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History of Japan

(Redirected from Nara period)
History of Japan
Edo-period warrior class male
Era name
See also: Era Name

For the history of Japanese clothing, see Wafuku

The history of Japan spans the prehistoric Paleolithic period (circa 50,000 - 14,000 BCE) to the present day. The first known written reference to Japan is in a 1st century CE Chinese text, however, there is some evidence that people were living on the Japan archipelago in the upper Paleolithic period.[1] The earliest-known pottery dates to the Jōmon period, circa 14,000-300 BCE.


Paleolithic Age

Artifacts claimed to be older than ca. 38,000 BCE are not generally accepted, and most historians believe that the Japanese Paleolithic started after that date.[2] The Japanese archipelago disconnected from the mainland continent after the last ice age, around 11,000 BCE.

Ancient period

Jōmon period

The Jōmon period lasted from about 14,000 to 300 BCE. The first signs of civilization and stable living patterns appeared around 14,000 BCE with the Jōmon culture, characterized by a semi-sedentary hunter-gatherer lifestyle of wood stilt house and pit dwellings and rudimentary agriculture.

Weaving was still unknown at the time and clothes were often made of furs. The Jōmon people are known and named for clay vessels decorated with patterns made by impressing the wet clay with braided or unbraided cord. The period is also known for human-like figures made of clay known as dogū. Other archaeological finds from the period include daggers, jade, combs made of shell, and various other household items.[3]

Yayoi period

The Yayoi period lasted from about 300 BCE until 250 CE. This period is named after a section of Bunkyō, Tokyo, where archaeological investigations uncovered its first traces. The Yayoi was marked by new practices such as weaving, rice farming, and iron and bronze-making. Its people were described by Chinese visitors in 57 CE as formed from various tribes and ruled by a shaman queen named Himiko. They decorated their bodies with tattooing and teeth-pulling, had their hair braided, and wore large, single-piece garments.

Kofun period

The Kofun period began around 250 CE and is named for the large tumulus burial mounds that start to appear around that time. The period saw the establishment of strong military states, each centered around powerful clans. Japan started to send tributes to Imperial China in the 5th century, and developed a central administration and an imperial court system based on the Chinese model. Close relationships between the Three Kingdoms of Korea began around the end of the 4th century.

Classical Japan

Asuka period

During the Asuka period (538 to 710), the proto-Japanese Yamato polity which had begun in the Kofun period gradually became a centralized state, defining and applying a code of governing laws, such as the Taika Reforms and Taihō Code.[4]

Buddhism was introduced to Japan in 538 via the Baekje kingdom, to which Japan provided military support,[5] and was promoted by the ruling class. Prince Shōtoku encouraged the spread of Buddhism and Chinese culture.

Nara period

The Nara period marked the first emergence of a strong Japanese state, and is often portrayed as a golden age. Political and economic practices were now organized through a structured government apparatus which created and enforced laws, surveyed and registered land, and was supported by taxes. A powerful new aristocracy emerged. The capital was moved to Heijō-kyō, present-day Nara, in 710. The city was modeled on Chang'an (now Xi'an), the capital of the Chinese T'ang Dynasty. Politics were dominated by a power struggle between the Imperial family, the Buddhist clergy, and the regents, the Fujiwara clan. In 784, the capital was moved again to Nagaoka-kyō and then in 794 to Heian-kyō, present-day Kyoto.[6]

Historical writing in Japan began in the early 8th century with two massive chronicles, the Kojiki (The Record of Ancient Matters, 712) and the Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan, 720). These give accounts of Japan's beginnings and early history which are today recognized as largely mythological. According to the chronicles, Japan was founded in 660 BCE by Emperor Jimmu--a direct descendant of the Shinto sun goddess Amaterasu--who was the first in a line of emperors that remains unbroken to this day.[7] Since the Nara period, actual political power was rarely in the hands of the emperor but has instead been exercised at different times by the court nobility, warlords, the military and, in modern times, the Prime Minister.

