The Historical Periods of Japan: many may recognize the names of them, but do you know which is which? This essay sums up some of the most important points of the historical periods of Japan that you should know, organized by period. Let’s go back in time!
Special thanks to Japanese historian Mark Ericson for reviewing this essay and providing historical corrections and clarifications.
Prehistoric Japan: The Jomon Period (13000~300BCE)
While archeologists have found evidence of prehistoric man on the Japanese islands from around 130,000 BCE, Japan’s history begins with the Jomon Period, the earliest and longest prehistoric era of Japan. It began around 14500 BCE, and is comprised of several parts: the Incipient, Initial, Early, Middle, Late and Final Periods.
During the Incipient Period, Japan was a part of the Asian continent. The earliest people were nomads who followed herds of animals across the strait onto what would eventually become Japan. The last Glacial Period separated the Japanese archipelago from the mainland, leaving these former nomads no choice but to settle down on this giant island.
Also Read: Bringing Back Neolithic Japanese Food
Stranded, these early people had to give up nomadism to form a society of hunter-gatherers. They continued to move with the seasons for a period of time before completely settling around 8,000BCE. Though there is no evidence of any political structure at the time, this settlement led to great population growth, and the development of pit dwellings, hunting and foraging techniques, basic agriculture, and even the arts – specifically, pottery.
This pottery, called Jomon (which means “rope pattern” in Japanese), is what gave the period its name. This is the oldest pottery of Japan, dating back 12,000 years to the 3rd century. There were believed to have been over 70 styles. Preceding the introduction of the pottery wheel, they were all handmade using a technique called hand-coiling. By the Middle Period, they developed more advanced pottery techniques, including tools and sculptures. Crafts made of stone, wood, and bone were also discovered in the later periods, such as knives, cooking wares, hunting and fishing tools, and even woven baskets. The people of the Jomon ate a diverse diet rich in plants, nuts, and fish.
The end of the period suggests the beginning of trade with Korea, which would become increasingly significant in the following Yayoi Period.
Yayoi Period (300BCE~250CE)
The Yayoi Period gets its name from the district where the first artifacts were discovered, which is in modern-day Tokyo. This period saw the introduction of rice agriculture as well as of bronze and iron, and the transition of society to a more political structure. Increased trade also introduced new tools, including weapons and armor, leading to the development of a military.
Politics, Culture, and Religion Develop
The first clans and classes arose around 100CE. Developing government systems and foreign diplomacy resulted in the creation of the first tax collection system, and the first system of punishment to maintain order.
Architecture improved with the construction of new buildings and granaries for the fruits of their growing agricultural efforts. And important advancement was the construction of raised granaries, which protected the harvest from flooding.
Pottery techniques also improved, and production of tools and ceremonial artifacts increased. Artifacts also point to emerging spiritual beliefs. This is the period when deity worship began, which would eventually for the foundations of Shintoism.
A notable figure was Queen Pimiko. To this day, scholars still debate the location of Yamatai, the country within Japan over which she ruled. Ancient resources and Chinese texts point to her as an important person who played one of the biggest roles in the development of diplomacy with China.
Yamato Period (250~710)
The Yamato Period is a lengthy period of Japan’s development that often includes two separate periods: the Kofun Period and the Asuka Period. One of the greatest achievements of this collection of periods was the establishment of a more centralized government. The capital moved frequently during this time. Each successive period would be named after the current location of the capital.
The Yamato Clan came into power after a long period of fighting with other clans for power. They established a military rulership and a rank system according to loyalty. Allied clans became the ‘uji’ class. Underneath them were classes divided by occupation.
An interesting thing to note is the positive diplomatic relation the Yamato had with the Baekje (one of the early kingdoms of Korea), which resulted in a very positive attitude towards immigration. It wasn’t uncommon for Korean diplomats to enter positions of authority within the Yamato rulership, and many important figures were immigrants.
The Yamato Period ended with the establishment of the Imperial House of Japan, and Shinto as an official religion. Let’s take a closer look at each of the separate phases of this period.
