Japanese History

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Japanese History can be dated back to the first written histories in the 1st Century CE. The Twenty-Four Histories, a list of Chinese historical texts written during this time period shows the first recorded mention of people living on the string of Japanese islands. However, recent archeological evidence has shown that there were people living there as long ago as 12,000 BCE directly after the last ice age. The first remnants of human civilization in Japan however date back to the Jomon Period, around 3,000 BCE.



Japanese prehistory is thought to date back between 100,000 and 30,000 BCE when early stone tool implements are believed to have been from. The first signs of civilization or gathering of humans though dates to around 12,000 BCE when the last ice age ended and the Jomon Period began.

Jomon Period

Lasting from 14,000 BCE to 300 BCE, the Jomon Period represents the first signs of civilization in Japanese history with the first signs of wood houses, pit dwelling and basic agriculture unearthed from this time period. Clay vessels made by Jomon era people during this period have been discovered and dated back in Hokkaido to anywhere between 10,000 and 3,000 BCE.

Yayoi Period

The next period in Japanese history lasted from 300 BCE to 250 CE and is named for Yayoi Town in Bunkyo, Tokyo where the first traces of Yayoi civilization were found. During this time period, the first practices of weaving, rice farming, shamanism, bronze making, and wet rice cultivation brought over from Korea and China were started in Japan.

The first written records of Japan were recorded in 57 CE in the Chinese Book of Later Han, describing the “people of Wa” that form more than 100 tribes and pay tribute frequently. Another comment in the Book of Wei in the 3rd century notes some 30 tribes united under a shaman queen named Himiko of Yamataikoku.

Yamato Period

Between the 3rd century and 710 CE, the Yamato polity ruled Japan. During this period, also known as the Kofun and Asuka Periods because of the location of the capital, Japan developed from a sedentary civilization to a more advanced, militaristic one following Chinese and Korean influences. Later, the same Chinese influences would introduce imperial government and religion.

Nara Period

The Nara period started in 710 CE when the first true Japanese government developed. The capital was moved to Heijo-kyo under orders from Empress Genmei during this time and the city built was based on the structure of the Tang Dynasty of Chang’an (Xi’an). Political developments were largely limited in this period as the imperial family struggled with Buddhist clergy and regents such as the Fujiwara clan for control. Friendly relations with the Tang and Silla were held and in 784, the capital moved to escape Buddhist influences and then to Heian-kyo (Kyoto) in 794.

The earliest Japanese records from this period include the Kojiki in 712 and the Nihon Shoki in 720 chronicling the earliest historical developments in Japan alongside the mythologies of the culture. The histories reported the founding of Japan in 660 BCE by Emperor Jimmu who was descended from the deity, Amaterasu, goddess of the sun. The concept of divinity and right to rule has been literally and symbolically carried on since then in the longest running uninterrupted imperial court in the world. Even during the 700 years of Shogunate rule between the 12th and 19th centuries, an emperor and his court was maintained by the Shogun to maintain the “right” to rule on his behalf.

Heian Period

The Heian period started in 794 with the moving of the Imperial court to Heian, what is contemporary Kyoto. The imperial court would remain here with a few short excursions in other cities until it was moved to Tokyo in 1868. The Heian period is best known for the explosion of artistic, literary, and cultural experimentation and production by its citizens with the likes of Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book, and the countless collection of Japanese poetry such as the Man’yoshu and Kokin Wakashu that were compiled during this period. It was also in this period that true, strong differences from Chinese influences started to appear, even while Chinese influence reached new heights.

When the Heian period ended in 1185, it led to the growth and combat of various powerful military clans including the Minamoto, Taira, Fujiwara, and Tachibana clans which eventually led to civil war in the 12th century, which ultimately led to Shogunate rule.

Kamakura Period

The Kamakura Period lasted between 1185 and 1333 and marks the rise of the medieval period in Japan. Yoritomo defeated Taira and in 1192, Yoritomo was moved to Shogun by emperor, building his capitol in Kamakura, making him the first of the Kamakura Shoguns. During this period, the Mongol Invasion of Japan occurred in 1272. A typhoon which appeared during this time was important in the defeat of the Mongols.

Muromachi Period

This period lasted between 1336 and 1573 and marks the rule of Ashikaga, established in 1335, when Ashikaga Takauji seized power from the Emperor Go-Daigo. The period would last until Oda Nobunaga drove the 15th shogun of the period from the capital. It is also during this period that much of Japan fell into civil war in the Warring States or Sengoku Period. It was also the time in which the first outside contact with Portuguese and Spanish traders occurred.

The country was largely reunified by Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The latter then proceeded, after unifying Japan, to invade and attempt to conquer Korea. However, he failed and was later killed in the fighting, retreating in 1598. There was a period of conflict as the sides fought over succession. However, Tokugawa Ieyasu emerged at the Battle of Sekigahara victorious and took control.

Edo Period

During this period, which would last from 1603 to 1868, The Tokugawa clan took control of the country and split it up into 200 Daimyo to be run by various samurai clans. For fifteen generations, the Tokugawa clan held the role of shogunate and moved the administrative capital to Edo, what is present day Tokyo where the shogun would control the other Daimyo.

During this time, Japan was divided into a class system with Samurai at the top and enacted laws of Sumptuary, limiting dress, hair style, and accessories. They forced daimyo to maintain grand residences in Edo where they would live on rotating schedules to keep them from rebelling while paying for parts of the city and leaving their loved ones there as a sort of ransom.

It was also during this period that Japan closed its doors to all foreigners to keep out all outside influences, culminating in the deaths of many rebels, Christians, and outside traders who were believed to be interfering.

However, on July 14, 1853 Commodore Perry of the United States landed at Yokohama with four warships and forced the Japanese government to open itself to the west. Perry reappeared in 1854 with seven ships and the Convention of Kanagawa was signed, forming diplomatic ties between the United States and Japan. Multiple treaties were soon signed with other countries.

Meiji Restoration

Following renewed contact with the west, the Boshin War of 1868 saw the shogun resigning and the emperor restored to full power in the Meiji Restoration. The reforms of the new era saw the abolition of the feudal system, reformation of cities, western legal systems enacted, and a new constitution written. Soon following, pressure with China and Russia led to a new concept by Japanese lawmakers known as “line of Advantage” that held that Japan should extend it’s reach outside of its own borders to keep the west from incurring upon its matters. This led to extended tensions with Korea, China, and Russia with the first Sino-Japanese War in 1894 and the Russo-Japanese War in 1904. In both cases, Japan came out victorious and established itself as a major imperial power in the east, leading to further extension and the annexation of Manchuria and Korea in 1910

Modern History

Japan’s interaction with western influences led to the Taisho and Showa eras of the 1920 and 1930s in which the country became increasingly western and the tensions continued to grow as the force of that influence was felt throughout the country’s politics. This pressure would eventually lead to the second Sino-Japanese war and the actions of Japan in World War II.

Following World War II, Japan’s militarism was sedated by Occupying forces and a new constitution that instilled a democratic government on the country and limited military forces to defense only. Since the 1950s, Japanese growth has been almost entirely economic in nature for this reason.

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