Heian period

The Heian Period, lasting from 794 to 1185, is the final period of classical Japanese history, the peak of the Japanese imperial court, and is particularly noted for its art, poetry and literature. Particularly well-known examples include one of the world's oldest novels, the early 11th-century Genji Monogatari (The Tale of Genji, written by a woman known as Murasaki Shikibu or Lady Murasaki); and the Man'yōshū and Kokin Wakashū, the oldest existing collections of Japanese poetry.

The period also saw the development of an indigenous writing system (kana). With the decline of the T'ang Dynasty, Chinese influence decreased and then effectively ended, although trade expeditions and Buddhist pilgrimages to China continued.[8]

Political power in the imperial court was in the hands of powerful aristocratic families (kuge), especially the Fujiwara, who ruled as imperial regents. The end of the period saw the rise of various military clans. The four most powerful clans were the Fujiwara, the Minamoto, the Taira, and the Tachibana. Towards the end of the 12th century, conflicts between the clans caused a series of civil wars, resulting in a society led by samurai under the political rule of the shōgun.

Feudal Japan (1185-1868)

The feudal period of Japanese history was dominated by powerful regional families (daimyō) and warlords (shōgun) and the emperor was largely a figurehead.

Kamakura period

The Kamakura period, from 1185 to 1333, marks the transition to the medieval era, a nearly 700-year period in which the emperor, the court, and the central government were largely relegated to ceremonial functions, with civil, military, and judicial matters controlled by samurai, the most powerful of whom was the shōgun.

In 1185, Minamoto no Yoritomo defeated the rival Taira clan, and in 1192, was appointed Seii Tai-Shōgun by the emperor. He established a military government called the Bafuku in Kamakura, becomeing the first in a line of Kamakura shōguns.

The period also saw two full-scale naval invasions by the Mongols. Both were thwarted by typhoons which came to be referred to as kamikaze or divine winds.[9] Although the invasion attempts were unsuccessful, they led to the extinction of the Kamakura shogunate.

Kemmu Restoration

In 1333, the Kamakura shogunate was overthrown in a coup d'état known as the Kemmu Restoration, led by Emperor Go-Daigo, and the Imperial House was restored to political power, but this only lasted three years.

Muromachi period

The Ashikaga shogunate, which had seized power from Emperor Go-Daigo, ruled for 237 years, from 1336 to 1573. The early years of the Muromachi period are known as the Nanboku-chō (Northern and Southern court) period because the imperial court was split in two. The Muromachi period ended when the 15th and last shōgun, Ashikaga Yoshiaki, was driven out of the capital in Kyoto by Oda Nobunaga.

Sengoku period

The later years of the Muromachi period, 1467 to 1573, also known as the Sengoku or Warring States period, were a time of intense internal warfare and correspond with the period of first contact with the West—the arrival of Portuguese "Nanban" (southern barbarian) traders, who had been blown off-course en route to China. Traders from the Netherlands, England, and Spain soon began to arrive, as did Jesuit, Dominican, and Franciscan missionaries.

Azuchi-Momoyama period

The Azuchi-Momoyama period runs from approximately 1568 to 1603. The period, regarded as the late Warring States period, marks the military reunification and stabilization of the country under a single political ruler, first by the campaigns of Oda Nobunaga and later by one of his generals, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The name Azuchi-Momoyama comes from the names of their respective castles.

Having united Japan, Hideyoshi invaded Korea in an attempt to conquer Korea, China, and even India. However, after two unsuccessful campaigns his forces retreated from the Korean Peninsula in 1598. Following his death, Japan experienced a short period of succession conflict. Tokugawa Ieyasu, one of the regents for Hideyoshi's young heir, emerged victorious at the Battle of Sekigahara and seized political power.

Edo period (1603-1868)

During the Edo period, also called the Tokugawa period, the administration of the country was shared by over two hundred daimyō in a federation governed by the Tokugawa shogunate. The Tokugawa clan, leaders of the victorious eastern army in the Battle of Sekigahara, monopolized the title of Sei-i Taishōgun (often shortened to shōgun) for fifteen generations. With their headquarters at Edo (present-day Tokyo), the Tokugawa commanded the allegiance of the daimyō, who in turn ruled their domains with a rather high degree of autonomy.

