Crash course in Japanese history

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History helps to understand culture in context, and this is never truer than in Japan, where complex and unique traditions and rituals continue to shape the country today. Tour leader Marky Hobold brings us up to date.

History in Japan

At some point, hopefully I’ll have a chance to revisit this topic and various potential spin offs, but if you’re coming to Japan for the first time, you might as well enhance the experience by having a rough timeline in your back pocket.

The Jōmon Period

Stone statue from the Jomon period
Stone statue from the Jomon period

Believe it or not, for most of Japanese history – roughly 10,000 years! – the archipelago was dominated by a preliterate, semi-sedentary hunter-gather society called the Jōmon people. They would have looked more like Caucasians and were genetically were extremely close to Native Americans.

Having thrived for thousands of years, they’re considered the most successful and affluent hunter-gatherer society ever. They also produced some of the earliest pottery on the planet; unique for its cord-pressing technique used for decoration.

The Yayoi and Kofun Periods

Yayoi people clothing
Clothing of the Yayoi people

Around 1000 BCE, migrations from the Asian mainland introduced drastic technological and cultural innovations. Described as a “cultural package,” these people imported five game changers to Japan: wet rice agriculture, sedentary lifestyles, social stratification, metal-working technology, and sadly, the first instances of warfare.

Most historians assume these people, called Yayoi, intermixed with the Jōmon people rather than subjugated them. Thus, a new culture arose, still more or less preliterate, that began producing giant keyhole-shaped tombs, called kofun, for their local kings and elites. We also see evidence of the rise of the native religion, Shintō. To this day, Japanese emperors are still buried in giant funerary mounds.

Kofun Tomb, Ishibutai

The Heian Period

Kyoto imperial palace
Kyoto Imperial Palace

The first “Golden Age” of Japan was the result of several major forces; most importantly, the importation of a writing system from China and Buddhism. The ruling elite gave up the mountain-sized burial mounds and began establishing temples. Heian-Kyō, or Kyōto as it’s known today, arose as the de factō power and became the imperial capital. Courtly culture, poetry, and architecture achieved forms that most of us would immediately identify as “Japanese.”

The Medieval Period

To ensure taxes were collected and loyalty to the imperial court was maintained, men were sent out to the outer provinces. These samurai, literally “servants of the court,” realised they had governance and military power, while the imperial court was spending its time writing poetry and performing rituals.

Soon samurai warlords were making land grabs and launched the country into hundreds of years of warfare. By this time, the imperial court in Kyoto was just a chess piece in the political and military games waged by the samurai.

The Edo Period

Hida Furukawa

Eventually, one of these samurai, Tokugawa Ieyasu, unified the country. Far from the imperial capital, he built a castle and city in a previously obscure seaside hamlet called Edo. This new government, or shōgunate, closed the country from foreign interaction and for about 250 years Japan experienced a second “Golden Age.” Most of the art, architecture, manners, clothes, food, and habits that you immediately associate with Japan stem from this period (1600-1868).

The Modern Period

Tokyo photography

In 1868, the shōgunate collapsed and the emperor moved from Kyōto to Edo and renamed the city Tōkyō. The country was re-opened to foreign trade and Japan adopted a policy of “modernisation” and “westernisation” that was unprecedented in Asia. That said, they always did these within a Japanese framework.

You see, Japan is an island country that has been physically separated from other countries for thousands of years. The culture has always considered itself unique but has also been obsessed with what goes on outside. This is why Japanese history is one of the deepest rabbit holes any history fan can go down – and we haven’t even scratched the surface.

Obviously, this is just a very simplified overview, but I think you’ve got enough knowledge now to step off the plane and begin your adventures in Japan.

Japan’s history is endlessly fascinating and its period of seclusion from the rest of the world continues to have cultural impact today; but you really do have to see it to believe it.

Whether fascinated by Shinto shrines or towering skyscrapers, get in touch and we’ll tailor your perfect Japan trip.

Samurai parade in Matsue

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