The long and tumultuous history of Japan, believed to have begun as far back as the prehistoric era, can be divided into distinct periods and eras. From the Jomon Period thousands of years ago to the current Reiwa Era, the island nation of Japan has grown into an influential global power.
Jomon Period: ~10,000 BCE- 300 CE
Settlements and Subsistence
The first period of Japan’s history is its prehistory, before the written history of Japan.It involves a group of ancient people known as the Jomon. The Jomon people came from continental Asia to the area now known as the island of Japan before it was actually an island.
Before the end of the most recent Ice Age, enormous glaciers connected Japan to the Asian continent. The Jomon followed their food – migrating herd animals – across these land bridges and found themselves stranded on the Japanese archipelago once the ice melted.
Having lost the ability to migrate, the herd animals that once constituted the Jomon’s diet died out, and the Jomon began to fish, hunt, and gather. There is some evidence of early agriculture, but it didn’t appear on large scales until near the end of the Jomon Period.
Confined to an island significantly smaller than the area the Jomon’s ancestors were accustomed to wandering, the once-nomadic settlers of the island of Japan gradually formed more permanent settlements.
The largest village of the time covered 100 acres and was home to about 500 people. Villages were made up of pit houses built around a central fireplace, held up by pillars and housing five people.
The locations and sizes of these settlements depended on the climate of the period: in colder years, settlements tended to be closer to the water where the Jomon could fish, and in warmer years, flora and fauna flourished and it was no longer necessary to rely as heavily on fishing, and so settlements appeared further inland.
Throughout the history of Japan, the seas protected it from invasion. The Japanese also controlled international contact by expanding, narrowing, and sometimes terminating diplomatic relations with other nations.
Tools and Pottery
The Jomon take their name from the pottery they made. “Jomon” means “cord-marked”, which refers to a technique where a potter would roll clay into the shape of a rope and coil it upwards until it formed a jar or a bowl, and then simply bake it in an open fire.
The pottery wheel had yet to be discovered, and so the Jomon were confined to this much more manual method. Jomon pottery is the oldest dated pottery in the world.
The Jomon used basic stone, bone, and wooden tools like knives and axes, as well as bows and arrows. Evidence of wicker baskets has been found, as well as various tools for aiding in fishing: harpoons, hooks, and traps.
However, there is little evidence of tools intended for large-scale farming. Agriculture came to Japan much later than the rest of Europe and Asia. Instead, the Jomon gradually came to settle near the coastlines, fishing and hunting.
Rituals and Beliefs
There’s not much we can gather about what the Jomon actually believed, but there’s lots of evidence of rituals and iconography. Some of their first pieces of religious art were clay dogu figurines, which were originally flat images and by the Late Jomon phase became more three-dimensional.
Much of their art focused on fertility, depicting pregnant women in figurines or on their pottery. Near villages, adults were buried in shell mounds, where the Jomon would leave offerings and ornaments. In northern Japan, stone circles have been found whose purpose is unclear, but might have been intended to ensure successful hunts or fishing.
Finally, for unknown reasons, the Jomon appeared to practice the ritualistic pulling of teeth for boys entering puberty.
Yayoi Period: 300 BCE-300 CE
Agricultural and Technological Revolution
The Yayoi people learned metalwork soon after the end of the Jomon Period. They replaced their stone tools with bronze and iron tools. Weapons, tools, armor, and trinkets were made out of metal.They also developed tools for permanent farming, like hoes and spades, as well as tools for irrigation.
The introduction of large-scale, permanent agriculture led to significant changes in the Yayoi people’s lives. Their settlements became permanent and their diets consisted almost entirely of food they grew, only supplemented by hunting and gathering. Their homes transformed from pit houses with thatched roofs and dirt floors to wooden structures raised about the ground on supports.
In order to store all the food they were farming, the Yayoi also constructed granaries and wells. This surplus caused the population to swell from around 100,000 people to 2 million at its peak.
Both of these things, results of the agricultural revolution, led to trade between cities and the emergence of certain cities as hubs of resources and success. Cities that were favorably located, either because of nearby resources or proximity to trade routes, became the largest settlements.
Social Class and the Emergence of Politics
It is a constant motif in human history that the introduction of large-scale agriculture into a society leads to class differences and power imbalance between individuals.
Surplus and a growth in population means that someone must be given a position of power and be entrusted to organize labor, store food, and create and enforce the rules that maintain the smooth functioning of a more complex society.
On a larger scale, cities vie for economic or military power because power means certainty that you will be able to feed your citizens and grow your society. Society transitions from being based on cooperation to being based on competition.
The Yayoi were no different. Clans fought each other for resources and economic dominance, occasionally forming alliances that gave birth to the beginning of politics in Japan.
Alliances and larger societal structures led to a taxation system and a system of punishment. Since metal ore was a scarce resource, anyone in possession of it was seen as having high status. The same went for silk and glass.
