In order to understand any culture, learning the history can really help. And Japan is no different. Japan has a wild history with dramatic changes in culture, government, and how they feel about foreigners. Figuring this out can really help you see where a lot of Japanese culture comes from.
So let’s get started. (We’ll go by time period, as listed on Wikipedia. Things get complicated and people disagree, so this will help us keep it easy.)
Jomon (10,000-300 BC)
This is your neolithic period. You can’t really call the country Japan yet, but they were doing some pretty cool stuff. Organized groups of people making pottery, from what we can tell. The pottery from this period is actually pretty famous because of how old it is. Jomon refers to the braided cord marks that decorated the pottery. It’s basically like calling an entire culture “Plaid.” Besides that, we don’t know much.
Yayoi (900 BC – 250 AD)
Alright, now we’re getting some farming going! There are new pots and rice fields. This is when China starts actually talking about Japan, but they just refer to them as “Wa.”
This period also has a pretty famous lady called Himiko. She was a religious and political leader at the time (which is pretty impressive they had a lady in charge, but considering their main deity is a woman, maybe it just follows).
This one is super easy to remember, guys. “Kofun” sounds like “coffin” and this period is all about burial mounds. I mean, that’s all we have from this period.
They made some really cool keyhole-shaped tombs called “kofun.” There’s still a ton of them around Japan. They are also surrounded by what are called haniwa figures. These clay figures are in the shapes of people and animals and are thought to sort of protecting the tomb. They look really funky, because the artists tried to understand the kami in the clay and portray that, rather than make them look realistic.
Yes, there are Kofun tombs still in Japan. No, you probably can’t go inside. They are protected, and it’s even hard for archaeologists to excavate them right now.
So I’ve heard this called Asuka and Yamato. The Yamato name comes from the main clan that started to take power at this time. They ended up writing the Nihon Shoki which pretty much validated their clan as “descended from the Sun Goddess.” As far as qualifications go, that seemed pretty good for everyone, so they took control of the country. Now we can start referring to this place as Japan.
Relations with China also became pretty important in this period. Before now, Japan was kind of doing its own thing. But during this period, there was this really important guy named Prince Shotoku. He sent a pretty offensive letter to China (“From the land where the sun rises to the land where the sun sets.” Ouch). Out of that, Japan and China finally started kind of getting along.
At this time (and most of the time in history) China was considered the pinnacle of civilization in the East. Everyone wanted to be like China. Even Japan. So they adopted Chinese architecture, language, writing, fashion, government (check out those Taika Reforms), pretty much whatever they could get their hands on. As a result, Asuka Period stuff is pretty Chinese-y.
This is also when Buddhism really starts becoming a thing.
If you thought Japan couldn’t get more Chinese-y, boy were you wrong. This is called the Nara period because they moved the capital to Nara. So creative. When they built the new capital city, they also based it on the Chinese capital Chang’an, which was thought to be the ideal setup for a city. I mean, Tang China is pretty great. I don’t blame them for trying to be like that.
This is basically Japan’s most Chinese time period. They wanted to be like the Tang Court so bad. Well, the aristocrats did. Everyone else just farmed.
So then the capital changed again, but they kept the whole Chang’an setup. Now the capital was in Heian (modern Kyoto).
This period is super influential when it comes to art and literature. Basically, Japan was at a time of peace, so everyone (aristocrats) had a lot of time to just make stuff. Farmers still farmed. But the members of the court would write poetry to each other and paint and dance and just develop Japanese traditions when it came to all of this stuff.
This is when one of the most influential pieces of literature The Tale of Genji was written.
Nothing really changed politically, but this is when Japanese culture really started to develop outside of Chinese.
The Heian Period was going pretty cool until there was a big war between 1180-1185 and everything changed. Basically, there was an argument about who should be the emperor, samurai showed up, and lots of people died. But one clan of samurai won pretty big, and they set up a military government (endorsed by the emperor and everything) in Kamakura. That’s where this period comes from.
