History of Japan The Feudal Era to the Founding of Modern Periods


The long and tumultuous history of Japan, believed to have begun as far back as the prehistoric era, can be divided into distinct periods and eras. From the Jomon Period thousands of years ago to the current Reiwa Era, the island nation of Japan has grown into an influential global power.

The first period of Japans history is its prehistory, before the written history of Japan.It involves a group of ancient people known as the Jomon.The Jomon peoplecame from continental Asia to the area now known as the island of Japan before it was actually an island.

Before the end of the most recent Ice Age, enormous glaciers connected Japan to the Asian continent. The Jomon followed their food migrating herd animals across these land bridges and found themselves stranded on the Japanese archipelago once the ice melted.

Having lost the ability to migrate, the herd animals that once constituted the Jomons diet died out, and the Jomon began to fish, hunt, and gather. There is some evidence of early agriculture, but it didnt appear on large scales until near the end of the Jomon Period.

Confined to an island significantly smaller than the area the Jomons ancestors were accustomed to wandering, the once-nomadic settlers of the island of Japan gradually formed more permanent settlements.

The largest village of the time covered 100 acres and was home to about 500 people. Villages were made up of pit houses built around a central fireplace, held up by pillars and housing five people.

The locations and sizes of these settlements depended on the climate of the period: in colder years, settlements tended to be closer to the water where the Jomon could fish, and in warmer years, flora and fauna flourished and it was no longer necessary to rely as heavily on fishing, and so settlements appeared further inland.

Throughout the history of Japan, the seas protected it from invasion. The Japanese also controlled international contact by expanding, narrowing, and sometimes terminating diplomatic relations with other nations.

The Jomon take their name fromthe pottery they made. Jomon means cord-marked, which refers to a technique where a potter would roll clay into the shape of a rope and coil it upwards until it formed a jar or a bowl, and then simply bake it in an open fire.

The pottery wheel had yet to be discovered, and so the Jomon were confined to this much more manual method. Jomon pottery is the oldest dated pottery in the world.

The Jomon used basic stone, bone, and wooden tools like knives and axes, as well as bows and arrows. Evidence of wicker baskets has been found, as well as various tools for aiding in fishing: harpoons, hooks, and traps.

However, there is little evidence of tools intended for large-scale farming. Agriculture came to Japan much later than the rest of Europe and Asia. Instead, the Jomon gradually came to settle near the coastlines, fishing and hunting.

Theres not much we can gather about what the Jomon actually believed, but theres lots of evidence ofrituals and iconography. Some of their first pieces of religious art were claydogufigurines, which were originally flat images and by the Late Jomon phase became more three-dimensional.

Much of their art focused on fertility, depicting pregnant women in figurines or on their pottery. Near villages, adults were buried in shell mounds, where the Jomon would leave offerings and ornaments. In northern Japan, stone circles have been found whose purpose is unclear, but might have been intended to ensure successful hunts or fishing.

Finally, for unknown reasons, the Jomon appeared to practice the ritualistic pulling of teeth for boys entering puberty.

The Yayoi peoplelearned metalwork soon after the end of the Jomon Period. They replaced their stone tools with bronze and iron tools. Weapons, tools, armor, and trinkets were made out of metal.They also developed tools for permanent farming, like hoes and spades, as well as tools for irrigation.

The introduction of large-scale, permanent agriculture led to significant changes in the Yayoi peoples lives. Their settlements became permanent and their diets consisted almost entirely of food they grew, only supplemented by hunting and gathering. Their homes transformed from pit houses with thatched roofs and dirt floors to wooden structures raised about the ground on supports.

In order to store all the food they were farming, the Yayoi also constructed granaries and wells. This surplus caused the population to swell from around 100,000 people to 2 million at its peak.

Both of these things, results of the agricultural revolution, led to trade between cities and the emergence of certain cities as hubs of resources and success. Cities that were favorably located, either because of nearby resources or proximity to trade routes, became the largest settlements.

