6.1 Japan


Year(s) Event(s)
c. 8000 – 300 BCE Jõmon Period
c. 300 BCE – 300 CE Yayoi Culture
c. 300  – 680 CE Tomb Culture
680 CE – 850 CE Tang & Early Heian
784 CE Heian Period Begins
1160 – 1180 CE Taira Rule in Kyoto
1185 – 1333 CE Kamakura Era
1338 – 1573 CE Ashikaga Era
1467 CE Warring States Period Begins


East Asia can be defined in two different ways. Geographically speaking, it can be defined as the eastern region of the Asian continent and the countries located there, principally China, North and South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan. But historians also define East Asia as a broader cultural realm, and include countries that both shared close historical relations with China and were impacted by China’s political and legal institutions, and Confucian and Buddhist traditions. When defined in this way, Vietnam is also included.  We will look at East Asia with the exclusion of China which we examined previously.

Map 4.1 | East Asia Author: Larry Israel Source: Original Work License: CC BY-SA 4.0

Geography of Japan

Japan is an island country consisting of four main islands and many smaller ones located off the Pacific coast of the Asian continent. At 400,000 square kilometers, Japan is slightly smaller than California, although the terrain is more rugged. Because Japan is covered by mountains and traversed by numerous rivers, only fifteen percent of the land is suited to agriculture. Much of that was concentrated in two plains–the Kinai Plain and Kanto Plain–making them particularly important to Japan’s early history. Japan is also located along the Pacific Ring of Fire, where tectonic plates composing the earth’s crust frequently move and collide. That is why earthquakes and volcanic activity have been a constant threat to populations living on these islands.

The Japanese monarchy is the oldest continuous one in the history of the world and traces its beginnings to at least the fourth century CE. Japan’s early historical development presents  unique characteristics because of its geography. The island archipelago was close enough to Chinese and Korean states to borrow from them and benefit from migration and yet far enough away so that invasions were never a sudden impetus to change. Therefore, although we can also speak of secondary state formation for Japan, that is largely because of the conscious choice on the part of ruling elites to adopt political ideas and cultural patterns from China and Korea.

Jõmon Period, c. 8000 – 300 BCE


Figure 4.18 | An earthenware “flame pot” from the Jōmon Period, dating to c. 3000 BCE Author: User “Morio” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

But even during the prehistoric period, geography impacted Japan’s development in other ways. The first evidence for Paleolithic hunter-gatherers dates back to c. 30,000 BCE.  During the last ice age, a land bridge connected Japan to Asia. Due to its volcanic nature, no skeletal remains of the period survive. Archeologists are still unsure of the origins of the ancient pottery fragments that use a “cord” or Jõmon pattern, but the evidence indicates that between 10000 and 8000 BCE, peoples, probably from Southeast Asia, moved into Japan establishing the Jõmon culture. These artifacts are the oldest pottery fragments in the world.

In the resource-rich environments of mountainous and forested Japan, small bands of mobile, multi-generational families were able to thrive on game, shellfish, fruits, tubers, and nuts. Evidence shows shows that this culture practiced hunting and fishing. In fact, foraging strategies were so successful that even when sedentary village communities first formed, they thrived without agriculture. This period of time is known as the Jōmon [joe-moan] Period. The archaeological record reveals that, up and down the archipelago, foragers had settled into permanent base camps. These were hamlet communities made up of pit dwellings for homes and raised floor structures for holding community functions. This case is one of the few in prehistory where a culture invented and used pottery long before farming.

Complete this brief reading on the Jõmon Culture from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and this one on the Japanese origin myth and then watch the video clip on the origin of the Samurai that follows.


“Origins of the Samurai.” Samurai Japan. 1996. Accessed May 2, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=8694&loid=13433. 4:58.


Yayoi Culture, c. 300 BCE – 300 CE


Figure 4.19 | A reconstruction of Yoshinogari, a Yayoi Period chiefdom | It was located in northwest Kyushu and flourished c. first century BCE. Author: User “Sanjo” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: Public Domain

Around 300 BCE new arrivals to Japan from Northeast Asia brought the Yayoi culture. These peoples brought agriculture to the islands. The label refers to a site near Tokyo where artifacts were discovered evidencing new developments in Japan. Most importantly, rice-paddy agriculture and dry-field farming were introduced, techniques that supported population growth and the formation of more and larger village communities. The impetus to agriculture was likely earlier experimentation with simple horticulture, a warming climate, and migration from mainland East Asia.

Also around 300 BCE, the bronze and iron revolutions began in Japan. This is most likely due to the influx of these technologies from the mainland, much like the agricultural revolution. Most Japanese believe that the new migrants entered into Japan slowly, being absorbed into the Jõmon culture, but anthropological evidence seems to indicate that these are two distinctly different peoples. Tools and weapons fashioned from metals became widespread.