Kofun Period (250~538)
This period’s name comes from the large graves for prestigious people (kofun) of the era, and is the first phase of the Yamato Period. These were the cemeteries of the elite. The oldest date back to as early as the 4th century. Technologically, the period saw a refinement of agricultural skills, such as the advancement of irrigation systems and rice paddies. Ironworking also advanced rapidly and lead to the development of more tools.
The Beginning of Shintoism
Culturally, this was an important period for spirituality. Ancient beliefs from the Yayoi Period came together to form Japan’s first indigenous religion, Shintoism. Artistically, the pottery industry also advanced, producing new, more sophisticated sculptures thanks to the introduction of the pottery wheel. Trade with China and Korea continued, with some of the most important imports being art, architectre, literature, and the accompanying philosophies.
Asuka Period (538~710)
The second phase of the Yamato Period, the Asuka Period gets its name from the Asuka Region. This period continued the development of the Kofun Period’s artistic, social, and political advancements.
The Introduction of Buddhism
Much influence came from China, including literature, music, and religion. This was also when Japan adopted the Chinese writing system as their own. The philosophies of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism also entered at this time. The Empress Suiko was particularly fond of the ways of Buddhism, and actively promoted it throughout the land.
In 604, Prince Shotoku of the Soga clan wrote the Seventeen Article Constitution (the Kenpo Jushichijo) according to Confucianism during the reign of Empress Suiko. He gained rulership soon after and continued to promote Buddhism, established a new constitution declaring Buddhism and Confucianism the official religions of Japan in 605. Prince Shotoku is credited as the founder of Japanese Buddhism. He erected Horyuji Buddhist Temple in 607.
In 708, Japan minted their first coinage, the ‘wado kaichin’, by the order of Empress Gemmei.
The Fujiwara Clan took power from the Soga clan in 645 with a revolt by Prince Naka no Oe and Nakatomi no Katamari (who became a Fujiwara due to his role in the coup). With that, they introduced the Taika Reforms, strengthening imperial power. In 710, the capital relocated to Nara, entering in the next period.
Nara Period (710~794)
The Asuka Period ended with the move of the capitol to Nara, which gives its name to the Nara Period. This was the name of the capital at the time, whose structure was heavily influenced by the previous period’s Chinese models.
Culturally, there were many artistic developments, including the construction of some of the most famous temples (such as Todaiji Temple and the Kasuga Taisha Shinto in 768, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites), and the publishing of some of Japan’s most important and influential literature (such as the Kojiki in 712 and the Nihon Shoki in 720, the Kaifuso in 751, the Manyoshu in 760, and the Fudoki in 713).
Economically, agriculture was still in a primitive stage. Government was based on the Chinese bureaucratic model and was designed to strengthen the Imperial state.
Political unrest, rebellions, and epidemics lead to a period of poverty for most of the population. The unstable structure of the government continued until the relocation of the capital to Heian-kyo (Kyoto) in 794, leading to the beginning of the Heian Period.
Heian Period (794-1185)
The Heian Period began with Japan still under the control of the Fujiwara clan. However, with the death of Fujiwara Michinaga in 1016, the clan’s power began to decline. By contrast, the samurai class grew in strength. When Emperor Go-Sanjo retired in 1072, he established a new form of government, the Insei (“Cloistered Rule” or rule by retired emperor). The system remained in effect until the 14th century.
The Heian Period produced many notable works of classic Japanese literature, including The Tale of Genji by famed author Murasaki Shikibu.
The Taira and the Minamoto
There were four prominent samurai families in this period: The Taira (Heike), the Minamoto (Genji), the Tachibana, and the Fujiwara. Alongside the Taira, the Minamoto Genji clan also rose in power, specifically in the military. The Taira and the Minamoto clans rose to power and influence through military exploits. Factions of the two rival clans fought in Kyoto in 1156 and 1159, the first time political differences in the capital were settled by military force .
By 1180, the Taira and Minamoto clans battled it out in the Gempei War (1180-1185), which saw the Minamoto clan as the victor. Minamoto Yoritomo was appointed shogun (an Imperial title signifying leadership of the military class) soon after, and established a new government, ringing in the new period.