It is aconstant motifin human history that the introduction of large-scale agriculture into a society leads to class differences and power imbalance between individuals.

Surplus and a growth in population means that someone must be given a position of power and be entrusted to organize labor, store food, and create and enforce the rules that maintain the smooth functioning of a more complex society.

On a larger scale, cities vie for economic or military power because power means certainty that you will be able to feed your citizens and grow your society. Society transitions from being based on cooperation to being based on competition.

The Yayoi were no different.Clans fought each otherfor resources and economic dominance, occasionally forming alliances that gave birth to the beginning of politics in Japan.

Alliances and larger societal structures led to a taxation system and a system of punishment. Since metal ore was a scarce resource, anyone in possession of it was seen as having high status. The same went for silk and glass.

It was common for men of higher status to have many more wives than men of lower status, and in fact, lower-ranking men stepped off the road, out of the way, when a high-ranking man was passing. This custom survived until the 19th century CE.

The first era of recorded history in Japan is the Kofun Period (A.D. 300-538). Enormous keyhole-shaped burial mounds surrounded by moats characterized theKofun Period. Of the known 71 in existence, the largest is 1,500 feet long and 120 feet tall, or the length of 4 football fields and the height of the Statue of Liberty.

In order to have completed such grand projects, there must have been an organized and aristocratic society with leaders who could command huge numbers of workers.

People werent the only things buried in the mounds. More advanced armor and iron weapons found in the mounds suggest that horse-riding warriors led a society of conquest.

Leading up to the tombs, hollow clayhaniwa,or unglazed terracotta cylinders, marked the approach. For those of higher status, the people of the Kofun Period buried them with green jade ornamental jewels, themagatama, which, along with the sword and mirror, would become the Japanese imperial regalia. The present Japanese imperial line likely originated during the Kofun Period.

Shintois the worship ofkami, or gods, in Japan. Although the concept of worshipping gods originated before the Kofun Period, Shinto as a widespread religion with set rituals and practices didnt establish itself until then.

These rituals are the focus of Shinto, which guides a practicing believer on how to live a proper lifestyle that ensures connection to the gods. These gods came in many forms. They were typically connected to natural elements, although some represented people or objects.

Initially, believers worshipped in the open or at sacred locations like forests. Soon, however, worshippers began to build shrines and temples that contained art and statues dedicated to and representing their gods.

It was believed that the gods would visit these locations and inhabit the representations of themselves temporarily, rather than actually permanently living at the shrine or temple.

The politicsthat emerged in the Yayoi Period would solidify in various ways throughout the 5th century CE. A clan called theYamatoemerged as the most dominant on the island due to their ability to form alliances, use iron widley, and organize their people.

The clans that the Yamato allied with, which included theNakatomi,Kasuga,Mononobe,Soga,Otomo,Ki, andHaji, formed what would become the aristocracy of the Japanese political structure. This social group was called theuji, and each person had a rank or title depending on their position in the clans.

Thebemade up the class below theuji, and they were made up of skilled laborers and occupational groups like blacksmiths and papermakers. The lowest class consisted of slaves, who were either prisoners of war or people born into slavery.

Some of the people in thebegroup were immigrants from the eastern Orient. According to Chinese records, Japan had diplomatic relationships with both China and Korea, which led to an exchange of people and cultures.

The Japanese valued this ability to learn from their neighbors, and so maintained these relationships, establishing an outpost in Korea and sending ambassadors with gifts to China.

Where the Kofun Period was marked establishment of social order, theAsukaPeriod was distinctive for its rapid escalation in political maneuvering and sometimes bloody clashes.

Of the previously mentioned clans that rose to power,theSogawere the ones who eventually won out. After a victory in a succession dispute, the Soga asserted their dominance by establishing EmperorKimmeias the first historical Japanese emperor orMikado(as opposed to legendary or mythical ones).

One of the most important leaders of the era after Kimmei was regent PrinceShotoku. Shotoku was heavily influenced by Chinese ideologies like Buddhism, Confucianism, and a highly centralised and powerful government.

