10 min

-13000 to 2021

History of Japan

by Something Something

Japan (日本) is an island country in East Asia, located in the northwest Pacific Ocean. It is bordered on the west by the Sea of Japan, and extends from the Sea of Okhotsk in the north toward the East China Sea and Taiwan in the south. Part of the Ring of Fire, Japan spans an archipelago of 6852 islands covering 377,975 square kilometers (145,937 sq mi); the five main islands are Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, Kyushu, and Okinawa. Tokyo is Japan's capital and largest city; other major cities include Yokohama, Osaka, Nagoya, Sapporo, Fukuoka, Kobe, and Kyoto.

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Stone statue, late Jomon period (1,000- 400 BC), Tokyo National Museum


Jōmon period

-13000 Jan 1 -


The Jōmon period of prehistoric Japan spans from roughly 13,000 BC to about 1,000 BC. Japan was inhabited by a predominantly hunter-gatherer culture that reached a considerable degree of sedentism and cultural complexity. The name Jōmon, meaning "cord-marked", was first applied by the American scholar Edward S. Morse who discovered shards of pottery in 1877. The pottery style characteristic of the first phases of Jōmon culture was decorated by impressing cords into the surface of wet clay. Jōmon pottery is generally accepted to be among the oldest in East Asia and the world.

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Yoshinogari site reconstruction


Yayoi Period

-1000 Jan 1 -


The Yayoi period (弥生時代, Yayoi jidai), started at the beginning of the Neolithic in Japan, continued through the Bronze Age, and towards its end crossed into the Iron Age.

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Daisen-Kofun, the tomb of Emperor Nintoku, Osaka


Kofun period

250 Jan 1 -


The Kofun period (古墳時代, Kofun jidai) is an era in the history of Japan from about 300 to 538 AD (the date of the introduction of Buddhism to Japan), following the Yayoi period. The Kofun and the subsequent Asuka periods are sometimes collectively called the Yamato period. This period is the earliest era of recorded history in Japan, but studies depend heavily on archaeology since the chronology of historical sources tends to be distorted. It was a period of cultural import. Continuing from the Yayoi period, the Kofun period is characterized by a strong influence from the Korean Peninsula; archaeologists consider it a shared culture across the southern Korean Peninsula, Kyūshū and Honshū. The word kofun is Japanese for the type of burial mound dating from this era, and archaeology indicates that the mound tombs and material culture of the elite were similar throughout the region. From China, Buddhism and the Chinese writing system were introduced near the end of the period. The Kofun period recorded Japan's earliest political centralization, when the Yamato clan rose to power in southwestern Japan, established the Imperial House, and helped control trade routes across the region.

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Asuka period

538 Jan 1 -

Nara, Japan

The Asuka period began as early as 538 CE with the introduction of the Buddhist religion from the Korean kingdom of Baekje. Since then, Buddhism has coexisted with Japan's native Shinto religion, in what is today known as Shinbutsu-shūgō. The period draws its name from the de facto imperial capital, Asuka, in the Kinai region.

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The primary building, i.e. the Daigoku-den at the Heijō Palace (In the center of the photograph: this is a modern version built for the 1300th anniversary of Nara becoming Japan's capital). Tōdai-ji's Daibutsuden and Wakakusayama can be seen in the rear (January, 2010).


Nara Period

710 Jan 1 -

Nara, Japan

The Nara period (奈良時代, Nara jidai) of the history of Japan covers the years from AD 710 to 794. Empress Genmei established the capital of Heijō-kyō (present-day Nara). Except for a five-year period (740–745), when the capital was briefly moved again, it remained the capital of Japanese civilization until Emperor Kanmu established a new capital, Nagaoka-kyō, in 784, before moving to Heian-kyō, modern Kyoto, a decade later in 794. Japanese society during this period was predominately agricultural and centered on village life. Most of the villagers followed Shintoism, a religion based on the worship of natural and ancestral spirits named kami. The capital at Nara was modeled after Chang'an, the capital city of the Tang dynasty. In many other ways, the Japanese upper classes patterned themselves after the Chinese, including adopting the Chinese writing system, Chinese fashion, and a Chinese version of Buddhism.

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A scene (AZUMA YA: East Wing) of Illustrated scroll of Tale of Genji (written by MURASAKI SHIKIBU (11th cent.). The multi-panel curtain at the center bottom of the image is a kichō. The decorated sliding door panels at the top of the image are fusuma. The scroll was made in about ca. 1130 ACE and is in the Tokugawa Museum in Nagoya, Japan.


