A Brief History of Japan

By Tim Lambert

The First Japanese

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. They also made clay figurines of people and animals called dogu.

Between 300 BC and 300 AD, a new era began in Japan. At that time the Japanese learned to grow rice. They also learned to make tools of bronze and iron. The Japanese also learned to weave cloth.

This period is called Yayoi. (It was named after a village called Yayoicho). Farming meant a more settled lifestyle. Yayoi people lived in villages of wooden huts. Farming and other skills also meant society became divided into classes. The leaders of Yayoi society were buried in mounds away from the ordinary people’s burial grounds.

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.

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.

After him, in 646, a series of reforms were made known as the Taika. From then on all land in Japan belonged to the emperor. Peasants were made to pay taxes to the emperor either in goods like rice or cloth or in labor by working on building sites or by serving as soldiers. In 670 a census was held to find out how many taxpayers there were. By the late 7th century Japan was a centralized and highly civilized kingdom.

At that time the capital of Japan was moved when an emperor died as people believed it was unlucky to stay in the same place afterward.

However, following Chinese custom, the Japanese decided to create a permanent capital. They built a city at Nara in 710. At that time Japan was divided into provinces. In 713 the governor of each Japanese province was ordered to write a report about his province. The reports described the products of each province as well as its plants, animals, and other resources.

However, in the 8th century, Buddhist monks and priests began to interfere in politics. So in 784 Emperor Kammu (737-806) decided to move his capital. Eventually, in 794, he moved to Heian-Kyo, which means ‘capital of peace’. Later the city’s name changed to Kyoto and it remained the official capital of Japan till 1868.

The Heian Period in Japan

The era from 794 to 1185 is called the Heian period. During this period the arts and learning flourished. About 1000 AD Lady Murasaki Shikibu wrote the world’s first novel, a story about the life of a prince called Genji. Another book from that time is a diary written by a lady-in-waiting named Sei Shonagon. It is called The Pillow Book.

Meanwhile, at the beginning of the 9th century, Dengo Daishi founded the Tendai sect of Buddhism. Slightly later Kobo Daishi founded the Shingon sect. Meanwhile, in the late 7th century, an aristocratic family called the Fujiwara became very powerful. They had an increasing influence on Japanese politics.

Moreover, outside Kyoto, the emperor’s power grew weaker. Rich landowners became increasingly powerful and they employed private armies. (Japanese warriors were called Samurai).

In feudal Japan, the Samurai were hereditary warriors who followed a code of behavior called bushido. Samurai were supposed to be completely loyal and self-disciplined. Rather than be captured by the enemy samurai were supposed to commit suicide by disemboweling themselves. This was called seppuku. Samurai fought with long swords called katana and short swords called wakizashi. They also used spears called yari and daggers called tanta. Samurai also had skewers called kogai and small knives called kozuka.

The main piece of armor to protect a samurai torso was called a haramaki. It had skirts called kasazuri to protect the lower torso. A samurai helmet was called a kabuto. A kabuto had neckguards called shikoro. It sometimes had a crest called a kaijirushi. The neck was also protected by a piece called the nowdawa. Samurai also wore masks called mempo. They wore armored sleeves called kote to protect their arms.

Eventually in 1180 civil war broke out between rival powerful families in Japan. On one side was the Taira family (also called the Heike). On the other side was the Minamoto family (also called the Genepi). The Minamoto were supported by the Fujiwara. They were led by two brothers Yoritomo and Yoshitsune. The Taira were finally defeated by the Minamoto in a naval battle at Dannoura in 1185.

In 1192 the emperor gave Yoritomo the title Sei Tai Shogun, which means barbarian conquering great general. The shogun became the real power in Japan ruling in the emperor’s name. This new form of government was called bakufu, which means tent government as generals gave commands from their tents during wartime.

After Yoritomo’s death, two of his sons ruled Japan in turn. However, the second son was assassinated in 1219. Power then passed to Yoritomo’s wife’s family, the Hojo. Afterward, Japan had an emperor, who was only a figurehead, a Shogun, and a Hojo regent ruling on behalf of the shogun.

