Quick History of Japan

Modern Japan is a result of its history.  Knowing the history of Japan can give you better insight and a better understanding of the culture and what has made Japan.

Early Japan

The Jomon Period is the earliest evidence of human activity in the islands that make up Japan.  This period occurred around 13,000 BCE with hunter-gatherers and early farmers.  The period lasted until about 300 BCE.

From 300 BCE to around 250 CE was the period known as the Yayoi Period. It was characterized by pottery and metalwork.

For both Jomon and Yayoi Period artifacts, you can check out the National Museum of Japanese History in Ueno, Tokyo.

Early Classical Japan

The early classical period of Japan can be divided into different periods as well: Kofun, Asuka, Nara and Heian.

The Kofun Period was from 250 CE to 538 CE.  It is sometimes called the Yamato Period, named after the province that became the dominant power in Japan.  Japan experienced migrations of people into Japan.  Japan started to become more unified with the rise of the Yamato.

The Asuka Period followed the Kofun period, and lasted from 538 CE to 710 CE.  Two important ideas were introduced to Japan during this time.

First was Buddhism.  Buddhism had made its way from India into China and Korea. From there, it was brought to Japan and was supported by a powerful prince, Shotoku Taishi.

Shotoku Taishi was also responsible for setting up Chinese-style government to run the country. This also brought Chinese culture into mainstream Japan in terms of language and writing, art forms and philosophy.

Horyu-ji Temple in Nara was established by Shotoku Taishi.

With the creation of a more formal, established government, it was decided to have a clear capital city. Nara was chosen as the place to build a palace and city, in the style of the Chinese capital. The Nara Period was short, only from 710 CE to 794 CE.

In the Nara Period, the government adopted a more Chinese-style approach. The country also expanded, with lands being claimed in both the south and the north. Buddhism started to be accepted by the ruling classes.

Todaiji in Nara is one example of the style of architecture that was becoming more popular in Japan at the time.

Two important historical texts were created in this time: the Kojiki  which is the earliest written history of the ruling families, and the Nihon Shoki, which details the myths and creation stories of Japan’s native Shinto religion.

For many reasons, Nara did not remain as the capital.

In 794 CE, the capital was moved to a new city, also modeled on the Chinese capital.  The name was Heian-kyo, and it was the capital from 794 CE to 1185 CE.  The period itself is called the Heian Period.

The Heian Period is considered one of the key points of Japanese history. Heian-kyo is now known as Kyoto, and it retains the street design of the original city.

During this period, Japan adapted imported culture and made it Japanese.  The writing system, from China, became widely used; it also was the basis for the syllabic writing forms of hiragana and katakana.  It was a time of poetry and diaries; the world’s earliest novel, The Tale of Genji, was written in this period.

Buddhism became more a part of Japanese culture. Several schools were started that still exist today – the Tendai School and the Shingon School. Kyoto is famous for its many temples.

It was during the Heian Period that the warrior culture was created, especially toward the end of the period.

The Feudal Warring Period

From 1185 CE to 1600 CE, Japan was involved in some kind of armed struggle.  The rise of the warrior – samurai – class lead to the creation of a new military ruler, the shogun.

During this period, Buddhism took a different turn with the establishment of Zen schools, which appealed to the samurai class.  Green tea, once a drink of the nobility, became a popular drink with everyone.  In this period, Japanese esthetics – simplicity and craftsmanship – became important.

Many castles were built and small villages became cities. The emperor remained in Kyoto, but other places such as Kamakura became government centers.

It was during this time that Japan encountered Europeans – the Spanish, the Portuguese and the Dutch. They brought Christianity and rifles. The city of Nagasaki became the most important trading city at this time.

The Edo Period (1603 to 1868) gave Japan stability for nearly 300 years.  The country was united under a military ruling family, the Tokugawas, who established a government in their city of Edo, which is now modern Tokyo.

The country was closed off to foreigners at this point, with Nagasaki as the only port of entry or commerce for Europeans and others.

During the Edo Period, some early forms of Japanese culture that are popular today were created: kabuki, geisha, haiku, ukiyo-e and sushi.

In 1868, the Edo Period ended with Japan opening to the rest of the world.  The Meiji Period (or Meiji Restoration) saw the end of the samurai class, and the introduction and absorption of Western (European and American) cultures.

Japanese history is as complex as any other country’s, and this is a brief overview.  It is important to understand the general time periods because a lot of sightseeing spots and cultural traditions are related to those times and are often referred to when visiting these places.





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