Japan Sends Embassies to China

For more than two hundred years, Japan maintained a steady flow of diplomatic missions to China, sending envoys, priests, and scholars to learn more about Buddhism and China’s imperial government system and to represent the achievements of Japanese civilization.

Summary of Event

By 600, several conditions motivated the Japanese imperial court to send an official embassy to China for the first time in several centuries. First, Empress Suiko Suiko and her regent, Shōtoku Shōtoku Taishi Taishi, both heavily promoted Buddhism, which had come to Japan from China. Second, Shōtoku and others were impressed by the renewed stability of China’s government. Third, Japan’s involvement in the wars of three Korean kingdoms also involved the Chinese. [kw]Japan Sends Embassies to China (607-839)
[kw]China, Japan Sends Embassies to (607-839)
Japan;diplomatic missions to China
Japan;607-839: Japan Sends Embassies to China[0270]
China;607-839: Japan Sends Embassies to China[0270]
Diplomacy and international relations;607-839: Japan Sends Embassies to China[0270]
Shōtoku Taishi
Ono no Imoko
Pei Shiqing

Curiously, the first embassy in 600 is mentioned only in Chinese but not in Japanese sources. This leads some scholars to believe that it was only a regional mission from a besieged Japanese stronghold in southern Korea.

The formal Japanese embassy to China sent out in the fall of 607 is the first to be documented in Japanese chronicles. Empress Suiko and Prince Shōtoku charged Ono no Imoko Ono no Imoko to travel to China. Ono no Imoko was accompanied by an official translator and left for a sea and land journey of more than 1,300 miles (2,100 kilometers).

When Ono no Imoko reached the Chinese court, he presented an official letter to Yangdi Yangdi , the emperor of the Sui Dynasty Sui Dynasty;Japan and (581-618). The Chinese considered foreign embassies to be tributary offers by “barbarians.” Yangdi considered Suiko insolent because she had sent her greetings as the ruler of the land in which the sun rises (Japan) to him, the ruler in whose land the sun sets (China), implying equality. Some historians believe that Yangdi’s reply to Suiko was so harsh that Ono no Imoko deliberately lost the first letter. At any rate, the empress pardoned Ono no Imoko for this loss. Ironically, Japanese sources make no reference to Yangdi’s anger. They report instead that Suiko used the letter’s greeting later, with no negative reactions.

On his return in 608, Ono no Imoko was accompanied by the Chinese envoy Pei Shiqing Pei Shiqing . Suiko received the envoy at court and listened to Yangdi’s letter. There were problems: Yangdi called Japan “Wa,” while the Japanese insisted on “Nippon,” meaning “originating from the sun.” When Japan’s status rose, at least from 670 on, the Chinese used Nippon.

In 608, Ono no Imoko was sent out again. In a pattern that would become standard, the embassy included students, monks, and priests. Many Japanese of this and subsequent missions would stay for an extended period of years to learn about China’s religion and government.

The fall of the Sui Dynasty and the deaths of Shōtoku and Empress Suiko meant that the next embassy was sent to the new Tang Dynasty (T’ang; 618-907) by Emperor Jomei Jomei (r. 629-641) in 630. One of its goals was to escort home many of the Japanese who had been studying abroad since 608.

The next embassy was sent out in 653, when relations between Japan and China had become critical. The two nations found themselves supporting different warring Korean states. Until 669, four or perhaps five more embassies followed, all trying to make the difficult voyage to the coast of China and inland to the Tang capital of Chang’an (now Xi’an). Many missions now consisted of two ships, with up to 120 people on one vessel. Sadly, this precaution proved necessary because violent seas occasionally led to ships lost at sea.

Japan’s defeat by Chinese-allied Koreans gave the embassies an urgent political character. After 669, Japan worried about Chinese expansion and focused on strengthening domestic defense; official embassies were not sent for three decades.

The 700’s saw an active and regular pattern of Japanese missions to China, with whom relations had improved once Japan was no longer involved in Korea. Increasingly, the Japanese created more lavish missions, with up to four ships and more than six hundred voyagers. The lead envoys were selected to impress the Chinese with their knowledge of Buddhism and Confucian-based principles of centralized government and their ability to perform elegant court ceremonies. The Chinese responded with envoys of their own and generally received warmly the Japanese monks, priests, scholars, court officials, traders, and artisans.

Yet the voyages remained dangerous. Japanese captains had insufficient knowledge of the prevailing winds in the East China Sea, and vessels were barely adequate for the mission. Once ships could no longer hug the coast of western Korea on their way to China because of that country’s hostility, the direct sea voyage from the eastern tip of Ryūkyū to the mouth of China’s Yangtze River proved difficult to master. Some Japanese ships were blown off course, driven as far down south as Vietnam.

