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To get a grip on the history of Japan, try thinking of the history of the British Isles, but imagine that those islands were significantly further from the mainland. While there has been contact between Japan and mainland Asia, separation from the mainland was crucial in allowing Japan to evolve into the unique country you find today.

Broadly speaking, Japan’s history can be divided into five main periods: prehistory, which comes to an end in about 400 BC; pre-classical, from 400 BC until AD 710; classical, from 710 to 1185; medieval, from 1185 to 1600; and pre-modern to modern, from 1600 onward.


Once upon a time, two deities, the male Izanagi and the female Izanami, came down from Takamagahara (The Plains of High Heaven) to a watery world in order to create land. Droplets from Izanagi’s ‘spear’ solidified into the land now known as Japan. Izanami and Izanagi then populated the new land with gods. One of these was Japan’s supreme deity, the Sun Goddess Amaterasu (Light of Heaven), whose great-great grandson Jimmu was to become the first emperor of Japan, reputedly in 660 BC.

Such is the seminal creation myth of Japan. More certainly, humans were present in Japan at least 200,000 years ago, though the earliest human remains go back only 30,000 years or so. Till around the end of the last ice age some 15,000 years ago Japan was linked to the continent by a number of land bridges – Siberia to the north, Korea to the west and probably present-day Taiwan to the south – so access was not difficult.

Amid undoubted diversity, the first recognisable culture to emerge was the neolithic Jōmon (named after a ‘rope-mark’ pottery style), from around 13,000 BC. The Jōmon were mostly hunter-gatherers, with a preference for coastal regions, though agriculture started to develop from around 4000 BC and this brought about greater stability in settlement and the emergence of larger tribal communities. The present-day indigenous Ainu people of northern Japan are of Jōmon descent.

Jōmon pottery vessels dating back some 15,000 years are the oldest known pottery vessels in the world.

From around 400 BC Japan was effectively invaded by waves of immigrants later known as Yayoi (from the site where their distinctive reddish wheel-thrown pottery was first found). They first arrived in the southwest, probably through the Korean Peninsula. Their exact origins are unknown, and may well be diverse, but they brought with them iron and bronze technology, and highly productive wet rice-farming techniques.

Opinion is divided as to the nature of Yayoi relations with the Jōmon, but the latter were gradually displaced and forced ever further north (although modern Japanese possess significant amounts of Jōmon DNA, indicating a certain amount of intermingling of the races). The Yayoi had spread to the middle of Honshū by the 1st century AD, but northern Honshū could still be considered ‘Jōmon’ till at least the 8th century.

Other consequences of the Yayoi advent included greater intertribal regional trade based on greater and more diverse production through new technologies, but at the same time increased rivalry between regional tribal groups, often over resources, and greater social stratification.

Yamato Clan

Agriculture-based fixed settlement led to the consolidation of territory and the establishment of boundaries. According to Chinese sources, by the end of the 1st century AD there were more than a hundred kingdoms in Japan, and by the middle of the 3rd century these were largely subject to an ‘over-queen’ named Himiko, whose own territory was known as Yamatai (later Yamato). The location of Yamatai is disputed, with some scholars favouring northwest Kyūshū, but most favour the Nara region. The Chinese treated Himiko as sovereign of all Japan – the name Yamato eventually being applied to Japan as a whole – and she for her part acknowledged through tribute her allegiance to the Chinese emperor.

On her death in 248 Himiko is said to have been buried – along with 100 sacrificed slaves – in a massive barrow-like tomb known as a kofun, indicative of the importance of status. Other dignitaries chose burial in similar tombs, and so from this point on, till the establishment of Nara as a capital in 710, Japan is usually referred to as being in the Kofun or Yamato period.

The period saw the confirmation of the Yamato as the dominant – indeed imperial – clan in Japan. Their consolidation of power often appears to have been by negotiation and alliance with (or incorporation of) powerful potential foes. This was a practice Japan was to continue through the ages where possible, though it was less accommodating in the case of perceived weaker foes.