It was common for men of higher status to have many more wives than men of lower status, and in fact, lower-ranking men stepped off the road, out of the way, when a high-ranking man was passing. This custom survived until the 19th century CE.
Kofun Period: 300-538 CE
The first era of recorded history in Japan is the Kofun Period (A.D. 300-538). Enormous keyhole-shaped burial mounds surrounded by moats characterized the Kofun Period. Of the known 71 in existence, the largest is 1,500 feet long and 120 feet tall, or the length of 4 football fields and the height of the Statue of Liberty.
In order to have completed such grand projects, there must have been an organized and aristocratic society with leaders who could command huge numbers of workers.
People weren’t the only things buried in the mounds. More advanced armor and iron weapons found in the mounds suggest that horse-riding warriors led a society of conquest.
Leading up to the tombs, hollow clay haniwa, or unglazed terracotta cylinders, marked the approach. For those of higher status, the people of the Kofun Period buried them with green jade ornamental jewels, the magatama, which, along with the sword and mirror, would become the Japanese imperial regalia. The present Japanese imperial line likely originated during the Kofun Period.
Shinto is the worship of kami, or gods, in Japan. Although the concept of worshipping gods originated before the Kofun Period, Shinto as a widespread religion with set rituals and practices didn’t establish itself until then.
These rituals are the focus of Shinto, which guides a practicing believer on how to live a proper lifestyle that ensures connection to the gods. These gods came in many forms. They were typically connected to natural elements, although some represented people or objects.
Initially, believers worshipped in the open or at sacred locations like forests. Soon, however, worshippers began to build shrines and temples that contained art and statues dedicated to and representing their gods.
It was believed that the gods would visit these locations and inhabit the representations of themselves temporarily, rather than actually permanently living at the shrine or temple.
The Yamato, and the Eastern Orient Nations
The politics that emerged in the Yayoi Period would solidify in various ways throughout the 5th century CE. A clan called the Yamato emerged as the most dominant on the island due to their ability to form alliances, use iron widley, and organize their people.
The clans that the Yamato allied with, which included the Nakatomi, Kasuga, Mononobe, Soga, Otomo, Ki, and Haji, formed what would become the aristocracy of the Japanese political structure. This social group was called the uji, and each person had a rank or title depending on their position in the clans.
The be made up the class below the uji, and they were made up of skilled laborers and occupational groups like blacksmiths and papermakers. The lowest class consisted of slaves, who were either prisoners of war or people born into slavery.
Some of the people in the be group were immigrants from the eastern Orient. According to Chinese records, Japan had diplomatic relationships with both China and Korea, which led to an exchange of people and cultures.
The Japanese valued this ability to learn from their neighbors, and so maintained these relationships, establishing an outpost in Korea and sending ambassadors with gifts to China.
Asuka Period: 538-710 CE
The Soga Clan, Buddhism, and the Seventeen Article Constitution
Where the Kofun Period was marked establishment of social order, the Asuka Period was distinctive for its rapid escalation in political maneuvering and sometimes bloody clashes.
Of the previously mentioned clans that rose to power, the Soga were the ones who eventually won out. After a victory in a succession dispute, the Soga asserted their dominance by establishing Emperor Kimmei as the first historical Japanese emperor or Mikado (as opposed to legendary or mythical ones).
One of the most important leaders of the era after Kimmei was regent Prince Shotoku. Shotoku was heavily influenced by Chinese ideologies like Buddhism, Confucianism, and a highly centralised and powerful government.
These ideologies valued unity, harmony, and diligence, and while some of the more conservative clans pushed back against Shotoku’s embrace of Buddhism, these values would become the basis for Shotoku’s Seventeen Article Constitution, which guided the Japanese people into a new era of organized government.
The Seventeen Article Constitution was a code of moral rules for the upper class to follow and set the tone and spirit of subsequent legislation and reforms. It discussed the concepts of a unified state, merit-based employment (rather than hereditary), and the centralisation of governing to a single power rather than the distribution of power among local officials.
The constitution was written at a time when Japan’s power structure was divided into the various uji, and the Seventeen Article Constitution mapped out a path for the establishment of a truly singular Japanese state and a consolidation of power that would propel Japan into its next stages of development.
The Fujiwara Clan and the Taika Era Reforms
The Soga ruled comfortably until a coup by the Fujiwara clan in 645 CE. The Fujiwara instituted Emperor Kotoku, although the mind behind the reforms that would define his reign was actually his nephew, Nakano Oe.
Nakano instituted a series of reforms that looked a lot like modern day socialism. The first four articles abolished the private ownership of people and land and transferred ownership to the emperor; initiated administrative and military organizations around the kingdom; announced the introduction of a census that would ensure a fair distribution of land; and put into place an equitable tax system. These would become known as the Taika Era Reforms.