In the 13th and 14th centuries, towns and trade in Japan grew and merchants became wealthy. They organized themselves into guilds. Also at this time, Zen Buddhism became popular. Zen emphasizes meditation. Some followers meditate by trying to empty their minds of all worldly thoughts and desires. Others meditate on riddles called Koan such as ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?’. Zen had a tremendous influence on the arts like gardening and flower arranging. (Japanese flower arranging is called Ikebana and from the 15th century it developed into a sophisticated art).

Also at this time, the tea ceremony evolved in Japan. According to tradition, a monk named Eisai (1141-1215) brought tea seeds from China in 1191. He believed that tea helped monks remain alert when they were meditating. To maintain a calm mood the tea was prepared slowly and carefully. Gradually the process of making and drinking tea in a peaceful and relaxing environment spread to the nobility and merchants.

Finally, in the late 16th century the tea ceremony or cha-no-yu was developed into its modern form by Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591).

In the middle of this era, the Mongols tried to conquer Japan. They sent fleets in 1274 and 1281. In 1274 the Mongols landed but withdrew when their fleet was endangered by a storm. In 1281 the Mongols landed again. For seven weeks they held a bridgehead in Japan but again their fleet was scattered by a typhoon. The Japanese called it Kamikaze, which means divine wind.

Fighting the Mongols cost a great deal of money. That, in turn, meant high taxes, and inevitably the government became deeply unpopular. Meanwhile, the emperor Go-Daigo was not content to be a mere figurehead, and in 1333 he raised an army to fight the Hojo. The Hojos sent a force under a general named Ashikaga Takauji (1305-1358).

However, Takauji changed sides. He joined forces with Emperor Go-Daigo and the Hojos committed suicide. However, Go-Daigo and Ashikaga Takauji soon quarreled. In 1336 Takauji led a rebellion. Go-Daigo fled to Yoshino. Takauji created a rival emperor in Kyoto and ruled as a shogun. So until 1392, Japan had two emperors.

The era from 1333 to 1573 is called the Muromachi period because the Ashikaga family ruled from the Muromachi district of Kyoto.

During the Muromachi period, Noh theater developed in Japan. Actors wear masks and perform on a bare stage with a painted backdrop. Musicians accompany the actors. n Furthermore two great monuments survive from the Muromachi period, the Kinkaku-ji and the Ginkaku-ji, (gold and silver pavilions) in Kyoto.

However, in 1466 the Ashikaga family argued over who would be the next Shogun. The argument became the Onin War from 1467-1477. The fighting took place mostly in and around Kyoto and much of the city was destroyed. By the end of the 15th century, the central authority had virtually disappeared. While there was still an emperor he was only a figurehead and Japan was afflicted by a long series of civil wars as rival landowners, called daimyos, fought for power.

In 1543 the Portuguese arrived in Japan. Two Portuguese were passengers on a Chinese ship that landed at Tanegashima Island. The Portuguese were keen to trade with the Japanese and they soon returned. Very quickly the Japanese learned to make guns from the Portuguese. The Portuguese also brought tobacco and sweet potatoes to Japan. They also brought clocks. The Japanese called the Portuguese namban, which means southern barbarians because they sailed to Japan from the south.

In 1549 Jesuit missionaries led by Francis Xavier arrived in Japan and attempted to convert the Japanese to Roman Catholicism. At first, the Japanese tolerated them. In 1571 Nagasaki was founded to trade with the Europeans and it became a center of missionary activity.

Meanwhile, Japanese warfare was radically changed by the introduction of handguns and cannons. A warlord called Oda Nobunaga quickly learned to use the new weapons and in 1569 he captured the port of Sakai. In 1575 he won a great victory at Nagashino. By the time he died in 1582, he controlled central Japan.

Oda Nobunaga was assassinated in 1582 but his general Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598) avenged his death and continued the work of reuniting Japan. In 1587 he subdued the southern island of Kyushu and by 1590 he had also conquered eastern Japan. Toyotomi then attempted to conquer Korea. However, he failed and the Japanese withdrew in 1598. Toyotomi died shortly afterward.

Toyotomi wanted his son Hideyori to succeed him. Before he died Toyotomi persuaded his general Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) to promise to support his son. However, Ieyasu soon broke his promise and seized power for himself. In 1600 he crushed his rivals at Sekigahara although Hideyori survived. In 1603 Ieyasu was made shogun and in 1615 his forces captured Osaka Castle, the stronghold of Hideyori. Hideyori killed himself.

