On my site, I’ve talked about various aspects of Japan—its tourist spots, religion, culture, and food. There is one aspect I haven’t discussed a lot—it’s history. Have you ever wondered just how this great country began? Well, I certainly did.
Japan is the second oldest country in the world, officially founded in 660 BCE by Emperor Jimmu. Since then, Japan has gone through considerable changes, and wasn’t fully unified as a country until the 1600s during the Edo Period under Oda Nobunaga, and his retainers Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu.
Did Japan descend from the Chinese? What events have made Japan show its resiliency and culture? Join me as I take a very brief look at Japan’s long history and discuss the highlights of each era.
Jomon-Yayoi Period (c. 14,000 B.C.E. – 250 C.E.)
Japanese (Nihon-go) was a spoken language long before it became a written one. So, there are no written historical records on Japan’s history as a nation. What is known about its pre-written history is based on what archaeologists have dug up over the modern years. Ancient pottery and figurines of Japan had jomon (cord markings). In later years, things made from bronze and iron were attributed to the Yayoi farmers, and military.
During this period, the foundation of Japan’s societal structure, that would last up to the Edo Period, had formed. Society was broken up into various clans that were spread across Japan. Fighting over territory and resources would take place, while alliances were formed for mutual goals and power. Taxes were collected, and laws were implemented, unique to each clan.
Wakoku (倭国) (c. 57-280 C.E.)
Wakoku (倭国) is not a period, but the oldest written mention of Japan found in records dating back to the Han Dynasty of China. There is no historical document stating why the Chinese called what is now believed to be Kyushu (southwest island of Japan) as Wa (倭) or Wakoku (倭国), that is, the land of Wa. The Japanese adopted this term. But what is clear is that there were Japanese people who had a separate culture from China.
Chinese Emperor Guangwu, is said to have given a golden seal to a Japanese envoy who visited China in 57 C.E. with the inscription: “King of Na, Land of Wa, vassal to the Han Dynasty.” This seal is now considered a national treasure.
Historical correspondence dating back to the Chinese period of the Three Kingdoms (220-280 C.E.) also mentions Wakoku (倭国).
The Kofun period is named after large mounded tombs (kofun) made for elites of that time. The tombs have terracotta figurines called haniwa surrounding them. These tombs can be distinguished by large land movements, and croppings depicting certain shapes and objects. A popular tomb from this era is the ‘Daisen-Kofun’ of Emperor Nintoku in Osaka.
This period is solely characterized by influences from the Korean Peninsula and China, as archaeologists discovered shared culture between the two nations. Records also show that there was also a large influx of Korean and Chinese immigrants who settled in Japan, served the courts, and then later established Clans
Asuka Period (552-645)
Japan was not unified during ancient times. Rather, it was made up of several provinces. The largest province (considered now as the Honshu region) was ruled by the Yamato (大倭) Clan, which claimed to be descended from the sun goddess and is considered the ancestors of Japan’s imperial family.
Trade was conducted with China and Korea for weapons and agricultural tools. Chinese documents mention the land of the Yamatai (邪馬台国) ruled by Queen Himiko.
The period is named after Asuka, which was located in the southern part of the Nara (Yamato) Basin. This area was not officially the capital, but it was where the Yamato held court over a coalition of clans.
This period was when Buddhism was introduced. The religion was not popular with many clans. But a powerful clan called Soga supported the religion. They managed to get the imperial regent, Shotoku Taishi, to support Buddhism.
Prince Shotoku issued the Seventeen Article Constitution, which is a code of moral precepts based on Buddhist and Confucian teachings. Although the constitution was not fully implemented, it laid the groundwork for the establishment of a centralized rule.
Hakuho Period (645-710)
The Hakuho Period is often overlayed with the Asuka Period, and is characterized by the rapid increase of flourishment of Buddhism. Many historically famous temples and pagodas were built during this time such as Yakushi-ji and Horyu-ji in Nara. Because Buddhism was being introduced by the Chinese of this period, much of the architecture of this period draws from the Tang-dynasty in China.
The Soga clan suffered internal intrigue and fell from power. A new prince (who later became the emperor) and a new clan came into power. The prince and the Fujiwara propagated the Taika reforms, edicts that established a centralized government. Buddhism became a major instrument of unification as nobles competed in funding the construction of temples.