The Tokugawa shogunate placed the samurai class above the commoners: the agriculturists, artisans, and merchants. They enacted sumptuary laws limiting hair style, dress, and accessories. They organized commoners into groups of five and held all responsible for the acts of each individual. To prevent the daimyō from rebelling, the shōguns required them to maintain lavish residences in Edo and live at these residences on a rotating schedule; carry out expensive processions to and from their domains; contribute to the upkeep of shrines, temples, and roads; and seek permission before repairing their castles.

Cultural achievement was high during this period, with many artistic developments including ukiyo-e and kabuki and bunraku theatres. Also, many of the most famous works for the koto and shakuhachi date from this time.


During the early part of the 17th century, the shogun began to suspect that foreign traders and missionaries were part of a planned military conquest of Japan by European powers. Christianity had spread in the country, and the loyalty of Christian peasants to their daimyō was also questioned. This led to a revolt by persecuted peasants and Christians in 1637 known as the Shimabara Rebellion which saw 30,000 Christians, rōnin, and peasants facing a massive army sent from Edo.

The shogunate placed foreigners under progressively tighter restrictions. It expelled traders, missionaries, and all non-Japanese with the exception of the Dutch and Chinese merchants; they were restricted to the man-made, fan-shaped island of Dejima in Nagasaki Bay and several small trading outposts outside the country.

End of seclusion

The policy of isolation lasted for more than 200 years. On July 8, 1853, Commodore Matthew C. Perry of the United States Navy steamed four warships into the bay in Yokohama and displayed the threatening power of his ships' cannons. He requested that Japan open to trade with the West. These ships became known as the kurofune, the black ships.

The following year Perry returned with seven ships and demanded that the shōgun sign a Treaty of Peace and Amity establishing formal diplomatic relations between Japan and the United States. Within five years, Japan had signed similar treaties with other Western countries. These treaties were unequal, and were interpreted by the Japanese as a sign of Western imperialism taking hold of the rest of the Asian continent. Among other measures, they gave the Western nations unequivocal control of tariffs on imports and the right of extraterritoriality to all of their visiting nationals. They would remain a sticking point in Japan's relations with the West up to the turn of the century.

Empire of Japan (1868-1945)

Meiji Restoration

The Tokugawa shōgun was forced to resign, and soon after the Boshin War of 1868, the emperor was restored to power, beginning a period of nationalism and intense socio-economic restructuring known as the Meiji Restoration. The feudal system was abolished, the military was modernized, and numerous Western institutions were adopted, including a Western-style legal system, a constitutional government, and the Meiji Constitution.

Japan yielded the Sakhalin Islands to Russia in exchange for the Kuril islands in 1875. The Ryukyu Islands were similarly secured in 1879. In 1898, the last of the unequal treaties with Western powers was removed, and in a few decades Japan had transformed from a feudal and isolated state into a world power.

Wars with China and Russia

Tensions over Korea and Manchuria led Japan to become involved in the first Sino-Japanese War with China in 1894–1895 and the Russo-Japanese War with Russia in 1904–1905.

The war with China made Japan the world's first modern Eastern imperial power, and the war with Russia proved that a Western power could be defeated by an Eastern state. Japan was now the dominant power in the Far East with a sphere of influence extending over southern Manchuria and Korea, which was formally annexed as part of the Japanese Empire in 1910. Japan had also regained half of Sakhalin Island from Russia. Japan also controlled the Pescadores Islands, Formosa (now Taiwan), and the Liaodong Peninsula.

World War I

Japan signed the Anglo-Japanese Alliance treaty on January 30, 1902, leading it to enter the First World War by attacked German bases in China and sending troops to the Mediterranean in 1917. Though Japan's role in the war was limited largely to attacking German colonial outposts near its own borders, it took advantage of the opportunity to expand its influence in Asia and its territorial holdings in the Pacific, seizing Germany's Micronesian colonies and the German coaling port of Qingdao in the Chinese Shandong peninsula.

