History of Japan

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  • Glossary
  • Timeline</td></tr><tr><td style="text-align:right;font-size:115%;padding-top: 0.6em;"></td></tr></table>
The history of Japan in written form dates from the 1st century. But archeologists have found proof of people living in Japan for the last several thousand years from the time when the last Ice Age ended.


The first period of Japan's history is its prehistory, before the written history of Japan. Archeologists have found pottery from that time. Japan’s Paleolithic era covers a period from around 100,000 BC to around 12,000 BC. Archeologists have found some polished tools made of stones. Some of them are kept in Tokyo's National Museum. These tools are more than 32,000 years old.[source?]

Jomon Period

The Jomon period lasted for about 10,000 years, from 10,000 BC to around 300 BC. This was the Mesolithic era for Japan. Some scholars say that during this period, Neolithic culture also developed in Japan.

Some[source?] believe that the Jomon people were the first people in the world to create pottery. But other scholars do not think so. Archeologists have found several pieces of pottery of that time. Some are clay figures and some are vessels and potteries of different shapes.

Yayoi Period

The Yayoi period covered about 550 years, from around 300 BC till around 250. The period had got its name from a location in Tokyo. By that time, Japanese people had learnt the cultivation of rice. Different clans controlled different areas and they also fought among themselves. Some Chinese texts tell about this time. These texts describe Japan as the Yamatai country. Yamatai came into being when about 30 smaller parts of Japan of that time united under a queen named Himiko.

Ancient and Classical Japan

The Ancient and Classical period covers about 900 years, beginning from the mid-3rd century till the end of the 12th century. The History of Japan of this period may further be divided into several smaller periods. These are described below.

Yamato period

In the history of Japan, the period from the mid-3rd century till around 710 is known as the Yamato period. This period has two parts. The first is the Kofun period (mid-3rd century – mid-6th century). Buddhism had not reached Japan by this time. The second period is called the Asuka period (mid-6th century till around 710). By this time Buddhism had reached Japan.

This period saw many important changes like introduction of the Chinese writing system to Japan. The relationship with Korea and China also brought social changes.

Nara Period

During this period, from the year 707, steps were taken to shift the capital to a place near present-day Nara. This was completed in 710. A new city was built. The city was built to look like the Chinese capital city of that time. At that time, the Tang Dynasty was ruling China, and the capital was at Chang'an (now Xi'an). The first emperor if the Tang Dynasty was Lǐ Yuān.

During the Nara period, development was slow. The Emperor’s family members were always fighting for power with the Buddhists and other groups. At that time, Japan had friendly relations with Korea and China’s Tang Dynasty. The capital was shifted twice. In 784, the capital was moved to Nagaoka and in 794 to Kyoto. In that period, Kyoto was known as Heian-kyo.

Heian Period

The years from 794 to 1185 are known as the Heian period (平安時代, Heian jidai). This grouping of years is named after city of Heian-kyō, which is the early name of present-day Kyoto.[1]

Feudal Japan

Period from around the 12th century through the 19th century is called feudal period in the history of Japan. The Japanese Emperor was the head of the government, but he had no real power. Many powerful families (called daimyo and military groups called shogun) ruled Japan during this period. The feudal period of Japan is generally sub-divided into different periods named after the shogun, which ruled during that period.

Kamakura Period

The years 1185 to 1333 are known as the Kamakura period (鎌倉時代, Kamakura jidai).[2] This grouping of years is named after city of Kamakura which was the center of power of the Kamakura shogunate.

Muromachi Period

Muromachi Period began in 1336 and ended in 1573. Emperor Go-Daigo lost his throne. The government of the Ashikaga shogunate took control of most parts of Japan. This period ended in 1573. In that year the 15th and the last shogun named Ashikaga Yoshiaki was forced to go out of the capital. At that time capital was in Kyōto.

During this period, in 1542, a Portuguese ship reached Japan and made the first direct contact between both cultures, including the knowledge of firearms. In the next few years, merchants and also some Christian missionaries from several European countries, mainly Portugal, the Netherlands, England, and Spain, reached the shores of Japan.

Azuchi-Momoyama Period

Azuchi-Momoyama period covers the years from 1568 to 1600. During these years, different parts of Japan became again united. Its military power grew. In 1592, Japan wanted to conquer China. At that time China was ruled by the Ming dynasty. At that time Toyotomi Hideyoshi was one of the main leaders of Japan. He sent an army of 160,000 troops to Korea. But, the Japanese could not win and returned to Japan. In 1597, Japan again sent an army to Korea. In 1598 Toyotomi Hideyoshi died. After his death, the Japanese dropped the idea of conquering Korea and China.