The first verifiable emperor was Suijin (died c 318), very likely of the Yamato clan, though some scholars think he may have been leader of a group of ‘horse-riders’ who are believed to have come into Japan around the start of the 4th century from the Korean Peninsula. The period also saw the adoption of writing, based on Chinese but first introduced by scholars from the Korean kingdom of Paekche in the mid-5th century. Scholars from Paekche also introduced Buddhism a century later.

Buddhism was promoted by the Yamato rulers as a means of unification and control of the land. Though Buddhism originated in India, it was seen by the Japanese as a Chinese religion, and as such was one of a number of ‘things Chinese’ that they adopted to achieve recognition – especially by China – as a civilised country. Through emulating powerful China, Japan hoped it too could becomepowerful.

In 604 the regent Prince Shōtoku (573–620) enacted a constitution of 17 articles, with a very Chinese and indeed Confucian flavour, esteeming harmony and hard work. Major Chinese-style reforms, such as centralisation of government, nationalisation and allocation of land, and law codes, followed some decades later in 645. To strengthen its regime, under Emperor Temmu (r 673–86) the imperial family initiated the compilation of historical works such as the Kojiki (Record of Old Things; 712) and Nihon Shoki (Record of Japan; 720), with the aim of legitimising their power-holding through claimed divine descent. It had the desired effect, and despite a number of perilous moments, Japan continues to have the longest unbroken monarchic line in the world.

Emulation of things Chinese was not indiscriminate. For example, in China Confucianism condoned the removal of an unvirtuous ruler felt to have lost the ‘mandate of heaven’, but this idea was not promoted in Japan. Nor was the Chinese practice of allowing achievement of high rank through examination, for the Japanese ruling class preferred birth over merit.

Though northern Japan might be excluded at this point, in terms of factors such as effective unification, centralised government, social stratification, systematic administration, external recognition, legitimisation of power, a written constitution and a legal code, Japan, with its estimated five million people, could be said to have formed a nation-state by the early 8th century.


In 710 an intended permanent capital was established at Nara (Heijō-kyō), built to a Chinese grid pattern. The influence of Buddhism in those days is still seen today in the Tōdai-ji, which houses a huge bronze Buddha and is the world’s largest wooden building (and one of the oldest).

In 784 Emperor Kammu (r 781–806) decided to relocate the capital. His reasons are unclear but may have related to an inauspicious series of disasters following the move to Nara, including a massive smallpox epidemic of 735–7 that killed as many as one-third of the population. Presently, in 794, the capital was transferred to nearby Kyoto (Heian-kyō), newly built on a similar grid pattern. It was to remain Japan’s capital for more than a thousand years – though not necessarily as the centre of actual power.

The Tale of Genji, written by court lady Murasaki Shikibu around 1004, is widely believed to be the world’s first novel.

It was in Kyoto that, over the next few centuries, courtly life reached a pinnacle of refined artistic pursuits and etiquette, captured famously in the novel The Tale of Genji, written by the court-lady Murasaki Shikibu around 1004. It showed a world where courtiers indulged in divertissements such as guessing flowers by their scent, building extravagant follies and sparing no expense to indulge in the latest luxury. On the positive side, it was a world that encouraged aesthetic sensibilities, such as of mono no aware (the bitter-sweetness of things) and okashisa (pleasantly surprising incongruity), which were to endure right through to the present. But on the negative side, it was also a world increasingly estranged from the real one. Put bluntly, it lacked muscle. The effeteness of the court was exacerbated by the weakness of the emperors, manipulated over centuries by the intrigues of the notorious and politically powerful Fujiwara family.

By contrast, while the major nobles immersed themselves in courtly pleasures and/or intrigues, out in the real world of the provinces powerful military forces were developing. They were typically led by minor nobles, often sent out on behalf of court-based major nobles to carry out ‘tedious’ local gubernatorial and administrative duties. Some were actually distant imperial family members, barred from succession claims – a practice known as ‘dynastic shedding’ – and often hostile to the court. Their retainers included skilled warriors known as samurai (literally ‘retainer’).

The two main ‘shed’ families were the Minamoto (also known as Genji) and the Taira (Heike), who were basically enemies. In 1156 they were employed to assist rival claimants to headship of the Fujiwara family, though these figures soon faded into the background, for it developed into a feud between the Minamoto and the Taira.

