Japanese History

Ancient Japan - 400 AD

The first major Japanese culture was the Jomon culture, a nomadic group that apparently worshipped natural objects. It lasted until about 300 B.C., when it was supplanted by the Yayoi culture which lasted until about 300 AD. 57 A.D. was the first recorded contact with China, and around 300 A.D. a Chinese text was written describing Yayoi culture. Rice was imported into Japan about 100 BC, and Japan started to become an agricultural society. Iron and other modern inventions were brought from Korea to Japan. Social classes started emerging, and around 400 B.C., the Yamato state appeared.

Yamato Japan 400-700

At this time, power started to be centered in the province of Yamato. The country was ostentibly ruled by an emperor, but he very quickly became a figurehead. The Yamato religion was Shinto, a religion that became the Japanese national religion. Buddhism was introduced in the 500s; the traditional date is 552 or 538. Sometime during this period the theories of Confuscianism and Taoism, as well as the Chinese writing system, were brought to Japan. A new government and administrative system was adopted, one that borrowed heavily from Chinese ideas.

Nara Japan 710-794

The first permanent Japanese capital was built in Nara in 710, though it was moved to Nagaoka in 784 and finally to Heian in 794. The first move was because Buddhist monastaries were built in the capital, and these monasteries gained such influence that the positions of the emperor and government were compromised. Buddhism gained popularity during this period. Two important works of Japanese literature, the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters, a creation myth) and the Manyoshu (The Ten Thousand Leaves, a book of poetry) were compiled during this time, the Kojiki in 712 and the Manyoshu in 760.

Heian Japan 794-1185

Chinese ideas were still popular in the Heian period, but were becoming infused with Japanese thought. The writing system was refined and a brand new system of writing devised, allowing purely Japanese stories and poetry to be written. The aristocrastic society created a completely poetic and delicate world for themselves, a world detailed in the most famous piece of Japanese literature, Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji. Noblemen and women spent their lives in etiquette and poetry. Outside the court, however, it was getting harder to maintain order and law since there was no central authority in the provinces. Many land owners hired samurai to protect their property, which allowed the military class to become more and more influential, eventually leading to a civil war and the end of the Heian era. The first shogun appeared at this time; his full title was Sei-i-tai-shogun, or the Great Barbarian Subduing General.

Kamakuru Japan -1185-1333

Zen Buddhism was introduced in 1191, and found great popularity among the military class which was, by now, the more influential and powerful element in Japan. Militaristic values became more predominant, and the tradition of seppuku was introduced during this time. But near the end of the era, these values seemed hollow as promises were broken and petty squabbles emerged. The Mongols attacked, demanding tribute, which further served to weaken military control. Confidence in the government eroded, and the emperor managed to regain control.

Ashikaga Japan -1333-1603

Jesuit missionaries and Portugese traders introduced guns and Christianity to Japan in 1542. Noh dramas and ikebana, or ceremonial flower arrangement, became popular, and poetry and other arts flourished. Despite the cultural boom, this period experienced many civil wars.

Tokugawa Japan - 1603-1868

In 1633, the Shogun forbade traveling abroad, banned foreign books and greatly limited trade relations. However, Japan flourished and the arts and culture became more important. Art forms such as kabuki and ukiyo-e became popular. But gradually, the government’s position weakened. In addition, Japan suffered natural disasters and famine – as a matter of fact, this was the last time of Mount Fuji’s eruption. At the end of the 18th century, other nations pressured Japan to open up trade routes. Finally, in 1853 and 1854, Commodore Perry forced the government to open Japan to trade. Western influences changed Japan in many ways – firearms became more widely used, for example, and some new plants such as tobacco and potatoes were introduced.

Meiji Japan - 1868-1912

During the Meiji period, Japan worked on making itself a modern country. The capital was moved to Tokyo, and Japan worked on modernizing itself while keeping its traditions. Schools were patterned after European models and the military was developed, At the same time, however, traditional Japanese religions and philosophies were emphasized. In 1889, a new Japanese constitution was written, one that reaffirmed the divinity of the emperor  and introduced a bi-cameral parliament similar to the British parliament. The Sino-Japanese War was fought from 1894-1895, and the Russo-Japanese War was fought between 1904 and 1905. Korea was annexed in 1910. All these military operations brought a new sense of nationalism to Japan.

Imperial Japan - 1912-1945

In the first World War, Japan first played a part by filling Allied war orders, then by actually joining the Allies. However, it did not play a very large role. The military started controlling the country, gaining almost complete control over the government. Japan started trying to control other parts of Asia. In 1915, it presented a list of twenty-one demands to China; had these demands been met, China would have essentially become part of Japan. Japan continued to press for more power and respect, which led to its role in World War II. The second Sino-Japanese war was fought, and Japan occupied territory in Asia. In 1941 Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, and in 1945 surrendered to America after the dropping of two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Contemporary Japan - 1945-

After World War II, Japan was occupied by the Allies from 1945 to 1952. The country was given a new constitution that limited its military powers and - perhaps most important - forced the emperor to not be divine. Soon after the end of the occupation, Japan’s economy started growing. Relations with the Soviet Union were normalized in 1956, and relations with China were normalized in 1972. During the 1970s, the Japanese economy shifted focus to the technology industry. 

-Liana Sharer Click to learn more about Liana


Milton W. Meyer, Japan: A Concise History, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., Lanham, Maryland 1993

Schauwecker’s Guide to Japan, http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e641.html, Japanese History

Timeline of Japanese History, http://www.askasia.org/frclasrm/readings/t000013.htm



Regions of Japan

Japan is split into four regions: Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu. Hokkaido is the northernmost island of Japan; Honshu is the mainland, Shikoku is a place to visit, and Kyushu is a European influenced place. Each region is further separated into prefectures. People from the North are considered the American equivalent of a "hick".


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