Ancient Japan: History, Timeline, Maps, Religion & Facts

Ancient Japan has made singular improvements to world culture which include the Shinto religion and its architecture, extraordinary art objects such as haniwa figurines, the oldest pottery vessels in the world, the largest wooden buildings anywhere at their time of construction, and many classical classics including the world’s first novel. Although Japan was significantly prompted by China and Korea, the islands were never subject to foreign political control and so were free to select those ideas which proposed to them, prepare them how they wished, and to continue with their primitive cultural practices to create a unique approach to government, religion, and the arts.

Human beings have lived in Japan for at least 30,000 years. During the last ice age, Japan was connected to mainland Asia by a land bridge and stone age hunters were able to walk across. When the ice age ended about 10,000 BC Japan became a group of islands. About 8,000 BC the ancient Japanese learned to make pottery. The period from 8,000 BC to 300 BC is called the Jomon. The word Jomon means ‘cord-marked’ because those people marked their pottery by wrapping a cord around it. The Jomon people lived by hunting, fishing, and collecting shellfish. The Jomon made tools of stone, wood, and bone. 

Quick Timeline

Ancient Japan

  • c. 8,000 BC People in Japan begin making pottery. They live by hunting, fishing, and collecting shellfish.
  • c. 300 BC – 300 AD The Yayoi period in Japan. The Japanese begin growing rice, weaving cloth, and using bronze and iron.
Ancient Japan

Ancient Japan

  • 300 – 710 AD The Kofun Period. Japan is gradually united. Writing is introduced from China. Buddhism is introduced from Korea.
  • 646 From this date all land in Japan belonged to the emperor. Peasants were made to pay taxes on goods or labor.
  • 710 The city of Nara is built
  • 1000 Lady Murasaki Shikibu writes the worlds first novel, The Tale of Genji
  • 1180 Civil war breaks out between rival families in Japan
  • 1192 Yoritomo becomes Shogun
  • 1274 The Mongols attempt to conquer Japan but fail
  • 1281 The Mongols try again but their fleet is scattered by a typhoon
  • c. 1300 Trade flourishes in Japan and merchants grow wealthy
  • 1333-1573 The Muromachi Period in Japan. Noh theatre develops.
  • 1467-1477 The Onin War, a civil war is fought
  • 1542 The Portuguese arrived in Japan. The Japanese learn to make guns. The Portuguese also bring sweet potatoes and tobacco as well as clocks.
  • 1549 Jesuits led by Francis Xavier arrived in Japan
  • 1571 Nagasaki is founded
  • 1575 A warlord called Oda Nobunaga wins a victory at Nagashino
  • 1582 Oda Nobunaga wins is assassinated but his general Toyotomi Hideyoshi continues his work
  • 1600 A Dutch ship reaches Japan. Onboard is an Englishman William Adams.
  • 1603 Tokugawa Ieyasu makes himself shogun
  • 1612 Christianity is banned in Japan
  • 1633-39 Laws forbid the Japanese to travel aboard of built ocean-going ships.
  • 1641 Dutch merchants are restricted to Nagasaki Harbor

Modern Japan

  • 1853 American ships sail into Japanese water and demand trading rights
  • 1854-56 Japan is forced to allow the USA and certain European countries to trade
  • 1868 The emperor is restored to power (after being a figurehead for centuries) and a program of modernization begins
  • 1870 A telegraph is laid between Tokyo and Yokohama
  • 1872 A railway is laid between Tokyo and Yokohama. Compulsory education is introduced in Japan.
  • 1889 The emperor grants a constitution based on the German one
  • 1894-95 Japan fights a successful war with China
  • 1902 Japan signs a treaty with Britain
  • 1904-05 Japan fights a successful war with Russia
  • 1910 Japan annexes Korea
  • 1923 Tokyo is devastated by an earthquake
  • 1926 Hirohito becomes emperor of Japan
  • 1931 Japan occupies Manchuria
  • 1937 Japan invades the rest of China
  • 1941 Japan attacks the US fleet at Pearl Harbor
  • 1942 Japan captures Singapore and the Philippines but they are defeated at Midway Island
  • 1944 Japan is defeated at Leyte Gulf
  • 1945 The USA drops atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki
  • 1946 The Americans draw up a new constitution for Japan
  • 1955 The Liberal Democratic Party takes power
  • The 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s Japan experienced rapid economic growth and living standards rise enormously
  • 1990s Japan is in the economic doldrums
  • 2006 The Democratic Party of Japan wins a majority in the lower house of parliament
  • 2011 Japan suffers a severe earthquake and tsunami but soon recovers