These ideologies valued unity, harmony, and diligence, and while some of the more conservative clans pushed back against Shotokus embrace ofBuddhism, these values would become the basis for Shotokus Seventeen Article Constitution, which guided the Japanese people into a new era of organized government.

The Seventeen Article Constitutionwas a code of moral rules for the upper class to follow and set the tone and spirit of subsequent legislation and reforms. It discussed the concepts of a unified state, merit-based employment (rather than hereditary), and the centralisation of governing to a single power rather than the distribution of power among local officials.

The constitution was written at a time when Japans power structure was divided into the variousuji, and the Seventeen Article Constitution mapped out a path for the establishment of a truly singular Japanese state and a consolidation of power that would propel Japan into its next stages of development.

The Soga ruled comfortably until a coup by theFujiwaraclan in 645 CE. The Fujiwara instituted EmperorKotoku, although the mind behind the reforms that would define his reign was actually his nephew,Nakano Oe.

Nakanoinstituted a series of reformsthat looked a lot like modern day socialism. The first four articles abolished the private ownership of people and land and transferred ownership to the emperor; initiated administrative and military organizations around the kingdom; announced the introduction of a census that would ensure a fair distribution of land; and put into place an equitable tax system. These would become known as theTaikaEra Reforms.

What made these reforms so significant was how they changedthe role and spirit of government in Japan. In continuation of the Seventeen Articles, the Taika Era Reforms were heavily influenced by the structure of Chinese government, which was informed by principles of Buddhism and Confucianism and focused on a strong, central government that took care of its citizens, rather than a distant and fractured aristocracy.

Nakanos reforms signaled the end of an era of government characterized by tribal spats and divisiveness, and entrenched the absolute rule of the emperor Nakano himself, naturally.

Nakano took on the nameTenjinasMikado, and, save for a bloody dispute over succession after his death, the Fujiwara clan would control Japanese government for hundreds of years afterwards.

Tenjins successorTemmufurther centralized the power of the government by banning citizens from carrying weapons and creating a conscript army, like in China. An official capital was created with a layout and palace both in Chinese style. Japan further developed its first coinage, theWado kaiho, at the end of the era.

TheNaraPeriod is named afterthe capital city of Japan during the period, calledNaratoday andHeijokyoat the time. The city was modeled on the Chinese city of Chang-an, so it had a grid layout, Chinese architecture, a Confucian university, a huge royal palace, and a state bureaucracy that employed over 7,000 civil servants.

The city itself may have had a population of as many as 200,000 people, and was connected by a network of roads to faraway provinces.

Although the government was exponentially more powerful than it had been in previous eras, there was still a major rebellion in 740 CE by aFujiwaraexile. The emperor at the time,Shomu, crushed the rebellion with an army of 17,000.

Despite the capitals success,poverty, or near to it, was still the normfor an overwhelming majority of the population. Farming was a difficult and inefficient way to live. Tools were still very primitive, preparing enough land for crops was difficult, and irrigation techniques were still too rudimentary to effectively prevent crop failures and famine.

Most of the time, even when given the opportunity to pass their lands to their descendents, farmers preferred to work under a landed aristocrat for the security it gave them. On top of these woes, there were smallpox epidemics in 735 and 737 CE, which historians calculate reduced the countrys population by 25-35%.

With the prosperity of the empire came a boom in art and literature. In 712 CE, theKojikibecame the first book in Japan to record the many and often confusing myths from earlier Japanese culture. Later, Emperor Temmucommissioned theNihon Shokiin 720 CE, a book that was a combination of mythology and history. Both were meant to chronicle the genealogy of the gods and link it to the genealogy of the imperial line, linking theMikadodirectly to the divine authority of the gods.

