History of Japan | Map, Flag, & Timeline

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The culture of Ancient Japan was built on the ideals of order, harmony, and self-improvement. While these core values guided the early history of Japan, they remain key factors in the success of modern-day Japan. The Land of the Rising Sun is steeped in honor and tradition but has not been without its contradictions.  The Ancient Japanese sought order and decorum, but they believed the mythology that the land arose from chaos. Peace, harmony, and Zen are emphasized; however, Ancient Japan was defended by legendary Samurai and Shogun warriors. Japan had a strict social hierarchy and unwritten social rules dictating interactions between people of different classes, yet rulers in ancient Japan were given autonomous control over their regions. These contrasts are the reason Japan remains one of the most complex societies in the world. Out of chaos came the order, according to the Ancient Japanese creation myths. When the land separated from the ocean, seven pairs of deities – gods and goddesses – emerged to create the seven thousand-plus islands of the Japanese archipelago. The seas kept the islands somewhat isolated from mainland Asia, and the mountainous terrain made many areas inaccessible. The fertile volcanic soil, however, was perfect for farming. The first inhabitants of the Japanese islands were hunter-gatherers who crossed land bridges from the mainland between 500,000 and 30,000 years ago. After a time, they built permanent settlements, grew rice in paddies, developed pottery-making skills, established trade routes, and took major steps toward modernity.

A History of Japan

History of Japan
History of Japan

History of Japan: The people of Ancient Japan were not entirely  isolated. They interacted with outside cultures, particularly the Chinese and Koreans, to  observe how other people organized their government and distributed power. Instead of each group appointing their own ruler or king, as they once did, power became more centralized.  By around 550 CE, the Yamato kingdom was firmly established as the leading royal clan History of Japan. They recorded land ownership, collected taxes, and enacted conscription orders to build  a strong military. Under the central rule, there were court-appointed supervisors who  controlled the subjects in outlying areas, taking their orders from the central government and reporting back to them. All this administrative work meant that the  Yamato government needed scribes and educated supervisors to assist with the recordkeeping and communication. Highly trained scribes from Korea were brought in to do the work in exchange for a  military alliance, but not everyone was in favor of this agreement with the Koreans. The issue created a divide among the Japanese people. From this rift emerged the Soga clan, which played an important role in the future of Japan. One of the guiding principles of the Soga clan was the belief that the nation should be both wealthy and mighty. The role of the government, they felt, was to build the country’s riches and amass a powerful military, a mantra still prevalent today. In the 3rd century CE, when the Soga clan ruled Ancient Japan, Buddhism arrived on the shore of the Japanese islands. Buddhism may have come by way of missionaries purposely sent to convert the Japanese court, or the belief system may have had a more organic origin, coming to Japan with immigrants from India and China. Regardless of its origins in Japan,  Buddhism became the religion of the royal class. 

Japanese philosophy

Japanese philosophy
Japanese philosophy (A History of Japan)

The widespread acceptance of Buddhism opened the floodgates to other Chinese beliefs that poured into Ancient Japan, including Taoism and  Confucianism. It was an age of enlightenment for the people of the land of the rising sun. The Chinese also influenced the royal titles and imperial hierarchy of the Japanese people.  Although the Japanese didn’t adopt the titles of “emperor” and “empress” until the early 8th  century, they made the titles retroactive. They changed the official court records to add the  titles of “emperor” or “empress” to the rulers of the Yamato dynasty dating back centuries. A political coup in the 7th century ousted the former Yamato rulers, and Emperor Kōtoku seized  control. He appointed his nephew, Prince Naka, as the head of state, and together they  ushered in a wave of new reforms that moved Ancient Japan from a royal system to a  true imperial system. The imperial government assumed leadership over clans, removing power from  clan chieftains. To keep the power centralized, the rulers repossessed ancestral lands that  once belonged to the clan chieftains. They also implemented a system for the collection  of taxes and appointed their own priests to the nation’s network of Buddhist temples. All of Japan was sectioned off into provinces, with a provincial inspector reporting back to  the central government. All this was reminiscent of the Chinese structure, demonstrating the  influence that China had on its island neighbors. What followed next was the era called the  “Golden Age of Classical Japan.