Map

Ancient Japan Map

Ancient Japan Map

Starting off the Japanese Civilization

Early Japan bore witness to rural rice establishments, fidelity to a centralist court, as well as the development of Kyoto, its ancient capital. The land that makes up the current Japanese archipelago has been resided for at least 30,000 years, and possibly even as many as 200,000 years. The relatively trivial seas that separate Japan from continental Asia were not even entirely formed when the first human beings settled in the area.

However, after the arrival of man, sea levels rose and ended up enclosing the former land bridges that joined Japan with the continent. Whether modern-day Japanese people are the offsprings of these first settlers or not remains a controversial question.

Ancient Japan Football Game

Ancient Japan Football Game

Up until the 1960s, the country’s archaeological sites had not been broadly studied, which is why knowing the origins of the first settlers has not yet been possible. Even so, the theory that they came from the northern region of the Asian continent is commonly accepted, with these movements happening over a long period of time.

Jomon period (ca. 10,000 – 300 BC)

The first prosperity of the Neolithic period corresponded with global climatic warming that reached its peak between the years 8000 and 4000 BC. In Japan, this forced the rise in sea levels that covered the last land bridges connecting the island with the Asian continent, as well as the enhancement of marine fauna and the growth of new forests.

Ancient Japan Jomon Period

Ancient Japan Jomon Period

This was the framework in which the Jomon period developed in its early stages. The earliest pieces of pottery known in Japan date back to 10,000 BC and some experts claim they could be the oldest in the world. At the beginning of this period, the population was nomadic and hunter-gathering for the most part and located in coastal regions. The prosperity of fish, bivalves, and marine mammals in their diet led to huge mounds of seafood shells, which are the first source of archaeological information about these people.

They also hunted deer and wild boar and had cutting tools made of stone, as well as pieces of corded pottery. Settlements moved inland in the middle of the Jomon period (ca. 3500 BC 2000 BC). In this stage, a decline in sea levels may have decimated marine fauna or increased assurance in agriculture as a source of food; this seems to be implied by the abundance of grindstones, lidded earthenware jars, and other objects related to cultivation.

This intermediate stage came to an end when the internal regions’ harvests failed to provide enough food. The late Jomon period, which began at around 2000 BC, is marked by the resurgence of fishing in the Pacific coastal region.

The Yayoi Period 

The Yayoi Period covers c. 300 BCE to c. 250 CE, although, as mentioned above, the start date is being pushed back as more discoveries are made in archaeology. The name derives from the reddish pottery first found in the Yayoi district of Tokyo, which indicated a development from the pottery of the Jomon Period.

From around 400 BCE (or even earlier) migrants began to arrive from continental Asia, especially the Korean peninsula, probably driven by the wars caused by Chinese expansion and between rival kingdoms.

Ancient Japan Yayoi Period

Ancient Japan Yayoi Period

The new arrivals conquered or integrated with the indigenous peoples, as indicated by genetic evidence, and they brought with them new pottery, bronze, iron, and improved metalworking techniques which produced more efficient farming tools and better weaponry and armor.

With improved agricultural management, society was able to develop with specialized trades and professions, ritual practices using such distinctive items as dotaku bronze bells, social classes of varying prosperity, and an established ruling class who governed over alliances of clan groups which eventually formed small kingdoms.

Chinese sources note the frequency of warfare in Japan between rival kingdoms, and archaeology has revealed the remains of fortified villages. The population of Japan by the end of the period may have been as high as 4.5 million.