During the early centuries of Yayoi, small village communities proliferated across the main islands of Japan, but, during the latter half, they evolved into something more substantial. Archaeologists have excavated the foundations of large settlements surrounded by moats and embankments. These fortified bastions were home to up to two thousand residents and contained ceremonial centers, differentiated residences and burials, watchtowers, and palisades. Some burials contained skeletons evidencing wounds or dismemberment. Combining this evidence with clues from contemporary Chinese historical sources, specialists have concluded that, by the end of the Yayoi period, powerful chiefdoms had emerged in Japan, and they were allying with and battling each other to control trade routes and territory. Later Yayoi communities included complex hierarchies that included kings or rulers, priests, soldiers and artisans. One of the most interesting features of the Yayoi culture was its female rulers.

Read this brief description of the Yayoi-Japanese at Macrohistory.


Tomb Culture and the Yamato State, 300 – 680 CE

In the fourth and fifth century CE, a number of tomb mounds appeared on the Yamato Plain. These are similar in pattern to the those located in Korea and thus it is believed that Japan saw a new wave of migrants mostly from that area. The tombs are circular hilltops built on top of large burial chambers. Some of these tombs are surrounded by moats and filled with household goods. Tombs dating from the fifth century are filled with armor, spears and other weapons, reflecting continued migration.

These migrants also brought new technology with them and thus in this period we see a social order emerge much like that of Korea.  An elite warrior-class led, organized the people into clans, fought with swords, axes, and armor, and took their defeated enemies as slaves.  Over time, this constant fighting led to the elimination and consolidation of many clans.

Map 4.19 | Map depicting extent of the Yamato Kingdom c. seventh century CE Author: User “Morio” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

In retrospect, the late Yayoi Period clearly was a transitional phase leading to the formation of the first kingdom in Japanese history.  Among the warring chiefdoms, one emerged as dominant. By 600 CE, the chief of the clan that claimed descent from the sun-goddess dominated and subsequent rulers became known as the Great King or Great Queen. Hailing from the Kinai region of Japan Yamato chieftains expanded their power through force and diplomacy, and eventually forged a kingdom. The principal evidence for their growing power are the massive, keyhole-shaped tombs giving this period its name. In fact, nearly ten thousand tombs have been identified, but the largest ones belong to the Yamato rulers, the ancestors to the long-lived Japanese imperial line. Although the large royal ones have not yet been excavated, smaller tombs containing an abundance of horse trappings, iron weapons, and armor provide evidence that mounted warfare was introduced from the Korean peninsula, perhaps accelerating the pace of state formation.

As the dominant clan, the Yamato rulers were able to force the other clans to observe a new hierarchy of gods, establishing the sun-goddess whom they worshipped as the dominant deity.  Later, this religion was named Shintoism – the native religion of Japan.


Figure 4.20 | The Daisen Tomb in Osaka, Japan, c. fifth century | At 486 meters in length, this is the largest of the keyhole tombs. It was the burial site for a Yamato king. Author: Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport Government of Japan Source: Wikimedia Commons License: © National Land Image Information (Color Aerial Photographs), Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism. Used with Permission.

As they conquered more territory, Yamato rulers devised strategies for strengthening their monarchy and incorporating leaders of the many powerful chieftain clans dominating local areas up and down the archipelago. For service at their royal court or as provincial officials, they granted them office and noble titles, thereby building a coalition of great clans. In addition, in the sixth century CE, Yamato rulers began to study the great Sui (581 – 618 CE) and Tang (618 – 907 CE) Dynasties in China and to introduce reforms based upon what they learned. The next two centuries in Japanese history, was defined by these Chinese-style reforms, although the name itself refers to the successive locations of the royal court.


Figure 4.21 | The Grand Shrine at Ise | This Shinto Shrine was first built c. fourth century CE in honor of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu, progenitor of the Japanese imperial line. According to legends, it contains the Amaterasu’s sacred mirror, which was handed down to the first emperors. The shrine has been rebuilt many times Author: User “N yotarou” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 4.0

Prince Shōtoku [show-toe-coo] (573 – 621 CE) and Empress Suiko [sue-ee-ko] (r. 593 – 628) led the way by sending several embassies to the capital of China and then remodeling their capital and court. In his “Seventeen Article Constitution,” Shōtoku called for the introduction of Buddhism and Confucian ethics. His articles, for instance, stated that the sovereign’s relation to subjects was like Heaven’s to the earth, and his or her commands should thus be obeyed. Empress Suiko adopted the title “Heavenly Monarch,” thus shifting the character of the monarch from a martial king to a Chinese-style sovereign. In brief, they introduced a Confucian-oriented, emperor-centered state ideology that clearly established a hierarchical system of ranks and norms for court etiquette. For the remainder of this period, other reformers and monarchs would only deepen the reforms by introducing Chinese-style law codes. These laws reshaped the government and land according to a bureaucratic and administrative structure very similar to that of Tang China.

