The Yamato court (大和朝廷 Yamato chōtei) was the centre of the archaic Japanese polity (ca 4th-ca mid-7th centuries), situated in Yamato (modern-day Nara Prefecture). The term is used in distinction to the centralised bureaucratic Yamato state that came into being with the Taika Reforms (大化の改新 Taika no Kaishin) of 645.

It is difficult to say when precisely the Yamato polity emerged. Accepting the theory that the country of Yamatai (Yamataikoku [邪馬台国] or Yamaichikoku [邪馬壹國]), mentioned in the 3rd-century Chinese Wei Zhi (魏志 “Records of Wei”), is identical to the Yamato court, as well as the theory that locates it in northern Kyūshū, then the beginnings of Yamato rule might be set early in the 4th century. If, on the other hand, Yamatai would be assumed on the Nara Plain, one may fix it as early as the first half of the 3rd century. In any case, archaeological evidence, Chinese histories, and the myth-shrouded accounts in the Kojiki (古事記, “Record of Ancient Matters”, 712) and Nihon shoki (日本書紀 “The Chronicles of Japan”, 720 CE) all seem to indicate that sometime in the 3rd or 4th century a local chieftain based in Yamato subdued neighbouring chieftains and achieved a measure of political unity in central Honshu.

The Yamato rulers were not in any sense sovereigns; they were rather a primus inter pares acting as mediators for a loose confederation of similar chieftains whose support was essential for the maintenance of their succession. Through war, diplomacy, and marriage alliances, they extended their control, and it is clear that by the 5th century they had achieved a political hegemony that reached as far as northern Kyūshū in the southwest and the Kantō plain in the northeast. They did not rule a “state” in the modem sense.


A hereditary title was indicating the social rank and specific duty of the uji no kami, the chieftain of a lineage group (uji) who served the Yamato court during the latter half of the 5th through the late 7th centuries. Kabane was also borne by the uji no kami‘s close kin as well, and with the passage of time came to form a sociopolitical hierarchy. These titles are said to have originated regarding deference with which the uji-bito (the constituent members of uji) addressed their chieftain. The titles omi, muraji, or miyatsuko were traditionally conferred on chieftains in service at the court and the titles of kimi, atae, or obito on regional chieftains. The title of imiki or fuhito was often conferred on lineage groups of continental origin (kikajin). In 684, the traditional kabane system was reorganised into a new yakusa no kabane system but did not die out completely until the 10th century.

The members of the ruling elite built imposing tumuli, or burial mounds (kofun). The artefacts found in them, such as iron swords and armour, magatama beads, and pottery vessels, show a strong continental influence. Indeed the resemblance is such that these tumuli are commonly assumed to be the work of certain horse-riding conquerors who came from Korea in the 4th century. In any case, the tombs indicate a warring aristocratic society capable of organizing human resources on a large scale.

By the 6th century a single kingly line (the ancestors of the later imperial family) seems to have emerged, the head of which began to assert his prerogatives as a ruler. He devised a system of ranks and titles. Chieftains of important kin-groups (氏 uji) such as the Ki (紀), Kose (巨勢), and Katsuragi (葛城) were designated omi (臣, a hereditary rank under the kabane (姓) system. The Ōtomo (大伴), Mononobe (物部), and Nakatomi (中臣) uji, who performed hereditary functions (such as defence and worship) for the court, were designated muraji (連). Lesser chieftains were called tomo no miyatsuko, supervising specialized service groups called be, who supplied labour and craft goods to the ruling house and the nobility. The Yamato ruler also appropriated rice lands (郡稲 Miyake) for his use, while the local chieftains derived their support from lands called tadokoro (田所, 田荘).

As for regional control, according to the Chinese Book of Sui (隋書 “History of the Sui Dynasty”, 589-618), the country was already divided into kuni (国 provinces), which were subdivided into agata (県, 縣). These territorial units were governed by kuni no miyatsuko and agatanushi, who were responsible for collecting tribute. Rather than true appointment, however, the granting of these offices seems to have been a confirmation of de facto local power.

The immigrant groups (帰化人 kikajin) that came from Korea during the 5th and 6th centuries also contributed to the growing prestige of the Yamato court. Because of their knowledge of writing and advanced techniques of agriculture, ironworking, pottery, and weaving, families like the Aya family and Hata family gained prominence in political and military affairs. According to the Kudaraki (Records of Paekche), fragments of which survive in the Nihon shoki, the Yamato rulers initiated diplomatic relations with the Korean kingdom of Paekche in 366. The five kings of Wa, mentioned in the Song Shu (宋書 Sòng Shū, History of the Liu-Song Dynasty, 420-479) as having sent tribute to Chinese emperors several times between 413 and 478, apparently hoped to strengthen Japanese influence in Korea with Chinese help. They are believed by some Japanese scholars to have gained a foothold in Kaya, at the tip of the Korean peninsula, and availed themselves of iron ore, but to have lost their enclave in 562. In 668, when the state of Silla unified the peninsula, the Japanese withdrew altogether.

Perhaps one of the most significant events in the history of the Yamato court was the introduction of Buddhism. Although 538 is given as the official date, the Japanese must have been acquainted with Buddhist teachings much earlier through Korean immigrants. In any case, the question of whether or not to embrace this new religion precipitated a conflict among the major court families. The pro-Buddhist faction led by the Soga clan (蘇我氏 Soga uji) triumphed in 587. Official acceptance of Buddhism signalled the beginning of a wholehearted emulation of Chinese culture.

The victorious Soga now dominated court affairs, Soga no Umako installed his niece on the throne (Suiko, the first of the Yamato rulers to take the title tenno, or “emperor”). The Soga were at first restrained by Prince Shotoku (聖徳太子 Shōtoku Taishi, 574-622), who, inspired by the Chinese political system, made every effort to enhance the prestige of the ruling house. After his death in 622, however, they did not attempt to hide their imperial ambitions. They were eventually overthrown in 645 by Prince Naka-no-Ōe (中大兄皇子, later Emperor Tenji) and Fujiwara no Kamatari (藤原 鎌足, 614-669). With the help of such advisers as Takamuko no Kuromaro (高向 玄理, d. 654) and the priest Somin, these two leaders carried on the work of Shōtoku, establishing a centralised bureaucracy on the Chinese model and reasserting the sovereign’s authority over the people and land in the Taika Reform. By the time of the formulation of the Taihō Code (大宝律令 Taihō-ritsuryō) in 701 and the building of a new capital, Heijokyo, at what is now Nara (710), the Yamato court had come to preside over an integrated state.

Related links:
  • Imamura, Keiji, Prehistoric Japan: New perspectives on insular East Asia, University of Hawaii Press 1996
  • Nussbaum, Louis-Frédéric, Japan Encyclopedia, Harvard University Press 2005