The relationship between Japan and Iran in old times

(Posted on May 13, 2020)

The photo shows Shosoin, an imperial warehouse in Nara. It’s a wooden building, 33 m long, 14 m high and 9 m wide, a world heritage site as well as a national treasure.


Nara was the capital of Japan in the 8th Century; there are quite a few Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines from this period (of course the buildings themselves were rebuilt several times for various reasons). One of those is the specific warehouse called Shosoin (now under the imperial household agency), which houses more than 9,000 artifacts such as scrolls, vases, plates, various tools, instruments for practicing Buddhism rituals, musical instruments and more from this period in remarkably fine condition. These artifacts include a number of items from Persia, such as a glass ornament from the Sassanid dynasty. How did they come to Japan?



     Some of the items from Shosoin


In early times Japan was eager to obtain these cultural materials and artifacts as well as knowledge of imperial governance, legal systems and Buddhism from China. For this purpose, Japan sent more than twenty missions to China during the 7th to 9th Centuries (Sui followed by Tang dynasties). Included were Japanese administrators, scholars, monks, craftsmen and so forth to study a wide range of Chinese systems. So, these Persian artifacts were most likely brought back by one of these missions, or possibly via the Silk Road. Some prefer to mention Nara as the final destination of the Silk Road in the east. 






A replica of the mission ships               

The mission consisted of four ships, each  carrying about 100 people. These ships did not have compasses as such. (photo by Pachopi) 










The routes of the Japanese missions




Did you know that there were Persians who came to Japan in this period?

Old historical documents mention some Persians who came to Japan as craftsmen or musicians. In 1966, a number of wooden tablets were found in Nara, but they were illegible. Then researchers managed to read these tablets in 2016 by using infrared technology and found that a Persian name was inscribed on one of the tablets: depicting that he was an official for the imperial household. Well, this much we have come to know of him; we have no knowledge of how long he lived in Japan or what happened to him thereafter.


Fast forward to present time. We have seen many Iranians coming to Japan during the late 1980s and early 90s seeking jobs. At that time, visas were not required for Iranians on a reciprocal basis. However, the number of Iranians dwindled drastically when the Japanese government terminated this clause in 1992. Now, it is the second generation Japanese-Iranians and their parents living here; some of them are household names being popular singers or professional athletes. I wonder what the Persian man who came to Japan in the 8th Century would have thought about this if he revisited here now.       




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