What made these reforms so significant was how they changed the role and spirit of government in Japan. In continuation of the Seventeen Articles, the Taika Era Reforms were heavily influenced by the structure of Chinese government, which was informed by principles of Buddhism and Confucianism and focused on a strong, central government that took care of its citizens, rather than a distant and fractured aristocracy.
Nakano’s reforms signaled the end of an era of government characterized by tribal spats and divisiveness, and entrenched the absolute rule of the emperor – Nakano himself, naturally.
Nakano took on the name Tenjin as Mikado, and, save for a bloody dispute over succession after his death, the Fujiwara clan would control Japanese government for hundreds of years afterwards.
Tenjin’s successor Temmu further centralized the power of the government by banning citizens from carrying weapons and creating a conscript army, like in China. An official capital was created with a layout and palace both in Chinese style. Japan further developed its first coinage, the Wado kaiho, at the end of the era.
Nara Period: 710-794 CE
Growing Pains in a Growing Empire
The Nara Period is named after the capital city of Japan during the period, called Nara today and Heijokyo at the time. The city was modeled on the Chinese city of Chang-an, so it had a grid layout, Chinese architecture, a Confucian university, a huge royal palace, and a state bureaucracy that employed over 7,000 civil servants.
The city itself may have had a population of as many as 200,000 people, and was connected by a network of roads to faraway provinces.
Although the government was exponentially more powerful than it had been in previous eras, there was still a major rebellion in 740 CE by a Fujiwara exile. The emperor at the time, Shomu, crushed the rebellion with an army of 17,000.
Despite the capital’s success, poverty, or near to it, was still the norm for an overwhelming majority of the population. Farming was a difficult and inefficient way to live. Tools were still very primitive, preparing enough land for crops was difficult, and irrigation techniques were still too rudimentary to effectively prevent crop failures and famine.
Most of the time, even when given the opportunity to pass their lands to their descendents, farmers preferred to work under a landed aristocrat for the security it gave them. On top of these woes, there were smallpox epidemics in 735 and 737 CE, which historians calculate reduced the country’s population by 25-35%.
Literature and Temples
With the prosperity of the empire came a boom in art and literature. In 712 CE, the Kojiki became the first book in Japan to record the many and often confusing myths from earlier Japanese culture. Later, Emperor Temmu commissioned the Nihon Shoki in 720 CE, a book that was a combination of mythology and history. Both were meant to chronicle the genealogy of the gods and link it to the genealogy of the imperial line, linking the Mikado directly to the divine authority of the gods.
Throughout this time, the Mikado had numerous temples built, establishing Buddhism as a cornerstone of the culture. One of the most famous is the Great Eastern Temple of Todaiji. At the time, it was the largest wooden building in the world and housed a 50 foot tall statue of the seated Buddha — also the largest in the world, weighing in at 500 tons. Today it stands as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Although this and other projects produced magnificent temples, the cost of these buildings strained the empire and its poorer citizens. The emperor taxed the peasantry heavily to fund the construction, exempting aristocrats from the tax.
The emperor had hoped that building temples would improve the fortunes of the parts of the empire that were struggling with famine, sickness, and poverty. However, the government’s inability to manage its money led to conflict within the court that resulted in the relocation of the capital from Heijokyo to Heiankyo, a move which heralded the next Golden period of Japanese history.
Heian Period: 794-1185 CE
Government and Power Struggles
Although the formal name of the capital was Heian, it came to be known by its nickname: Kyoto, meaning simply “capital city”. Kyoto was home to the core of the government, which consisted of the Mikado, his high ministers, a council of state, and eight ministries. They ruled over 7 million provinces divided into 68 provinces.
The people clustered in the capital were mostly aristocracy, artists, and monks, meaning the majority of the population farmed the land for themselves or for a landed noble, and they bore the brunt of the difficulties faced by the average Japanese person. Anger at excessive taxation and banditry bubbled over into rebellions more than once.
The policy of distributing public lands initiated in the previous era was ended by the 10th century, meaning that wealthy nobles came to acquire more and more land and that the gap between the wealthy and the poor widened. Frequently, nobles didn’t even reside on the land they owned, creating an added layer of physical separation between aristocrats and the people they governed.
During this time, the absolute authority of the emperor slipped. Bureaucrats from the Fujiwara clan inserted themselves into various positions of power, controlling policy and infiltrating the royal line by marrying their daughters to emperors.
To add to this, many emperors took the throne as children and so were governed by a regent from the Fujiwara family, and then advised by another Fujiwara representative as adults. This resulted in a cycle where emperors were installed at young ages and pushed out in their mid-thirties to ensure the continued power of the shadow government.