Nara Period (710-794)
As I wrote in the article on the top ten cities in Japan, Heijō-kyō (now called Nara) is considered the first official capital of Japan. The Yamato clan moved the government to the northwest section of the Nara Basin when it established the Ritsuyo system, which was modeled after the Chinese court system. The Great Buddha of the Todaiji Temple was built during this period.
It was also during this period that the official first record of Japan was written: the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters) supposedly written in 711-712 C.E. It contains the myth of the creation of Oyashima (Eight Great Islands), which refer to Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu.
The people of Wa also changed the Chinese character they used from Wa (倭), which means “dwarf,” “subservient” and “kneeling” to Wa (和) meaning “harmony,” “peace,” and “balance.” Thus, the Yamato (大倭) Clan became Yamato (大和), the Great Wa.
Further on into the century, Wakoku (倭国) was changed to Nihon (日本), meaning “origin of the sun”. There is no historical record documenting this change. But some accounts say a Japanese envoy to China requested the name to be changed. Other stories state that the Chinese Empress of that time, Wu Zetian, didn’t like the name so she ordered the people of Wa to change it.
There is also no document stating why Nihon was used. Some stories say this is because Japan is east of China where the sun rises from. This name is also tied to the myth that the emperors of Japan are direct descendants of the sun goddess, Amaterasu.
“Wa”-ts going on?
As noted above, wa (和) means “harmony,” “peace,” and “balance.” It also connotes “from Japan” or “Japanese”. Thus, washoku (和食) means Japanese food; wagyu (和牛) means Japanese beef; and washitsu (和室) means a Japanese room (one with tatami mats).
Heian Period (794-1185)
During this period, a major decision was made where the capital of Japan was moved from Nara to Heian (Now Kyoto), which of course changed the course of history, and transformed Kyoto into the historical city it is today.
The Fujiwara family, the Taira family, and other noble families ruled on behalf of the Emperor.
The culture became more “Japanese” instead of Chinese. Religion was a mix of Shinto and Buddhism. Palatial houses of nobles followed the shinden-zukuri style of architecture (several houses are connected by hallways and enclosed in a large walled compound). Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji was written during this period.
The Tale of Genji was written by noblewoman and lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu. Some consider it the first novel. It tells the romantic story of Hikaru Genji, an emperor’s son who was demoted from the line of heirs and lived as an imperial officer. It is considered a great classic because it describes the life of the imperial court at that time.
Kamakura Period (1185-1333)
As “imperial protector,” the Taira clan was considered the real power behind the imperial throne. The clan waged a five-year war with the Minamoto clan from eastern Japan. This was called the Gempei War and it destroyed the Tōdai and Kōfuku temples.
The Minamoto clan won, and the infamous Shogunate System was introduced to Japan. Minamoto no Yoritomo became the first shogun, who set up his government in Kamakura. The samurai (warrior class) became the ruling class. This military-style government persisted until the Meiji era.
Zen Buddhism became a favored religion since it mirrored the samurai philosophy of austerity, discipline, immediacy, and strength. Sculptures showcasing this religious climate became prolific.
What’s in a name?
Nihon is the official name of the country, so where did “Japan” come from?
Marco Polo’s diaries (c. the 1200s) mention the name “Cipangu” possibly from Portuguese explorers who heard the name “Cipan” in north China. Meanwhile, Dutch traders may have heard “Yatbun” or “Yatpun” from people from southern China. The letter “j” is pronounced as “y” in Dutch so they may have interpreted it as “Ja-pan.” The Portuguese and Dutch are some of the first Europeans who traded with Japan.
Muromachi-Sengoku Period (1333-1568)
Ashikaga Takauji was a warrior who was supposed to quell attempts at imperial restoration. Instead of doing the work assigned to him, he instead usurped the shogunate and established his own government in Muromachi, a district of Kyoto.
During the Sengoku period, the shogunate’s power declined, and the power of the daimyo increased. The daimyo (feudal lords) engaged in civil wars, so the era was known as the ‘Warring States Period’.
