Many people want to visit Japan having seen some of its wonderful locations and attractions, lured and fascinated by its spiritual and folkloristic atmosphere, but the history of Japan is just as enthralling as its many monuments, and moreover, being the Japanese as connected to their history as they are, having a good outline of the history of Japan when visiting this country, really goes a long way in understanding many of the locations you will end up seeing.
The Japanese Historical Periods
Japanese history can be easily divided in a series of successive periods, which to date are considered to be 14. These periods can be grouped in 4 major periods, without counting the Heisei period, started in 1989 and currently in progress. Over the next two articles we are going to get a good overview at all these periods, starting with Ancient and Classical Japan.
Paleolithic Japan period
The earliest traces of hominids in the lands of current Japan date back to 32 – 38,000 years ago, this period in history of Japan is referred to as the Japanese Paleolithic. Several findings, brought to the light the presence of humans on the Japanese Islands before the Jomon period and the earliest known ground stone tools and polished stone tools in the world. The Japanese Paleolithic ended in about 14,000 BC, with the beginning of the Jomon Period.
The Jomon Period (縄文時代 Jomon Jidai), spanning from 14,000 BC to 300 BC, gets its name from the cord-marked, or Jomon, pottery findings that date back to this period. This period saw a significant increase in Japan’s population, as well a larger stability of the settlements and the introduction of the cultivation of rice, imported from Korea in 1,000 BC ca. This marked the increasing presence of Korean-typed settlements in Kyushu, bringing the Jomon period slowly to an end as its population became more sedentary.
Many artifacts from the Jomon period can be found at the Tokyo National Museums and in museum in the Aomori and Iwate Prefecture (in the northern part of Honshu), as many findings were from sites located in this region.
The Yayoi Period (弥生時代 Yayoi Jidai) is dated from 300 BC to 250 AD, and is named after the area in Tokyo where the first artifacts from this period were found. The period is distinguished by new pottery styles and agricultural studies and also documents the birth of the Yamataikoku, first reference to a country of Japan, ruled by Queen Himiko, considered the first ruler of Japan.
For people interested in the Yayoi period, an important location to visit would be the Yoshinogari and the Kanzaki Archaeological site, located in the Saga Prefecture. This sites, together with the Makimuku site in the Nara Prefectures, are believed to be the location of the original Yamataikoku and Queen Himiko.
The final period of the Ancient Japan is the Kofun Period (古墳時代 Kofun Jidai), named after the burial mounds that distinguish this period. This period saw to the introduction of writing and the first recorded history of Japan. A Shinto culture, with no Buddhist influence is well documented from this period and the expansion of the controlling clan in Honshu to the northern half of Kyushu established the Imperial House of Japan.
While many findings from the Kofun period are held at the Tokyo National Museum, the most famous examples of Kofun in Japan are the Daisenryo Kofun, in Osaka, and the Ishibutai Kofun in Nara, particular because the characteristic earth covering is gone, allowing to better study the structure of the tomb, and of course, the Gosashi Kofun, also in Nara, which is probably the most famous Kofun.
The Asuka period (飛鳥時代 Asuka Jidai), from 538 to 710, is considered the first classical Japan age. With continuing traditions from the Kofun period, the introduction of Buddhism from China, marked significant changes in the Japanese Society. One of the most important figures of this period in Japanese History was the prince regent Shotoku Taishi (574 – 622), who introduced the Confucian principles of rank and etiquette, adopted the Chinese calendar and developed trading roads. It was in the Asuka period that the term Nihon first came to be used.
Among the most popular monuments built in Japan during the Asuka period are the Tanzan Shrine, a Shinto shrine located in Sakurai, the Takamatsuzuka Kofun Tomb, in Asuka village, and the Horyu-ji, Yakushi-ji, and Daian-ji, three of the Seven Great Temples. All these attractions are located in the Nara Prefecture.
The Nara period (奈良時代 Nara Jidai), ranges from 710 to 794, and its main features are an increasing tendency of the Japanese upper class to follow the Chinese culture, adopting the country’s writing system, fashion and the religion of Buddhism (already introduced in the Asuka period). The first history of Japan were written during this period, being the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki. Also from this period is the Man’yoshu, a collection of Japanese poetry. The increasing influence of the Buddhist clergy over the ruling class brought the Nara period to an end, as Emperor Kanmu saw fit to move the capital, away from the Buddhist clergy.
Of the many Buddhist temples built in Nara during this period, the most important and popular one is the Todai-ji, housing the great bronze statue of the Buddha Vairocana, known as Daibutsu, this colossal Buddha figure is something you wouldn’t want to miss.
The Heian period (平安時代 Heian Jidai), spans from 794 to 1185 and it is the last and highest period of Classical Japan, as the imperial court started losing power due to the intermarriage policy adopted by the Fujiwara family. This period saw an increasing power in the military forces, as the imperial court itself didn’t have a de facto army, but relied mostly on each clan’s personal forces. Due to a slow decline of the Fujiwara family that started around the mid-eleventh century, the Minamoto family started its ascension through the court ranks, and together with the Taira family, the Fujiwara Regency over the empire was brought to an end in 1156, with the Hogen Rebellion.
In 1183, Yoritomo Minamoto ordered an attack on Kyoto, officially starting the Genpei War (源平合戦) which eventually led the Minamoto family to create the first bakufu (幕府), a military government system that would stay in place for several centuries. With the introduction of the bakufu, the imperial power had officially declined and now the real power was in the hands of the Shogun.
The Heian period is extremely important as it is one of the Japanese periods that probably shaped Japan the most, in these years the hiragana and katana alphabets were created, by the women of didn’t not possess the training men were given. Thanks to the creation of this alphabet, literature expanded as never before and masterpieces such as The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu, and the Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon were born.
Since Kyoto was built specifically to be the capital of the Japanese Empire, many of its structures are quite representative of the period, however, unfortunately the original Heian Palace has been completely destroyed in the 13th century, though the Kyoto Imperial Palace, built in the 19th century, is based on the original plans of the Heian period. Another great complex dating back to the Heian period is the monastery complex built on Mount Koya, headquarters of the Koyasan Shingon Sect of Japanese Buddhism.
This concludes the first part of Japanese history, in the next article we are going to take a look at the Feudal Japan and Modern Japan. One might notice that the first centuries of the Japanese history acted as corner stone for contemporary Japan, as many values and beliefs introduced centuries ago are still alive and well today. Also, another fact worth mentioning is that the imperial lineage was never broken, this makes the Japanese imperial family quite remarkable and unique in all the world.