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The History of Japan

Japanese history is long and fascinating. It all began about 40,000 years ago, with the first human beings moving to Japan, thanks to land bridges. From then on, the country endured a tumultuous series of events.

Its real prosperity began during the Heian (794-1185) and Kamakura (1185-1333) periods, when the Emperor ruled alongside the shogun, the head of the army, who more than once tried to seize absolute power.

During the late 19th century, Japan became a modern nation-state, thanks to the efforts of the Emperor: the so called Meiji restoration aimed to establish Japan as an international power, modernizing its social and cultural structures.

From World War II onwards, Japan has experienced both periods of wealth and periods of crisis, and nowadays it is one of the richest economies in the world.

Read our short article and learn more about Japanese history!

Quick Facts

  • First signs of human habitation date back to 40,000 years ago.
  • The Heian period witnessed the hegemony of the royal court and the development of culture and art.
  • Japan’s prosperity began with the Kamakura shogunate, which lasted almost 200 years.
  • During the Muromachi period (1336-1573), Japan opened trade with Europe and became a unified country.
  • The Meiji restoration made Japan a truly modern state, imposing the country’s power on the international scene.

Early Japan (14,000 BC–794 AD)

The earliest evidence of human habitation in Japan dates back to the Paleolithic period, about 40,000 years ago. 12,000 years ago Japan was inhabited by hunter-gatherers. Jōmon pottery comes from this period, decorated by impressing cord into the surface of clay.

During the Yayoi period (300 BC-250 AD), new technologies and modes of living swept through the island, which gradually became a united kingdom during the Kofun period (250-538 AD).

The Asuka period (538-710 AD) saw the introduction of Buddhism, while the Nara period (710-794 AD) saw production of the first two Japanese books: Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, containing historical chronicles and myths.

Heian Period (794–1185)

Around 790, power was taken up by the Fujiwara clan, who held it until Emperor Horikawa ascended the throne. During this period, the power of the court began to decline, and landowners became more and more powerful, setting up their own samurai armies.

The Minamoto clan and the Taira clan fought over succession, starting a long lasting rivalry that ended in 1181, with the conclusive victory of the Minamoto clan, who became the rulers of Japan.

During this period, the royal court was a productive center of culture and art. The masterpiece of Japanese literature, The Tale of Genji, comes from this period; as well as the development of kana written syllabaries. The temple of Byōdō-in (1053) in Uji provides a noteworthy example of architecture from the period.

Kamakura Shogunate (1185–1333)

Minamoto no Yoritomo set up government in Kamakura, eastern Japan, and its power was authorized by the imperial court in Kyoto. In 1192, he was declared shogun (head of the army), de facto ruler of the country.

When Yoritomo died in 1199, the office of shogun weakened. His wife, Hōjō Masako, took power behind the scenes, while their son was still young.

Kublai Khan of the Mongol Empire tried to invade the country twice, in 1274 and 1281. On both occasions, the Japanese army defeated the invaders, but the financial strength of the shogun diminished greatly, and the samurai couldn’t be paid. This contributed to worsening relationships between the samurai and the shogun.

At the end of the Kamakura shogunate (around 1333), Emperor Go-Daigo started a rebellion hoping to restore imperial power, and the men sent by the shogunate joined the imperial army.

Nowadays, the city of Kamakura is witness of the great prosperity of that period. A famous temple from this period is the Hasedera Temple, with a huge 10-meter tall statue Kannon, an eleven-headed goddess; while the Great Buddha of Kamakura, located in the grounds of the Kotokuin Temple, is an amazing bronze statue of the Ammida Buddha.

Moromachi Shogunate (1333–1568)

Many samurai became unhappy with the restoration of Emperor Go-Daigo, who tried to monopolize power. Takauji, a former general of the shogunate, rebelled against the emperor and seized Kyoto in 1338, supporting another emperor, Kōmyō, who appointed him shogun. A long period of conflict began.

After many difficulties, Takauji’s grandson, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, managed to bring the country together. He expanded the power of the shogunate and ended the civil war. However, by 1477 the shogun had lost control over the daimyōs (feudal lords), who now ruled over their small independent states and fought against each other.

Amid this chaos, the first Europeans set foot in Japan. Soon, new European goods were introduced, especially the musket, which became extremely popular during the civil war. Christianity was also introduced in the country, and many Jesuit missionaries disembarked in Japan.

