Crash Course: Japanese History

The history of Japan, spanning a great many millennia, is as interesting as the anime a Japanese artist cooks up with while being high on LSD – And that speaks of it as very interesting! If you ever desired an accurate overview of Japanese history but really couldn’t go through the dry and unnecessarily detailed encyclopedias, then this is the right article just for you.

So grab some chopsticks, a bowl of rice and explore with us the fascinating and vibrant history of this great nation of the rising sun.

Also recommended: Crash Course: Evolution of the Roman Military

Paleolithic (35,000 BC–14,000 BC)

Early humans began to inhabit the Archipelago around 38,000 years ago and make use of the latest technology available such as shiny stones.

Jōmon (14,000–300 BC)

Jōmon architecture, Jōmon huts, history of Japan

Humans eventually figure out how to make pointy sticks called spears with which they began hunting game and marine life. The abundance of food allows the early humans to pursue other activities like making pottery and designing better tools to kill things with.  Home design also gets a major upgrade.

Yayoi (300 BC–250 AD)

Yayoi architecture, Yayoi period, Japanese history

Migrants from the mainland arrive on the island and bring with them things such agriculture and shiny metal tools. The Yayoi culture displaces the Jomon and settles down in the region to make pots and grow rice.  Some people have more rice than others so they grow powerful and local chiefdoms emerge.

Kofun (250–538)

Kofun architecture, Kofun period japan

The earliest instance of recorded history in Japan. Clans began to fight each other for more rice land and one clan, the Yamato, politically emerge as the most powerful with most rice land and give rise to the imperial dynasty of Japan. Immigrants from China and Korea also deeply influence Japanese society.

Asuka (538–710)

Asuka architecture, Asuka period Japan

Buddhism arrives in Japan from the mainland and has a marked influence on society. Culture grows more complex and fine arts become trendy. The Yamato, being jerks, suppress other clans and acquire even more land to grow rice on.  A civil war breaks out between an uncle and his ruling nephew, which ends with the nephew committing suicide and the uncle burning his capital down. Also, coinage was introduced.

Nara (710–794)

Nara architecture , Nara period Japan

The Japanese upper classes consider the Chinese cool and adopt their writing, fashion, and religion.  Many important works of Japanese literature are produced.  Economic activity increases and Buddhism is promoted.  The ruling court decides it is OK to not continuously move capitals after each emperor’s death and settle for Nara as the permanent imperial capital.

Heian (794–1185)

heian period architecture, heian period Japan

Chinese Influence is at its peak and this period is considered a high point in Japanese culture. The capital is moved to Heian (Kyoto). The Fujiwara clan goes full Lannister, intermarries with the imperial family and rules in their name.  To protect their interest, noble clans hire guards and soldiers who would later form the Samurai class. A succession war results in Fujiwara’s demise and the victors fight among themselves until Taira clan gains ascendancy.

Kamakura (1185–1336)

Kamakura architecture, Japanese history

While the Taira are busy enjoying the high life, the losers of the previous war, the Minamoto slowly rebuild their power. They attack Kyoto and usurp the Taira, establishing the first Shogunate led by Minamoto no Yoritomo. Feudalism becomes entrenched in Japan and the Samurai class emerges. The Mongol Empire asks for tribute, Japan says “NO”. The Mongols invade and are pawned by a typhoon. The Mongols invade again and……are pawned by a typhoon again.  Shortly afterward, civil war erupts between the Shogunate and the Emperor Go-Daigo. It ends with the restoration of Imperial rule.

Muromachi/Ashikaga (1336–1568)

muromachi period architecture, muromachi period Japan

The Emperor is all ‘LOL’ until his actions alienate the Samurai class. A bloke named Ashikaga Takauji, with the Samurai support deposes the Emperor and makes himself Shogun. Fierce resistance by imperial loyalist continues until 1392. Regional rulers called Daimyos grow powerful. A succession crisis within the Shogunate results in the Onin War, which plunges the country into a century of anarchy – the Sengoku period.

Azuchi-Momoyama (1568–1603)

Japanese Architecture, Azuchi-Momoyama period, Medieval Japan

The competing Daimyos exhaust themselves from fighting. Suddenly, Oda Nobunaga comes out of nowhere, manages to unify most of the county, and later commits suicide. One of his generals, Hideyoshi Toyotomi, completes the unification. He invades Korea twice and dies, forcing the army to withdraw.  Tokugawa Leyasu becomes the most powerful man in Japan as his land produces the most rice. A political crisis results in the historic battle of Sekigahara and Tokugawa establish themselves as the new Shogunate. Trade with the west exposes Japan to things like astronomy, medical science, and Jesus.

Edo (1603–1868)

Edo period architecture , Hikone Castle

Japan isolates itself from rest the world and EXTERMINATES all Christians from its lands. Foreign influences are limited but the economy prospers. Urban centers expand and society advances rapidly. Art, entertainment and literature flourish during this period. America decides to send some Freedom™ and opens up Japan to the world market. The resulting fallout weakens the government. A civil war between the Shogunate and the Imperial forces results in restoration of the Emperor’s rule (Meiji restoration) and an end to the Shogunate.

Meiji (1868–1912)

meiji architecture , Ministry of Justice Building Japan, Modern Japanese history

Japan industrializes rapidly and commerce expands. Factories are set up and roads are constructed. The government becomes more democratic and most daimyo voluntarily surrender their power. Shinto is promoted. Japan tests its new shiny weapons on Qing China and becomes the leading power in East Asia. Imperial ambitions in Manchuria and Korea results in the Russo-Japanese war, which confirms Japan’s position as an international power and causes many in the west to spill their tea.

Taishō (1912–1926)

Political power shifts from the aging oligarchy to democratic parties.  Japan enters WW1 on the side of the allies and comes home with many goodies like annexed territories in the pacific and more influence over China.  Japan comes out of the war as one of the “big 5 nations” and gets a permanent seat in the newly formed league of nations.

Shōwa period (1926–1989)

Tokyo Tower, showa architecture, Part of Japanese History

The Great depression results in the weakening of civilian government and a surge in nationalism and fascism. The second Sino-Japanese war results in the conquest of Chinese Manchuria and the set-up of a puppet government there.  International criticism leads to Japan withdrawing from the League of Nations.  Japan becomes a military state and becomes BBF with Nazi Germany and Italy because of all the similarities like world domination and stuff.  Japan enters WW2 on the side of Axis. Despite initial successes, the U.S gains the upper hand and ends the war by dropping 16 and 21 Kilotons of Nuclear Freedom™. Postwar Japan is transformed into a democracy and experiences a rapid economic growth. Japan becomes the second-largest economy after the U.S. Emperor Hirohito becomes the longest-reigning monarch in Japanese history.

Heisei (1989–present)

The Japanese economy stagnates. In spite of this, Japanese pop culture such as anime, videogames, and manga become famous worldwide, especially among young virgins.  A terrible earthquake, the strongest recorded in Japan, occurs and the resulting tsunami devastates the country.


A. R. Usmani

Historian | Researcher | Likes to live in the past because housing is much cheaper

2 thoughts on “Crash Course: Japanese History

  • January 31, 2017 at 11:23 am

    Excellent. Updated me on Japanese history

  • November 20, 2016 at 7:14 am

    Quite informative. Japan has always been like a black hole to me.


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