Heian period

794 Jan 1 -

Kyoto, Japan

The Heian period (平安時代, Heian jidai) is the last division of classical Japanese history, running from 794 to 1185. It was preceded by the Nara period by the 50th emperor, Emperor Kanmu, when the capital of Japan was moved to Heian-kyō (modern Kyoto) to which the period was named after. It is a period in Japanese history when Chinese influences were in decline and the national culture matured. The Heian period is also considered the peak of the Japanese imperial court and noted for its art, especially poetry and literature. Two types of Japanese script emerged, including katakana, a phonetic script which was abbreviated into hiragana, a cursive alphabet with a unique writing method distinctive to Japan. This gave rise to Japan's famous vernacular literature, many of which were written by court women who were not as educated in Chinese compared to their male counterparts. Although the Imperial House of Japan had power on the surface, the real power was in the hands of the Fujiwara clan, a powerful aristocratic family who had intermarried with the imperial family. Many emperors actually had mothers from the Fujiwara family. Heian (平安) means "peace" in Japanese.

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Portrait of Yoritomo, Hanging scroll; color on silk. Owned by Jingo-ji temple in Kyoto.


Kamakura period

1185 Jan 1 -

Kamakura, Japan

The Kamakura period (鎌倉時代, Kamakura jidai, 1185–1333) is a period of Japanese history that marks the governance by the Kamakura shogunate, officially established in 1192 in Kamakura by the first shōgun, Minamoto no Yoritomo. The period is known for the emergence of the samurai, the warrior caste, and for the establishment of feudalism in Japan. The Kamakura period ended in 1333 with the destruction of the shogunate and the short re-establishment of imperial rule under Emperor Go-Daigo by Ashikaga Takauji, Nitta Yoshisada, and Kusunoki Masashige.

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Muromachi samurai (1538)


Muromachi period

1333 Jan 1 -

Kyoto, Japan

The Muromachi period (室町時代, Muromachi jidai, also known as the Muromachi era, the Ashikaga era, or the Ashikaga period) is a division of Japanese history running from approximately 1336 to 1573. The period marks the governance of the Muromachi or Ashikaga shogunate (Muromachi bakufu or Ashikaga bakufu), which was officially established in 1338 by the first Muromachi shōgun, Ashikaga Takauji, two years after the brief Kenmu Restoration (1333–1336) of imperial rule was brought to a close. The period ended in 1573 when the 15th and last shogun of this line, Ashikaga Yoshiaki, was driven out of the capital in Kyoto by Oda Nobunaga. From a cultural perspective, the period can be divided into the Kitayama and Higashiyama periods (later 15th – early 16th centuries). The early years from 1336 to 1392 of the Muromachi period are known as the Nanboku-chō or Northern and Southern Court period. This period is marked by the continued resistance of the supporters of Emperor Go-Daigo, the emperor behind the Kenmu Restoration. The years from 1465 to the end of the Muromachi period are also known as the Sengoku period or Warring States period.

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Azuchi–Momoyama period

1568 Jan 1 -

Kyoto, Japan

The Azuchi–Momoyama period (安土桃山時代, Azuchi–Momoyama jidai) is the final phase of the Sengoku period (戦国時代, Sengoku jidai) in Japanese history from 1568 to 1600. The Azuchi–Momoyama period began with Oda Nobunaga entering into Kyoto in 1568 to install Ashikaga Yoshiaki as the 15th and ultimately final shōgun of the Ashikaga Shogunate, which had collapsed after outbreak of the Ōnin War in 1467 and triggered the chaotic Sengoku period. Nobunaga overthrew Yoshiaki and dissolved the Ashikaga Shogunate in 1573, launching a war of conquest to politically unify Japan by force from his base in Azuchi. Nobunaga was forced to commit suicide in the Honnō-ji Incident in 1582, and his successor Toyotomi Hideyoshi completed his campaign of unification, closing the Sengoku period and enacting reforms to consolidate his rule. Hideyoshi launched the Japanese invasions of Korea in 1592, but the invasion's failure damaged his prestige, and his young son and successor Toyotomi Hideyori was challenged by Tokugawa Ieyasu after his death in 1598. The Azuchi–Momoyama period ended with Tokugawa victory at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 – unofficially establishing the Tokugawa Shogunate and beginning the Edo period. The Azuchi–Momoyama period oversaw Japanese society and culture transitioning from the Middle Ages to the early modern period. The Azuchi–Momoyama period is named after Nobunaga's Azuchi Castle and Hideyoshi's Momoyama Castle, and is also known as Shokuhō period (織豊時代, Shokuhō jidai) in some Japanese texts, abridged from the surnames of the period's two leaders in the on-reading: Shoku (織) for Oda (織田) plus Hō (豊) for Toyotomi (豊臣).

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Edo period

1600 Jan 1 -

Tokyo, Japan

The Edo period (江戸時代, Edo jidai) or Tokugawa period (徳川時代, Tokugawa jidai) is between 1603 and 1867 in the history of Japan, when Japan was under the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate and the country's 300 regional daimyō. Emerging from the chaos of the Sengoku period, the Edo period was characterized by economic growth, strict social order, isolationist foreign policies, a stable population, "no more wars", and popular enjoyment of arts and culture. The shogunate was officially established in Edo (now Tokyo) on March 24, 1603, by Tokugawa Ieyasu. The period came to an end with the Meiji Restoration on May 3, 1868, after the fall of Edo.