Japan was now united under a strong central government and the Tokugawa family ruled as shoguns until 1868.

The Tokugawa Period in Japan

During the Tokugawa period, Japanese society was strictly divided. At the top were the daimyo, the landowners. Below them were the samurai, hereditary warriors. Below them came the farmers, the craftsmen, and then the merchants. (The merchants were at the bottom because they did not make anything. However, in reality, many merchants became very rich).

Meanwhile, in 1600 a badly damaged Dutch ship landed in Japan. Onboard was an Englishman, William Adams (1564-1620). He was taken to Ieyasu, who questioned him. Adams showed the Japanese how to build two European-style ships. He also married a Japanese woman and lived in Japan until his death.

In 1609 another Dutch ship arrived in Japan. The shogun granted the Dutch the right to trade with Japan. In 1613 an English ship came the shogun gave them the right to trade. Meanwhile, Japanese merchants sailed to Thailand and the Philippines (a Spanish colony). In 1610 a Japanese merchant called Tanaka Shosuke sailed to Mexico.

However, despite trading with foreigners the Japanese began persecuting Christians. The government feared Christians were a threat to Japan’s internal security. In 1597 Toyotomi Hideyoshi had 26 Christians including 9 European missionaries, crucified in Nagasaki. In 1612 Christianity was banned altogether in Japan and persecution of Christians grew worse and worse. Finally in 1637 Christians in the Shimabara area rebelled. However, in 1638 the rebellion was crushed and Christians were massacred.

The Japanese government then shut their country off from the rest of the world. Between 1633 and 1639 laws were passed forbidding the Japanese to travel abroad or to build ocean-going ships. Only the Chinese and the Dutch were allowed to trade with Japan. In 1641 the Dutch were restricted to an island in Nagasaki Harbor called Dejima. This policy of isolating Japan was called sakoku. However, Japan did not cut itself off from the outside world completely. Dutch books were still imported and the Japanese ruling class was quite well informed of what was happening in the outside world.

The Tokugawa government went to great lengths to maintain order. They directly controlled about one-quarter of the land in Japan. Around their land, they gave estates to trusted daimyos. The land around the edges of Japan was given to their former enemies. The Tokugawa also employed spies to watch powerful families in Japan.

The arts flourished during the Tokugawa period. So did trade and commerce. However, Japan was not entirely peaceful. There were many peasant rebellions. Nevertheless, samurai were less useful than in former times and many became ronin or samurai without masters.

In the late 17th century Kabuki theater developed in Japan. Male actors play the female roles and actors are accompanied by music and singing. The martial art of kendo developed into its modern form in the late 18th century. It was derived from samurai training but practitioners use bamboo staves instead of swords.

By 1853 the Western powers wanted Japan to open its market to their goods. The Americans also wanted to use Japan as a coaling station for steamships. So in July 1853 four American ships commanded by Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Japanese waters near Edo. Perry handed over a message asking for trading rights, coaling ports, and protection for shipwrecked sailors. Perry warned he would return next year with a much larger force. He returned in February 1854 with 9 ships.

Japan’s armed forces were in no state to resist so the shogun agreed to open two ports to American ships. By 1856 France, Britain, the Netherlands, and Russia had also forced Japan to sign similar treaties. In 1858 the Americans forced the Japanese to open more ports to trade. Britain, France, and Russia forced Japan to sign similar treaties. The treaties stated that the Japanese could only charge low import duties on imported goods. Furthermore, foreign citizens were exempt from Japanese law.


Not surprisingly the humiliating treaties were bitterly resented by the Japanese who called them unequal treaties. Furthermore, the shogun lost face because of his weakness. Many Japanese thought that Japan would only be strong if the shogunate was abolished and the emperor was restored to power. Some Japanese wanted to resist the foreigners. Others wanted to copy Western technology. In Japan opinion was bitterly divided.

Finally, in 1868, there was a short civil war. Pro-emperor and pro-shogun forces clashed at Fushimi and the pro-emperor force won. Afterward, Emperor Meiji and his followers were determined to modernize Japan. And they succeeded. In an astonishingly short period, Japan was transformed from a primitive, agricultural country to a modern industrial one.