The last embassy sailed in 838, transporting the eminent priest Ennin to the Tang court. One of its ships sunk, but Ennin Ennin made it to Chang’an. The envoys had to return on Korean boats. Their obvious danger made the missions rather unpopular among those destined to go. Ono no Takamura had refused to lead the 838 mission and was sent to exile for his stubbornness. However, he was pardoned a year later.

A final embassy was planned for 894, but its proposed leader persuaded the court to abandon it, arguing that the Tang Dynasty was declining. Overall, at least twenty-three missions had been sent. Yet for the next few centuries, Japan would not send an official mission to China.


Ever since the introduction in the fifth and sixth centuries of writing, Confucianism, and Buddhism to Japan from China through Korea, the Japanese had begun to look at Chinese civilization with admiration and a desire to copy its achievements. The first eight scholars and Buddhist monks who accompanied Ono no Imoko brought back many books and rich firsthand knowledge and quickly influenced Japanese society. China;influence on Japan

The scholar Takamuko no Kuromaro Takamuko no Kuromaro (d. 654) and the Buddhist priest Minabuchi no Shōan Minabuchi no Shōan (fl. 600’) sailed with Ono no Imoko’s second mission in 608 and stayed for thirty-two years. On their return, they were instrumental in the Taika reforms Taika reforms of 645-646 that established a Chinese-style government in Japan. However, the Japanese discarded as unsuitable the Tang military system and the Chinese belief in dynastic change and merit-based court promotions.

Architectural knowledge of Chang’an led Empress Gemmei Gemmei (r. 707-715) to order construction of the Japanese capital at Heijōkyō (modern-day Nara) based on the Chinese model. When conscripted peasants ran away from the construction site, their unrest caused the government to modify its Chinese-style Taihō code Taihō code[Taiho code] in 718.

During the eighth century, some Japanese envoys were employed as high officials in China. Abe no Nakamaro Abe no Nakamaro (698-770) arrived in China in 717, rose in rank, and in 766 was made Chinese governor of Vietnam, which China then occupied. A poet himself, he befriended China’s Li Bo (701-762). Fujiwara no Kiyokawa Fujiwara no Kiyokawa (706?-779?) arrived on the same mission as Abe and impressed the Chinese emperor with his exact knowledge of ceremony. Indicative of Japan’s esteem as a civilized country was its success in receiving preferential treatment over China’s Korean allies at a state banquet for the embassy in 752. Yet in the Heian period (794-1185), Japan’s interest in China waned, and it ended the embassies.

During their heyday, the Japanese embassies significantly helped change Japanese culture, state, and society along Chinese models. Once Japan developed an impressive culture of its own, the embassies were discontinued. However, classic Chinese literature and institutions retain an imaginative hold over contemporary Japanese culture, comparable to the influence that ancient Rome and Greece have on Western culture.

Further Reading

  • Aston, W. G., trans. Nihongi: Chronicles of Japan from the Earliest Times to A.D. 697. 1896. Reprint. Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle, 1972. Contains the oldest Japanese historical accounts of the first embassies, through the year 696, when this history of Japan ends. Introduction, illustrations, and index.
  • Brown, Delmer M., ed. Ancient Japan. Vol. 1 in The Cambridge History of Japan. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Chapter 3, by the late Inoue Mitsusada, discusses the Japanese embassies in light of the reforms in Japan in the seventh century.
  • Goodrich, L. Carrington, ed. Japan in the Chinese Dynastic Histories. Translated by Ryūsaku Tsunoda. South Pasadena, Calif.: P.D. and Ione Perkins, 1951. Translations of ancient Chinese descriptions of the Japanese embassies. Valuable to show how China perceived the Japanese missions.
  • Herbert, Penelope Ann. Japanese Embassies and Students in Tang China. Perth, Australia: University of Western Australia Centre for East Asian Studies, 1978. Excellent, detailed brief book on the subject. Maps, notes, and chronological table.
  • Murphey, Rhoads. East Asia: A New History. 2d ed. New York: Longman, 2001. The chapter “Buddhism, Barbarians, and the Tang Dynasty” discusses the Japanese embassies to China. Illustrations, maps, references, and index.
  • Sansom, George B. A History of Japan to 1334. Vol. 1. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1958. Chapter 7, “Reaction Against Chinese Influence,” offers a concise review of the Japanese embassies and focuses on the reasons for their eventual termination. Chapters 3 and 4 show how Japan’s contact with China changed Japanese society and government structure. Illustrated with index, very readable.