The Taira were to prevail, under Kiyomori (1118–81), who based himself in the capital and, over the next 20 years or so, fell prey to many of the vices that lurked there. In 1180, following a typical court practice, he enthroned his own two-year-old grandson, Antoku. However, a rival claimantrequested the help of the Minamoto, who had regrouped under Yoritomo (1147–99) in Izu. Yoritomo was more than ready to agree.

Both Kiyomori and the claimant died very shortly afterwards, but Yoritomo, with his younger half-brother Yoshitsune (1159–89), continued the campaign against the Taira – a campaign interrupted by a pestilence during the early 1180s. By 1185 Kyoto had fallen and the Taira had been pursued to the western tip of Honshū. A naval battle ensued (at Dannoura), and the Minamoto were victorious. In a well-known tragic tale, Kiyomori’s widow clasped her grandson Antoku (now aged seven), and leaped with him into the sea, rather than have him surrender. Minamoto Yoritomo was now the most powerful man in Japan, and was to usher in a martial age.


Yoritomo did not seek to become emperor, but rather to have the new emperor confer legitimacy on him through the title of shōgun (generalissimo). This was granted in 1192. Similarly, he left many existing offices and institutions in place, though often modified. Nor did he set up his base at Kyoto but rather in his home territory of Kamakura. In theory he represented merely the military arm of the emperor’s government, but in practice he was in charge of government in the broad sense. His ‘shōgunate’ was known in Japanese as the bakufu, meaning the tent headquarters of a field general, though it was far from temporary. As an institution, it was to last almost 700 years.

The system of government now became feudal, centred on a lord-vassal system in which loyalty was a key value. It tended to be more personal and more ‘familial’ than medieval European feudalism, particularly in the extended oya-ko relationship (‘parent-child’, in practice ‘father-son’). This ‘familial hierarchy’ was to become another enduring feature of Japan.

But ‘families’ – even actual blood families – were not always happy, and the more ruthless powerseekers would not hesitate to kill family members they saw as threats. Yoritomo himself, seemingly very suspicious by nature, killed off so many of his own family there were serious problems with the shōgunal succession upon his death in 1199 (following a fall from his horse in suspicious circumstances). One of those he had killed was his half-brother Yoshitsune, who earned an enduring place in Japanese literature and legend as the archetypical tragic hero.

Yoritomo’s widow, Masako (1157–1225), was a formidable figure, arranging shōgunal regents and for much of her remaining life controlling the shōgunate. Having taken religious vows on her husband’s death, she became known as the ‘nun shōgun’, and is one of the most powerful women in Japanese history. She was instrumental in ensuring that her own family, the Hōjō, replaced the Minamoto as shōguns. The Hōjō shōgunate continued to use Kamakura as the shōgunal base, and was to endure till the 1330s.

Mongol Threats

It was during their shōgunacy that the Mongols twice tried to invade, in 1274 and 1281. The Mongol empire was close to its peak at this time, under Kublai Khan (r 1260–94). After conquering Korea in 1259 he sent requests to Japan to submit to him, but these were ignored.

His expected first attack came in November 1274, allegedly with some 900 vessels carrying around 40,000 men – many of them reluctant Korean conscripts – though these figures may be exaggerated. They landed near Hakata in northwest Kyūshū and, despite spirited Japanese resistance, made progress inland. However, for unclear reasons, they presently retreated to their ships. Shortly afterwards a violent storm blew up and damaged around a third of the fleet, after which the remainder returned to Korea.

A more determined attempt was made seven years later, from China. Kublai ordered the construction of a huge fleet of allegedly 4400 warships to carry a massive force of 140,000 men – again, these are questionable figures. They landed once more in northwest Kyūshū, in August 1281, and again met spirited resistance, and had to retire to their vessels. Once again, the weather soon intervened – this time a typhoon – and half their vessels were destroyed, many of which were actually designed for river use: they lacked keels, and were unable to withstand rough conditions. The survivors went back to China, and there was to be no further Mongol attempt to invade Japan.

It was the typhoon of 1281 in particular that led to the idea of divine intervention to save Japan, with the coining of the term kamikaze (literally ‘divine wind’). Later this came to be used of the Pacific War suicide pilots who, said to be infused with divine spirit, gave their lives in the cause of protecting Japan from invasion. It also led the Japanese to feel that their land was indeed the Land of the Gods.

