Statue at a shrine on Mt Takao in Japan

Japanese History : A Short and Simple Overview

Home Info About Japan Japanese History | Japan Guide Japanese History : A Short and Simple Overview

Have you always wanted to understand Japanese history in a nutshell? Here is a simple, short overview of Japanese history from 14,000 BC to the modern time. Let’s learn about the rough Japanese history from 14,000 BC to the modern time. If you are planning to visit Japan, knowing a bit about the country’s unique history will help you understand a lot more about the culture as well!

Jomon Period (14,000 BC – 1,000 BC)

The Jomon Period is regarded as the new stone age. After the Ice Age (20,000 BC), the warming temperature changed the atmosphere dramatically. People started to use ground stoneware, bows, earthenware, and earthen dolls for ceremonies. ‘Jomon’ literally means ‘rope pattern’, which was found on the earthenware of that period. You can see this old earthenware at the Tokyo National Museum. The people made their living as hunter-gatherers and gradually started domiciliation, meaning that they started staying in one place.

Jomon earthenware. This picture is part of our simple and short overview of Japanese history

Yayoi Period (1,000 BC – AD 300)

People started rice cropping in the Yayoi Period, which was introduced from the Eurasian Continent. They started to work collaboratively using wooden agricultural tools. They also started using metalware such as bronze swords, bronze spears, and bronze bell-shaped vessels for ceremonies. The people of that time lived in pit dwellings. Yayoi is the name of the town in Tokyo where the earthenware from this period was first found.

Kofun Period (3rd to 7th century)

A kofun is a burial mound. Many keyhole-shaped burial mounds for the powerful clans were made during this period. Human-shaped earthenware, harnesses, armor, and swords were also buried in the mounds. There was a central government at that time, the Yamato Imperial Court. It is said that the government was located in the area that is now Osaka. Buddhism, Confucianism, and Chinese characters were introduced from the Eurasian Continent during this period.

Asuka Period (592 – 710)

Asuka is the name of a city near Nara. The capital was set there at that time, which was dominated by a conflict between two powers about the introduction of Buddhism. Shotoku-Taishi became a regent and he made the first constitution. This new law ranked officials into 12 levels. He also built the Horyuji Temple which is the oldest existing Buddhist temple in Japan. The Akusa period is the time when the name Nihon or Japan was first used for the country. They also first started using a name for the eras. Emperor Jito moved the capital to Fujiwara and then to Nara, and the Asuka Period came to an end.

Horyuji temple in Nara, Japan

Nara Period (710 – 794)

The Nara period started when the capital was moved from Fujiwara to Nara by Emperor Jito. He designed the city inspired by the Chinese capital Changan. It was the first centralized government around the Emperor. They created a family registration system and imposed tax. To increase the number of rice fields, workers could now own land privately if they cultivate it by themselves. Powerful clans hereby increased their properties using farmers. Emperor Shomu built the Todaiji Temple which houses the Great Buddha. The first Japanese history books were written in this period.

Heian Period (794 – 1185)

Emperor Kanmu moved the capital from Nara to Kyoto to avoid the ever-growing power of Buddhist monks. The centralized government continued, but the power of the aristocrats, who gained power by increasing their properties, interfered with politics by strategic marriages with the Imperial Family. They armed themselves or hired guardsmen to protect their land. This was the beginning of the samurai warriors. The Taira and Minamoto clans became the strongest samurai clans in Japan. Esoteric Buddhism (Shingon Buddhism) started, which became very influential in Japanese Buddhism. Japanese characters and Japanese literature were created during the period.

Kamakura Period (1185 – 1333)

samurai warrior Minamoto-no Yoritomo became the first Shogun, he was nominated by the Emperor and consequently placed his military government in Kamakura. He put a military governor in charge of each district to solidify his power. But the Minamoto family terminated within three generations when the third Shogun was assassinated. Then the Hojo family succeeded them, and they stayed in power until the end of Kamakura period. The Mongolians attacked Japan twice in the 13th century, but they didn’t manage to conquer Japan. Zen Buddhism became popular during this period.

