financed substantial improvements to a section of the port, and set up a branch of the temple nearby to manage the facilities.
The other way in which religion helped to build Osaka was through the creation of so-called monzenmachi-literally ‘towns in front of the gates.’ Gates, in this context, refers to the gates of religious institutions–these are trade settlements that cropped up in front of major religious centers.
Why would you want market towns in front of temples and shrines? Well, a few reasons. For one, of course, the institution could serve as a guarantor of honesty and as a broker in trades–particularly given that its caretakers would be educated enough to read and write. For another, religious beliefs around items holding on to the ‘spiritual energy’ of their former owners were common during this period–but it was believed that religious institutions had a ‘cleansing effect’ that cleared away this energy and made the item ‘new again.’ Failure to do this, meanwhile, invited bad spirits from the lives of previous owners into your own–obviously not a desirable outcome.
And then, of course, there were religious pilgrims to these institutions, who obviously wanted food, shelter, and (if they were wealthy enough) souvenirs of their travels–a captive audience for a clever merchant, in other words.
You’d see these sorts of towns everywhere there were big enough religious institutions, of course–but Osaka’s monzen machi had an extra advantage because they were located in a major port already. Within Osaka in particular, Ikasuri and Sumiyoshi Shrines as well as Shitennoji, one of the oldest Buddhist temples in the country, all developed substantial market towns in their environs.
All this wealth, of course, attracted interest, and by the 1000s CE Osaka began to fall out of the control of the imperial court itself. Instead, the region came under the power of the Watanabe clan.
Now, here’s the thing about the Watanabe–in a lot of ways, their story is very similar to that of many of the other great samurai families of medieval Japan. And by that, I mean that they basically stabbed, stole, and fought their way to legitimacy and then creatively rewrote their own history.
Specifically, the ‘official account’ of Watanabe clan, passed down in the family until the downfall of feudalism, traced their history back to very elite status. In this telling, the Watanabe are relatives of the great aristocratic warrior family known as the Minamoto (specifically, the “Saga Minamoto” descended from the Emperor Saga)–one among their number rose to prominence, and took the name Watanabe from a port along the Yodo river where his family settled.
This person was, of course, the great Watanabe no Tsuna–an actual historical figure who lived about 1000 years ago, but who has been vastly overshadowed by legends and folktales describing his badass exploits with his relative, Minamoto no Yorimitsu. There’s a LOT of folktales and legends–and today, anime, manga, and movies–about the romanticized exploits of these two as they make their way around the country doing feats of derring do.
The reality is substantially less impressive–the Watanabe family were likely descendants of agents sent by the owners of Shoen estates to the Osaka area to manage their interests (i.e. making sure that a valuable load of, say, nice cypress lumber didn’t ‘fall off the back of the boat’ or whatever) who then realized there was nothing stopping them from simply taking the joint over.
They backed that takeover up with substantial armed might of their own, including an impressive fleet and friendly relations with the pirates that dominated the inland sea–so much so that the Watanabe came to dominate much of the shipping around the eastern part of the sea in particular. They also built clever alliances with other powerful warrior families and with regional powerholders like Todaiji–maintained by adoption and fictionalized family histories that established historical alliances between them.
It’s a bit of an aside, but this is true of a great many of the famous warrior families of Japanese history–very few of them actually held the elite pedigrees they would later claim to legitimate themselves.
Anywho–this all worked out great for the Watanabe, whose seizure of control over the region was accepted de facto by an imperial government that lacked means to dislodge them without disrupting its own economy–and then legitimated by the government of the first shogunal government, the Kamakura shogunate, to whom the Watanabe smartly allied themselves.
By 1235 the Kamakura warrior government had handed the Watanabe the right to control and tax all trade and tribute coming up the Yodo river, and the family was working with powerful temples like Todaiji in Nara to expand its harbor.
Unfortunately, the history of the Watanabe port from which the family took its name is poorly documented in terms of the historical record–a few of the other nearby ones, like Sakai and the growing market town like Todaiji, are a bit better documented, but not extensively so.
