The Three Kingdoms and Japan
At the height of the Three Kingdoms period, cultural influences from China had a great impact on transforming the three states from tribal societies to sophisticated, literate, artistic, and wealthy kingdoms. Chinese influence did not end in Korea but was carried across the Strait of Korea to Japan.
Subsequently, in the Asuka period (552–645), Japan enthusiastically adopted Buddhism.All three kingdoms had had connections with Japan, but it was Paekche that left the greatest impression. Perhaps in a desire to secure an alliance to the rear of its rival Silla, Paekche was active in sending monks and artisans to Japan.
Metalworkers helped pour large Buddhist images in bronze, and painters created scenes from the Buddhist sutras on the walls of the temple buildings. Some of the treasures of Japan from that period were developed through its contact with Paekche. For example, just outside the old capital of Nara, there is a Buddhist temple called Horyuji. The main hall was built in 607 C.E. with aid from Paekche visitors.
That building, they claim, is the oldest wooden structure in the world. The temple complex was one of the first treasures recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Japan. Inside the museum at Horyuji is a bodhisattva called the Kudara Kannon. It is a figure of the Goddess of Mercy (the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, Kannon in Japanese, Kwanum or Kwanseum in Korean) made of wood.
A bodhisattva is a follower of the Buddha who has gained the right to enter nirvana but stays back to assist fellow human beings. A seated figure 6.5 feet (2 m) tall, it is one of the oldest treasures in Japan. Unlike the stocky figures of the Buddha that are often seen in East Asia, this bodhisattva is elegant, thin, and lithe; seated with one ankle resting on the opposite knee, the figure has long, flowing hair. Kudara is the Japanese word for Paekche.
Paekche monks also carried books and literacy to Japan. Japanese, as an Altaic language, is very different from Chinese, and sometime after the importation of Chinese characters by Koreans, the Japanese modified the script, simplifying it to create the two forms of writing in the ninth century, hiragana and katakana, that are still in use today.
On the Eve of Unification
By the seventh century political entities in East Asia were becoming larger and more powerful. China had been reunified under the Sui dynasty (581–618), and Japan enacted the Taika Reforms in 645, which for the first time unified the country under a strong central government. In Korea the three main kingdoms struggled for dominance.
One can measure which of the three kingdoms was the most powerful at any given point in two ways: One is to see which kingdom controlled the Han River basin; the other is to see which kingdom had an alliance with another. Koguryo, the first to form, was the largest and certainly the most powerful in the beginning, but it was Paekche, when it emerged as a kingdom, that first had its center in the Han River basin. As a military power, it was perhaps the strongest of the three when in 371 it drove the Koguryo armies back to the north and killed the Koguryo king.
Koguryo continued to grow in power, however, and in the early fifth century it responded to Silla’s cries for assistance. Yet growing Koguryo strength frightened Silla and pushed it into an alliance with Paekche that endured from 434 to 554.
In spite of the Paekche-Silla alliance, Koguryo then captured the Han River valley. In the end the newcomer and last kingdom to develop—the one that had requested aid from Koguryo and then an alliance with Paekche—became powerful enough to capture the Han River basin in 551. Silla now had an avenue to the Yellow Sea and access to China.
This strategic advantage proved decisive because in the long run it was Silla’s contact with Tang China that made the difference in its fortunes. From the fourth to the seventh centuries, alliances shifted, and the Han River territory was won and lost again. However, because of the Silla-Tang alliance, the triangular stalemate on the Korean Peninsula was about to change forever.