During this period, Japanese brought many Koreans to Japan. These Koreans were very good at making pottery and at other arts. Some of them were very learned persons. Japan gained new information and knowledge from these Koreans.

Edo Period

During the Edo period, Japan had many small rulers. There were about 200 of them. They were called daimyo. Out of them, the Tokugawa clan was most powerful. They ruled from a place named Edo. This place was around the present day’s Tokyo. For fifteen generations they were the most powerful clan in Japan.

Edo period is also very important period in the history of Japan. Many developments took place. Main developments were:

  • Samurais became the highest group in the society. Agriculturists, artisans, and merchants were kept lower than the Samurais.
  • Common persons were organized in groups of five. If any one of them made any mistake or did anything wrong, all five persons became responsible for that mistake or wrong.
  • Many new things came out in the field of art. A special type of printing with wood blocks came into being. This is known as the ukiyo-e wood-block printing. Special type of theaters also came into being. They were named the kabuki and bunraku theaters.
  • Trade and commerce continued to rise during the Edo period.

In 1868, a war named the Boshin War took place. With this war, the government of the Shogunate ended. Japan again came under the rule of an emperor.


Beginning from the early 17th century, the rulers of Japan started to follow a policy of seclusion, known as sakoku in Japanese language. They suspected that traders, merchants and missionaries wanted to bring Japan under the control of European powers. These rulers (known as shogunate) started a policy of seclusion. Except the Dutch and the Chinese, all foreigners, traders and merchants from other countries, missionaries faced restrictions. They also ordered some foreigners to go out of Japan.

Still even during the period of seclusion, Japanese continued to gain information and knowledge about other parts of the world.

End of seclusion

This policy of seclusion lasted for about 200 years. At last it was ended under force. On July 8th 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry of the U.S. Navy reached Edo, old Tokyo with four warships. The ships were heavily armed and their guns pointed towards the city. After shown such a power, Japan was asked to agree to trade with other countries. Later on, Japanese called these ships the kurofune, the Black Ships.

Next year, on 31st March 1854, Perry came with seven ships, and Japanese signed a treaty (known as the Convention of Kanagawa) established diplomatic relationship with the USA. Another treaty (known as the Harris Treaty) was signed with the USA on 29th July 1858. This gave more facilities to foreigners coming to Japan and doing business with Japan. Though Japan started relationship with the USA and several other countries, many Japanese were not happy with this style of forcing Japan to do such things.

Meiji Restoration

Meiji Restoration is an important period of history of Japan. At that time, Emperor Meiji was ruling Japan. During this period, power of Japan’s emperor (named Meiji) was restored, that is, he gained back his full power; and this is why the period is called Meiji Restoration. During this period, beginning after the Boshin War of 1868, many changes happened in Japan.

The feudal system was ended. Japan copied many systems of the western countries. Changes occurred in Japan’s legal system and the government.

Wars with China and Russia

At the end of the 19th century, a number of learned Japanese supported a particular theory. According to this theory, Japan had to make itself bigger in size to face foreign powers. Thus Japan tried to expand its areas. It wanted parts of nearby countries to make its borders safe. This resulted in wars with its neighboring counties. In 1894-1895, Japan and China had a war. After about ten years, in 1904-1905, another war took place with Russia. Japan became a strong power after these wars. But, Russian influence continued to grow inside China.

Anglo-Japanese Alliance

By the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, the Russian influence was increasing in China. Japan and the Great Britain used to get economic and other benefits from their relationship with China. Therefore, Japan as well as the Great Britain did not like Russia’s growing influence in China. Both countries discussed the matter. Finally, they signed a treaty on 30th January 1902. They agreed that in the event of any attack or war on any of them, they would fight together. This is known as the Anglo-Japanese Alliance. Russia was not happy at this type of agreement. He also tried to sign similar treaty with Germany and France. On 6th March 1902, Russia could sign a similar treaty with France. But, Germany did not join them.

Soon after this, Japan and Russia were at war and fighting with each other. By 1905, Japanese had won several rounds of victories over Tsarist Russia. At that time the Czar ruled Russia, and hence it was called Tsarist Russia. But, the Japanese victory was not final. The USA came to meditate under the US President Teddy Roosevelt. Japan got a number of concessions. In 1910, Japan completely took over Korea and made that a part of Japan.

World War I to End of World War II

In 1914, the First World War broke out. Japan also entered the war. It attacked several places (of East Asia), which were colonies of Germany. After the war ended in 1919, Japan developed very fast. It became one of the major powers of Asia.

