The history of Japan is an intriguing story. A nation of contrasts that attracts millions of visitors to its cities every year, this is a country where the modern and the ancient mix and mingle in everyday life.
However, due to the destruction of WWII, Kyoto remains the best place in Japan to experience its history. As the former imperial capital, the home to many powerful shogunates, and the birthplace of many of Japan’s cultural arts, Kyoto is an exciting jumping off point for studying Japan’s past and present.
Over the past several thousand years, though, Japan has risen and fallen many times, and its history is both long and rich. This short history of Japan begins with the country’s humble beginnings in the early years of human civilization and takes us all the way to the modern day, where Japan remains a global economic and political powerhouse.
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The History of Japan Begins: ~10,000 BCE – 710 CE
During the Jomon Period around 10,000 BC, early inhabitants of Japan made their living by fishing, hunting, and gathering. This era was named after cord markings, or jomon, on pottery pieces they made. Centuries later, around 300 BCE, rice cultivation was introduced from Korea. A few more centuries later, in c. 400 CE, Yamato Japan, the first unified state in the history of Japan, was established by ancestors of the current imperial family. Weapons, agricultural tools and more were also introduced from China and Korea during this time.
Nara Period: 710 – 794
A permanent centralized government was established for the first time, with the capital in modern-day Nara. Buddhism became the official national religion, and each province had a monastery (kokubunji), each with a seven-story pagoda.
This period also saw the beginnings of the ryokan. Free rest houses along forest paths called fuseya were built by Buddhist monks who took pity on the hardships of poor travelers on long journeys. Ryokans first appeared around Kyoto, as the centralized state system required people to travel there for business.
Heian Period: 794 – 1185
The Heian period, which started in 794 CE, marked the beginning of Kyoto’s role as the political center of Japan. The capital was moved during this period from nearby Nara to Heian (modern-day Kyoto), and Kyoto remained the center of the empire for more than 1,000 years.
The city was built on a grid pattern modeled after the Chinese capital, Xi’an. However, during this period, Chinese influence gradually decreased, and a native Japanese culture was established and began to grow. This led to a growth in art, poetry, literature, and religious learning.
Kamakura Period: 1185 – 1333
The Kamakura Period was when shoguns, or powerful Japanese warlords, first rose to power. This meant samurai warriors and their lords had control over territories, instead of a centralized government.
The era was named after Kamakura city, where the founder of shoguns, Minamoto Yoritomo, set up the headquarters for his military government, also known as the Kamakura Shogunate.
During this time, Zen Buddhism from China spread throughout the region, leading to the construction of some of Kyoto’s most famous temples, such as Hongan-ji, Tofuku-ji, and also Kennin-ji.
Muromachi Period: 1336 – 1573
The Muromachi Period is also known as the Ashikaga Period. It is named after the Kyoto district where the first Ashikaga shogun, Takauji, set up headquarters, and it is defined by the relative peace and stability that existed, a stark contrast from other moments in the history of Japan. During this time, good trade relations were established with China, helping the economy grow and develop even further,
Many of Kyoto’s most iconic things to do today were built during this period. This includes the Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji), the Silver Pavilion (Ginkakuji), and Ryoan-ji temple’s rock garden. Famous Kyoto cultural arts such as ikebana flower arrangements, tea ceremonies, and landscaped gardens also date from this era.
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Unfortunately, famine and a succession dispute led to the Onin civil war, which destroyed the Imperial Palace (Kyoto Gosho), along with a large part of Kyoto city, during the years 1467-1477 CE.
Azuchi-Momoyama Period: 1573 – 1603
When the Ashikaga Shogunate lost power in the 1560s, about four decades of conflict followed as various parties struggled to control Japan. Eventually, unity was restored, with all the Japanese provinces coming under the control of the central government.
During this time, construction of temples was replaced with the building of great castles and mansions, which were lavishly furnished and decorated. Examples include Osaka Castle, which was the largest at the time. In fact, this era was named after two notable castles – Azuchi Castle and Momoyama Castle.