This practice, naturally, led to further fracturing in the government. Emperor Shirakawa abdicated in 1087 CE and put his son on the throne to rule under his supervision in an attempt to circumvent Fujiwara control. This practice became known as a ‘cloistered government’, where the true Mikado ruled from behind the throne, and added another layer of complexity to an already intricate government.
The blood of the Fujiwara spread too widely to be properly controlled. When an emperor or aristocrat had too many children, some were removed from the line of succession, and these children formed two groups, the Minamoto and the Taira, who would eventually challenge the emperor with private armies of samurai.
Power bounced between the two groups until the Minamoto clan emerged victorious and created the Kamakura Shogunate, the militaristic government that would rule Japan during the next medieval chapter of Japanese history.
The term samurai was originally used to denote the aristocratic warriors (bushi), but it came to apply to all the members of the warrior class that rose to power in the 12th century and dominated the Japanese authority. A samurai was usually named by combining one kanji (characters that are used in the Japanese writing system) from his father or grandfather and another new kanji.
Samurai had arranged marriages, which were arranged by a go-between of the same or higher rank. While for those samurai in the upper ranks this was a necessity (as most had few opportunities to meet women), this was a formality for lower-ranked samurai.
Most samurai married women from a samurai family, but for lower-ranked samurai, marriages with regular folk were permitted. In these marriages a dowry was brought by the woman and was used to set up the couple’s new household.
Most samurai were bound by a code of honor and were expected to set an example for those below them. A notable part of their code is seppuku or hara kiri, which allowed a disgraced samurai to regain his honor by passing into death, where samurai were still beholden to social rules.
While there are many romanticized characterizations of samurai behavior such as the writing of Bushido in 1905, studies of kobudō and traditional budō indicate that the samurai were as practical on the battlefield as were any other warriors.
Japanese Art, Literature, and Culture
The Heian Period saw a move away from the heavy influence of Chinese culture and a refinement of what Japanese culture would come to be. A written language was developed for the first time in Japan, which allowed for the world’s first novel to be written.
It was called the Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, who was a lady of the court. Other significant written works were also written by women, some in the form of diaries.
The emergence of female writers during this time was due to the Fujiwara family’s interest in educating their daughters in order to capture the attention of the emperor and maintain control of the court. These women created a genre of their own that focused on the transitory nature of life. Men were not interested in recounts of what went on in the courts, but did write poetry.
The emergence of artistic luxuries and fine goods, like silk, jewelry, painting, and calligraphy offered new avenues for a man of the court to prove his value. A man was judged by his artistic abilities as well as his rank.
Kamakura Period: 1185-1333 CE
The Kamakura Shogunate
As shogun, Minamoto no Yoritomo situated himself comfortably in a position of power as shogunate. Technically, the Mikado still ranked above the shogunate, but in reality, power over the country stood with whoever controlled the army. In exchange, the shogunate offered military protection for the emperor.
For most of this era, the emperors and shoguns would be content with this arrangement. The beginning of the Kamakura Period marked the start of the Feudal Era in the history of Japan that would last until the 19th Century.
However, Minamoto no Yoritomo died in a riding accident only a few years after taking power. His wife, Hojo Masako, and her father, Hojo Tokimasa, both of the Hojo family, took power and established a regent shogunate, in the same way earlier politicians established a regent emperor in order to rule behind the scenes.
Hojo Masako and her father gave the title of shogun to Minamoto no Yoritomo’s second son, Sanetomo, to maintain the line of succession while actually ruling themselves.
The last shogun of the Kamakura Period was Hojo Moritoki, and although the Hojo would not hold the seat of the shogunate forever, the shogunate government would last for centuries until the Meiji Restoration in 1868 CE. Japan became a largely militaristic country where warriors and principles of battle and warfare would dominate the culture.
Trade and Technological and Cultural Advancements
During this time, trade with China expanded and coinage was used more frequently, along with bills of credit, which sometimes led samurai into debt after overspending. Newer and better tools and techniques made agriculture much more effective, along with the improved use of lands that had been previously neglected. Women were allowed to own estates, head families, and inherit property.
New sects of Buddhism cropped up, focusing on principles of Zen, which were very popular among samurai for their attention to beauty, simplicity, and withdrawal from the bustle of life.
This new form of Buddhism also had an influence on the art and writing of the time, and the era produced several new and notable Buddhist temples. Shinto was still practiced broadly as well, sometimes by the same people who practiced Buddhism.
The Mongol Invasions
Two of the greatest threats to Japan’s existence occurred during the Kamakura period in 1274 and 1281 CE. Feeling spurned after a request for tribute was ignored by the shogunate and the Mikado, Kublai Khan of Mongolia sent two invasion fleets to Japan. Both were met with typhoons that either destroyed the vessels or blew them far off course. The storms were given the name ‘kamikaze’, or ‘divine winds’ for their seemingly miraculous providence.