World War II

Before the beginning of the Second World War, Japan was fighting with China. This is called Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). When the Second World War broke out in 1939, Japan went to the side of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The fighting continued for years. When the USA dropped the first atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan accepted defeat and surrendered in 1945.

World War II and Japanese occupation of the Philippines

Japan launched a surprise attack on the Clark Air Base in Pampanga on December 8, 1941, just ten hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Aerial bombardment was followed by landings of ground troops on Luzon. The defending Philippine and United States troops were under the command of General Douglas MacArthur. Under the pressure of superior numbers, the defending forces withdrew to the Bataan Peninsula and to the island of Corregidor at the entrance to Manila Bay.

On January 2, 1942, General MacArthur declared the capital city, Manila, an open city to prevent its destruction. The Philippine defense continued until the final surrender of United States-Philippine forces on the Bataan Peninsula in April 1942 and on Corregidor in May of the same year. Most of the 80,000 prisoners of war captured by the Japanese at Bataan were forced to undertake the infamous Bataan Death March to a prison camp 105 kilometers to the north. It is estimated that about 10,000 Filipinos and 1,200 Americans died before reaching their destination.

President Quezon and Osmeña had accompanied the troops to Corregidor and later left for the United States, where they set up a government in exile. MacArthur was ordered to Australia, where he started to plan for a return to the Philippines.

The Japanese military authorities immediately began organizing a new government structure in the Philippines and established the Philippine Executive Commission. They initially organized a Council of State, through which they directed civil affairs until October 1943, when they declared the Philippines an independent republic. The Japanese-sponsored republic headed by President José P. Laurel proved to be unpopular.

Japanese occupation of the Philippines was opposed by large-scale underground and guerrilla activity. The Philippine Army, as well as remnants of the U.S. Army Forces Far East, continued to fight the Japanese in a guerrilla war and was considered an auxiliary unit of the United States Army. Their effectiveness was such that by the end of the war, Japan controlled only twelve of the forty-eight provinces. One element of resistance in the Central Luzon area was furnished by the Hukbalahap, which armed some 30,000 people and extended their control over much of Luzon.

The occupation of the Philippines by Japan ended at the war's conclusion. The American army had been fighting the Philippines Campaign since October 1944, when MacArthur's Sixth United States Army landed on Leyte. Landings in other parts of the country had followed, and the Allies, with the Philippine Commonwealth troops, pushed toward Manila. However, fighting continued until Japan's formal surrender on September 2, 1945. The Philippines suffered great loss of life and tremendous physical destruction, especially during the Battle of Manila. An estimated 1 million Filipinos had been killed, a large portion during the final months of the war, and Manila had been extensively damaged.

Occupied Japan

After the end of the Second World War, Japan came under international control. Japan became an important friend of the USA when it entered into the Cold war with Korea. Over next few years, many political, economic and social changes took place. Japanese Diet (legislature) came into being. In 1951, USA and 45 other countries signed an agreement with Japan, and Japan again became an independent nation with full power (a country with full sovereignty) on 28th April 1952.

Post-Occupation Japan

Post-Occupation Japan means Japan after its occupation and control by a group of nations had ended. This is the period after the Second World War. The Second World War had damaged Japan very badly. It has almost lost its industry and economy was in a very bad shape. After the war, Japan received assistance and technology from the USA and several other countries of Europe. The progress was very rapid. For about 30 years, from around the 1950s to the 1980s, Japan grew very fast. It became one of the major economic powers of the world.

When the UN forces were fighting in Korea during the Korean War, Japan was one of the major suppliers. This also helped Japan’s economy. By 1980s, Japan had become the world’s second largest economy, after the USA. At first, there was very close relationship between Japan and the USA. But, Japan’s economic might resulted into trade deficit for the USA. A trade deficit results when imports are more than exports. Thus, USA was importing more than it exported to Japan.

For various reasons, this phase of rapid development ended in the 1990s. Some historians have described this decade as the lost decade of Japanese economy. About 5 to 10 persons in 100 persons could not find any work.

Political life

By 1952, Japan had become free from most of the controls of the occupation period. It got its own democratic system. Various political parties came into being and Japan’s political life became active.

Modern Life (Heisei Era)

Historians and sociologists call the recent era modern life. In Japanese, this is called the Heisei period. By 1989, Japan’s economy had become very large. Much development had taken place. In the Gulf war of 1991, Japan gave billions of dollars.

Japan also faced some problems. In 1995, a big earthquake took place in Kobe. Another earthquake took place on 23rd October 2004 in Niigata Prefecture, and a very destructive tsunami damaged the north east coast in March 2011, causing a nuclear accident in Fukushima Prefecture.