The Kofun Period in Japan

The Yayoi period was followed by the Kofun (from 300 AD to 710 AD). At this time Japan gradually became united. The rich and powerful men of the era were buried in vast tombs called Kofun. Clay figures called haniwa were placed around the tombs to guard them. At that time Japan was heavily influenced by China. About 400 AD writing was introduced into Japan from China. The Japanese also learned to make paper from the Chinese. They also learned to make porcelain, silk, and lacquer. The Japanese also learned to plan cities in the Chinese way.

Ancient Japan Kofun Period

Ancient Japan Kofun Period

According to tradition in 552 AD, the king of Paekche in Korea sent priests to convert Japan to Buddhism. The native Japanese religion is called Shinto, which means ‘the way of the gods’. Shinto teaches that spirits are present everywhere in nature. Every natural phenomenon such as a mountain, lake, tree, waterfall, and even rock has a spirit.

Shinto does not have prophets or a sacred book but its teachings were passed on in myths. Shinto has many ceremonies and festivals. The two religions, Buddhism and Shinto coexisted peacefully in Japan. Shinto is more concerned with this life and its followers frequently pray for things they need or desire. Buddhism is more concerned with what happens after death. Most of the Japanese were happy to practice both religions.

Furthermore, in the 7th century AD, the emperor became more powerful. Prince Shotoku (574-622) ruled as regent to Empress Suiko. He was a patron of the arts and learning. He brought scholars from China and Korea to Japan and he adopted the Chinese calendar.

Shotoku also built the Horyuji Buddhist temple and monastery in 607. It burned down in 670 but it was rebuilt and became a center of Buddhist learning. Today they are the world’s oldest surviving wooden structures.

The Asuka Period

The Asuka Period covers 538 to 710 CE. The name derives from the capital at that time, Asuka, located in the northern Nara prefecture. In 645 CE the capital was moved to Naniwa, and between 694 and 710 CE, it was at Fujiwarakyo.

Ancient Japan Asuka Period

Ancient Japan Asuka Period

Now we see the first firmly settled historical emperor (as opposed to legendary or mythical rulers), Emperor Kimmei, who was 29th in the imperial line (r. 531-539 CE to 571 CE). The most powerful ruler was Prince Shotoku who was regent until his death in 622 CE.

Shotoku is credited with reforming and centralizing government on the Chinese model by, amongst other things, creating his Seventeen Article Constitution, rooting out corruption, and encouraging greater ties with China.

Nara period (710–794)

The Daibutsu-den, within the complex of Tōdai-Ji. This Buddhist temple was sponsored by the Imperial Court during the Nara period. In 710, the government constructed a grandiose new capital at Heijō-kyō (modern Nara) modeled on Chang’an, the capital of the Chinese Tang dynasty.

During this period, the first two books produced in Japan appeared: the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, which contain chronicles of legendary accounts of early Japan and its creation myth, which describes the imperial line as descendants of the gods. The latter half of the eighth century saw the compilation of the Man’yōshū, widely considered the finest collection of Japanese poetry.

Ancient Japan Nara Period

Ancient Japan Nara Period

During this period, Japan suffered a series of natural disasters, including wildfires, droughts, famines, and outbreaks of disease, such as a smallpox epidemic in 735–737 that killed over a quarter of the population. Emperor Shōmu (r. 724–49) feared his lack of piousness had caused the trouble and so increased the government’s promotion of Buddhism, including the construction of the temple Tōdai-Ji.

The funds to build this temple were raised in part by the influential Buddhist monk Gyōki, and once completed it was used by the Chinese monk Ganjin as an ordination site. Japan nevertheless entered a phase of population decline that continued well into the following Heian period.

Heian period (794 – 1185)

The capital was shifted again in the last decade of the 8th century. The new city was built according to Chinese downtown patterns, as was typical, and was given the name Heian-Kyo. It was the heart around which the city of Kyoto developed, and its achievement in 795 marked the beginning of the Heian period’s four grandiose centuries.