Chinese-style ink paintings, Noh (theatrical productions where actors wear masks) and kyogen (comic intermissions played during noh drama), tea ceremony, flower arrangement, shoin zukuri style (alcoves with tatami where paintings are hung) became prominent.
Japan traded with the Portuguese for mainly guns and other armaments. This is the first contact with European culture.
Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1568-1600)
The greatest contribution of this period was when Oda Nobunaga, a daimyo, managed to unify Japan. He established his government in Azuchi, near Lake Biwa, which is a few miles from Kyoto. He was later succeeded by Toyotomi Hideyoshi after his assination.
Oda Nobunaga was interested in foreign cultures, which lead to trading and a large influence of European culture in Japan. Nobunaga reduced the powers of Buddhist sects, including the Jodo Shinshu, while giving protection to Christian Missionary groups.
Ornate and lavish architecture was preferred during this time. Hideyoshi’s Momoyama and Osaka castles are examples of this style. Nobunaga had constructed a castle on the shores of Lake Biwa known as Azuchi Castle.
Sen no Rikyu developed the Way of Tea, which continues to be the ritualistic tea ceremonies of Japan today.
European trade introduced European art aesthetics. Western influence could be seen in paintings that show Europeans in Japanese settings. These paintings were unique for that time because the flow of the scenes went from right to left, as opposed to the Japanese and Chinese way of depicting scenes from left to right.
Edo Period (1600-1868)
After Oda Nobunaga’s death, Tokugawa Ieyasu established the Tokugawa shogunate by defeating Toyotomi Hideyoshi at the Battle of Sekigahara, giving him control of all of Japan, and bringing years of stability.
The capital was moved to Edo (now known as Tokyo) from Kyoto.
The political hierarchy evolved which included elements of both old and new. The terms shogunate and daimyo remained, as the Shogun (Ieyasu) held all the power, and consolidated much of it beneath him. The daimyos were split into two classes where the first were direct descendants of the shogun, and the second were families rewarded with land and staffed government offices.
The position of Emperor was reinstated, and the shogun made into a vassal beneath the royal family. Much of the royal palaces and land were rebuilt and restored to their former glory during this time. To keep ties close between the shogunate and royal family, Tokugawa Ieyasu married his granddaughter to the Emperor, making her a royal consort.
People were divided into classes: lords, samurai, farmers, artisans, and merchants. To pacify the country, much of the old samurai were forced to give up their lands and become retainers to their daimyo, or become peasants. All social positions were inherited instead of earned, much like in Feudal Europe.
Culture flourished, and much of Japan’s iconic masterpieces and arts came to fruition. Ukiyo-e (woodblock prints) became popular and artists like Sharaku, Utamaro, Hokusai, and Hiroshige produced their masterpieces.
Kabuki and Bunraku became famous and exemplified in Ukiyo-e.
Haiku became a literary art because of Matsuo Basho.
When Ieyasu abdicated his position in favor of his son, Tokugawa Hidetada, the Sakoku Edict of 1635 was soon proclaimed, which began the era of national reclusion. Japanese people could not travel abroad, only the Dutch and Chinese were allowed to enter the country, and people who practiced Catholicism were persecuted.
Soon, foreign powers would come to force Japan out of seclusion. More notably, Commodore Perry would begin bombardment of Edo Bay, which led to the creation of artificial land masses known today as Odaiba. Internal conflict erupted as the anti-bakufu coalition would rise to bring down the Tokugawa Shogunate.
Tokugawa Yoshinobu would resign his position to the Emperor, and formally step down.
Meiji Period (1868-1912)
The Meiji era heralded the end of the national seclusion policy. Power was restored to the imperial court instead of the shogun. Japan opened its ports to Western trade again. This is considered the era that began Japan’s modernization. Edo was renamed Tokyo. Religious freedom was allowed. The Gregorian calendar was adapted into the Japanese system of dates.
The first reform of the Meiji Period was the Five Charter Oath which was to boost financial support for the new government, and modernize society. The reform included the involvement of all people from all classes to carry out state affairs, the replacement of “evil customs” with the “just laws of nature”, and the international search for knowledge to strengthen imperial rule.
Daimyo and land holders surrendered their lands to the Emperor, and were in turn given the position of Governor over the land they once owned. Provinces (known as ‘Han’) were turned into Prefectures.
