From antiquity to the Edo Period and beyond, Japan is a nation with a rich historical heritage (and plenty of historical debate).
Today we can still find Jomon Period pit dwellings from 3000 B.C. and earlier, ruins from the Yayoi Period when rice cultivation spread across the Japanese archipelago, and huge Kofun tombs built during the eponymous Kofun Period of the late 3rd century A.D. when the Yamato Imperial Court unified the country.
The Asuka to Heian Periods
Asuka Period (592-710)
By the Asuka Period, the foundations of Japan’s politics and law had been laid, and the nation began to take shape. As Buddhism took root in the region, temples such as Asukadera and Horyuji, who are said to hold the oldest existing wooden structures in the world, were built, as well as the Asuka Great Buddha and other monuments. The many ruins of the period testify to the ancient history of the area.
Nara Period (710-794)
In 710 the capital was moved to Heijo-kyo (the present-day city of Nara), a city built in a grid pattern, marking the beginning of the Nara Period, when emperor-centered government began. Strongly influenced by the Tang Dynasty from present-day China, the period saw numerous significant achievements, such as the construction of the Buddhist temples Todaiji, Shoso-in, and Toshodaiji, the completion of the Kojiki and Nihonshoki historical chronicles, and the introduction of paper money. On the other hand, it was also a time marred by famine, epidemics, and earthquakes.
Heian Period (794-1185)
In 794 the capital was moved once again, this time to the city of Heian-kyo, present-day Kyoto. During this time, the center of political power gradually shifted away from the emperor and imperial family as the Fujiwara clan, an aristocratic family with close ties to the imperial court, gained influence. The Fujiwara eventually came to wield real authority as regents known as kampaku. In the late Heian Period, emperors with no familial relations to the Fujiwara began a system of “cloistered rule,” formally abdicating and withdrawing to monasteries, yet continuing to rule from behind the scenes. They were supported by the warrior clans of the Taira and, later on, the Minamoto, who grew increasingly powerful.
The influence from the Chinese Tang Dynasty began to wane during the mid-Heian Period, allowing Japan's unique culture to flourish. It was during this time that the kana script was developed, and buildings incorporating Japanese culture were constructed, such as the Ho-o-do Pavilion of Byodo-in Temple, Konjikido Hall of Chusonji Temple, and Daigoji Temple.
The Kamakura and Muromachi Periods
Kamakura Period (1185-1333)
The Kamakura shogunate began in 1192, when the imperial court appointed Minamoto no Yoritomo as Sei-i Taishogun (barbarian-conquering generalissimo, or Shogun for short). Yoritomo moved his seat of government to the city of Kamakura, not far from present-day Tokyo. The shogunate controlled its warriors by establishing a system of granting land to loyal vassals based on their achievements. The Minamoto dynasty ended after three generations. Starting from the fourth generation of the kamakura shogunate, shoguns were appointed by the imperial court, and the Hojo clan exerted real power as regents. After the death of the third shogun, Emperor Go-Toba ordered the overthrow of the Hojo but was defeated by the shogunate's forces and forced into exile on the Oki Islands. The Mongol invasions took place in the latter half of the Kamakura Period, as armies from the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty and their vassals from the Korean Goryeo Dynasty attacked Japan. Although the shogunate successfully repelled the invasions, it had no land to distribute as rewards to its warriors, causing resentment among those who had fought. Drawing these disgruntled samurai to his side, Emperor Go-Daigo successfully overthrew the Kamakura shogunate.
Significant cultural properties from the Kamakura Period include the Shin Kokin Wakashu poetry anthology, the epic Tale of the Heike, and master sculptor Unkei's Kongorikishi statue at the South Gate of Todaiji Temple.
Muromachi Period (1336-1573)
After overthrowing the Kamakura shogunate, Emperor Go-Daigo sought to establish a government led by court nobles, but was forced to flee to Yoshino following the defection of Ashikaga Takauji and other powerful warriors. Takauji installed a new emperor and established the imperial court in Kyoto, ushering in the Nanbokucho Period (the Period of Northern and Southern Courts), during which two competing imperial courts existed simultaneously — the Northern Court in Kyoto and the Southern Court in Yoshino. The Northern Court appointed Takauji as Shogun, and the Muromachi shogunate was born. The Nanbokucho Period lasted until 1392, finally coming to an end during the reign of the third Ashikaga shogun Yoshimitsu. Japan began trading with Ming China during Yoshimitsu's reign, leading to improvements in agricultural and industrial technology, the opening of markets, and other developments in industry. In 1467, during the reign of the eighth Ashikaga shogun Yoshimasa, a succession dispute led to the Onin War, plunging the country into conflict and turmoil that would last for almost 150 years in what is known as the Warring States Period. The long series of wars devastated the capital, and as the Ashikaga lost control, a succession of powerful warlords rose to power, eventually leading to the overthrow of the Muromachi shogunate at the hands of Oda Nobunaga.
The Muromachi Period saw great developments in Japanese culture, with the tea ceremony, flower arrangement, and Noh drama all originating during this time. Furthermore, Rokuonji Temple (Kinkakuji, or the Golden Pavilion) and Higashiyama Jishoji Temple (Ginkakuji, or the Silver Pavilion) were both built during the period, which also gave birth to karesansui rock gardens and suiboku-ga Japanese paintings.