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Promulgation of the new Japanese constitution by Emperor Meiji in Tokyo.


Meiji period

1868 Jan 1 -

Tokyo, Japan

The Meiji era (明治) is an era of Japanese history which extended from October 23, 1868 to July 30, 1912. This era represents the first half of the Empire of Japan, during which period the Japanese people moved from being an isolated feudal society at risk of colonization by Western powers to the new paradigm of a modern, industrialized nation state and emergent great power, influenced by Western scientific, technological, philosophical, political, legal, and aesthetic ideas. As a result of such wholesale adoption of radically different ideas, the changes to Japan were profound, and affected its social structure, internal politics, economy, military, and foreign relations. The period corresponded to the reign of Emperor Meiji. It was preceded by the Keiō era and was succeeded by the Taishō era, upon the accession of Emperor Taishō.

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1920 photo with a view of the Mitsubishi headquarters in Marunouchi, looking towards the Imperial Palace


Taishō period

1912 Jan 1 -

Tokyo, Japan

Taishō (大正) is a period in the history of Japan dating from 30 July 1912 to 25 December 1926, coinciding with the reign of the Emperor Taishō. The new emperor was a sickly man, which prompted the shift in political power from the old oligarchic group of elder statesmen (or genrō) to the Imperial Diet of Japan and the democratic parties. Thus, the era is considered the time of the liberal movement known as the "Taishō democracy" in Japan; it is usually distinguished from the preceding chaotic Meiji period and the following militaristic-driven first part of the Shōwa period.

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Shōwa period

1926 Jan 1 -

Tokyo, Japan

The Shōwa era (昭和, Shōwa) or Modern Showa refers to the period of Japanese history corresponding to the reign of Emperor Shōwa (Hirohito) from December 25, 1926 until his death on January 7, 1989. It was preceded by the Taishō period. The pre-1945 and post-war Shōwa periods are almost-completely different states: the pre-1945 Shōwa era (1926–1945) concerns the Empire of Japan, and post-1945 Shōwa era (1945–1989) is the State of Japan. Before 1945, Japan moved into political totalitarianism, ultranationalism and statism culminating in Japan's invasion of China in 1937, part of a global period of social upheavals and conflicts such as the Great Depression and World War II. Defeat in the Second World War brought about radical change in Japan. For the first and only time in its history, Japan was occupied by foreign powers, an American-led occupation which lasted for seven years. Allied occupation brought forth sweeping democratic reforms. It led to the formal end of the emperor's status as a demigod and the transformation of Japan from a form of mixed constitutional and absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy with a liberal democracy. In 1952, with the Treaty of San Francisco, Japan became a sovereign nation again. The postwar Shōwa period was characterized by the Japanese economic miracle. The Shōwa era was longer than the reign of any previous Japanese emperor. Emperor Shōwa was both the longest-lived and longest-reigning historical Japanese emperor as well as the longest-reigning monarch in the world at the time. On 7 January 1989, Crown Prince Akihito succeeded to the Chrysanthemum Throne upon the death of his father Emperor Shōwa, which marked the start of the Heisei period.

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Heisei period

1989 Jan 1 -

Tokyo, Japan

The Heisei era (Japanese: 平成) is the period of Japanese history corresponding to the reign of Emperor Akihito from 8 January 1989 until his abdication on 30 April 2019. The Heisei era started on 8 January 1989, the day after the death of the Emperor Hirohito, when his son, Akihito, acceded to the throne as the 125th Emperor. In accordance with Japanese customs, Hirohito was posthumously renamed "Emperor Shōwa" on 31 January 1989. Heisei translates to "peace everywhere". Thus, 1989 corresponds to Shōwa 64 until 7 January, and Heisei 1 (平成元年, Heisei gannen, gannen means "first Year") from 8 January. The Heisei era ended on 30 April 2019 (Heisei 31), with the abdication of Akihito from the Chrysanthemum Throne. It was succeeded by the Reiwa era as Crown Prince Naruhito ascended the throne on 1 May midnight local time.

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Reiwa period

2019 Jan 1 -

Tokyo, Japan

Reiwa (Japanese: 令和) is the current era of Japan's official calendar. It began on 1 May 2019, the day on which Emperor Akihito's elder son, Naruhito, ascended the throne as the 126th Emperor of Japan. The day before, Emperor Akihito abdicated the Chrysanthemum Throne, marking the end of the Heisei era. The Year 2019 corresponds with Heisei 31 from 1 January through 30 April, and with Reiwa 1 (令和元年, Reiwa gannen, 'the first Year of Reiwa') from 1 May. Reiwa is interpreted as "beautiful harmony".

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  • Jansen, Marius B. ed. The Cambridge History of Japan, Vol. 5: The Nineteenth Century (1989)
  • Mason, R.H.P. and J.G. Caiger. "A History of Japan" (Revised Edition). Tuttle Publishing ,1997.ISBN 978-0804820974

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