Kamakura Period (1192-1333)
Minamoto established a new feudal government, the bakufu (literally “tent government”, and referring to the field headquarters of a shogun), in the city of Kamakura. This marked the beginning of Japan’s medieval era. This period also saw the rise of the samurai class.
The culture of this period gained much influence from the introduction of Zen Buddhism and the warrior class. The practice of seppuku (ritualistic suicide) also emerged at this time, when honor was so important, the only penance for breaking a code of honor was death.
New and Old Buddhism
New Buddhism (aka Kamakura Buddhism) emerged, with six new Buddhist schools: the Jodo-shu, Jodo Shinshu, Rinzai, Soto, Nichiren, and Ji-shu Sects. (LINK) Pre-existing schools (Tendai, Shingon, and Nara) became known as Old Buddhism. With time, the lines between the two eventually blended.
The newly arising warrior culture also dominated the artistic scene. The famous Heike Monogatari (The Tale of the Heike) was also written during this time.
Rise of the Samurai
Economically and politically, military power strengthened in the new government. Under Yoritomo’s bakufu, the Warrior Class controlled all civil, military, and judicial matters. However, after his death In 1199, the Jokyu War of 1221 lead to internal power struggles between the Hojo Clan (regents of the Kamakura shogunate) and disparate members of the warrior class who banded together to support Emperor Go-toba. Results favored the Hojo Clan, who seized control over all of Japan.
Under the Hojo, in 1232, Japan’s first military code of law, the Goseibai Shikimoku (aka the Formulary of Adjudications), was developed. They continued to fight all opposition from Buddhist sects. At this time, the Japanese government transitioned from Confucian values to militaristic rule.
The Mongol Invasions
In 1274 and 1281, the Mongols attempted an invasion of Japan under the rule of Kublai Khan (known as the Mongol Invasions), and failed both times due to typhoons. (These strong winds became known as ”kamikaze’ or ‘divine winds.’) Despite their victories, Japan faced extreme financial loss as a result of the war prep, which led to the decline of the bakufu’s power. By 1333, the Kamakura Bakufu collapsed and was overthrown by Emperor Go-Daigo.
Go-Daigo had been exiled for previous attempts of rebellion, but was able to make his comeback with the aid of Ashikaga Takauji. Go-Daigo sought to restore imperial power through a period of reform, the Kenmu Restoration. However, Ashikaga would later revolt against Go-Daigo to establish a new shogunate after a period of Civil Wars from 1336 to 1392 (the Namboku-cho Period).
Muromachi Period (1338-1573)
The Muromachi Period (also called the Ashikaga Period) marks the period of the Muromachi/ Ashikaga bakufu’s rule. Ashikaga established this shogunate in 1338. The period ended in 1573 when Oda Nobunaga took power and removed the last Ashikaga shogun.
Muromachi Culture, Buddhism, and Shinto
Japan opened up to trade again with China in 1401. Zen Buddhism influenced the development of Muromachi culture, from spirituality to art, architecture, literature, and other forms of entertainment. Most notable developments from this period are Noh plays, schools of traditional tea ceremonies (aka 茶道, chado), and flower arrangement (生花, ikebana).
Despite Buddhist influences, Shinto also began to restore its importance and individuality as Japan’s religion, after long periods of harmonious coexistence with Buddhism. The Jinno Shotoki (or Chronicles of the Authentic Lineages of the Divine Emperors) established the imperial line as a direct descendent of Shinto deity Amaterasu. This combination of religion and politics lead to the nationalistic belief of the country as a divine supremacy over other countries at the time.
The Ashikaga Shogunate and the Sengoku Period
Ashikaga established his shogunate in 1338. However, with two separate (Southern and Northern) imperial courts vying for power, civil wars continued. Succeeding shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, unified the warring courts in 1392, at last achieving a balance of power. However, his rule also created new social classes. Land-owning samurai rose to power as feudal lords, or daimyo, eventually surpassing the power of the shogun.
Another period of civil wars began, the Sengoku Period, lasting from 1465 to the end of the Muromachi Period. One of these wars, the Onin War (1467–77) destroyed Kyoto and the bakufu’s rule, leading to years of anarchy. However, before the period came to a complete close, new visitors further added to the unrest of the nation.
Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1573-1603)
The Azuchi–Momoyama period began with the end of the Sengoku period, and takes its name from Nobunaga’s Azuchi Castle and Hideyoshi’s Momoyama Castle.
The Arrival of Western Influence
The end of the Muromachi Period also saw the entry of Western influence with the arrival of traders and missionaries from Europe (the Portuguese in 1543, the Spanish in 1587, and the Dutch in 1609; the English also had a presence in the nation). Their arrival brought many opportunities for growtbeh and trade, including the introduction of firearms and advanced military technology. However, not all influence was welcome.
The Threat of Christianity
Spanish missionary Francis Xavier introduced Christianity in 1549, converting both peasants and nobles alike. By 1582 there were as many as 150,000 Japanese converts. The ruling class saw this as a threat to Japan’s national values, and instituted proscriptions against Christianity in 1587. By 1597, they began to instill punishment by execution. Not wanting to jeopardize trade, they strictly enforced foreign policies in an attempt to quash the influence of Christianity. This continued into the Edo Period.
Enter Oda Nobunaga. Oda Nobunaga captured the capital of Kyoto in 1568, and assisted the appointment of Ashikaga Yoshiaki as the 15th and final Ashikaga shogun. Nobunaga continued to eliminate enemies left and right, leading to his reputation as a ruthless warrior. Yoshiaki, rightfully suspicious of Nobunaga’s loyalty, plotted to destroy Nobunaga with the help of the Takeda clan. However, his plot backfired when leader Takeda Shingen died of unknown circumstances in 1573.
In 1575, Nobunaga defeated the Takeda clan in the Battle of Nagashino, employing modern weapons such as the arquebus. He proceeded to overthrow and dismantle the Ashikaga Shogunate, and attempted to unify Japan by force. In 1582, however, on his way to provide aid to his allying general Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Nobunaga was attacked by another of his own generals, Akechi Mitsuhide, and forced to commit ritualistic suicide in his defeat at the Honno-ji Incident of 1582.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi immediately avenged his ally’s death, defeating Akechi. Succeeding Nobunaga, Hideyoshi fulfilled Nobunaga’s wish to unify Japan. By 1590, Hideyoshi had defeated all his rivals and successfully unified the country under his rule.
He began the Katanagari, or Sword Hunt of 1588, confiscating all weapons from the non-military classes. He enforced a strict division of hierarchy and a stronger government control. Finally, he expelled Christian missionaries in 1597. He divided the country into regional domains based on rice production through a series of land surveys called the Taiko Kenchi.
With all these successive victories, Hideyoshi turned to overseas conquest with the 1592 and 1597 Japanese Invasions of Korea, but failed. He died in 1598, however managed to appoint the Council of Five Elders while still on his deathbed. This group of powerful feudal lords was to rule in place of Hideyoshi’s son, Hideyori, until he was old enough to take the throne.
An End and a Beginning: The Battle of Sekigahara
However, the Council lacked Hideyoshi’s same power. With Hideyoshi’s death, and the death of Maeda Toshiie, another powerful general of Nobunaga, the only person left who could match that power was Tokugawa Ieyasu. Tokugawa Ieyasu sought to succeed Hideyoshi as supreme ruler of Japan. He defeated the supporters of Hideyori in the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600.
Edo Period (aka Tokugawa Period) (1603-1868)
The Edo period (or Tokugawa period) marks the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate. This is the country’s well-known “period of peace” and isolation. Tokugawa Ieyasu attained ultimate wealth and power with the defeat of the Hideyori clan in the battle of Sekigahara in 1600. He became shogun and officially established the shogunate on March 24, 1603 in Edo (now Tokyo). The Tokugawa rule lasted 250 years and ended with the Meiji Restoration on May 3, 1868.
Shutting Japan’s Doors
The Tokugawas used a system of rewards and punishments to prevent social unrest and civil war from ever occurring again. And, for a long time, they were successful.
By 1612, the government placed heavier restrictions on trade and foreign influence. The 1620s saw mass executions of missionaries and Christian converts. Tokugawa Iemitsu established the Closed Country Edict in 1635, forbidding all travel abroad as well as much trade from outside. Remaining Christian converts attempted the Shimabara Rebellion of 1637–38, but failed.