Nevertheless, distinctly Japanese patterns remained throughout this time. First, the royally-recognized great clans of earlier times evolved into an aristocratic class that dominated the court and the upper ranks of officialdom. Secondly, in addition to establishing a council to manage the growing numbers of Buddhist temples and clerics, the court established a Council of Kami Affairs to oversee native Japanese religious traditions. That tradition is known as Shinto [sheen-toe], or the “Way of the Kami.”

Shinto began in prehistoric times as reverence for kami—spirits and deities associated with natural phenomena, such as the sun or moon. Really, anything mysterious might become a kami, including a mountain, charismatic ruler, or serpent. During the Yayoi and Mounded Tomb Periods, these kami became the subjects of myths that explained their origins and powers, and shrines were erected to house sacred objects symbolizing them. By properly purifying oneself, conducting rituals, and praying to a kami, an individual could avert a disaster and ensure his own or the community’s well-being. Also, clans would claim important kami as their guardian spirits and fashion stories about how their ancestors descended from them. In fact, Yamato monarchs claimed they were descended from the Sun Goddess Amaterasu, and constructed a shrine at Ise [ee-say] to house her kami body. Finally, the Yamato court developed a centralized system to keep track of and regulate Shinto shrines throughout its realm, thereby harnessing higher powers to support its claim to rule the land.


“Shintoism to Sumo Wrestling and the Yamato.” Buddha in the Land of the Kami (7th–12th Centuries). 1989. Accessed May 2, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=2151&loid=599548. 9:42.


Chinese Tang and Early Heian, c. 650 – 850 CE

In the seventh century, the Japanese experienced a turning point in their history. In China, the Tang Court was opened to peoples from all over the world as we saw in Module 5. Among these peoples, were visitors from the Japanese and they brought back with them technology, and knowledge from the Chinese. They moved the capital of Japan to Nara. Nara was modeled on the Chinese Tang capital and became Japan’s first true city. The Japanese adopted a lot of Chinese ideas and methods such as Buddhism. This inspired a number of trips to China as Japanese aesthetics sought to study at Chinese Buddhist monasteries. Much of Chinese culture was imported including music, histories, law codes, and governmental structure. Unfortunately, diseases also arrived as part of these exchanges and this led to large epidemics such as a smallpox one that lasted from 735 – 737 CE, estimated to have killed up to 30% of the population.

Read this description of the failed reforms during the 8th century in Japan from Macrohistory then watch the video clips that follow.


“Emperor Shotoku Spreads Buddhism to Japan Adopts Chinese Poetry.” Buddha in the Land of the Kami (7th–12th Centuries). 1989. Accessed May 2, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=2151&loid=610474. 15:04.


“Kyoto, Japan.” Separation—The Ascent of Woman: A 10,000 Year Story. 2015. Accessed May 2, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=114441&loid=410812. 2:10.


Heian Period Begins, 784 CE

Buddhist monasteries in Nara grew very powerful, so powerful that the rulers decided to move the capital away from Nara. The new capital was constructed at Heian (modern day Kyoto) and moved in 794 CE. Heian was also modeled on the Tang capital, but as the Tang declined in the ninth century, the government began to follow its own path and Japan experienced a flowering of its own culture. The emperors who headed the Japanese government were simultaneously Confucian rulers (Chinese influence) and Shinto rulers (Japanese) descended from the sun goddess.

Gradually, the emperors became less involved in day-to-day governing. As their hands on participation lessened, they continued to be honored, but the Fujiwara family ruled. This was a return to clan based politics and was very different than China. Instead of overthrowing the imperial dynasty as we saw in China, politicians manipulated the emperors by ruling in their name. Originally, the Fujiwara family was able to control the emperors and thus the government, through intermarriage and blood relations; however, by the end of the eleventh century, the emperors sought to control their own fate by abdicating in favor of controlling their own sons on the throne. This is a system of rule that is sometimes called the “cloistered government” because it was closely related to the abdicated emperor’s retirement in Buddhist monasteries.

To understand this era which experienced the flowering of a uniquely Japanese culture read these two sections from Macrohistory: here and here; and watch the following videos.


“Japan During the Heian Era.” Buddha in the Land of the Kami (7th–12th Centuries). 1989. Accessed May 2, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=2151&loid=11598. 3:07.


“Women During the Heian Era to Murasaki Shikibu.” Separation—The Ascent of Woman: A 10,000 Year Story. 2015. Accessed May 2, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=114441&loid=410813. 6:23.