”Politically,  control passed from leader to leader,  either by succession, abdication, or coup. It may have appeared to be a time of  instability, but culturally, Japan was thriving. Interactions with Korea and China were declining,  allowing the Japanese to come into their own as a society. Art and literature uniquely Japanese emerged. This was also when the Japanese form of writing called kana emerged; based loosely on the Chinese writing system, kana had fewer symbols and was easier to learn. Today’s Japanese people still use the kana system of writing. As Japan isolated itself from the influences of  Korea and China and became more self-reliant,  the imperial system of government relaxed. No longer was all the power concentrated centrally, but more authority fell back on the regional and provincial nobles and clan leaders. Tighter trade restrictions were put in place, and merchants relied on the barter system so much that the government halted the minting of coin currency.  The economy declined. It only became stable again after 1040 when the central government instituted a series of reforms. Samurai warriors, the fighting unit used by various Japanese clans, battled each other for power. Now synonymous with Japan, the Samurai class affected areas of life in Japan for centuries, beginning in the 1100s. Basically, hired thugs  (albeit, noble, prestigious, and well-trained thugs), the samurai worked as retainers for the noble landowners of Japan. Over time, the samurai warriors developed a strict code of ethics and morals. They were loyal, brave, and unwavering in battle. They were skilled in military tactics, weapon-making, and diplomacy. Co-existing with the samurai was the shogun. Beginning around 1185, the shoguns were Emperor-appointed rulers that supported the figurehead emperors. As the position evolved, the shogun class became a hereditary post, with sons taking over for their fathers or uncles. As a group, the shoguns were often called  bakufu, meaning “tent government.” Shoguns completed the actual administrative work of the  government, but their positions were temporary, hence the term “tent government.” The jobs of individual shoguns may have been temporary, but the institution itself lasted for seven centuries.  Both the samurai and shogun traditions ended in the mid-1800s during the Meiji Restoration. As Japan entered the late medieval period, around 1300, the Land of the Rising Sun moved closer to the modern Japan we know today. In the 1460s, however, power was slipping away from the shoguns and into the hands of the feudal landowners, and a civil war broke out, leading to a decade-long conflict in the 1460s and early 1470s. The war ended without a clear victor on either side,  but it did end the shoguns’ control of the feudal lords. The feudal lords were then free to rule over their lands as they saw fit, with only passing regard to the word of the emperor. While wars were being fought and battles for power were waged, the way of life for the Japanese was evolving into a complex society. Japanese society is one of the most complex on Earth because it took on aspects of its diverse history of Japan, different systems of rule, and influence from other cultures.

The History of Samurai in Japan

The transition of power from clan chieftains to kings to emperors to shoguns to samurai warriors and more left the Japanese people with a complicated network of class structure that extended from nobility to the peasant farmers and social outcasts. Slavery officially ended in Japan in 1590, when the concept of owning another human was deemed morally wrong; however, forced labor and underpaid workers continued to be an issue. The emergence of the merchant class and the artisan class in Japan added to the complexity of the society, but also served as an indicator of a strong economy. The Japanese people appreciated the fine, quality goods, such as silk and swords, produced by artisans, and willingly paid a fair price for them. Likewise, merchants allowed the people to buy the items they needed, like cloth, tools, and food. Some members of the artisan class and the merchant class became wealthy and influential; however, their lack of nobility put them in an awkward place in the hierarchy of Japanese society. For all its complexities, Japanese society was also rather rigid and unforgiving. Most people stayed in the class in which they were born, and there was little upward mobility. That rigid societal norms were especially evident with the role of women in society. In the upper echelon of society during the Japanese classical era, women enjoyed more equality than ever before. There were several female rulers – either empresses or queens – who actively ruled their people. When Buddhism was introduced into Japan, the role of women diminished. Part of the Buddhist belief system was that the family unit is led by a patriarch; sons were valued over daughters, and women were viewed as impure. Male family members controlled the female members, who were prohibited from inheriting land, making their own marriage choices, and living on their own. Marriages were arranged for political and economic gain. While the samurai and shoguns may make Ancient Japan seem warlike and aggressive, the art, music, and literature of the time reflected the exact opposite.

The style of the painting evokes a sense of calm and serenity. Mostly nature scenes were done in watercolor, the paintings were beautiful in their simplicity.  Like the watercolors, Japan’s most famous style of poetry focused on nature. The haiku may seem uncluttered on the surface but is written following a specific and unbending set of rules. In Japanese music, performed on traditional instruments such as the double-reed flute, 13-string zither, and three-string lute, the moments of silence between the notes were just as important as the music itself. It even translated to Japanese dance. During performances,  dancers will pause in their movements during moments of silence in the music. While the art and literature of the Ancient Japanese centered on harmony with nature, the music and dance-focused on the emotions of the human experience The Land of the Rising Sun remain a place in which strict social rules dictate the way of life for the Japanese. The country moved from a land of warring clans to a technologically advanced nation with a strong economy and global presence. Yet, remnants of Ancient Japan can be seen throughout modern culture in the old temples and palaces, the art and music, the code of honor and respect, and the poetry of Japan.


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