- Japanese: 遣唐使 (kentoushi)
The kentôshi, literally "ambassadors dispatched to Tang", were formal missions to China organized by the Imperial Court in the Asuka and Nara periods, for the purposes of trade, and in order to learn about, adapt, and adopt Chinese technologies, legal systems, political systems, and the like. The missions represent a major element of the involvement of the Yamato state in Silk Road trade and exchange, by which countless ideas and objects were obtained, and which contributed to numerous profound developments.
Roughly twenty missions were sent in the 7th-9th centuries. Though their number was few, their impact was huge, and some of the people involved are today among the greatest names in Japanese pre-modern history. Abe no Nakamaro traveled to China on a kentôshi mission, passed the Imperial examinations, and remained there for decades as a Tang official, cavorting with the likes of Li Bai and Wang Wei. The monk Ganjin traveled to Japan with one of the returning envoys, and later founded Tôshôdai-ji. Kibi no Makibi led missions to Tang on several occasions; a fictionalized version of the story of his first journey to China is related in a 12th century handscroll painting today in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
The missions to T’ang were not the first sent by the Yamato state to China. Roughly three to six kenzuishi missions were, in fact, sent to Sui dynasty China between the years 600 and 614. Roughly seven were then sent to Tang China between 630 and 669. These earlier missions consisted usually of two ships which sailed north from Hakata (Fukuoka), following the Korean coast before crossing the Yellow Sea and arriving in Shangdong. At this time, the Yamato state refused to submit to Chinese authority, and to pay tribute.
Tang sent its first embassy to Wa in 632; Imaki no Ayahito Min, a Chinese immigrant who had lived in Japan previously, served in the Yamato government, and led the 608 mission to Sui, journeyed with them.
The introduction of Buddhism to Japan around this time, along with other factors, led to great political struggles, and the knowledge of Chinese legal and political systems brought back by the missions likewise contributed enormously to the shaping of the structure of the Yamato political establishment. In 645, the Taika Reforms were passed, putting in place a number of structures and systems which would remain (at least in some respects) the foundation of the Japanese governmental system for over a millennium, until the late 19th century.
A Japanese mission to Tang dispatched in 659 was told by the Chinese Emperor of an impending Tang attack on the Korean kingdom of Paekche, and was confined at Chang’an so as to prevent them from sending warnings or otherwise aiding in preparing a defense. In the 3rd month of the following year, a combined Tang and Silla force attacked Paekche, defeating and destroying the kingdom in the 8th month.
The confined Japanese envoys were brought to Luoyang to attend and witness the pardon and release of the king of Paekche. Empress Saimei traveled to Kyushu in person in the first month of 661 to oversee the strengthening of defenses against a possible Tang/Silla invasion; the imprisoned envoys returned from China in the 5th month.
In 663, this conflict between the Korean kingdoms of Paekche (supported by Yamato, though already overthrown in 660) and Silla (allied with Tang) came to a head. The Japanese were sorely defeated in the battle of Hakusukinoe after only two days of fighting. Silla, with the aid of Tang, then went on to capture Pyongyang in the 9th month of 668, marking the end of the kingdom of Goguryeo, and uniting the Korean peninsula. The last Yamato mission to Tang of the 7th century was sent in 669; devoting great efforts to shoring up defenses against possible Tang/Silla invasions of the archipelago, Wa sent no missions to China for over thirty years.
The year 702 saw the dispatch of the first mission to Tang since the unification of the Korean peninsula. It is possible that year also saw the first use of the term 「日本」 (J: Nihon; Nippon). Nine more missions would be sent over the course of the 8th century. Unlike previous missions, these now consisted generally of four ships (not two), carrying a total of roughly 500 people. Due to unfriendly relations with Silla (which now dominated the Korean peninsula), Yamato ships now took a southern route, departing from the Gotô Islands and making port in China near or at the mouth of the Yangtze. Also in sharp contrast to previously, the Yamato government, fearing the fate of Paekche and Goguryeo, now acknowledged Chinese suzerainty and began sending tribute with some of the missions (roughly once every twenty years).
Kibi Makibi led the 9th mission to Tang in 717, along with Abe no Nakamaro. The envoys journeyed across the sea in four ships, the mission consisting of a total of 557 people, including the monk Genbô. They arrived in Chang’an in the 10th month, but for reasons which are not entirely clear, Kibi was (according to the fictionalized account related by the scroll painting) captured by the Chinese authorities and imprisoned in a tower. The scroll, dated to the 12th century and executed in astonishingly skillful and fine ink brushwork and bright mineral pigments, relates how he was then visited in the tower by an oni (a demon) disguised as a man. The demon informs the minister of a go competition being held. Kibi attends, and ultimately ends up defeating the greatest master in China. All three figures remained in China for a considerable period of time.
The 10th mission numbered 594 people in total, and arrived in Luoyang in the 4th month of 734, three months after a member of a previous mission, Sei Shinsei (aka I no Manari) died in Chang’an. The envoys met with Emperor Xuanzong. This tenth mission departed from China several months after it arrived, leaving from Suzhou in the 10th month of 734. Storms or currents split up the ships; one was lost, while another, carrying Kibi Makibi and Genbô, landed at Tanegashima, its passengers eventually making their way to Heijô-kyô (Nara) in the 3rd month of 735. The third envoy ship returned to China and waited for a better time to make the journey, eventually departing in 736 and arriving in Japan in the 5th month of that year. The fourth and final ship was thrown off-course, and landed on the coast of what is today Vietnam, where most of the crew was killed by either bandits or disease.
Kibi Makibi departed for China yet again in 752, along with Fujiwara no Kiyokawa and Ôtomo no Komaro. They arrived safely in China and celebrated New Year’s at the Imperial Court when that year came to a close. Nearly a full year later, in the 11th month of 753, they departed China, accompanied by Abe no Nakamaro who, after 36 years in China, was ready to return home. Three of the ships were blown off course and made landfall on Okinawa Island. Ôtomo no Komaro, along with the Chinese monk Ganjin, who had been trying for many many years to get to Japan, and who had already made five failed attempts to get there, arrived in Satsuma in the 12th month. Kibi arrived in Kii province the following month (754/1). Another ship caught fire, and was thus delayed, but its passengers and crew safely arrived in Satsuma in the end, in the 4th month of 754. Kiyokawa and Nakamaro were not so lucky, however, and ended up in what is today Vietnam, where they were attacked. Most of the crew and other passengers accompanying them were killed, but the two survived, and made their way to Chang’an by 755, where they remained for the rest of their years, never again seeing their homeland.
The ninth century saw only two missions. Tang had been seriously weakened by the An Lushan Rebellion in 755, and eventually merchant shipping came to replace any commercial need (on the part of Wa) for the trade that accompanied formal tributary/diplomatic relations. Missions were sent in 803 and 836; another was planned in 894, but never ended up departing Japan, marking the end of the kentôshi.
- Used here interchangeably with Wa. Both terms refer to the Japanese state; the term "Japan" itself is avoided as the extent to which the term should be applied to any period prior to 1868, let alone to this early period, is controversial.
- Gallery labels. Imperial Envoys to Tang China : Early Japanese Encounters with Continental Culture Exhibition. Nara National Museum. April through June 2010.