A History of Ancient 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. n 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 the 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 n 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 neck guards 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.