Land and tax laws were enacted based on modern policies from the West. Private ownership and land deeds were issued. Taxes were paid in cash unlike before.
New Ministries were formed and staffed by officials from the most favored provinces. Importantly, the Home Ministry controlled all Shinto Shrines and Sects, releasing them from Buddhist control, resulting in the rise of Shintoism. Christianity was then legalized following this.
As the Japanese worked to write a modern constitution and government, the call for a representative government grew louder. Itagaki Taisuke led the movement, criticizing the powers of oligarchies and more. New political parties would form to give their opinions on the future of Japan, arguing between the ideas of British, American, French, Spanish, Prussian, and German governments.
A conference was held in Osaka where the Emperor demanded the ‘Council of Elders’ to draft a constitution. Three years later, the ‘Conference of Prefectural Governors’ began the elected prefectural assemblies which consisted of delegates from the then twenty-four prefectures of Japan, leading the country toward a representative government.
Eventually, the Constitution of the Empire of Japan was introduced, making the Emperor the head of state, and his cabinet beneath him. A Prime Minister would be elected by the ‘Privy Council’, who would act as the head of government.
The Meiji period would end after the death of Emperor Meiji.
Taisho Period (1912-1926)
The Taisho Period is marked with political crises, expansion across Asia, and the first World War. Although this Period was cut short due to Yoshihito’s early death, it is considered to be an era of unintentional prosperity as World War I gave Japan global recognition.
Following the Meiji Period, an event known as the Taisho Political Crisis ensued, resulting in the military holding the government metaphorically hostage. Because the then Prime Minister sought to cut the defense budget, the Army Minister resigned. In protest, all eligible generals refused to fulfil the position, resulting in the resignation of the Prime Minister. These politics would continue, showing the flaws within the Meiji Constitution. The military would continue this, leading to political domination over civilian government until after World War II.
Japanese translations of Western literature, music, and drama became prolific. Mass media slowly became more prominent. Western styles like those of Cezanne and Renoir affected the output of artists.
During World War I, Japan sided with the victorious Allied Powers, making way for Japanese expansion and influence across Asia. Declaring war on Germany, Japan seized control of German occupied territories in Asia, including Shandong, Mariana, Marshall Islands, and Jiaozhou. Japan would also expand into Manchuria and Mongolia soon after. While Japan consolidated power in China, pressure was put on the Chinese government as Japan seeked joint ownership of mining and metal complexes, as well as other demands to prevent foreign intervention. After the fall of Imperial Russia, Japan seized control of Siberia.
After the war during the postwar era, Japan was brought to international prominence for the role played during the war, and went to the Peace Conference held in Paris. Japan was also granted a permanent seat on the council of the League of Nations. All gains made during the war were made official and recognized by all nations.
Burdened with inflation and postwar economics, politics continued as normal with a push toward liberal thoughts and democracy. Students, university professors, and journalists all took part in protests, along with labor unions, and socialists to pass the General Election Law which gave all men above the age of 25 the right to vote. With Communist parties on the rise, the government took preventive measures to pass laws that forbade any change to political structure or abolishment of private property.
The early global economic depression would have little effect on Japan until after the Taisho Period. However, with civil unrest, rising debt, and the Great Kanto Earthquake which leveled much of Tokyo, Japan would soon enter into a financial crisis.
Showa Period (1926-1989)
The Showa Period was the longest lasting period in Japanese history, and the most infamous for the events of World War II. After the death of Emperor Yoshihito and the end of the Taisho Period, the Showa Period came to be with Emperor Hirohito succeeding to the Imperial Throne.
Although the previous period was full of democratic reforms, also known as ‘Taisho Democracy’, it soon came to an end as anti-radical legislation came to be and passed. With a large concern toward revolutionary movements, politicians passed the ‘Peace Preservation Law’ that condemned and outlawed political groups that pushed for changes that would alter the current government. Eventually, parliamentary democracy would be completely phased out, and the liberal-like politics of the Taisho Democracy gone.
