A Brief History of Japan

Basic overview

Japan has had a long history — not quite as long as official court histories maintain, but long nonetheless. The history of Japan is marked by several major jidai, or periods, which collectively defined a specific age. Art books will tend to include many more than those recognized as historical entities, so don’t expect to see something like “Later Fujiwara Period.”

In short, the periods of Japanese history are these:

Jōmon period

(c. 10,000 – 200 BC)
A Paleolithic culture so named for the patterns of rope and string they used on their pottery.

Yayoi period

(c. 200 BC – AD 300)
An elaborate agricultural and political society. Both the Jōmon and Yayoi periods pre-date written Japanese records. Most of what is known about them is from archaeological findings. There is a Chinese chronicle that gives an account of a Queen Himiko (or Pimiko), a Yayoi ruler.

Kōfun period

(c. 300 – 552)
Named after the tumuli, or mound tombs, of leaders of the period. Most of our knowledge of what is alternately called the Yamato Period (300 – 710) comes from them. Buddhism came to Japan, prompting a few major wars of religion between Shintō adherents and supporters of the new religion. During this period, Japan lost her foothold in Korea, where she had had a small colony set up.

Asuka period

(552 – 645)
This period marked the transition from traditional Japan to a Japanese society patterned after that of Imperial China. The writing system of the Chinese, court hierarchies, art styles, even clothing of the Middle Kingdom completely supplanted the native pattern.

Nara period

(710 – 784)
Named after the seat of the Imperial capital, the city of Nara. It was the first time that Japan had a really permanent capital, but interference of the rising Buddhist clergy with court politics led to its premature relocation to Heian.

Heian period

(784 – 1183)
The establishment of the capital in Heian-kyō (“Capital of Peace and Tranquility”; now called Kyōto) marked a sort of golden age for Japan. Some of the greatest men of letters flourished during the soft years of the Heian age, before civil war between rival Minamoto and Taira clans tore it apart.

Kamakura period

(1183 – 1333)
The Minamoto shōgun established their capital in Kamakura, near present-day Tôkyô. This was Japan’s first protracted military government. During most of the time, the shōgun were puppets of the shikken (regents), from the Hōjō family, thus making the Hōjō puppet masters to the puppet masters. The cost of successfully defending Japan from Mongol invasions twice (1274 and 1281) and continual political jockeying for power between the Imperial court and the bakufu (that is, the shogunate) led to all-out war, and a schism that split the Imperial house into Northern and Southern Courts.

Muromachi period

(1333 – 1573)
This period is named for the bakufu established in a Heian suburb by Ashikaga Takauji. Though the Minamoto established the first lasting bakufu, they died out early in their hegemony. The Ashikaga were the first to last: there were 15 Ashikaga shōgun.

One of the first sub-divisions of the Muromachi period was the Nanboku-chô period (1336 – 1392) — the age of the Northern and Southern Courts. The legitimate Imperial line was in the South; the illegitimate line occupied the capital and had the support of the bakufu, and — similar to the days when there were two popes — there were double sets of court titles, officially proclaimed era names, and even double governors for provinces. (The Nanboku-chō came to an end when the legitimate line capitulated; the current Japanese Emperor is a descendant of the usurper line of the North.) The Ashikaga, dwelling in the capital, became more and more influenced by soft court life. An otherwise minor succession dispute within a noble clan gained national importance as both sides, to clear out personal grievances, called in allies and went to battle. The resulting Ônin War (1467 – 1477) laid waste to whole sections of Heian and cost the lives of thousands. It weakened the bakufu greatly.

Azuchi period

(1573 – 1582)
The hegemony of Oda Nobunaga, the first truly successful minor daimyō. Up to this point, all those who had conquered were heads of great houses, and if not extremely powerful at least, they were greatly respected. Nobunaga was a provincial warlord, whose reputation for fierce brutality may well have been deserved. His untimely assassination by one of his own generals cut his career short before he could bring all of Japan under his sway. The reins of his leadership were taken up by a retainer who had risen from the rank of sandal-bearer to general and provincial governor: Hashiba Chikuzen-no-kami Hideyoshi, later to be known as Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

Momoyama period

(1582 – 1600)
Hideyoshi’s government. It was marked, as had been the Azuchi Period, with nearly continuous strife as Hideyoshi set out to bring all of Japan under his control. He finally succeeded, but only by extracting an oath of fealty from the single greatest feudal lord of that or any day, Tokugawa Ieyasu. That Ieyasu — nominally descended from the Minamoto — should owe allegiance to the son of a peasant must have rankled him no end. Hideyoshi’s dream of conquest led him to mount an invasion of Korea, which failed after several minor victories. Hideyoshi died in 1598, and within two years Japan had split into two camps, an Eastern camp backing Ieyasu, based in Edo, present-day Tōkyō; and a Western camp under the banner of Ishida Mitsunari, fighting for Hideyoshi’s heir, Hideyori, based in Ôsaka. The Battle of Sekigahara, fought on the 21st day of the Tenth Month in 1600, saw Ieyasu win the day, and it left 30,000 dead in the field. From that day, the Tokugawa ruled Japan.

Edo period

(1600 – 1868)
Also called the Tokugawa period. The bakufu of the Tokugawa was established in Edo. The principle marks of the Tokugawa rule was a return to Confucian philosophies. Society became rigidly locked, reams of sumptuary laws were written, and Japan closed her borders. Everything Edo is by definition post-Period for the SCA; yet it is the most frequent era represented in historical Japanese film and TV. The usual caveat: double check everything to avoid the post-Period plague.

Meiji restoration

The end of the Tokugawa bakufu and the return to power of the Emperor. It was marked by violent uprisings and a brief, bloody civil war between adherents to the Old Ways and those wanting to open Japan to Europe and the United States and modernize. SCA note: It is from this period that the SCA’s titles of Japanese nobility date; they were in use from 1868 – 1945.

For more detailed information on Japanese history, consult the reference list.