Muromachi Period (1338 – 1573)

After Emperor Godaigo defeated the Hojo clan, Ashikaga Takauji became Shogun and settled his military government in Muromachi, Kyoto. It was the time of an Imperial Family feud, and the family split in the Northern and Southern Courts for more than 50 years. The Onin War in 1467 devastated Kyoto and lowered the power of the Shogunate. This is the beginning of the Warring State period. This period saw many clans fight each other, and the unity of Japan was still far off. Kinkakuji and Ginkakuji were built in this period. Guns and Christianity were brought by the Portuguese in the mid 16th century.

golden temple

Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1573 – 1603)

After the Warring State Period, Oda Nobunaga came to Kyoto to support the 15th Shogun. But Oda ended up banishing him and became the first unifier of Japan. He built a castle in Azuchi, Shiga. He was attacked by his vassal, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who then became the second unifier. Toyotomi built a castle in Momoyama, Kyoto. Under him, Sen-no Rikyu perfected ‘chanoyu’ ( tea ceremony). After the death of Hideyoshi, the great Battle of Sekigahara occurred that was won by Tokugawa Ieyasu. Tokugawa then became Shogun in Edo (now Tokyo), and a period of prolonged peace and unity in Japan started.

Three big warlords of the Warring States Period in Japan
Three big warlords in the late 16th century; Tokugawa Ieyasu, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Oda Nobunaga.

Edo Period (1603 – 1868)

Tokugawa Ieyasu finished the unification of Japan. His shogunate lasted for 15 generations over 260 years. He nominated 250 feudal lords to govern each district. It was a peaceful period without any big wars, but the shogunate lost its military power. Culture had a chance to flourish, and Kabuki, woodblock printing, sushi, and tempura originated in the period.

Japan closed its door in 1639, but in the mid 19th century, Western countries came to Japan to demand the Japanese to open up the country to trade with them. There was a movement “Respect the Emperor and expel the barbarians (Westerners)” from people who didn’t want this large change. But the shogunate could not resist the modernization and made treaties that favored the Westerners. Tokugawa gave back the power to the Emperor, which is why the new period is called the Meiji Restoration.

Meiji Period (1868 – 1912)

Emperor Meiji decided to move the capital from Kyoto to Tokyo. He moved into the former Shogun’s castle, which is now the Imperial Palace. The new government demolished the feudal domains and the social hierarchical system was abolished. A constitution was written and Japan became a constitutional monarchy. Japan tried to modernize the country by increasing wealth and military power, as well as by introducing Western culture. Japan won two wars during this time, the Japan-Sino War (1894-1895) and the Japan-Russo War (1904-0905).

Taisho Period (1912 – 1926)

This is the time of Emperor Taisho. He was not healthy and his reign lasted only 14 years. It was the time of so-called Taisho Democracy, which paved the way for full democracy after WW2. Political parties increased their power during this time. Around the time of WWI, Japan enjoyed an economic boom exporting textile, ships, steel, and chemical products. But after the war, Japan plunged into economic depression along with much of the rest of the world. Japan became a permanent member of the League of Nations. In 1923, the Great Kanto Earthquake occurred and 100,000 people died.

Showa Period (1926 – 1989)

The reign of Emperor Showa (known as Hirohito) lasted for 62 years. The power of the military became stronger and they interfered in politics. WW2 started in Europe and Japan made a tripartite pact with Germany and Italy. Japan involved itself in the war by attacking Pearl Harbor in 1941, and it lasted until two nuclear bombs were dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

The Allied Powers occupied Japan until 1952, but even after this period, US military still remains in Japan by the Japan-US Security Treaty. From the 1960s, Japan achieved a record high economic growth and became the second biggest economic power in the world. The Tokyo Olympics in 1964 stimulated the economy by being the accelerator for the construction of the Shinkansen and other infrastructure.

Tohoku Shinkansen

Your Japan Tour

As seasoned Japan experts, we can help you create your perfect Japan tour. We can include guides who can tell you all about Japanese history. Check out our group tours and private tours, or contact us to start planning your unforgettable holiday to this fascinating country full of once-in-a-lifetime experiences, culture, history, nature, and delicious food!

Recommended Articles