Within the first year of the Showa, a financial crisis hit Japan before the global Great Depression. Financial panic followed which ended the acting Prime Minister’s tenure, leading to the political domination of the Zaibatsu (business conglomerates of Japan). Relations between Japan and the United States were soured and brought to an all time low after the United States passed the ‘Japanese Exclusion’ Act, preventing Japanese immigration. Ultimately, the people of Japan suffered the most as exports decreased by almost half and unemployment rose rapidly.
Soon, the Japanese military would begin working independently from the government. As nationalist groups started growing throughout the country, the populace would begin to grow dissatisfied with civilian government, turning toward the military for guidance. The then acting Prime Minister, Hamaguchi Osachi, was shot and assassinated by a radicalized nationalist after failing in negotiations during the London Naval Treaty. Many more attempts at assassinating officials and seizing the government would be carried out. Radicalists wished for a complete ‘Showa Restoration’ with all powers returning to the Emperor, however this ended when he demanded an absolute end to the violence.
Amidst the political chaos in Japan, the Japanese Army independently took advantage by invading Manchuria after the ‘Mukden Incident’. Hamaguchi’s successor was unable to stop the offensive thus resulting in an all out takeover of Manchuria and the implementation of the puppet state, Manchukuo. Following the takeover, The Diet (Japan’s Government) voted to withdraw from the League of Nations. The Japanese military would then begin the invasion of China shortly after the ‘Marco Polo Bridge Incident’.
Japan officially joined the Axis powers after signing the Tripartite Pact, and started using the same tactics as in World War I. Japan’s military began the invasion of Allied holdings in Asia, invading Hong Kong, Burma, Siam, East Indies, and the Philippines. The United States issued an oil embargo on Japan resulting in their retaliation and attack on Pearl Harbor. The War would come to an end with Japan’s surrender after relentless fire bombings in Tokyo, and the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki and Hiroshima by US forces.
The US-led occupation of Japan began shortly after Japan’s surrender, when General MacArthur landed in Tokyo. The Empire of Japan was dismantled, and all lands gained during the war returned. The Soviet Union acquired North Korea, and the now disputed Kuril Islands annexed. A War Crimes Tribunal was held where much of the Japanese military leaders were sentenced or executed. Emperor Hirohito also publicly denounced the power he held as Emperor, and his status as a demi-god, reducing the role as a mere figurehead. The Zaibatsu that controlled government was broken up, and parliamentary politics were restored much like how it was during the pre-Showa era. The Japanese Constitution was rewritten to what it is today, changing the Empire of Japan to The State of Japan, and the complete disarmament of the country. Eventually, with the cooperation of Japanese Government, and the United States, the US-led occupation ended in 1951 with the signing of the ‘San Francisco Treaty’.
From the post-war era through the 1980s, Japan saw unseen economic growth and prosperity. With cooperation between the government, business, and labor sects, Japan formulated a system that would make them an economic powerhouse, and give economic dominance. Exports rose with America’s demand on food, and the Korean War led to an increased demand on supplies. Railways were restored leading to the advanced and convenient transport systems we see today, as well as the first dedicated high-speed railway line, the Shinkansen. Japan would then join the United Nations, and hosted the Summer Olympics of 1964. Toward the late 1970s-80s, Japan became the biggest car producer with companies such as Nissan, Mitsubishi, Honda, and Toyota entering international markets. The anime and gaming industry took off internationally with Nintendo and the success of the NES system. However, Japan would soon find itself in a massive economic bubble that would pop toward the start of the 90s, leading to a major economic crisis and recession that still shows its effects today.
Emperor Hirohito would pass in 1989, ending the long and historical Showa Period.
There is a manga and an anime about the alliance of Japan, Germany, and Italy. It’s called Hetalia: Axis Powers. All the characters are anthropomorphic personifications of countries and their interactions lead to historical and political allegories. It’s a zany read/watch but you’ll get some historically accurate pieces of information from it.
Heisei Period (1989-2019)
The Heisei Period was ushered in with the passing of Hirohito. On the night of Hirohito’s passing, the new era was announced and his son, Akihito, succeeded the throne. With the emphasis on pacifism and peace after World War II, the era was named Heisei (Peace Everywhere). Despite a time that was supposed to be known for peace, this period was anything but that with the economic bubble bursting, economic stagnation, and the Lost Decade.
