School in a Book: History of Japan

Next to China, Japan stands as one of the oldest continuous civilizations in the world. Settled early–some estimate by 30,000 BCE–it soon unified politically and culturally and began to develop some of the hallmarks we identify with early Japan: its pottery and writing systems, for example. Its separate geographical location aided in this process, and today, we appreciate Japan’s unique cultural place in the world.

Japan’s much-celebrated classical period period lasted from about 300 BCE to about 800 CE, with its Golden Age taking place during the 700s. Following this, the Fujiwara Dynasty took power and held it till about 1150. Then, dynastic Japan ended and was replaced by a feudal system run by military dictators with ceremonial emperors. During this period, colonists attempted to gain control of the area but were mostly unsuccessful until the 1850s, when the U.S. forced Japan to open trade. Rapid modernization followed, as well as some mostly failed attempts at territorial expansion. After its World War II defeat and atomic bombing, Japan rebuilt as the capitalist, democratic nation we see today. They improved their education system, started holding democratic elections, built factories, incorporated modern technology and modernized their infrastructure. Eventually, Japan became a technological giant, with its people among the best educated in the world. This helped spread modernization to South Korea, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore.


Ancient Times (3500 BCE to 500 CE)

The Jomon period: The period of Japanese history that took place from about 14,000 BCE to about 300 BCE. It is known for the development of a distinctive Japanese culture, including the creation of pottery, hunting and gathering and the use of natural materials for construction.

The Kofun period: The period of Japanese history that took place from about 300 CE to about 700 CE. It is known for its technological advancements such as the use of bronze and iron; the introduction of rice and barley from neighboring countries; greater cultural unity; the development of Shintoism; and the beginning of the process of unification.

Princess Himiko: A tribal queen who, during the 200s CE, used her religious influence to unite up to thirty smaller Japanese tribes, creating the first united Japanese state. She is known for sending ambassadors to China to learn about their culture and adopting some Chinese ways, as well as for encouraging a female-centered social system. While some scholars question her historicity, she remains an important mythological figure.

The Middle Ages (500 CE to 1500 CE)

The Nara Period: The Japanese era that took place during the 700s CE during which Nara became the capital city. It is known for its significant artistic and literary achievements, including the development of calligraphy; for the prominence of both Shinto and Buddhism; and for the rise in political power of the officials and monks, with the emperor gradually becoming a ceremonial figure.

Fujiwara Dynasty: The dynasty that ruled Japan from about 800 CE to about 1200 CE. It is known for the leadership of regents, who gained more political power than the emperors over time, partly by marrying their daughters to the emperors; for the flourishing of art and literature during this time; and for the infighting which eventually led to civil war and the dynasty’s downfall. Some people consider the time period of this dynasty the classical period.

Shogun Japan: The feudal system that ruled Japan from about 1200 CE to the late 1800s (when the Meiji Restoration occurred). It is known for the leadership of the shoguns, who held most of the political power while the emperors served largely as figureheads, as well as for the system’s strict social hierarchy that included the ruling class (emperors, shoguns, and daimyos), the warrior class (samurai), and the commoners (peasants, artisans and merchants).

Shoguns: The military dictators who led Shogun Japan in a succession of shogunates (reigns), some of which were known for their ruthlessness

Daimyos: The feudal lords of Shogun Japan. Appointed by the shoguns and serving under the emperors, they held vast estates and commanded their own armies, and were in turn served by the samurai and the commoners.

Samurai: Specially trained and highly respected warriors who fought on behalf of their daimyos, especially during the first half of the Shogun era. This class developed as a response to the jostling for power that occurred between the shoguns, daimyos and emperors during Shogun Japan. In addition to fighting techniques, they studied religion, arts, and more. They followed a code of honor and many detailed rituals. Many became Zen Buddhists.

Hara-kiri: The honorable, highly ritualized act of suicide by a samurai after they had been dishonored, defeated in battle, or faced with a situation that could not be resolved in any other way

Minamoto no Yoritomo: The first shogun of Japan. He is known for establishing the Kamakura shogunate; introducing the feudal system; and stabilizing and centralizing the military and political power of Japan, which had been experiencing a time of clan warfare.

Early Modern Times (1500 CE to 1900 CE)

Oda Nobunaga: A daimyo who, in the late 1500s, overcame other daimyos and began the reunification of Japan after a long period of instability and fragmentation. He was aided by his use of Western style guns, which were first introduced to Japan by the Portuguese in the mid-1500s, an event which threatened the samurai traditions.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi: Nobunaga’s general and advisor who became the regent of Japan after Nobunaga’s death. He is known for his expansionist plans and his invasion of Korea; his belief in a strong central government; his furthering of the unification of Japan; his ban on foreigners, Christianity and overseas travel; and his policies that encouraged economic growth.