The Muromachi period was as prosperous as the previous one. The population grew and commerce flourished, especially thanks to the opening up towards Europeans markets. Some of the most representative Japanese art, like ikebana flower arrangements, tea ceremonies, and bonsai, developed during this period.

Edo Period

The Tokugawa shogunate assured a period of peace. It suppressed social discontent with severe penalties, and Christianity was gradually outlawed. The third Tokugawa shogun, Iemitsu, imposed an isolationist policy to prevent other foreign ideas from entering the country.

The population reached 30 million; roads were constructed; literacy was vastly improved. These favorable developments led to a period of immense prosperity, and laid the foundation for the strong growth of the following centuries.

However, by the end of the eighteenth century the power of the shogunate began to decline, with famines devastating the country. When American ships arrived in Japan in 1853, there was chaos. The isolationist policy ended, and major western countries imposed “unequal treaties” on Japan.

In 1866, the new shogun struggled to maintain power, and in 1867 he resigned. The young Emperor Meiji was convinced to end the shogunate, and the armies of Chōshū and Satsuma marched on Edo starting the Boshin War, which led to the fall of the shogunate.

Meiji Restoration

The imperial family moved to Edo, which was renamed Tokyo, and took back supreme power. However, samurai from Chōshū and Satsuma, the Meiji oligarchs, wanted Japan to become a modern nation and oversaw dramatic changes in the country.

The Neo-Confucian class structure was replaced by feudal domains with prefectures. Christianity was no longer banned, and a tax reform was instituted. Railways, telegraph lines, and a universal education system were introduced. The country underwent a process of westernization, and many western advisers were hired.

The Meiji Constitution was promulgated in 1889: there was an elected lower house and a House of Representatives, even if only 2% of the population could vote. Shinto became the national religion, and the emperor was declared a living god.

Thanks to Yamagata Aritomo, the Imperial Japanese Army was enlarged and empowered. The army’s contribution was fundamental to crushing a rebellion of samurai in southern Japan and helping Japan expand its territories.

In 1894, Japan defeated the army of the Qing dynasty in China, and Taiwan was ceded to Japan. Japan then fought with Russia in 1904-5, and annexed Korea in 1905.

World War II

Japan entered the world in 1941 with a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The US began to fight along with the Allies, and Japan invaded numerous Asian colonies of western countries. After the Battle of Midway (1942) Japan started losing many battles, and its army was responsible for many atrocities.

Life in Japan became more and more difficult, and major cities were destroyed by US bombing raids. The Battle of Okinawa was a great debacle for the Japanese army and, when the US dropped atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan decided to surrender and end the ultranationalist imperial ideology resulting from the Meiji restoration.

The Allies occupied Japan from 1945 to 1952. During this time, General MacArthur was the de facto ruler of the country.

The Emperor was forced to give up his divine status, and a new constitution came into effect in 1947, guaranteeing civil and labor rights. The following years saw a period of economic and cultural growth for the entire country.

Heisei Period (1989–present)

When Hirohito died, his son Akihito became Emperor. An economic bubble burst in 1989, and banks had enormous debt. The birthrate declined, and the whole decade following is known as Japan’s Lost Decade. Unemployment rates rose, and the stock market failed to return to previous heights.

In 1995, the Japanese government didn’t react properly to the earthquake in Kobe and to some terrorist attacks, and this led to the creation of Non Governmental Organizations that have been increasingly important in the political scene.

When Shinzō Abe resigned, Yasuo Fukuda became Prime Minister. He resigned in 2008, and Taro Aso was elected as his successor. In 2009, the Democratic Party of Japan won 308 seats in the lower house election, ending 50 years of political domination by the LDP.

Explore Japanese History with Asia Highlights

Japan cherishes its long history and tradition, and a trip there really will help you understand its fascinating and complex culture. Start planning your next adventure in Japan now: with the help of our knowledgeable staff, you will enjoy a hassle-free experience that you and your family will never forget.

Check out the following links now and learn more about our tours:

9-Day Japan Highlights Tour: A Stimulating Fusion of East and West

11-Day Traditional Japan Tour: Historical Monuments and Lively Modern Cities

11-Day Classic Japan Tour: Explore a Cluster of Scenic Cities and Quaint Towns in a Remote Mountain Region