Throughout this time, theMikadohad numerous temples built, establishing Buddhism as a cornerstone of the culture. One of the most famous is the Great Eastern Temple ofTodaiji. At the time, it was the largest wooden building in the world and housed a 50 foot tall statue of the seated Buddha also the largest in the world, weighing in at 500 tons. Today it stands as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Although this and other projects produced magnificent temples, thecost of these buildingsstrained the empire and its poorer citizens. The emperor taxed the peasantry heavily to fund the construction, exempting aristocrats from the tax.

The emperor had hoped that building temples would improve the fortunes of the parts of the empire that were struggling with famine, sickness, and poverty. However, the governments inability to manage its money led to conflict within the court that resulted in the relocation of the capital from Heijokyo to Heiankyo, a move which heralded the next Golden period of Japanese history.

Although the formal name of the capital wasHeian, it came to be known by its nickname:Kyoto, meaning simply capital city. Kyoto was home to the core of the government, which consisted of theMikado, his high ministers, a council of state, and eight ministries. They ruled over 7 million provinces divided into 68 provinces.

The people clustered in the capital were mostly aristocracy, artists, and monks, meaning the majority of the population farmed the land for themselves or for a landed noble, and they bore the brunt of the difficulties faced by the average Japanese person. Anger at excessive taxation and banditry bubbled over into rebellions more than once.

The policy of distributing public lands initiated in the previous era was ended by the 10th century, meaning that wealthy nobles came to acquire more and more land and that the gap between the wealthy and the poor widened. Frequently, nobles didnt even reside on the land they owned, creating an added layer of physical separation between aristocrats and the people they governed.

During this time, theabsolute authority of the emperor slipped. Bureaucrats from the Fujiwara clan inserted themselves into various positions of power, controlling policy and infiltrating the royal line by marrying their daughters to emperors.

To add to this, many emperors took the throne as children and so were governed by a regent from the Fujiwara family, and then advised by another Fujiwara representative as adults. This resulted in a cycle where emperors were installed at young ages and pushed out in their mid-thirties to ensure the continued power of the shadow government.

This practice, naturally, led to further fracturing in the government. EmperorShirakawaabdicated in 1087 CE and put his son on the throne to rule under his supervision in an attempt to circumvent Fujiwara control. This practice became known as a cloistered government, where the trueMikadoruled from behind the throne, and added another layer of complexity to an already intricate government.

The blood of the Fujiwara spread too widely to be properly controlled. When an emperor or aristocrat had too many children, some were removed from the line of succession, and these children formed two groups, theMinamotoand theTaira, who would eventually challenge the emperor with private armies of samurai.

Power bounced between the two groups until the Minamoto clan emerged victorious and created theKamakuraShogunate, the militaristic government that would rule Japan during the next medieval chapter of Japanese history.

The termsamuraiwas originally used to denote the aristocratic warriors (bushi), but it came to apply to all the members of the warrior class that rose to power in the 12th century and dominated the Japanese authority. A samurai was usually named by combining onekanji(characters that are used in the Japanese writing system) from his father or grandfather and another new kanji.

Samurai had arranged marriages, which were arranged by a go-between of the same or higher rank. While for those samurai in the upper ranks this was a necessity (as most had few opportunities to meet women), this was a formality for lower-ranked samurai.

Most samurai married women from a samurai family, but for lower-ranked samurai, marriages with regular folk were permitted. In these marriages a dowry was brought by the woman and was used to set up the couples new household.

Most samurai were bound by a code of honor and were expected to set an example for those below them. A notable part of their code isseppukuorhara kiri, which allowed a disgraced samurai to regain his honor by passing into death, where samurai were still beholden to social rules.

While there are many romanticized characterizations of samurai behavior such as the writing ofBushidoin 1905, studies ofkobudand traditionalbudindicate that the samurai were as practical on the battlefield as were any other warriors.

The Heian Period saw amove awayfrom the heavy influence of Chinese culture and a refinement of what Japanese culture would come to be. A written language was developed for the first time in Japan, which allowed for the worlds first novel to be written.