The Edo period: The era of Japanese history that took place during the 1600s, 1700s and 1800s, which was led by the Tokugawa dynasty of shoguns. It is known for being the final era to feature traditional Japanese government, culture and society; for its isolationist policies; for its turn from feudalism to a trading economy; for its strong central government and increased stability and prosperity; for its population expansion; for its improvements in education and hygiene; for its reduced military conflict; for its persecution of Christians; for its moving of the capital city of to Edo (Tokyo); for the reduced relevance of the once-respected daimyos and samurai and the increased importance of merchants and business; and for the increase in public works projects that occurred during this time.

Tokugawa Ieyasu: The first Tokugawa shogun, who is known for unifying Japan, establishing the relatively stable Tokugawa shogunate, moving the capital to Edo (modern-day Tokyo) and encouraging trade and commerce

Nijo castle: The palace built during the Tokugawa shogun era which was originally intended to be a residence for the shogun when he visited Kyoto, the old imperial capital of Japan. It is known for its unique features, such as the “nightingale floors,” which were designed to squeak when stepped on, in order to alert guards to intruders.

Millard Fillmore: The U.S. president who sent four warships to Japan in the 1850s in order to intimidate the country into opening trade. The effort succeeded and was followed by additional trade agreements with foreigners, ending Japan’s isolationism.

Matthew Perry: The commander of the warships sent by the U.S. to Japan to force trade

The Meiji Restoration: A series of events that resulted in the toppling of the Tokugawa shogunate in the late 1800s, which ended the Edo period and brought Japan into the modern era

The Meiji Era: The Japanese historical period that followed the Meiji Restoration and lasted until the early 1900s. It is known for the establishment of a new constitution; the modernization of the military and educational systems; the restoration of imperial rule under an emperor; the adoption of Western technologies; the emergence of a new middle class; the growth of cities and industry; and the expansion of Japanese influence abroad.

The Modern Era (1900 CE to the Present)

The First Sino-Japanese War: A war initiated by Japan against China in the late 1800s over control of Korea. With its victory, Japan gained control of Korea and Taiwan and became a powerful rival to China.

The Russo-Japanese War: A war initiated by Japan against Russia in the early 1900s. With its victory, Japan gained some Russian territory and became the first non-Western country to defeat a European power in modern times.

The Second Sino-Japanese War: A war initiated by Japan against China in the 1930s over control of mainland China. It started with the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, in which a dispute between Chinese and Japanese troops near Beijing led to a full-scale Japanese invasion. It lasted for eight years and was marked by brutal atrocities committed by the Japanese, including the Rape of Nanking. Though China had been fighting a civil war when the invasion began, they united to fight the Japanese until the end of the war in 1945, when Japan surrendered and withdrew from China.

Rape of Nanking: The invasion of Nanking, China by Japan during the Second Sino-Japanese War, during which they tortured, raped and killed hundreds of thousands of Chinese

Hirohito Showa: The emperor of Japan from the 1920s to the 1980s. He is known for initiating expansionist endeavors including The Second Sino-Japanese War; for leading Japan during World War II and eventually surrendering to the Allies; for publicly renouncing his divine status after the war and becoming a figurehead; and for being longest-reigning emperor in Japanese history. After the war, the country transitioned to a democratic constitutional monarchy that was accompanied by rapid modernization.

Pearl Harbor: The U.S. military base that Japan bombed on December 7, 1941, which led to the U.S. joining World War II the next day. 2400 soldiers were killed in the attack. Japan had joined the Axis Powers in 1940 with the hopes of gaining territory in Southeast Asia and the U.S. was pressuring them to stop their attacks. This led to the bombing of this U.S. base.

Kamikaze attacks: Japanese suicide bomber plane attacks, most of which were used against Allied ships during the Battle of Okinawa. The term comes from the Japanese word meaning “divine wind”–a word also used to describe two typhoons that struck Japan in the 13th century, which were believed to have saved the country from invasion by the Mongol Empire.

Battle of Midway: A World War II naval battle fought between the U.S. and Japan near the Midway Atoll, which ended Japan’s naval superiority in the Pacific

Atomic bomb attacks: The 1945 attacks wherein the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They occurred after the U.S. secured Okinawa and Iwo Jima and was faced with the decision of whether or not to invade mainland Japan. They were followed by Japan’s surrender and the end of World War II. Hundreds of thousands died, and many Japanese cities were destroyed. The United States dropped the first bomb, code-named “Little Boy,” on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. The second bomb, code-named “Fat Man,” was dropped on Nagasaki three days later, on August 9, 1945.

Enola Gay: The plane that dropped Little Boy

Little Boy: The code name for the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, which killed approximately 130,000 people and more later from fallout

Fat Man: The nickname for the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, which killed approximately 75,000 people and more later from fallout


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