Japanese History An Overview

Early Japanese history until 710

Scene from the Tale of Genji at the Tokugawa Art Museum, Nagoya.
Scene from the Tale of Genji at the Tokugawa Art Museum, Nagoya

The earliest human settlements in Japan are estimated to date from the Ice Age, about 30,000 years ago. At that time all four main Japanese islands were linked. The southernmost island of Kyushu was joined to the Korean peninsula and the northernmost island of Hokkaido to Siberia. Read more about early Japanese history.

Nara Period Japanese History 710-794

The Tale of Genji.

From 710 the capital was the patterned Chinese-style city of Nara: an incongruous island of Chineseness in a landscape of pit dwellings, signifying the aristocracy's break from tribal culture. Buddhism continued to grow in power, and in 738 the Emperor Shomu, in an attempt to counter a smallpox epidemic and social unrest, founded the Buddhist temple of Todaiji and ordered for it the creation of a 16m (53-foot) high gilt bronze Buddha. Read more about the Nara Period

Heian Period Japanese History 794-1192

The first Heian Emperor Kammu was probably the most powerful of any Emperor before or since, but after his death in 806 the Fujiwara increased in political power by providing the imperial house with Fujiwara concubines and imperial consorts, thus forging marriage bonds that gave Fujiwara nobles access to the highest Court administrative positions. The Heian Period saw the capital established in Heian-kyo or modern day Kyoto and the building of many great temples and the Imperial Palace or Gosho.

Kamakura Period Japanese History 1192-1333

In August 1192 Minamoto Yoritomo was appointed seii taishogun ('barbarian-subduing generalissimo') or, more briefly, Shogun, under the new Emperor Go-Toba. He was different from previous 'advisors' to the Emperor (i.e. regents) in that he exercised his power from the town of Kamakura, his Kanto (i.e. present Tokyo area) power base, not Heian (Kyoto). Thus began the Kamakura Period of Japanese history.

Muromachi Period Japanese History 1336-1573

Go-Daigo managed to flee Kyoto in January 1337 and establish his own junior line court in the mountain wilderness of Yoshino, south of Kyoto. Meanwhile the Northern (senior line) Court presided in Kyoto, controlled by Ashikaga Takauji. Unlike the previous Bakufu, under the Hojo, the new Bakufu under Takauji felt obliged to remain in Kyoto and exert direct control. The next few decades of the Muromachi Period were spent trying to solve the succession dispute by fighting the junior line Southern Court.

Azuchi-Momoyama Period Japanese History 1573-1603

The Azuchi-Momoyama era began as a contest among the most powerful daimyo to install an Ashikaga successor of their choice in the Muromachi Bakufu. The determined and ruthless daimyo Oda Nobunaga was successful in entering Kyoto and setting up Ashikaga Yoshiaki as the 15th Shogun. He then embarked on the subjugation of the whole of the Japan. The period is marked by the building of Ginkakuji Temple and Azuchi Castle.

Nagoya Castle walls.
Many of Japan's great castles were built in the late 16th and early 17th century

Edo Period Japanese History 1603-1868

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The Edo Period is marked by over two hundred and sixty years of peace and stability under the Pax Tokugawa of the Tokugawa shogunate begun by Tokugawa Ieyasu and the growth of the great city of Edo (Tokyo). The four class distictions of samurai, farmer, artisan and merchant became entrenched over this period, which also saw Japan adopt a policy of national isolationism or sakoku. Popular entertainments such as bunraku, kabuki, and ukiyo-e wood block prints developed over time before the arrival of western fleets and technology lead to the violent overthrow of the regime and the restoration of the Emperor.

Meiji Period Japanese History 1868-1912

The Meiji Period ushered in a number of fundamental changes in Japanese society as the new government attempted to modernize and industrialize the country in an attempt to match the power and technology of a dynamic and threatening West.

Taisho and Early Showa Period Japanese History 1912-1945

The Taisho Period (1912-1926) is often considered a brief flowering of democracy in Japan before the country slid into militarism, ultra-nationalism and totalitarianism in the early Showa Period. The Taisho Period is marked by a shift in power from the by now aging Meiji oligarchs or genro, men such as Ito Hirobumi, Okuma Shigenobu and Yamagata Aritomo, towards the newly-founded, though weak, political parties.

Postwar Period Japanese History 1945-Present

Post World War Two Japan set out anew on a path of securing its place in Asia and the rest of the world through economic domination rather than military, relying as much on the United States for protection as its own military resources. Economics and the relationship with America have defined Japan's post-war story.

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