The government encouraged industrialization with loans and grants. Soon many new industries such as shipbuilding were flourishing. In 1870 the first mechanized silk mill opened in Japan. Also in 1870, a telegraph was laid between Tokyo (as Edo was renamed) and Yokohama. A railway was built between them in 1872.

Meanwhile in 1871 private armies kept by daimyos were abolished. Many samurai joined the new national army. The same year the first Japanese newspaper was published.

In 1872 compulsory education was introduced in Japan. The same year conscription was introduced. In 1878 the Japanese army was reformed to be like the German army. The Japanese navy was modeled on the British navy. In 1873 Japan adopted the Western calendar. The same year a land tax was introduced and the emperor and empress began wearing Western clothes. In 1889 Emperor Meiji granted a constitution based on the German one. Japan gained a parliament called a diet but only a small minority of men were allowed to vote.

However, these rapid changes were not popular with everyone. In 1877 samurai led by Saigo Takamori (1827-1877) rebelled in Satsuma. A conscript army led by Marshal Yamagata crushed the rebellion. Afterward, the samurai lost their privileges and most were forced to take civilian jobs.

In 1894 Japan and Korea quarreled over Korea. China regarded Korea as being under its ‘influence’ and in 1894 sent troops into that country. The Japanese objected and went to war. The Sino-Japanese War was a stunning victory for Japan. The Japanese quickly drove the Chinese out of Korea and captured Port Arthur. By the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895, Japan gained Formosa (Taiwan) and Port Arthur. China was also forced to pay a large indemnity and refrain from interfering in Korean politics. However, Russia, France, and Germany forced Japan to give back Port Arthur.


Then on 30 January 1902, Japan signed a treaty with Britain. Both agreed to help the other if they were attacked by two other countries. Meanwhile, Russia was increasing its influence in Manchuria, which brought her into conflict with Japan. On 9 February 1904, the Japanese navy sank two Russian ships at Port Arthur (Russia had leased this Chinese port in 1898). The Japanese then laid siege to Port Arthur but they took 5 months to capture it. Nevertheless, the Japanese army gradually advanced in Manchuria, and on 27 May 1905, the Japanese navy won a complete victory at Tsushima.

The Americans mediated between Russia and Japan and the two signed the Treaty of Portsmouth in September 1905. Japan gained Port Arthur and the southern part of Sakhalin. Japan also gained great prestige. She was the first Asian power to defeat a European power.

Then in 1910, Japan annexed Korea. Furthermore, by 1911 all foreign countries had agreed to abolish the ‘unequal treaties’ of the 1850s. By the time Emperor Meiji died in 1912, Japan was a power to be reckoned with.

When the First World War began Japan joined Britain’s side. Japan took German colonies in Asia. However, after the war, Japan’s growing economic and political power brought her into conflict with the USA.

In 1921 the Washington Conference was held. Britain and the USA pressed Japan to accept a naval treaty. For every 5 tons of warship, Britain and the USA had in the Pacific Ocean Japan was allowed 3. So the Western powers were determined to keep Japan in her place. Then on 1 September 1923, an earthquake devastated Tokyo. After the actual tremor, fire swept through the city. about 107,000 people died. In 1924 Japan suffered another ‘slap in the face’ when the USA banned immigration from Japan.

In 1926 Hirohito became emperor. In the first years of Hirohito’s reign the Japanese economy did well but in 1929 the world entered a severe recession.

Meanwhile, Japan had an army stationed in Manchuria around Port Arthur. The Japanese also controlled much of the Manchurian economy. The Japanese army thought Japan should take over Manchuria and in 1931 the army engineered a takeover. Japan controlled a railway running through Manchuria. On 18 September 1931, an explosion near Mukden damaged it. Japanese troops claimed they saw Chinese troops running away. The Japanese army then acted independently and seized Muckden. In December 1931 the army took over all of Manchuria. The Japanese government could not stop them.

Meanwhile, the Chinese emperor had been overthrown in 1911. In 1932 he was made puppet ruler of Manchuria, which was renamed Manchukuo. However, the real power in the region was the Japanese army. Japanese politicians were powerless to stop the generals.