However, although Japan avoided outside threats, the stress of maintaining a standing army and being prepared for war during and after the attempted Mongol invasions was too much for the Hojo shogunate, and it slipped into a period of turmoil.
Kemmu Restoration: 1333-1336 CE
The Kemmu Restoration was a turbulent transition period between the Kamakura and Ashikaga Periods. The emperor at the time, Go-Daigo (r. 1318-1339), tried to take advantage of the discontent caused by the strain of being war-ready after the attempted Mongol invasions and tried to reclaim the throne from the shogunate.
He was exiled after two attempts, but returned from exile in 1333 and enlisted the help of warlords who were disaffected with the Kamakura Shogunate. With the help of Ashikaga Takauji and another warlord, Go-Daigo toppled the Kamakura Shogunate in 1336.
However, Ashikaga wanted the title of shogun but Go-Daigo refused, so the former emperor was exiled again and Ashikaga installed a more compliant emperor, establishing himself as the shogun and beginning the Ashikaga Period.
Ashikaga (Muromachi) Period: 1336-1573 CE
The Warring States Period
The Ashikaga Shogunate situated its power in the city of Muromachi, hence the two names for the period. The period was characterized by a century of violence called the Warring States period.
The Onin War of 1467-1477 CE is what catalyzed the Warring States period, but the period itself – the fallout of the civil war – lasted from 1467 until 1568, a full century after the initiation of the war. Japanese warlords feuded viciously, fracturing the previously centralized regime and destroying the city of Heiankyo. An anonymous poem from 1500 describes the chaos:
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The Onin War began because of a rivalry between the Hosokawa and Yamana families, but the conflict drew in the majority of the influential families. The warlord heads of these families would fight for a century, without any of them ever achieving dominance.
The original conflict was thought to be that each family supported a different candidate for the shogunate, but the shogunate had little power anymore, making the argument pointless. Historians think that the fighting really just came from a desire within the aggressive warlords to flex their armies of samurai.
Life Outside the Fighting
Despite the turmoil of the time, many aspects of Japanese life actually flourished. With the fracturing of the central government, communities had more dominion over themselves.
Local warlords, daimyos, ruled the outer provinces and had no fear of the government, meaning the people of those provinces didn’t pay as much in taxes as they had under the emperor and shogun.
Agriculture thrived with the invention of the double-cropping technique and the use of fertilizers. Villages were able to grow in size and start to govern themselves as they saw that communal work could improve all of their lives.
They formed so and ikki, small councils and leagues designed to address the physical and social needs of their people. The average farmer was actually much better off during the violent Ashikaga than he was in previous, more peaceful times.
Similarly to the success of farmers, the arts flourished during this violent period. Two significant temples, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion and the Serene Temple of the Silver Pavilion, were constructed during this time and still draw many visitors today.
The tearoom and tea ceremony became staples in the lives of those who could afford a separate tea room. The ceremony developed from Zen Buddhist influences and became a sacred, precise ceremony performed in a calm space.
Zen religion also had an influence on Noh theatre, painting, and flower arranging, all new developments that would come to define Japanese culture.
Unification (Azuchi-Momoyama Period): 1568-1600 CE
The Warring States period finally ended when one warlord was able to best the rest: Oda Nobunaga. In 1568 he captured Heiankyo, the seat of imperial power, and in 1573 he exiled the last Ashikaga shogunate. By 1579, Nobunaga controlled all of central Japan.
He managed this because of several assets: his gifted general, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a willingness to engage in diplomacy, rather than warfare when appropriate, and his adoption of firearms, brought to Japan by the Portuguese in the previous era.
Focused on maintaining his grip on the half of Japan he controlled, Nobunaga put forth a series of reforms intended to fund his new empire. He abolished toll roads, whose money went to rival daimyo, minted currency, confiscated weapons from the peasantry, and released merchants from their guilds so they would pay fees to the state instead.
However, Nobunaga was also aware that a large part of maintaining his success would be to ensure that relationships with Europe stayed beneficial, since the trading of goods and technology (like firearms) was vital to his new state. This meant allowing Christian missionaries to set up monasteries, and, on occasion, destroying and burning Buddhist temples.
Nobunaga died in 1582, either from suicide after a traitorous vassal took his seat, or in a fire that killed his son as well. His star general, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, quickly declared himself Nobunaga’s successor.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi set himself up in a castle at the base of Momoyama (‘Peach Mountain’), adding to a growing number of castles in Japan. Most were never attacked and were mostly for show, and so towns sprung up around them that would become major cities, like Osaka or Edo (Tokyo), in modern day Japan.
Hideyoshi continued Nobunaga’s work and conquered most of Japan with an army 200,000 strong and using the same mix of diplomacy and force that his predecessor had employed. Despite the emperor’s lack of actual power, Hideyoshi, as most other shoguns had, sought his favor for the sake of having complete and legitimized power backed by the state.