Within the first few years of the Heisei Period, the economy had crashed after a massive economic boom, bubble, and pop due to the low interest rates of banks within Japan, and investments. Lasting more than 10 years, this decade was known as the Lost Decade due to economic deflation and stagnant GDP. Japan had acquired too much bad debt resulting in the indirect closure of many companies and businesses that led to unemployment and massive layoffs in the workforce.
While people in Japan were losing their jobs, livelihoods, and more, many turned to alternate means to make a living and to find purpose in the world. Groups like the Yakuza, Bosozoku, and Aum Cult became very popular. While gangs viciously fought for territories throughout their respective Prefectures, the infamous Aum Cult recruited and plotted to carry out terror attacks within Tokyo. Officials and Police, not taking the Cult seriously enough, resulted in them acquiring lethal sarin gas and carrying out terror attacks in the Tokyo Metro Subway, killing 13 people, and injuring an estimated 1,000.
During the 90s, many Japanese franchises gained insane popularity and a massive following. Pokémon, Yugioh, Dragon Ball, Gundam, and Evangelion all became global favorites among children, teenagers, and young adults.
Although Japan remained as a pacifist country, efforts were made to reinstate Japan as a military power. During the Gulf War, Japan contributed by sending supplies and money toward war efforts. During the same year, efforts were made to remove unexploded mines in the Persian Gulf. After the Iraq War, Japan would send 1,000 soldiers to help in Iraq’s reconstruction, one of the largest deployments since World War II. Later in 2010, Japan would establish their first postwar overseas base in Somalia, and revise defense guidelines to focus more on China.
Politics of the early Heisei era were entangled in scandals and a short revolution of the political parties. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the dominant political party, was ousted after much of their members were involved in a scandal that forced them to resign. An opposing party took control, but soon disbanded after lacking a unified stance on issues. The LDP would come back, retaining much of their dominance.
The current Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, would make his first political move in 2007 after being appointed the position of Prime Minister, however he would soon resign later that year. Abe would make a comeback in 2012 after being reappointed the position, enacting policies to ease and fix the problems that came after the Lost Decade, and the aging population. These policies would be dubbed ‘Abenomics’.
Later, Japan would enter into another recession, slowing down progress. The Diet would revise the Constitution, the same written after the War, to allow Japan’s Self-Defense-Forces to aid allies in defenses against attacks. Soon after, Japan’s military would be ranked the fourth most powerful in the world. Before the end of the Heisei Era, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pushed for a complete revision of the Constitution to allow Japan to keep and maintain a standing army, however lacked the votes to do so.
Japan would complete structures such as the Akashi Kaikyo Suspension Bridge in 1998, the largest of its kind. Tokyo Skytree was completed in 2011, making it the tallest structure in Japan, and the tallest tower in the world.
Before the recession of 2014, Japan was rocked by the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami in 2011. This was the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan’s history with a magnitude of 9.0. Although the epicenter was east of Sendai in the ocean, the effects could be felt all the way to Tokyo. Not only did the earthquake cause the collapse of buildings and many deaths, but also triggered a tsunami that swallowed coastal towns within minutes. The coastal Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant was affected by the earthquake, and melted down, resulting in the evacuation of nearby towns.
The Heisei Period would come to a close as Emperor Akihito abdicates the throne. The first time an Emperor has stepped down since the early 1800s. The government would pass a controversial bill that would allow him to officially step down on April 30th, 2019. His son, Naruhito would succeed the throne, bringing in the Reiwa Period.
Reiwa Period (2019-Now)
On May 1, 2019, a new era was instituted as the former emperor abdicated the throne in favor of his elder son. The era would be called Reiwa (beautiful harmony), which is meant to represent culture being born, and nurtured by people coming together.
With the Reiwa Period being just 5 months old from the time of writing this, there is little to write about. Will Japan’s economy start to recover and move toward another era of prosperity? Will the tourism boom remain? These are all questions that may be answered in the years to come during the Reiwa.
What’s in a name? (Part 2)
Every time Japan changes its era name, its government forms, calendars, money, etc. have to change as well.
So, did I miss other historical tidbits? Tell me about it in the comments section. For the sake of keeping this article short and concise, I may have left out some!