Japan Timeline and History Overview (Part1)

Japan is a country that has one of the world’s longest measurable histories.

Japan also has around 1100 national treasures and 13000 items of cultural significance.

During Japan’s history since its establishment around 3000 years ago, there have been many different cultures within Japan that have been born, flourished and perished over time. In particular, there have been particular aspects of Japanese culture such as “Samurai”, “Ninja” and “Tea Ceremony” that are well known throughout the world.

In this article, we will look back at Japanese culture as it has developed over time. We will see how Japan has developed into the country that it is today by travelling back in time with this article.

Part 1 will start from the birth of Japan up until 1573, the end of the Muromachi period. Part 2 will continue from the start of the Azuchi Momoyama period up until the present day.

Jomon period (Around 14000 years until the 4th century): Jomon Culture

Emperor Jinmu(神武天皇)

When the ice ages ended about 20,000 years ago, the Japanese archipelago separated from the Asian continent, and this was when the Jomon period(縄文時代) began. The characteristic of this era is that people lived mainly by hunting, fishing and plant harvesting, and for the purpose of keeping foods, "Jomon pottery(縄文土器)" and earth dolls called "Dogu(土偶)" were made, and there were “Pit houses(竪穴式住居)” made by digging areas and living in the pits. According to Japan's oldest history book, called "Nihon Shoki(日本書紀)", it is believed that Japan was founded on the day that Emperor Jinmu(神武天皇) was crowned as the first Emperor in 660 BC.

Yayoi period (4th century BC to 3rd century BC): Yayoi Culture


In the Yayoi period(弥生時代), rice cultivation became more prevalent, and together with the development of agricultural society, it became possible for separate villages to become established in different regions. Divisions started to become more apparent depending on the size of the villages. When King “Nanokokuou(奴国王)”, a king from a large village had started international relations with China, it was from this period that Japan, known as “Wakoku(倭国)” was known as a country by people overseas.  After a tumultuous period of conflict in the second half of the 2nd century, "Himiko(卑弥呼)" from a place known as Yamataikoku(邪馬台国) became the King that reigned over Japan, and began relations with King Wei of China.

Kofun period (3rd to 6th centuries): Kofun culture

Daisen Tomb burial mound(大仙陵古墳)

"Kofun(古墳)" is defined as a big tomb of an Emperor or other people in positions of power. In this Kofun period, a prominent village, known as the Kingship of Yamato formed mainly in Kyoto, Osaka and Nara, and it was that time that Kofun started to appear. In the ancient tomb, a statue made of earth known as "Clay figures(埴輪)" were laid out for the purposes of town and area planning. In addition, the largest existing Kofun tomb is the "Daisen Tomb burial mound(大仙陵古墳)" which is 486 meters long and houses the body of Emperor Nintoku(仁徳天皇). The tomb was built in Osaka Sakai City in the 5th century.

Asuka period (6th century - 710 years): Asuka culture

Prince Shotoku(聖徳太子)

"Asuka(飛鳥)" is the name of the area of Nara prefecture nowadays. The Asuka period began when the headquarters of the Yamato kingship was relocated to this area. In the latter half of the sixth century, teachings from Buddhism were brought from the Korean Peninsula and Buddhist culture known as Asuka culture at the time blossomed. In the 7th century, the oldest wooden building in the world known as “Horyu-ji Temple(法隆寺)”, was established by "Prince Shotoku(聖徳太子)" and still remains in Nara prefecture. Horyu-ji Temple was the first area in Japan that was registered as a World Heritage site, in 1993. In addition, after the victory by Emperor Tenmu(天武天皇) during the Jinshin war, the concept of deification of Emperors continued, and the first law of Japan, "Taiho Ritsuryo(大宝律令)" was enacted.

Nara period (710 - 794): Hakuho culture / Tenpyo culture

Emperor Shomu(聖武天皇)

In the Nara period(奈良時代), the city of Heijo-kyo(平城京) was opened upon its completion, and was where Emperor Genmei(元明天皇) lived during the year 710. Due to the increased activity of envoys who were despatched around the country, the culture of Buddhism and Hakuho/Tenpyo(白鳳・天平) culture continued to spread. Emperor Shomu(聖武天皇) built "Todaiji Temple(東大寺) and Great Buddha(大仏)" in 758, which was registered as a World Heritage Site in 1998. In addition, “Manyogana(万葉仮名)”, which was the origin of the Hiragana characters used today, became a form of writing that was used among the aristocracy.

Heian period (794 - 1185): Konin · Jogan culture / Kokufu culture / Inseiki culture

Emperor Kanmu(桓武天皇)

In the Heian period(平安時代), in 794 Emperor Kanmu(桓武天皇) created "Heian-kyo(平安京)" which is now known as Kyoto. From the Heian period, decentralization of power started to take place, and the highest noble group known as the Heian nobility ruled over the separate areas. It was also at this time that the Samurai(武士), who had powers of military policing, started to appear. Taira clan(平氏), who was the main Samurai of one of the first Samurai regimes came to power but then collapse due to the outbreak of civil wars.