One of Hideyoshi’s legacies is a class system he implemented that would stay in place through the Edo period called the shi-no-ko-sho system, taking its name from the name of each class. Shi were warriors, no were farmers, ko were artisans, and sho were merchants.
There was no mobility or crossover allowed in this system, meaning a farmer could never rise to the position of samurai and a samurai had to commit his life to being a warrior and could not farm at all.
In 1587, Hideyoshi passed an edict to expel all Christian missionaries from Japan, but it was only half-heartedly enforced. He passed another in 1597 that was more forcefully enforced and led to the deaths of 26 Christians.
However, like Nobunaga, Hideyoshi realized it was imperative to maintain a good relationship with the Christians, who were representative of Europe and the riches that the Europeans brought to Japan. He even started to control the pirates who plagued merchant vessels in the East Asian seas.
Between 1592 and 1598, Hideyoshi would launch two invasions of Korea, intended as paths into China to topple the Ming Dynasty, a plan so ambitious that some in Japan thought he might have lost his mind. The first invasion was successful initially and pushed all the way to Pyongyang, but they were repelled by the Korean navy and local rebels.
The second invasion, which would be one of the largest military operations in East Asian prior to the 20th century CE, was unsuccessful and resulted in devastating loss of life, the destruction of property and land, a sour relationship between Japan and Korea, and a cost to the Ming Dynasty that would lead to its eventual decline.
When Hideyoshi died in 1598, Japan pulled the remainder of its troops from Korea.
Tokugawa Ieyasu was among the ministers Hideyoshi had tasked with helping his son rule after his death. However, naturally, Ieyasu and the other ministers simply warred amongst themselves until Ieyasu emerged victor in 1600, taking the seat intended for Hideyoshi’s son.
He took the title of shogun in 1603 and established the Tokugawa Shogunate, which saw the complete unification of Japan. After that, the Japanese people enjoyed around 250 years of peace. An old Japanese saying goes, “Nobunaga mixed the cake, Hideyoshi baked it, and Ieyasu ate it” (Beasley, 117).
Tokugawa (Edo) Period: 1600-1868 CE
Economy and Society
During the Tokugawa Period, Japan’s economy developed a more solid foundation made possible by the centuries of peace. Hideyoshi’s shi-no-ko-sho system was still in place, but not always enforced. Samurai, left without work during periods of peace, took up a trade or became bureaucrats.
However, they were also still expected to maintain the samurai code of honor and behave accordingly, which caused some frustrations. Peasants were tied to their land (the land of the aristocrats that the farmers worked on) and were forbidden from doing anything unrelated to agriculture, in order to ensure consistent income for the aristocrats they worked for.
Overall, the breadth and depth of agriculture boomed throughout this period. Farming expanded to include rice, sesame oil, indigo, sugar cane, mulberry, tobacco, and corn. In response, the commerce and manufacturing industries also grew to process and sell these products.
This led to an increase in wealth for the merchant class and so a cultural response in urban hubs that focused on catering to merchants and consumers, rather than nobles and daimyo. This middle of the Tokugawa Period saw a rise in Kabuki theater, Bunraku puppet theater, literature (especially haiku), and woodblock printing.
The Act of Seclusion
In 1636, the Tokugawa Shogunate put forth the Act of Seclusion, which cut Japan off from all Western nations (except for a small Dutch outpost in Nagasaki).
This came after many years of suspicion towards the West. Christianity has been gaining a foothold in Japan for a few centuries, and near the beginning of the Tokugawa Period, there were 300,000 Christians in Japan. It was brutally suppressed and forced underground after a rebellion in 1637. The Tokugawa regime wanted to rid Japan of foreign influence and colonial sentiments.
However, as the world moved into a more modern era, it became less feasible for Japan to be cut off from the outside world — and the outside world had come knocking.
In 1854, Commodore Matthew Perry famously sailed his American battle fleet into Japanese waters to force the signing of the Treaty of Kanagawa, which would open Japanese ports to American vessels. The Americans threatened to bomb Edo if the treaty was not signed, so it was signed. This marked the necessary transition from the Tokugawa Period to the Meiji Restoration.
Meiji Restoration and Meiji Period: 1868-1912 CE
Rebellion and Reform
The Meiji Period is considered among the most important in the history of Japan as it’s during this time that Japan began to open up to the world. The Meiji Restoration began with a coup d’etat in Kyoto on January 3, 1868 carried out mostly by the young samurai of two clans, the Choshu and the Satsuma.
They installed the young emperor Meiji to rule Japan. Their motivations stemmed from a few points. The word “Meiji” means “enlightened rule” and the goal was to combine “modern advances” with traditional “eastern” values.
Samurai had been suffering under the Tokugawa Shogunate, where they were useless as warriors during the peaceful period, but held to the same standards of behavior. They were also concerned about America and European powers’ insistence on opening Japan and the potential influence that the West would have on Japanese people.