Now the emperor isn’t really in charge, and the shogun is the guy who calls the shots. There’s a bunch of different regions in Japan, and samurai start to become their own separate class. This becomes even more of a true feudal system than even Europe experienced. Lords and domains, vassals and the whole thing. (Note: Comparing this to European feudalism is the easy way out. It was a lot different, and you shouldn’t say they were the same. But yeah, they had similarities and it’s easy for Westerners to understand this comparison. Just be careful.)
The time period changed because the government changed. Now it’s not the Kamakura Shogunate, but the Ashikaga Shogunate.
Zen Buddhism becomes pretty big, and Christians also show up (which didn’t end well for the Christians, to put it lightly).
Surprisingly enough, even though Japan is under a militaristic rule, there’s still a lot of encouragement for developing the arts. Samurai aren’t just mindless brutes. They were also expected to be poets and artists. Culture is a big deal, and while you might expect art and literature to go downhill in a time like this, it actually just gets better.
Momoyama/Warring States (1573-1603)
I rarely hear this called the Momoyama Period. It’s mostly referred to as the Warring States Period (that name was totally stolen from China). Towards the end of the Muromachi Period, things totally fall apart. All the clans are fighting with each other.
This is when the three unifiers step in. Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu end up pulling the whole thing together (using various techniques). In 1603, things settle down, and Tokugawa Ieyasu is the one who ended up on top with a finally unified country.
This one has two names because Tokugawa is the shogunate and Edo is the capital (modern Tokyo). Either name is fine.
What you know about Japanese culture probably came from this period. Geisha, samurai, kabuki, sushi–it was all Edo Period.
This is also the time of the famous “Closed Country Policy.” Now let’s correct some misconceptions here. Japan was not closed off to the entire world, like some believe. Japan was closed off to the Western world (except the Dutch). Trade with China and Korea continued. Now why were they selective in trade? Basically, the government didn’t want anything to do with a country that could help someone overthrow them. The Dutch were only in it for the trade, which is why they got a pass.
Eventually, the Americans showed up and ruined everything, as we tend to do. Commodore Matthew Perry (You’ll need to know this name if you go to Japan. People will ask you about him more than you expect. He’s called “Perry-san” there.) showed up with orders to open the country.
The Americans brought some pretty intimidating black ships, so the Japanese agreed.
This also led to a huge “Restoration” (it was basically a revolution) where the shogunate was overthrown and the emperor was reestablished as the actual ruler of Japan.
Cue westernization montage.
Japan westernized crazy fast. Commodore Perry brought a mini train with him, and 30 years later, Japan had its first train line. Guys. That’s crazy.
The time periods are shorter here because they change with each emperor.
This time period was really short because everyone thought the Taisho Emperor was crazy. He got sick when he was a kid, so he wasn’t all there, and they did their best to replace him pretty quick.
Besides that, not much happened besides more rapid westernization.
A lot of people know about this period because of World War II and Japan’s efforts to become an imperial power. So much happened in this time, and it’s all really complicated, so here is my briefest version.
-Japan started trying to take over everything
-They declared war against China
-They totally wrecked China
-Eventually the war with China turned into them joining World War II
-They pulled the U.S. into the war
-The U.S. wrecked Japan with nuclear weapons, and Japan surrendered
-The U.S. occupied Japan, and totally redid their government
-Japan suddenly found crazy economic success
Modern history is crazy and complicated. I did my best. One day, we can hash this out in its own article to give you guys more details.
Japan had crazy economic success until the bubble burst in 1990. Some people blame the government, but who can really blame anyone?
But Japan has still been doing pretty good.
So hopefully this has helped you understand a little bit of Japan’s history. This overview is very brief and is definitely missing a lot, but it is just meant to get you started.
Stay tuned in the coming weeks and we can actually break down these periods for you. Then you can really see how Japan became Japan.