Japan went to the peace conference at Versailles in 1919 as one of the great military and industrial powers of the world and received official recognition as one of the "Big Five" of the new international order. It joined the League of Nations and received a mandate over Pacific islands north of the Equator formerly held by Germany. Japan was also involved in the post-war Allied intervention in Russia, occupying Russian (Outer) Manchuria and also north Sakhalin.

Second Sino-Japanese War

Japan invaded Inner (Chinese) Manchuria in 1931, creating of the puppet state of Manchukuo under the last Chinese emperor, Pu Yi. As a result of international condemnation of the incident, Japan resigned from the League of Nations in 1933. After several more similar incidents fueled by an expansionist military, the second Sino-Japanese War began in 1937.

Japan fought the Soviet Union in 1938 in the Battle of Lake Khasan and in 1939 in the Battle of Khalkhin Gol. Comprehensive defeat of the Japanese by the Soviets led to the signing of the Soviet–Japanese Neutrality Pact. The treaty held until August 1945 when the Soviets attacked.

World War II

Tensions were mounting with the U.S. as a result of public outcry over Japanese aggression and reports of atrocities in China, such as the infamous Nanjing Massacre. The U.S. began an embargo on such goods as petroleum products and scrap iron, and on July 25, 1941, all Japanese assets in the US were frozen. Many civil leaders of Japan believed a war with America would end in defeat, but felt the concessions demanded by the U.S. would almost certainly remove Japan from the ranks of the World Powers, leaving it prey to Western imperialism.

Japan made the decision to attack the main American fleet at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The US believed that Japan would never be so bold as to attack so close to its home base and was taken completely by surprise.[10] The attack provoked the United States to seek revenge. At the same time as the Pearl Harbor attack, the Japanese army attacked British Hong Kong and occupied it for nearly four years.[11]

The Japanese Army invaded and captured most of the coastal Chinese cities. Japan took over French Indochina Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore as well as the Dutch East Indies. Japanese forces overwhelmed the British in Burma and reached the borders of India and Australia, establishing an empire stretching over much of the Pacific.

However, Japan had stretched too far. A series of massive air raids burned out much of Tokyo and other major industrial cities beginning in March 1945, the Emperor refused to open negotiations. Following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, the emperor authorized surrender.[12] His announcement on the radio on August 15 in difficult to understand court language was the first time the majority of the Japanese people had ever heard his voice.

State of Japan (1945-present)

After the collapse of the Empire of Japan, Japan became a democratic state and eventually an economic power state.

Occupation of Japan

Following the war, Japan lost all of its overseas possessions and retained only the home islands. Manchukuo was dissolved, and Inner Manchuria and Taiwan were returned to the Republic of China; Korea was taken under the control of the UN; southern Sakhalin and the Kuriles were occupied by the U.S.S.R.; and the United States became the sole administering authority of the Ryukyu, Bonin, and Volcano Islands. The International Military Tribunal for the Far East (Tokyo Trial), an international war crimes tribunal, sentenced seven Japanese politicians to death. The emperor was enthroned as the emperor of the new state, but was reduced to a ceremonial role and a "symbol" of Japan.

After the war, Japan was placed occupied by the American-led Allied powers with American General Douglas MacArthur as Supreme Commander. This was the first time since the unification of Japan that the nation was occupied by a foreign power. All members of the imperial family implicated in the war were exonerated from criminal prosecutions.[13] Political, economic, and social reforms were introduced, such as an elected Diet (legislature) and expanded suffrage. The country's new constitution (one important article of which renounces war forever) took effect on May 3, 1947, and Japan regained full sovereignty on April 28, 1952.

Under the terms of the peace treaty and later agreements, the United States maintains naval bases at Sasebo, Okinawa and at Yokosuka. A portion of the U.S. Pacific Fleet is based at Yokosuka.


From the 1950s to the 1980s, Japan rapidly developed into a major economic power, a process often referred to as the post-war economic miracle.