Once in power, the new administration began by moving the capital of the country from Kyoto to Tokyo and dismantling the feudal regime. A national army was established in 1871 and filled due to a universal conscription law two years later.
The government also introduced several reforms that unified the monetary and tax systems, as well as introducing universal education that was initially focused on Western learning.
However, the new emperor faced some opposition in the form of disgruntled samurai and peasants who were unhappy with new agrarian policies. Revolts peaked in the 1880s. Simultaneously, the Japanese, inspired by Western ideals, began pushing for a constitutional government.
The Meiji Constitution was promulgated in 1889 and established a bicameral parliament called the Diet, whose members were to be elected through a limited voting franchise.
Moving into the 20th Century
Industrialization became the administration’s focus as the century turned, focused on strategic industries, transportation, and communications. By 1880 telegraph lines linked all major cities and by 1890, the country had more than 1,400 miles of train tracks.
A European-style banking system was also introduced. These changes were all informed by Western science and technology, a movement known in Japan as Bunmei Kaika, or “Civilization and Enlightenment”. This included cultural trends such as clothing and architecture, as well as science and technology.
There was a gradual reconciliation of Western and traditional Japanese ideals between 1880 and 1890. The sudden influx of European culture was eventually tempered and mixed into traditional Japanese culture in art, education, and social values, satisfying both those intent on modernization and those who feared the erasure of Japanese culture by the West.
The Meiji Restoration had propelled Japan into the modern era. It revised some unfair treaties that had favored foreign powers and won two wars, one against China in 1894-95 and one against Russia in 1904-05. With that, Japan had established itself as a major power on the global scale, prepared to stand toe to toe with the superpowers of the West.
Taisho Era: 1912-1926 CE
Japan’s Roaring 20s and Social Unrest
Emperor Taisho, Meiji’s son and successor, contracted cerebral meningitis at an early age, the effects of which would gradually deteriorate his authority and his ability to rule. Power shifted to the members of the Diet, and by 1921, Taisho’s son Hirohito was named prince regent and the emperor himself no longer appeared in public.
Despite the instability in government, culture bloomed. The music, film, and theatre scenes grew, European-style cafes popped up in university cities like Tokyo, and young people took to wearing American and European clothes.
Simultaneously, liberal politics began to emerge, led by figures like Dr. Yoshino Sakuzo, who was a professor of law and political theory. He promoted the idea that universal education was the key to equitable societies.
These thoughts led to strikes that were enormous in both size and frequency. The number of strikes in a year quadrupled between 1914 and 1918. A women’s suffrage movement emerged and challenged cultural and familial traditions that prevented women from participating in politics or working.
In fact, women led the most widespread protests of the period, where farmers’ wives protested against a huge rise in rice prices and ended up inspiring many other protests in other industries.
Disaster Strikes and the Emperor Returns
On September 1st, 1923, a powerful earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale rocked Japan, halting almost all political uprising. The quake and subsequent fires killed more than 150,000 people, left 600,000 homeless, and devastated Tokyo, which was, for that period, the third largest city in the world. Martial law was put into place immediately, but it was not enough to stop the opportunistic killings of both ethnic minorities and political opponents.
The Japanese Imperial Army, which was supposed to be under the command of the emperor, was in reality controlled by the prime minister and high-level cabinet members.
This resulted in those officials using the army to abduct, arrest, torture, or murder political rivals and activists deemed to be too radical. Local police and army officials responsible for these acts claimed the “radicals” were using the earthquake as an excuse to overthrow the authority, leading to further violence. The prime minister was assassinated, and there was an attempt on the prince regent’s life.
Order was restored after a conservative arm of the government wrest back control and passed the Peace Preservation Law of 1925. The law slashed personal liberties in an attempt to preemptively stop potential dissent and threatened a 10 year prison sentence for rebellion against the imperial government. When the emperor died, the prince regent ascended the throne and took the name Showa, meaning “peace and enlightenment”.
Showa’s power as emperor was largely ceremonial, but the power of the government was much more solid than it had been throughout the unrest. There was a practice put into place that became characteristic of the new strict, militaristic tone of the administration.
Previously, commoners were expected to remain seated when the emperor was present, so as not to stand above him. After 1936, it was illegal for a regular citizen to even look at the emperor.
Showa Era: 1926-1989 CE
Ultra-Nationalism and World War II
The early Showa Era was characterized by an ultra-nationalist sentiment among the Japanese people and the military, to the point where the animosity was aimed at the government for perceived weakness in negotiation with Western powers.
Assassins stabbed or shot several Japanese top government officials, including three prime ministers. The Imperial Army invaded Manchuria of their own accord, defying the emperor, and in response, the imperial government responded with even more authoritarian rule.
