Japan - History Timeline

Japan - History Timeline

Written history of Japan dates back to 1st century AD. But archaeologists have found evidences of people living in Japan for several thousand years dating back to last Ice Age.

The Japanese history can be divided into 5 major eras.
  1. The Prehistoric Period
  2. Ancient and Classical Japan
  3. Feudal Japan
  4. Meiji Restoration
  5. The World Wars Period

The Prehistoric Period :-

This period has no written history associated with it. The only evidence of this period is the pottery and stone tools found by archaeologists. It is further divided into two periods.

1. Jomon Period :-

During this period,the Japanese lived by fishing, hunting and gathering. It lasted for almost 10,000 years from 10,000 BC to 300 BC. It is named after the cord-markings (jomon) on the pottery they produced.

2. Yayoi Period :-

The major characteristic of this period is the beginning of rice cultivation in Japan. This period of Japan is described in some Chinese texts. Japan was then known as Yamatai and was formed of 30 small villages united under Queen Himiko.

Ancient and Classical Japan :-

This period lasted for almost 900 years tills the end of 12th century. This period mainly characterizes rise of Buddhism in Japan and increased interactions with China and Korea. The various periods of this era are as follows :-

1. Kofun Period (250 - 538 AD): -

During this period entire Japan was unified under one kingdom. The main symbols of this period are the Kofun burial mounds constructed in this era. The most well known among them is the Daisenryo Kofun, which is 486 m  long, key hole shaped burial mound. Japan was ruled by Emperors from Yamato in Kinai region. Many agricultural goods, weapons and tools were introduced in Japan from China and Korea.


2. Asuka Period (538 - 710 AD): -

This period is marked with the introduction of Buddhism in Japan. It came to Japan from Koean kingdom of Baekje. 

Prince Shotoku also introduced many Chinese ideas during this period. Some of them include Taoism, Confucianism and the Chinese writing system(the Kanji). It was in this period that 'Nihon' was established as the official name of Japan.

3. Nara Period (710 - 794 AD): -

This period ia named after the capital of Japan, Nara during this period. A centralized government was introduced in Nara based on Chinese Law codes. The first books from Japan Kojiki and Nihon Shoki were written during this period. Manyoshu ,  a finest form of Japanese poetry was  also written during this period. 

Emperor Shomu promoted Buddhism on a large and it soon became a national religion. The famous Todai-ji temple was built in Nara in this period.

Todai-ji Temple


4. Heian Period (794 - 1185 AD): -

This perios began with shifting of capital from Nara to Heian(Kyoto). During this period the power was steadily shifted from central government to large land owners. The Fujiwara family was the most prominent among them.

This period also marked the birth of Japanese Martial Arts and mainly the Samurai Warriors.  The Kana syllables were introduced which resulted in decline of Chinese influence and development of typical Japanese forms of arts and poetry.


Feudal Period: -

During this period many powerful families called Daimyos and military groups called Shogun  ruled over Japan. The Emperor was the head of the government but he had no real power.

1. Kamakura Period :-

The Minomoto family gained control over Japan by defeating the Taira clan, thus forming the Kamakura Bakufu, a new feudal government. Later in 1199, they defeated the Imperial court of Kyoto and gained complete control over Japan.

This period is marked with Mongol invasions in Japan led by Kublai Khan. But the Japanese Samurai united and fought against the Mongols and were successful in restricting them. Due to bad weather conditions, the Mongol forces were forced to retreat from Japan on both occasions. 

As far as arts and literature was concerned, this period gave rise to a new genre i.e. the War Tales. Many military tales such as Tales of the Heike were written during this period.

Buddhism spread to every corner of the country starting from elite class families to common people and even the Samurai Class.

2. Muromachi Period :-

In 1333, the Emperor Go-Daigo overthrew the Kamakura Bakufu and restored the Imperial court in Kyoto. Ashikaga Takauji, a samurai who once fought for the emperor challenged the Imperial court and captured it. Emperor Go-Daigo fled to Yoshino and founded a Southern Imperial Court there. 