This is one of the real challenges of medieval Japanese history, or really premodern Japanese history in general–outside of the cultural and political elite, the upper levels of the samurai and the Kyoto-based aristocracy, our documentation is uneven at best because of low literacy rates and a lack of priority given to preserving records of “unimportant” people. There is some fascinating work being done to reconstruct the growth of medieval cities and ports like Watanabe using what records are available–Wakita Haruko’s excellent essay on medieval urban Osaka is a great example–but there’s no getting around the challenges of that sort of ‘forensics’ in history writing, to be frank.
In the interest of trying to simply some pretty complex discussions around land rights, taxation and trade privileges, here’s more or less what seems to have happened in places like Watanabe and other nearby ports.
First, expanded demand for goods in Kyoto, Nara, and other nearby cities–which were really until just a few hundred years ago far and away the most economically developed and prosperous parts of Japan–led to expansions of the harbors situated along the Yodo and other nearby rivers. That expansion, in turn, meant more laborers–which meant that these port settlements, previously collections of docks and warehouses, began to grow even more as artisans began to move in to cater to all the people working at or making use of the dock areas.
And then, and here’s the kicker–the resulting urban communities became wealthy enough to begin seriously pushing back against the warrior families and estate owners that nominally ran the place.
This pushback did not–at least at first–take the form of outright military force. Instead, local guilds of powerful merchants would (for example) offer cash to the families or institutions that owned specific harbor rights or land privileges in relation to the port in exchange for being able to operate freely. Those privileges were then extended to allowing the merchant communities more in the way of self-management, rather than being beholden to the court, to shoen estate holders, or to local warrior families. It was an arrangement that worked well for all involved, and led to these ports being granted a fair amount of autonomy in how they operated day to day. By the 1400s, many of the port settlements around what would become the Osaka metro area–Watanabe, Sakai, and Shitennoji primarily–were essentially self-governing merchant enclaves, having bought the right to organize themselves from the old estate holders.
All of this was predicated, of course, on a delicately arranged political and economic balance–a combination of legal rights built around shoen land grants that had existed since the early years of imperial government with special negotiated privileges intended to supplement or modify them, leading to an absolutely tangled web of arrangements and exceptions and agreements that, I won’t lie to you, makes my brain explode on occasion.
Fortunately for me–but less so for the people of the time–that arrangement proved, well, not entirely stable. After the establishment of the first samurai government at Kamakura in the 1190s, warrior rule proved, well, less than stable–both the Kamakura and especially the subsequent Muromachi governments had some pretty consistent issues with political stability, and of course Muromachi rule in particular imploded spectacularly in the 1460s into all-out civil war.
That conflict subsquently spiraled out into the Sengoku Jidai–the age of civil war that wracked Japan for a century and a half, and which essentially burned that tangled legal web to the ground.
After all, estate rights didn’t matter so much when there was nothing forcing the locals to actually pay the taxes they supposedly ‘owed you’.
The civil wars of the 1500s were revolutionary in a lot of ways–among other things, they opened up avenues of social mobility as old, once mighty families fell from power, they revolutionized administration as local warlords were forced to do whatever they could to eke out advantages against each other, and they led to cultural flourishing as said warlords competed for cultural prestige by sponsoring religion and art alongside their wars. For Osaka’s history, however, two things are particularly important about the Sengoku period.
First, the collapse of much of the existing legal order empowered the locals even more than they already had been–now that old shoen estate rights were not really even worth the paper they were written on, controlling powerful port merchants was even harder than it once had been. That was particularly true because said locals–in the ports around modern Osaka, and elsewhere in Japan–responded to the growing chaos by organizing themselves into ikki, local self-governing communes that operated independently of both the old aristocratic government and the samurai warlords.
Second, a new religious movement began to flourish in Osaka. The religion in question was a sect of Buddhism–Joudo Shinshu, or the True Pure Land Sect, had existed for several centuries by this point, but the 8th head of the sect, the monk Rennyo, would lead it through a substantial reformation. That reformation, in turn, would end up centered on Osaka, where Rennyo would eventually retire alongside the banks of the Yodo River at a long slope–literally in Japanese, oo-saka–on the river’s edge.
The temple that would be constructed there, and the city that grew around it, would end up changing Osaka–and thus Japan–forever.