This ultra-nationalism evolved, according to Showa propaganda, into an attitude that saw all non-Japanese Asian peoples as lesser, since, according to the Nihon Shoki, the emperor was descended from the gods and so he and his people stood above the rest.
This attitude, along with militarism built up during this period and the last, motivated an invasion of China that would last until 1945. This invasion and the need for resources was what motivated Japan to join the Axis Powers and fight in the Asian Theater of World War II.
Atrocities and Post-War Japan
Japan was party to, as well as victim of, a series of violent acts throughout this period. At the end of 1937 during its war with China, the Japanese Imperial Army committed the Rape of Nanking, a massacre of around 200,000 people in the city of Nanking, both civilians and soliders, along with the rapes of tens of thousands of women.
The city was looted and burned, and the effects would ring out in the city for decades afterwards. However, when, in 1982, it came to light that the newly authorized high-school textbooks on Japanese history used semantics to obscure painful historical memories.
The Chinese administration was outraged, and the official Peking Review charged that, in distorting historical facts, the education ministry sought to ”obliterate from the memory of Japan’s younger generation the history of Japan’s aggression against China and other Asian countries so as to lay the basis for reviving militarism.”
A few years later and across the world in 1941, in a bid to destroy the US Pacific naval fleet as a part of the Axis Powers’ motivations in WWII, Japanese fighter planes bombed a naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, killing around 2,400 Americans.
In response, the US declared war on Japan, a move that would lead to the infamous August 6 and 9 nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The bombs killed more than 100,000 people and would cause radiation poisoning in countless more for years to follow. They did, however, have the intended effect and Emperor Showa surrendered on August 15.
During the war, from April 1 – June 21, 1945, the island of Okinawa – the largest of the Ryukyu Islands. Okinawa is located just 350 miles (563 km) south of Kyushu – became the scene of a bloody battle.
Dubbed “the Typhoon of Steel” for its ferocity, the Battle of Okinawa was one of the bloodiest in the Pacific War, claiming the lives of more than 12,000 Americans and 100,000 Japanese, including the commanding generals on both sides. In addition, at least 100,000 civilians were either killed in combat or were ordered to commit suicide by the Japanese military.
After WWII, Japan was occupied by American troops and made to take up a liberal Western democratic constitution. Power was turned over to the Diet and the prime minister. The 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics, were seen by many as a turning point in the history of Japan, the moment when Japan finally recovered from the devastation of WWII to emerge as a fully fledged member of the modern world economy.
All of the funding that had once gone to Japan’s military was instead used to build its economy, and with unprecedented speed, Japan became a global powerhouse in manufacturing. By 1989, Japan had one of the largest economies in the world, second only to the United States.
Heisei Era: 1989-2019 CE
After Emperor Showa died, his son Akihito ascended the throne to lead Japan during more sober times after their disastrous defeat at the end of WWII. Throughout this period, Japan suffered under a series of natural and political disasters. In 1991, Mount Unzen’s Fugen Peak erupted after being dormant for almost 200 years.
12,000 people were evacuated from a nearby town and 43 people were killed by pyroclastic flows. In 1995, a 6.8 earthquake struck the city of Kobe and in the same year the doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo carried out a sarin gas terrorist attack in the Tokyo Metro.
In 2004 another earthquake struck the Hokuriku region, killing 52 and injuring hundreds. In 2011, the strongest earthquake in Japanese history, a 9 on the Reichter scale, created a tsunami that killed thousands and led to damage to the Fukushima Nuclear Power plant that caused the most serious case of radioactive contamination since Chernobyl. In 2018, extraordinary rainfall in Hiroshima and Okayama killed many people, and in the same year an earthquake killed 41 in Hokkaido.
Kiyoshi Kanebishi, a sociology professor who wrote a book called “Spiritualism and the Study of Disaster” said once that he was “drawn towards the idea that” the end of the Heisei Era was about “putting to rest a period of disasters and starting fresh.”
Reiwa Era: 2019-Present
The Heisei Era ended after the emperor willingly abdicated, indicating a break in tradition that paralleled the naming of the era, which was typically done by taking names from classical Chinese literature. This time, the name “Reiwa“, meaning “beautiful harmony”, was taken from the Man’yo-shu, a revered anthology of Japanese poetry. Prime Minister Abe Shinzo took over from the emperor and leads Japan today. Prime Minister Shinzo has said that the name was chosen to represent the potential for Japan to bloom like a flower after a long winter.
On 14th September 2020, Japan’s governing party, the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) elected Yoshihide Suga as its new leader to succeed Shinzo Abe, meaning he is almost certain to become the country’s next prime minister.
Mr Suga, a powerful cabinet secretary in the Abe administration, won the vote for the presidency of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) by a large margin, taking 377 of a total of 534 votes from lawmakers and regional representatives. He was nicknamed “Uncle Reiwa” after unveiling the name of the current Japanese Era.