The Seto Inland Sea narrowly separates three three main islands of Japan, stretching about 440 km from east to west, and 5 to 55 km from north to south. The calm waters, dotted with pine-covered islands and islets, provide a variety of scenery all the year round.
The islands hold various livelihoods, some serving as orchards or pastures, others as bases for fishing or shipping, yet others are known for producing fishing nets and fishing boats. Some are predominantly religious, others were port towns, while yet others have been known for the production of granite.
Today some are turning to aquaculture or tourism, many of the 800 inhabited islands offering cosy summer resorts along their usually unpolluted beaches. Not a few of them are of historical interest, still retaining legends, relics and monuments from the long past of the Inland Sea as an artery of Japan's cultural, political and economic development.
The following are some of the islands well-known for their specialities:
The climate in the Inland Sea area was relatively mild and the sea was calm and bountiful. Thus its coastal areas cradled some of the earlest civilizations in Japan. From around 300 BC to 300 AD advanced cultures arrived from China and Korea, introducing ironware, bronzeware, weaving and rice-growing. Those who succeeded in crossing the treacherous Japan Sea or the China Sea continued along the Inland Sea up to the early capitals in Naniwa (Osaka) or Yamato (Nara). During the centuries after that, Chinese writing and Buddhism followed the same route.
Meanwhile the seamen of the Inland Sea area were acquiring knowledge of tides and currents, navigating expertise and ship - building skills. Some early Emperors enlisted them for military expeditions as far as the Korean Peninsula. On the other hand, the cultures and human resources from ancient Korea - Paekche, Koguryo and Silla - greatly influenced the cultural, political and economic development of ancient Japan.
In 646 the Taika Reform declared all land in the country the property of the Emperor, and it was divided into kuni as administrative districts. Now each kuni had to send its products regularly to the Imperial Capital as mandatory tribute. The Inland Sea was needed as a main route for maritime transportation. It was also about this time that the Inland Sea saw Japanese envoys dispatched to China several times, seeking the advanced knowledge and technology of the sui and T'ang dynasties.
But the life of the people was far from easy. Heavily burdened with taxes and mandatory tributes, many turned to piracy. Eventually even the initiative for them. Fujiwara no Sumitomo is famous for one such escapade. After quitting the lordship of lyo (now Ehime Pref.), he made himself pirate chief and ravaged for several years with his fleet of 1,000 ships, completely paralyzing Inland Sea transport until 941 when he was finally quelled at his base of Hiburijima Island off present - day Uwajima City.
To patrol their coastal waters, many local clans organized their own marine guard. These guards called suigun, usually led by the clan's chief, were instrumental in the history of the centuries that followed. The central government enlisted suigun to patrol the sea, to suppress pirates and to guard its trading ships to and from Sung dynasty China. Soon some suigun were engaging in coastal trade and even overseas trade themselves, thus gaining the wealth and power to control the land as well as the sea.
In 1185 they joined a civil war known as Gempei no Kassen. The end of that war marked the fall of the refined Heian civilization that flourished in Kyoto. Kono Michinobu, whose suigun had contributed to bringing about the new era of the Kamakura Shogunate, was appointed by the Shogun to govern the main part of Iyo. Some suigun dubbed themselves ' Admiral, ' taking pride in their activities as independent merchants as well as official guardians of the sea.
Some other suigun joined the Wako - the fleets of Japanese pirates who from the 13th to 16th centuries plundered the coasts of the Korean Peninsula, China and the South Sea Islands, while other suigun helped the Shoguns stop the Wako. To defend herself against Wako, Ming China issued an identification mark for the use of Japan's official trading ships, which brought swords, sulfur, copper, gold, folding fans and gold lacquer, among other things, bringing back copper coins, raw silk, silk fabrics, books and so on from China.
During the Civil War Period, one suigun after another was consigned to powerful clans, for any ambitious warlord had to prepare himself with a strong army and navy. The civil war that lasted about 100 years rendered the lands and seas into chaos until 1573 when Oda Nobunaga managed to enforce some peace.
In 1588 Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who succeeded Nobunaga and unified Japan, restricted sword ownership to the samurai class. He severely banned piracy, having decided that society had to be strictly regulated to ensure peace. Now pirates found their heyday was gone, and so did the suigun clans, most of whom had already been incorporated into the feudal domains of the Daimyos.
Only the suigun of the Shiwaku Islands were privileged to continue their activities because of the great assistance they had given to Nobunaga and Hideyoshi. Soon after the unification of Japan in 1590, Hideyoshi waged two wars against Korea assisted again by the Shiwaku suigun without success, but the thousands of Korean artisans he brought back were to greatly promote Japan's arts of printing, dyeing, weaving and ceramics through the new era to come.
The Tokugawa Shogunate, established in 1603 in Edo (Tokyo), was careful enough to put Osaka, the former capital of Hideyoshi, under its direct control, because it had already grown into the commercial and financial center of Japan. In the 1630's the Shogunate adopted a national isolation policy with a small island in Nagasaki Harbor as a window only open to China and Holland, thus consolidating Japan's feudal society. Now the only foreign vessels seen on the Inland Sea were those of Korean envoys of the Li dynasty to the Edo Shogunate.
In 1672 'a westward route' was opened, leading all the coastal trade of the Japan Sea side into the Inland Sea up to the port of Osaka. Now 70% of Japan's commodities passed through Osaka, earning this town the nickname of 'Kitchen of the Country'. Some merchants were so wealthy that even Daimyos borrowed money from them. Many of the local specialties date back to this time when each Daimyo was eagerly promoting local industries in order to improve the revenue of his province.
It was also about this time that the religious fervor of Kompira worship combined with the Shikoku Pilgrimage began to attract hordes of people to 'the Remote Island of Shikoku.' The seamen of the Shiwaku Islands talked of the great merits of visiting 'Kompira-san' and 'O-Shikoku-san' while sailing around the coast of the nation not only as the Shogun's seamen but also as independent merchants.
In the 1860's the three driving wheels carrying out the Meiji Restoration were busily crossing the Inland Sea, as the Big Three Clans came from Kyushu, Shikoku and westernmost Honshu.
In the 1870's when Japan's modernization started, Osaka, Kobe and Kita-Kyushu were readily industrialized, followed by Hiroshima. But it was not until the 1960's that the rest of the Inland Sea area began to undergo the large-scale industrialization that we see today. Toward the end of the same decade what is called akashio or red tides (an unusual generation of plankton that turns the tide an ominous red) began to appear.
By the end of the 20th century, the Inland Sea will see even greater changes through the three routes connecting Honshu and Shikoku by bridges.
The whole island of Miyajima dedicated to Itsukushima-jinja 厳島神社 is traditionally known as one of the three most beautiful scenes in Japan. It is also designated a Special Historic Site.
Its founding dates back to 598, but it was not until 1168 that a magnificent shrine complex was built by Taira no Kiyomori, the patriarch of the Taira Clan, who revered the three goddesses of water, rice-planting and sea-faring enshrined there.
The original buildings are gone but the style-the shinden-zukuri (noblemen's residence style of the Heian Period) - has been preserved whenever they were reconstructed. Most of the main buildings are National Treasures or Important Cultural Properties.
Updated on 22 October 2016
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