It was called theTale of Genjiby Murasaki Shikibu, who was a lady of the court. Other significant written works were also written by women, some in the form of diaries.

The emergence of female writers during this time was due to the Fujiwara familys interest in educating their daughters in order to capture the attention of the emperor and maintain control of the court. These women created a genre of their own that focused on the transitory nature of life. Men were not interested in recounts of what went on in the courts, but did write poetry.

The emergence of artistic luxuries and fine goods, like silk, jewelry, painting, and calligraphy offered new avenues for a man of the court to prove his value. A man was judged by his artistic abilities as well as his rank.

As shogun,Minamoto no Yoritomosituated himself comfortably in a position of power as shogunate. Technically, theMikadostill ranked above the shogunate, but in reality, power over the country stood with whoever controlled the army. In exchange, the shogunate offered military protection for the emperor.

For most of this era, the emperors and shoguns would be content with this arrangement. The beginning of the Kamakura Period marked the start of the Feudal Era in the history of Japan that would last until the 19th Century.

However, Minamoto no Yoritomo died in a riding accident only a few years after taking power. His wife,Hojo Masako, and her father,Hojo Tokimasa, both of the Hojo family, took power and established a regent shogunate, in the same way earlier politicians established a regent emperor in order to rule behind the scenes.

Hojo Masako and her father gave the title of shogun to Minamoto no Yoritomos second son,Sanetomo, to maintain the line of succession while actually ruling themselves.

The last shogun of the Kamakura Period wasHojo Moritoki, and although the Hojo would not hold the seat of the shogunate forever, the shogunate government would last for centuries until the Meiji Restoration in 1868 CE. Japan became a largely militaristic country where warriors and principles of battle and warfare would dominate the culture.

During this time,trade with China expandedand coinage was used more frequently, along with bills of credit, which sometimes led samurai into debt after overspending. Newer and better tools and techniques made agriculture much more effective, along with the improved use of lands that had been previously neglected. Women were allowed to own estates, head families, and inherit property.

New sects ofBuddhismcropped up, focusing on principles ofZen, which were very popular among samurai for their attention to beauty, simplicity, and withdrawal from the bustle of life.

This new form of Buddhism also had an influence on the art and writing of the time, and the era produced several new and notable Buddhist temples. Shinto was still practiced broadly as well, sometimes by the same people who practiced Buddhism.

Two of the greatest threats to Japans existence occurred during the Kamakura period in 1274 and 1281 CE. Feeling spurned after a request for tribute was ignored by the shogunate and theMikado, Kublai Khan of Mongolia sent two invasion fleets to Japan. Both were met with typhoons that either destroyed the vessels or blew them far off course. The storms were given the name kamikaze, or divine winds for their seemingly miraculous providence.

However, although Japan avoided outside threats, the stress of maintaining a standing army and being prepared for war during and after the attempted Mongol invasions was too much for the Hojo shogunate, and it slipped into a period of turmoil.

TheKemmuRestorationwas a turbulent transition period between the Kamakura and Ashikaga Periods. The emperor at the time,Go-Daigo(r. 1318-1339), tried to take advantage of the discontent caused by the strain of being war-ready after the attempted Mongol invasions and tried to reclaim the throne from the shogunate.

He was exiled after two attempts, but returned from exile in 1333 and enlisted the help of warlords who were disaffected with the Kamakura Shogunate. With the help ofAshikaga Takaujiand another warlord, Go-Daigo toppled the Kamakura Shogunate in 1336.

However, Ashikaga wanted the title of shogun but Go-Daigo refused, so the former emperor was exiled again and Ashikaga installed a more compliant emperor, establishing himself as the shogun and beginning the Ashikaga Period.

The Ashikaga Shogunate situated its power in the city ofMuromachi, hence the two names for the period. The period was characterized by a century of violence called the Warring States period.

