Although legend has it that Japan was founded in 660BC, archaeologists
agree that settlement in the Japanese archpelago dates back as
far as 100,000 years. The Jomon Period (8000~c.300BC) is the earliest that has been studied. It is named
after the 'jomon' or cord-marked pattern style of pottery of the
period. Evidence suggests the people may have had links with South
East Asia at that time. Agricultural development began in the
Yayoi Period (300BC~3rd century AD), with the appearance of bronze and iron
tools and ornaments. The division of labour resulting from the
development of tools strengthened the ruling/subject class system.
The country was made up of many small states but was unified under
the Yamato clan early in the Kofun Period (c.300~710). The region known as Yamato is modern-day Nara Prefecture.
The Nara Period (710~794) saw the first signs of a tangible culture and it was
during this time that the first historical records were kept.
The city of Nara was the capital and was considerably larger than the city of
today. Under Prince Shotoku, the country acquired a constitution and a centralized Imperial
state system. The culture of the Imperial court was heavily influenced
by Chinese culture, which arrived via Korea and passed through
the capital to the rest of the country. This included such things
as weaving, metalworking, tanning and shipbuilding as well as
Confucianism, medicine, astronomy and kanji, the Chinese ideographic form of writing. The main attraction
for visitors to Nara today are the many temples, which were established
following the arrival of Buddhism from India in the mid-6th century, again via China and Korea.
In fact, it was because these temples grew too powerful for the
liking of then ruler Kammu that caused him to move the capital
to Kyoto in 794, the start of the Heian Period. The new capital was built
using the Chinese capital as its model.
Early in the Heian Period (794~1185), the Imperial court received cultural delegations
from China and was further strengthened by the conquest of the
north of the main island, Honshu. This was a time of great artistic
development and saw the evolution of a more 'Japanese' culture.
For example, scholars created two sets of phonetic alphabets or
kana from the imported Chinese kanji. This led to the development
of a uniquely Japanese style of literature ('Tale of Genji' written
by Murasaki Shikibu at the beginning of the 11th century is considered the first
ever novel). The Imperial court became very caught up in these
cultural pursuits, to the extent that real control over the country
passed to martial clans in the regions. After a period of corruption
under the Fujiwara and later the Taira clan, who effectively ruled
the country as regents, Japan entered a medieval period of feudalism
and saw the advent of a samurai (warrior) class. Incidentally, this was also when the title of
Shogun was first introduced, originally given to the commander of the
Imperial armies. In 1185, the Minamoto clan (also known as the
Genji) established military rule after destroying the Taira clan
at the epic Battle of Dannoura on the Inland Sea. Minamoto Yoritomo became the first of the Shogun as we know them and ruled from
Kamakura. Kyoto remained the Imperial capital but the Emperor
himself was now no more than a figurehead.
Under Yoritomo's Shogunate, bushido (Way of the Samurai) and an aesthetic of austerity were developed
in order to maintain control over the subjegated clans. In the
middle of this Kamakura Period (1185~1333), Kublai Khan's Mongols tried twice to invade the
north of the southern island of Kyushu. During both attacks, the
Mongol fleet was destroyed by a typhoon and this kamikaze or Wind of the Gods entered Japanese folklore. But the Shogunate
failed to amply reward the military for these defeats of the invaders.
The emperor Godaigo took advantage of the subsequent unrest to restore Imperial rule
for a short period of time, known as the Kammu restoration.
But the emperor, too, was lacking in foresight and in turn was
overthrown by the Ashikaga clan and military rule restored, this
time from Kyoto. This was the start of the Muromachi Period (1336~1573). The Shogun Ashikaga Takauji established two royal
courts, at Kyoto and Yoshino. In Kyoto, he built the original
Kinkakuji or 'Gold pavilion'. A restored version attracts hordes of tourists
to this day. But Ashikaga's extravagance was accompanied by heavy
taxes and corruption. Civil war between the warrior clans lasted
for over a hundred years. It was during this time that Japan first
experienced European culture, after a Portuguese ship ran aground
in 1543. Oda Nobunaga tried to unify the country until his assasination in 1582, when
his influential samurai general Toyotomi Hideyoshi took over. In 1590, following his defeat of the Hojo clan, and
with the help of Tokugawa Ieyasu, Hideyoshi became the ruler of a unified Japan. He launched two
unsuccessful invasions of Korea in 1592 and 1597. (He is also
remembered today for his crucifixion in 1597 of 26 Christians
- 6 of them foreigners - in Nagasaki in an attempt to wipe out
their religion, which had been introduced to Japan by Francis
Xavier. A monument to the martyrs was built on the centenary of
their canonization as saints in 1962)
The brief Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1573~1598) is named after the castles of Nobunaga and Hideyoshi.
Osaka Castle and many other castles around the country also date
from this period. Meanwhile, as thanks for his support, Ieyasu
received a fiefdom near the city of Edo, or modern-day Tokyo. He became the most powerful daimyo (baron) by winning the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 and he became
Shogun in 1603. He made Edo the new capital and Japan was finally
at peace. Under the leadership of Ieyasu, the Edo Period (1600~1868) was one of great cultural achievement.