Dutch traders were restricted to Dejima Island (an artificial island in Nagasaki). Chinese traders lived in another part of Nagasaki. The Portuguese and Spanish were completely expelled. (Despite these tight restrictions, one notable import of the time was chocolate, which first entered Japan in 1797 by Dutch traders).
Trade with Korea continued via Tsushima and trade with China via the Ryukyu Kingdom (now Okinawa) which was conquered by the Satsuma domain in 1609. Anyone else attempting entry into Japan were killed on sight. By the 1660s, Christianity was almost completely wiped out.
A New Hierarchy
The Tokugawa government developed a new four-class hierarchy. Naturally, the emperor, nobles, shogun, and daimyo were above them all. Samurai were the top class, followed by peasants, artisans, and merchants. The people who become known later as the burakumin formed a fifth class of social ‘outcasts,’ whose jobs made them “impure” under the shogunate’s eyes. Amongst the burakumin were butchers, executioners, morticians, cleaners, beggars, prostitutes, and even some entertainers. (Though the outcast class was abolished in 1871, sadly, the discrimination it created can still be seen today.)
Art and Culture Flourish
These strict isolationist policies allowed internal trade and economic growth to flourish. Population increased in all major cities, especially Edo, Osaka, and Kyoto. Urbanization, agriculture, transportation, construction, and commerce boomed. Particularly notable was the rise of entertainment and the arts.
From earlier traditions to new forms of literature, education, and entertainment, much of Japan’s popular culture emerged in this time. For example, Ukiyo-e prints, kabuki theater, the entertainment and pleasure quarters, and the geisha/maiko culture. The geisha culture, with their new designs, decor, and aesthetic, define many modern fashions today.
People also embraced Tokugawa’s philosophy of Neo-Confucianism, placing a strong emphasis on education, morals, and hierarchy. Tokugawa even established Neo-Confucianism as the official legal philosophy, and established the Samurai Code of Bushido on its principles.
The Rise and Fall of the Economy
The growth of rice agriculture accounted for most of the economic boom. Daimyo collected taxes from peasants in the form of rice. They didn’t tax businesses, however, which benefited the merchant class greatly. However, this uneven taxing and abuse of financial power lead to a quickly impoverishing nation. Increasing natural disasters and civil unrest didn’t help. (This article on the history of Ukiyo-e, the traditional art form of the Edo Period, goes into great detail on some of the political movements and social upheavals that resulted from the financial burdens and revolutionized Japan both politically and economically.)
Eighth Tokugawa Shogun Yoshimune launched the Kyoho Reforms (1716-1745) in an attempt to stabilize the financial crisis. Reforms continued into the 1840s. But it wasn’t enough to save off pressure from the West. Despite declining Commodore James Biddle’s demand to enter diplomatic relations with the United States in 1846, another attempt would force them into submission several years later.
The arrival of Western forces combined with the increasing poverty and the growth of two large clans, the Satsuma and the Choshu, destabilized the shogunate that had ruled Japan for over 250 years. In an effort to modernize the country and respond to the threat from the West, Satsuma and Choshu – in a move facilitated by men like Sakamoto Ryoma – banded together to force the Shogun to abdicate. This brought about the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate and ushered in the beginning of the Meiji Period.
Meiji Period (1868-1912)
The Meiji Restoration
With the beginning of the Meiji Restoration, the central government moved to Tokyo. The Five Charter Oath of 1868 (aka Imperial Oath Of Five Articles) completely dismantled the bakufu. The government established the prefectures of Japan in 1871. They decreed basic human rights in 1873.
Japan’s Industrial Revolution
In 1870, Japan’s own industrial revolution began, with the construction of railroads, paved roads, the textile industry, the introduction of the telegraph, and a new system of compulsory education. The inclusion of foreign workers helped improve this rapid advancement even further.
The textile industry improved the production of Japanese kimono, with the introduction of new production techniques, synthetic dyes, and designs. This made the once-expensive style of dress more accessible to the general public. The introduction of European and Victorian fashions also lead to the adoption of Western-style dress in Japan, and became a symbol of status.