Demise of the Hōjō Shōgunate

Despite the successful defence of Japan, the Hōjō shōgunate suffered. It was unable to make a number of promised payments to those involved in repelling the Mongols, which brought considerable dissatisfaction towards it, while the payments it did make severely depleted its finances.

It was also during the Hōjō shōgunacy that Zen Buddhism was brought from China. Its austerity and self-discipline appealed greatly to the warrior class, and it was also a factor in the appeal of aesthetic values such as sabi (elegant simplicity). More popular forms of Buddhism were the Jōdo (Pure Land) and Jōdo Shin (True Pure Land) sects, based on salvation through invocation of Amida Buddha.

Dissatisfaction towards the Hōjō shōgunate came to a head under the unusually assertive emperor Go-Daigo (1288–1339), who, after escaping from exile imposed by the Hōjō, started to muster anti-shōgunal support in western Honshū. In 1333 the shōgunate despatched troops to counter this, under one of its most promising generals, the young Ashikaga Takauji (1305–58). However, realising that between them he and Go-Daigo had considerable military strength, and also aware of the dissatisfaction towards the Hōjō, Takauji threw in his lot with the emperor and attacked the shōgunal offices in Kyoto. Others also soon rebelled against the shōgunate in Kamakura itself.

This was the end for the Hōjō shōgunate, but not for the shōgunal institution. Takauji wanted the title of shōgun for himself, but his ally Go-Daigo was reluctant to confer it, fearing it would weaken his own imperial power. A rift developed, and Go-Daigo sent forces to attack Takauji. However, Takauji emerged victorious, and turned on Kyoto, forcing Go-Daigo to flee into the hills of Yoshino some 100km south of the city, where he set up a court in exile. In Kyoto Takauji installed a puppet emperor from a rival line, who returned the favour by declaring him shōgun in 1338. Thus there were two courts in co-existence, which continued till 1392 when the ‘southern court’ (at Yoshino) was betrayed by Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358–1408), Takauji’s grandson and third Ashikaga shōgun.

Warring States

Takauji set up his shōgunal base in Kyoto, at Muromachi, which gives its name to the period of the Ashikaga shōgunate. With a few exceptions such as Takauji himself and his grandson Yoshimitsu, who among other things had Kyoto’s famous Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion) built, and once declared himself ‘King of Japan’, the Ashikaga shōguns were relatively weak. In the absence of strong centralised government and control the country slipped increasingly into civil war as regional warlords – who came to be known as daimyō (regional lords) – vied with each other in seemingly interminable feuds and power struggles. Eventually, starting with the Ōnin War of 1467–77, the country entered a period of virtually constant civil war for the next hundred years, a time appropriately known as the Sengoku (Warring States) era.

Ironically perhaps, it was during the Muromachi period that a new flourishing of the arts took place, such as in the refined nō drama, ikebana (flower arranging) and cha-no-yu (tea ceremony). Key aesthetics were, in addition to the earlier-mentioned sabi, yūgen (elegant and tranquil otherworldliness, as seen in nō), wabi (subdued taste) and kare (severe and unadorned).

The later stages of the period also saw the first arrival of Euro- peans, specifically three Portuguese traders blown ashore on the island of Tanegashima, south of Kyūshū, in 1543. Presently other Europeans arrived, bringing with them two important items, Christianity and firearms. They found a land torn apart by warfare, ripe for conversion to Christianity – at least in the eyes of missionaries such as Francis Xavier, who arrived in 1549 – while the Japanese warlords were more interested in the worldly matter of guns.


The prime duty of a samurai, a member of the warrior class from around the 12th century onwards, was to give faithful service to his lord. In fact, the term ‘samurai’ is derived from a word meaning ‘to serve’. Ideally, ‘service’ meant being prepared to give up one’s life for one’s lord, though there were many ranks of samurai and, at least in the early days, it was typically only the hereditary retainers who felt such commitment. At the other end of the ranks, samurai were in effect professional mercenaries who were by no means reliable and often defected if it was to their advantage.