Taira Rule in Kyoto and the Samurai, 1160 – 1180 CE

During the Heian period, a warrior class rose to power finally ending the control of the Fujiwaras. In 1156, a civil war broke out between the Taira clan and the Minamoto clan. Both clans relied on warriors called samurai. The samurais were similar in practice to European feudalism at roughly the same time. The samurai fought for his lord and gave him loyalty. In return, the lord gave the samurai land or payment. For a period of 20 years, a member of the Taira clan dominated the court by marrying his daughter to the emperor and becoming prime minister. The Taira clan members took control of the provinces, managed estates throughout Japan and built a fortune through trade. The Taira clan rule ended in 1180 when the Minamoto clan defeated them and their leader, Yoritomo, became shogun.

Watch these two films summarizing the early development of Japan and the rise of the Samurai.


“Origins of the Samurai to Right to Rule.” Samurai Japan. 1996. Accessed May 2, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=8694&loid=599552. 20:55.


Japanese – Neolithic to Samurai – Part 1: Timelines of Ancient Civilizations. 2004. Accessed May 2, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=76931. 16:26.


Kamakura Era, 1185 – 1333 CE

With the rise to power of the Minamoto clan, and Yoritomo’s position of general-in-chief (shogun), the Kamakura Shogunate era began. This is sometimes called Japan’s feudal period as the period is dominated by the military class. The Kamakura period developed out of a combination of military tradition and Confucianism and sees many similarities to European feudalism. The emergence of the powerful samurai comes about because of private land ownership. Government allotment of land, practiced under the Tang, broke down. This allowed landowners to acquire large estates much of which was tax free.

The people who worked the land in Japan were not serfs, though. They didn’t lose their rights and they weren’t tied to the land that they farmed. Japanese lords rarely lived on the land they owned, and this allowed those who did live on the land to create a life relatively independent of control from above. Samurai, like medieval knights, practiced a code that stressed military honor, courage, hardship and loyalty, called Bushido. Disloyalty meant disgrace and, for a samurai, ritual suicide.

The Kamakura period is also the medieval period of Japanese history.  Read this summary of the Kamakura period from historian Mark Cartwright.

During the Kamakura period, the gap between the classes narrowed as Buddhism and other aspects of culture became more readily available. It was also during this period that Zen flourished like a lot of other aspects of culture in Japan, Zen teachings originated in China. Zen claimed the superiority of mind-to-mind transmissions of truth instead of repetition through recitation of the sutras. Instead, the Zen practiced rigorous meditation and mind puzzles to reach enlightenment.  Also during the Kamakura period, agriculture once again began to thrive leading to population growth. New technologies such as a new strain of rice, new agricultural practices such as fertilization, and irrigation improvements, meant that some people were available to work in other jobs. This meant that people might be artisans, or merchants, or fishermen too. Slavery was banned, but someone in debt might sell themselves or a family member into service in order to pay off debt.

Read this discussion of Zen and Buddhism in Japan.

The Minamoto clan saw its own share of political intrigue. Yoritomo’s wife, a member of the Hojo clan, assisted her own family in taking control. The Hojos would retain control until 1333 CE after turning the shogunate into a puppet government. They faced their own problems in the form of several seaborne invasions from the Mongols. Their weaknesses in the face of these attacks led to discontent and by the fourteenth century the political structure broke down.


“Feudalism in Japan.” The Birth of the Middle Ages. 1989. Accessed May 2, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=1954&loid=40026. 3:38.


The Ashikaga Era, 1338 – 1573 CE

In 1333 CE, emperor Go-Daigo tried to retake power in Japan. He was temporarily successful, destroying the Kamakura Shogunate, but in 1338 he lost power to one of his own military supporters – Ashikaga Tukauji. Ashikaga Takauji established the Ashikaga Shogunate and this lasted until 1573. It is also in this period that the samurai took over all civil authority in Japan. Governance of Japan during the Ashikaga era was far from stable. At times, powerful and competent lords were able to make their provinces into independent states. At others, the central government in Kyoto was able to maintain control.

For a detailed description of the Ashikaga Shogunate, read Mark Cartwright’s entry on the Muromachi Period at the Ancient History Encyclopedia.

The Warring States Period Begins, 1467 CE

The Warring States or Sengoku period of Japanese history begins in 1467 CE. This period lasts until the Tokugawa Shogunate was able to solidify control of the entire country in the 17th century. In the early 15th century, a series of natural disasters and failed harvests led to an uprising amongst the miserable people. This uprising descended into civil war as the Ashikaga Shogunate was unable to put down the unrest. In Kyoto, arson destroyed much of the city and its wooden temples and treasures. As the unrest continued, violence escalated. People were slaughtered and the war spread.


Samurai Japan. Films On Demand. 1996. Accessed February 7, 2021. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=8694. 47:14.


In sum, like Korea, Japan’s history was highly impacted by developments in China, even as native languages, traditions, and creative adaptation remained foundational to the unique identities of each.