This ear is of further importance to the history of Japan because, during this time, the Japanese made contact and began trading with Europeans. For example, towards the end of the 16th century, Portuguese and Dutch merchants, as well as Catholic missionaries, arrived in Kyoto, bringing different religions, new technologies, and goods to Japanese society.
Edo Period: 1603 – 1868
In the early 1600s, Japan became a closed country. Traveling abroad was forbidden, trade relations became very limited, and Christianity was outlawed. Despite this isolation, there was peace and stability. Domestic trade improved, and large cities like Kyoto saw a population increase.
Political power was transferred to Edo (modern-day Tokyo), but Kyoto grew as a cultural and commercial center. In fact, much of what you see in the city today dates from this time. Architecture, cuisine, geisha, kabuki, kimono-weaving, sake-brewing, and more all developed in the Edo Period.
It’s also during this era that most of the “typically Japanese” behaviors and attitudes were formed as a result of neo-Confucian influence. These include respect for hierarchy, group responsibility, morals, and education.
Meiji period: 1868 – 1912
The Meiji Period began in 1868 when the last shogunate of Tokugawa was defeated and Emperor Meiji officially moved the imperial capital of Japan from Kyoto to Tokyo.
This era, also known as the Meiji Restoration, brought about many changes to Japanese society as the new government made efforts to modernize and industrialize the country.
Shogunate domains were replaced with the current prefectures. The national army, navy, and police force were formed, along with a national railway and education system. Japan also adopted the cabinet system of government, and Japanese people started to welcome Western fashion, literature, music, and more.
Taisho Period – Early Showa Period: 1912 – 1945
Following the Meiji Restoration, Japan continued to prosper during the Taisho Period, especially after the end of World War I, as it was recognized as one of the world’s “Big Five” powers along with Britain, the US, France, and Germany.
Unfortunately, the period of prosperity was eventually followed by a recession as a result of the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, and the Great Depression of 1929.
The Showa Period began in 1926 when the death of the Taisho Emperor ushered in the new Emperor Hirohito. During the first two decades of this era, Japan saw constant times of war, most notably during World War II.
In 1944, Tokyo and other major Japanese cities were targets of aerial bombing attacks, which caused massive destruction throughout the country. However, Kyoto was fortunately spared, which is a major reason why visitors are able to enjoy the city’s well-preserved architecture and cultural treasures today.
Postwar Showa Period (1945) – Present Day
After the end of World War II, Japan struggled to recover as Kyoto was the only major city left that was relatively undamaged by the war. In 1947, the emperor was made a symbol of state without political and military power, and Japan was forbidden from ever leading a war again.
However, by the 1960s and 1970s, Japan was back on track again and its economy was developing at breakneck speeds. Key highways and infrastructure such as the Tokaido Shinkansen, which links Tokyo and Osaka, were developed, and the country successfully hosted the 1964 Olympics and 1970 Osaka Expo.
The Next Chapter in the History of Japan
Today, Japan is a major tourist destination and cultural influence, with fans of J-pop, J-beauty, anime, martial arts and more scattered all around the globe. Kyoto itself remains an important cultural center, as it is home to about 20% of Japan’s National Treasures, and 15% of Japan’s Important Cultural Properties.
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However, Japan currently finds itself in a position where strict immigration policies combined with rigid cultural norms and a declining birthrate are putting stress on the country’s prosperity. Yet the history of Japan is full of examples in which Japan bounces back from a period of decline to restore itself atop the world order. Only time will tell if this trend is to continue into the future.
This article was written by Xinxian and Paul from Journey Compass.
- Japan History, Encyclopedia Britannica.
- History Overview, Japan-guide.com.
- Japanese History – An Overview By Era, Japan Visitor.
- “The History and Culture Behind Japan’s Unique Kind of Inn; The Ryokan”, Yabai.com.