The renowned samurai code, bushidō (way of the warrior), developed over the centuries but was not formally codified till the 17th century, by which time there were no real battles to fight. Ironically, the intention of the code appears to have been to show samurai as moral exemplars in order to counter criticism that they were parasitic. It was thus greatly idealised.

Core samurai ideals included gaman (endurance), isshin (whole-hearted commitment) and makoto (sincerity). Samurai were supposed to be men of Zen-like austerity who endured hardship without complaint. Chivalry among samurai was not so dominant as in Europe, and certainly not towards women, even though samurai were often highly educated and sometimes paralleled European knights.

Samurai who for one reason or another became lordless were known as rōnin (wanderers or masterless samurai); they acted more like brigands and were a serious social problem.

Samurai who fell from grace were generally required to commit ritual disembowelment (hara kiri or seppuku), meant to show the purity of the soul, which was believed to reside in the stomach.

The samurai’s best-known weapon was the katana sword, though in earlier days the bow was also prominent. Arguably the world’s finest swordsmen, samurai were formidable opponents in single combat. During modernisation in the late 19th century, the government – itself comprising samurai – realised that a conscript army was more efficient as a unified fighting force, and disestablished the samurai class. However, samurai ideals such as endurance and fighting to the death were revived through propaganda prior to the Pacific War, and underlay the determination of many Japanese soldiers.


One of the most successful warlords to make use of firearms was Oda Nobunaga (1534–82), from what is now Aichi Prefecture. Though starting from a relatively minor power base, his skilled and ruthless generalship resulted in a series of victories over rivals. In 1568 he seized Kyoto in support of the shōgunal claim of one of the Ashikaga clan (Yoshiaki) and duly installed him, but then in 1573 he drove him out, and presently made his own base at Azuchi. Though he did not take the title of shōgun himself, Nobunaga was the supreme power in the land.

Noted for his brutality, he was not a man to cross. In particular he hated Buddhist priests, whom he saw as troublesome, and he tolerated Christianity as a counterbalance to them. His ego was massive, leading him to erect a temple where he could be worshipped, and to declare his birthday a national holiday. His stated aim was ‘ Tenka Fubu ’ – ‘A Unified Realm under Military Rule’ – and he went some way to achieving this unification by policies such as strategic redistribution of territories among the daimyō, land surveys and standardisation of weights and measures.

In 1582 he was betrayed by one of his generals and forced to commit suicide. However, the work of continuing unification was carried on by another of his generals, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536–98), a foot soldier who had risen through the ranks to become Nobunaga’s favourite. He toowas an extraordinary figure. Small and simian in his features, he was nicknamed Saru-chan (Little Monkey) by Nobunaga, but his huge will for power belied his physical smallness. He disposed of potential rivals among Nobunaga’s sons, took the title of regent, continued Nobunaga’s policy of territorial redistribution and also insisted that daimyō should surrender their families to him as hostages to be kept in Kyoto – his base being at Momoyama. He also banned weapons for all classes except samurai.

Hideyoshi became increasingly paranoid, cruel and megalomaniacal in his later years. He would saw in half messengers who gave him bad news, and had young members of his own family executed for suspected plotting. He also issued the first expulsion order of Christians (1587), whom he suspected of being an advance guard for an invasion. This order was not necessarily enforced, but in 1597 he crucified 26 Christians, of whom nine were Europeans. His grand scheme for power included a pan-Asian conquest, and as a first step he attempted an invasion of Korea in 1592, which failed amid much bloodshed. He tried again in 1597, but the campaign was abandoned when Hideyoshi died of illness in 1598.

On his deathbed Hideyoshi entrusted the safeguarding of the country and the succession of his young son Hideyori (1593–1615), whom he had unexpectedly fathered late in life, to one of his ablest generals, Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542–1616). However, upon Hideyoshi’s death Ieyasu betrayed that trust. In 1600, in the Battle of Sekigahara, he defeated those who were trying to protect Hideyori, and became effectively the overlord of Japan. In 1603 his power was legitimised when the emperor conferred on him the title of shōgun. His Kantō base, the once tiny fishing village of Edo – later to be renamed Tokyo – now became the real centre of power and government in Japan.

Through these three men, by fair means or more commonly foul, the country had been reunified within three decades.

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