History of Fukuoka

Mother Earth Travel > Japan > Fukuoka > History

Fukuoka's place in Japan's long history of cultural exchange is quite remarkable. Rice-farming was probably introduced to Japan via Kyushu in about 500BC, and it is in the Yayoi-era village of Itazuke in Fukuoka-ken that the earliest evidence of this agrarian revolution has been found. As the rice grew, so did the prestige of the region. In 57AD, the Late Han Dynasty Emperor Guan Wu presented a fine gold seal?-the Kin-in--to a local ruler as part of a diplomatic mission. (The seal was discovered by a farmer on Shikanoshima in 1784 and is now the prize exhibit of Fukuoka City Museum). The power and respect the local rulers must have commanded during this and later periods is also evident in the preponderance of "Yamato" Koufun burial mounds in the prefecture ' many of which contain prestige tomb goods imported from across the Japan Sea.

Later, as the rest of Japan came under central control in the Nara and Heian eras, Fukuoka remained an important focus for trade and travel. The Kokoran diplomatic mission (the remains of which were discovered under an old baseball stadium) was a staging post for emissaries to China and Korea. From the 7th century until the collapse of the Tang Dynasty in the 9th century, Japanese diplomats, scholars, and priests set off for China from here. On their return, they brought Buddhism, Confucianism, knowledge of the Chinese legal system, and Chinese science and medecine to Japan. It is no coincidence that Japan's first Zen Monastery was established in Fukuoka; and it is worth bearing in mind how important these links must have been with what, at the time, was one of the most advanced civilizations in the world. International exchange, however, did not stop at highbrow culture: proud Fukuokans fiercely maintain that Japan's first gyouza and ramen shops were also established in their city.

The decay of the Tang Dynasty meant the end of diplomatic missions to China but not the end of trade. Indeed, it may have been the sight of a prosperous Fukuoka just across the Korean Staights that first brought invading Mongolians to the city in the 13th century. Fortunately, the first invasion by the Khan's forces was largely decimated by storms before they could establish a significant presence on land, and the city (and Japan's future as an independent nation) was temporarily left in peace. Delighted at their good fortune, but not willing to leave things to chance a second time, the Kamakura Shogunate began building a 20-kilometre system of defences and fortifications around Hakata Bay.

When the second invasion did come however--on the 15th August 1281--it was the Kamikaze divine winds, rather than any man-made plans, that wrecked the Mongolian fleet and saw off the invaders. Reminders of the Mongolian invasion still abound in Fukuoka City: stone anchors recovered from the drowned Mongolian ships can be seen in Hakata's Kushida Shrine, and a 700 year-old piece of anti-Mongolian calligraphy written by the Emperor Kameyama still hangs over the entrance to Hakozaki Shrine. Fukuokans, it seems, have long memories!

War came to Fukuoka again in the 16th century when Totomi Hideyoshi made Hakozaki Shrine his military headquarters during the campaign to unite south-west Japan. The Shogun's victory heralded a golden age of prosperity for Fukuoka City. In 1601, a new castle was built to the west of the Naka River by the feudal lord Chikuzen Nagamasu. On a whim, he decided to name the castle Fukuoka after the village of his birth, thus creating a division between east and west, old and new, that persists to this day. The old merchant's town to the east of the river is still known by its traditional name, Hakata; while the newer "lordly" west of the city is referred to as Fukuoka. Confusion, however, arises when visitors to "Fukuoka City" arrive at Hakata Station and worry that they took the wrong train!

It was also during this period that the merchants of the now bustling city began to develop and market their own tastes in pottery, textiles and cuisine. Wander down any street in the Kawabatamachi district and the fruits of their industry can still be seen and sampled: Hakata dolls, Hakata-ori textiles, Yame Fukushima funerary alters, Agano Ware pottery, Hakata ramen, and Kawabata Zenzai are just a few of the Fukuokan specialities on offer.

With the Meiji Restoration, Fukuoka-ken entered the modern era and became one of the driving forces in the Japanese industrial revolution. Factories were built in nearby Kita-kyushu, and the rural hinterlands of the Chikuho area became a major source of coal for the burgeoning economy. In the Second World War, a less benign form of intercultural exchange took place with the forced immigration of Korean and Philippine slave labour to work in the mines and factories. After the end of the war, however, many of these immigrants stayed on and their continuing influence is partly responsible for present-day Fukuoka's reputation as an international city.

Little wonder, then, that Fukuoka has been called Japan's gateway to Asia and the world. Tokyo may be bigger, Kyoto may be better known, but from the introduction of rice farming in the 5th century BC right up until its modern role as an international city, Fukuoka has played an equal--if not greater--role in shaping the destiny of the nation.