Foundation of the National Diet
However, all these expenses brought about a financial crisis, requiring a reform of the economy and currency system. Embracing western capitalism, Japan developed a unified modern yen, and the Bank of Japan in 1882. Japan founded the National Diet (or Kokkai) and instituted civil rights with the Meiji Constitution in 1889.
Japan sought to modernize its military based on that of the French, and brought an end to the samurai class with the defeat of Saigo Takamori in the last rebellion of 1877. With their new and improved military forces, Japan was the victor of the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905).
Taisho Period (1912-1926) and WWI
First sentence should read something like: “Prince Yoshihito succeeded Emperor Meiji in 1912 starting the Taisho Era, and political power was played out in the parliament between democratic political parties. Following the aforementioned wars, Japan experienced a period of peace and prosperity, able to enjoy the perks of international diplomacy without suffering the same fate as colonized nations.
Japan and WWI
After WWI, Japan attended the Peace Conference of 1919, and gained a place in the League of Nations. Japan would eventually leave the League in 1933 after it was censored for its invasion of China.
During the interwar period, Japan developed the world’s first purpose-designed aircraft carrier, the Hosho, in 1921. The Communist Party was founded around this time. It was perceived as such a threat that the government outlawed it with the 1925 Peace Preservation Law and would continue to avtively suppress it for the next two decades.
Outside the political sphere, the Taisho Period was also when the Pandemic of 1918 (historically knows as the Spanish Flu) ravaged the land, which lead to a short period of depression. This depression only Tot worse with the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, and the following global depression in the Showa Period, 1929.
Showa Period (1926-1989) and WWII
Emperor Showa sat on the throne from 1926 to 1989, the longest reign of any Japanese emperor. This was another politically important period that saw many wars and political reforms.
The Great Depression of the 1930s was particularly harsh in Japan. It is sometimes referred to as the Showa Depression. Unemployment skyrocketed and resources were scarce.Countries no longer imported Japanese goods. After the assassination of the Prime Minister, the Japanese government temporarily transitioned to a military dictatorship.
The Second Sino-Japanese War erupted in 1937-1941, preceding the official start of WWII, triggered by the the Marco Polo Bridge Incident of 1937 between Japan and China. These battles bled into those of WWII with Japan’s preemptive attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, later officially judged as a war crime in the Tokyo Trials. An official declaration of war came the following day.
The war culminated with air raids of Japan, the Pacific War’s brutal Battle of Okinawa, and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After multiple attempts to request Japan’s surrender, Emperor Showa finally acquiesced on August 15th, 1945, bringing the war to an end.
Postwar Showa and Heisei Period (after 1945)
WWII devastated Japan, and the only major city spared bombing was Kyoto. . The Occupation of Japan occurred after Japan’s surrender in 1945, and continued until 1952. By the end of 1945, there were over 350,000 US personnel occupying various parts of Japan.
The Occupation of Japan
During this period, Japan overhauled its government under the command and control of occupying forces. Under Japan’s new Constitution, Article 9 prevented it from instigating or participating in armed conflict. The occupation eventually led to the installation of a permanent military base in Okinawa.
Post-War Revival and the Bubble Economy
The Peace Treaty of 1951 brought the occupation to an end, and Japan continued to rebuild its government and economy even after Emperor Showa’s death.
Japan practically revived itself by the 1960s and 70s, with a new economic boom bestowing them the second largest economy in the world. (See this article on the History of Love Hotels to learn more about Japan’s developing nightlife culture of the 60s, 70s, and 80s). The booming bubble economy lasted until it burst in the 1990s.
The Heisei Period marked the end of Japan’s biggest economic growth spurt, in which the economy came to a stagnation. In 1991, Japan re-emerged as a military power, despite being constitutionally unable to participate directly in wars. Technology and architecture, however, advanced even more rapidly than ever before. Even in the cultural sphere, Japan has made a name for itself through cultural exports such as anime and games.
The New Era: Reiwa (2019~)
The current and most recent era of Japan is called the Reiwa Era, and you can read all about it here right on Unseen Japan!