The Japanese army gradually took control of Japan. Civilian politicians were still the nominal rulers but the army held the real power. Politicians were too weak to resist them.

Many in the army pressed for expansion into China. In 1936 China was forced to accept the Japanese occupation of an area of China called Fengtai near Beijing. The tension then grew between Japanese and Chinese troops in that region and on 7 July 1937 fighting broke out. Japan rushed troops to the area and soon it became a full-scale invasion of China, although there was no formal declaration of war. In December 1937 the Japanese captured Nanking and massacred civilians.

Then in July 1941 Japanese troops occupied French Indo-China. The USA objected, fearing Japan was a threat to its interests in the Pacific. The USA banned exports of oil to Japan. Japan imported 80% of its oil from the USA and was faced with the choice between a humiliating climb-down and war. The Japanese chose war.

Japan sent a force of aircraft carriers and on 7 December 1941, they attacked the US Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor. The Japanese sank many ships but vitally they missed several American aircraft carriers that were at sea.

At first, the Japanese had amazing success. In February 1942 they captured Singapore the main British base in the Far East. In the months from January to May 1942, they also captured the Philippines and most of Indonesia. However, the tide turned at the Battle of Midway Island in May 1942 when they lost 4 aircraft carriers.

In January-February 1943 the Japanese were forced to evacuate Guadalcanal and in August 1943 they were defeated by the Australians in New Guinea. Meanwhile, in June 1943 the Americans began submarine warfare and Japanese shipping suffered terrible losses. The Americans also began a campaign of ‘island hopping’. They attacked certain Pacific Islands held by the Japanese and left others nearby to ‘wither on the vine’. The Japanese suffered a severe naval defeat at Leyte Gulf in October 1944. Meanwhile, a British army from India pushed the Japanese back into Burma. In the end, Japan was defeated by the USA’s overwhelming industrial strength.

From March 1945 Japanese kamikaze pilots flew suicide missions, deliberately crashing into American ships. But it was to no avail. In June 1945 the Americans captured Okinawa. Meanwhile, the American bombing was destroying Japanese cities. On 26 July 1945 Truman and Churchill demanded Japan surrender and threatened the Japanese with ‘prompt and utter destruction’ if they did not. Japan refused.

On 6 August 1945 an American bomber, the Enola Gay, dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. On 9 August another was dropped on Nagasaki.

Japan capitulated on 15 August 1945. An official surrender document was signed on 2 September. Following the Japanese surrender, the Americans occupied Japan. General MacArthur led US troops. Under him, 7 Japanese war criminals were hanged including wartime Prime Minister Tojo Hideki.


The emperor publicly announced that he was not divine and in 1946 the Americans drew up a new constitution for Japan. Women were allowed to vote. The constitution also contained a clause renouncing the ‘threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes’. In 1951 a peace treaty was signed in San Francisco and the American occupation ended in 1952.

However, the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security gave the USA the right to keep bases in Japan. Furthermore, the island of Okinawa was occupied until 1972. Meanwhile, the Korean War began in 1950. It provided a boost to Japanese industry and by 1954 Japanese industrial production was back to 1939 levels.

In 1955 the Liberal Democratic Party took power and it ruled Japan for most of the period from 1955 to 2009.

Meanwhile, during the 1950s and 1960s, the Japanese economy boomed. Japanese industry exported huge numbers of electronic goods and vehicles. The Japanese people saw a great improvement in their standard of living. Rapid economic growth in Japan continued during the 1970s and 1980s while much of the rest of the world was mired in recession.

However in the 1990s, the period of rapid economic growth ended and a long recession began, although Japan remained a rich country. Worse in 1995 the city of Kobe was devastated by an earthquake. Meanwhile, Emperor Hirohito died in 1989 and was succeeded by Emperor Akihito.


In 2009 a major political change took place in Japan. The Liberal Democratic Party ruled Japan for all of the years 1995-2009 except for 11 months. However, in 2009 the Democratic Party of Japan won a majority in the lower house of parliament. Today Japan is a prosperous nation. In 2024 the population of Japan was 124 million.

Last Revised 2024