Kyoto was the imperial capital until 1868 when the court moved to the city of Edo, which was later called Tokyo. The power of the centralist regime lasted for several decades, but by the end of the 9th century, the Ritsuryo system began to collapse.

Ancient Japan Heian Period

Ancient Japan Heian Period

The bureaucratic system allowed aristocrats and lords of the most important temples to compile great estates (shoen), while the farmers, burdened by the heavy taxes, fled to these favorable areas in great waves. The court neglected the districts as regional administrators were more concerned with personal enrichment than restoring order, which led to banditry.

Landowners continued to acquire power and ended up engaging in political struggles that put a drastic end to the Heian period.

Facts

  • The Japanese name for Japan is “Nihon” or “Nippon” which means “sun origin”.
  • Japan exists on the continent of Asia.
  • Japan is an island nation surrounded by the Sea of Japan to the East and the Pacific Ocean to the West.
  • Japan is made up of 6,852 islands.
  • The highest point in Japan in Mount Fuji, which stands at 3,776m (12,388ft).
  • As of July 2012, there are over 127 million people living in Japan (127,368,088), which is the tenth-largest population in the world.
  • Tokyo is the capital city of Japan and also the largest city. Other major cities include Osaka, Nagoya, and Sapporo.
  • Japanese is the official language of Japan.
  • Japan sits along the “Pacific Ring of Fire”, so it has many volcanoes and experiences many earthquakes. In 2011, an earthquake of magnitude 9.0 hit Japan and created a tsunami which resulted in much devastation.
  • Almost three-quarters of Japan’s land is either forest or mountains and is troublesome to be made into farms, industrial or residential areas. Human life in Japan dates back thousands of years.
  • Ancient warriors of Japan were known as Samurai. They were very skilled fighters and swordsmen. Their main weapon was the Katana, a sharp sword with a slight curve to it.
  • Due to gases produced by power plants, Japan sometimes suffers from acid rain. Japan is an industrialized nation, producing some of the most technologically advanced motor vehicles, electronics, and machine tools.
  • Japan is a world leader in robotics. Japanese engineers are known for producing a range of human-like robots such as ASIMO. Some of the most well-known companies in the world are Japanese such as Toyota, Honda, Sony, Nintendo, Canon, Panasonic, Toshiba, and Sharp.
  • Japanese cuisine has become popular around the world. Some well-known dishes are sushi, sashimi, and tempura.
  • Japan is home to many different forms of martial arts. Karate, Judo, Sumo, Ninjutsu, Kendo, Jujutsu, and Aikido to name a few.
  • Sumo is admitted as the national sport of Japan, although the most popular observer sport is baseball. Japan hosted the 1964 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo and will again in 2020. They also hosted the 1972 and 1998 Winter Olympic Games in Sapporo and Nagano, respectively. 

FAQ’s About Ancient Japan

What Did Ancient Japan Invent?

The World’s First Tv Watch, The Tv-watch, Was Developed By Seiko In 1982. The First Typewriter To Be Based On The Japanese Writing System Was Invented By Kyota Sugimoto In 1929. The Jōmon Pottery Is A Type Of Ancient Pottery Which Was Made During The Jōmon Period In Japan.

When Did Civilization Begin In Japan?

35,000 Bc
A Start Date Of Around 35,000 Bc Is Many Generally Accepted. The Japanese Archipelago Had Been Disconnected Through The Continent After The Final Ice Age, Around 11,000 Bc.

Where Was Ancient Japan Located?

The Ancient Capital Of Nara Is Located In Nara Prefecture, Just South Of Kyoto. It Was The Site Of The City Of Heijo-Kyo, Established In 710. It Flourished Until 784 When The Capital Was Transferred. This Epoch Of Japanese History Is Known As The Nara Period.

What Is Japan’s History?

Japan’s Unique Culture Developed Rapidly During The Heian Era (794-1185). The Imperial Court Turned Out Enduring Art, Poetry, And Prose. The Samurai Warrior Class Developed At This Time As Well. Samurai Lords, Called “Shogun,” Took Over The Government In 1185, And Ruled Japan In The Name Of The Emperor Until 1868.