Hieizan Enryaku-ji Temple(比叡山延暦寺)

In this era, Chinese Buddhism, including Tendai Buddhism and Shingon Buddhism were brought to Japan by Buddhist Monks Saicho(最澄) and Kuukai(空海). Saichou greatly contributed to the subsequent spreading of Buddhism by establishing "Hieizan Enryaku-ji Temple(比叡山延暦寺)" a temple in Shiga prefecture in 823 AD, and was a place where famous priests such as Honen(法然), Eisai(栄西), Dogen(道元) and Shinran(親鸞), were educated. In 1994, Enryaku-ji Temple was registered as a world heritage site. In addition, after training, education and spreading Buddhism in Koyasan(高野山) and Kyoto(京都), Kukai received the honorary title of "Kobo Daishi(弘法大師)" from the Emperor Daigo(醍醐天皇) in 921. In national culture, Hiragana and Katakana became popular among women, due to Genji's story (Genji who defeated Heishi) the title known as "Genji Monogatari(源氏物語)".

Kamakura period (1185 - 1333): Kamakura culture

Minamoto no Yoritomo(源頼朝)

When Taira clan's last battle in the  "Battle of Danoura(壇ノ浦の戦い)" ended, he defeated Minamoto no Yoshitsune(源義経) who had betrayed Minamoto no Yoritomo(源頼朝), as well as defeating the Oshu Fujiwara clan(奥州藤原氏) who had previously flourished in Iwate prefecture Hiraizumi(平泉) where he was based, then reigned on what was known as the Samurai summit which was based in Kamakura and opened the "shogunate(将軍)" which had its main base in Kamakura(鎌倉). In 2011, Hiraizumi was registered as a world heritage site.


However, after the death of Minamoto n Yoritomo, Hojo clan(北条氏), who was descended from Taira clan, gained control of the Kamakura shogunate, and in 1221 Retired Emperor Gotoba started the "Jokyu War(承久の乱)" to regain political power. However, Hojo clan was able to emerge victorious and increased the power of the Shogunate rather than the government, and increased the strength of Samurai influence. Then, Japan was under attack from the Mongol empire in 1274 and then again in 1281, but the enemy ship, almost by miracle was destroyed by a large typhoon, known as the “God wind” (Kamikaze), and it was from this time that Japan started to be known as a “country of God”. However, as the Shogunate did not receive reward for their battles, conflicts and frictions built up, and the Kamakura Shogunate was destroyed in 1333.

Muromachi period (1334 - 1573): Kitayama Culture / Higashiyama Culture

Kinkaku-ji Temple(金閣寺: Golden Pavilion)

After the destruction of the Kamakura Shogunate, Emperor Godaigo (後醍醐天皇) advanced the policy of the new government of Kenmu(建武の新政), but the support and loyalty of the samurai was with "Ashikaga Takauji(足利尊氏)" who honoured the Emperor Komyo(光明天皇) and the Muromachi(室町) shogunate was established in what is now Kyoto. The originally split North and South courtrooms were combined, by the 3rd Generation Samurai "Ashikaga Yoshimitsu(足利義満)" and had the right to be in the presence of and approach the area. As a symbol of that authority, in 1397 the stunning temple covered with Gold leaves was built, known as "Kinkaku-ji Temple(金閣寺: Golden Pavilion)".

Hattori Hanzo(服部半蔵)

However, as the prevalence and power of the Samurai increased, several powerful individuals such as Hosokawa clan(細川氏)rose up, and the power of the Ashikaga Samurai family and Samurai’s power decreased during the 10 year “Onin War(応仁の乱)” between 1467 and 1477. During this period, two types of "ninja(忍者)" villages, one known as Kogaryuu ninja(甲賀流忍者) mainly based in Shiga prefecture and the Igaryuu ninja(伊賀流忍者) mainly based in Mie prefecture, were established with the first Ninja of Igaryuu, “Hattori Hanzo(服部半蔵)” who were active during this period of conflict.

In addition,for the worship of Ashikaga Yoshimasa(足利義政) who died in 1490, "Ginkaku-ji Temple(銀閣寺: Silver Pavilion)" was built in Higashiyama, Kyoto. Both Ginkaku-ji Temple and Kinkaku-ji Temple were registered as World Heritage sites in 1994.

After this Japan's three most famous warlords "Oda Nobunaga(織田信長)", "Toyotomi Hideyoshi(豊臣秀吉)" and "Tokugawa Ieyasu(徳川家康)" rise to power, and Oda Nobunaga, who was the originator of the change of an era defeated the Muromachi Shogunate.

We hope this article was illuminating for you.

Part 1 of this article introduced Japan from its inception up until the Muromachi period where the Samurai were prolific. From this time, Samurai increase in power, but Japan transitions from an period of Samurai to an era of warring conflict.

Part 2 will cover Japan from 1573, the Azuchi Momoyama period up until the present day.

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Koki Miyashita

Author & Editor