The Southern court was finally overthrown by Ashikaga Yomoshitsu in 1392. He brought about economic development of Japan by establishing healthy trade relations with China, developing markets and  various towns and cities. Agricultural development also took place during this time.

This period also marked with the introduction of Christianity in Japan. The Portuguese Jesuit Francis Xavier was the 1st among people to introduce Christianity.

3. Azuchi - Momoyama Period :-

This period began with the reunification of Japan under two powerful warlords : Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The period gets it name from the headquarters of these two warlords i.e. the Azuchi Castle and the Momoyama Castle.

Nobunaga set out on a mission to reunite Japan. But he was cut short by one of his fellow officers, Akeshi Mitsuhide, who killed him in 1582. Hideyoshi then avenged Nobunaga by defeating Akeshi and completed the reunification of Japan.  

Later he declared war on Korea and China in 1592. The war ended with his death in 1598 and also ended the Azuchi - Momoyama period.

4. Edo Period :-

After the death of Hideyoshi in 1598, Tokugawa Ieyasu established his government in Edo(Tokyo). He promoted foreign trade by establishing relations with England and Netherlands. The Edo period is regarded as one of the most peaceful period in Japanese history. 

This period was a time of prolific cultural output in Japan. Many theaters like Kabuki Drama  and Bunraku Puppet theaters became popular. Lifestyle novels like Ukiyo-Zoshi and woodblock paintings Ukiyo-e originated in this period.

But by the end of 18th century, the Tokugawa government had steadily started to decline. It was a combined effect of several natural disasters and worsening financial situation. The powerful western powers had started forcing the Tokugawa government to sign unequal treaties which upset the local people and some Samurai groups. Choshu and Satsuma domain led by emperor Meiji ended the Tokugawa government. This led to the beginning of Meiji Era in Japan.

Meiji Restoration :-

This can be considered as the most important phase in Japanese in history. It gave birth to modern day Japan as we know it today.

It was formed by shifting of capital from Kyoto to Tokyo. The power was transferred from the Tokugawa government to small group of Nobles and former Samurai.

In the end years of the Edo Period, the western countries had gained a lot of power in Japan. The Japanese were forced to join treaties which granted the western powers one-sided economical and legal advantage. 

In order to gain independence from the western powers and also some respect at the international level, Meiji Japan began implementing a series of reforms. Reforms that changed the face of Japan.

A compulsory education system was introduced based on French and later in German style. Many scholars from Japan were sent to western countries to study the science of industrialization. At the same time many foreigners were allowed to teach in local institutes. Industries were set up during this period.

First European style constitution along with parliament, the Diet  was established in this era. Japan also defeated China and Russia to gain control over Taiwan and Korea respectively.

Japan a victim of imperialism had soon learnt its lessons and turned itself imperialistic.

The World Wars Era :- 

World War I broke out in 1914. Japan played a minor role in this war. It fought alongside the Allied Powers against the Germans in East Asia.

At the Paris Peace Conference, which followed the war, Japan was racially and administratively discriminated by USA and Britain. This worsened the relations between Japan and the western countries which led the foundation of 2nd world war in east Asia. The situation in Japan further deteriorated due to The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 killing almost 100,000 people and the world wide depression of 1929.

For the 2nd World War, Japan joined hands with Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy. In 1940, Japan occupied Vietnam and Indonesia later in the same year, there by declaring a war against USA and Great Britain. In December 1941, Japan attacked the Pearl Harbor and various Allied Power territories in Pacific. Japan was unstoppable at the beginning of the war.

However, by the mid of 1942, the Allied powers slowly started winning back their lost territories. In the beginning of 1945, USA attacked Okinawa and occupied it as a result of one of the  most bloodiest battles of World War 2. Later, the Allied powers also asked the Japanese to surrender but they rejected it.

As a result, USA dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, forcing Emperor Showa to surrender unconditionally.

Japan was completely devastated at the end of the war. Large cities, industries and transportation were severely damaged. However, slowly Japan's economy started to flourish. The living standards improved, there were changes in society and constitution and finally stability was achieved.


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