The Onin War of 1467-1477 CE is what catalyzed the Warring States period, but the period itself the fallout of the civil war lasted from 1467 until 1568, a full century after the initiation of the war. Japanese warlords feuded viciously, fracturing the previously centralized regime and destroying the city ofHeiankyo. An anonymous poem from 1500 describes the chaos:

The Onin War began because of a rivalry between theHosokawaandYamanafamilies, but the conflict drew in the majority of the influential families. The warlord heads of these families would fight for a century, without any of them ever achieving dominance.

The original conflict was thought to be that each family supported a different candidate for the shogunate, but the shogunate had little power anymore, making the argument pointless.Historians thinkthat the fighting really just came from a desire within the aggressive warlords to flex their armies of samurai.

Despite the turmoil of the time, many aspects of Japanese life actually flourished. With the fracturing of the central government, communities had more dominion over themselves.

Local warlords,daimyos, ruled the outer provinces and had no fear of the government, meaning the people of those provinces didnt pay as much in taxes as they had under the emperor and shogun.

Agriculture thrived with the invention of the double-cropping technique and the use of fertilizers. Villages were able to grow in size and start to govern themselves as they saw that communal work could improve all of their lives.

They formedsoandikki, small councils and leagues designed to address the physical and social needs of their people. The average farmer was actually much better off during the violent Ashikaga than he was in previous, more peaceful times.

Similarly to the success of farmers, the arts flourished during this violent period. Two significant temples, theTemple of the Golden Pavilionand theSerene Temple of the Silver Pavilion, were constructed during this time and still draw many visitors today.

The tearoom and tea ceremony became staples in the lives of those who could afford a separate tea room. The ceremony developed from Zen Buddhist influences and became a sacred, precise ceremony performed in a calm space.

Zen religion also had an influence on Noh theatre, painting, and flower arranging, all new developments that would come to define Japanese culture.

The Warring States period finally ended when one warlord was able to best the rest:Oda Nobunaga

He managed this because of several assets: his gifted general, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a willingness to engage in diplomacy, rather than warfare when appropriate, and his adoption of firearms, brought to Japan by the Portuguese in the previous era.

Focused on maintaining his grip on the half of Japan he controlled, Nobunaga put forth a series of reforms intended to fund his new empire. He abolished toll roads, whose money went to rivaldaimyo, minted currency, confiscated weapons from the peasantry, and released merchants from their guilds so they would pay fees to the state instead.

However, Nobunaga was also aware that a large part of maintaining his success would be to ensure that relationships with Europe stayed beneficial, since the trading of goods and technology (like firearms) was vital to his new state. This meant allowing Christian missionaries to set up monasteries, and, on occasion, destroying and burning Buddhist temples.

Nobunaga died in 1582, either from suicide after a traitorous vassal took his seat, or in a fire that killed his son as well. His star general,Toyotomi Hideyoshi, quickly declared himself Nobunagas successor.

Toyotomi Hideyoshiset himself up in a castle at the base of Momoyama (Peach Mountain), adding to a growing number of castles in Japan. Most were never attacked and were mostly for show, and so towns sprung up around them that would become major cities, likeOsakaorEdo(Tokyo), in modern day Japan.

Hideyoshi continued Nobunagas work and conquered most of Japan with an army 200,000 strong and using the same mix of diplomacy and force that his predecessor had employed. Despite the emperors lack of actual power, Hideyoshi, as most other shoguns had, sought his favor for the sake of having complete and legitimized power backed by the state.

One of Hideyoshis legacies is a class system he implemented that would stay in place through the Edo period called theshi-no-ko-shosystem, taking its name from the name of each class.Shiwere warriors,nowere farmers,kowere artisans, andshowere merchants.

There was no mobility or crossover allowed in this system, meaning a farmer could never rise to the position of samurai and a samurai had to commit his life to being a warrior and could not farm at all.

In 1587, Hideyoshi passed an edict to expel all Christian missionaries from Japan, but it was only half-heartedly enforced. He passed another in 1597 that was more forcefully enforced and led to the deaths of 26 Christians.

However, like Nobunaga, Hideyoshi realized it was imperative to m

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