The Azuchi-Momoyama Periods
Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1573-1600)
Oda Nobunaga, a minor daimyo (feudal lord) from Owari Province (present-day Aichi Prefecture), distinguished himself, gradually expanded his territory, seized power in Kyoto in 1568, and overthrew the Muromachi shogunate in 1573. In an era of increasing foreign influence, including the introduction of firearms and Christianity, Nobunaga built wealth by liberalizing trade and commerce and expanding distribution channels. Quick to adopt firearms, he defeated his rivals and took power. However, just as he was on the verge of unifying the country, he was assassinated at Honnoji Temple by his close aide Akechi Mitsuhide. Later on, Toyotomi Hideyoshi defeated Akechi Mitsuhide, unified the country, and brought peace. Hideyoshi came from humble beginnings in Owari to become Nobunaga's chief vassal. He outlawed fighting between daimyo, established the samurai as a separate class by disarming the farmers, and centralized power by carrying out land surveys and making the payment of taxes obligatory. He suppressed Christians to prevent religious uprisings, and after pacifying the country, launched an invasion of the Korean peninsula. Although they had seized immense power, the Toyotomi were destroyed by Tokugawa Ieyasu shortly after Hideyoshi's death by illness.
Many castles were built during this period, including Oda Nobunaga's Azuchi Castle with its soaring castle keep symbolizing power, Toyotomi Hideyoshi's Osaka Castle, Tokugawa Ieyasu's Edo Castle, and other castles such as Inuyama Castle in Aichi Prefecture and Matsumoto Castle in Nagano Prefecture. The tea ceremony, which had originated during the Muromachi Period, spread from the aristocracy and samurai to the common people, leading to the construction of many tea rooms and the production of tea ceremony utensils and ceramics. Kabuki emerged as a form of entertainment, and paintings produced during this period by artists such as Kano Eitoku, Hasegawa Tohaku, and others remain with us today.
The Edo Period
Edo Period (1603-1868)
Born in Mikawa Province (present-day Okazaki City in Aichi Prefecture), Tokugawa Ieyasu spent his childhood as a hostage of the Imagawa clan, formed an alliance with Oda Nobunaga after the destruction of his erstwhile captors, and became a vassal of Hideyoshi after Nobunaga's death. Following Hideyoshi's death, he defeated the Toyotomi forces at the Battle of Sekigahara (1600), then finished the Toyotomi off in the Winter and Summer Campaigns of Osaka (1614-1615). The imperial court appointed Tokugawa Ieyasu Shogun in 1603, establishing the Tokugawa or Edo shogunate. Ieyasu passed various laws and ordinances to control the other daimyo, including the “One Province, One Castle” ruling that limited the number of castles that the daimyo were allowed to possess. In order to further reduce the power of the daimyo, the third shogun of the Tokugawa dynasty Iemitsu introduced a policy that required feudal lords to alternate between living in their home provinces and living in Edo each year. He also started the policy of national isolation to prevent Christians from revolting, cutting Japan off from the outside world for over 200 years. As domestic security stabilized, transportation networks improved, allowing commerce to develop.
By the end of the 1600s, dissatisfaction with the shogunate grew in response to the Edict Forbidding Cruelties to Living Things and the economic recession caused by the failure of monetary reform. In 1716, the eighth shogun Yoshimune took personal control of politics to restructure the government’s finances, promoting frugality, the cultivation of new rice paddies, the domestic production of textiles, and other measures. In the late 1700s, harsh weather and frost damage led to a series of poor harvests, sparking peasant revolts in various regions, and in the 1800s, foreign ships arrived and the shogunate struggled to respond. In the 1830s, the shogunate was again weakened by famines that led to rebellions across the country.
In 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States Navy arrived at Uraga in present-day Kanagawa Prefecture to compel the shogunate to open Japanese ports to foreign trade. The resultant Japan–US Treaty of Peace and Amity was concluded in 1854, followed by similar treaties with the United Kingdom, Russia, and the Netherlands. In 1856, the shogunate signed the Treaty of Amity and Commerce between Japan and the United States. The unfavorable terms of the treaty wreaked havoc on the economy, sparking movements to expel foreigners and overthrow the shogunate. The intensifying conflict between the shogunate and anti-shogunate forces caused unrest across the country. Over time, it became increasingly evident that the shogunate was headed for defeat. In 1867, the last Tokugawa shogun Yoshinobu returned power to the imperial court in what came to be known as the Meiji Restoration, and in 1868, the Tokugawa shogunate came to an end with the bloodless surrender of Edo Castle.
This period saw various cultural developments. Architectural highlights include Nijo Castle (Kyoto Prefecture), Nikko Toshogu Shrine (Tochigi Prefecture), and Katsura Imperial Villa (Kyoto Prefecture). The culture of the common folk also blossomed, with haiku poetry, works of fiction, ningyo joruri puppet theater, and ukiyo-e woodblock prints becoming widespread. Education also flourished. In addition to clan schools for children from samurai families, temple schools were opened for the children of commoners.
In 1868, the Meiji Era began, and Japan set off on the path to modernization.