A Joint Declaration between Japan and the USSR ending the state of war and reestablishing diplomatic relations was signed October 19, 1956.[14] The main object of dispute was the Soviet occupation of what Japan calls its Northern Territories, the two most southerly islands in the Kurils (Etorofu and Kunashiri) and Shikotan and the Habomai Islands, which were seized by the Soviet Union in the closing days of World War II.

Japan's economy boomed throughout the postwar period and the country emerged as a significant power, rapidly caught up with the West in foreign trade, GNP, and general quality of life. These achievements were underscored by the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games and the Osaka International Exposition in 1970.

1989 marked one of the most rapid economic growth spurts in Japanese history. With a strong yen and a favorable exchange rate with the dollar, the Bank of Japan kept interest rates low, sparking an investment boom that drove Tokyo property values up sixty percent within the year. By 1991, Japan's famed bubble economy was ending.[15] This was the beginning of the so-called Lost Decade a time of high unemployment and a marked increase in temporary and part time work which only promised employment for short periods and marginal benefits. This also created a generational gap, as those who had entered the labor market prior to the lost decade usually retained their employment and benefits, and were effectively insulated from the economic slowdown, whereas younger workers who entered the market a few years later suffered the brunt of its effects.

The Great Hanshin earthquake hit Kobe on January 17, 1995. 6,000 people were killed and 44,000 injured. 250,000 homes were destroyed. The damage totaled more than ten trillion yen.[16] In March of the same year the doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo attacked the Tokyo subway system with sarin gas killing twelve and injuring hundreds.[17]


The the main political parties are the liberal Democratic Party of Japan, the leftist Social Democratic Party, and the conservative People's New Party.

On March 11, 2011, Japan was hit by the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake (actually a series of hundreds of medium to very strong earthquakes), the strongest in its recorded history, mainly affecting the north-east area of Honshu. The largest of the earthquakes, reported as magnitude 9.0[18], caused a tsunami and numerous fires and damaged several nuclear reactors.

See also

Further reading

  • Allinson, Gary D. The Columbia Guide to Modern Japanese History. (1999).
  • Cullen, L. M. A History of Japan, 1582-1941: Internal and External Worlds (2003)
  • Gordon, Andrew. A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present (2003)
  • Hall John W. Japan: From Prehistory to Modern Times. 1970.
  • Hunter Janet. Concise Dictionary of Modern Japanese History. 1984.
  • Totman, Conrad. A History of Japan. (2nd ed. 2000).

External links

See also


  1. Global archaeological evidence for proboscidean overkill, Todd Surovell et al., Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2005
  2. Japanese Palaeolithic Period, Charles T. Keally
  3. "The earliest known pottery comes from Japan, and is dated to about 10,600 BC.China and Indo-China followed shortly afterward" ("Past Worlds" The Times Atlas of Archeology. p. 100, 1995).
  4. Mason, R.H.P and Caiger, J.G, A History of Japan, Revised Edition, Tuttle Publishing, 2004
  5. Nihon Shoki, volumes 19, Story of Kinmei. [1]"Nihon Shoki
  6. Elmer M. Brown, ed. The Cambridge history of Japan: Ancient Japan: Volume 1 (1993) p. 356
  7. The first emperor known to have actually existed is Ōjin.
  8. "Heian Period," Metropolitan Museum of Art.
  9. [2]
  10. Gordon W. Prange, Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon, At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor (1982)
  11. Oliver Lindsay, The Battle for Hong Kong, 1941-1945: Hostage to Fortune (2009)
  12. Bix, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan pp 487-32
  13. John Dower, Embracing defeat, W.W. Norton, 1999, pp. 323–325; Herbert Bix, Hirohito and the making of modern Japan, Perennial, 2001. pp. 583–585.
  14. Compendium of Documents
  15. The Bubble Economy of Japan, San José State University Department of Economics
  16. 兵庫県の主な被害地震, Kobe Marine Observatory
  17. Aum Shinrikyo (Japan, cultists), Council on Foreign Relations
  18. USGS analysis as of 2011-03-12